Sunday, December 23, 2007

A New Home

I've had a new apartment for awhile now. But I guess I'm finally starting to have a new "home." Many of you have probably heard me wax poetic on that word plenty, so I won't go into it again here. But I thought you might like to see the progression of my living space over the course of the past week and a half or so.

12/11/2007 - The Beginning

12/12/2007 - After Carpet Installed on 12/11

12/12/2007 - After Light Fixture on 12/12

12/23/2007 - After Furniture Bought on 12/15 and Christmas Tree Put Up on 12/22

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thanksgiving, Etc.

So. This is actually something I wrote a while ago about my trip up to former Tibet for Thanksgiving, and now I thought I'd go ahead and put it on my blog.

I left our city on Saturday with a couple of friends. I suppose we got up there at about one o'clock and started eating almost immediately. We had chicken; stuffing; garlic mashed potatoes; rolls; tacos and fiesta chicken care of the Brazilians, Mexicans, and Peruvians; sweet potato casserole; a pork roast; spinach with cheese; and desserts including, but not limited to, apple pie, pecan pie, Tollhouse pie, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and regular cheesecake. It was pretty unbelievable.

After lunch, the guys all headed out to this field in the middle of *nowhere* for some good, old-fashioned flag football. There was nothing around but plains, and then massive mountains in the distance--it looked like we were playing on the moon. We ended up playing for three hours or so, at the end of which I was personally covered with dirt, and with my fair share of wounds. I went ahead and told the others that I wasn't even going to try to catch any long passes, but I ended up playing a good game--scoring a couple of points and making an interception.

That night, one of the couples there had us over to their apartment. It's very warm, and decorated like Christmas. And we were all packed in, laying all over everything, and just drinking coffee and chatting. It really reminded me of all the late-night talks we'd have with friends in college.

The next morning we had a pretty unbelievable gathering, where we all talked about what we were thankful for. I talked about how thankful I was just that I could be there with so many close friends, having something that really felt like a holiday. I also talked about being thankful that things are allowed to happen to us that we wouldn't have chosen, because we would always choose poorly. We also talked and sang about Christmas coming up.

I ended up staying another day, rather unexpectedly, which was really more of the same--excellent times with people that I hope to continue to get closer to. Then, the next day, it was back home.

As another random piece of information, the next Sunday, I ended up leading an English corner of about ten students.

Afterwards I had dinner with the teacher who'd set it up, one of his old students, now about 30, who'd come to the English corner, and my best friend here. It was one of the best times I've had in China so far, with everyone interacting very pleasantly, everyone relaxed and engaging each other. Even though most of the conversation was in the local dialect which I can't understand at all, it was just... perfect. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I felt incredibly comfortable around each of the individuals. But something about it reminded me of home.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Put on your red shoes...

A post is pretty long overdue here--so much has been happening! For now I want to talk about three weekends ago, when I took a trip to the Big City for my friend's birthday.

I took a Santana (read: car) to get there, and as always, it wasn't without incident. At one point we came up on a huge crowd of people standing in the road. We stopped, and they all started shouting and banging on the windows. As it turns out, a man had just gotten in an accident and was very badly injured--he was covered in blood.

We all got out of the car, they put him in, and he was rushed to the hospital as we got on a bus. It was disturbing--I think everyone knew he was going to die. I hope he made it, but I don't know how likely that is.

The bus went to the hospital and dropped us off to get back in our original car (well, our original car, but with a little more blood everywhere). And we continued on to the city.

I'll just give you the highlights, the first of which is the school dance that three friends and I attended that night. First of all, my friends all told me that they weren't going to dance. But anyone who knows me knows that I don't put up with things like that. So when the music started, sure enough I had them all out on the dance floor, and we were having a great time.

However, then the slow dancing started. They all sat down, with all kinds of excuses--they didn't know how to dance, they were shy, etc. Well, almost immediately a girl asked me to dance. I danced with her for about a minute, and then said, "Actually--can you help me? Can you teach my friend how to dance?" She reluctantly agreed, and I had a teacher for one of my friends.

This happened two more times, though, so all my friends had teachers, and ended up having a blast. It was nice to be in one of those situations where I knew how to be the hero--where I just knew how to help my friends have a great time. So many times I feel like that's all but impossible here.

Then, the next highlight was the next day at the SNACK FESTIVAL 2K7.

Which apparently was going on. They had foods from all over, including Hong Kong, Japan, and India. I had rice cooked in bamboo, Japanese tofu, some type of... other... Japanese... thing... involving eggs, Shanghai dumplings, and some other interesting types of rice and teas.

I opted out of some of the *most* interesting foods (pictured above), as I was about to take a three-hour bus ride.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Road Work

What would a place be without its evil geniuses, hatching plots deep in the city's streets? You're right; not much of a place at all.

Thankfully, we've got 'em in droves. Doesn't this look like something you'd see at Universal Studios? I bet Batman would love to break up this party.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Big Chill

So, at this point, writing this as my heat is on and sunlight is pouring through my window, it's hard to even think to write about just how cold it was Before. Before my heat turned on on November first, that is.

I guess I'll let pictures tell it for me.

This is pretty normal night-time attire. Fur boots, long underwear, jeans, shirt, sweater, fur vest, coat, scarf, fur hat. Well, sometimes not the hat. But I wore all that more than you'd think.

Wait--you thought this post was about things Before. So why the pictures of snow?

Well, it actually snowed the night before my heat turned on. Awesome. This is part of the truly beautiful view from my window.

This is another part of the view out my window. You couldn't really see it in the other picture, but this mosque dominates the view here from my desk. It's really delightful just to stare out over the city--it's really a beautiful place.


Did I mention that I was in Hong Kong for a few days?

What a unique place. Unique, and exhausting. It seems like every time I tell people here that I was there, they are SO jealous. To try and describe why it would be a less than ideal place to live, I tell them that if you see your friend on the street, while you're still walking you tell them, "Oh, goodess, I'm so busy but I'll give you a call sometime, yeah going to be late gotta go!"

Whereas here, if you see an acquaintance on the road, by the time you walk away you know that their daughter-in-law's brother is going to be married in a few months, as well as their general feeling about various ways of cooking lamb. I don't know. It's just very different, a much slower pace here.

