Saturday, January 30, 2010

Revisiting Guanxi

From Saturday, December 17, 2005

The different levels of corruption in this country keep becoming clearer and clearer. I know these forces must be at work in my own country, but I don't think they are as widespread or obvious. Here, it impacts every corner and level of society.

Take my friend Apple, for example. She has been banking on the chance of going to Beijing International Language University. She has to take an exam to go there and if she does well on it she'll be accepted and not have to take the National Examination in June. Last week she found out that there are only 8 seats for the exam at students from No. 1 Middle School and only one of them is for a girl. She was so afraid that her classmates may use their parents' position to influence the decision. Luckily, Apple found out yesterday that she was picked. She is certainly deserving of it, as she is the best at English in her grade.

It's upsetting that she would even have to worry about such a thing. The truth is, students use their parents' influence all the time to get things they don't deserve. I have guanxi (Chinese term for 'having good connections' though it literally translates as 'relationship') and I hate it even more after today.

Guanxi puts people in the position to always be asking for and granting favors. Being the independent girl that I am, I'm not too big on asking others for favors. But what I hate even more is asking favors on behalf of someone else. This is also very common in China, and there are few things that make me more uncomfortable (other than, perhaps, eating mysterious Chinese food).

The current situation is this: Zhao Ming's cousin (his aunt's daughter) must pass an exam in order to get hired for a job. His cousin desperately needs this job because her parents both have cancer (yes, both of them) and only her uncle is working; he may not be able to work for long. According to Ming, his cousin isn't exceptionally bright and will not be able to pass this test. I should add that the test is probably something similar to the ACTs--testing general math, language, etc.

Zhao Ming had this wonderful idea that we ask Angelina (my friend and student that I teach in Class 2) to take the test. This involves getting her picture taken and making a fake ID. She must take the exam tomorrow--her only day free from school. I know I had to suck it up and help him get the favor. This is for the well-being of his family. Well, Angelina has agreed to do it, but we shall see what happens tomorrow.

I think it's rather strange that this is all happening. A fake ID? Sitting in on someone's exam? That's a pretty sly move in the U.S. but according to Zhao Ming it's all quite normal here. I don't know what to believe anymore.

footnote: Apple did not get admitted to Beijing Language University but eventually went on to go to another university in Beijing. Ming's uncle died of lung cancer in 2007. Angelina reassured me that sitting in on someone's test is quite normal, however the scheme failed when someone at the exam center recognized her--Ming's cousin, therefore, did not get the job.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Blast from the Past--Part One

I've had this blog going for nearly four years now. Prior to that I'd been journaling and it's a shame I didn't have that online for the world to see. Then again, maybe not. I'm not sure how entertaining others would find it, but I'm certaining amused as I read through the opinions and experiences I documented five years ago. I've decided to post a few of them on my blog over the next few weeks just to mix things up. Read them if you'd like.

Saturday, October 8, 2005 (month 8 living in China)

I met up with Helen this morning and we hit the 'Eight Outer Temples;' Chengde's finest! First we went to Putuo Zongcheng Zhi Miao. It's the largest tmeple in Chengde and modeled after Lhasa's architectural marvel The Potala Palace. Evidently it looks just like it, but smaller. I found it better than to be expected. Inside there were cement elephants in addition to the usual lions. There were large pillars carved with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese script. The architecture was fantastic and at the top was a sweeping view of Chengde. I found it amazing, but one Italian tourist begged to differ. She chatted with Helen and I for a bit. Helen asked her what she thought of China and her reply, "It's really not that beautiful. . . . "

What?! Hold the phone. Ok, I applaud this woman for being honest, but she loses points for coming off as pompous and (for lack of a better term) stupid. I realize Italy is the home of some of the finest art and architecture in the world, but how can this woman not appreciate China for what it is? It is not Italy. And yes, it's dirty and rough around the edges. BUT, it is so different from the Western world. The people, the buildings, everyday life is so foreign--how can one not find beauty in it? Even in the ugly things--like a dirty, bustling market--there is beauty. One must appreciate it for what it is and not compare it to one's own standard of beauty.

