Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The China I Dreamed Of

When I was younger, I used to close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to live in China. Using Google Images to look at pictures simply wasn't on my mind ( did it even exist in the mid-90's?)-- my imagination, however, was active. In my mind, I could see dirt roads, brick and concrete buildings, children playing in the streets, and the sun-- I very distinctly felt the sunlight on my skin. I imagined a place where life could slow down, a place where even the hands on the clock were permitted to take a break. Calm, quiet, serene. This was the way in which I allowed myself to relax. 
As I got older, I stopped taking the time to find my quiet place. You can only imagine how surprised I was, then, when I found myself in the middle of a beautiful area of China that distinctly resembled my dreamland. Walking down streets I had never physically been to before, a feeling of nostalgia began to stir inside of me. 

This kind of nostalgia, the kind I experienced, is the kind you get when you visit a friend and they are baking something that smells exactly like your grandma's kitchen always smelled, and the smell overwhelms you with memories. This is the kind of nostalgia you get when you randomly hear a song on the radio that, "takes you back" to a point in your younger days when you were surrounded by friends and laughing unreasonably hard over something trivial. This is that nostalgic feeling that comes when reviewing a lifetime of experiences with distinct satisfaction and a hint of joy.

Two very wonderful friends of mine took me on a walking tour of what used to be downtown Dongguan. It was there that I found the China I used to dream of:   

Oh Yeah, I be missin' some thangs!

 It is currently 4:57 AM, on Thursday, October 30th (in China!). Back in the states, these sleepless nights ain't no thang! Here in China, right now, well, tonight is round two for this insomniac. And that's alright, because I am up for a reason (amen, amen, amen!). However, I am a creature of habit, and on nights like this one, I have a routine that usually makes the droopy eye-lids less interesting to my thought process. There are some thangs I do be missin:

 3:30 AM, bored with netflix, I throw a sweat-shirt over my PJ's and stumble quietly down the stair-case (so as not to wake up the sleepers), and out the front door (carefully, so as not to let the kitties out). I get in my car (oh, how Yvette purrs), and shift her happily down the 6th avenue frontage road.

The mountains frame the scene; the stars illuminate a deep, rich sky; the air is crisp, fresh with the moisture that peaks in the hours between night and morning.

         I miss the KS.
Shuffle across the deserted parking lot, pass the self check-out. The night crew knows my face, my pajamas, the way I walk. They no longer turn with curiosity toward the movement weaving in and out of their peripherals; my presence has become a natural part of their nightly routine.

         Nothing can stand in my way. B&J's? Chunky Monkey (truly sent from heaven). Talenti? Coconut, or Cherry Cordial (hello Joy, please meet my taste-buds. Taste-buds, this is Joy). HD Five? Green Tea (refreshing, like a bridge over troubled water! Oh wait...).

That's right everyone, I'm talking about ice cream.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Nerd Alert!

Warning: the following information may not be suitable for anyone at all. Please don't judge me.

Exactly how terrible is it that I spent the majority of my day off inside of the Dongguan Library? Tucked into the "foreign books" section, reading Haruki Murakami's, After Dark-- a very complex, very intense story, originally written in Japanese, translated (with much care), into English, and discovered among a bevy of other bizarre classics. The pages and spine of the book were in such fine condition, I can only assume it had never been cracked before. Fear not, Mr. Murakami, I'm coming to mark the pages of this story with the prints and bends of my adoration.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Decontamination; The Chinese Physical

     Today I had to go to the hospital for a “physical.” As part of the application for my work Visa (the one that enables me to stay in the country, now that I have entered it), the P.R.C wants to know that I am not contaminated—by their own standards, of course. I met the assigned EF local employee, at the school, and he drove me to the hospital.

