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.