Monday, October 29, 2007

cramping my style

So what's it like to live with my future mother-in-law in a one bedroom apartment in a small northeastern Chinese city? It's funny you should ask because I'd be more than happy to tell you.

As of September 30th, Ming and I could no longer consider ourselves Beijingers. It was time to leave our home of a year and a half. Our landlord wanted us out and it was time to go anyways. Off we went to Ming's hometown, the place where we first meet, Chengde.

I may have said this before, but I'll say it again. Chengde is very small by Chinese standards. It has a population roughly the same as my fairly large sized hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (population: 700,000), but that's a small town in a country of 1,300,000,000 people (America: just 300,000,000 people). Here, I can't find the everyday luxuaries that I can find in Beijing. No venti Cafe Americanos, no pepperoni pizza, no dental floss. I have to rough it here and I must do so with a smile because my in-laws are never more than 10 feet away from me.

Though things have been challenging this past month, I must point out that life here is not without its advantages. A taxi ride anywhere in the city isn't more than a dollar. The air is cleaner and the streets slightly less crowded than Beijing. But perhaps one of the best perks is that I'm not allowed near any cooking or cleaning supplies. Everything is done for me and mama (as I refer to Ming's mother) appears more than happy to do these things for me. I can understand why. Since being forced to retire (as all Chinese are) last year at the tender age of 52, mama has a lot of time on her hands.

But this kindness has a way of knawing away at the independent American inside of me. I am 24-years-old and capable of making a bed and washing my own clothes. Cooking on the other hand. . .well, I'm not great with a wok. I certainly can't complain about the 5 course meals served to me every lunch and dinner, although I do have something to say about the manner in which they are served. . . .

To the distress of every dietician and anorexic out there, at the Chinese dining table people never believe you've eaten enough. Perhaps this is why one of the first Chinese phrases a foreigner learns is "Chi bao le" ("I'm full.") and also why "How are you?" is often mistranslated into Chinese as "Ni chi le ma?" ("Did you eat?"). Here, the state of your well-being is based on whether or not you recently ate a meal.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before one can achieve fullness, naturally she must try everything on the table. Right? It is insisted that I try everything-stinky eggs, liver, congealed blood, chunks of pork fat. There are just some things a girl will never find appetizing, but try them I do. The problem then arises, since I have eaten the food it is therefore assumed that I like it and that an additional serving must be heaped on top of my rice. I now have two options: be rude and admit to not liking it or pretend to like it and be subjected to eating it for the rest of my life. I chose the former. Luckily I'm not as picky as I once was. I'll eat my way through seaweed, sprouts, unidentifiable pickled vegetables, donkey, goat, fish heads, and every flavor and texture of tofu. Miraculously, I have not put on any weight.

Once I've navigated my way through an entire meal, feeling all bloated and lethargic, I wish to retire away in a cozy corner of the house. But I can't. This is no house. This is a small one bedroom apartment with a 2x2 foot bathroom. The only privacy I have is when I'm taking a shower (over the squatty potty) and that's only on sunny days. The water is heated by solar power. Unfortunately, it's been pretty gloomy and cold in Chengde these days. You don't want to know how long it's been since I last took a shower.

My Hungarian friend, Katalin, so kindly reminded me that this is, indeed, how most of the world lives. Elbow to elbow with their overbearing relatives, everyday, in cramped apartments. But if this is what my future holds, all I ask is to be able to have a decent bathroom to hideaway in.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Visa

For those who don't know, the word visa has been on my mind for the last 14 months. In order for Ming to come home with me, he needs one of these little things. 14 months of waiting for a 3x4inch sticker. But what exactly is a visa? Since many people don't know, I will explain. First, however, I must admit that I don't fully understand what it is, but I do know it is a huge pain in the ass to get one to the United States.

A visa is usually a sticket that goes inside one's passport and allows that person to enter the country from which the visa is issued from. Usually people get them at that country's embassy, but some are granted it on arrival at customs. There are different kinds of visas (working, student, tourist, etc.) for different periods of time (30 days, 90 days, indefinite). What kind of visa a person can get depends on many factors, but the most important probably being one's nationality.

Americans, for example, can go to most European countries for 3 months, no visa needed. For a Chinese person it usually takes a lot of hoop-jumping and months of waiting to get such a visa, and many people don't even get it. In fact, the only country Chinese people can go to without a visa is Burma. Burma, that's it. It is not easy for the Chinese to travel abroad and it's even more difficult for them to live abroad.

Even for Americans it's tough get the appropriate visa that allows them to live in foreign countires. If it's your dream to live in Paris, than I suggest you find yourself a French husband (or wife), because otherwise, forget it. I'm lucky because (until recently) staying in China has been pretty easy. Previously, either I or my work would pay a few hundred bucks and I could get a new 6 month visa without even leaving the country. But with the Olympics just around the corner (Beijing 2008), the Chinese government has decided to make things a bit more difficult.

The past few months I've been a bit of an emotional wreck, having little control over Ming and my future. If he didn't get a visa to America I would have to find a way to stay in China legally. I would most likely have to return to teaching English, not my profession of choice. Not to mention I'm China'd-out. I think I've nearly reached my breaking point with the the air pollution, squatty potties, spitting, and over-crowding.

When we went to Ming's first interview in August, I was nervous. I was butterflies in my stomach, want to throw up, nervous. We couldn't even go through the ordeal in Beijing. Ming applied for a K-1 immigrant visa and the interviews for those are strictly held in Guangzhou (pronounced "Goo-wong Joe"). The trip from Beijing to Guangzhou takes almost a full day on a train. In terms of distance it's probably comparable to Chicago-New Orleans. Normally I find it exciting to travel to new cities, but on the eve of a life altering decision I would prefer to sleep in my own bed.

