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.