Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rings and Things

It's that time of year when it's so hot and muggy that I desperately wish to be plunged into the depths of winter, no matter how cold or dark. Each summer I've lived in China, amid the smog and suffocating humidity, I have longed for winter. I have a feeling though, that in six months I will be wanting to bask in this 100 degree stuffiness. I now have little sympathy for those back home who complain about Milwaukee's weather. I would do anything for a little lake effect breeze right now.

With this daily discomfort comes a complete lack of motivation to do anything, I don't want to cook or write or eat or watch TV (unless it's a new episode of AMC's "Mad Men"). I definitely don't want to go outside. I would just like to lay still in front of my air-conditioner, which has been getting quite the workout the past few days. I'm sorry environment.

I am still managing to forge ahead with my reading, but at a snail's pace. I have finally, FINALLY began to read Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (which, according to the foreword, isn't actually a trilogy. It is a single novel published in three volumes. But I still think it's a trilogy). I had a copy of "The Fellowship of the Ring" sitting on my bookshelf all through college, but just never managed to get into it. I think I purchased the book due to my freshman year crush on Orlando Bloom, (aka Legolas) rather than any real desire to begin the series.

I never have been much for fantasy or sci-fi, but maybe that's more because I tell myself that and therefore avoid both genres. I have a good feeling about LOTR though, which is leaving me with that happy and curious feeling I first experienced when reading the Harry Potter series. No doubt J.K. Rowling was influenced by Tolkien in her writing.

It's comes as a relief that I will be able to sink into a book (or three, in this case) and fully enjoy. I feel like I've been doing a lot of reading for reading's sake rather than for entertainment's sake. I need a break. I need something to remind me that reading can be fun and help me forget how miserable the summer is in China.

"The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them."
~The Sunday Times

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crime and Punishment

This morning I put in my earbuds and listened to my favorite podcast from The different levels and topics of discussion are quite varied, and at times the day's lesson can border on strange. It is, however, a really great tool for anyone learning Chinese and the hosts of the show always keep things interesting. Today I picked an upper intermediate level lesson which featured a dialogue between two Chinese people debating their opinions on capital punishment. The lesson was a bit above my level and rather difficult for me to follow, but it did seem appropriate after having finished "Crime and Punishment" last night.

I won't get into my position on the issue of capital punishment because it can be such an emotional issue (it was enough of a revelation to admit my feeling on "Twilight"). Furthermore, I don't fully know where I stand on the issue. Since living in China, my world has been turned upside when it comes to social and political issues. Here, capital punishment is handed out quite liberally and for a myriad of offenses (destroying cultural relics, corruption, drug trafficking, and, before 1997, panda killing, just to name a few). Individuals sentenced to death sometimes see their sentence reduced to life imprisonment, which I find can't help but find bizarre. News of death sentences is reported matter-of-factly on the news. I don't think you can hear anyone lobby for the rights or innocence of those convicted, but this should come as little surprise since the media here is state run. The public gets one side of the story, the government's side.

One case involving corruption, death, and the ultimate demise of two convicts has left a lingering impression on me. In 2008, several infants died due to the contamination of infant formula with the chemical melamine. Hundreds of thousands of babies and small children were sick due to adulterated milk or formula. We wouldn't allow Ping to drink milk for months, in fear of her getting sick. Seventeen people went to trial for their involvement in the scandal and two of them were executed in November 2009. Today, I couldn't help but wonder, are cases like this any more or less likely to happen in places that impose a death penalty? Do people who get caught up in greed and corruption, murder or assault, drugs and theft, feel any less likely to commit a crime if they know they could ultimately condemned to death for their transgressions?

Let's take things down a notch and put the death penalty aside. I've been thinking a lot about what prevents us from doing what society deems "wrong." Is it because of laws or our own morality? Is it due to our conscience or a fear of imprisonment (and, in some cases, death)? In "Crime and Punishment," RR believes his act isn't immoral and therefore he is above the law; he argues that the end justifies the means. He also believes it is the perfect crime, in the sense that it is justifiable, hence he will never be caught. As you can surmise, he was a tad off base with those assumptions, but how many other criminals think along these same lines?

