I have just returned from yet another visit home. I no longer have many reverse culture shock experiences (e.g. the cliché “Americans are so fat” one), but I notice lots of little things. This is how I measure the growing disconnect between modern American culture and me. Here are some of my observations from my last visit:
– Having lived in China for so long, I no longer like sweets as much as I used to. I find myself somewhat repulsed by the ubiquitous sugary goodies, and I have to carefully space the ones I want to enjoy if I want to stomach them.
– I no longer want pizza when I go home. Between Papa John’s, Hello Pizza, and New York Pizza (Jing An Temple), I’ve got all my pizza needs covered in Shanghai, with a satisfactory array of styles and prices. The same goes for pretty much all fast food.
– I have zero interest in American TV anymore. Anything that’s good will come to China on DVD. (Same goes for movies, unless there’s something really new that I want to see.)
– My parents’ ADSL connection was often slower than my connection in Shanghai. I know it’s partly because my parents’ connection isn’t very good, but still… how sad.
– White girls get hotter every time I go home. (Also Hispanic girls, black girls, etc.)
– Life is hard without an ayi. (Oh, China, you have spoiled me rotten.)
– Americans complain about the cost of real estate, but many homes in Florida are actually cheaper than homes in Shanghai.
– The last couple days of my visits are always characterized by frantic shopping trips for friends in China. I’m getting better at remembering all the people I should shop for, and even getting better at figuring out good presents to buy. (More on this soon.)
While I was home, I pretty much only heard mainstream music. Two songs stood out: Ridin’ by Chamillionaire (what a stupid name, but I can’t help loving this song) and SOS by Rihanna (good use of the Tainted Love beat). And what do you know… both can be found through Baidu (here’s how).
Thanks to Dan of Shanghaiist who spread word of my “satellite TV for beer” deal, yesterday I successfully traded a satellite dish with box for 4 cases (96 bottles) of Sol beer. Lenny and John B can verify that the Sol is much tastier than the satellite dish could ever be. Thanks also to Peter for his generous bid.
I’m leaving for the States tomorrow for a two week visit. Will there be any beer left when I get back? Hmmm…
This visit home is a first in a way because of the awesome deal I got on my plane ticket. It’s the first time I have paid less than 8000 rmb for a round-trip plane ticket to Tampa–I only paid 5600 rmb! It’s also the first time I’ll have less than two connecting flights. This is the simplest (best) route I’ve ever taken: Shanghai – Chicago – Tampa. The American Airlines direct flight from Shanghai to Chicago just started.
Anyway, if posts are light, it’s because I’m busy trying to gain 10 pounds in 2 weeks.
From July 4th to July 16th, my girlfriend stayed with my family in a suburb of Tampa, Florida called Brandon. We had a great time, and they all loved her (of course). I’ll probably be writing about that visit a few times, but first I just want to talk about her reaction to American food.
She has to travel to other countries for her job, so my girlfriend is no stranger to Western food. She likes cheese and pizza — she’s not one of those Chinese people that can’t get used to a lot of Western foods. (She’s a Shanghainese girl!) She was excited to be able to discover what kind of food my family ate, as the American homes she had eaten in before had all been families of Chinese immigrants in L.A., and they ate mostly Chinese food. In the end, there were a few things she couldn’t get used to in two weeks’ time.
The first day, my mom gave us beef and barley soup with cold cuts sandwiches for lunch. She loved that stuff. She didn’t know Americans could make such a good soup (good job, mom!).
One night we had a make-up Thanksgiving Dinner, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry orange relish (a family specialty)… the whole thing. I don’t think my girlfriend is too crazy about turkey, and she didn’t get into the gravy much (mmm, gravy…), but she enjoyed that meal. She just felt like it was so much food. She told me my appetite seemed to increase when I got home. Damn right it did!
She liked the chilli my mom made. And she definitely liked my sister Amy’s Asian fusion stir fry. Those two nights, though, when the dinner consisted of mainly one big dish, gave her a mistaken impression about American food. She thought that was the norm because we really didn’t have that many dinners at home. I had to explain to her that (in my family, at least) there are usually at least three or four dishes, but occasionally one dish will dominate the meal.
She enjoyed the meals less on the nights we ate out. The food she got at the Akershus “Princess Palace” at Norway in Disney’s EPCOT Center wasn’t that great. My food was good, though. What made that place amusing was the five Disney princesses that came out and chatted with you and took pictures while you ate. The five princesses of the day were Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Sleeping Beauty, and Belle. Sitting there, I realized that the dining epxerience was meant for five-year-old girls. Whatever, though — Jasmine was hot!
