I was super busy this month finishing up Mandarin Companion‘s new Level 2 Chinese graded reader adaptation of Great Expectations, but it’s now up in ebook format in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2. These two parts, put together, probably make up the absolute longest cohesive low-level Chinese reading experience you can find. We’re talking about a story almost 30,000 characters long. (For reference, our longest Level 1 story was only about 12,000 characters long.)
Combined with finalizing the standards for the new higher level graded readers, that amounted to a loooong editing process. I’ll talk about that another day.
For now, I am just enjoying Florida’s smog-free winter weather while I deal with 2 jet lagged little ones. (Of course I was still able to get away to see the new Star Wars movie.)
This year I attended the 8pm Christmas Eve mass at the St. Ignatius cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai. It reminded me why I normally don’t go to Christmas Eve masses in China. In short, it’s a zoo.
The reason is that Christmas Eve has become a popular holiday in Shanghai, although it’s mainly a date holiday. Traffic was horrible that evening, as couples all went out in search of a romantic winter evening. Many of them went to churches out of curiosity, to see how Christmas is celebrated there.
I imagine the “Christmas tourists” that wound up at Catholic churches were a little bored. Yes, there’s a choir singing Christmas music, but it’s still a Catholic mass, and not a Christmas program. (As I understand it, some other denominations do special Christmas programs to cater to the seasonal tourists.)
For the Catholic Church, it’s certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the church has a rare opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience actively seeking out what it has to offer. (Christian churches are not allowed to actively evangelize in China, so if it’s done at all, it’s normally done quite subtly.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church is there for the faithful, and the Christmas tourists really are a bit of an obstacle to normal worship.
Some examples of how the Christmas tourist disrupt the mass:
– The tourists wander all throughout the church throughout the mass, often talking in loud voices
– The tourists take photos (with flash) and video all throughout the mass, often holding the device up high, distracting everyone
– The tourists take up good seats in a standing-room-only situation, but then try to leave the packed church after 20 minutes when they get bored
– The tourists outnumber the believers, so the priest tends to direct the sermon at them, capitalizing on the opportunity
– The tourists try to receive Holy Communion, even though the priest patiently and politely explains that it’s not for visitors, requiring the priest and eucharistic ministers to do a sort of mini-interrogation to anyone in the communion line that looks suspicious (and they’re surprisingly good at spotting the faking faithful!)
It’s the last one that bothers me the most. In China there’s a serious lack of respect for religion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given China’s history, but it’s quite startling to be presented with the fact in this way. It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?), but I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that feels as bad as trying to receive Holy Communion after being specifically asked not to (in one’s native tongue).
Here’s one tourist’s account (from Weibo), which offers a nice (more respectful) perspective:
> A busy day eventually ended peacefully… My second Christmas Eve at a church. The Xujiahui Catholic Church is really beautiful, with classic gothic architecture, really magnificent, lovely hymns, and a holy ceremony… But there were just too many people; it was super crowded. Faith is indeed a powerful force. Following along in the mass, the priest nodded at me several times, but didn’t give me the Eucharist to eat. But those Christians chewing on the Eucharist were filled with some kind of reverent emotion. Peace.
I assume the priest “nodding” at her was him giving her a blessing. Any non-Catholic can go up in the Communion line and get a blessing, but they’re supposed to cross their arms to signal that they’re not there to receive the Eucharist.
Anyway, lesson learned… next year I won’t be going on Christmas Eve again!
Hmmm, does this qualify as abuse of an identity verification system, at a time when Beijing is supposedly cracking down on accounts that aren’t clearly linked to real people? I’m sure Santa Claus is outraged.
Sinosplice’s Christmas Songs in Chinese have been popular every year around this time for a while now, and one of the most common comments let has been, “can you provide the lyrics in pinyin?” Well, it’s actually quite a lot of work to assemble all the (correct) lyrics, which is why I hadn’t done it before. This year, however, I decided to leverage some of AllSet Learning‘s resources and finally make it happen. (They may not be perfect though, as some songs were manually transcribed, and the audio was a little unclear. So if you catch any errors, please leave a comment, and we’ll update ASAP.)
So for the MP3 audio, go to the original Christmas Songs in Chinese post. For the lyrics (simplified characters and pinyin), download here:
1. Jingle Bells
2. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
4. Silent Night
5. The First Noel
6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
7. What Child Is This
8. Joy to the World
9. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
10. Jingle Bells
11. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
12. Silent Night
13. Joy to the World
[The sharper among you may have noticed that some of the songs towards the end repeat. That’s because there are multiple versions of some of the same songs. See also the original blog post from 2006, or download the songs individually, for a limited time.]