However, I will say that HK is a great place to visit. There are so many beautiful and interesting things there. And my city... maybe isn't. But to live in? We win hands-down.

As far as what I was doing in HK goes, I was seeing Scott, one of my best friends from high school, and staying with a family from near where I went to college. And it was really good to be able to spend time with him in a foreign country (though, admittedly, very unusual), and the family made me feel so at home. It was a really good time, that left me exhausted, but in a different way, entirely content.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Person I Would Most Like to Meet

Open Note, to a Chinese Person Who Has Wisely Chosen to Remain Anonymous:

I understand that you live in a place where manners as Westerners understand them many times are not part of the socialization process. What may be a folkway in America usually doesn't even reach acknowledgment here. People hack, cough and spit on the ground even indoors or on buses, people blow their noses straight to the sidewalk (finger holding closed the other nostril), people push and shove instead of standing in lines. They will pee on the side of the street. In times when it doesn't matter, grown people will sprint to get on a bus before anyone else. They will yell. They will be near-violently physical in insisting that you buy their product or use their method of transportation. They will talk right in your face for several minutes, when you've told them that you don't understand English. They will try to cheat you every time because you are a foreigner (we call it 'foreigner tax').

That is all fine. I understand that it's a culture thing.

But for goodness' sake, if you're going to throw dirty water out of your 2nd floor apartment window, take a look downstairs just briefly. I mean, a casual glance, less than a second. Because it wasn't like that splashed my shoes. It landed right on my head, bull's-eye, to where I took a taxi the last five minutes of my walk home so I could towel off. I would think it was purposeful except that I couldn't bear to. First of all, it's literally freezing outside, and being soaked doesn't help. Then, the smell was somewhat less than ideal, though I've been avoiding that thought pretty persistently. A friend was waiting for me, and so I had to wait for an hour and a half to take a shower. Before I finally did, my hair had dried and stuck together. It was at the end of a long day, and while now it admittedly seems pretty funny, at the time it was almost the last straw.

And if you ever see me around again and want to learn some interesting new words in English, please, please introduce yourself.

Most sincerely,

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Learning some common sense.

You know, it's always a little strange, even disconcerting, to be approached here confidently by someone who doesn't speak English. I mean, it's wildly unusual to be approached confidently by anyone at all. So, when a woman came up to me tonight as I was walking through the city square, I was a little confused. She started talking pretty quickly in Chinese, and when I didn't understand, she said that she didn't speak much English.

Now, I know this may sound a little strange, but I immediately knew she was a prostitute. She was dressed modestly, but after all, it's pretty cold outside. It was in an area of town where there are a lot of hotels (almost any time you stay at a hotel alone in China as a male, you'll get phone calls from callgirls, and if you unplug your phone or don't answer, you may even have some knocking on your door). Pretty much the only women in most big cities that will approach you are prostitutes, especially with that kind of confidence. It was at night, in sort of a darker place in the square, without many people around. I mean, it just made sense. But she didn't seem like she was propositioning me. It sounded like she was asking for my phone number (yeah, right), or maybe she wanted to give me her phone number in case I was interested. But she was acting so strange. And she kept saying something about me coming in the morning to see her (huh?). She kept saying the word phone. And she kept saying something about electricity, maybe. Really, my Chinese isn't very good.

Okay, so all of a sudden I realized that she was one of the attendants in China Telecom, which I'd visited this morning to try and get a phone line connected in my apartment. She wasn't the one I was talking to, she was at the other desk. I'm surprised, honestly, that I even vaguely remembered her. Immediately I'm sure my entire demeanor changed (from "Why are you talking to me?" to "I am so excited to see you!"--a big switch). I had said I'd come in this afternoon, but I didn't have time, so I let her know that I'm going in again tomorrow morning. I'm glad I didn't just say, "I don't want it" and walk away.

There's a pretty deep lesson here, boys and girls: don't assume people are prostitutes just because they're talking to you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Old people here are afraid of escalators. They leap on and off, and before each jump you can see them mentally preparing themselves for a possible ugly demise.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Triumphant return: Take 2

For the last few days I've been preparing for the long haul. It's going to be awhile before I leave this area, and longer until I see the faces of my family. And honestly, I'm glad for the chance to finally put down roots here.

I don't really know if, by and large, it's possible for me to communicate what my life is like. One friend (and my constant advocate with my parents) told me that she cries when she reads my blog. At times things are difficult, it's true--but I think that to see my last few days here would warm anyone's heart. I guess the best way to explain my preparations for the long winter would be to say that I've been storing up gratitude.

I apologize, because I expect that this will be long. I finished up a novel tonight, which always makes me start thinking like a novel, and writing like one besides. Bear with me--next time I'll be less verbose.

I arrived, still sick but rested, back in the city on Thursday afternoon. I'd stayed the night in the bigger city a few hours away. Trying to keep my last Japanese encephalitis vaccine refrigerated throughout the trip was a constant source of frustration and amusement.

At my hotel there, I'd tried to communicate my request in Chinese to no avail--so they told me they'd call their English-speaking friend. The conversation went like this:

Girl: Hello? What is it?
Me: I have a thing. I have something...
Girl: Okay...
Me: I have to keep it cold. I must keep it cold. It needs to be cold.
Girl: Okay...
Me: But it can't freeze.
Girl: ...
Me: It can't be like ice. The thing, the something, can't become like ice, hard like ice.
Girl: Ohhh.
Me: Do you understand?

At this point, she has been so encouraging, we have communicating so well, that my heart was absolutely brimming with warmth for all the Chinese people who have spent so many long, hard hours learning my mother tongue--these dear people who, by simply being in my path make my life a little easier. That's when she replied to my question.

"You want to make a long-distance call?"

It was too funny not to laugh, and after another good long bout of broken Chinese and wild gesticulations, I managed to get my point across. I believe that my protection against absurdly distant tropical disease has remained intact.

Getting into the city, everything seemed like home. It was admittedly a little discouraging to walk into my apartment and survey all my things still piled up in the otherwise empty concrete living room floor. But as soon as I walked into the dining room, kitchen, and bedroom, which are more as they will be, it felt like I'd lived here for ages. It's true that it's cold in my house; they don't turn the heat on here until November, and it snowed last week.

