Tag: travelogue


20

Feb 2005

Robbed of Hong Kong

When I bought my tickets I arranged for a day and a half in Hong Kong on the way back from Taiwan. I wanted to take in as much of that Hong Kong glitz as I could in 36 hours. To my dismay, I was totally robbed of the Hong Kong experience. Prepare yourself for some extended whining.

My last night in Taipei I must have eaten something bad. I think it was the Korean food, although it’s hard to tell because I ate three times that previous night. The next morning I promptly unloaded the contents of my stomach. Feeling horrible, I managed to make it to Hong Kong without further incident.

My original plan was to pull an all-nighter in Hong Kong since I was only there for one night, but that idea was quickly abandoned. After arriving, I went straight to the Ramada Hotel in Kowloon and slept. I had plans to meet up with several people in Hong Kong, but I was in no condition to chat with people I’d never met before. (My apologies to those people.) I did call Katherine, who was a teacher at ZUCC during the SARS semester. She has lived in Hong Kong all her life, and I already knew her. Turns out she was sick too, but agreed to try to meet up the next day.

So how was I robbed? One of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions is the food. Hong Kong cuisine is pretty universally regarded as top-notch — even the street food. I was looking forward to pigging out. But even a whiff of those delicacies sent waves of nausea through me. In my condition I was almost completely unable to eat the entire time I was in Hong Kong.

Another famous tourist destination in Hong Kong is Victoria Peak, from which a stunning view of the city can be taken in. It’s said to be especially beautiful at night, and I’ve seen the pictures to prove it. Feeling a little better, I set out around 5pm get up there and see the view. I took the Star Ferry, but sat on the wrong side (I didn’t realize at first that the boat just reverses direction when it goes back across), so I got a crap view of the harbor. What I did see, though, was that Victoria Peak was completely covered in fog. I couldn’t see it at all. The top of the IFC 2 building couldn’t be seen either. I abandoned that plan, deciding instead to walk around Hong Kong Island. Not long after, though, my intestinal condition sent me scurrying back to my hotel via subway.

Feeling worse again, I went back to sleep for a while.

When I woke up I decided to walk around Kowloon more and see more of the signature Hong Kong streets. It started raining, though, so I ducked into some little place for a massage. It was a legit establishment, but the masseuse was a bit saddistic. At first I thought she was asking “are you OK?” in order to adjust the level of pressure. Later, when I started making uncomfortable noises, she’d say, “pain?” and I’d reply “YES!” to which she’d just laugh and continue at the same pressure.

The next morning I slept in until 11:30, with some effort. I still felt pretty terrible, but the hotel maids apparently weren’t aware of the 12:00 check-out time or the meaning of “DO NOT DISTURB.”

I went to Kowloon Park. That was pretty cool… I liked the flamingoes and the aviary. Then I bought and sent some postcards in Central. I met Katherine at 2, and was able to get some food down. (Shouldn’t have eaten that delicious chocolate cake, though. I immediately regretted it. My stomach was churning viciously within an hour.)

Katherine took me to meet her boyfriend, who runs a very nice Indian clothing store called Sanskrit. Very impressive operation, and he was a cool guy.

Then I rode the “world’s longest escalator” (wow, what a thrill) and headed up Victoria Peak via tram anyway. I had time to kill before I had to be at the airport, so I figured I might as well. It was cold and wet, with bad visibility.

On the train back to the airport I talked to a rabbi from Israel. The initial conversation went something like this:

> Him: Is this the train that goes to the airport?

> Me: Yes. Are you a rabbi?

Ah, interlocutionary finesse of this caliber cannot be learned, my friends. (He really looked like a stereotypical rabbi, with the black clothing, the beard, the wide-brimmed black hat, being old etc.) His English was only so-so, but we had a decent chat. He told me that in Argentina in the 1960s someone told him that the scariest thing in the world today was “the Yellow Threat” (meaning China).

Sensing a unique opportunity, I decided to ask him about something I recently read about in The Da Vinci Code (which I finally read in Taipei). So I asked him about Shekinah, whom Dan Brown describes as the ancient female counterpart to Jehovah. I got a confusing description. He said in the Kaballah’s attempt to explain how a purely spiritual being (God) could create a physical being (Man), it developed a series of stages, one of which was Shekinah. OK. Anyway, I’ve definitely had more boring train rides. Nicest Israeli rabbi I ever met.

I didn’t take any pictures in Hong Kong because I didn’t want to bother with my temperamental camera, which only works half the time now.

The flight back to Shanghai wasn’t good either, but I can sum it up succinctly in two words: China Eastern.

Lesson learned: Don’t pin high hopes on a one-day vacation, because not only are there weather factors that can’t be controlled, but sometimes one’s own health fails as well.

I’ll try to make it back to Hong Kong in the future. It was a crazy, interesting place.


12

Feb 2005

Taiwanese Men Bite

I’m in Taipei, staying at Wilson‘s apartment and still kinda just hanging out and getting a feel for this place. We’ll start some trips around the island tomorrow.

Some observations…

There are large men here. It used to be that back in Hangzhou I could just look for the big Chinese guy and that would be Wilson, at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 200 lbs. Here in Taipei I’ve seen quite a few guys as big as Wilson.