We learned from our experience at Busch Gardens that meal portions at the fast food-type restaurants are way too big, and we were better off sharing one entree and getting a few side dishes. That worked well for lunch at SeaWorld. The pasta dish she ordered at Sharks Underwater Grill was a little rich, and the immensity of the appetizer shocked her. The jumbo shrimp I had there were the best shrimp I’ve had in a looong time, though. Chinese restaurants take great pride in having only the freshest seafood, but why is it so rare for me to eat such tasty and succulent shrimp in China for a reasonable price? OK, rambling.
The night we made dumplings (饺子) dinner was good, of course. We made so many we had to freeze half of them. (You guys better remember to eat those!) Unfortunately I earned extreme contempt from my girlfriend for my creative 包ing efforts. I tried all kinds of cool new 包 techniques. No one was impressed. Oh well, they still taste the same when they look ugly.
Oh, and fresh, crisp American corn on the cob was well appreciated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get her to smother it with butter (the way it should be eaten).
12 nights of dinners, and I’m having trouble recalling many of them. Anyway, my girlfriend wasn’t crazy about stuff with rich creamy or buttery sauces, but she liked most stuff. The one meal she really couldn’t stomach, though, was one of my favorite meals of the entire visit. It was the bagel brunch.
The morning of the 16th my mom went and bought fresh-basked New York-style bagels at Brandon Bagel. According to my neighbor, it is the only source for delicious authentic bagels in Brandon. So, with my neighbor, my mom got the everything bagels, the pumpernickel bagels, the salt bagels, the honey wheat bagels, etc. They got cream cheese with chives, veggie cream cheese, cream cheese with lox, and some kind of cinnamon cream cheese. We also had fresh sliced tomatoes and onions for additional toppings. I was in heaven. Normally I have little appetitite in the morning so I eat only one bagel for breakfast, but I had three bagels (six different halves) that morning.
But my poor girlfriend didn’t like them. She felt the bagel bread was too dense and the cream cheese was just too much for a breakfast item. I pity her. Thinking back, though, I used to be unable to stomach a lot of fried Chinese breakfast items, like 煎饺.
So that’s the end of that report. I imagine my family will be a little surprised to realize that the bagel brunch was my girlfriend’s least favorite meal, as she was very polite and ate an entire half bagel before begging off. Oh well. That just left more for the bagel lovers. (And I did eat her second bagel: everything bagel with chives cream cheese, tomato, and onion! Yummm…)
I am finally back in Shanghai today. It has been a very full past two weeks.
I like the Seoul airport. It has good food, and a nice internet cafe (or “Internet Plaza,” as they call it) for US$3 per hour. I used that one on the way to the USA, but this time on the way back my girlfriend and I found the transit lounge (it’s up one floor), which offers free internet access. Nice computers, too.
I also experienced Korea’s most beloved of televised competitions: the Starcraft competition. Pretty crazy. I remember when I first arrived in China in 2000 Starcraft was still pretty popular, but I don’t see it on many screens in the wangba these days (although, admittedly, I don’t find myself in Chinese wangba much anymore). China has moved onto other games, like WoW (speaking of which, check this ad out). Korea is not nearly as fickle as China; it has remained steadfast in its obsession despite the fact that Starcraft is already 7 years old.
I have always liked Starcraft, and I still play a round from time to time. I think it’s my favorite computer game ever. But I still don’t think I would cry on national television if I lost a Starcraft competition. I guess I just don’t understand Korea.
My girlfriend and I have been staying with my parents here in Tampa since the 4th of July. My family has been very generous and hospitable to her during that time. Naturally, her response was, “我觉得不好意思.” Then she asked me how to say 不好意思 in English.
I usually find 不好意思 pretty easy to translate, as it can often correspond to “sorry” or “excuse me” in English. When you’re a little late to a meeting, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you eat the last cookie and then somone else wants one, you can say 不好意思 (sorry). When you bump someone on the subway, you can say 不好意思 (sorry).
But in this case, my girlfriend’s usage was meant to express something like, “your kindness is too much,” or “you’re being so nice that it makes me feel too indebted.” And she wanted me to come up with one easy word or phrase to translate. When I couldn’t, and I asked for help from my sister, and she couldn’t either, my girlfriend just laughed: “you Americans never feel 不好意思!”
Pei sei is apparently a Taiwanese coinage also meaning 不好意思. According to my source, by speaking fast, the Taiwanese ran the 4 syllables together so much that they became two: pei sei. I thought that was kinda of interesting.
I should be arriving in Tampa when it’s this time there. 5:30am Eastern Standard Time, not 5:30am China Time, that is. (Sorry you have to come pick me up so early, dad!)