     Coming from American, where there is a guaranteed hour wait (minimum) in any health facility(unless you've been shot in your groin), I mentally prepared myself for a long day of waiting. When we arrived at the hospital however, there was paperwork, more paperwork, more paperwork, more paperwork, and then shuffling from room to room. No wait. My mind went into relax mode, until: 

      I was shown to a room, where a small man asked me to take my bra off. “What?!” He pointed to a curtain for me to go behind, then pointed to an X-ray machine. Jesus. I did as he instructed and then faced the machine. “closer.” He said, pushing the small of my back slightly. I stood closer to the black box looming at my boobs. “closer.” He said it again, and I moved closer again. But it wasn't enough “closer!” he pushed me into the machine.  He moved my neck and my arms around, and I stood limply, not wanting to resist lest the struggle prolong the process.  “Now, hold your breath!” He left the room. Awkward silence. Nothing happened.  

     I heard his voice shoot through a speaker in the room, “No! take deep breath. Bigger! Now hold!!!!!” Seconds went by before he returned. “Bra” he points to the changing curtain. I re-clothe and exit the room, thinking the ordeal is over. I was wrong. 

    Another hallway, some stairs. A woman demands my arm through a plastic hole in the wall. I stick my arm through and wait, on the other side while she draws blood.  Then an eye exam which I failed (certainly). They weighed me, and measured me, and squinted at me (or are they). Why are you giving me an ultra sound, I told you I’m not pregnant!? My word is my bond woman, stop rubbing that cold shit on my belly! But she doesn't understand.

       Things seemed to be winding down. Then I was directed to a room with a curtain for a door and inside, only a bed. On the bed there were several small wires (with suction cups on the ends), and long, thick, wires (with metal clamps on the ends). Are we jumping a car in here? A woman came in and pointed at the bed.  Oh no. She kept pointing. You can't "jump" people lady! Still pointing. I laid down. She pulled my pants from around my ankles, rubbed something brown on my skin and then put one clamp around each leg. She repeated the process on my wrists. She pulled up my shirt, lifted my bra, and placed the suction cups along the bottom of my chest. The cups pulled at my skin, which is not used to such abrasive contact. The room was quiet. 

       There were no beeps or clicks, no sputtering lights or electric shocks. I waited. There's nothing worse than silence. She didn't talk, and from my reclined position on the bed I couldn't see what she was doing. The air grew still and my heart slowed. When does the test begin? What's happening? It's cold in here! I’m waiting, waiting. 

     What are the Chinese people doing?! I’ll tell you what, they are trying to scare foreign devils. I’m 90% convinced that machine didn't do a damn thing, and she left me strapped onto it for several moments (worthy of the sweat they inspired). She was striking the fear of the P.R.C into me. Eventually she just took the clamps off and had me leave. Unless it was a brain washing tactic, I don’t think that mechanism had any medical purpose. Thanks China.

      The final task, is one that everyone must perform at some point in their life: hey everyone, it's time to pee in the plastic cup please! Now, I'd like everyone to consider how difficult it is to pee on command (especially in a humid environment where you sweat your fluids out). Next, I'll ask you to consider how difficult it is to aim when peeing into a tiny, little, plastic, testing cup (more applicable to women, men have it so good). Finally, I'm going to remind all of you, that even under such duress, you have a regular, western toilet (urinal, whatever), with which you are familiar, to use while performing this task. 

     I did not. 

     In China, they use the Eastern toilet, the squatting-hole! Yes, these medical experts expected me to squat over a hole in the ground, aim accurately, and pee into the plastic cup (which, by the way, was smaller than the ones we use in the US).

 I’d like to take a moment to thank Lisa, for teaching me the proper technique when performing the squat position. In addition, I'd like to thank Kim, for our lovely camping trip to the Springs, during which time I obtained much practice squatting while urinating. Without you, I would not be where I am today. 

Even Perverts Here are Nice

      Being in China, at least in Dongguan, is very peaceful. The Chinese have an entirely different way of life than Americans-- the pace everyone goes at here is so calm. In the morning, children come out and play, even before school. Older men can be seen exercising at small parks built into the Garden. There are designated areas, outside but still in the garden, with tables where friends play games with one another. Women stand outside talking to each other with their babies in their arms. In the afternoon, lunch breaks are usually 1.5 hours long; this gives everyone time to stop and nap. Are you hearing this, they have designated nap time!? In the evenings, the old-folks get together and dance outside of the garden gates; this is also a form of exercise as well as a cultural tradition. There is much time and recognition given to the physical and mental needs of human beings. Here, in Nancheng, health and prosperity are given great weight in daily routines. 