But there's something about seeing all the flies in my kitchen, flown in the large hole in the window, huddled in the top corner of the room. Walking around in wool long johns given to me by the caring, worried wife of a close friend here, with a steaming mug of a walnut/soy concoction that tastes like a mix between oatmeal and a vanilla latte (I took a chance on it at the grocery store and never looked back). Pulling on thick wool socks, and then fur-lined boots that are tough as nails but cost next-to-nothing. Wearing a fur cap, more clothes inside than outside, heaping on blankets in front of a space heater I bought that hardly makes a dent in the night's dusty chill. Something about it makes me feel like I'm in love, and gratitude is a song that my apartment thrums with.

My gatekeeper and I like each other too much to have never conversed, I have kids in my apartment building who love me for having spoken in their class, and everyone I meet on the stairwell excitedly asks if I live on the fifth floor, and tells me what floor they live on like it makes us closer than blood. It feels like a community, as does the street that I live on.

That first night back in, out walking, I bought some roasted chestnuts, just removed from a huge cauldron filled with live coals. The next day, going to my boss's house for work, I entered to the sound of Christmas music. It may be just me, but everything here has felt vaguely festive.

Two friends from a different city in China came in town, and their encouragements will help all of this last through inevitable difficult times to come. Which is to say nothing of my joy at being able to host them.

And this is also not to say that I've forgotten where I live. On Saturday on the way to work I saw a man kill a sheep on the side of the road, and you should thank me for not being more specific.

But I've just been seeing old friends, taking my time, reading a lot, getting enough rest to try and get over this illness. I've been walking a surprising amount, smiling at all the inquisitive strangers. Trying to keep space in my life to feel like I'm really living it, trying to be holy. Tonight I started feeling almost like I've been wasting time, and I spent a long walk home trying to decide whether I've been irresponsible. I'd forgotten to get money out of the ATM, though. When I took a taxi back out, a man had just busted a flat. I asked if I could help, and did most of the work changing the tire. On the way home, again I just felt... placed. Purposed. And always very, very alive.

I've had many tell me that what's most surprising living overseas is how much more you feel both the good and bad things that come your way. And eventually, apparently it levels out. Well, I think that already I've found this to be true. But it's not just leveling out that's happening. I've been learning a lot about tough moments. And right now, a lot about joy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Where I Wake

This is where I wake every morning. And I'll admit that, if I move, I'm going to miss this room.

The thing is, I don't have to move. I just found out yesterday that I can live here for another six months. But he's raising the price by 100 yuan per month (from 350 to 450), and I'd have to be out after that. Even without the price change, I would feel ridiculous painting this place and really making it home when I'm only going to be here for a little while.

And if I don't, I'm going to feel like I'm in transition that entire time. Few things sound worse.

Right now, actually, I really want to explore the possibility of living in a pingfang--a small, one-story area with different rooms in a square around a small courtyard. My boss isn't so keen on me living in one, though.

Perhaps with good reason.

They're heated with a coal stove, so depending on whether you recently put coal in, in the winter they're usually either really hot or freezing. They don't really have places to wash, so I'd have to use a public shower (but I've been showering less often anyways). They can be sort of unsanitary, with the bathroom the type that you have to have shoveled out. And they tend to be full of coal dust.

But it's a more traditional home, and you get a yard, and it's generally just a more peaceful, natural setting. I'd also have more control over when I could leave and come home, and I could really make the place home. I've never been someone who's shied away from difficult things, and I feel like the times when I'm most comfortable are the times when I fall away from Dad. Perhaps it's idealizing the situation, but I can imagine waking up to cold in the night, throwing some more coal in the stove, and reading the Office of the Night Watch before going back to sleep. I feel like the type of maintenance such a place needs does good things for my soul, even if at times it's a hassle or frustrating.

What I'm saying, in short, is that I may need a good, warm sleeping bag after all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Finally! Some pictures.

Well, it's been a long, hard road, but now I can finally get pictures off my camera. I don't really have time to write, but the other night I went to a performance in the big city square here. It was basically a bunch of kids from a school doing musical performances to celebrate something or other. Here's one side of the square:

Someone saw me walking up (I tend to create a commotion) and grabbed me to sit at what they call here the "Chairman's Table." Anytime there's any kind of performance here, usually there's a table in the very front reserved for VIP's. Seeing as how I'm not Asian, I am automatically a VIP.

A couple of my friends sat up there with me, and we had a lot of fun making faces at the kids and watching all of them doing skits, singing and dancing. It made me think of those performances we used to work so hard to put on in Elementary School. But at the same time, even in the performances that were obviously supposed to emulate American dancing, everything was so distinctly Chinese. It's really interesting, because you know that it's different, but sometimes it's hard to pinpoint what exactly about the performances are so foreign. Or, native, rather. Foreign to me.

Afterwards, I went on a walk around the city, and took a few pictures of the city at night, largely deserted. Here's a street near the square:

And then here's one of the three biggest hotels in town (one of two I'd recommend):

I *told* you guys it was a city. It's not a big city, but it is a city. I have a few more pictures I'm going to ration out since I haven't been taking many. But I hope everyone's been doing well. I have so much to tell! But no time, no time. Soon.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Popsicles, or, Almost Getting Hit By Cars

So, in light of a recent post I made mentioning popsicles, I thought that I would make another to further elucidate the subject.

See, many of the current popsicle manufacturers in China have started something truly unique: putting a thin layer of ice around the sides of the popsicle, and making the inside much softer than any ice cream bar in America.

Ingenious, right? Even though it's not nearly as delightful to eat, there's no having to worry about potential drips or, worst of all, the complete loss of one half of the popsicle, broken off and fallen because of structural deficiencies.

Well, wrong. The ice, unfortunately, doesn't continue to the bottom of the popsicle. Therefore, walking down the street you look absolutely ridiculous trying to attend to the top and bottom of the popsicle near-simultaneously. Once you get near to the bottom, the ice has also already started to break up, making the whole thing one barely-cohesive mess on a stick. As this requires all of your concentration, if you are walking in the city square, for instance, hypothetically, you will almost get hit by a car.

