Suzhou

September 23, 2010

(August 31-2nd)

Next, Dan and I head to Suzhou, the garden city of China. Though, I don’t think Dan actually saw any gardens when we were there. We got in a fight one day when he made a comment that made me think he was saying I was fat. But I was far too proud to admit that was what had set me off. And so we decided to spend a day apart. This was when I went to the famous Suzhou gardens, calming myself in the beautiful and fragrant surroundings.

Dan on the other hand learned to point and gesticulate as he asked for places to hear music. He found music stores and played all kinds of Chinese instruments. Some of the instruments, the shop keepers had never seen played the way Dan played them but they definitely seemed to enjoy it. 

People in Suzhou were exceptionally friendly. There was a grandmother working in a restaurant down the street from our hostel. She told me about the dog she had lost and how much she loved him, she went into the back room to get the framed pictures of him out of storage and placed them lovingly about the restaurant. People in Suzhou were different. They smiled and did not seem frightened or surprised that I was foreign. How I love tourist towns in China!!!

But probably the most memorable thing that happened in Suzhou, happened while we were having breakfast on our first day. There was a strange plastic toy on our table.  There was a dial on the top of the toy that you had to set according to your sun sign. The instructions explained that if you inserted one Yuan a pill would come out. And so I did and as soon as the pill came out, I swallowed it without thinking. But the pill was about the size of a marble and it was not chewable; in fact, it wasn’t a pill at all, it was plastic. I was a victim of a poor translation and nearly choked on the thing.  The rest of the day, I felt the “pill” making its way out of me. It was not really the most intelligent thing I have done in China.

Shanghai

September 23, 2010

(August 27th –31st)

I arrived a couple days early in Shanghai in order to spend some time with my friend Shanshan. Together she and I tried to tear up the town, but we just found ourselves tearing up instead. Shanghai is the big city. And foreigners here are not friendly in the least. I suddenly realized how accustomed to Wuhan I had gotten. In Wuhan there are not very many foreigners, so the few expats that are there are very approachable. This is not at all how it is in Shanghai; where people won’t give you a second look or a second thought. Shanshan was having a hard time fitting in and adjusting and it didn’t take long for me to see why. Shanghai is like a never ending Mean Girls movie.

Dan landed the morning of the 29th, and to my great surprise I was there flawlessly to meet him. I usually end up finding a way to screw these kinds of things up, so I was shocked by my own level of organization. Dan walked into the arrival area visibly giddy. I expected him to be grumpy and moody, from jet lag, but he was all excitement. For me, it was surprising to see that level of feeling in anyone. Culture shock is still kicking my ass, and I find it hard to get excited about anything anymore.

On the airport train, Dan asks me to teach him some new words. I teach him the first thing I can think of, which happened to be the first thing I saw, his suitcase (xingli). I later learned it was a pretty useless word, one that could be easily substituted by pointing, and after learning it we never used the word again, as such it was just as quickly forgotten JLater on, I taught Dan to say hello beautiful girl (mei nu ni hao), that proved to be much more useful.

Dan was quick to notice the Shanghai Expo’s stupid blue mascot. The mascot is in all appearances a blue blob with arms and legs and a slanted head. Why they chose that as the mascot is beyond me. But it is everywhere; on subway advertisements, on television, on huge posters, in stores, on t-shirts. EVERYWHERE. 

Dan told me his first impression was that Shanghai was synonymous with chaos. I told him that’s pretty much China in general. Our hostel was down a crowded little street with blaringly loud music and thunderous motorcycles constantly whizzing by. The first meal we shared was at a little noodle restaurant. Whenever I spoke Chinese the people at the table behind us would repeat what I said with amusement. Foreigners are like monkeys to many people here. And it sure would shock me too if I heard a monkey say he doesn’t like rice noodles he likes wheat noodles. 

In Shanghai we went to a couch surfing party, drank mojitos, went to the art district, sang at KTV, ate sandwiches and rode the subway A LOT. Eight months in China have lead me to believe this is the height of sophistication and nothing else could be desired, but for Dan, it took one coffee shop that didn’t have soy milk for him to sigh in exasperation “China sucks.” I felt my stomach turn; we’re in for a bumpy ride.