I tried to tune this woman out, but it was not easy. She went on to say how no one works very hard in China. How they all seem to be standing around doing nothing. I guess I can understand this point a little, but I still think this woman is walking around and looking but not really thinking. If you go to a store or a restaurant in China, there is an abundence of staff--probably four times the number needed. But guess what? There's over 1.3 billion people in China! The country needs to create some kind of work for the population, therefore there are superfluous staff standing around a restaurant. They are there 60 hours a week and making $60/month; where's the incentive to work hard? And what would the difference be if they did? On the flip side, there's people like Zhao Ming who work their asses off at dangerous jobs for relatively little pay. I didn't go into this in much depth with the woman, but I did say something.

Anyways, after that temple we walked up the road to Xumi Fushou Zhi Miao. It was not as impressive, but still nice. On its roof were eight copper dragons and behind it was a 7-story ceramic tiled pagoda. By that time we were pretty hungry so we ate at a restaurant near the gym. A cold beer never tasted as good as it did today! The food was great too.

We parted ways and then I went home to Zhao Ming. He had to go to his home at dinnertime to cook for his mama. Usually her boyfriend cooks for her, but evidently they are on the outs. He proposed to her, but she's not ready. She told him that and now he's angry. I don't know how he can justify his anger. Her husband died one year ago and I think that would be rather quick for most people to remarry. Well, Zhao Ming doesn't seem too thrilled about the situation. My predition, however, is that they will get married. We'll see. . .

When Zhao Ming was finished cooking for his mama, he came back to my place so I could cook for him. I made salad (they have Thousand Island dressing here, which is a god send), Fettucini Alfredo, and fried chicken. He really enjoyed the chicken; hopefully American food will continue growing on him.

footnote: Ming's mom eventually broke up with her boyfriend. I now think Thousand Island sucks and have discovered the wonders of olive oil and vinegar. Finally, I am happy to report that Ming does enjoy western food.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Failures (Week Two)

Nearly Two Weeks of Somewhat New Things

Thursday (1/21)-Walking downtown and indulging in a Middle Eastern Buffet.
As long as I've lived in Milwaukee, I've never taken a stroll downtown during daylight hours. After a late night on Wednesday, I crashed at a friend's place who lives downtown, which naturally resulted in the ritual morning walk-of-shame to my car. It remains embarassing to walk around at 8am with unbrushed hair and teeth, perhaps even more-so now that I'm married, nearly thirty, and should probably hold my drink better. It was a frigid morning, but the church bells clanged at and the streets were nearly empty making it an overall pleasant experience, one that I'd never had before.

For lunch I met up with Karen at . Delicious food, compounded by the fact that it was ridiculously cheap (thanks to a well utilized coupon), made it a fabulous meal and a great introduction to Middle Eastern food.

Friday (1/22)-Coconut shrimp
Another day of new culinary delights. . . I helped make and helped eat coconut shrimp.

Saturday (1/23)-A not-so-daring haircut
After two years of too long locks, I decided to go for a chop. My parents' neighbor, Sue, gives haircuts in her basement for $7. A little steep considering I can get one for $1 in China, however, I was feeling confident that the results would be considerably better. Going for a cut in China, I usually end up with a shag or a mullet despite clearly having told the barber to give me a trim.

I was willing to part with nearly all of my hair--doing the deed that most American women inevitably do sometime before middle age fully sets in. I was determined to throw caution to the wind and walk out of that basement a pixie. I told Sue my idea but also let her know that I'd be traveling for awhile and that I'm a low maintenance kinda girl. As a result, I was talked into a compromise, a shoulder length cut that could still be thrown up into a pony tail.

Overall, I'm not sure the constitutes as 'something new.' I have had my hair cut this short, if not shorter, before. However, I've never so much as entertained the idea of getting it all chopped off, which really ought to count for something.

Sunday (1/24)-Sippin' a brandy old fashion sweetWhile watching Brett Favre throw a game losing interception (SWEET JUSTICE) I was sipping on a Minch family favorite--the Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet. This is a drink my mother and grandparents adored while I was growning up, but I consistently stuck my nose up to it. Turns out, it's not too bad. I'll still be drinking vodka cranberries if you catch me at the bar though.

Monday (1/25)-An attempt not to go to the post office
In middle school, I was the type of student that did her homework on the bus or during class--everything was left until the last minute. I still managed to pull off good grades, but in the process I was completely stressed out. High school came and my work ethic took a one-eighty. Since then I avoid procrastination at almost all costs. It's gotten to the point of being a time-waster. For example, I will prepare lessons for my students weeks in advance only to not use them later.