Of course, this isn't entirely your fault, or even the popsicle's--cars in China are much less predictable than in America. You can almost get hit by a car while sitting in the living room of your fifth floor apartment if you aren't paying enough attention, especially if you left a window open.

Walk in the Rain

Tonight, I had dinner with a friend of mine, and then I'd planned to have a different friend come over and hang out at my apartment. He ended up calling me at about 8:30 to cancel, though. So I went for a walk.

The night was a little chilly and rainy. I picked up some moon cakes in a bakery that I passed--small cakes with filling, made because the Moon Festival is coming up.

I won't get into everything I thought about on the walk. So many thoughts are doggedly pursued and then dropped on a walk like that, it would be difficult to write it all here. I will say that sometimes long walks like that can go bad with so much time to think, but this was not one of those nights.

I've always been someone who has thought about background music--what music I would like to have as my soundtrack, or just what would be perfect. "Trailways" by Red House Painters for walking under trees with sunlight streaming through, for instance. There is also a certain way that the sun will strike a lake as you drive by that sounds like "Tahquamenon Falls" by Sufjan Stevens. Tonight the call to prayer started to bellow from a mosque I was walking by and echo from building to building. And that is the soundtrack to this place, to the lives that weave through these streets and alleys.

I walked to another part of the city, the large square that I've mentioned before on here. It's about the size of three or four football fields, but because of the weather it was completely desolate. There's something about a place where there should be people when it's empty--like something is wrong, like it's being used for something that was never intended. I walked to the very middle, where there's a huge pole with lights in a ring around the top. Looking up, the rain was falling regularly, but larger drops in two concentric rings because of the lights. The drops would be illumined as they passed the lights, then fade like sparks. It was really indescribable: the whole of it, me standing, looking up, the strangeness and simple beauty of what I was watching, how unusual of a place it was to find it, alone in a huge city square.

I was recently told that the phrase, "Zhen qi guai," means "How strange," but that that isn't the whole of it. There's also beauty implied.

It's hard to describe exactly, but as I walked home I had a whole different set of things to think about.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Restful Day

Things have been a lot more busy here than I expected. I expected there to be a lot more quiet, a lot more rest, than there has been. Part of it may be living in a city--even on what you plan to be a quiet walk, crazy encounters can occur.

So yesterday, after kind of a frustrating day at work, I stopped and picked up a strawberry ice cream bar on my way home. Now, some of you were privy to my absurd Good Humor strawberry shortcake ice cream bar cravings in the days leading up to my return to China. Well, I've found something here that's not the same but... well... it's just close enough to be dangerous.

I threw open the windows, put on both fans, threw on a tank top and some old jeans, listened to country music, ate the ice cream bar, and just felt amazing. I can't really describe it, it just really felt like home. It's true that it doesn't take much to feel at home here--so much of life is so foreign that one day when I saw two different people using the ATM on a walk, I felt like I was in America.

I had plans to have coffee with a friend last night, but I sort of knew it was going to fall through.

So after that, I went to the grocery store and picked up a bunch of different snack foods (usually it's about 50/50 when finding new foods, only about half will be edible) and some things to use for dinner, and headed home. I put on some music, cooked an absolutely amazing dinner (admittedly, I was surprised), tried all the snack foods (all three edible as snacks, though I won't buy one of them again), and watched the latest Harry Potter movie.

It was really quite the excellent evening.

But! For now I need to head to lunch/work. My boss's wife is making tortillas!

Jialifuniya Girls

It's been a long time since I've written, and so many things have been happening!

On a walk last Sunday, I ended up seeing tons of people that I knew, so this week has been really busy.

A few days ago, I was walking down a couple of the newer streets in town, almost like a downtown kind of area, when four very attractive girls around my age stopped me. They all had matching nice outfits, and so it seemed that they were co-workers. So they all started talking to me, and I didn't have any idea what they're saying. But I went with them, because... well, why would I not go with them?

So there was a little tent type thing, and a table under it with a book on it. There were about four other girls waiting for us, and they all watched as I sat down at the table and started looking at the book. It was basically all glamour shots of a couple. Extreme glamour shots--wind in their hair, lying on sofas, airbrushed like crazy. The girls asked if I had a girlfriend, but I, of course, don't. After they all volunteered each other for the job, they said it's okay for just one person to get glamour shots, too. Thank goodness.

After I told them it was too expensive and started to leave, they asked me to sit back down. They really wanted me to stay and hang out. But then it was just really *absurdly* awkward, because I didn't know how to say that much and there were these eight girls just asking me things like who I think is the prettiest and whether I would marry a Chinese girl. I was actually surprised that here, almost as many people ask about marrying a Chinese girl as in America.

It happens a lot--a girl asking if her friend is good enough to marry, or whether I think she's pretty. I try to pretend not to understand for as long as possible, and when they just don't give up, I say I'm too young to find a wife.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Letting the Days Go By...

Random Happenin's:

  1. Last Saturday, I went with "Baxter" to the Great Wall of my city. Which is a short, imitation Great Wall that they put in a park a little ways outside the city. It was pretty... majestic? We were talking about Islam since Baxter is studying to be an imam, and he asked, "Are you Christmas?" I said that yes, I celebrate Christmas, etc. And he said, "Yes, but ARE you Christmas?"

    He meant to ask whether I'm a Christian. I kept correcting him, but he never did quite get it.

    They actually had one room at the park full of different rocks cleaned and on shelves. I asked what the rocks were, whether they were sculpted, but the people had just gathered what they considered to be the most beautiful naturally formed rocks in the area into one room. The idea of the aesthetics of naturally formed rocks was really interesting to me, and we spent a lot of time looking closely and choosing our favorites.

  2. I went for several long walks around the city, which were really amazing, and did good things for my heart. In one part of the city on Monday, I bought a small turtle that I think is supposed to be like a chia pet. I watered him when I brought him home, in any case, so I'll keep you posted about whether I'm right or he's a turtle made of dirt.

    It was in the same part of the city where I'm thinking about living. My potential future apartment isn't in as good of a location as this one, and it isn't as nice. But there's something about it that's indescribably appealing. You have to walk through an alley separated from the road to get there, which usually has old women sitting there just talking, or maybe shucking corn. Off of the alley are many other branches of smaller alleys, both sides brick, overgrown with grass and flowers, ending in doors half the size of a person. As I told a friend of mine, it feels like a secret garden--it feels like anything could happen there.