I’m not exactly “enchanted,” and I’m not getting many friendly vibes. Gone is the curiosity relentlessly poured on me, but in its place, at times, is something other than indifference.

My first night in Taipei I went with Wilson and Wayne to a club. I was minding my own business, but some guy (not one of the larger ones, and kind nerdy) insisted on doing the “I’m dancing here now, so you better move” thing, getting in my space. I didn’t budge, so his backside probably got a little more intimate with my leg than he intended. Next thing I knew he was yelling FUCK YOU at me, furiously giving me the finger. I laughed at him, to which he responded by throwing a glass at my head full of something that stung my eyes. In moments we were all out on the street. What happened exactly is all a blur, but it looked like Wilson dealt out some punishment to that guy while I got swarmed with security. When the taser came out, we jumped in a taxi and got out of there.

Next morning I just had a bruised hand (don’t worry, mom!), whereas Wilson had a big bruise on his waist from where the rabid guy from the club had literally bit him. Crazy. (Don’t worry, Mrs. Tai, he’s fine!)

Aside from that, Taipei is a much smaller city than I imagined, and it’s also lower tech. The Japanese influence is very obvious to me; at this superficial stage of my observations the “China-Japan fusion” view of Taiwan seems very accurate.

Lastly, sometimes when I talk to Taiwanese people and their Chinese sounds really funny, I think that they’re mocking my Chinese. But then I remember that’s just their natural accent. Oops. I’m still not used to that accent. It’s kinda cute, though.

UPDATE: Pictures of the bite are now online.


06

Feb 2005

To Taiwan, Hong Kong

I’m leaving for Taipei on February 9th, the day after all the Chinese New Year’s Eve festivities. I inquired about the “direct flights” (which actually still go through Hong Kong airspace, they just don’t land), but apparently only ̨°û¡¡(Taiwanese citizens) can get those tickets. Good thing I got that info, because a clueless travel agency was trying to sell me those tickets. That would have been unpleasant when I showed up at the airport with tickets for a flight that I was not allowed to be on.

I’ll be staying with Wilson in Taipei. He’s doing some business there for his mom (who is from Taiwan). Hopefully I’ll be able to meet up with the infamous Wayne as well.

On February 17th I’ll head back to Hong Kong from Taiwan. I’ll stay in Hong Kong for a day and a half. Don’t really know anyone in Hong Kong. I was hoping Derrick would be there, but he’s not moving to Hong Kong until after the summer. Looks like Wanbro is there now; I don’t know him, but it would be cool if I could meet him. We’ll see. It’ll be such a ridiculously short stay in Hong Kong that wandering wide-eyed through the glitz all alone wouldn’t be a problem anyway.


01

Aug 2004

Ruminations on Tianjin

Why the long silence? I’ve been in Tianjin for the past 11 days running a kids’ summer camp for my company. It had been my intention to update from the road, but I decided not to.

For one thing, the internet cafes weren’t the most cooperative. Most of us know that China blocks a lot of websites, like anything on Geocities or any Typepad blogs. Trying to access those pages directly from China yields the browser’s “page not found” error. However, some of Tianjin’s internet cafes have a kind of proprietary software installed that closes all open browser windows if there is any attempt to access a page on the blocked list. Let me tell you, that is really annoying! Sometimes you don’t even know that the link you clicked on is blocked, and then suddenly your e-mail, news stories, etc. that you had open are all closed. Grrrr… Maybe this is becoming more common in internet cafes in China — I haven’t needed to use an internet cafe in a while — but it’s the first time that I’ve seen it.

But anyway… about Tianjin. I’m not going to go into the camp now; there’s a lot to say and I’m going to save that for a separate post. There’s plenty to say about Tianjin itself, so I’ll take a stab at it.

I had hoped that with 10 whole days in Tianjin I would have ample opportunity to meet Adam of Brainysmurf.org in person, but it was not meant to be. (I think he’s avoiding me. He beat a hasty retreat to the USA with some kind of “I’m getting married” excuse. Hehe.) He did, however, leave me some sightseeing tips, which I forwarded to another e-mail account for easy access on the road. Unfortunately, all the Chinese in it went to crap and it ended up being useless. Oh well. Thanks anyway, Adam.

One of my first impressions of Tianjin is that it’s very Chinese. I think to understand what I mean by this ridiculous statement that it’s useful to compare Tianjin to Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai is very international. Snooty expats in other parts of China like to go so far as to say that it’s “not China.” I disagree with that, but Shanghai is certainly singular in its modern atmosphere. Beijing on the other hand, feels very political and cultural to me. (Like the nation’s capital, even!) The city is steeped in politics, and it tries hard to be the nation’s cultural center. It succeeds.

Sure, Tianjin has its own peculiarities… it’s got plenty of leftover Western architecture from that period of its history, and it’s got its own local dialect and cuisine, etc. But to me, these don’t detract from the overall Chineseness of Tianjin. It would be impossible to thoroughly explain or delineate, as it’s really just a big mass of tiny details. But I’ll share some of my observations.

When the student of Chinese begins studying Mandarin outside of China, northern Mandarin in general (and often Beijing Mandarin in particular) is stressed as the standard. Cultural images of China presented in class are usually of Beijing. The influence is a subtle but lasting one. Even now, after four years of living in China, I immediately recognize Tianjin as meshing well with the “proto-China” images still lodged stubbornly in the recesses of my mind.