On the one hand, I worried because he spent a lot of time and money coming to China so I wanted him to have the best time. But at the same time, every time he complained I felt myself relax. Having someone else confirm the way I had felt for the last couple of months felt so reassuring. I wasn’t being a baby. A lot of things in China really do suck.

Next we headed to a small water town that we just adored – Zhujiajiao. The town is a small Venice like town, with trendy water side restaurants and peaceful temples. (Personally I prefer it to Venice, which in my opinion is just too touristic and filled with overpriced and pretentious crap.) The town has gondoliers and bicycle rickshaws in abundance. So we indulged and took a bicycle rickshaw and yelled ni hao at all the passerbys. We spent the afternoon relaxing; I napped by the water while Dan played the guitar wearing his Chairman Mao hat.

Dan bought a hat with a communist red star on it that we christened his Chairman Mao hat. Dan really has a love hate relationship with this hat. When people passing by point and get a warm-hearted laugh out of seeing him wear it, he would snigger to himself and say “I love this hat!” He loved this hat because it was fun and people kept asking for photos with him while he was wearing it. Look the monkey is wearing a hat! But on the other hand, he hated it because of the plastic liner and how cheaply it was made. And so begins the Chairman Mao hat tirade and he asked me nearly every five minutes what I think about this hat. The whole dilemma was finally only resolved when the hat was left behind by mistake in the hostel. We both think it is fate and luckily it is the last I have to hear about that hat. 

Travels with my brother

September 23, 2010

My eyes are a bit sore and red from a few tears I shed outside the Hohhot airport in Inner Mongolia airport. Dan has just left. Guang, the small receptionist from the hostel accompanied me on the trip to the airport to help with translation with the driver. She gave me a hug to console me and even though she’s the same age as I am, her hug reached about the bottom of my rib cage.

It was a great trip with my brother – the first time since we were kids that I have spent so much time with him. We’d both supposedly grown up and moved apart. But on the trip the strange thing was the feeling of how little had actually changed. It still felt like we were kids. We made up games to pass the time, just like in the old days. On a twelve hour train to Huangshan we played hearts with a pretend third player named Toby (a pillow wearing sunglasses and a hat) who never followed the rules playing cards at random. It brought a certain thrill to the game, you could never be fully sure you wouldn’t get the queen of spades landing on you.

Together we traveled for about three weeks and saw quite a few places. It takes a long time to write everything that happened. So have patience with me as I slowly add the entries. We went to six main cities: Shanghai, Suzhou, Huangshan (Tunxi), Wuhan, Beijing, Hohhot.

Scribbles

August 25, 2010

August 25th, 2010

In the break room between classes the other day, I noticed over my shoulder an intern from England passionately scribbling notes onto a tattered piece of paper. I asked him what he was doing and he looked up at me and said writing. Is this what we all do? Reach for tattered scraps of paper to write it all down on to try and capture time, to capture a feeling or a moment? Is this what we are traveling for -to find something to scribble about?

I just said goodbye to my two German couch surfers, Han and Kyra. It was really great to have visitors. I had a light work schedule these past few days so I had a chance to show them around and hang out with them. They were wonderful guests, cheerful and easy going. With them here I got the chance to travel to parts of the city that I hadn’t explored well before and piece Wuhan a little bit more together in my mind. The experience reminded me how much I love couch surfing and what it stands for. To me couch surfing is a sign that the world is in fact getting better. People are opening their houses and their hearts to strangers from all over the world and I think that’s a great thing. It’s something I am really proud to be a part of. And I am pleased to be part of my surfers’ story. Wuhan and I are now part of their story; somewhere in their digital photos and scrap booking tickets.

Wuhan is in a competition with several other cities trying to win the title of China’s Civilized City. I think it’s laughable but kind of sweet. I noticed today on the bus a man give up his seat to an old grey haired man and it was touching. And I thought they do care. But now as I write this I think maybe it’s not us and them. Maybe there is no them; there are just people. Drifting dreamers madly scribbling to try and keep up with time.