These days I've been selling on eBay, which leads to superfluous post office visits. As soon as a customer pays for an item I feel the itch to get her item out in the mail immediately. I've pledged to myself time and again to only make one stop at the post office a day. Who wants to be standing in line and dealing with those cranky government workers (it's more than a stereotype) more than once daily? But yet I just can't keep away. I tried to stay away, really I did. I was determined that my New Thing for the Day would be getting over mypostal neurosis. I failed.

Tuesday (1/26)-Utilizing those handy rearview mirrors
I spent some quality time with my dad and he taught me how to use the rearview mirrors to back into a spot rather than looking over my shoulder all the time. Pretty boring to go into detail about, but a skill I should really have acquired by now given my 12 years of driving experience.

Wednesday (1/27)-Getting pulled over by the police
As I so carelessly bragged about in an earlier post, I have never been pulled over by the police while driving. My good luck ended tragically on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 when a young officer pulled me over for going the wrong way down a one-way in downtown Milwaukee. It's an easy thing to do, is it not?

I got a verbal warning.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

From poopy diapers to Haiti Relief

I have been keeping up with my New Things. In addition to the aforementioned fish, here is what I've accomplished up to today:

Saturday-changing a poopy diaper. I'm not sure if this is something I've ever done before; if it is, I certainly can't remember it. Not that it's the sort of thing one wants to remember. I won't get into the dirty details, but I will say this--I am happy that most Chinese babies are potty trained early.

Sunday-cheering for the Cowboys. It was a tough call, the Minnesota Vikings versus the Dallas Cowboys, but I just could bring myself to cheer for the team our once beloved Brett Favre defected to.

Monday-taking a mouse out of a mouse trap. Since my husband's greatest fear is of small rodents, it is essential that I am at least somewhat willing to deal with them. Handling a dead mouse was disgusting, but doable. I'm not sure if I could cope with exterminating a rat though.

Tuesday-driving the speed limit. I am told by my family that I drive like a grandma. In my defense, I would like it to be known that I usually go 7mph over the limit on the freeway, which I don't think is particularly slow especially in the state of Wisconsin (Illionois is another matter). I think it should also be noted that I have never been pulled over by the police or the cause of an accident. But since I am guilty of speeding, as most of us are, I thought I would try going the speed limit (or below) and truly driving like a senior citizen.

Coincidentally, I drove from my Grandmother's home to my parent's home. The distance: 51 miles. The speed limit on the highway: 65mph. Sixty-five miles per hour is pretty fast, if you think about it, but it still doesn't feel fast enough. I think we are trained to always want to go faster and get places quicker, no matter how high the speed limit is set or how much time we actually have. Going the speed limit does not feel natural to me and I really had to pay close attention to keep the speedometer under 65. I was passed by my fair share of traffic, but I didn't have to deal with switching lanes or looking out for clocking cops. Overall, it was an enjoyable ride, but I still think I'm going to stick to going 7mph over the limit. I don't want to be called a grandma anymore than I already am.

Wednesday-donating to the Red Cross (Haiti Relief and Development). Having traveled in several under-developed countries and living in a developing country myself, I have had to face poverty in ways many Americans do not. On one extreme, I have seen severely disabled and disfigured burn victims begging for money in Cambodia. On the other, I have seen young Laotian children skipping school to sell homemade bracelets to backpackers on the streets of Luang Prabang. In both instances, it can be hard to know what the right thing to do is.

While I do believe it's a personal choice, I feel uncomfortable giving money to beggars or supporting child labor. In the end, I think it often does more damage than good. But there is always a part of me that wants to do something, so I make a vow to support a charity that provides support for people in developing countries. I make this promise to myself, yet I never follow through because I'm overwhelmed by the number of such organizations. With all that has happened in Haiti during the last week, I decided to stop the procrastination and excuses. I donated to the Red Cross today. If this sounds like something you'd like to do, I'd recommend going to their website and chosing a relief fund.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

To Fillet a Fish

I am in a family of fishermen. My grandpa had half a basement full of ties, reels, ice augers, and magazines devoted to the sport. My dad, no different. I, on the other hand, have always been a little phobic of fishing. I remember my mom and step-dad forcing me to accompany them on their many fishing excursions. This involved a little boat on a small lake somewhere in rural Wisconsin; I was seven or eight at the time, deemed too young to stay home alone. At first I found it all a bit boring, but then I was told a tale that horrified me to the core. My step-dad related to me a tale about his days as a young fisherman. He had had some trouble taking his catch off the hook and some of the scales lodged into his skin--a nasty fish scale sliver resulted. My adult self has some doubts both about the story and my ability to recall it accurately; nevertheless, I've been afraid to touch a fish ever since.