Yet the Mandarin of the people of Tianjin doesn’t sound nearly as harsh as that of the Beijingers. I actually liked it quite a bit. The “R” sound (er-hua) wasn’t nearly as pervasive as I remember it being in Beijing. They add in their own little Tianjin words too, and the overall effect is just sort of… homey. (A few quick dialect examples: in Tianjin you can say (not write) for and for 饿, although perhaps the feeling changes slightly. I was also amused by their local word for ice cream on a stick: 冰棍儿.)

This all amounted to the Mandarin of Tianjin sounding unquestionably northern to me, but less assaulted by Beijing’s ego. That seemed to fit more with my “proto-China” impression of Mandarin.

The taxi meters in Tianjin start at 5 rmb. I found that charming. In Shanghai taxis start at 10 (13 at night), and even Hangzhou starts at 10. I’m not sure if Beijing still starts at 5, but there’s something that seems right about a 5 rmb Chinese taxi ride, even in a big city. (Meanwhile in Shanghai we can get a short ride in a Mercedes Benz with a built-in TV for 10 rmb.)

Tianjin is a very large city and thus has its traffic problems, but it’s nowhere near the proportions of Shanghai’s traffic problem. There are still tons of taxis on the road, and taking a taxi at rush hour didn’t result in any notable delays for me. Lots of people bike (and yes, they wear solar visors too). The street scene is just so China.

But enough of this “Tianjin is so China” nonsense. I think you get the point. How is Tianjin different from the proto-China image?

Probably the most notable difference is Tianjin’s huge Korean population. It’s really stunning. I had dinner one night in a sort of “little Korea” area, and virtually every store had Korean hangul lettering in the window. I didn’t know that there were places like that in the hearts of China’s cities. I really wonder what other Chinese cities have such sizeable foreign immigrant populations.

Tianjin also has weird traffic lights. They can’t just have the normal “three circle” kind. All traffic lights seem to be in the shape of arrows or colored bars that shrink to indicate when it will change.

The people of Tianjin are friendly, and old people walk the streets at all hours of the day. I didn’t get the typical Beijing impression of there being only old people on the streets, though. There were lots of young people everywhere I went. I was surprised by the number of attractive girls I saw. They didn’t look terribly different from southern girls to me, although I think they tend to be fuller figured (which is a good thing!) than their southern (sometimes anorexic) counterparts.

I attribue fuller figures of the women to the overall northern tendency to eat more. The people of Tinjin adhere strictly to this policy. Sometimes the 10-year-old kids at the camp would out-eat me! I heard an amusing explanation from one person: In the south they eat soup with their meal. It helps fill them up, so they feel full sooner. We eat our soup at the end of the meal, so we end up eating more. I really had to laugh at this, because it’s just like the kind of thing you might hear from Americans rationalizing American obesity. I wanted to tell that girl: No, actually you all just eat a hell of a lot!

I didn’t take many pictures in Tianjin, and certainly nothing notable. I didn’t feel it was necessary. In many ways, Tianjin just fits images of China I’ve already mentally collected. Now I can attach a place to those images. It is Tianjin.


28

Jun 2004

Impressions of Dezhou

This past weekend I went on a business trip to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province. It’s funny — before heading off to Dezhou, any person I told I was heading to Dezhou had one of three reactions:

  1. Had never heard of it. (Not surprising, really.)
  2. “Texas??” (The American state of Texas is Dekesasi-zhou in Chinese, and often abbreviated to De-zhou.)
  3. “Paji!” (That’s the name of Dezhou’s one claim to (relative) fame: a chicken dish called paji.)

Unfortunately, right before leaving for Dezhou I came down with a terrible cold. The fact that it’s my second time being quite sick in Shanghai in only six months of living here alarms me somewhat. I like to think I’m a pretty healthy individual, and these new statistics aren’t jiving with that. (Why could this be? My imagination takes the idea and goes with it. Maybe I’m an example of a rejected transplant. You know how sometimes a transplanted heart doesn’t take in a new body? Well maybe I’m not taking in a new city. Or maybe the city views this foreign body as a threat and is trying to knock me off with its defenses. The Chinese, however, invariably offer the same explanation: “bu xiguan.” I’m not used to life here in Shanghai. Well, there might be something to that, but really, Shanghai has got to be the easiest Chinese city to get used to. Plus that’s a pretty boring explanation.)

And so it was that Thursday I found myself on a 14-hour train ride to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province with no convenient airport. We left at 10am, which made for a looong day on the train. Fortunately I had my cold medicine, a big box of tissues, and my sleeper bunk. I was unconscious for most of the way there.

I woke up around 10pm and decided I had better stay up. All the lights in the train were out, save for a few floating downturned faces bathed in the ghostly illumination of a cell phone’s display screen. I climbed out of my bunk and took a seat by the window. It was storming outside. Every few seconds lightning lit up the desolate countryside for an instant. Farmland, ditches, crude buildings, lonely trees. It all seemed so foreign and yet so China. I thought about how four years of effort to “get to know China” had been successful, but only in my one little corner.