The result of the first interview was not as we hoped, but pretty much what I had expected it to be. He didn't get the visa. We were instructed to come back to Guangzhou in a month to submit additional documents to 'prove our relationship.' Prove our relationship. That's the whole point of the interview, yet they wouldn't even let me go into the interview with him. Next to an explicit video, isn't that some of the best proof out there? Here we were, together, in Guangzhou, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Ming's hometown and several thousand from mine. But they would only talk with him.

This past weekend we went back to Guangzhou and on Monday Ming went to his second interview. He submitted his passport and the requested documents and he was told to come back on Wednesday. But come back for what? That wasn't made clear and there's no one to ask. This is the ever-so-mysterious American government we are talking about. Was he getting the visa? We came back at the designated time, 2:30 on Wednesday. We actually arrived 40 minutes early, but there was already a sizable line forming outside the door. A little panic set in. Our train for Beijing was departing at 5:25. How long was this going to take? Of course, there was no way of knowing.

I left Ming and grabbed a coffee and I waited. . .and waited. . .and waited. 4:10 came around and I couldn't wait any longer or I'd miss the train. It would take me at least 30 minutes to take the subway to the train station, plus I'd have to try and return his ticket for a refund. This barely left me with enough time to board the train.

It was time to hussle, which is never fun in 95 degree weather. I must give credit to Guangzhou metro for being air-conditioned and surprisingly uncrowded for a large Chinese city. About every other second I looked at my cell. This was truly one of those why-isn't-he-calling-me moments. There was no point in calling him though. His phone was surely left with Operation Homeland Security outside of the American Embassy. 4:40 and finally, finally, finally my phone rang. At that moment, I hardly cared if he got the visa. I just wanted to know where he was.

"I GOT IT!" He exclaimed. Well, I guess I did care, because relief swept over me.

"Great. Where are you? Can you get a taxi to the station? Meet me in the ticket hall." I barked.

"Ok. But I have to pick up my passport on Friday. I can't leave Guangzhou now." He explained.

Nearly 5:00 and I arrived at the station, completely saturated in my own perspiration. The place was, in typical Chinese train station fashion, swarming with people. Imagine, if you will, a funnel with an extremely narrow neck. That was the situation I was looking at to get through security. Two doors, one person at a time, over a thousand people pushing, trying to get through those doors. But first thing was first, I'd have to get a refund for his ticket.

The ticket hall in most Chinese train stations is huge and also packed full of people. There are often over 30 ticketing windows and the Guangzhou station is no exception. I was going to have to figure out which window was designated for ticket return. I made an educated guess, which turned out to be wrong. But no worries, as Ming had arrived and could sort it all out.

There was no time for us to share in our joy. Only time for me to wipe the sweat off my face, give him his ticket, and dash out of there. I did make it on the train with several minutes to spare.

So tomorrow Ming will get his passport back and inside will be that sacred little sticker that will allow him to come to America to live. The only catch, we must get married within 90 days of his arrival. Come mid-Novermber we will go, together, to a great and wonderful place called the United States of America. Soon after, we will get married.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Celebrity Status

After living in Beijing for a year and a half, I've nearly forgotten what it feels like to be a celebrity. Since residing in a district of Beijing that includes some of China's best and most popular univerisites, the area near my home is densely packed with foreigners. Most native Beijingers don't give us "laowei" (slightly deragatory Chinese word often used to describe foreigners like myself) a second glance. Besides the occasional migrant worker, me and my fellow laowei don't get much attention. But this in not the case in most parts of China where it is not uncommon to be gawked at, photographed, and even followed. Call it a curse or call it a huge burst to the self-esteem (I'm still trying to decide), it happens constantly. It helps having a big (we're talking in relative terms here) and stong Chinese man at my side. This usually prevents any annoying or rude remarks, but when I'm on my own I'm left to my own defenses.

Currently I am not alone, but with my big, strong Chinese man. We are away from Beijing and in southern China, awaiting the approval of his visa which will allow him to travel to America. Being here is almost like being in another country. The language is different (Cantonese rather than standard Mandarin), the food is different (sweet and light vs. Beijing's salty and greasy eats), and the people even look and are shaped different. In fact, this is a great area of the world for those who are vertical challenged. Standing at a mere 5'4" I am taller than nearly everyone, men included. The only downfall is I have a good 50 pounds on the majority of people down here. My big butt alone is probably getting loads of attention. Luckily I can't understand a word of Cantonese, so I can't hear what anyone is saying about me and my behind. But they are definitely looking, that I know for sure.

A classic case of my celebrity status occured tonight. We went rollerskating (haven't done that since 6th grade Special Event) at the local rink. This was one happening place-9pm on a Tuesday night and it was packed with teens. . .and then there was us. As I sat down to put on my skates I couldn't help but notice a young girl staring at me and waving vigurously as she walked by. It was one of those awkward let-me-look-around-to-see-if-she-is-actually-waving-at-me moments. With no other potential targets within close range it was clear that she was waving at me. She was so intensely focused in her wave that she ran into a guy and nearly fell down. A minute later she walked past again and continued to wave. I couldn't help but think: Wow, I am really special.

It was then time to try out my rollerskating skills. It's been 12 years, but it's definitely like riding a bike. A skill that you never quite lose, but then again it was never a skill that I mastered in the first place. As I wobbled to the rink I could feel the teenage boys eyes baring into me. I got the usual chorus of snide "hello's." This is a time when I would prefer people weren't staring at me. It really puts the pressure on and I said a little prayer that I wouldn't fall flat on my ass. I also noticed, that on top of being the only foreigner in the place, I was also wearing the most scandelous attire. My built-in-bra tank top was alone in a place filled with young girls conservatively dressed in short sleeved tops and school uniforms. Hmm.