OK, this one is so ridiculous I had to share it. What happens if you put classic 90’s video games, East vs. West, racist toothpaste, and strong homosexual overtones into one little Christmas-themed Chinese commercial?
Every year around Christmastime, my “Christmas Songs in Chinese” blog post from 2006 gets a lot of action. I’ve been seeing a lot of requests there for lyrics, and I tried to help out with that, but I found the Chinese versions of these Christmas songs’ lyrics surprisingly difficult to track down. If anyone can offer links to those lyrics, it would be appreciated by many.
Anyway, you may enjoy these Sinosplice Christmas music posts from the archive:
This post comes a bit late, I realize, but if you’re in China (or elsewhere) and still suffering from holiday season eggnog withdrawal, it just might help you pull through.
In Shanghai, we foreigners generally depend on Carrefour (a French supermarket chain) and City Shop (formerly City Supermarket) for our hoity-toity imported food expat needs. But for some reason, neither ever carries eggnog.
This year, when I complained to JP about the lack of eggnog, he suggested I make my own. I considered the idea, but the whole “raw egg” and “China” aspects scared me off. Then he sent me a recipe for eggnog. I had extra time on Christmas Eve, and I ended up making my own eggnog for a little Christmas party. It tasted OK, and no one got sick. Sounds like success to me!
Of course, I had to modify the eggnog. Here I’m going to post my “eggnog hack.” Originally the eggnog called for:
> 4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 pint whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 ounces bourbon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 egg whites
Of these ingredients, I skipped the cream and substituted rum for bourbon. I was able to get nutmeg at Carrefour, albeit un-freshly grated (it’s called 肉豆蔻). I found this part of the recipe amusing:
> To reduce this risk, we recommend you use only fresh, properly-refrigerated, clean, grade A or AA eggs with intact shells, and avoid contact between the yolks or whites and the shell.
Avoid contact with the shell? The eggs come in the shell! OK, I see… the outside of the shell. To be extra safe I even washed my eggs just in case there was some accidental contact.
Now onto the preparation side. Here in China, I don’t own a mixer or a whisk. (OK, come to think of it, I’ve never owned a mixer or a whisk.) That seems problematic when you get to the part of the recipe that tells you to do this:
> Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat to soft peaks. With the mixer still running gradually add the 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Whisk the egg whites into the mixture. Chill and serve.
I didn’t know what “soft peaks” were, and I didn’t have a mixer, so I just beat the eggs for a while with a fork. It still turned into eggnog in the end.
Somehow we managed to cheat salmonella this time. Anyone got any home-made eggnog horror stories to scare me out of doing this again?
“Christmas” in Chinese is, of course, 圣诞节, but in the spirit of my previous Character Creations, I’ve created two new single characters that mean “Christmas.”
Character Notes: some radicals in the creations above were chosen for semantic reasons, but many elements were chosen for purely visual purposes. In some cases I purposely shunned a more obvious option (such as 木 for “tree” or 星 for “star”) because they didn’t have the visual effect I wanted. In the case of 光, it not only looks more like a traditional star-shape than 星, but it has Biblical meaning as well.
OK, I’ll admit it. I like some Christmas songs. Not so much “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as some of the more traditional ones. So I get a kick out of hearing these songs sung in Chinese. Thinking that some of you may feel the same way (you all seemed to really enjoy the Hakka Jingle Bells song), I decided to put together an album of Chinese Christmas music.
This album contains secular kids’ classics like “Jingle Bells” as well as religious classics like “What Child is This.” Some songs sound like they are sung by a church choir, while others are more playful. Some of the songs’ sound quality is good, while others’ are abysmally low. The melodies are familiar, but the lyrics are all in Chinese. Oh, yes. You need this to make your Christmas complete.
1. Jingle Bells
2. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
4. Silent Night
5. The First Noel
6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
7. What Child Is This
8. Joy to the World
9. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
10. Jingle Bells
11. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
12. Silent Night
13. Joy to the World
[The sharper among you may have noticed that some of the songs towards the end repeat. That’s because there are multiple versions of some of the same songs.]
I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t find Chinese versions of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I suppose these will do.