* * * * *

Dezhou is a wholly unremarkable city. It has no famous mountain, or lake, or park, nor is it the “ancestral home” of any famous figure that the locals could boast about to guests. All it has is paji, a chicken dish. Which is very good, by the way.

But Dezhou is a city in Shandong province, and as such, it is populated with Shandong-ren, a much-discussed group in China. I found them to be warm and generous, and although they all had that northern accent, it wasn’t nearly as strong as I expected. One might even call it pleasant. There was only one guy with whom I came into contact whose Mandarin level was sub-par. But holy crap, was he hard to understand! I never thought a speaker of a northern dialect could be as difficult to understand as a speaker of a southern dialect, but I was sorely mistaken. There was no “s/sh c/ch z/zh” pronunciaiton issue like you find in the south. I don’t even notice that anymore, anyway. This time the issue was strictly tones. The man spoke without a shred of respect for the established tones of the words that make up Mandarin Chinese. Foreigners learning Chinese do much the same thing, but they generally have the decency to speak slowly and simply, and they radiate uncertainty. This man had the gall to speak quickly and confidently in his abominable Chinese. Talking with him was certainly an experience.

* * * * *

I went on the business trip with three female co-workers, so I got a cheap hotel room all to myself. Friday night around 11pm the phone rang, and the following conversation ensued in Chinese:

[Me:] Hello?

[Woman:] Hello, sorry to disturb you. Do you need a girl’s services?

[Me:] No.

[Woman:] Sorry to disturb you. click.

This kind of Chinese hotel service is well documented, but it was the first time it had been offered to me. Apparently my female co-workers got a call as well, but as soon as the caller heard a female voice, she hung up. The thing is, this exact same exchange repeated itself Saturday night at 10:15pm, and then again that same night at 11:15pm! It was the same woman calling. Did she think in the hour that had passed I had gotten lonely and changed my mind?? [Telephone conversation in Chinese]

* * * * *

Dezhou was not so bad. It wasn’t as polluted or as poor as I thought it might be. The people were nice, and I actually kind of liked their accents, to my surprise. But it’s still good to be home in Shanghai.


30

Apr 2004

Shelley in Xishuang Banna

My friend and (previously) co-worker Shelley is currently making a long trip through the parts of China he hasn’t seen yet. I’ve posted about Shelley before, because I think he’s a really good guy with a lot of appreciation for Chinese culture as well as an impressive level of Chinese attained in only two years, and with no formal classes. Anyway, Shelley recently sent out an e-mail about his experiences and reactions to Xishuang Banna in Yunnan province. I’m posting an excerpt with his permission.

> I reached the village of Manpo (Bulang ethnicity) by early afternoon on Monday and had intended to push on. But while resting in a sort of community area I struck up a conversation with a man who could speak strained Mandarin. He was busily shaving his 4-year-old son’s head as he insisted I spend the night in his home. At first I politely declined since staying in Manpo would necessitate a second night in the region, but then I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to find lodging elsewhere by nightfall. So I followed this man, named Ai Zhai Xiang, up to his house. (The name of every man in the village begins with “Ai”, and every woman’s name begins with “Ni.” So I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Zhai from now on.)

> Before I go on I need to mention that Americans are very well-liked in the village because the recently built school (a cement-and-white-tile eyesore on the edge of the village) was built with 70,000 RMB from an American living in Kunming. Thanks to him and the (so far) polite travelers who have passed through, Americans have an outstanding reputation in the village of Manpo. The school, like all others in China, isn’t free though. It costs 5 RMB per student per day of instruction. It’s a large asking price for these villagers but there’s no cheaper way to get a Chinese teacher out to the village. I learned from another villager that their expenses usually only total 10 RMB per month because they make everything else they need. I never learned how much they make from selling their crops.

> My first impressions of Mr. Zhai and his life were pretty heart-wrenching. Mr. Zhai introduced himself as a farmer and told me a little about the work he does. He was shirtless the whole time I was there, displaying a few scars plus a significant oblong bump the size of a pill in the center of his chest. He explained that this is some sort of tablet with his name inscribed on it that his father inserted into his chest when he was very young. This is apparently not a village-wide custom, and in fact I never quite understood why he had this tablet other than it might have something to do with being raise to be a monk. (He said he “graduated” after a few years.) Mr. Zhai also sighed about how old he was, already having a 4-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. I figured him to be around 30. He corrected me, “23.” Almost nonchalantly in conversation he mentioned that his children are actually his 2nd and 4th; the 1st and 3rd passed away. I also learned that the woman he introduced as his mother was actually his step-mother; his real mother passed away when he was 4. He prepared a dinner (his wife went to eat with friends) of spicy fish, scrambled eggs with a weed-like vegetable, and a coarse “red rice.” He explained it was rice from his own field, the kind that Han Chinese don’t like to eat. “They like to turn it into white rice, but I like it better this way.” We also drank this sort of clear whiskey, like Chinese baijiu, but much more foul tasting. Still we toasted with smiles. He then rolled out a mat for me to sleep on that night.