I showed no fear, however, and got out there and skated. The sad truth is, it's just not that exciting anymore. It's pretty lame. It turns out things have changed since sixth grade. Although I was rather bored, I did manage to put some excitement into the life of one high school girl. While taking a break at the side of the rink, I felt her looking at me. I knew it was coming. . .I always do. She was trying to work up the nerve to talk to me. A real, live foreigner in her presence. She knew she had to seize this rare opportunity to practice her English. And she did. I admire her for this. In a country where saving face means everything, it takes a lot of guts to talk to a stranger in a language that one only has ever heard in movies and in the classroom.

But her English was bad. Really bad. We tried to speak in standard Chinese, but her pronounciation was incomprehensible to me. That left only one option-rollerskating. She grabbed my hand (hand holding was everywhere at the rink, even guys were holding hands) and off we went. When we finished skating she asked for my number and asked me to promise to never forget her. A priceless moment, but one I've strangely experienced many times. I will surely miss this place when I return to America. I will also miss my celebrity status.

Monday, September 17, 2007

a change in season

The rain as finally descended on Beijing. After several hot, dry months, it is here. I haven't experienced a daytime temperature below 85 degrees since mid-April, but today I've found myself outside shivering in my long-sleeved shirt. I love it. Although the rain itself can be a bit of a burden. . .

Imagine, if you will, a city of 17 million people. 17 million. Yes, that's how many people are now living in Beijing. It's no easy task walking around on an average day. I'm constantly getting bumped into, pushed off the sidewalk, and nearly sideswiped by bicyclists and cars. China is a crowded place and Beijing is one of its most populated cities. There isn't always a lot of room for movement. Now try to add umbrellas to the equation. It adds a whole new dimension of insanity.

At first, I usually try to to be the kind and considerate American that I am. I try not to run into other people with my umbrella, nor do I run my umbrella into other umbrellas. In fact, I will lift it high over my head or move it from side to side in order to avoid other umbrellas. But this gets tiring after awhile. Plus, nobody else seems to care. They just allow their umbrella to run into me at full force. And sometimes their little pointy umbrellas poke me in the face and of course I receive no apology. But I've lived here long enough, I no longer expect an apology for anything. Burn me with your cigarette, ride over my toes with your bike, sneeze on me without batting an eyelash, and then just walk away with out recognizing your bad. Thanks.

So after awhile I just run into everyone and get bounced around like a pinball. Eventually, as I get further away from the subway station and nearer to my apartment, the crowd thins out. But now I must deal more directly with the cars. It always lovely when a car comes whizzing through a huge puddle at 40 miles and hour and you're standing in close proximity. When there's a large group of people around, if you're smart, you can use others as a type of shield to avoid the nasty spray. Not so easy in less crowded areas. And it must also be noted that the puddles in Beijing are a special breed of puddle. They are not the clean, fresh, fun to jump in puddles that you find in rural Wisconsin. No. These puddles are filled with weeks and weeks of dirt, grim, and whatever else has been hanging around in the air and on the roadside. These are toxic puddles.

But eventually I make it home, thoroughly wet despite having an umbrella. Useless thing. I find that the rain has come in through the screen window and soaked my entire patio and all the clothes I had hanging out to dry in it. Lovely. But I'll take this over a Beijing summer any day.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

We gotta get outta this place

from Saturday, June 30, 2007

Today has been an uneventful, yet eventful day indeed. The journey between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Bangkok, Thailand is notorious (among backpackers in SE Asia, anyway) for being a hell of a ride. The Lonely Planet Guidebook refers to it as "The Boulevard of Broken Backsides." Not exactly a journey anyone looks forward to.

Of course, one could fly. . .and that's what they're banking on. Evidently some sneaky airline company is paying off the Cambodian government to stall an upgrade on the heavily trafficed road between Siem Reap and Poipet (a small Cambodian city next to the Thai border). During the wet season (July thru October) the road is so flooded and muddy it can take days to get to the border. Thank God it's not yet the wet season.

Just to note: The distance from Siem Reap to Poipet is roughly 100 miles and from Poipet to Bangkok about another 100 miles. All together 200 miles. It is my estimation that in America, traveling 200 miles, by car or bus, between two major cities would take four hours or less. On our trip we had to go through customs, so that adds another hour. Five hours tops. But this is not America.