About a year ago I presented a Hakka version of Jingle Bells and a lot of people enjoyed it. I thought this year I’d share another Chinese take on the Christmas classics. This time it’s a band called Cookies (曲奇) singing in Cantonese (so to me it sounds almost as bizarre as the Hakka song). You have to listen to a bit of Canto-pop before they get into it, but at the 1:26 mark they start singing to the tune of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” followed immediately by “Jingle Bells,” then “Joy to the World,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Deck the Halls,” “Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and finally “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (don’t be alarmed when they only slip into English briefly during those last two). It all has a very bizarre Canto-pop hyperactive feel to it.
You can find and download the song easily through Baidu; just follow this 曲奇圣诞歌 search link, then either click on one of the 试听 (“listen first”) links, or click on one of the song titles and then download the song from the MP3 link on the new page.
While I’m at it, I thought I’d throw in some Chinese Christmas flash fun as well. Check out these links (also found through Baidu):
– What do Santa Claus and a skiing alien accompanied by snow pigs have in common? Watch this “origin of Santa Claus” cartoon to find out.
– Chinese Jingle Bells Rap. Nuff said.
– 圣诞结 (that’s someone else’s pun, not my 错别字), the most depressing Christmas song ever. It has lyrics like, “of all the people I’ve loved / not a single one is left by my side / only loneliness keeps me company throughout the night / Merry, Merry Christmas / Lonely, Lonely Christmas.” On this joyous holiday, this is a great song to remind you how miserable it makes some people. (Note that for many modern Chinese, Christmas is seen as a day to be with a boyfriend/girlfriend).
– Hit Santa with a Snowball. This game is not fun, it’s just hilarious to me because the animation is so awful and the “music” has about a 3 second loop. Well, that and the fact that you get presents out of Santa by knocking him silly with snowballs.
– Santa does Mission Impossible. And also some Chinese song covers.
Recently I set up the little artificial Christmas tree my girlfriend bought for my last year. When I went to put the Christmas lights on it, I found that one of the wires had come disconnected from the switchbox. I probably wouldn’t be able to fix it without a soldering iron. Since I didn’t have time to get new Christmas lights, I just left the tree plain.
The next day my ayi came over and I pointed out the Christmas tree to her. I thought maybe she hadn’t seen a Christmas tree in someone’s home before. She proceeded to good-naturedly advise me that it was too bare, and I should get more ornaments and lights to decorate it properly. I just smiled and agreed with her.
On Wednesday I went to a party for the Chinese department teachers of ECNU. (I’ve been teaching them English at their request, and it seemed like a good excuse for a party). The party was held in the nice home of one of the teachers. She had a real Christmas tree! It was the planted kind, and it was decorated in a simple but nice European style.
I had wanted to buy eggnog to share at the party, and I was pretty sure it could be bought at City Supermarket, but it turned out that City Supermarket had no holiday foods at all. Same goes for 久光, the supermarket near Jing’an Temple that carries mostly Japanese imports. Both supermarkets were fully decked out in Christmas decorations, but neither contained a single Christmas-themed food or drink item. Even Starbucks, with its overpriced (158 RMB, I think?) gingerbread house had more to offer. So instead of eggnog I took a bottle of Bailey’s I had been saving for a special occasion.
The party was briefly educational because I brought the mini Nativity scene that my parents gave me about two years ago. I explained who each figure was, and they all got a kick out of the cute little figurines.
It seems like the department stores in Shanghai are getting more and more lavish in their Christmas decorations with each passing year. The things are really getting huge. Plaza 66 (a mall on Nanjing Road) has even set up a Christmas ferris wheel. Each “seat” is a case holding some overpriced bag or other item, and the whole things slowly turns, showing off the mall’s expensive offerings.
I guess maybe it’s because of all the over-the-top decorations everywhere that I am very content this year with an under-decorated tree and a very simple Christmas celebration.
> J: It’s Christmas. I have Christmas things to do.
> A: It’s just for an hour.
> J: No. It’s Christmas.
> A: OK, I’ll tell them.
Later I was approached by my supervisor:
> V: John, I realize it’s Christmas, but can you please work on Saturday?
> J: No.
> V: Come on, it’s just for an hour…
> J: Don’t you see something wrong with me giving up my own time on Christmas to teach little Chinese kids about why Christmas is important to Westerners?
> V: Ummm…
> J: So I won’t do it.
> V: But the company has already agreed to do it, and the kindergarten has already notified all the parents. Neither side can cancel it now without a big loss of face!
> J: Well, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still Christmas. My answer is no.