> The second wave of impressions hit me like this: Mr. Zhai said that a few nights ago 4 American women had stayed at his home for two nights. He was encouraging me to stay longer but I explained that I had to move on. He also said that he had seen me on the road earlier when he rode past on his motorcycle. First thought, “Oh that was you?” Second thought, “Oh you have a motorcycle?” Then his younger sister came in with her friends; she had just returned from “the big city” (Damenglong, not actually that big) with some new clothes and was showing them off. She and her friends could speak very clear and standard Mandarin; they study at the new school. I started to realize that Mr. Zhai, a simple farmer, was branching out into the hotel industry. I wondered if the details of his life were mentioned to invoke sympathy and a charitable donation. They may still very well be true, but he might not have otherwise mentioned them.

> These two opposing waves of impressions crashed together to leave me with the following conclusions: I’m glad that Mr. Zhai makes money from tourists. I’m even glad that in a year or two the road through Manpo and the region will likely bring loads of tourists who by that time will be greeted with gaudy hotels, souvenir kitsch, and staged ethnic dances. Sure, there’s a part of me that regrets this quiet rural village being turned into a tourist trap, but that part is the selfish traveler in me. Because life in Manpo and much of Xishuangbanna sucks, a lot. Besides the beautiful natural scenery, there wasn’t one thing there that made me want to stay longer than I had to. I didn’t find it quaint to visit poor villages, see smiling, filthy children, or meet brightly adorned, old women (who were probably only 30) bent under a load of vegetables. Because for me this was a vacation but for them it’s just life, every single day, until they die at around 50 or 60 years old. I’d rather see Manpo as a tourist hellhole instead of an impoverished one. Some might say that tourism will ruin the Bulang culture, and they’re probably right. But if adding a hospital to the village and teaching some basic hygiene (such as, after you cut up that raw chicken be sure to wash the knife before using it on those vegetables) ruins their culture then so be it. Others might say that I’m too set in my ways as a rich westerner to appreciate the simple tranquility of village life, and they would be right too. I couldn’t handle living in Manpo for the rest of my life, but it’s not because they lack a McDonalds. I really don’t know if I could work a field with only my hands and some basic tools, then live for the rest of the year off its yield. But I do know that I really don’t want to. So I was grateful for every swig of my bottled water, every photo taken with my digital camera, and especially for the seat on the bus that took me from Bulangshan (21 miles from Manpo) to the city of Jinghong. And by the way, I paid 10 RMB for the night and two meals at Mr. Zhai’s home.

Shelley will soon be moving to Shandong province where he will be the director (?) of a new English school there. He’s looking for teachers. Watch Sinosplice Jobs for more info soon.

Related: Sinosplice Yunnan pictures (including Xishuang Banna)


04

Sep 2003

Back from Japan

2 of 3 Tazawa brosI’m back from Japan and busy once again. It was a great trip, allowing me to catch up with old friends and have lots of great food and great beer. Unfortunately I was feeling incredibly lazy and I hardly took any pictures. The one day I wanted to take pictures — the wedding day — I got up early and was too groggy and forgot to bring my camera! D’oh! Some digital pics of that are going to be sent my way soon, though.
The wedding was really cool, and struck me as almost entirely like a Western one (and unlike a Chinese one), except that instead of having the religious service in a church, we had it in a Shinto shrine.

The bride was in a beautiful kimono, as were both mothers. The groom wore a hakama (male version of a kimono). The fathers wore dark Western suits. All the rest of the men were in black or blackish suits and light ties (except for me), and all the rest of the women were in nice dresses.

The Shinto rituals were interesting. Fortunately there wasn’t too much of the “sitting on your heels” kind of kneel-sit thing going on, because that hurts me. There was some sake drinking in the ritual. Afterward Okaasan (my Japanese homestay mom) asked me if I had understood the ritual at all. I said no. “Neither did we” was her response.

Then there were bride/groom photos and a group photo, and we all headed over to the hotel for the reception. We had a great meal which was an interesting mix of Japanese and Western food. Obaasan (my Japanese homestay grandma) didn’t want her steak so she gave it to me. Niiiiice.

Beer flowed and flowed, as everyone went around toasting each other. I got tons of omedetou (congratulations) practice in Japanese. Speeches were made intermittently throughout the meal. When mine came around I was already buzzing pretty hard, but I pulled it off pretty well. Everyone seemed to like it. It was kind of hard to write the speech because I couldn’t say anything bad about the groom at the formal reception, but the groom is kind of a crazy, gambling slacker kind of a guy. The content of my speech was basically:

Congratulations to both the bride and the groom, and all present. I lived with the Tazawas for a year and got to know the groom pretty well. When I first came to Japan I had only studied Japanese for one year, and I was completely unprepared for Kansai dialect. The groom helped me with Japanese (read: taught me bad words and funny sentences) and helped me learn about Japan in ways that you can’t learn about in books (He was in his fifth year of college when I met him, and was always skipping classes to drink, gamble, and play guitar in his rock band. His major was English, but he couldn’t speak more than a few words of it. He shattered all my preconceptions about Japanese people.). By fostering this mutual cultural understanding, he acted as a bridge (¼Ü¤±˜ò) between the USA and Japan. Today, in matrimony, another bridge is being forged between the two families. I’m really happy to be here to witness this, and I wish you both the best.

OK, I know the metaphor seems a bit forced, but the Japanese loved it. Shingo (homestay brother) helped me write it, so it wasn’t awkward in Japanese.