Despite his crime, I was still able to sympathize with him. While I've never done anything horrendously illegal, I have certainly done things wrong in my life. We all have. I usually take the time to weigh the consequences of my actions. There were times, especially when I was a child, that my greatest fear was the punishment I faced if caught. As I get older, however, I find I am more influenced by my conscience and personal sense of morality. I think others are heavily influenced by religion; God is watching. Some people worry about their reputation, what people will say if their crime is revealed. In short, I think our sense of right and wrong is influenced by many factors, least of all the law. I also can't help but think, at least for myself, that a guilty conscience can be most brutal punishment of all.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The (Ex) Patriate

I didn't know what the word expatriate (expat) meant until I become one. In fact, I may have mistakenly pronounced the word ex-patriot the first dozen or so times I said it. An ex-patriot I am not, but I an expat I am, maybe for life. I'm finding that many of my old friends are becoming expats themselves and most of my new friends, the majority of which are foreigners living in China, are as well. I've decided to write the blog as a tribute to those people and people who like them have moved away from their hometown, if not their home country. I've done a bit of reflection on this during the past couples weeks as several of my friends struggle with their lives away from home or with their transition back to being back home. I sometimes face these struggles myself, especially now that I don't know what “home” really means.

I often wonder what attracts people to living overseas. Some people make an entire life out of it, jumping from country to country with their significant other and small children in tow. That type of lifestyle probably isn't in the cards for me, due more to familial circumstances than a lack of desire to reside in other countries. While I currently hold a deep curiosity for foreign lands and cultures, I wasn't always this way. I could have easily and happily stayed in Wisconsin without much thought of visiting Tibetan monasteries, Bagan, or Angkor Wat. But after going abroad for the first time (a special shout out to Amy Greil and Ireland for this opportunity), I decided I wanted to see more. I also realized traveling isn't as scary as I thought it was. The overachiever in me was reawakened and I felt the need to do something, see something. I think there's a lot of overachievers in China--recent college grads who want to challenge themselves. People who just can't sit still. People who probably don't watch much TV. People who have, at one time or another, labeled themselves as “perfectionists.” But for every Summa Cum Laude who comes to China only to return to America to pursue a degree in Law/Medicine/something-ridiculously-difficult-and-world-changing, there is a social misfit or alcoholic womanizer among their ranks. Foreign countries attract a strange and varied breed of human and I think it's safe to say few of us are anywhere close to being “normal.”

In addition to the types of people that move abroad, I've given some thought to the places to which they go. I believe that certain places are better suited to certain types of people. This is true of both vacationing spots and locations to live. While some people have that special gift of making the best out of whatever circumstances they find themselves in, most of us are creatures of our environment. If we don't feel comfortable or (at the very least) interested in our surroundings, our happiness and attitude suffer. I can't pinpoint specific types of people who enjoy living and traveling in Asia, but I do find that most of the people here are among the more intrepid of travelers. I think a fairly high tolerance for noise, dirt, crowdedness, discomfort, and linguistic misunderstandings will prove helpful. If this sounds unappealing to you, maybe you should try for Europe before booking a flight to Bangkok, Beijing, or Delhi. I do, however, think we can surprise ourselves. I, for one, never would have imagined enjoying Asia as much as I do. For all it's difficulties, I find it a very captivating and rewarding place to live in and explore. My point is basically this: It may be hard to know for certain if we'll like traveling or living somewhere, but I think it's fair to assume we probably won't like everywhere and there's nothing wrong with that.

But now the real meat and potatoes of this, which is me pondering why living abroad can be so damn difficult. Some reasons are quite obvious, others less so. Culture shock has a lot to do with it. This can be felt even within one's own country or state. Moving from the North to the South or from a town to the city can be a drastic change. People may do things differently, talk differently, and think differently. They may have different political and religious leanings or be of different ethnicities or socio-economic standings. If this is true within our own country, it is exponentially true when moving to overseas. Even in countries seemingly similar to our own, you will find many things different. When moving from a place like America to China, you may (on certain days) feel like everything is different. For me, this is the beauty of being in China. I'm not suppose to fit in and it shows, my stocky legs and large green eyes give it away every time. Being a foreigner in China equates to locals having extremely low expectations yet high levels of understanding for me. This phenomenon is not characteristic of most places where fitting in and being accepted are somewhat essential to survival.