Happy Valentine’s Day in August

August 22, 2010

August 16th, 2010

Today is Chinese Valentine’s Day and so to celebrate my solitude I have invited all my girl friends to dinner. There will be a large group of us getting together to eat Thai food and drink cocktails and chat. I’m really looking forward to it. It will be an interesting collection of foreign and Chinese women that I have met in many different ways. Zhang Yi  (my Chinese tutor) and her roommate, Kaisa (an Estonian couchsurfer on a world tour), Taana (a kindergarten teacher from Texas), Shiny (one of the secretaries at New Oriental) and Elaine (my newest friend,) are all coming.

Elaine is a 25 year old Chinese woman I met a month ago. She came in for an IELTS practice test. During the test I could tell she was a really cool and interesting girl and after the test I asked her if she wanted to become my conversation buddy. My previous conversation buddy left for Singapore last month to teach in a kindergarten so I was looking for a new person to practice Chinese with. We started by meeting once a week at Starbucks and talking about our lives over Frappuccinos.

Elaine is a beautiful and endlessly interesting woman. She has a unique and special perspective and such an energy about her. She is also a newlywed and talked with such fervour about her love for her husband that I was greatly looking forward to meeting him. But then when her husband finally joined us for coffee it was fairly disappointing. His interaction with Elaine was hard to watch. He is arrogant and demeaning. He kept telling Elaine to shut up and that she didn’t know what she was talking about. If she even opened her mouth to say anything he would shush her. It was heartbreaking to see. Afterwards when she and I made plans to see each other again she apologized that he could not come and said that he is far more knowledgeable than her and she would try not to bore me. She was a completely different woman than before. He had brought her to that and it felt so terrible to see.  Her husband is a very wealthy man and can afford a kind of lifestyle for the two of them that many, especially in China, can only dream of. Though I do think she loves her husband I can’t help thinking money plays a big part in that love and it makes me think of something my mom used to say “those who marry for money earn every penny.” I only hope that they can grow, either together or apart, to be people that no longer hurt each other to get what they both need.

As for me, I am not sure what to do. Should I try and talk to her about it? Should I turn a blind eye? If that’s the way he talks to her in public I’m sure it’s much worse in private. I’m completely lost in terms of what I should do.

Strange neighbour

August 15, 2010

August 15th, 2010

The summer has been full of goodbyes. Friends keep going home to their countries and new friends are slowly trickling in. But China still sucks. The remaining friends sit in a pub and talk about the innumerable ways in which we hate China. The food, yeah I have been ill to my stomach more times than not.  But the biggest hatred of mine is the constant staring and strangers coming up to talk to you. Friday night I totally lost it on this guy who came up to my Chinese friend to ask her how old I was. I had a bit to drink and said what I’ve always wanted to say but couldn’t and it felt good. There are exceptions to every rule but I can’t help but see Chinese people as these lifeless drones without fun and flair living soulless lives totally focused on money. But somehow even if I hate China right now, I love being here. It’s a strange thing to try and explain. I’m happy, but China sucks.

I finally had a break from work. I have had three days off, so of course I have gotten sick. Whenever things calm down for me my immune system breaks down.  

I have written a note to my neighbour and stuck it on his door. I don’t want to spend my limited free time with him. He is a 35 year old Chinese man with a nervous tick who smiles at me awkwardly in the elevator and finally started talking to me a few weeks ago. He can’t speak English so our conversations are very limited. He knows my landlady Xiao Ayi, who by the way has been in the hospital after surgery on her leg. So we talk about her progress and each other’s jobs. Then last weekend, I heard a knock on my door and opened it to see him standing there holding a black baby. I asked him whose baby it was and he said the woman down the hall. The whole thing was rather strange. Then he tells me he likes my nose and his nervous tick kicks in and he starts blinking and squinting in his odd way. He uses the nose compliment as an in to ask me to dinner with him and I, startled, because I never get this kind of attention in China, don’t know what to say and agree. But after thinking about it for a while, I think it’s best that I don’t go. I wrote him a note in Chinese and stuck it on his door. And I’ll run away to Helen’s just in case he comes by.