What better way to start off my Month of New Things than by filleting a fish and thus conquering this long held irrational fear?

My step-brother, Dan, and my Dad spent all day Friday ice fishing. They brought home over a dozen small fish, mostly walleyes and perch. I looked at their little frozen bodies; nothing to be afraid of, I realized. Then my Dad cut into one and my squimishness took over. Not only am I phobic of fish, I also have issues with blood.

I once accompanied my father to the hospital and watched him get stitches, in hopes of overcoming my fear, but ended up fainting--falling with a thud onto the cold hospital floor. I have to turn away during the operating scenes of Grey's Anatomy. Being a doctor or nurse has never been in the cards for me, but maybe gutting a fish I could do.

I tried paying attention to Eddie Davis, master fish filleter's, technique. I won't go into details here for I'm sure most of you aren't interested into a play-by-play of killing Nemo. I will tell you that in the end simply listening and focusing on the task allowed me to forget about the blood and guts. After several attempts I was able to fillet a small perch, leaving two beautiful pieces of boneless, skinless meat. This is something I can truly appreciate after five years in China where the fish is served to you whole. I don't like anything I'm about to eat to be looking at me, nor do I enjoy tiny bones getting stuck in my throat. So with my first New Thing I have learned a new skill and conquered my fish phobia. . . not a bad start.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Adventure without travel

I was never the adventurous sorts, particularly when I was younger. Growing up in a small Wisconsin town, it was easy to get lost in the world right outside my patio door. When I was very small I did entertain the occasional world travel fantasy. I would sit cross-legged on my living room floor, holding a bowl of buttered rice, eating it daintily with a small fork. In my mind, however, I was in a wooden, stilted house in rural Japan sitting on a thin mat using chopsticks with the greatest of ease.

Outside of my imagination, I never seriously planned on going anywhere. I considered that one day I might find myself in a small African village or on a safari in the Amazon. These were just passing thoughts--like getting married or graduating college--possibilities the future held, but nothing I could truly wrap my young mind around. My whole life lay in front of me, perfectly planned. I would go to middle school, high school, and eventually college. Anything beyond that, I couldn't see.

Senior year of college, my perfectly planned life was rapidly approaching my unforeseen future. My friend Amy was studying overseas in Ireland, which fascinated me, though I didn't have the courage to picture myself in her position--that is, until I went to visit her myself.

The lead up to the trip was filled with anticipation and anxiety. Amy said the girls in Ireland dressed fashionably, would I fit in? Would the locals notice my American accent? How would we find the way from the airport to Amy's apartment? A million questions swirled through my head, as I'm sure they do in most first time travelers. Going to another country can seem overwhelming and threatening, though I found almost all my fears unwarranted. The trip, though not without its difficulties, was amazing and eye-opening. I realized that trying something new doesn't have to be scary and horrible; it can actually be interesting and fun.

Of course, trying something new does not equate traveling to strange and exotic places like Ireland (although it often does for me). Traveling, especially to foreign countries, is not for everyone. It can be stressful, uncomfortable, and strange. It also requires a certain amount of time and money. But just because one doesn't have the desire or means to travel, doesn't mean she can't try other unfamiliar things.

Therefore, I'm going to take this opportunity to try new things that don't involve travel. Here I am, back in my cushy U.S. life, with relatively little to write about and not too much pushing me out of my comfort zone. In the next month, I will attempt one new thing a day and report back about it. First on the agenda, which I successfully completed yesterday, filleting a fish.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Pat Down

As you probably have heard, those traveling to the U.S. will have to deal with heightened security measures in response to the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day. After flying yesterday, I can give you a little preview of what to expect if you are flying to a U.S. destination anytime soon.