      Further, I would say that the vast majority of the Chinese people I have met here, are the sweetest-natured people. The concept of crime (if it exists) is so grossly different than what crime is in the U.S.A. Being in China is like growing up in the 1950's in Iowa -- children out alone after dark, women out alone after dark. What is going on here?

     I can walk home after work, which is a good 20 minute walk down a “main road,” and not have to worry about my personal safety at all. Alright, I did this on the rugged streets of Denver as well, but not without hardening my gaze and shifting my walk. The hard-boiled appearance required when you are walking around, on your own, after dark, in most big cities in the U.S. (the one's that I've lived in anyway), doesn't exist here. Being female and alone is suddenly no big deal. The biggest concern I've even had is simply being naive about prices when bartering for an item with a merchant. How ridiculous is it, that this is my greatest dilemma? What is mace again?

     With all this information in mind, I find it only natural to want to tell you about my one "close encounter" (even perverts here are nice):

     Today I ventured out from my apartment and walked the main road from the Nancheng district (where I live), to the Dongcheng district. I’d quantify that distance for you, but I have no idea how to. City blocks are gigantic here, and comparing them to a US city block makes no sense to my brain. Miles… how many miles did I walk? From the city to the mountain! Lets go with a LONG walk. Anyway, on the way to Dongcheng, a man on his bike (older), started to ride along next to me and talk. 

    At first, I tried to tell him, in Mandarin, that I couldn't understand what he was saying. Then I realized he was speaking Cantonese. Oh Jesus, Thank you! I said, "hello" in Cantonese and fumbled through a few lines. Oh wow, My Cantonese sucks. I think in an hour of talking I understood maybe three sentences. But the take-away detail from the previous sentence is that there was an hour of talking between this gentleman and myself. How is this possible, you may ask yourself?

      For the first few minutes he rode slowly along next to me. After about ten minutes, he indicated to me that I should get on the back seat of his bike (me laughing and shaking my head, "no"). After mild persistence on my end, he dismounted to walk along next to me. We went around blocks, he pointing and saying the name of each building. Here is a library. Now a community center. Then a business structure. 

     After a while he pointed to the sun and covered his head. He pointed to a thick patch of trees in the park, and started to lift his bike over the park wall as an indication that he wanted to go to the shady place(no pun intended). I had to rationalize through his set of hand gestures. Yes it was bright outside, but the weather here is insane, all things considered, it wasn't that hot. However, the Chinese people do value pale skin, and getting burned or tan is considered low class (it means you work outside, and is the physical manifestation of being working class). 

      I shook my head, again telling him, "no." He longingly looked at the trees, but pulled his bike off the wall and continued to walk with me. We went for a few more blocks, he still talking, and myself occasionally insisting that I did not understand him. When we passed by an open area of grass (much more public), he walked over to a shady patch and sat down. I followed.  

     Do you have a shiver yet, dear reader? I did :D. As we sat in the shade, he leaned over and rested his elbow on my leg. Yuh. That was his great move! He said in Chinese, "I really like American women. I love America." Then he looked at me with an expression I would expect from my cat when he is trying to seduce an extra meal out of me. 

      In the US, I'd have laughed at a man who made his signature move in this manner. However, I know that in China, the culture doesn't allow for physical contact.  Furthermore, men should never approach women this way. This knowledge did not stop from me from laughing my ass off as I stood up, asked to take his picture, and then started to walk away, calling, "bye-bye." All the while, he was panicking behind me. Poor guy. Non-verbal communication is a bitch.

Everybody Loves Pictures (in no particular order)!

 Street Market
This is the market directly across from my garden.

 Route 66
The greatest coffee shop ever! First of all, the barista here is not only beautiful, but she makes better coffee than I've found in most places in Denver (I'd attempt to spell her name but I would mess it up). Two thumbs up! Also, can see why I love it ?

 My Bay Window
Thank you to everyone for helping me decorate my room. Special thanks to Sara, Nikki, Lauren &Hazel.

 Peanut Butter
This one is for Grandma. Your wisdom is a constant blessing to me. 