6:40am We are picked up by a shuttle that will take us to our bus.
6:45am We stop at a guesthouse to pick up some people.
6:55am We stop at another guesthouse to pick up some people.
7:10am We stop at another guesthouse to pick up some people.
7:25am Yes! We arrive at the bus station, just in time for our 7:30 departure. Oh, no! Only people going to Phnom Penh get off here. We must go somewhere else to catch the bus to Poipet.
7:40am We arrive at the proper place and soon board the bus. We hit the road just before 8am. The bus has air-conditioning, one of modern day life's small miracles.
8:30am Bus driver stops the bus, gets out, and looks under the bus. He looks worried.
9:05am see previous
9:10am Bus driver stops near a village to put on the spare. Two male, Cambodian passengers help him. None of the dozen foreign men lift a finger.
9:55am We are on the road again.
10:45am We stop at a series of concession stands frequented by those traveling through. As soon as we get off the bus it pulls away. We hope its going to get the tire replaced and that we haven't been left stranded in rural Cambodia.
11:20am The bus is back. We're off!
12:00pm The road is bumpy in a vibrating kind of way (think rumble strips on the side of the freeway) with the occassional big bump (think speed bump in a parking lot), but otherwise its smooth sailing. However, some idiot has his window open and it's 100 degrees on the bus!!
12:30pm I spoke too soon. There is another flat tire. The spare needs to be put on and people are not happy. I'm rather amused. One girl starts nagging at the driver while he's changing the tire in the blistering heat. Not a good idea. Words are exchanged which leads to the girl's boyfriend stepping in. There is almost, ALMOST a fist fight.
12:50pm Here we go!
1:00pm We stop at a restaurant. We know the drill. . .the bus has left us yet again to change the flat to a new tire. I eat yucky Ramen-like noodles. Flashbacks to the UWM dorms.
1:30pm On the road again.
3:30pm We arrive in Poipet!!! Two flat tires and 8 hours later. Get me into freakin' Thailand!
4:30pm Got through customs. We are now in a huge, comfy, air-conditioned coach bus and on our way to Bangkok. The roads are paved and there's nothing that can stop us now.
9:00pm Actually, there is something that can stop us. Bangkok traffic. Every hour is rush hour here. But we are nearly downtown.
10:30pm After getting a ride from downtown to our guesthouse I can now safely say we have made it!!

Monday, August 06, 2007

more of the story (trekking Thai style)

I've been home for just over a month now and I don't want to leave things unfinished, so I will try to recap the rest of my trip over the next few blogs.

From my journal: Saturday, June 9th

We've had an exhausting couple of days. Yesterday our trekking guide, a local Thai woman named Chan, picked us up at our guesthouse at 8:30. She dropped us off at a nearby mountain top temple while she went to go register her truck with the local authorities. Not the most professional thing to do, but we are in Asia so it wasn't too surprising. After wandering around the quaint Buddhist temple Chan picked us up and took us to her village, on the outskirts of the town. From there we hiked for ages, past farmers and fields and through small streams. My socks were soaked and we were fighting of mosquitos at every turn. It was exhausting. We eventually stopped for lunch by one of the many streams. I sat on a dirty log while Chan whiddled us some spoons out of bamboo. We dined on delicious rice she had cooked that morning and mangos she picked along the way.

The trek didn't become any easier from there. We climbed up and down the mountain sides and the mosquitos were eating Katalin alive. We asked Chan if malaria was prevelent in the area. "Yes, you can get a little bit of malaria," she replied. A little bit of malaria? That sounds like a little bit too much for my liking. But my immediate concern was the dirty sweat running down every crevice of my body. I wasn't the only one suffering. Chan's dog, who had followed us the whole way, was also completely exhausted. He was having trouble keeping up. But Chan assured us we were nearing the Karen (long neck) village. She was hardly breaking a sweat!
As we descended the final mountain we spotted an elephant in the river below. When we at last arrived at the Karen village, Chan left us to get her truck (her friend came to pick her up via motorbike). The Karen village was small. I felt rather uncomfortable entering it. . .there's a fine line between being a tourist and being a spectator. I know the Karen's are accustom to tourism and it's their livelihood, but I'm undecided whether that's good or bad. The tribe has sought political asylum in Thailand from their native country of Burma. Now they have more comfortable lives, but they must share those lives with hordes of tourists.

All the women there were selling crafts, mostly handmade woven scarves. The first women we saw was gorgeous. She looked so young, but said she was thirty and her 7-year-old daughter sat with her. Both had gold coils around their necks. The coils push down the collarbone and the ribs to create the appearance of a long neck. They aren't exactly sure how the custom began, but it's believe to have been around for nearly one thousand years.

After leaving the village we sat aroudn waiting for Chan for over one hour. The road (ok, really it's more like a path) up the mountain had been under construction and she had trouble getting her truck through. But really that's small potatos compared to the waiting we did today. . .

We began this morning with a one-hour elephant ride. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Ok, I am sure. I feel a bit guilty. Katalin points out that people ride horses all the time. But I still feel bad these huge and amazing animals are being taken out of their natural environment. The ride itself was rather terrifying. The man who guided our elephant sat on the elephant's head while humping it, which gets the elephant moving. Strange.

Once the ride ended Chan was suppose to be waiting for us at the designated ending point. Surprise, surprise, she wasn't there. After waiting an hour by the side of a rustic road, we asked some local girls to give us ride back into town (about 3 miles). There was a flurry of excitement amoung them and I'm almost sorry to say that just as we got on the backs of the bikes Chan pulled up. Chan was as apologetic as an Asian can be (admiting to fault usually means losing face, not good.) She even bought us lunch to compensate.

The rest of the trek was pretty low key. We insisted Chan drives us everywhere after all the hellish walking we did yesterday. Next we visited another ethnic village, the Lisu tribe. They lived, like the Karens, in a small and humble village. The men were away farming and the women and child hung around the village huts. They also sold crafts. Last we went to a country club and had a bath in a mineral pool (for just $1.50!). The pool and its surrounding were gorgeous-paradise.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Land of Smiles

I'm 11 days into my trip to Southeast Asia. I've written and erased this sentence several times now. . . I don't know what to say. I'm not really sure how to begin, but due to Kerri and Alex's pleas for me to write a new blog, I feel compeled to do it.