Somewhere amidst all the eating and speech-making and even karaoke (yes, in the middle of the reception, instead of a speech, some people sang), the cake was cut and the bride and groom switched into Western style formal wear. Masakazu wore a tux, and Yuki wore a red wedding dress and a nice tiara.

At the end the parents gave speeches. The bride’s father elected to sing a song to his daughter about the bittersweetness of “giving away” one’s daughter to her new husband. The bride was crying pretty hard, as was the bride’s mother. Then the groom’s parents gave speeches, and they were crying too. Obaasan (granny) was crying off and on for almost the whole reception. She was so cute. The groom didn’t cry at all, though.

After the reception there was a casual party for friends at a Chinese restuarant. The food was really good and not at all like real Chinese food. Unfortunately I was still so stuffed that I could hardly eat any of it. There were more speeches. Some of the groom’s friends’ speeches were hilarious.

Masakazu, the groomThe highlight was probably the massive paper-rock-scissors contest. Everyone paid 500 yen to enter, and just went through the brackets, single elimination. I was eliminated in my first match. When one guy won the pot (something like 6000 yen, around $50), the groom challenged him to one more match for all of it. The winner accepted. A big hush fell over the room, and friends of each participant whispered their psychological counsel. There was a big drum roll, and then the groom won it all, scissors over paper. He thought it was so hilarious.

One thing I definitely noticed at the party was the hot Japanese girls. The bride had some hot friends, and the groom’s friends’ girlfriends were pretty hot too. I keep trying to tell myself that Japanese girls only seem hotter than Chinese girls because of the makeup and fashionable clothes, but I have been forced to accept that Japanese girls are just hotter. I don’t think it’s because of genetics, although you definitely see some certain face types in Japan that you don’t see in China, and vice cersa. Oh well. The no make-up innocent look (China’s specialty) is cute too.

After that dinner the party moved on to a bar. It was owned by one of the groom’s friends. Definitely a cool place. The bar was a blast, but my memory of all the details is sketchy. All in all, a very fun day.

I had a great time in Japan with the Tazawas, but unfortunately I was kept busy the whole time and didn’t have time to see my other Japanese friends in the Kyoto area. Oh well… the wedding was the reason for my trip. I just hope my Japanese friends didn’t feel like I was snubbing them.

So that’s my account of the wedding. Classes start at ZUCC on September 8th, and my Chinese classes at ZUT start September 15th. This is gonna be a great semester.


28

Aug 2003

Not so Sino

So I’m now in Japan. All things considered, it was a pretty smooth trip here, although leaving my place and the few days leading up to my departure were pretty hectic. None of that is so important at the moment, though. I’m here in Japan because a good Japanese friend is getting married this Saturday. With the new semester at ZUCC approaching fast, I can’t stay in Japan long this visit, so there’s nothing I can do but enjoy it. And that I am.

Since the purpose of this visit is to attend a wedding, I had three big fears about my return to Japan: (1) that I don’t have the right clothes for the occasion (and clothes in my size are pretty hard to come by anywhere in Asia — I don’t know where Yao Ming shops), (2) that I’d be asked to make a speech, and (3) that my Japanese has gotten worse than I thought (which related also to #2). All of my fears have been realized!!!

My dark gray suit has gotten tight, so I didn’t bring it, electing instead to go with khaki pants, a blue long-sleeved shirt, and a nice tie. Turns out at the formal Japanese wedding ceremony (I’ve never attended one) the suits should be dark. The difference between Japanese wedding and funeral menswear, it seems, is that at funerals the ties are also black, but not at weddings. So I need a black suit, fast. We’re looking. The actual couple are way laid-back about it all, though, so if we can’t actually find the right clothes it’s not a terribly big deal.

My Japanese is still very functional, but I get a bit flustered at times, which is annoying. After a few trips to Japan from China, I’ve stopped responding to Japanese in Chinese (which is really embarrassing), but the Japanese doesn’t come readily enough, and I’m impatient, dammit! I guess the worst thing is that I keep comparing my Japanese level to my Chinese level, and since I can express myself in Chinese with relative ease, it’s frustrating to be so limited again in a language I once considered myself to be quite proficient in. If I were here for a month, though, I’d be OK….

The speech thing is actually no longer a problem. Shingo (ex-Japanese homestay brother) and I had quite a few beers at dinner tonight and decided to write my speech. I told him in Japanese and English (Shingo has spent time in Australia) what I wanted to say, and we worked out the Japanese. It’s fairly short and to the point, yet kinda moving without being at all silly, since the formal occasion does not warrant an ounce of silliness. (Oh, and yes, we did try it out on soberer people before declaring it officially “good.”) Fortunately after the formal ceremony there’s also an informal party. That’s when the fun begins.

The wedding is going to be fine, but I really wish my Japanese was better. There was a really interesting conversation going on last night involving the true nature of Japanese patriotism/nationalism, the question of Japan’s attitude toward China and revisionist history, and the political manga of Kobayashi Yoshinori in particular. The fact that I can even still attempt said discussion is reason for encouragement, but I really wish I could have followed more of what was said — I mean the complex, juicy stuff — and actually added something substantial.

Ah, well. I think I’ll return to the task at hand for the time being: enjoying Japan.