They ended up finding someone else to do it.
I had nothing specific planned, really. My girlfriend and I went out to eat with Carl and one of Carl’s Chinese friends. We all dressed up a little, and the restuarant was nice. We ate stuff Chinese people like to eat such as crab. It was good.
After dinner Carl’s friend, like many young Chinese people, it seems, wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve partying at a bar. Since no one had a better idea, we headed to Hengshan Lu, Shanghai’s nice bar street. What a mistake. It seemed like all the young people in the city had the same idea. Bars that usually charged no cover were charging cover. Bars that usually charged cover were doubling or tripling it. And yet, the bars were packed. My girlfriend and I decided to go home. We left Carl and his friend to their own pursuits.
Being in China for the holidays creates a lot of weird feelings in me that are hard to put into words. That night, though, my feelings were clear. To me, Christmas Eve is not a time to be living it up at bars. It’s a quiet night meant to be spent with loved ones.
Back at my quiet apartment, sitting in the glow of a cute little fake Christmas tree assembled with care, I started to feel better. But I could still feel a kind of pressure on me. It had something to do with my company wanting me to work on Christmas teaching about Christmas, with the throngs of young Chinese people in bars on Christmas Eve, and with the ubiquitous Christmas decorations that just seemed to try too hard — and for what?
I went to bed fairly early.
Christmas Day I got up and went to mass at Xujiahui Cathedral. The mass was pretty unmoving, and the Christmas songs came out kinda stuffy. Throughout the mass, tourists were wandering into the service to have a look at what the Christians were up to. They were probably all pretty disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed, though. I felt better.
I’m not trying to write something as cheesey as “I went to church and found the true meaning of Christmas.” That’s not it. It’s more like, “the ‘Christmas’ around me, being constantly shoved in my face, bore only a superficial resemblance to the Christmas I knew, and what lay underneath it all was scary. Getting to church confirmed that what I knew was real, and I wasn’t the one who was losing it.”
After that, Christmas was more fun. We were having some friends over to the new apartment. I just happened to find Knight Rider – Season One from a vendor in the subway on my way to the grocery store that afternoon, so I picked that up. I invented the very simple “Knight Rider drinking game” (anytime anyone says “Michael,” you drink) and we played it to the amazingly long 2-hour pilot “episode.” We had Papa John’s pizza delivered. We played the pyramid drinking game. Then, when we were all nicely happy, we played Eat Poop You Cat. Yes, it sounds lame, and there were definitely skeptics at the party before it got going, but the game won everyone over pretty quickly and we were laughing so much it hurt.
The name of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells” is 圣诞铃声 (something like “Christmas Bells”) in Chinese. But the famous English refrain “jingle bells, jingle bells” in Chinese is the onomatopoeic “叮叮当, 叮叮当,” which sounds like “ding ding dong, ding ding dong” to Western ears. It doesn’t sound at all like sleigh bells ringing to us, it just sounds really funny (or maybe like doorbells). In my experience, every Westerner who learns these Chinese lyrics busts out laughing.
I tried to find a Mandarin Chinese version of “Jingle Bells” using Baidu MP3 Search. All I turned up was a version which I originally thought was Cantonese, but two Cantonese-speaking friends say it isn’t. The refrain definitely sounds like “ding ding dong” though. My guess is it’s Vietnamese. Can anyone identify the language?
I was disappointed because I can’t understand the lyrics, but I think the song may sound even funnier this way. I’m not one to mock any language, but this song — like the Chinese version — just sounds really funny, for cultural reasons, I guess. Give it a listen:
It’s hard to believe that last year at this time I was arriving home in Florida for a surprise visit. Prior to last Christmas, I had been in China two Christmases in a row. Yet this year I feel more divorced from this “Christmas” thing than ever before. This year Christmas is just that Western holiday between the HSK and my move to Shanghai.
Speaking of the HSK, I think I did “OK.” I think I’m borderline between 7 and 8. Maybe it was unrealistic to expect to be able to learn enough vocabulary in one semester to get an 8 when I don’t read literary Chinese all that often at all. In any case, I’m not getting my hopes up too high for that 8.
So now I have that huge HSK weight off my shoulders, and a whole three days between today and Christmas. But I have to give my students final exams those three days.
We have a pretty decent-sized foreign teacher community here at ZUCC, but I don’t think any of the younger crowd is celebrating Christmas in any Christmassy way. No Christmas trees, no Christmas lights, no Christmas songs, no gift exchange. And there’s sure as hell no eggnog. There’s Christmas mass even in Hangzhou, but it just doesn’t feel the same.