My Damned Blessings

August 15, 2010

August 9th, 2010

This weekend is Lucy and Bob’s last weekend. We will have a big party to say goodbye and it really won’t be the same without them. I will miss them both a great deal. In January though Lucy’s life adventures will take her to India and I have sworn to her and myself that I will go visit her before I go back to Canada. So this will make the goodbye not so hard. As for Bob though, I will miss his lively spirit and good nature.

The whole draw of travel has really worn out for me. I believe it is over-rated. I am always meeting people on backpacking excursions across Asia and it seems to me lately that travel is the new consumable. It’s no longer just about who has the nicer cell phone or laptop computer but also about who has been to Burkina Faso, Burma or Bolivia. Just because you have been to a place doesn’t mean you have seen it. I have met lame people who have travelled the world; they were lame before they left and they are lame upon return. Travel is just a distraction. Spend thousands of dollars just to impress the neighbours.

Meanwhile I have been thinking very deeply about my own reasons for being here and they seem to be getting foggier and foggier. As Candace says, we often don’t even know what path we’re on. We do things for reasons that don’t become clear until much later.

Lucy is a friend who’s helped me a lot to try and stay positive. She leant me a book with a great quote in it “no one has lived your life or my life before and no one will ever live them again. Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence – priceless and irreplaceable.”

Some days I wake up and it’s so easy to see my blessing. I am so blessed to have this life I am living. I have such a sacred opportunity to teach. I am given classrooms full of bright eyed and optimistic kids who want to go to my country. They are interested in my country, in what I have to say and they are thrilled at the chance to meet me. I am truly blessed. I can teach them (within reason) what I want and encourage conversation and sharing. What an opportunity. And what an adventure! I have this excellent opportunity to learn Chinese, to live in the environment and culture and to get as much one on one practice that anyone could desire. As a woman, I live the kind of life that others can only dream of. I am independent and make my own money. I earn a good wage and the work is not strenuous or physically exhausting. I have a degree from a western university and the freedom and encouragement of my parents to marry if I choose and who I choose. I am young and healthy. I am financially secure and have no financial burdens to worry about. It seems a far cry to find anything to worry about. I am truly blessed.  

But other days, I feel the anger coursing through my body and it seems to have a life of its own. Too many hours of Dr Phil have allowed me to see the anger comes from my desire to control things. In China, that is like beating your head against a brick wall. But still, sometimes I just wish they would stop spitting, pushing and cutting in line. Is that too much to ask?

Community

August 15, 2010

Tuesday July 27th, 2010

Every day I tell myself the same thing before I can’t into bed, “I really need to clean my apartment.” I’m too embarrassed to invite people in and find myself stammering when neighbours knock on my door, awkwardly standing barefoot in the hall. Today the young mother down the hall came knocking on my door. She is a beautiful African woman who cannot speak Chinese or English. I cannot imagine it. I feel isolated as is. Imagine being a first time mother in a foreign country not able to speak to anybody around you. I have resolved to be a better neighbour and visit her more. But first I will have to clean my apartment.

Lately I’m so busy I only come home to sleep. I’ve been teaching countless numbers of classes and taken up a job doing voice recording for English learning textbooks. All of July I’ve been working a lot and it’s been hard to get used to. Three weeks of chores have piled up as my exhaustion after work leaves me with little left but to stare at the dishes in the sink and then resolve to eat at Helen’s again.

Helen’s Café has become my home away from home. It’s the western style restaurant I talked about in an earlier passage. The food is okay, but really I go there for the people. Helen’s is my Chinese Cheers. I go there at least four times a week. I know everyone who works there by name and even their family members that come to visit. I get a lifetime discount and my face is on their flyer. Last time they went for supplies I joined them and did my grocery run. And last weekend we all went together to sing karaoke. Helen’s is the kind of place you can go to alone and be sure you won’t eat alone. The owner (you guessed it her name is Helen) comes to sit with me and chat about my day. And best of all they can almost speak no English so it’s a place where I can practice my Chinese with a laugh. On slow nights, when I come with friends, the employees all sit with us, they treat us to a case of beer and whip out a guitar. We take turns playing English songs and then Chinese ones.