It’s the 4th of July. Ever since living in China (and especially since having stayed at ZUCC, unofficial random meaningless fireworks capital of Zhejiang), fireworks are about as special to me as chopsticks. They’re really no big deal at all for me. And I’m normally not one to reflect much upon the meaning of “freedom” or independence from colonial rule on this day.
Still, it’s so nice to be back in a country where I can access any website I wish. Right before leaving China, there was a surge in blockings — TypePad blogs were reblocked, Blogsome (which I had recommended to potential China bloggers before) blogs were blocked, and I was having a lot of trouble accessing Micah’s blog. It seems like the shadow of the Great Firewall is getting longer and darker. (I’ll update the CBL to reflect these new blockings soon.)
As you read this, I am already onboard an airplane with my girlfriend bound for the USA. We left Pudong International Airport around 1pm today, flew to Seoul, and are currently bound for L.A.
Now, I’m not blogging from first class or anything so fancy-pants bourgeoise as all that. I’m using WordPress’s scheduled posting feature. It’s pretty cool! I decided I didn’t want to waste precious time at home blogging, so I put up some posts ahead of time so that my site doesn’t go un-updated for all that time.
In L.A. we have a five-hour layover before flying to Tampa, so I’m meeting up for dinner with two friends I know from China who live in L.A. One of them is none other than the infamous “Da Xiangchang.” He posts a lot of over-the-top comments here (and a lot of good ones as well), but before any of that we were friends in China. I haven’t seen him for a while.
While I’m in the States I won’t be working on my website much, but I hopefully will be doing some work on Adopt a Blog. My original page for it is being combined with the work that some other people have contributed this year and it will all soon be online at a new location. I finally found an overseas sponsor! I’ll have to save the official announcement for when it’s actually done, though.
The interview appointment time was 8:30am. We were both nervous, worried we’d forget something, worried all the work would be for nothing. Here is our checklist of things to take:
– The four forms, two with attached photos
– The receipt for the 830 rmb application fee
– Her passport, national ID card, and official employee identification
– The “proof of intent to return to China dossier”
In addition, I had to take my bookbag so that she could give me her purse, cell phone, and watch before going in. You’re not allowed to take in bags, cell phones, or cameras, and the less metal you’ve got on your body, the simpler it is for you when you go in.
We got to the Isetan building on Nanjing Xi Road at about 8:10am. The building was not officially open, but one of the side entrances was. It had this sign in front of it:
Leading up to the sign (see it at the left?) was a really long line:
It didn’t take long to figure out how the system worked. The “appointment times” did not need to be kept at all. They were simply a means of distributing applicants throughout the day. Those with an appointment at 8:00am arrived the earliest and got in line. Whether they had their actual interview at 8:00am was irrelevant.
Everyone had to wait in line outside because there were too many people to wait inside. It wouldn’t be worth the Consulate’s time to argue with each person that they’d arrived too early, so they simply make all applicants wait outside and come in on first come first serve basis. Who comes first is indirectly controlled by the Consulate through appointment time. You have to wait in line outside because without the special card that you receive from the guy at the head of the line, you can’t get into the Consulate.
We waited in line from 8:15 am until 10:00 am. Fortunately it wasn’t too hot.
We were at the front of the next group to be admitted, so my girlfriend didn’t have to wait in the second line outside the Consulate on the 8th floor. It was there that I said goodbye and wished her luck (I wasn’t allowed to accompany her). Since she had submitted her form online and had the barcode already on her form, she was admitted immediately.
While I went upstairs to the movie theater lobby to study for my exam, my girlfriend was waiting in yet another line inside the Consulate. It was a pretty nerve-racking wait, but the longer I waited, the surer I was that she had gotten it. Applicants that pass the interview are then passed on to the visa issuing line, which obviously takes even longer. She came out at 12:15 pm.
I hadn’t gotten much studying done while I was waiting. Deprived of her cell phone, my girlfriend didn’t have a way to locate me when she came out, so I was waiting near the exit almost the whole time. As soon as I saw her come out, I did the “did you get it?” face and hand gestures. She tried to pretend to be dejected, but she couldn’t help smiling.
I asked her about the interview. I had been told it could be in Chinese if the applicant prefers. She said the guy spoke to her in English, but let her reply in Chinese. (Sounds kinda lazy.) What was she asked? Basically, he wanted to know how she met me, how long we’d been together, and if we were engaged yet. Then he wanted to see the documents related to her job. Aside from that, he wasn’t interested in any of the “proof” we had meticulously compiled. I think the multiple trips to the United States she has already made for her job was all the proof he really needed to see.