Besides the culture shock, I think moving away from home can be very lonely. I am not terribly good at making new friends, but China somehow makes up for what I lack. I easily fall into friendships with other foreigners here. This has nothing to do with my stellar personality, but is a result of us all being in similar situations--we are all looking for friends. We are all looking for people with which we can speak English at a normal pace and even throw in some slang for good measure. Chinese people, no matter how good their English, do not understand what “cankles,” “chillax,” or “fugly” mean. We want someone to get our jokes (and appreciate sarcasm), our fashion (hoodies sporting our homestate or college name paired with jeans), our preference for food (Mexican or anything cheesy) and TV shows (“The Office,” anyone?). And whenever that gets boring, a potential Chinese friend is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and practice their English. This isn't the case most places, where local people don't care who you are or where you're from, nor do they need your friendship. Making new friends may mean a lot of effort and when all is said and done, you may just move away. After months of trying to get to know a person, all you may be left with is another casual facebook friend.

Which leads me to the end of the cycle, one which I may never reach. . . re-entry shock. This can be even worse than the initial culture shock. A lot of people have a surprisingly difficult time readjusting when returning home. Life went on and goes on. No one cares that you went to Bali or visited the Great Wall. They may not care to see your scrapbook or hear about your new friends. They don't understand where you've been or what you've done. Things are just suppose to continue on as normal, as if you were never really gone. It's can be hard to get a footing, to fit in again, or to even want to fit in. I honestly don't know how people do it. I tried myself in 2007 and I ended up returning to China.

This entry may have bordered on pessimistic, though I was going for realistic. I think it's important for anyone who moves away from their hometown to realize that it's not always easy. Moving back home can be tough too. Sometimes it is difficult and lonely and maybe even a bit depressing. Don't feel bad if it's not all rainbows, butterflies, and exciting nights filled with friendship and adventure. I've had low points; in fact, I continue to have them. But they get less frequent and easier to manage. Living in China has become less “Living in China” and more just living life. Maybe one day I will even call it home.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Murder, He Wrote

While in Beijing, I hit a goldmine of books. As far as my list is concerned, I'll be nearly set thanks to the Wangfujing Bookstore. On the third flour I perused row upon row of English import paperbacks. The classic lit novels, which is mostly what I'm in the market for, were 20RMB ($3) or less a pop. “Treasure Island,” “Little Women,” “Emma”--they were all there. Normally these types of books don't interest me enough to inspire a purchase, but since beginning my 50 book task I am thinking about things different. I actually felt excited buying Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” (although I did balance the purchase with a little light reading by picking up a bilingual copy of Suess's “Fox in Socks”).

“Crime and Punishment” is one of those books people think about reading but almost never do. I was wondering if anyone I know has read it. Have you? It make Newsweek's list of books people want to read (right up there with Tolstoy's “War and Peace”). After finishing up Emily Bronte's “Wuthering Heights,” I decided to take the plunge instead of delaying the inevitable. I don't want to leave the longest and seemingly most difficult books for last. I'm also trying to work myself up to “War and Peace,” which will end up being the longest book I've ever read (at nearly 1500 pages. Gulp.). I thought 500 page “C&P” would be a good warmer upper. I have to admit, that half in, I'm pleasantly surprised. “Crime and Punishment” ranks up there among best novels ever written for a reason. It is not the verbose snoozer I anticipated it to be, probably because it successfully puts the reader into the mind of a murderer, the story's protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov. I have found that being in the mind of the murderer is more interesting and not quite as unsettling as being in the mind of a child molester (I must also thank “Lolita” for this revelation). The frightening thing is, I can easily follow and even anticipate much of RR's thought process. But I would like to cite the Hollywood film industry for this ability and not credit it to any personal deep-seated homicidal tendencies. Just to clear that up. . . .