  3. I had coffee with an old friend of Lee's and one of her friends on Tuesday. We talked a lot about the environment in China, especially desertification, and they told me about the Green Wall of China--a line of trees being planted to stop the spread of the Gobi Desert in northwest China.

  4. Yesterday morning, I spent about two and a half hours teaching a friend of mine to do the Electric Slide. I cannot even describe how fun and hilarious of an experience this was. My doctor friend came over last night and hung out for a long time, which was very relaxing and encouraging.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I Made a Huge Mistake

So. This evening I took a walk around the city. It was the first time I'd just gone for a long walk since I got here, and it was really nice. So I was walking along, passing through the city square, when I hear this truck coming up behind me. You know how sometimes when something loud approaches, you'll see someone on a cell phone run away from it, clutching the phone tightly to their ear?


That happened with a girl in front of me. A loud truck was coming--it made sense. And it made even more sense when it turned out to be one of the huge trucks that drives around the city spraying everything with water. Turns out *everyone* else knew it was coming somehow, so after it passed *I* was left standing alone in the road with my left side completely soaked. In case you've forgotten, it was in the city square, so about eighty percent of the city's population saw it and immediately burst into laughter. Including me, actually--I threw them a thumbs up (which I hope isn't a bad gesture here), and couldn't stop laughing for about twenty minutes.

People kept giving me strange looks as they saw me walking down the street half-soaked, though. But seriously--if you had huge trucks driving around your city for the exclusive purpose of spraying massive amounts of water everywhere, surely you wouldn't be that surprised to see the occasional person with one side of his body drenched.

There are so many situations every day in which I do the exact wrong thing. Walking in the grocery store today, a guy tried to hand me a box of something or another that was long and rectangular, red, with a picture of bees and a honeycomb on it. I thought he was trying to get me to buy it, and stood there trying to get him to understand that I didn't want it. Finally he just threw it in my bag--it was a free sample. I opened it when I got home. I think it might be toothpaste--there's a picture of a smile on one side of the box. But then, toothpaste is one of those things... If it's not toothpaste, you *really* don't want to be using it like it is.

I definitely need people to be understanding and graceful. But they are. And I love that they're so ready to accept that I have no idea what I'm doing.

It's so funny here to watch people with children as you walk towards them. Parents or grandparents immediately bend down to their children, however young, and start shaking them or poking them in the ribs, trying to get them to speak something in English to you. If they do, it's a resounding "Hello!" before they immediately hide behind the adult.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Home again, home again...

Well, I arrived back in my little city at about 6 last night. I had dinner over at my boss's apartment with his family, hung out there for a while, and then came to the apartment, absolutely exhausted. But even though I was worn out, when I went out onto the street to grab some water, I was absolutely beaming. It's good to be back.

Last night I definitely realized how lonely it's going to be here. I've never actually lived alone, and it's sort of a sad feeling coming home at night. But I definitely think that I'll ultimately benefit from living a life with more quiet, more solitude, in it.

Today, I went out to grab a cable that I needed, and I slipped on some flip-flops. I was definitely thinking, "Is this okay? I'm pretty sure this is fine." And then, on the street, everyone kept *staring* at my feet. It's ridiculous how embarrassed I was for wearing flip-flops. On my way down the street, I kept seeing people who were absolutely scowling at me, too. But when I smiled and nodded to them, they would erupt into the biggest smiles. That's one of those things that happens all the time here, but it's just really funny to re-realize.

So I got to where I knew I could buy the cable, and the guy's like, "Hey--are you Lee's friend?" I said yes, and he asked if I was living in Lee's apartment, and I said yes, and he said a few things that I couldn't understand, and I kept nodding, and then he said he knew Lee and he's glad he's my friend now, too.

I just love this place. There are going to be tough times. But right now, I'm elated.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Another Day Alone, Pt. 2

So now I'm at a hip little restaurant that looks like it could be in America. It's not American food, though, and not at American prices. I didn't realize it when I came in, but it's actually Korean barbecue, which all of you should try if you have the opportunity.

My day was pretty interesting. After I left China Mobile, I went to this office--but they said I'd have to leave and come back later. I was so disappointed, because I was tired of dragging all these bags all over the downtown of a big city. I know that the reason I hate it is that I don't like feeling like a tourist--even though it's inevitable when you're in China and you're white. I had one person randomly tell me, "Welcome to our city!" It was nice, but it made me feel foolish.

But instead of running all over the place again, I managed to make friends with the female owner of a drink stall outside the office. She gave me a free ice cream and a little stool she had behind the counter, and we chatted. It was a lot of fun, barring one conversation with a man who walked up wanting to talk about Taiwan. She also watched my bags as I went back in to get the papers.

There, I had to rewrite my resume, but then I finally got the papers I needed to apply for a work visa at the Chinese embassy.

That same woman helped me find a cab, and I made my way to the hotel and took a great nap. Now I'm trying to decide whether a girl across the room is this older man's date or daughter, I'm waiting for my dan chou fan, and everything seems just about right.

Another Day Alone, Pt. 1

So, I just saw a woman trying to make two monks leave the step outside her business, while they were trying to sell her water and a girl was trying to hand all of them flyers.


Right now, I'm sitting in a China Mobile because it's the only place I could find to sit down, and I'm pretty stressed and worn out. The bus here ended up making tons of long stops along the way. When we finally got here, I was told by three different taxi drivers that they couldn't take me to the center of the city because their roofs weren't painted yellow.

Finally, a guy on a motorcycle asked me where I wanted to go. At this point I'm carrying a full backpack and a largish piece of luggage. I tel him, and he says he'll take me there, and he says the luggage is no problem. I thought I was going to have time to ready myself, but we were going as soon as I got on the back, with my left hand clutching the bike, and my bag slung over my right shoulder, with a notebook in my right hand and my arm trying to keep my bag wedged between me and him.

Also, apparently there is no need when you're on a motorcycle to stop at red lights, or even ever slow down for anything ever. In case you guys were wondering.