I might even run off to Shanghai on Christmas Day to check out my new apartment there*. My girlfriend’s mom is awesome — she found me a killer pad at an amazing price (and she also knit me a cool cap). But I have to go hurry and check it out to close the deal. As chance would have it, Christmas also happens to be one of the few days my girlfriend isn’t working. So that’s that.
The thing is, I’m not really bummed about any of this. China does not really have Christmas, it just has enough little reminders everywhere to alert you to the fact that Christmas really is going on again elsewhere in the world. So my co-workers’ attitudes, rather than seeming all bah-humbuggy to me, seem perfectly natural. Enlightened, even. Why bother to celebrate Christmas?
I guess to me, Christmas is something that happens at home. And when it happens at home and I’m actually there for it, like last year, it’s just all the more special.
So does the fact that I’m fine with there being no Christmas for me here in China mean I’m more adapted to China? Does it mean China has really become a second home for me? Or am I becoming a soulless Scrooge?
Rather than dwell on those questions too long, I think I’ll just go get me an apartment in Shanghai. Merry Christmas.
*Oh yeah, I got a good job in Shanghai — more on that later. This post is supposed to be somewhat “heavy” and “introspective.” No room for good news here!
Well, it’s 2am and I’m packing to go back to China. I leave at 8:20am. I didn’t plan on doing my usual all-nighter (which helps me sleep on the plane), but then I ran into a snag with my luggage — my good, sturdy, really big, wheeled suitcase thing. The zipper busted! I fixed it, sort of. The “fix” involved super glue. Yes, on a zipper. So I’m waiting for that to dry before I can truly be finished packing.
This was a great trip home, though. Nothing makes one appreciate being home with the whole family for Christmas like not being home for Christmas for a few years. I think I’m going to be back home in the U.S. next year, too, because my friend Dan is getting married in early January, 2004.
I have learned, though, that as long as my life is in China, it’s a little uncomfortable being home for too long. True, I love seeing my family. Yes, I love seeing all my old friends. And I love eating American food (I hit 200 lbs. for the first time while home this holiday season). But that’s really all there is for me here at this stage in my life. I feel like in China so much is happening to me. I learn Chinese. I earn money. I travel. I get all kinds of cool job offers. I date. I write my book. I design lesson plans. I make new friends all the time. I’m constantly soaking up new info about China and gaining new insights into its culture. My imagination is ablaze with all the possibilities there. While I’m in the United States, I feel like once I’ve exceeded my “visit duration” (which looks to be about 2 weeks), I’m just stagnating. I’m ready to go back.
It has been a wonderful visit, but once again, I’m China bound….
It was Paco who met me at the airport. Why Paco, and not my family? Well, as I mentioned earlier, part of this story is “shrouded in mystery.” Or, perhaps more accurately, a web of deceit. Let me explain.
I got the idea last summer to make a surprise visit home for Christmas 2002. When the Fall 2002 semester began, I asked for those 2 weeks off plenty early. It was OK’ed, but I had to make up the classes or otherwise arrange for them to be taught. Wilson and I came up with a plan to combine our classes and give a multimedia presentation (6 Friends episodes). I prepared the instructional material for the multimedia classes with PowerPoint, so it was no extra work for Wilson. I get to go home, my students get a fun class, no one has extra classes to teach or make up. Perfect.
As the departure date drew nearer and nearer, I realized that there was a flaw in my plan. If my coming was a surprise, my family would send any gifts for me to China, and I wouldn’t see them until well into 2003. Or maybe they would postpone the whole gift-giving thing until they knew they would see me again. In either scenario, I don’t get presents (no good!), and they might feel bad, since I was returning home gift-laden. Enter my scheming mind.
I contacted my friend Illy and asked for her assistance. I had a part of the plan. She fleshed it out nicely. My family could not help but be hoodwinked by our elegant web of deceit!
Illy and I used to work together at UF’s English Language Institute, where we met many a foreign student. It was during that time that Illy and I became good friends. My parents had met Illy, and they like her a lot.