While I am enjoying this novel, it is one of those I wish I had read for a course in college. It is heavy with symbolism and allegory, much of which I'm sure I'm missing. I know very little about Russia, particularly 19th century Russia where this story is set. I am fairly clueless about Russian writers and their writing, though I'm learning. It's hard to put a book like this into context and fully appreciate it without knowing more about it's background and being able to discuss and analyze its contents. Being where I am, in smallish and (currently) foreigner devoid Chengde, I have no choice but to go it alone and share my findings with you, bookish blog reader.

Signing off here with a final question: What tops your list of “Should Read but Haven't Yet” books?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I want your love and I want your revenge

I've never given much thought to revenge, perhaps because I've rarely been betrayed or wronged by someone I trust. If you are like me, a simple google search with provide you with all you need to know about the topic. For a thorough understanding, complete with flow chart, you can consult Emotional Competency. If, on the other hand, you'd rather get some pointers on executing your vengeance, might I suggest consulting revenge guy or revenge lady. You could also look here for specific advice on how to get revenge on an ex.

But why all this talk of revenge, you may ask? As I read Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" I have come head to head with it. Our story's protagonist, Heathcliff, takes it to such an extreme it borders on ludicrous and leaves me feeling rather depressed. Here's a guy who, as a homeless orphan, was taken into a decent home by a nice man. Sure, he was picked on by his foster brother. Sure, he was romantically rejected by his foster sister. But is that enough to turn someone into a miserable person who torments everyone on the moor? It's no wonder "Wuthering Heights" is classified as a gothic novel, for it is dark and a bit disturbing. But I like it. Despite the story's mood, I am happy cuddling up with it.

But Today, I will keep things brief. What I would like to know is this: Have you ever sought (or plotted) revenge on someone? Or is that just something that happens in books or movies? I couldn't so much as stick my enemy's (I do have ONE) toothbrush in the toilet or allow my dog to poop on some horrible neighbor's lawn. Maybe I'm too soft. . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ten Things I Love about You (Beijing Edition) Part 2 of 2

6. The contrast. With all its economic development as well as the pressure added by hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has done a lot to develop itself. The city boasts a lot of awesome buildings and skyscrapers that many visitors might not expect in this so-called communist country. While the city has done a lot to modernize itself, I am always happy to find that there are aspects of old Beijing life that still haven't faded away. You may walk out of a swish mall only to stumble upon a woman selling shoe inserts and socks on a blanket. In this city you can drop hundreds of dollars on a 5 star meal or spend 15 cents a skewer on barbeque lamb meat from a Uyghur street vendor. You can pull up to a traffic light in an Audi only to look next to you and find a trishaw or better yet, a donkey.
I was reminded of this contrast the other day while taking a walk from my hostel to the fairly upscale Wangfunjing shopping street. I crossed two lanes of honking traffic where in the middle of boulevard was an open area below street level. Steps led down to the space, in which lie ruins of a wall dating back to the Ming dynasty. An old man in a kung fu outfit stood amongst the stones, talking to a young man dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. After some discussion, the elderly gentlemen casually wiped out. . . a sword! He displayed it for the young man to admire. A security guard looked on, completely unfazed. I snapped a photo as evidence that things like this still can and do exist in the heart of Beijing.

7. The late nights. If you have the cash, Beijing can be a great place to drink, and best of all many places don't shut down until the last patron leaves (take that Wisconsin and your ridiculous 1:30am last calls). There's something for everyone in the city--clubs, lounges, live rock bands, sports bars, karaoke. Becky and I spent our first night enjoying some imported Belgiuan beer at Sanlitun south's Beer Mania where we got to overhear a very heated (and quite lengthy) debate over which city is better: Chicago or San Francisco. I think San Fran may have won, but we were silently routing for our beloved Windy City. Eavesdropping aside, this is a nice little place with a huge selection of beer. The following night I made Becky visit my favorite bar Bed, which has won numerous awards due to it's drinks, which actually taste like they are suppose to, and amazing atmosphere. If you are looking to impress a date, this is probably a safe bet.