She also said that it seemed like most of the applicants were being granted visas. She had heard on the inside that it’s way easier to get a visa now than it was six months ago.
So, was she a shoo-in all along? I still honestly don’t know. I do know that her job (which allowed her to make previous trips to the USA) counted for a lot. I’m not sorry we went to all the trouble of preparing all those documents — it made it all the sweeter when she was granted the visa.
We already bought our plane tickets. Right now all we have to worry about is a fun two-week itinerary for Florida in July.
Last Thursday was my girlfriend’s appointment with a State Department official here in Shanghai about getting a tourist visa to the United States. Fortunately, she got it. For the benefit of others who might be in a similar situation, I’ll describe the process we went through.
My girlfriend had a pretty big advantage from the start: she has been to the United States quite a few times on business. Every time it was to L.A. for a few days. The fact that she has never run off and become an underpaid dishwasher when she had the chance is a big plus.
Still, that’s far from a guarantee. Preparing for this interview in the past few months I’ve heard quite a few horror stories. It seems nothing guarantees a visa.
But let me start from the beginning.
When we decided we wanted to try for a visa, we went straight to the Visa Services page of the US Consulate in Shanghai’s webpage. The page is available in both English and in Chinese, but it’s not well organized at all. It’s downright confusing. After reading through the different sections several times, we got the gist of what we needed to do:
Obviously, Chinese citizens will need a personal passport. There is a fairly simple application procedure to get one issued by the Chinese government.
Buy a CITIC Industrial Bank pre-paid PIN card for 54 rmb, good for a measly 12 minutes of titillating conversation with the Visa Information Call Center.
Use the card to schedule a visa interview appointment with the US Consulate. Expect the interview to be about a month from when you call.
In the meantime you have some things to get together. Download the four forms (DS-156 English, DS-156 Chinese, DS-157 English, DS-157 Chinese) you need from the Visa Services page in PDF form. To make the process go as smoothly as possible at the Consulate, the four forms should be filled out in three different ways:
DS-156 English: Fill it out online and submit it to the system. It will process the form, generate an image file with a bar code, and insert it all into a handy PDF file. Download this PDF file right away. (If you wait too long it’ll expire and go away and you’ll have to do it all over again.) Print it out. Don’t forget to sign it.
DS-157 English: Download to your computer, open (Adobe Acrobat required), and fill out. Save and print out. Don’t forget to fill in the Chinese name by hand (the form doesn’t support Chinese) and to sign it.
DS-156 Chinese and DS-157 Chinese: Print out and fill out by hand. The PDF form doesn’t support Chinese input yet.
Note that if you don’t have a printer, you may have a little trouble finding a place to print it for you that (1) has Adobe Acrobat installed, and (2) can print out a quality copy. I ended up at the Portman Ritz-Carlton on Nanjing Xi Road paying an outrageous 10 rmb per page because I had already failed at about five print shops. Most didn’t have Adobe Acrobat and couldn’t even download it because they had no internet connection. I’m not sure if they would have been willing to install it if I had thought to bring the install file. The one shop that was able to print out the form produced such poor quality that I couldn’t use it.
Attach a 2 inch by 2 inch passport photograph to both the DS-156 English form and the DS-156 Chinese form.
“Each applicant must pay a non-refundable 830 rmb application fee at an authorized branch of the CITIC Industrial Bank before coming to apply at the Consular Section.”
You will also need to get together proof of employment. “Every applicant must be able to prove that he or she works in and/or is a resident of our Shanghai consular district, which includes the Shanghai Municipality, and the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang.”
Finally, the really important extra credit: “In addition to the above requirements, you are advised to present documentation and other evidence establishing social, economic, and other ties that would compel your departure from the United States after a temporary and lawful stay.“
It’s pretty much impossible to prove that you’ll come back, but you’ve got to give it your best. The way I saw it, we had to demonstrate three things:
Our relationship was real.
My girlfriend had good reason to return to Shanghai.
I had good reason to return to Shanghai (i.e. the two of us hadn’t decided to go live in the USA).
In order to “prove” these three points, we put together a big thick file:
With all that information, good organization was essential. The visa officer wouldn’t have long to do the interview, and he’s certainly not going to sift through a big mess of loose papers. The file contained the following:
0. Handy table of contents, in both English and Chinese.
1. Letter of Invitation from me on behalf of the Pasden family, and three pictures: (1) the two of us, (2) her with my sister Amy, (3) my family picture (“proving” that the girl in picture #2 was, in fact, my sister).
2. My girlfriend’s proof of employment, proof of decent income, and employer’s written permission to make a short trip to the United States.