09

Jul 2003

Back

OK, so I’m back. It’s good to be back. Australia was awesome, but I didn’t enjoy being so poor for the last few days. I left the country with $1.20 Australian, and not because I went on a mad shopping spree before I left. But now I’m in China, where money is plentiful again.

As some of you know, countries outside the U.S. don’t use real money. It’s not even green. Instead they use colorful “monopoly money” which can actually be exchanged for goods and services just like real money. Australia’s bills are garishly colored plastic, and dollars are cleverly disguised coins. In China the big bill gets to be pink. I enjoy using this monopoly money and playing the game both in China and Australia, but I just have a lot more of it in China.

Regardless of my monetary limitations, I had a blast in Australia. I really have to thank Ben, without whom my trip would have been impossible. He and his girlfriend Kristy put Wilson and me up in Brisbane and were wonderful hosts, even driving us to Byron Bay (pics of this are on Ben’s site).

I forgot how many people I know here in China. Last night and this morning I was positively barraged with phone calls and SMS messages. It’s good to be back among so many friends (and potential summer employers), although it’s sad to think that I don’t know when I’ll see Ben and Kristy again, or Wilson, for that matter.

I have begun my summer job. It looks like other positions may be in the works, as well as lots of Chinese lessons. I’m getting special tutoring this summer from one of the teachers where I’ll study come fall so I can place higher in my Chinese class and learn more.

OK, that’s all the boring updates you’ll get out of me for now. I just hate seeing my blog stale for so long. And so my focus once again turns to China…


30

Jun 2003

Byron Bay

John and Wilson (Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia)

Australian Beach


12

Feb 2003

Strange Old Man

The other day I was wandering the streets of Kunming, and I came across a strange old man. He was walking slowly, arms raised in front of his chest, clapping a slow and steady rhythm. For no apparent reason.

I gave him a curious smile, and he tilted his head back in acknowledgement, smiling broadly as if to say, “don’t you worry — I’ve got all the random clapping under control.”

So I didn’t worry.


10

Feb 2003

I'm Being Watched…

Although this internet cafe in Kunming is amazingly cheap (1.5 yuan/hour, or $0.19/hour), they have a police force in here! There are these uniformed guards roaming around, looking at people’s screens! Most people in here are playing games, so they’re watching the handful that are actually surfing the net more closely. This is bizarre.

Hey, people in other parts of China — have you seen this before?? I’ve noticed that it’s not only in this internet cafe, but in all of them in this area (I’m in sort of an “internet cafe complex”).

Haha, little do they know that I’m reporting on their efforts at thought control even as they watch me! I’m gonna try to snap a pic on my way out. Let’s hope I make it!


10

Feb 2003

Begone, Stinkypants!

For a short time, I was Mr. Stinkypants. You see, before departing for a several day trek, I left some laundry with the Banna Hotel in Jinghong. When I came back, not having showered for 2-3 days and quite filthy, I picked up my clean laundry (or “clean,” I should say), changed clothes, and gave them the new nasty bundle to wash. I didn’t notice for a few hours that the “clean” jeans I had changed into stunk! I didn’t smell them when I was standing up or walking around, but if I sat down, vile whiffs would reach my nostrils. I guess they had put them in a plastic bag still damp or something. Seriously nasty smelling.

So I complained. They seemed to think it was funny. They wouldn’t take me up on my offer to let them smell my jeans that they had washed (so what if they were on my body at the time). They wouldn’t even give me a refund on just the jeans. Jerks. So then I brought up that despite the fact that their fine establishment offers “24 hour hot water,” every time I turn on the tap I get only drips, if that. Certainly not enough for a shower. They tried to tell me that if I let them know, they can usually take care of it. Well that’s not 24 hour hot water, now, is it?? Stupid Banna Hotel. Customer service has a long way to go in many places of China, even the highly touristed areas.

Anyway, I had to go on wearing my stinkypants for 2 days because my other pair was in the wash. I began to wonder if people I met could smell them. After all, most people in Yunnan are considerably shorter than me, so their noses are closer to my pants than mine is. I was a little nervous about meeting new people. Could they smell my stinkypants? Maybe I should just tackle the issue head-on: “Hi, I’m Stinkypants John. Don’t worry, that vile odor you smell is emanating from my jeans, not me. I’m actually very clean.” Right.

But after a horrible 18-hour bus ride, I’m now in Kunming, and the stinkypants are in the wash. I hope they have what it takes to combat that evil stench. I’m just happy I can’t smell my own pants anymore, though.


08

Feb 2003

Travel Fatigue

I’m in Jinghong (“capital” of Xishuang Banna, southern Yunnan, China). It is the day after an exhausting 40 km or so trek through some gorgeous countryside. Up and down mountains, across rivers, and through lots of minority people’s villages. I plan to go to Kunming tomorrow.

Thing is, I’m just kinda tired. Maybe I’m all travelled out. It’s been over 2 weeks. I know I’m especially tired today because yesterday was so exhausting (hiking 8am – 7pm almost nonstop, and then hitch hiking back and not arriving in Jinghong until 9pm). But maybe I made this trip a little too long. There is still a full life waiting for me back in Hangzhou, and I’m kind of eager to get back to it. Sounds crazy to say I’m tired of all this gorgeous weather and beuatiful scenery, but….