8. The early mornings. If you stay up late enough or get up early enough, you'll get to see a side of Beijing many people don't often witness. In the wee hours of the morning, you'll find old people out exercising, buying vegetables, and practicing taiqi. You can also see the daily flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. I have to admit, I've yet to make it there myself as I'm not much for waking up at 4:30am. It is on my Beijing "To Do" list. Hopefully I'll make it out of bed one of these times, but in any case, I like that the city comes alive hours before I'm awake.

9. The art. As some of you may know, I once dabbled in art a bit. Now I'm more of an onlooker than a participant. Luckily for me there is quite a bit happening in Beijing's up and coming art scene. While galleries can be found throughout the city, there is a whole district dedicated to them at 798. If you make it to Beijing, I do think it's worth the trouble of making it out past the fourth ring road to this very cool area and not only for the art. This is where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of Beijing's traffic, people, and high rises. You'll feel transported to another place while in the midst of this old warehouse district which has now been transformed into galleries, boutiques, and cafes.

10. Wudaokou. Wudaokou is an area of mainly students, many of them foreign. Back in '06 and '07 I lived just a stone's throw away from WDK and though I don't necessarily miss living there, I do always enjoy a return visit. The place is alive with people and places. Everything you could ever desire is sold by a street vendor. The latest novels (pirated and in English) can be purchased from a man with a cart for 12rmb ($2). If you don't like what he has to offer, there are four other men with carts down the way. You need a poster of Audrey Hepburn? Look no further! A sequined baseball cap? It's done! A new pet? They've got rabbits, puppies, and chipmunks! If the street side shopping weren't enough, there are also great student hangouts like yummy Lush or one of my favorite cafes, Sculpting in Time. Becky and I went there for La Bamba, a (American) Mexican restaurant serving super cheap and pretty delicious drinks and food. For a mere US$6 I made myself sick on nachos, quesadillas, and a pina colada. Life just doesn't get any better than that. I heart BJ.

Ten Things I Love about You (Beijing Edition) Part 1 of 2

Beijing and I haven't always had the most stable and loving relationship. He can be loud, rude, crowded, and unaccommodating. I can be intolerant, impatient, and demanding. It does not make for a good combination. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, hence I've always been in love with Beijing so long as I wasn't living in him. The past few days have reaffirmed my affection for the city. I realize most people who read this will never come to Beijing or even desire to visit, however, I think it deserves a top spot on anyone's itinerary who is coming to China or even to Asia. Here are some reasons why I adore this place:

1. The food. While I like to eat Chinese food and love to cook western food, sometimes it's nice to mix things up. Variety is hard to find in Chengde, where I can break down the cuisine into six different categories: local Chinese food, Koreanish food, horrible western wannabe food, food on sticks, hot pot, and KFC. Beijing has much more to offer, literally from A to Z (African to Zhejiang). My first night on the town, my friend Becky and I set off to find Noodle Bar, a much raved about establishment serving, you guessed it, noodles. After some wandering in Beijing's Sanlitun area, we ditched our original plan and settled on Rumi, an award-winning Persian Restaurant that served delectable hummus, kebabs, and bakalava. By Chinese standards, it was not cheap (US$30 for four dishes and two drinks), but it was worth every RMB. The following night we explored the restored hutongs (alleyways) near Beijing's drum and bell towers where we settled on some Yunnan (a province in SW China) food at No Name Restaurant. Tofu wrapped in banana leaves, purple pineapple rice, and spring rolls--the food more closely resembled SE Asian than Chinese. Yesterday we made it to Three Guizhou Men, a restaurant specializing in Guizhou (a small province in southern China) food. Today I am going on a diet, which should be easy considering the few temptations that surround me here in Chengde.