The Plan. Illy called up my mom and told her that she had recently gotten back in touch with “George,” a mutual ex-ELI student friend of Illy’s and mine. Apparently George graduated from the ELI long ago, and he recently finished up his Masters in the States. It just so happens that George is Chinese, and is now ready to go home, just before Christmas. It also just so happens that George has relatives in the Tampa area, whom he wants to visit before flying home out of Tampa. Illy has long been the chauffer of poor car-less ELI and ex-ELI students, and so it’s only natural that Illy would drive George to Tampa and take him to the airport. What a wonderful coincidence, though, Illy told my mom — Illy and George could stop by on December 22nd or 23rd and visit, as well as pick up any gifts my family might want to send to me in China. Wonderful.
George is, of course, a fictional character. Illy would be taking me home to surprise my parents. Enter complications.
First I had problems with my flight. It was scheduled for Saturday night (and Illy made plans with my parents), but then it was cancelled (grrrrr!) and rescheduled for Sunday evening. Illy and George rescheduled accordingly.
During all this I learned my good friend Paco was going to be visiting from Harvard Law School. He was happy to be in on it. Originally Dan was going to pick me up from the airport, but the switch to Sunday made it impossible for him. I thought maybe Illy could do it, but during that period I was having trouble getting in touch with Illy, so Paco became my ride from the airport.
The initial surprise was on my parents. Amy and Grace weren’t home Sunday night. I originally planned to hide in Illy’s trunk, all covered up except for my face, then have Illy knock on the door and say that she needed help bringing in some gifts she had bought for them from me. We could put a gift-wrapped box lid on my face, and when they picked it up, SURPRISE! The thing is, Illy’s trunk was too small for me. I’m not small. But the back seats in her car fold down, connecting the backseat space with the trunk. So what I did was have my torso in the trunk, and my legs folded in the back seat.
Illy ended up telling my parents that she brought a heavy “piano accessory” for them, and that she needed both of them to help get it out of the trunk. (She couldn’t say something like car trouble, because then only my dad would have come outside.) My dad got a little suspicious. He had also just called my room in Hangzhou and gotten no answer. He was looking around outside for surprises. The trunk threw him off guard, though, because it was clearly too small to hold me, and the covered up form in the trunk was only big enough to be half of me. They couldn’t see how the trunk connected with the backseat space. So they were both very surprised and happy to see me when the sheet came off. Laughter all around. (I refuse to believe that my dad’s suspicion ran very deep — come on! I was in China for the past 2 Christmases. He had no basis for strong suspicion.)
Paco was hiding in the front seat, and when the surprise was sprung on my parents in all its glory, he leaped out and snapped a few shots. “Oh, hi George!” my mom said to him. (Thanks, Paco!)
The next surprise came for Amy. She has her own apartment, but she came home Monday night. She had stored some of her stuff in my “empty” room, and when she came home, my dad sent her back there to clear some more of her things out. I was waiting behind the door, and sneaked up behind her in the dim room. When she turned around I was just standing there. It freaked the hell out of her! First she was frightened, and then overwhelmed with joy. Her face went from terror to delight over the span of a second or two. It was hilarious. She was even crying. Best reaction ever. No hard feelings or anything.
Grace’s flight came in from Germany the next night (Christmas Eve). As usual, her flight was delayed (this always happens to her — we were pretty annoyed that she had to come in on Christmas Eve). So Amy and my parents were standing in a highly visible spot to greet her and her friend Alex. I was sitting down not far away, “reading” a newspaper. After their little reunion, I ambled over to the group, still holding up the newspaper. I “bumped” into her, and acted all shocked to see her. She was pretty shocked herself. It was funny, but not anywhere near Amy funny.
So that’s the story. I had a great Christmas with my family. A lot of my friends are in town (my visit isn’t a surprise to them), and it’s great to see them too. I am sooo happy to escape Hangzhou’s cold and wet winter for even 2 weeks. It’s sunny here almost all the time, and I wore short sleeves on Christmas. And then there’s the eggnog and the food… but I think I’ll stop here.
Sunday, December 22nd. I get to the airport at about 8:30am. Check-in goes smoothly. Before long I’m on a plane. The only snag is that what I was told was a nonstop flight from Shanghai to Detroit was actually a flight with a stopover in Tokyo. Maybe I wouldn’t have to get off the plane, at least, and I could just sleep. I was ready for that.
On the plane I notice there are a lot of young people. Turns out there are two singing groups from universities in the U.S. which had been invited to Shanghai to perform. That includes religious Christmas songs. Kind of interesting; not interesting enough to keep me awake, however. My last thought as I drift off is, “I hope they wake me when they serve the meal….”