Well, 20 minutes and several near death experiences later, we got to the center of the city, and he asked these police officers where the place is I want to go. They didn't know, but this random woman helped me get a cab and explained how to get there. Evidently the motorcycle driver was through with me (even though, I'm *pretty* sure I wasn't screaming--admittedly, it's a blur).

It was about 12:45 at this point, so the government office won't be back open until 2:30. So I've been lugging all my stuff around downtown trying to find a place to sit, but it's all banks and cell phone stores. I'm not exaggerating, either. Besdies banks and cell phone stores, there were only two antique stores and nothing else on the two-block stretch of road I've walked past. Hopefully, the rest of the day will go a little better.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Another Trip

First of all, with the last story, there was one thing that I failed to mention. The first two foreigners in the city, we sat down for a meal in a small village home on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and while we were eating, they put on... Michael Jackson music videos. And then the English channel, a special on metalworking or something. It was really sweet that they were trying to make us feel at home.

I also figured out what it was that they were trying to get Lee to market. Actually Meg was right in her comment--it's called chongcao, and it's a type of caterpillar that burrows into the ground. Then spores of a fungus essentially find it and burrow into its head, mummifying the caterpillar alive. At one point in the spring, the fungus grows out of the ground as an iridescent blue stick, and it's pulled out with the caterpillar still attached. No one's really sure of what type of relationship the fungus and caterpillar have--the jury is out on a lot of things related to this phenomenon, but people think it's really crazy healthy, so they're sort of expensive.

Since the last time I wrote, things have been really busy with trying to finish meeting Lee's friends and see everyone one last time. On Thursday night we had dinner with my boss's family and two women from Finland doing linguistics fieldwork for Helsinki University, studying the dialects of the people in our area. One of them studied Chinese for a year in a city that I've been to several times, so it was fun to chat and hear about how it's changed.

On Friday the two girls who visited at the beginning of the month came back through. The day before, I'd actually found a crock pot at a supermarket there, and I was excited about the chance to use it to make Apple Chicken stew. Well, I bought everything, and managed to get everything ready just in time to leave for lunch. I turned it on high, and we ran out.

Well, the thing is, the crock pot had had a hole in the lid. I'd duct taped it, engineer that I am, since most of them in the states don't have that. But then I was thinking--am I sure it's a crock pot? It could be a rice cooker. Which would actually make more sense. I asked Lee, and he confirmed that, in fact, neither of us read Chinese. So we have no idea. Luckily, even though I still don't know what it is, when we went back later we discovered that it can indeed function as a crock pot, regardless, and the stew turned out to be pretty delicious alongside Lee's famous mashed potatoes. The girls brought homemade cookies and brownies, and it was just lovely. As one of our courses we actually had the mummified-caterpillar fungus, which I have to admit I did not expect to actually eat.

We had a good night playing Imaginiff and just talking, and then on Saturday we traveled with them to a Tibetan village that sits at 10,500 feet above sea level. I thought I was high at 5,500, but there I got winded after walking maybe a hundred yards. I had met two people there that I wanted to see again, and a friend of mine also started a Western restaurant in this city that we wanted to visit. And it was just so wild--these people we stayed with have no running water in their house, they don't take showers or brush their teeth, and they love it. And they're amazing, hilariously sarcastic people, around my age. We played Skip Bo and watched The Office on their kong. Good times.

We also got to have some great pizza and yakburgers (he calls them "Big Yaks"). And the rides there and back were through some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It's like at every turn you see a different postcard.

But now? To the big city, and then America.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Having Best Friendship

The other day, I met a guy around my age in the center of town. I think he may be on his way to becoming an Imam, and he told me he wants to study in Pakistan.

Anyways, we had a three or four minute conversation and exchanged e-mail addresses so we could hang out when I come back this fall. The following is the conversation that resulted, with his name changed to Baxter. His e-mails are italicized for easy reading.

Dear friend:
Nice to meet you ,Iam your friend baxter.I hope you have a good time in my hometown.


It is good to hear from you! Thank you very much. I will e-mail you when I come back in town in August, and hopefully we can spend some time together.

Your new friend,

Dear friend:
when I looking your E-mail, I think you are a true friend, I
feeling very happy. thank you so much. no matter how far between us .we have best friendship so you are my best friend ,I will waitting for you .
Say hello to your family,say hello to you girlfriend


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Village People

First thing's first: we had a great weekend with different folks coming in to see Lee while he's still here. It was really good to meet a lot of the Westerners that Lee's had a chance to get close to. Talking openly was really encouraging--and three of the people, including a young couple around my age, only live two or three hours away. We went to the zoo, played some Phase 10, chatted and told a lot of stories. It was pretty awesome.

Yesterday, Lee and I went to a village. The people there said we're probably the first foreigners to ever go there, which is a pretty crazy thought. We went to visit the home of a high school student that we're friends with. The father kept trying to get Lee to market this thing in America--it's essentially a dried caterpillar attached to a stick, and you're supposed to eat the whole thing and it makes you strong. It was funny, though--at first they said it was a plant. And I said, "Wait, is that a caterpillar?" And our friend said, "In winter, it is caterpillar. In summer, it is plant." Hm. Hm. In any case, the man gave Lee some samples even though he tried to turn them down, so I think we may fear-factor them sometime this weekend.

We had a good time hanging out there, though. People grow corn, wheat, and potatoes out there, and the whole area was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen--huge hills, covered with the deepest shade of green. It was worth the stomach problems that resulted from our lunch there.

Last night we hung out with a friend's family, and afterwards I went for a late-night walk. It's been cold here, and it's a great feeling to be bundled up against it. I was surprised at how eventful the walk was. First I met two Muslim women in a store on the riverfront. We had a very halting, difficult conversation in Chinese for a couple of minutes before they asked me what I do. I said it's difficult to say, and one of them says in perfect English, "In English." And I said that my job was to mail things out for my boss, and they understood perfectly, when I'd been struggling over how to say that I work here.

I met another guy whose invitation I declined to go into a karaoke bar. I met a Muslim who felt like he should be anti-American (which is rare) that I had a short conversation with that ended very well. And I was called over to a table of people, half of whom were drunk, and I sat and talked with them for a few minutes (fairly unsuccessfully). Because they were a little far gone, they were talking very quickly and slurring, so not much actual conversing occurred.