2. The parks. Beijing has numerous parks, many of which can be visited for free. Last week Becky and I stayed at Tiananmen Sunrise Hostel which is conveniently located near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, as well walking distance to Wangfujing Shopping Street. I love this area not because of its proximity to tourist sites, but due to its random areas of green space. The boulevard by the hostel includes a mile long stretch of grass and shrubbery, along both sides runs traffic. Heading towards Tiananmen East subway station, I enjoy wandering through a small park that features a gazebo, stream, bridges, and statues. Parks in China are also great places to people watch; depending on the time of day, you will witness women dancing, men playing musical instruments, and people practicing taiqi. They are among the best places in China to go for free entertainment.

3. Freedom to roam. Another wonderful thing about Beijing is that despite its size, I feel comfortable and safe walking through any area of the city at pretty much any time of day. This is not a luxury I have in my hometown of Milwaukee where there are neighborhoods I am uncomfortable to driving through during the day. Maybe I am being naive, but Beijing seems surprisingly unthreatening for a city of 14 million people.

4. Hutongs. Love them or fear them, hutongs (or "alleyways") are historically significant and found throughout the heart of Beijing, although this is quickly changing as they are being bulldozed away for malls and apartments. A recent article by Time Out Beijing gives some insight into the issue of their demolition. I personally love hutongs and siheyuans (single story courtyard houses found within the hutongs) despite them being somewhat dilapidated--most residences are one hundred years old and oft in need of restoration and indoor plumbing. I find Beijing's hutongs charming, plus they provide a much needed break from the endless clumps of high rises that line Beijing's four lane avenues. I particularly enjoy visiting Nanluoguxiang (click to view a short video of it) an old hutong turned into a hip, though not overly touristy, area of shops, restaurants, cafes, and locals.

5. The shopping. I'm not the girl I once was, the girl who hopped into her Ford Tempo as soon as the 2:40 sounded and sped over to Southridge Mall. Shopping just isn't as fun as it used to be, though in Beijing I somehow find myself reliving my frivolous youth. Beijing has something for everybody. There are countless small, independent shops to scavenge, however their clothes don't always suit my tastes and rarely fit me. I admit I often hit the big name brands which cater more to western needs, tastes, and sizes. Some of my recent favorites include H&M, Zara, and Decathlon. For those interested in cosmetics and smelling good, there are several branches of Sephora throughout the city. I also take my annual trip to Beijing's massive IKEA for house furnishings. Nanluoguxiang is home to some fun and hipsteresque knickknack, souvenir, and clothing shops. A popular among expats is Plastered 8, which offers an array of clever Beijing-themed t-shirts. And of course, I never leave Beijing without stopping at Jenny Lou's, the western grocery store. I need my cream cheese. 'Nough said.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On the Road

It's not easy disliking something everyone else supposedly adores. Perhaps I'm not smart or cool enough to understand, but I'm not going be a coward and deny what I feel. I'm not a huge fan of the "Twilight" series. I hate skinny jeans (admittedly, this is probably because they look horrible on me. Have they gone out of fashion yet?). And perhaps my darkest confession of all, I don't much care for music. That's right, music. I can pretty much take it or leave it.

If I can own up to all that, I certainly can admit to what I think about Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." So here it is: I though it was generally a boring, go-nowhere-while-going-everywhere kinda book. Please understand, I am someone who can appreciate something about nothing--I love both "Seinfeld" and "The Office." Furthermore, I can usually hang with a character driven novel, however this did nothing for me. Here is a mostly true story about a bunch of drug using, alcoholic philanderers road tripping across America, which, on second thought, sounds like the basis of a fun and interesting novel. Despite the promise of something great, I couldn't help feeling some important component was missing. In fact, I fell asleep five times while reading it (which is three times more than the average book I read).
Side note: I learned in physio psych class that you should not read in bed unless you want to fall asleep since your body automatically associates laying in bed with sleeping.

I should note, I don't think that "On the Road" is crap by any means. There's a lot I can't appreciate about it given that I wasn't born during the time period in which it was published. Kerouac's writing style and content was undoubtedly ground-breaking and controversial for 1950's America, but 60 years later his slang seems a little off (every time he mentioned "making it" with a girl, I couldn't help but roll my eyes) and his description of smoking a big, fat doobie (or as he says, a "bomber") in Mexico was only mildly amusing and hardly shocking. But according to most, Kerouac was able to brilliantly capture a new, post-war generation. The Beat Generation, as they call it, which I had never even heard of until I read "On the Road." But hey, at least I learned something new.