The best place to start is the beginning, which would be Beijing. I meet up with Katalin, my partner in crime on this trip. Our train left for Xiamen (a smallish port city in Southeastern China) around noon on Monday, June 28th. In our car, and probably the entire train, we were the only foreigners.
We had 31 hours to kill and I filled most of my time by looking out the window. As we headed south everything changed-lush green trees took the place of the dry, brown scenery of the north. Instead of mountains, there were terraced rice patties. We were in a sleeper car (pictured above) which allowed us to lay down whenever we wanted. A few hours before our arrival in Xiamen the train unexpectedly stopped. I had the misfortune of looking out the window at this moment. I don't know if how appropriate is to explain what I saw. It was undoubtedly the most horrific thing I've ever seen. A woman used our train to take her own life. It seemed surreal, unbelieveable. But what was more tragic was how the people around us reacted-with complete indifference. One old woman laughed as Katalin cried. It was the worst possible way to begin a vacation, but it made taking some time away from China seem like a blessing.

We arrived in Xiamen at 7pm on the 29th. It was a great relief to get off the train and Xiamen did a lot to lift my spirits. Our guesthouse was on a small island, free of vehicles, just off shore of the main city. We took the ferry over and marveled at the beauty of it. The island was once settled by Europeans and the entire place was full European architecture (see picture below), a nice break from the dirty highrises of Beijing.

After one night in Xiamen we were off to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, for a mere $60. We arrived a little before midnight and the heat and humidity was suffocating. I have never experienced anything like it, and I assure you it is not pleasant. Once we got to our guesthouse, we hit up the nearby 7/11 for some foreign snacks (although there wasn't much exciting besides finding Coke Zero). The 7/11 is to Thailand what Starbucks is to America, there's no escaping it even if you try.
We spent the next two days sweating our asses off, occassionally stopping in the nearest mall or 7/11 to indulge in the wonder known as central air-conditioning. We were unable to visit any temples because we were inappropriately dressed, only sleeved shirts and pants are allowed in Bangkok temples. It's such an unfair custom in a country that is always repressingly hot! We did manage to eat lots of delicious street food. . .sweet rice and banana wrapped in banana leaves, exotic fruits, pork sausage filled with glass noodles, and puffy fried balls of seafood. It tastes better than it sounds!

Before we had time to settle into the city, it was time to move on to the next. We traveled by train to Ayutthaya, a city about 40 miles north of Bangkok. We found a charming tek style guesthouse next to the river that surrounds the town. Then we rented some bikes and explored the city center, which is filled with ancient temple ruins (below). Since we are traveling during low season, we've often had the luck of being the only people exploring the sites. We did spot a few other tourists, some of which traveled for temple to temple via elephant.

June 4th. . .we moved on again, this time to Sukhothai. A city also known for it's ancient temple ruins. We made the mistake of buying third class train tickets on a rather slow train. It took over 5 hot, sweaty, hours to travel about 150 miles. We vowed from that point on to only take air-conditioned modes of transport! The next morning was filled with more bike riding and temple exploring. I definitely was starting to feel a bit like Lara Craft or Indiana Jones. But the feeling didn't last long as we had to get moving to the next city-Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is loved by Thais; it is known as the country's cultural center. I can understand why, it's filled with fun things to satisfy anybody: bars, restaurants, temples, spas, cooking schools, and Thai boxing centers. We opted for spas and cooking. The first day in town we went for Royal Thai massages ($8, one hour. I love this country!!) The second day we took an all day cooking course ($24) to learn how to prepare several Thai dishes (pictured below). I can happily say that I did not burn anything or chop off any fingers and all my food tasted delicious!

That brings us to today. This morning we took a 25 minute flight to Mae Hong Son, a very small town (only 6000 people) in Northern Thailand near the Burmese border. Had we traveled by bus it would take nearly 8 hours because the town is in the middle of the mountains. We were able to explore the whole city by foot, but the real fun begins tomorrow. We are going on a trek to the nearby Karen village. The Karen are an ethnic minority originally from Burma, though many are living in Thailand as refugees. They are very famous because the Karen women wear gold coils around their neck, thus lengthening it. I'm living in an issue of National Geographic!

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Pangzi, meaning fatty or fat-so, is definitely how I've felt lately. Now I'm not the type of girl to moan about my weight and how I need to "go on a diet," but being surrounded by a few million size 0 Chinese women can be a bit of a blow to the self-esteem. Usually I can overcome my insecurities by reassuring myself that I am different. I am an American of German ancestry. I am naturally big-boned. I come from the land of deep fried cheese and butter burgers. But then there are certain situations in which this denial/optomism just isn't enough. Here are some cases I've encountered over the past two years:

Case 1: I need to find a pair of jeans. A fairly simple task in America. I can go into The Gap, grab a size 8 (a normal, medium size) and call it a day. But it's so much more complicated here. Trying on jeans at any trendy Chinese store amounts to craming my thighs into a pair of flares that are usually a foot too long for me. After trying on three pairs I generally leave in utter disgust. So, what to do? Afterall, a girl needs pants. There's really only two options: return to the motherland and seek out the nearest Gap or go to the "Big and Fat" shop. Big and Fat shop it is. Here I found myself knee deep in rejects/imperfects from American stores that most likely produce their clothes in China. I happened to come across a pair of American Eagle girl's khakis, size 2. Are you kidding me? I then came across a size 8, only to find it had an elastic waistband. Abort mission. Abort mission. Abort mission.

Case 2: I need some new underwear. As with jeans and pants, finding underwear in America is no big thing. Anywhere I go a size medium will do. In China, whole different story. I was at the store with Ming and picked up a box of 3 pairs, size large.

"Honey, those won't be big enough, try these," he says as he throws me a different box. Size XXL. Extra, extra large? Is this some kind of cruel joke?

"How about I go for the extra large?" I ask him meekly, already knowing the anwer.