Chen, a young Chinese guy from Xinjiang, is the only one who can speak English, but it’s fairly broken. He’s a sweet tempered guy, quick to smile and easy going. His favourite song is Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen though he doesn’t know any of the words, so he always just asks me to sing. I like that.  He Lei is the youngest, he’s only seventeen. My heart bleeds for him; he dropped out of school and is working as a short order cook far from home. I worry about him a lot though he doesn’t at all seem to share my concerns. Like everyone in China, He Lei likes to smoke though whenever I catch him I try to take the cigarette away. It’s become a game between us. The other day, I saw him smoking and I told him that I really wanted to smoke and would he please let me have a drag. He passed the cigarette to me and I quickly butt it out. I thought he might have been annoyed, but he just smiled. I think he misses his mom.

Then there’s Helen’s little boy Mumu, who is 7. He really is the youngest but he doesn’t work there. I always teach Mumu a few English words every time I am there. I have taught him his colours and animals. He helps me with my Chinese too. He taught me how to say mosquito (wenzi). I bought Mumu the book the Little Prince in Chinese and now he shares his snacks with me. Whenever, I walk into Helen’s I hear his voice calling me “Ni hao Baoli Ayi” (Hi Auntie Baoli!).

Community, it makes all the difference.

Happy Canada Day!

July 1, 2010

July 1st, 2010

People have set ideas. They see the world through the goggles of what they have already decided they are going to see. And everything that doesn’t fit that image is conveniently ignored.

I’ve befriended an English teacher from Montreal here in Wuhan. We go to pubs and fight in French in front of the Americans about separatism and politics. He talks about how everyone perceives Canada in a light that is better than it deserves. But for me, through my goggles, being here in China I am daily amazed by the developed world. It is a miracle that we have managed to achieve what we have. That we live in relative peace, calm and secure in the system. Only recently have I started to realize how much time and effort went into creating the level of justice, consideration and kindness that exist in our society. And as such, I fear how quickly that could all fall apart.

The other day, Anney and I were buying pirated dvds from the shack down the street. As we were walking home we heard the crashing of glass and turned to see a crowd forming across the street. They were surrounding a woman hurling beer bottles against the pavement. The woman looked as if she was in her late forties, and she was screaming wildly at a man at the next shop over. The next thing we knew the man picked up a plastic chair and slammed it against the woman’s back. A crowd had begun to form around the commotion. And a barely teenage girl yanked and pulled the fighters apart. But the man was not ready to give up. He was young and brawny and full of rage. He too started picking up beer bottles but was whipping them at the older woman. The man and woman both started a beer bottle war, but the man quickly tired of this and he then launched for her. He grabbed the older woman by the arm. Twisted her arm behind her back and forced her into the glass. (Note: It’s summer she has shorts and a t-shirt on leaving nothing to protect the skin on her bare legs.) People on bicycles had now stopped and a whole crowd was assembled watching the fight. No one seemed to think it necessary to intervene. They seemed to think there was nothing that appalling about watching a fit young man drag a woman nearly fifteen years his senior through the glass in public. Anney and I looked at each other wondering how we could stop it. In that moment, I wished that I’d been born a man. The woman did manage to get herself off the pavement. And as she did, she continued screaming at the man. She was seemingly unfazed by the glass, swearing more insults at the man and clearly not ready to give up. But I’d had enough. Anney and I quickly left, each of us feeling a little sick by what we’d seen.

How could all those people, including fit young men, just idly watch and not feel the need to stop the man from beating a woman? It was disgusting. I have a vivid memory of watching my dad split up a fight between two homeless men at the church when we were volunteering at “Out of the Cold.” I don’t think he thought for a second about it, he just reacted. And he and another volunteer stopped the fight. And this was a fight between two men, not one where one clearly had the advantage over the other.   

So today, on Canada’s birthday, I just want to say, thank you Canada, for being a country where a woman will not be beaten in public without someone feeling obliged to stop it.

Culture Shock!!!

June 23, 2010

June 23rd, 2010

I am sitting on my bed pilled with clean clothes ready to be folded and picking the skin off my sunburnt shoulders. My laundry is hanging on the balcony to dry and my suitcase is already stashed away in the closet. The remnants of my trip to Hong Kong are slowly fading.

