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.