I awake as we’re arriving in Tokyo. I ask the girl next to me if there was a meal. “Yes, she tried to wake you. It was like you were dead to the world.” D’oh! Oh well. I was dead to the world. It’s the best way to sleep.
They make me get off the plane and wait around in the Tokyo airport for two hours. It’s strange hearing so much Japanese again so soon, when I wasn’t planning on it at all. Mostly, though, I’m just tired and hungry. I fall asleep in my chair and awake to the boarding call.
The flight starts off pleasantly enough. To my left is a silent Asian man. To my right is a large Marine, headed home from Okinawa with his family for Christmas. His family is behind us. He seems nice enough.
It isn’t long, however, before the trans-Pacific ennui sets in. I succeed in sleeping for a while. I devour a decent in-flight meal and sleep a little more. Soon, though, my Marine friend’s little 4-5 year old son “E.J.” becomes possessed. He is noisy. Then he starts this thing where he lies on his back in the seat and pummels my seat from behind with his feet. Not exactly conducive to restfulness. I can’t really complain because his parents tell him to stop. Thing is, he keeps just waiting a little while and then starting up again.
There is a mother and two nice young boys in front of me. They all love to recline their seats. I suppose that’s their right. My long cramped legs are forced into straddling the seat in front of me, my knee caps jammed up against the back of the arm rests of the seat. Then they come up with this fun game of repeatedly putting the arm rests up and down for no discernible reason. Are they doing it solely to keep painfully whacking my knee caps? Thanks.
My agony is interrupted by a new form of torture called Santa Who? — a “heart-warming” story of an amnesia-inflicted Santa who meets a selfish news reporter who needed a holiday change of heart. I watch the whole thing. I want to die.
Wait — now E.J. is pummeling me again and my friends in front of me are crushing my kneecaps with renewed vigor. Now I want to die.
There are only two good points to the flight. First, there seem to be an unusually large number of attractive women onboard. Not seated next to me, of course, but they are on the premises to give me something else to focus my attention on and help me pull through it. Thanks, ladies. Second, the airline serves ice cream after Santa Who? ends. Ice Cream! All right.
Silent Asian man is Chinese, as it turns out, and can’t figure out his immigration forms. I help him. He seems pleasantly surprised that I can help him with that in Chinese. His English doesn’t seem too hot. I found myself wondering if he always asks for Coke because he likes it, or because that’s all he can say.
Scooby Doo the Movie comes on. Vowing not to make the same mistake again, I refuse to put my earphones on. Still, my eyes stay glued to the screen, however, and I’m soon angry over the stupidity of the film. I manage to sleep a little more.
Hope comes in the form of the second in-flight meal. Not only does it satisfy my hunger, but with it comes peace to the whole plane, for a short time.
For the remaining stretch E.J. tests my patience. But I hold out. I don’t crack. We land.
Things start getting better after that, because I am actually in the U.S.A. I have just eaten, but I decide to spend some of my 3-hour layover in Detroit eating. I get chicken tacos with chips, salsa, and guacamole dip. You can not get that stuff in China! As I’m eating I notice someone else eating chilli cheese fries and I almost regret my choice of food. The discomforts of the past 13 hours quickly fade into the background as my stomach takes the spotlight. Plus there are more hot women in the Detroit airport. Hot American women. All right.
Before long I’m on my final flight, bound for Tampa. Is it just my imagination, or is the leg room shrinking with every flight?! My legs are really uncomfortable, but at least this flight is relatively short. As the plane lifts off the ground, I gaze out over the landscape. No snow. It looks like a sepia world, all in browns, tans, grays, drabs….
Despite the short travel time, my level of discomfort seems to rise proportionately. It is all I can do to keep from flipping out. I can’t sleep. I try to pass the time with the new issue of The Economist. Biotechnology in China. Hmmmm… (Ouch, my knees!)
In the end, after 24 hours of travel, I make it. As I arrive at the baggage claim, the familiar face of Paco greets me.
My Christmas this year has been an event partially shrouded in mystery since the summer. It was then that the idea to surprise my whole family with a Christmas visit home began to formulate.
Saturday, December 21st. I had meant to get on a bus to Shanghai as early as 3pm, but it wasn’t until 5:30pm that I finally make it out the door. I have been buying lots of Christmas presents and otherwise just preparing for my two weeks’ absence from school. Wilson graciously offered to cover my classes. He had the good idea of combining all our classes and throwing them in a multimedia room at night for those 2 weeks. So all I had to do was plan the content and put it into a wonderful PowerPoint presentation, which was then burned onto a CD and left in Wilson’s hand the day I left.