 The Library!
Yes, even though I can't read anything in here, as a literature major (and lover), even just knowing where the library is brings me joy. I know some of the folks from MSU Denver will understand. 

I'll give you three guesses, but you only need one!

 The Jesus Guitar
How it came to me? Through the wardrobe in the spare-room (literally)! I can therefore only assume it's from Aslan. Thank you Jesus!

You better believe they taste exactly the same in China. 

 The Fridge
Hey Ma, I finally have a fridge!

 Inside the Garden
This is a walking path inside of my Garden. Isn't it lovely?

 The Sky
The view of the sky, taken from the walking path. So Exotic!


 The Garden
This is the view of the back of my garden, from my laundry room. 


No jet lag, no culture shock, are you sure this is China?!

         Let’s take a moment to discuss shopping and eating in China. Street Markets are everywhere. In every alleyway, along every main street, even in front of giant and glorious malls (the Chinese are fearless). The food in street markets is fairly self-explanatory; everyone sells grapes, apples, etc. These words, the noun-words, are things I cannot say in Mandarin. However, my stomach tells my eye-ball, “yes, thank you.” So I know I can trust them. Check plus life!

     On the flip side, there are shapes and sizes that I do not know; I can’t recognize them and am unsure what to do with them. This prickly object, that could be a fruit (question mark), and is larger than my face (huge question mark), looks dangerous. Plus it’s green; doesn't that mean it’s not ripe yet? Raw!? Shit. To cook foreign looking objects, or not to cook foreign looking objects? That is the question! Warning: eating raw or uncooked may cause death by strange illness. Double shit. Is this going to kill me?!

      OK. I can shop street markets for all kinds of things, fruits, vegetables, rice, bla bla bla. But when it comes to branching out, I am nervous. Without google (why do I still not have internet), I can’t translate the words, “can I consume the flesh of this fruit while it is uncooked?” from English to Chinese. RAWR, says Katy’s stomach!

     Alright, I'll move on for now. How about protein? White devil want beef! The meat counter in a street market? Slabs of unmarked animal lying in the open air on a table (for God knows how long), being jabbed by fingers that are prodding for resilience (Lord knows how many fingers), waiting for one word: “purchase!” No Criticism to the locals; they have stomachs lined with steal, and I am in awe of them. I however, am bred in captivity, which means my meat must be very "clean" and "safe," or I’ll die. To break in stomach lining week one, or not to break in stomach lining week one? Now that is the question!

     So then, what I can’t get at street market I will have to shop for in a store. Something in Chinese-- can’t read. Something else in Chinese, still can’t read… AHA! Walmart?! Since when does Walmart sell eels and stingrays? Oh, by the way, they are alive. Damn China. You are too good to be true. I can grab cocoa puffs and pet the wildlife? Sea World has nothing on this. OK, OK. But seriously, I want protein. Maybe some dried meat (please carry beef jerky)?

     Biggest dilemma ever: the packages with English writing are few and far between, and they are meant for the white devil, so naturally, I think it's a trap. Plus I really want the full Chinese experience. So I want the package with all Chinese writing. But what is inside?

     In the end, I bought a packet of hotpot mix that features a man’s steaming face on the front. It must be spicy-- hotter than the white devil for certain.  If I mix it with the rice, while I’m cooking the rice, won’t it make rice-a-roni? The San Francisco treat? No… no it won't. It actually makes this: 

Lonely, But Not Sad

For starters, hello from China! I've arrived! I've only been here for a day and a half, and I already have so much to say, I don’t even know where to start.  Perhaps the very beginning:

       My flight from Austin (bye family!), to Houston was a grand total of 23 minutes in the air. It bordered on pathetic. The four hour layover in Houston was also kind of pathetic, but the isolation freed my mind from the mania of preparing to move (which clogs out all potential excitement within the business required).  Boarding the plane was the first moment—the one where my emotions started to catch up with my knowledge. I’m moving to another country. At the next airport, there might not be any English. Shit.

       51K. That was my seat number. How on earth could there possibly be 51 rows in one airplane? Anyone who has ever taken an international flight would have known that 51 isn't even halfway down the plane. I, however, am ignorant.  Everyone boarding the plane was Asian. Push, push, push. I've never felt quite so gawky and large.. quite so in the way. 51. 51. 51. K. Please be a window seat, dear baby Jesus, please! But it wasn't a window seat, it was the middle.