Ticketing went pretty much as normal and was perhaps even more efficient than in the past as airlines are really pushing online check-in, which eliminates most of the long lines at the check-in counter. One recent change is the restriction on carry-on items. Only one carry-on is now allowed if you are flying to a U.S. destination. You can take a small piece of luggage OR a purse/laptop, but you are not permitted to take both. Be prepared to check the rest of your bags. If you are flyig internationally, you'll probably be allowed to checked bags, free of charge. Domestic flights, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. Be prepared to pay $15-25 per bag. Some discounts may be available if you pay online for this prior to your flight.

Security to enter the gate area at London Heathrow--it was a dream, a marvel of efficiency. I didn't have to wait in line, a first for me, but I did have to take off my jacket and shoes. After passing through the metal detectors I received a fairly thorough pat down. None of this was too out of the ordinary and the security process moved along suspiciously fast, which made me wonder why the 'one carry-on item' restriction was in place.

Into the gates and past the duty free shops I went, business as normal. Bailey's, two for 22 pounds; select perfumes, two for one; and enormous Toblerone bars all tempted me. I had over 4 pounds in spare change, which I put to rather practical use by purchasing an overpriced ham sandwich and vinegar flavored crisps, err, chips.

Approahing my gate, still nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then they began boarding the plane AN HOUR AND A HALF BEFORE TAKE-OFF. Women queued to the right and men to the left. My line was curiously short--I never realized that the male to female ration of airplane passengers was so disproportionate. Despite my short line, we moved at a snail's pace. Between the passengers and the walkway to the plane were several tables--three for the men and three for the women. On my side, all three tables were manned by a female security employee. One-by-one were were called up to a table. I watched others being searched, patted, and prodded from my comfortable position in line. Inevitably my turn came and I approached the table nervously; being treated suspect creates a false sense of guilt in me that I've always struggled with.

Each pocked of my purse was carefully inspected, my book was picked up and fanned through quickly, my jacket was searched, and my wallet was opened. After ever crevice of my personal items had been examined, I was given another thorough pat down. Now it was the people in line looking on at me. At last I passed all the tests, no stip search or further questioning needed. My ticket was checked and I proceeded down the ramp to the plane.

The whole process took about 2 minutes, but was performed on all of the 500 odd flight passengers; therefore, a boarding that would normally take 20 minutes took 2 hours. How do I feel about this? I'm still forming an opinion, I suppose. While standing in the queue, there was a small part of me that found it ridiculous and a part of me that felt somewhat violated. Not violated by these acts themselves--the bag search, the pat down, and the ocassional questioning, but by what they imply: Guilty until proven Innocent. I'm also concerned about what this all leads to. How far will we go in our quest to deter the terrorists? How far will the terrorists go to overcome the ever increasing security measures? I fear that one will continue to outwit the other, but not for long. . . on and on down the spiral we shall go.

Yes, I can admit I feel a little angry. But with whom or what am I angry? The rules or the people who enforce them? The terrorists or the ideologies that motivate them? On this I haven't decided, but I can tell you with much certainty that I am not looking forward to my next flight. If I can give you any advice on flying it would be this: please be patient and don't pack a lot in your carry-on bag.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The weather outside is frightful

I can't seem to escape the snow. My last day in Beijing, Sunday, the skies opened up and dumped on us unlike I've ever experienced in China before. Life went on pretty much as normal--cars rushed down the streets at alarming speeds, pedestrians packed the sidewalks, and shops continued to run as normal. Businesses had their glove-less and hatless employees out with straw brooms, sweeping the snow into pathetic little piles. Eventually they emerged with dirt shovels, chipping away at the ice on the pavement. Fashionable young women took to the streets to go shopping, sporting capris that stopped just below the ankle paired with knee-high boots and an umbrella open over head. This bizarre style resurfaces each winter, one which I will never understand. Desperately needed but very much absent were plows and salt trucks, an investment in safety and sanity that Beijing City perhaps isn't ready to make. Despite the madness, I made it to the airport without incident on Monday and my flight was only delayed by an hour. All things considered, I left the city somewhat impressed in Beijingers' ability to carry on as usual in these unusual weather conditions.