 Hong Kong was amazing. However, no trip can be separated from the frame of mind of the trip taker. And since I must admit I am beginning to slip into the constant whine some people term culture shock that may be a deciding factor in my feelings about the city. However, I am not sure if it is that or the memory of the delicious food, the great and beautiful beaches or the bargain shopping in the night that is breaking my heart right now. Either way, it’s painfully obvious that I am sitting in the midst of development instead of the Asian financial centre.

Lately, I find myself with little to no desire to leave my apartment and the comforts of my books. Snugly couched I could study a whole day away or easily waste it watching Micheal Scoffield try to escape yet again in Prison Break. There is no purpose to go to the bar except to please my friends who think it necessary. I feel there are few if any foreigners I haven’t already met and none of them are date worthy. So why not just stay in and read and hope to cross another book off the list of the Times 100 top novels. That is a far worthier pursuit than punishing my liver in a vain attempt to meet someone.

I have my pursuits that I greatly enjoy. Today I went to a nearby café to play their gujung and practice. There is a café I like to go to and play their instrument. Last time I was there one of the café workers pushed me aside to show me what I was doing wrong. It does not matter that six months have gone by the bluntness of the Chinese still throws me for a loop.

I miss the food in Hong Kong – the delicious fusion of flavours from all corners of the globe. I am sick to death of Chinese food and am eating packaged muffins for dinner to avoid it. On the train home, an older woman that I was sharing a compartment with (ayi or auntie) asked me how I was adjusting. I replied I don’t like the food and I miss my culture. I do. And what I mean by that is, I miss places where every corner is not a construction site with dust and soot flying in the air for eyes and mouths to catch.  I miss the parts of the world where children don’t indiscriminately use the streets as their own personal toilet. (Just two weeks ago I was sprayed by a little boy who I guess missed the section of the side walk that was not congested with people while he was urinating. Yeah that’s right. A little boy peed on me in the street. I mean where am I? Where on earth is that okay? That’s right – Wuhan is the only place.)

Culture shock, Lucy tells me, doesn’t always mean that the person wants to go home. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of malaise, of unease, a feeling of pointlessness and sometimes anger. I guess that’s where I am. Especially today when Josh said I was wasting my time because another year wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough time to learn Chinese. That really made me feel worse.

But I did have fun playing the gujung today. And soon I will break out my book and study some more to fight that feeling of pointlessness. I do feel very lonely. I feel misunderstood and far from those that appreciate me for being something other than a foreign freakish looking face.

But at least I will always have Hong Kong. Anney (an AIESEC intern from the States) and I were in Hong Kong with a short stop-over in Shenzhen for nearly a week. Hong Kong was fabulous. We went swimming on gorgeous beaches; ate garlic shrimp on beach side restaurants; hiked and saw wild monkey; shopped in night markets; attended a couch surfing party; danced in pubs with free drinks for the ladies; and dinned, dinned, dinned. We stayed at my cousin Shauna’s with her husband Brian. They were gracious hosts and best of all they had a great swimming pool.

Hong Kong is the most densely populated city I have ever seen in my life. But it remains remarkably clean and the people are surprisingly friendly considering the size of the city (roughly 7 million.) No one stared at us while we there! Did I mention the food was fabulous? Unlike Wuhan’s limited selection, Hong Kong has restaurants from all over the globe.

The freaky thing about Hong Kong is we would hear perfect English everywhere and turning around expecting to see foreigners only to see a group of Orientals speaking English with flawless accents. It was weird. Small children in the elevator of my cousin’s building spoke to us with better accents than many of the Chinese English teachers at our school. It was definitely an experience.

I found the wide variance in people’s views of Hong Kong interesting. People in China see it as unambiguously belonging to China. But people in Hong Kong had the opposite stance. “Hong Kong is Hong Kong NOT China.”

Hong Kong and its ultra modern sky scrapers, clean streets and worldly atmosphere made me feel like I was living in the future. And the trip back to Wuhan, watching children pee in buckets on the train, was only too cruel a reminder that I live in China.