XXL. And they ended up being a little tight.

Case 3: I go out to dinner with a close Chinese friend, CiCi. She is cute, sweet, and weights about 90 pounds. We are having a good time, laughing, eating pizza. I realize I shouldn't be eating the pizza, of course, because I can hardly fit into my XXL undies, but everyone needs an occassional indulgence. I try not to feel too guilty. I promise myself I will do 150 sit-ups a night for the next month and from now-on I will walk to the far away grocery store instead of the one down the alley from my apartment. Ah, yes, I will be 115 pounds in no-time. But then I am brought back down to earth when we leave the restaurant. CiCi suddenly turns to me and says, "My, you've gotten fatter, haven't you?" I nearly burst into tears.

Case 4: I am teaching my high school students about student life in America. In China, during the week students only have time for class and to study. The only time for sports is on Sundays or during their ten minute break between classes. Most of them like sports and are in awe over the variety of sports and extra-curriculars American high school students enjoy. One students innocently asked me what kind of sports I played in high school. I explained to my class that I didn't play sports, but was involved in other things such as student council and art. To this one (male) student shouted out, "Oh, so that's why you're so fat!" Perhaps, perhaps.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Day Away

I've found myself in a rather obsure place in north central China. I'm sitting in an internet cafe right now and there is a guy standing behind watching intently as I type. All day I've been feeling a bit self-conscious. I'm away from my comfort zone, away from Beijing. I'm in a place that doesn't see a lot of foreigners. Their not afraid to point, laugh, or yell "hello" when I walk by.

So how did I get here? I decided with my current wealth of free time, I owe it to myself to get away and see something new. On Wednesday I purchased my $15 train ticket to Pingyao. It sounded like a fairly interesting place from its description in the LP (Lonely Planet Guidebook). "The only place in China with its ancient city walls still intact" and, as a special bonus, it is not far from Beijing. That was enough; I was sold.

I arrived at the train station late yesterday afternoon. Maybe I've said this before, but you can't truly appreciate how many people are in the world until you find yourself in a Chinese train station. Or a Chinese subway. Or a Chinese bus. Or on any average street in China. At Beijing West Station, there are at least 8 waiting rooms. Each is the size of a high school auditorium. Each is packed with people. There are people sitting in the chairs, people sitting on the ground, people laying on the ground, people standing. There is barely room to move. I made the tragic mistake of arriving an hour and a half early.

I got on the train around 6:30. As I walked through the carriage, all eyes were on me. "Let our beautiful foreign friend through," one older lady said in Chinese as I tried to squeeze by. I'm pretty sure her husband made a derogatory comment. It's moments like those that I pray for fluency so that I can one day take them by surprise with a sassy comeback. But that day has definitely not come. Defeated, I climbed up to my upper bunk and settled in for the 10 hour ride. The train was off by 7:00 and I passed out soon after.

I was woken by one of the train attendents. It was nearly 5am, almost time for my stop. I got out of bed and realized I was the only person she had woken up. I was the only person in the carriage getting off at this particular stop. Where was I? What the hell did I think I was doing? My stomach dropped and a little panic set in. It was pitch black outside still. The train was beginning to slow. I was hoping to see the lights of a nearby city, but nothing. I quickly scanned my LP-how big was this place? Pingyao: population 40,000. Forty-thousand people! In China, that's barely worth a dot on the map.

I got off the train and looked around. From the entire train, only a hand full of other people got off. I exited the station and was immediately approached by a sea of touts.

"Hello!" "Hello!" "Hello!" "Come! Come to my hotel!"

"I already have a hotel booked," I explained in Chinese.

"You come with me. Five yuan (60 cents). I give you ride."

I didn't have the strength to argue. So I settle for a ride to my hotel. The sun is beginning to rise. I can do this afterall! I checked into the cute courtyard hotel. Only $3.75 for a bed. Granted, the place smells a bit like pee, but what it lacks in smell it makes up in charm. After a quick (ok, 5 hour) nap, I hit the streets and walked around. The streets are cobbled and lined with little shops selling tea, "antiques," shoe insoles, and lots of other fabulous crap. This is what I call vacation.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Please press one for English

I arrived at Milwaukee's Mitchell airport at 7:15 on Monday morning. Two hours early for my international flight. I walked up to United's check-in. To my astonishment, no one was in line. Just me.

Despite being the only customer in sight, the clerk persuaded me to use the "easy check-in kiosk." He came up next to me to guide me through the menu. After touching the screen, a list of nearly a dozen languages appeared.

"So, what language are we speakin' today?" the clerk asked with a chuckle.

I tried to think of a clever reply, but it was 7 in the morning. "I guess I'll go for English," I replied.

"Some guy got really angry about this the other day. He said, 'This is America. English should be the only option!'" he told me.

This made me seethe. Perhaps because my fiance speaks a different language. Perhaps because I was about to go back to a country where I'm often lost in its language.

"Well, this is a country full of lots of different types of people," I finally sputtered.

"Yeah, and this is an airport! Of course there's people from all over the world traveling through here," the clerk added.

Victory. He had sided with me. But then I thought about it. How did I really feel? I have to admit that there was a little part of me that was nervous when I noticed espanol written on the back of a Lean Cuisine. If Spanish is being used to tell us how to microwave things, then it must be almost everywhere. And, at least in Milwaukee, it is.

America is quite unique in its size and diverisity. Amazingly, despite all its different people, you can travel from coast to coast and speak one language the entire way. This came at quite a cost. We wiped out almost an entire race of people to achieve this, plus most of our ancestors were forced to part with their native tongue. Language is one of few things that unite us as a country. We come from different races, cultures, and religions. Maybe we shouldn't be willing to part with the one thing that most of us have in common.