I also got some insight into hitchhiking, which was the one part of the novel I truly enjoyed. During Kerouac's first trip across the States he relied heavily on thumbing it. He met and saw a lot of interesting characters along the way. I couldn't help but feel that mid-century 20th century America was a wilder, yet more innocent time. Everyone smoked. Men drank beer while driving. Hobos rode on box cars. People hitchhiked. Who does that these days? I wouldn't dare. Books like this and TV shows like "Mad Men" conjure up feelings of nostalgia in me, nostalgia for a time I didn't even belong to and probably wouldn't even want to be a part of (unless, perhaps, I were a man).

Feelings of nostalgia and hitchhiking intrigue aside, I am glad to be finished with the one. Here's hoping that, for me, the movie will prove better than the book. It's in pre-production now and has, ironically enough, cast Bella Swan (i.e. Kristen Stewart) as one of the female supporting roles (Mary Lou). Perhaps I shouldn't get my hopes up too high.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Your Two Cents

I'm taking a break from writing about reading, though I haven't stopped the reading (began Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" this morning). This is more of a 'Dear Abby' type of post. I need advice on how to deal with unsolicited advice.

A little background into this cultural dynamics of my gripe is probably necessary. Put simply, the Chinese love nothing more than to throw in their two cents. This is particularly true of Chinese women whose know-it-all seems to grow exponentially with age. I constantly hear ladies giving strangers advice on how to dress and feed their babies, even where to send their child to school. I've been away from the U.S. for awhile, but am I wrong in thinking that most American mothers would find this intrusive and annoying, maybe even downright upsetting?

I try to take these things in stride, though lately they've been eating away at me. My issue is not with bossy octogenarians, but with the 30-something-year-old mothers of my students. They barely have a foot through my door before they are questioning, scolding, or harassing me. I've been fighting a battle for months now with 6-year-old Luna's mother, Mrs. Zhang. Mrs. Zhang can speak English, which makes our exchanges easier and less prone to language/cultural misunderstandings compared to some. Her main concern is that I run around my apartment without slippers on. I, horror of all horrors, walk around in socks and (dare I say it) sometimes even barefoot. This regularly leads to a verbal tug-of-war with the thoroughly perplexed and horrified Mrs. Zhang.
"Rosie, you are not wearing slippers!"
"Yes, I know. We don't usually wear slippers during the summer in America."
"Your feet must be cold!"
"No, my feet are fine. It's 90 degrees today. I'm not cold."
"But your feet must be cold."
"Please put on your slippers."
"I'm fine. Really. Everyone does this in America."
(Look of terror. Ten seconds pass.)
"Please, Rosie. Put on your slippers. You will catch cold."

I concede to defeat, but yet I still manage to answer the door slipperless for Luna's next lesson. I'm not sure why I do this, perhaps I enjoy the look on Mrs. Zhang's face when she looks down at my helpless little feet. The look you'd give someone about to parachute off the Empire State Building. A look that says, "You are crazy and completely without reason, but I somehow admire you anyways."

With Luna's mom I can grin and (not) bare(foot) it, but with other mothers it's not so comical. For example, Carrie's mother, a Phy. Ed. instructor at Chengde's Medical College. Last autumn, she marched into my place to pick up her daughter. I hadn't seen her for months, but that did not deter her promptly advising me. "Why is your heater on? That's really not good. You should not use that, but you should really get a humidifier. The air is too dry here. What are you doing for exercise these days? Oh, walking your dog? It's not enough. You need more exercise. You really ought to take up some sort of sport--might I suggest ping pong or badminton?" My jaw dropped as I stood wide-eyed trying to follow her Chinese. As I deciphered her words I found myself trying to hold back tears.
"Please leave," I stuttered in Mandarin.