       And here, I’d like to give my first shout out to a man named Tony. Seated in the isle chair, “I think I’m next to you.” I pointed and he got up to let me in. Flying is always an adventure. Whether you are crammed between a mom and her child or next to that old man that falls asleep on you and snores constantly, there is always something to hold onto that makes landing just that little bit more awesome.

Sitting next to Tony was like sitting next to a best friend. First of all, this guy legitimately had my back (how many strangers can you say that about? Exactly!).  If it weren't for Tony, I would never have made it through customs --it may be the job of the stewardess to announce and hand out cards for entry into China, but if you sleep through that announcement, it sure as hell isn't her job to wake you up and tell you. Tony knew though. The second I was done drooling on myself he was all over that situation.  Ha, I would have blissfully gotten off the plane and been stuck, forever, at an airport in Beijing, not allowed to board my next plane, and with no way to contact anyone. Tony, you’re the man.

So, the airport at Beijing is huge.  And when I say huge, I mean, pick the biggest airport in American and then X4 that, at least. This place was gigantic. I was lost and white, with zero Mandarin skills and suffering minor fuzziness of the brain (bound to happen after 14 hours of sleep on the previous flight). This place was like visiting OZ-- with less glamour and no good witches.   When I made it through customs and back through security, I followed signs for my terminal. As I went up and down stairs, and through strange hallways, I observed as the airport transitioned from Cherry Creek to Five Points (what up Denver!). This was when I became mildly nervous about my school location (which, I might remind you, I chose). If departing flights to Guangzhou are given the “rustic” section of the airport, how does Beijing (and China for that matter) feel about Guangzhou?

The terminal was actually a waiting room for a bus. Which everyone crammed onto and took out onto the runway; much like an airport I once visited in California. None of this matters. Here is what I took away from the Beijing airport:

The air was moist, even inside, enough so that sweat was slowly forming drops and making beads that traced their way down the sides of my face and along the curves of my back. It wasn't warm though, it was cold sweat. People around me were wearing pants and t-shirts, and I was bundled in a baggy CINCINNATI sweater, confused by my body’s reaction to the weather. The loudspeaker kept ringing and a woman’s voice would trail off for several minutes in a dialect of Chinese I could not make out. After the announcement was finished in Chinese, it repeated again in English. The English version was given by the same speaker though, and was just as confusing as the Chinese. So I sat and waited for the boarding process to begin.

He shuffled one foot closer to me, and then paused. After inching his way from the opposing set of chairs, he had managed to diminish the distance between us considerably. He stood not even a foot away now; probably 8 or 9 years-old. His shirt read “convers” and his shoes were knock-off chucks.  His hands clasped behind his back, he swiveled side-to-side a few times. I smiled at him, making eye-contact for the first time; his eyes lit up. He smiled back, staring.  An uncomfortable amount of time passed by, all the while he just looking and smiling. I had to turn to do something, to break away from the intense excitement in his eyes.  He didn't stop staring though, his eyes remained locked even as he moved to the empty seat next to me and sat down.

The voice over the loudspeaker rang again, and the word, "Guangzhou" was clear. I stood with my things and looked at the boy still sitting and staring. “bye-bye” he said, and he waved at me. He just kept looking and kept smiling. There is something so incredibly rich about the gaze of a child. He was looking at me but he was observing and learning at the same time.  I wish I had something with me that I could have offered him to thank him for his time, and his enthusiasm. Thinking that way, however, only further displays the gap between my capacity to love and his. Why couldn't I stare back the whole time, smiling and shining with him? We lose that when we get older, the ability to look at something with so much avid enthusiasm, with our full, unashamed attention. When was the last time you looked at something and really took all angles of it in? I can’t even remember. But this boy inspired me, to give meaning with my eyes, and appreciation in my presence. I only wish I had asked his name.