3. Proof of her Shanghai home ownership and mortgage.
4. Proof of her car ownership and driver’s license.
5. Proof of her prior trips to the United States and other Western countries in the form of visa photocopies.
6. Proof of her financial security in Shanghai (certificate of deposit).
7. Proof of her ongoing pursuit of higher education.
8. Proof of my long-term residence in China (photocopies of passport, visas, work permit).
9. Proof of my residence in Shanghai (lease lasting through the end of 2005).
10. Proof of my financial security in Shanghai (account statement).
11. Proof of my Chinese ability (HSK certificate).
12. Letter from the administration attesting that I am currently finalizing enrollment in a graduate program in Applied Linguistics at East China Normal University.
Whew! That’s a big heap of information! The thing is, none of it guarantees anything. In fact, we knew from the beginning that the visa officer would probably not look at much of it at all. But we still had to take it to strengthen our case. So with all that going for us, we still didn’t feel confident going into the interview.
P.S. I declare this entry the listiest Sinosplice entry ever!
Note: This is my last entry published with Movable Type. I should have the new WordPress blog up in the next 24 hours, after which comments will be back! The weblog URL will not change, but the RSS URL will change.
This Thursday a Chinese girl will have an interview for a visa to visit the United States. She will explain to you that she’s my girlfriend, and she would just like to visit my family with me in Florida this summer. It’s the truth. She’ll have a mountain of evidence as to why both she and I plan to stay in Shanghai. It’s all legit. My entrance exam for grad school at East China Normal University here in Shanghai is this Friday.
Just on the off chance that you or your friends read this blog, I’d just like to let you know that I have years of entries full of reasons as to why I’ll be staying in Shanghai. “To Stay” strikes me as particularly relevant. However, my girlfriend can’t take my website in with her.
So, State Department person… just on the off chance that you see this before her interview, please don’t be cruel.
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….
I’ve been home for about a week now. I’ve made some observations in that amount of time:
1. Clean air is good. Living in China, you get used to dirty air. But I’m just going to have to go out on a limb here and say it: I think the clean air here is better. It’s good to breathe, and it’s nice to be able to see into the distance without that distortion haze. The perfect Florida weather is a plus, too.
2. American food is good. This includes even Taco Bell. Perhaps especially Taco Bell. Those chicken quesadillas are pretty amazing for $1.99. Had spaghetti for dinner tonight. Awesome. Cheesecake the other day. Incredible. Steak dinner coming soon. Yes. I’m fatter than I’ve ever been and loving it. Mmmmm….
3. American squirrels are cuter. They’re much more abundant here, too. It’s so funny to see Chinese people go gaga over a squirrel sighting, and Chinese squirrels are not even cute! The squirrels here are cute. We’re even immune to the cuteness already. Plus they dance. Look at that guy go!
4. Liquor is expensive here. 89rmb (US$11) for a bottle of Absolut Vodka at the Metro in Hangzhou. That same bottle is $18 here. D’oh!
5. Driving fast is really fun. I don’t remember enjoying driving this much last time I was home. I hope I don’t get a ticket.
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.
It’s interesting, that being in China instead of the USA, I feel much safer. Walking the streets at night is not scary at all. And, of course, I’m removed from the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks on American soil. And yet, in the USA, I don’t get e-mails like this one, from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai:
> There is a continuing threat of terrorist actions, which may target civilians and include suicide operations. This worldwide caution expires on October 31, 2002. The u.s. government has continued to receive credible indications that extremist groups and individuals are planning additional terrorist actions against u.s. interests. Such actions may be imminent and include suicide operations. We remind American citizens to remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and to exercise caution. Terrorist groups do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. Attacks on places of worship and schools, and the murder of American citizens demonstrate that as security is increased at official u.s. facilities, terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets. These may include facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor recreation events. Americans should increase their security awareness when they are at such locations, avoid them, or switch to other locations where Americans in large numbers generally do not congregate.
> American citizens may be targeted for kidnapping or assassination. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. These facilities may temporarily close or suspend public services from time to time to review their security posture and ensure its adequacy. In those instances, u.s. embassies and consulates will make every effort to provide emergency services to American citizens.
No, the journal is not dead. I know, I took a long break. But basically, nothing very related to life in China happened while I was home in the USA for the month of July. (I did seem to gain about 10 pounds in that month, though.) And then I was in Japan August 2nd – 24th. So I just got back a few days ago, and I’m slowly reorganizing. I have time; classes don’t start until the 16th of September. So far I haven’t really added much about my former life in Japan, but I’m going to put some of that stuff online, and the story of my hectic three weeks in Japan this month is coming very soon… Stay tuned!