Living in China, I can also relate to the other side of the coin. It's comforting to see a sign in English. To find a map in English. Directions in English. A person who speaks English. If I see two similar products, but one has an English description, I will naturally pick the one I can read. It's too scary to imagine what I might be getting otherwise (ketchup flavored potato chips-no thank you). Unless you have lived in a country in which you cannot read or speak language, you cannot imagine how vulnerable this can make you feel. But no matter how scary or frustrating it may be, it was my choice to come here not speaking a word of Chinese.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

holla back y'all

Monday night I arrived in Chicago. It was a great feeling. . .to be in my motherland after being away for 11 months. I was also feeling relieved. For the first time in ages I didn't feel fat. In fact, the first thing I noticed when I walked through the airport is how fat other people are. This may sound a tad insulting and also a wee-bit obvious (ok, yeah, us Americans are fat, what's new?) but after being surrounded by 5 foot 90 pound Asian women for an entire year, this is a breath of fresh air. I'm no longer the tubbiest one in the room, in fact I probably on the smaller end. Or at least that's what I like to believe.

There are so many little things I'm happy to endulge in now that I'm home. Being with friends and family, of course, but there are so many everyday comforts and habits I'm happy to go back to. Not carrying around toliet paper everywhere I go because bathrooms here actually supply that for me. Being able to walk around the house in bare feet. Not having to wash my hands obsessively. Applying the 5 second rule. . .the floor's not that dirty after all. Drinking Diet Dr. Pepper. Life is good! I almost cried the other day when I saw a big, red barn with a silo next to it. Wide open spaces. Clean air. Cows. Things I haven't seen in ages now are all around me. The best is English. Glorious English. I can read every word on every sign and eavesdrop on any conversation at any time. I can say words like "bling," "phat," and "holla back y'all" and though I may sound ridiculous, people know what I'm talking about. Ah, yes, it's good to be home.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

out with the dog, in with the pig

Big class at Richland, last day of class
No fear, this is not about a recent meal. Rather, it's about the holiday season that has descended upon China. It is just about that time for the Chinese New Year. This year it falls on February 18th and on that day The Year of the Pig will officially begin. For those of you born mid-Feb 1983-early Feb 1984, this is your year. Congratulations. It only comes around once every 12 years. My year, the dog, is coming to its end.

Holidays in China are a strange thing. Western holidays are really starting to take over. Christmas is a big one, of course. New Year's (as we all know it) is also celebrated. Valentine's Day was yesterday, and that's increasing in popularity. But the Chinese seem to celebrate these holidays in a half-assed way. They don't really know the meaning behind them (but then again, sometimes I'm not sure if we do either), but do it because it's interesting. The Chinese New Year, however, is much more sacred. This is one monster of a holiday. This is my first time in China during the Chinese New Year and it's a very odd feeling being here.

In a country with 1.3 billion people, there are always people about. But where I live, it's starting to feel like a bit of a ghost town. I can compare it to Christmas or Thanksgiving Day, or a Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin when the Packers are having a great season (I've almost forgotten what that was like). Everyone is at home. Stores are empty, if they are even open. There's not a lot of traffic. This is what it feels like.

This is my last week teaching and the children are in the "it's-almost-time-for-holiday" mode in which they are hyper and don't want to do much of anything. A lot of the children aren't even in class because their parent's have taken them back home for the holidays. It seems that most people that live in Beijing aren't actually from Beijing. Almost all of my Chinese co-workers are from different cities and this is one of few times during the year that everyone can go to their hometowns to be with their families. The lines at train ticket offices are ridiculously long. Most trains have standing room only, if that. Buses heading out of town are jam-packed. Everyone in the country is either migrating back to where they came from or going on vacation.

But I am here, alone, stuck in Beijing until Monday. The day after the New Year. Ming left this morning to go back to Chengde to be with his mom. I'll have to experience this holiday alone, which is a little depressing since it is a family holiday. It's kinda like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the 4th of July all wrapped up into one. Children get gifts, mostly red envelopes with 100 RMB ($12) from all their relatives. There's tons of food. And finally, as I've already begun to notice, there are LOTS of fireworks. For such an important holiday, there are few decorations to be seen, mostly pigs, pigs, and more pigs.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Are you black?

not just the cat is black. . .

Was watching "Friends" yesterday...usually not the most thought provoking show, but Ming manages to make things interesting by asking me questions. Although "Friends" doesn't exactly reflect the realities of American culture and society (let's not even get started on how nice their apartments are. And have you ever met anyone as flaky as Phoebe?), it does bring up some differences between China and America. The first thing that shocked Ming when he first started watching the show was how much the characters talk about sex. The topic of sex is forbidden on Chinese television and naturally mention of menage-a-tois, masturbation, girl-on-girl action and the like is not allowed. Imagine America TV without these things. . . .

While this is all shocking enough, there's more. So let us rewind to what particular episode we were watching last night. It was the one in which Rachel and Ross bring little baby Emma home from the hospital. They aren't married, of course, which to the average American isn't all that scandalous. Ming was quite taken aback by all this though. He asked me if the baby was "Black." Excuse me? Black? You mean, like, African American?

But he didn't mean that Black. He meant the "Black List" kinda black. The kind of black that means scorned, sneered at, and kicked to the curb. In China, if you are born to unwedded parents you are considered an illegitimate "Black." You aren't allowed any legal identification which means you cannot attend school, cannot work, cannot marry, cannot do anything. In China, poor little baby Emma would be a Black. And guess what-so would I. Or maybe not. Maybe my parents would have married for my sake. In China a lot of unhappy marriage must begin this way and later end inevitably in divorce.