I cannot, however, speak of the English in the same light. Half an inch of snow or an overnight freeze brings British civilization to a sudden and screeching halt. The light snow that dusted London overnight on Tuesday resulted in widespread closings and delays. While I normally would find this frustrating, it provided me with a great excuse to stay at the flat and nurse my jet-lagged body and catch up with a best friend I haven't seen face to face in over a year. I was less amused yesterday when some minor morning flurries left me stranded at the bus station in Canterbury for nearly two hours. I was admittedly lucky, as many bus routes were no longer running. I was assured that my bus to London would come and was given numerous updates as I sat patiently and waited. It was nearly on time, it was running behind, it was broken, it was on its way. The truth, the bus seemed to up and vanish. I wasn't expecting this type of inefficiency in England, but I suppose I will do as the British do and blame it on the weather.

In just a few more days I will be landing in Chicago and I will have five weeks of subzero wind chills and blizzards to contend with. I think I am ready for it, yet I can't help but wonder why I don't ever come home in the summer. From what I remember, Wisconsin is lovely in the summer.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Art of Saying Good-bye

I've never been much for good-byes, though most people probably aren't. Over time, leaving becomes easier, especially when approached with the right attitude.

First, I try not to think too much of those who I am leaving, but rather the people that await me at my destination. With this approach, I'm more apt to feel excited rather than the hysterical, sniffling ball of a mess I have the potential to be.

I have also learned that most people and places don't change too much, too fast. I often find things are as I left them and can pick up where I last left off.

And finally, I try to embrace my escape. Sometimes it's nice to have a change, a break, a different perspective--particularly in the case of leaving China. Although I could provide many examples, I will name just a few in an attempt to avoid 'China bashing.' Here they are:

1. Not so plus-sized. A point I've touched on before, but feel it is worthy of being brought up again--my size. I've never been thin, outside a stint of obsessive calorie counting during the Summer/Fall of 02 which brought me (somewhat) close. My BMI generally hovers that imaginary line between healthy and overweight. Most days, I am fine with this. My self-esteem can't help but be crushed, however, when a Chinese saleswoman exclaims, "That girls got meat!" as I walk by. Or when I have to ask for a shop's largest size only to find it's too tight. I am happy to be in places where no one's going to comment on how much meat I have. I am glad to leave a country where a double XL fits snugly on my frame.

2. Cooking. . . I have discovered my ability to do it over the past year. I am particularly proud that I can make western food. Afterall, I have a husband who can cook delicious Chinese food, so it seems like a bit of a waste to focus my energy on learning how to do that. Not to mention that would be too easy. I enjoy the challenge of trying to cook beef bourguignon in an oven the size of a shoe box and roll tortillas out from scratch. I enjoy it, but not that much. I look forward to being able to find sour cream at the local grocery store and buy a can of chicken broth if I should need it. I will finally be able to cut corners while cooking or even not cook at all. Qdoba, I hear you calling me. . .

Friday, January 01, 2010

A Resolution

Someone recently asked me if I keep a journal of my time spent in China; I do not.

When I first arrived here, nearly five years ago, I almost daily wrote of my adventures. I filled four or five notebooks describing my fascination with the traffic, the line-jumpers, the spitting, the haggling, and numerable other thoughts or incidents. As time has passed, however, the strange and unusual has become mundane. For the past year, other than a few trips here and there, my life has settled into a comfortable routine. I have very little to write about that hasn't been said before. Some people assume I'm living a life full of excitement and intrigue, while others claim I am living one endless vacation, the truth of the matter is that my life is generally just as boring as the next guy's and though at times unconventional does include work and other responsibilities.

All that is going to change soon though, as I'm gearing up for the biggest trip of my life and a long visit to the States. The tickets have been booked since August and tonight will mark the start of my journey. I am sad. I am excited. I am nervous. I am slightly guilt-ridden. I'm leaving behind my Chinese family for three and half months in a somewhat selfish attempt to visit American friends and family for weeks on end topped off with an indulgent seven week trip through India and Burma.

I haven't made a New Year's Resolution since I was in grade school, but this year I'm going to make one and make one that's realistic (not to deter any of you who have vowed to exercise more or quit smoking). Here is my New Year's Resolution: To document this trip, which may be my last epic adventure for awhile, at least twice a week. This may be a challenge as the States doesn't provide me with the same caliber of blogging material I can usually uncover in China. Expect a blog describing my love affair with Qdoba Mexican Grill or my amazement at being able to put toilet paper in the toilet again.

I once read a comment somewhere that a good blogger can find a way to make the ordinary interesting--let the next several weeks be a test of my writing ability.

Oh, and one more thing, Happy New Year!