And overall, it was just kind of a good time to be alone in the city. I arrived home feeling very refreshed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Home Again

On Monday I did a bunch of the official things that need to get done for me to live and work here. The highlight of this was most definitely the physical. I got it in an office building somewhere in the city I was in--you parked in the back and went up this back staircase to find the place. The sign is tiny.

So I go in, I write down my name and birthday, and immediately they start sending me around to all these different stations. It was like an adventure, or a video game, and each different one was a test or a level that you had to pass. I'd go in, they'd motion for me to lay on the table, motion for me to lift my shirt, they'd put gel on my chest, attach all these suction cups to me, wait ten seconds, and they'd stamp the paper and send me off. In one room they attached a red lead (positive voltage) and a black lead (ground) to my arms, and I was terrified that they were going to shock me. Luckily, my boss was with me and could explain most of what they were doing. I got an EKG, an ultrasound, a chest x-ray, and then all the normal stuff from a doctor's visit. Then we headed home that day.

On the way home, there were different people on the side of the road with boxes and boxes of bees. Apparently these people start in northern China at the beginning of summer and start moving down south as the flowers finish blooming where they are and start blooming more south. They follow the flowers until they finally end up in Tibet. Apparently the specific area that I live in, though, is famous for its honey. They live in ramshackle tents, in groups of two or three. They have just huge drums of honey in their tents. The man let us taste some absolutely fresh honey, and it was amazing--if I hadn't known, I might not even think it was just honey. I don't really know how to describe it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel. I love being on the road headed somewhere far away for absolutely no reason. There's something about me that just craves it.

But honestly, this whole past weekend I just wanted to be back here, to the city that's quickly been becoming my home. We had a calm night on Monday night when I got back, but then last night we went with a bunch of friends for another night of karaoke. This time it was even more fun than last time--it was similar, but there was a lot of dancing, and everyone was really into everything and having a lot of fun.

But, I guess that's probably more than enough for now.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Day Alone, Pt. 4

Over the course of my walk, at one point I passed a building with lit-up four-leaf clovers across the top. It looked really interesting, but I couldn't see inside. It didn't look sketchy at all, and for some reason I had to know what it was. So I went in.

Just inside was an entrance room, but there was no one standing there. There was only a staircase down. I gingerly started walking down. I noticed that there was a security camera focused on the stairs. The place had a distinct smell of warm mist, but not after a rain.

When I got to the bottom, I saw that it was something like a bar--expansive, but empty except for two men in the corner who had to have been in the mafia. An attendant came up to me. I asked him in English what the place was, but it's clear he didn't understand. So we have the following conversation in Chinese:

D (waving my hand around) : What is this?
A : (something in Chinese)
D : A bar?
A : Yes.
D : Do you have Jasmine tea?
A : Me?
D : The bar.
A (looking at me like I'm crazy) : (something in Chinese)
D : I don't speak much Chinese. I don't understand.
A : We don't have it. We have (something that sounds like "flower tea")
D : You have flower tea?
A : No.
D : Do you you have tea?
A : (5 minute string of Chinese I don't know)
D : I don't understand. I'm sorry. Goodbye!
A : Sorry. Goodbye!

But, now I think I'm headed home. It was a long walk, and I'm pretty tired. Also (the real reason), I think I'm sitting next to a vent from the bathroom, I feel awkward about moving, and there is a bug flying around my head rather persistently.

A Day Alone, Pt. 3

Right now I've moved to a hotel in this same city. It's a horrible little place with no air conditioning, but I realized too late that I didn't bring enough money, and there's nowhere I can get more until tomorrow. Tonight I'm eating fried rice in a cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurant and hoping that it'll tide me over until tomorrow. I'd like to go back to that kafeiguan later, but that would leave me with 2 kuai--barely enough to buy a bottle of water.

(And later.)

I wrote down the name of the coffee shop I was in earlier and am in now--Oasis coffee Beautiful family: Graceful & Cosy Greenland Coffee Island. At night, though, the dive bar feel is lost--all the lamps are lit, there are Christmas lights and nice music, and the place overall lives up to the word "cosy." It's empty except for me.

I just went for a walk and decided to write down some of the things I saw. I'll post them here for your benefit:

  • A toy poodle with its ears dyed pink.
  • A girl trying to describe something to a friend, making a sound like a train.
  • Construction workers wearing wicker helmets.
  • Three 15-year-old boys in dress pants and no shirts drinking beer at a table.
  • Three men on motorcycles wearing construction helmets.
  • Someone who yelled "Hello!" to me and gestured with his hand at an entranceway covered with a dirty towel.
  • Girls practicing a dance in front of a school gate.
  • An open door covered with a picture of Santa Claus, through which I could see a dark, narrow stairwell up.

A Day Alone, Pt. 2

One of Lee's friends here that hung out with us this weekend, is a little younger than the others. He's basically a foreigner fanboy. He doesn't speak much English, and when we were talking on Saturday, the conversation sounded like this:

"I like American sports. Michael Jordan?"
"Yeah, Michael Jordan is awesome."
"I like American music. Michael Jackson?"
"Yeah, Michael Jackson. Very cool."
"I like American military."
"American military. US. A army."
"Yeah, American military..."

The next day, just me and him were waiting for others in his room. He was showing me all kinds of things--pictures of foreigners that he's met, a tape of a bunch of old folk songs by people like John Denver and The Carpenters--and then he says something about the military again and goes to get something out of his huge closet. And I don't know why, but immediately I couldn't get the thought out of my head: he's going to pull out a gun. I don't know how he's gotten it, but he's going to pull out a gun and I'm not going to know what to do but I'm going to have to stammer something about it being cool but then he's going to want me to hold it...

But it was camouflage, and goggles? US Military goggles, evidently, and real US Military camouflage that says "US Army" on the front and "Harley Davidson" on the shoulder.

A Day Alone: Pt. 1

I am sitting in a darkened coffee shop unlike really any I've been in. It sort of has the look of a dive, but the things in it are nice. It's like someone wanted to own a dive, but couldn't fathom the idea of starting a business and not having nice furniture in it. Ultimately, though, the strangeness isn't unpleasant.