So I step out the door at around 5:30pm. It’s raining, as it has been for days. The shoes which I have purposely not been wearing for the past 2 days in order to make sure they’re dry for my trip home are wet within 10 minutes of stepping out the door, despite my umbrella. The guard on the ground floor of our building says this damn rain is going to continue for another 3-4 days, at least. All I can think is I’ll be home soon….
I get out to Zhoushan Dong Road just in time to miss a taxi. And then it’s 30 minutes of trudging through a gray, wet world, my rolling suitcase reluctantly trailing behind me on this misadventure. I timed it just wrong: 6pm is when taxi drivers get off their shifts, so around 5:30 the drivers are all heading back to the station and refuse to give anyone a ride, even if the car is empty and the “vacant” light is on. It’s almost impossible to get a taxi at this time of day, but I was standing out in the rain with a heavy suitcase full of gifts and a backpack, and I was going home. Unfortunately, the taxi drivers don’t seem to realize this. Empty cab after empty cab whizzes right by my wet, frantically flailing figure, my furious curses unheard.
Eventually, someone does stop. For some reason, when drivers are getting off duty, they do this thing where they pick up a friend (?) before getting their last ride, and then drop off their friend on the way to your destination. It’s definitely not legit, but they all do it. After waiting 30 minutes in the rain, I wasn’t going to complain.
On the way to the bus station, there’s a traffic jam. All the huge construction trucks in Hangzhou seem to have congregated on the road we need to take to get to the East Bus Station. Our driver doesn’t seem to have much regard for our personal safety, or at least not for the structural integrity of his vehicle. Our windshield repeatedly comes scant inches from the lower end of the huge truck in front of us. Time wears on, and my driver quickly learns I am not in a chatty mood. I am beginning to wonder if there are still going to be buses to Shanghai by the time I get there.
So I finally arrive at the East Bus Station. I loathe that place. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but the scalpers that assail you before you’re even out of your taxi would definitely be high on the list. Shanghai, Shanghai! they yell in my face. The fact that I was actually bound for Shanghai makes them all the more annoying.
When I get to the ticket office, there is a small crowd outside, but no one inside. All the ticket windows are closed up. “They’re closed,” the scalpers gleefully announce, a grinning pack of vultures descending upon me. “Shanghai…”
Defeated, I begin reluctant negotiations with them, and 80rmb is the cheapest I’m hearing. I start following that offer, but as I trudge past the Shanghai-bound waiting room, on a whim I duck in to investigate. The girl at the front tells me I can still buy a ticket to Shanghai. I’m not getting her convoluted instructions to the last remaining open ticket window, so she kindly takes me there herself. I buy a legit 55rmb ticket to Shanghai that leaves in 10 minutes. I am ecstatic.
So I try to sleep on the bus to Shanghai, and to dry out my feet a little as well. Both efforts only meet with limited success. I am chagrined to notice that although the VCD being played is not showing up on the screens (evidently the video out isn’t working), the inane Chinese soap opera dialogue nonetheless spews on. Greeeeat….
I get to Shanghai and meet my friend. I had a good dinner. Get to see famous Hong Kong director Wong War-kai’s movie In the Mood for Love, and I gotta say, I am not impressed. Yeah, I can see the artsiness of the cinematography. I suppose it is cleverly filmed. But in my mind no movie can be forgiven for failing in its primary function: entertainment. This movie and its endless parade of qipao bores me.
Sunday, December 22nd. Probably partly due to In the Mood for Love, I fail in my effort to stay up all night. I do that so that I can be blissfully unconscious for the 20+ hour journey home to Tampa, Florida. I inadvertently get a few hours of sleep. These few hours almost make me late leaving for the airport. I leave in a rush.
My friend told me that I should ask for a 20% discount to the airport since it was so far. I was aware that in Shanghai you can sometimes negotiate cheaper taxi fares, but in my experience that only happens at night. So when I stop the first taxi I come across and tell him I want to go to the Pudong International Airport and I expect a 20% discount, the driver is a little surprised too. “In the daytime?” he says. “I’ll give you 10% off.”
“Never mind,” I say, and start walking.
A minute later my luggage and I are in the taxi. 20% off it is. It is 7:30am, and my flight leaves at 9:30am. It might be as much as an hour’s drive to the airport. I am a little nervous.