There’s still stuff to see in and around Jinghong. Yet today, I’m here in an internet cafe. I’m not even gonna write on any of the million things I’d like to write about… just not in the mood, really. That will come later. Pictures will come later too, but they’re fewer than might be expected. I’ve had a range of issues with taking pictures recently, which have been introduced to be via a range of people, and have been bouncing around in my head ever since:

Are you traveling to take pictures or to experience? Can you really do both well at the same time? Like it or not, having the camera ready at all times while traveling is a kind of multi-tasking. That camera is using up “memory” that could otherwise be spent more fully absorbing the experience with all one’s senses. This trip I’ve opted to keep the camera packed away a lot of the time, and I’m not really sorry. At least beautiful scenery will patiently wait for me to pull the camera out, most of the time.

Should I really take pictures of all these people? This is an issue that’s more sensitive with the minority groups. A lot of them don’t like you to take pictures of them. In Guilin if they caught you photographing them they’d demand money. Here they just don’t want it, and it seems sincere, and I feel like a have to respect it. I want to respect it. I wonder, though, if these people are (a) camera shy, (b) feel exploited, or (c) have some deeper “cameras steal your soul” kind of reason for not wanting to be photographed.

So I feel kinda torn. Yesterday while passing through a Dai village I saw some of the cutest children I’ve ever seen in my life. I had a great time interacting with them, and they’ll be a part of my China experiences forever. Just wish I could share, sometimes.


02

Feb 2003

On Hold, from Lijiang

I’m sitting in a guesthouse/cafe/internet cafe in Lijiang, doing my e-mail duties. In the background an entire John Denver CD runs its course. In front of me, right outside, Chinese tourists and foreign backpackers stroll the stone streets.

Colorfully dressed Naxi women are a common site here. They’re not just trying to earn a few rmb from the photo-frenzied tourists; this is their way of life, and they live here. They seem not to see all the tourists photographing them, and they don’t return the stares. It’s strange for me to be in such a remote, exotic corner of China and not be stared at, even by a people whose culture is even more different from my own than most mainland Chinese’s.

Lijiang has been really great. I’ll write more on it later. I leave for Xishuang Banna by plane later this afternoon.


27

Jan 2003

On Dali

Dali is a famous tourist spot in Yunnan (southwest China). After arriving in Kunming via airplane, I went straight to Dali by bus, where I am now. Dali is famous for its old-style city (gu cheng), which is rife with shops selling all kinds of items, all with that “South China minority” feel. There are tons of minority groups here in Yunnan, and the Bai are the main group in Dali.

The night I got here, I just checked into a hotel called the MCA Guesthouse (which I later learned is highly acclaimed in the Lonely Planet), walked around a bit, and ate. The next day I took a bike ride down to the lake and went for a few boat rides. Today I went up Cang Mountain, did some hiking, and also went on a little horseback ride.

A few observations:

  1. Dali is often raved about by foreign travellers, but I’m not super impressed. Yes, the weather is amazing — clean, clear, dry air, with barely even a wisp of a cloud daring to appear on the deep blue stage to even hint at rain. It’s cool, but not too cold. The city of Dali is nestled in between the Cang Mountain Range and Erhai Lake. The scenery is really quite nice. But I keep comparing it to Yangshuo — one of the best vacations I’ve ever had — and it just doesn’t quite measure up.
  2. It’s kind of cool how almost all the residents of Dali are in the Bai minority group. This place is not so dominated by the Han Chinese. It seems like in a lot of places, the minority villages are off alone in some mountain range, doing their thing, and then tourist groups regularly parade through and exploit them. It was that way in Thailand, and in Mexico, to some degree, and I expected to see it here, but it’s at least partly different. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Han behind the scenes, making all the big money, but the Bai seem to run tourism here.
  3. The “ski lift” that took me up Cang Shan today was manufactured by “Doppelmayr Ropeway Technology, Austria.” I hope it’s not mean to say so, but that made me feel a little more at ease. We were quite high up.
  4. The old man who took me on the horseback mountain tour today was Bai. He was quite hard to understand, as his Mandarin wasn’t super good, but I learned a lot of interesting things from him. The horses are only usable for 20-30 years, after which they are sold (and probably eaten). Bai people in Dali usually make only 200-800 rmb (US$25-$100) per month. They can live on that. (But it does seem to indicate that there’s some outsiders making the bigger bucks…) Also, the minority people are allowed to have 2 kids, instead of just one.
  5. The shopkeepers in the streets are way less pushy than they have been in other places. Being constantly assaulted by “Hello, hello, banana!” in Yangshuo comes to mind… I wonder if this is a Bai cultural quality. It may also be because the tourist season is not really underway yet. This place is bustling with backpackers at certain times of the year, but I’ve seen relatively few so far.

Overall, I like Dali, but I’m not terribly impressed. So I’m off to Lijiang tomorrow…


28

Dec 2002

Home for Christmas, finally (part 3)

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!)

Christmas Surprise

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.

Happy Holidays.


26

Dec 2002

Home for Christmas, finally (part 2)

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.


25

Dec 2002

Home for Christmas, finally (part 1)

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.



Page 2 of 3123