I saw the look of pain on her face. Her daughter laughed heartily. "Teacher is angry!" she exclaimed in English. The mother tried to explain herself, claiming I just didn't understand. But the truth is, I did understand. I understood her words perfectly, but what I failed to understand was how her actions could be deemed socially acceptable. To this day, I continue to fail in my dealing with this type of scenario.

Fast forward to the present. As the heat here rises, along with it my discomfort--by 2pm the temperature in our apartment nears 85 degrees and I seek relief by cranking up the air-conditioner. Though the living room where the air-con is located becomes crispy cold, the bedroom becomes a tolerable 78 degrees. My problem arises when a student arrives. During her lesson, she will sit in the comfort of my room while her guardian sits, teeth chattering, in the living room. As I begin my lesson I am bombarded with comments shouted from the neighboring room. "It's cold in here." "You shouldn't have this set so low!" "How do you turn this thing off?" As they futz with the air-con's remote, my patience dissipates. I know they mean well, but I am at a breaking point. As long as their child is comfortable and they are satisfied with my lessons, I want the parents to keep their paws off my stuff (especially my air-conditioner) and their mouths shut. I am tired of these people constantly intruding on my life. Dear Blog Reader, what should I do?!

Friday, July 02, 2010

Love at First Sight

I went to the local bookstore today to see if I could find some classic lit in English. I found nothing but seriously abridged bilingual books (pamphlets, really). I did manage to score one book on my list in Chinese and for the bargain price of 9rmb ($1.35). I have included a photo. . . can you guess what it is?

I've been keeping quite busy reading the latest, which is beautifully written but easy to get lost in with all its description. I also blame the small type set. The main theme here is love, which shouldn't be surprising as it is mentioned right in the title, "Love in the Time of Cholera." Cholera is also running (pun intended) through the novel as well. I didn't really know much about cholera before reading this book, as I'm not well read on bacterial infections, even ones that caused devastating pandemics during the 19th century. Cholera, in case you are interested, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting which can lead to death without proper treatment. In the novel, it is also compared to love. I have never had such a reaction to love, however I have, on more than one occasion, have had such a reaction to Chinese food.

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about my gastrointestinal weaknesses, we can discuss the more pressing matter of love. Our novel's leading man, Florentino Ariza, suffers from it (love, that is) badly. At the end of the first chapter we find him attending the funeral of Fermina Daza's husband where he claims his undying devotion to her. Fermina promptly tells him to scram, saying, "Don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you. . . and I hope there are very few of them." Talk about hostility. What could have happened between these two lovers to spark such a brutal rebuff? I don't know for sure, but I have a feeling that Florentino racking up more lovers then there are days in a year may have something to do with it.

Florentino's love began innocently enough while he was a virginal teenager delivering telegrams. One could say it was love at first sight, if you believe in that kind of thing. I'm not sure that I do. Fermina didn't seem too convinced of it either. After years of the two teens stealing glances of each other at Mass and in parks, after hundreds of letters secretly exchanged between the pair, after nearly two years engaged yet separated, the two lovers finally meet. Upon seeing Florentino, Fermina waves him away. "No, please. . . . Forget it," she tells him. "Today, when I saw you, I realized what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." An illusion, okay--I had it pegged as an obsession. I certainly wasn't convinced it was love. Although I'm not sure I'm ready to revisit that age-old question: What is love, anyway? I would like to know is this: Do you believe in love at first sight?

I believe people generally fall into two camps--Believers and Non-Believers. Generally, Believers claim to have experienced it. Ming falls into that category. He says he loved me since the first moment he laid eyes on my sweaty "monkey-butt-red-face" (his words) huffing it out on a grimy treadmill. I wasn't convinced of him so easily, but I'm not convinced of anyone too easily. I don't belly flop in when it comes to relationships, any relationships. I like to dip my big toe in when getting to know someone. Perhaps people like me can never experience Love at First Sight because we don't let ourselves. We need time to be convinced. I'm lucky Ming was persistent, not fifty-one years persistent like Florentino, but he did endure a couple weeks worth of near daily rejections before winning me over. Now that's Love.