Alright, so the flight to Beijing was uneventful. I had an entire row to myself, and enjoyed the meal that was provided on the flight – perhaps too enthusiastically for the modest travelers around me. I tend to slop food around when I eat—as in, I’m M.F. starving, and this S. needs to be in my mouth right now! This method of eating, however, can appear uncivilized, and certainly might be perceived as such by the well-mannered comrades on the plane.  

       Landing was lovely, but the airport presented complications. The P.R. of China, apparently doesn't approve of locked luggage. As you can see, they have their own methods for resolving such issues:

A picture is worth a million words, right? I guess I won’t be using this  piece of luggage on the flight home!

       Tom picked me up from the airport. Tom is another EF employee, who exhibits all the characteristics of a true NY native; one hand on his phone and one hand on the horn. In China, the horn is not meant as a warning, and it is not used sparingly. In fact, when drivers here honk, it is almost the equivalent of saying, “Hey bruh, what-up! I got a Ford too!” Horns are a sign of awareness, enthusiasm, verve for the road! This sounds like an easy thing to understand (now that I've laid it out so nicely for you), but when you are in a car with a total stranger, cutting across four lanes and honking at an empty street the whole way, life starts to look so grim. Darkness was everywhere, for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. And then we arrived at the Garden.

       In China, everything has a cush name. Apartment complexes aren't, "complexes" at all, they are, "gardens." Gardens are themed, decorated, and secure. My Garden has at least 24 buildings, each with at least 15 floors. All identical. This place is like a five star resort. Beautiful, spacious, well lit, well ventilated. I walked inside and my mouth dropped. White marble floors, ornate ceilings, detailed wood-work everywhere! Did I mention the ceilings are vaulted? A full patio, air-conditioners in every room, fully furnished! My bedroom has a G.D. bay window—it doesn't get more cush than that! I must be in some kind of heaven.

      And outside? Well, outside, everyone sweats. Walk and sweat, and walk and sweat. I've never been this thirsty in my entire life. I feel like a fish. And might look like one at this point. I also will likely never take a hot shower again. Why would anyone shower in hot water, ever? Silliest thing. In fact, I can’t believe I ever did it. Cold water is where it’s at.

       Night 1: I had hot-pot for dinner and went to a local dive with three other teachers. The teachers are each so unique in their personalities, but they are all united in how adventurous and kind they are. Everyone is young, everyone is out-going, everyone is beautiful. 

      Day 2: I explored the markets around my garden (which includes a Walmart), found some food places, and then had legit dim sum for lunch-- so delicious--, with two of the other teachers—don’t worry, I ate for both of , Sara.

       Moving to another country isn't a sudden shock, not like I might have anticipated based on stories. In fact, when I landed in Guangzhou, the humidity was familiar to me (hell, I just came from Texas). My mind instantly associated the air around me with home. The smell of cigarettes, even inside of the airport (they have designated smoking rooms), was also familiar; OK, Texas meets Vegas, this makes sense still. When I look around and everyone is staring at me, I don’t instantly think that they are looking because I’m a foreigner, after all, aren't I staring back? People are inherently curious.

       When I look around, everything is big. Buildings are tall, communities are built out; people are everywhere. The scenery is tropical; I hear birds screeching and children laughing, cars honking. My mind wants to trick me, as though someone stuffed me on a fake airplane, one that was stationary, for two days, and then released me into a part of American that I've simply never been to.  Same world, same people, same life.  When I feel far away from everyone, it isn't because of the distance; the distance doesn't exist in my mind. China, Denver, Austin, where-ever I am, I would always be far away from someone I care about.

I feel far away because I’m lonely. No, not the kind of lonely we think of at home, when you’re sad because you are alone in an environment where familiar people are easily accessible but not immediately present—it is easy to be sad when you want to be close to familiar loved ones. My lonely is different than that kind of lonely; it isn't sad-lonely. This is the lonely that is separation.  In a world of connection, where internet unites knowledge and people, therefore creating instant familiarity, I am in China. I currently have no internet, and no way to contact my friends at home to let them know that I am safe. I know that everyone is far away, and so distance does not play a role; I am not 18 hours from my parents and wishing I was closer. I am not 20 minutes from my sister wishing we were having lunch. My mind knows that these things are no longer feasible. I am in China. And because those things are not possible, I am alone. Here I am lonely, but not sad.