The other day, Lee and I watched a movie with a couple of friends of ours. One of them made dinner, everything was very nice, and then we watched a movie on the wall with the friend's projector. Anyway, at one point in the evening one of them was talking about how dangerous the roads are, and he tells a story about a woman being hit by a bus and having her brains splattered on the sidewalk.

And I'm so uncomfortable because it's so random that I start up with nervous laughter, and then everyone's looking at me like I'm the *most horrible person ever*. We didn't talk about it for a few days, but somehow it came up again last night and Lee said that he almost did the same thing. It made me feel a little better.

The past few days we've been out of town, staying with some college students in a dorm. It's been a lot of fun--chatting on Friday night, talking about life and girls and all singing Alison Krauss along to a guitar, and then on Saturday a walk, lunch, karaoke, dinner, and roller skating.

Karaoke was crazy. I guess I didn't think it would be so exactly what you see in the movies. A room all to ourselves, darkened but lit very hip, a couch running the length of the wall, blasting music, singers that are as enthusiastic as they are horrifically untalented. It was so much fun. I sang "It Must Have Been Love" by Roxette, and did duets to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and "Say You, Say Me." And there was dancing, which was fun but strange.

Skating was just absurd. I guess it must be like this in America, but it's just funny how much of a range there is in skating ability. There were guys skating backwards in trains at breakneck speeds, and then girls falling (hard) every five minutes. I'd been skating maybe twice when I was ten, but I guess I'd been skating and rollerblading, so I picked it up pretty quickly and was about average. I took a lot of breaks, though, because there was one girl in our group who couldn't really skate. At all. So I'd chat with her every once in a while, tell her about life in America ("You go driving at midnight? And then you drink coffee?!"). A few times she let Lee and I take her skating, holding her between us so she wouldn't fall.

What's really different about skating in China is that there are no rules. People are going in every direction, as fast as they want, and you'd just better to your best to not get bowled over.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


This is an amalgamation of different journal entries and e-mails, etc. This is one post that may be a little out of order for that reason.

The trip definitely started off with a bang. I was in a taxi going to the bus station to come here when these guys ran up and started banging on the windows and saying the name of the city where I'm headed. I bargained with them, but by the time we settled things and I got out of the car, the bus was pulling away. One of the guys was putting my bag under the bus as it was moving, and I jumped on, but I was hanging out the door trying to make sure the guy wasn't going to steal my bag or something. Everyone was yelling.

Then we drove around the city for literally an hour and a half trying to fill up the bus. What was funny was, a lot of the time it seemed like the drivers were actually convincing people to take a three-hour bus ride to a different city. The people would shake their heads, say they didn't want to go, but after a 5-minute conversation they were on the bus and on their way. And in some places, bees absolutely swarmed the bus, and I couldn't understand how people were going about their business with all these bees around.


Here, things have been good. Me and Lee have been getting along really well. It's amazing, really, how awesome things have been.

Two girls came through the city a couple of days after I got here, friends of his. They've been here almost two years, and are headed back to the States soon. They were in town a couple of days, and the second day I made dinner (spaghetti with homemade sauce), and the four of us had a candlelight dinner. Then we all sat and took turns asking questions, and then each person answering in turn. Almost all of the answers were long (the questions were things like, "What was your worst dating experience?"), and we spent about six hours just telling about our lives through stories. It was one of those surreal experiences that leaves you feeling as if you'd known all the others for years.

I may actually go whitewater rafting in Thailand in August with the girls and a bunch of other folks. I know, I know--I am officially everyone's hero.

My Chinese tutor is a girl around my age, which has been a lot of fun. She's pretty funny, and it helps me learn Chinese to try and figure out how to joke with her in her own language. She says I act like I'm 19. Well, I said she looks like she's 12.

Things with my future boss have gone really well. We had a two-and-a-half-hour lunch the other day, just the two of us, which went really well.

The other day, Lee and I and a visitor we had from Australia were invited to a Muslim man's home to have dinner. It was another surreal experience. We ate in an enclosed garden full of beautiful plants, under a kind of lattice completely filled with ivy so that before it got dark we were in the shade. Two birds hung in cages from the lattice, one a canary, one that he called a "pearl bird," which he said only lived on a nearby 14,000 foot mountain. A kitten kept meowing around our feet, then crawling around the ivy on the lattice trying to get to the birds. The man couldn't speak English, but a friend of ours, the one who he invited us through, was there to translate maybe one sentence every half hour. The rest of the time, he expressed himself only through smiles and hospitality as we spoke English.

The food was all prepared by the wife whom we never saw. The dishes were brought out by his son, who didn't talk to us at all. I suppose it's the man's place to be the social center of the home in such a situation. But yes--he didn't eat, he just watched us eat, and if he felt like we weren't getting enough he would put more on our plates. I was stuffed to an absurd degree.

And! More will come soon, I'm sure.

Friday, June 1, 2007


Today, as we were riding by, a bright green bird escaped from a cage now holding only three others, and was flying from tree to tree. Everyone on the sidewalk stopped to watch, the boy owners running underneath, anxious but silent.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Today, I was passing a man, both of us on bicycles. As I was coming up on him, I rang my bell. He glanced to see where I was, but he was so surprised to see a white person that he almost wrecked. He knew I knew what had happened, and he flashed me a big smile.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Airport Food

No complaints about the Kiss n' Bake at the Beijing airport. 18 yuan for a 1-slice-of-ham, 1-slice-of-lettuce sandwich, but it struck just the right chord between bland and tasty for my mood. If I'd had the presence of mind to wait, I probably would have gone to the "Flavor Tang" (a name which in the past I've coined to be synonymous with "the bomb") to hunt down some jiao zi or the like, but oh well.

Monday, February 12, 2007


So, I took a somewhat different approach to this weekend, and worked on Friday night and then all day yesterday, and today I observed Sabbath. I didn't allow myself to touch my computer, just experience life with my roommates and friends and drive around, experience some quiet time and rest. I have to say, it ended up being absolutely amazing. I just feel so refreshed and thankful after today.

There are some areas of my life where I haven't been obedient lately, and I hope that today helped me get to a place where I have a larger Strength backing my self-discipline.

Beautiful, beautiful day, though.