The level of conservativeness here is a bit mind-blowing at times. I was really upset recently when I read an article about the regulations changing for adopting Chinese babies. People who are not married, people who are obese, and people who are taking anti-depressents will no longer be able to adopt a baby from China. This is quite a blow to gay and lesbian couples. It's no good news for neither those with extra poundage nor those who are TREATING a common disorder. I can sometimes overcome my frustration with a simple, "Not my country, not my problem." That's not a great stance to take, of course, but I also see how China is developing which gives me some hope that human rights will improve. But really, who would have guessed that all of this would have come from watching "Friends?"

Thursday, February 08, 2007

China Rage

It's been awhile, yet again. It's not that there's been no time to write. I have plenty these days. And it's not because there's nothing to bitch about. There's definitely things. But they changed the blogger site around (and it's completely in Chinese) so it took a lot of trial and error and swearing to figure out how to get into my account.

Now I'm in. phew. I was beginning to think the Chinese government shut me down due to all my sarcasm and clothing jabs. Evidently they're thinking of making all Chinese blogs be tied to a "real name" so that people will practice "responsible blogging." In other words, they can be tracked down and killed if they say anything to offend the wrong peps.

Just another thing to add to my list of Chinese grievances. I'll share my abridged list with you now:

1. People skipping in line. Particularly, people who skip in line when I'm waiting to use the toliet and really gotta go.
2. Bathrooms with no doors on the stalls. Bathrooms with no stalls, but just holes in the ground.
3. The staring. It sometimes lasts for what seems like forever. If you want my autograph, just ask already.
4. People drive like complete f%$*ing morons. They put whole intersections into gridlock because they are so damn inconsiderate.
5. Ugly little ankle bitters who run around freely (no leashes, the insanity!) reeking havoc on the community.
6. No decent Mexican food.
7. Complete strangers asking me what my monthly salary is.
8. Having to look in all four directions when I cross the street or otherwise risk death.
9. Strolling merrily down the sidewalk when a whiff of the vilest stentch hits my nostrils and nearly knocks me to the ground.
10. Friends, family, and Oscar are an ocean away.

You may sense that some things are getting under my skin. Some foreigners refer to this as "China Rage." Yes, there are moments (more frequently as of late) that I get a bit miffed. It's not that China isn't a wonderful country. It's great. But it's obviously a lot different from home. I miss going into a public toliet and knowing that there will be toliet paper made available for me. Such is not the case here. It's the little things like that (and the big things like being far from friends and family) that make me anxious to get home. It won't be much longer now. I can almost taste the burrito.

Monday, January 22, 2007

to sprint or not to sprint?

Yet another bus tale. . .I promise this will be my last.

It's Monday morning and I'm walking down the alley next to my apartment building. I can see the main road and I hear the grumble of a bus coming down the street. Please don't be my bus, I think. I see it roll past. . .the 749. My bus. Shit.

I now have one of two choices. I can continue walking and miss the bus-resulting in a 20 minute, freezing cold wait for the next one. Or I can book it. Do my fastest 200 meter dash since middle school gym class. If I opt to run for it, there are two outcomes:

1. I make it onto the bus, relieved and panting.

2. I make it to the bus stop, huffing and puffing, as the bus pulls away from the curb and I'm left in a cloud of fuel exhaust while everyone at the bus stop stares at me, "The Foreigner." I then try to catch my breath, which takes awhile, cuz, let's face it, the only time I ever sprint (or exercise, for the matter) is if I am chasing a bus. All the while I'm trying to act cool and pretend that I'm not totally pissed that I missed the bus and made an ass of myself in the process. In fact, it was precisely what I meant to do.

Since it's a bitterly cold morning, as most winter mornings in Beijing are, I decide to make a run for it. Usually things go in my favor. Chinese bus drivers are generally not the passive aggressive types. If they see someone coming they don't step on the gas with a little smirk of gratification on their faces. Quite often they will wait. But this wasn't the case for me. I was left in the dust, looking like an idiot.

The funny thing I've noticed about Chinese people, is that the only time I EVER see them running is if they are chasing a bus. I don't see them so much as jogging in the park. If they are in the crosswalk and the light is about to change and their is a dump truck barreling down upon them, they continue to stroll along without a care in the world. I think I'll never fully understand these people.

Monday, January 15, 2007

just an ordinary day

Left: alley way next to my house
Right: my little class at Richland School

It's been awhile...but there hasn't been that much interesting happening to me. The most exciting thing that's happened to me in the past week is that I discovered Doritos at the local 7/11. While I'm not the biggest fan of them (I believe I ODed on them in the 8th grade due to too many late night sleepover munchies), I've found myself missing them. They have recently made their arrival in China. Now if they only had Cherry Coke.

The other reason I haven't wrote is because I've been feeling lazy. The semester is winding down (only 5 more weeks!!!) and after doing this for five months I'm ready for a vacation. And I'm coming home to take my vacation. . .Monday, February 19th! Before it comes to an end, I'll let you in on what my days are like here. Yesterday, for example:

6:01am Wake up. Don't know what time it is. Wish I wasn't half blind or at least have a night stand with a clock.

6:20am Finish getting ready. Leave the house.

6:22am Outside, it's dark as night. The moon is still out. This is seriously too early to be up. Street vendors are preparing breakfast foods. . .egg sandwiches, spring rolls, soy milk. There's a few people out and about and a some taxis cruise down the road.

6:24am Arrive at the bus stop. There's not too many other people there. Freezing my butt off. Praying the bus will come soon and that it won't be crowded.

6:30am Bus comes, it doesn't look too crowded. I still make a point to be the first on the bus to get the best seat available. If this involves a little pushing and shoving, so be it.

7:00am The sun makes things a little less da