Saturday, October 03, 2015

A change in coversation

My parents know a man, let's call him Cal, who occasionally does some work for them. I've heard them talk about Cal here and there for years, but living overseas I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I finally got the chance the other day. Our encounter was in some ways odd, at least for me, though I fear it may soon become the new normal.

As I had heard of Cal, he had also heard much about me. He knew my history with the PRC, so right after shaking my hand, he started with The China Questions. Note: I am happy to answer questions about China. Don't be afraid to ask! Most people don't bother, so it's nice when someone shows a little interest. However, don't believe that saying, "There are no stupid questions." Trust me, there are. I've been asked all of them, at least twice. I'm sure I'm even guilty of asking them. And so are you. This small talk stupidity is human nature and not nation-specific either. Chinese people like to ask if I can use chopsticks and American people want to know if I eat a lot of rice. (The answers are "yes" and "yes.")

Cal was no exception. His opener was the most common, but most dreaded request. He wanted a parlor trick.

"Speak some Chinese!" he commanded.

I. HATE. THIS. It is incredibly awkward. People get so excited to hear me speak Chinese, often asking me to curse at them. I then turn red, squeak out whatever pops into my head, and feel like a hooligan for telling someone I just met to go screw his mother. The worst part is, people always seem so let down after I do it. I don't know what they are expecting--entertainment? It's not juggling. Maybe the hope they'll magically understand Chinese? This isn't a fairy tale.

After I finished cussing Cal out, my dad walked by, chiming in, "Ching chong chang ching." I think he was being facetious. I hope he was being facetious.

"It really does sound like that, doesn't it?" Cal asked rhetorically.

"No, it really doesn't," I told him.

"They really hate us over there, don't they?" he continued.

"No, they really don't," I replied. I began to explain Chinese attitudes towards the US and Americans, but Cal's eyes started to glaze over. I let my sentence taper off....

"They know they, like, own us, right? That they're going to take over the world, right?" he cut-in enthusiastically.

"I don't know about that,"I replied, already having realized that he wasn't interested in my assessment of Sino-US relations.

The conversation veered into another direction and he told me about his Chinese roommate in college whom he believed to be a spy. It was actually a very convincing story and I was happy to let him do the talking. At that point, I just couldn't take anymore questions.

Now that I'm in the US, the conversation has shifted. I have to grow accustom to a new set of questioning. So what questions do you have for me?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Check out my piece on China Daily

William, 100 days

China Daily recently asked me to write a post describing how I fell in love with a Chinese man and the challenges I have faced being in a cross-cultural relationship. I ended up writing about the struggles I've had raising a baby as an American living in China. You can check out the article on their website here. They are doing a series of opinion pieces on foreigners who fall in love with local Chinese. Jocelyn from Speaking of China wrote a great piece recently as well, in which she reveals how she never expected to marry a Chinese man. You can find her piece here.

What is one of the biggest struggles you've had in a relationship? Were you able to overcome it? How?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Crazy $hit that's happened to me in Asia: India edition

Mahabodhi Temple and bodhi tree
I've been busy lately, so here's another old post that dates back to my trip to India in 2010.

I recently read Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger, a fascinating story that exposes the corruption, violence, and struggle in 'The World's Largest Democracy" (India). Throughout the book, the protagonist refers to a place called "The Darkness," often contrasting it to his life in Delhi. But what is The Darkness? Is it a specific place? A place full of poverty? I interpreted it as a reference to the main character's home state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions that is severely impeded by corruption.

I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendant of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.

After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, after all, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'

As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vicinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.

I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret-wearing, rifle-toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.

Mahabodhi Temple offerings
Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shaken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.

It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?

I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.

To my immense relief, it was a bonafide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.

at the Taj Mahal, 2010

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

From the archives: How Ming and I met

view of Shanghai Pudong from the Bund, Feb 2005
I'm leaving China today! I first arrived at the end of February 2005 with CIEE. I spent my initial week doing training (well, it was mostly sightseeing, but I got to practice my Chinese in the markets) in Shanghai before being sent off to Chengde. My first few months in China were the most memorable months of my life. I felt like I was living in a movie. China amazed me and for the first time in a long time I truly felt comfortable in my own skin. It was not long after I arrived that I met Ming, my future husband. I actually kept a diary at that time and posted some of my entries on this blog several years ago. I thought I'd revisit them in a post today. They are pretty embarrassing--I was pretty clueless and maybe kind of a jerk--but I guess that comes with being in your early 20's. Ten years later, it's interesting to look back on my younger self, as well as those days when I first fell in love with both Ming and China.

with Liu Zhi, sweet girl who worked at the gym
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
On Sunday night that guy at the gym (who always attempts to talk to me in English) asked me to wait for him. Of course I didn't because I had to go home and take a shower. Plus, what would we do if we couldn't talk to each other?* But again tonight he pursued. It is actually quite sweet because he gives English his best shot! He told me that I am "a woman good" and that he likes me. Maybe I'll take him out for a beer** with the other foreign teachers sometime. We'll see.

*Don't answer that question.
**Fun fact: Turns out Ming doesn't really drink alcohol.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005
The last couple of days have been amazing. On Monday night my 'friend' was at the gym and friendly as ever. When I finished working out I hung around talking to him and the sweet girl who works there (not sure of her name, but she can speak some English!). My friend went downstairs to shower and I waited around for Nancy*** to finish. Coincidentally, we all ended up leaving the gym at the same time. He, Tao Ming (I now know his name!),**** offered to give me a ride home on his bike. No, not bike as in moped or motorcycle, but bike as in bicycle. Oh shit, I thought. . . I'm going to hang off the back of this thing like all the Chinese girls do.

But, luckily, we just walked. He stopped and bought me a yogurt drink (very popular in China). When we got to my apartment I ran upstairs and grabbed my Lonely Planet phrasebook to help along our conversating. We talked for over an hour. He can read English and is picking it up rather quickly. He asked me about my family and told me about his family and told me he was happy because he was with me. Aww! Oh, and on the walk home we saw some foreigners--which I called "laowai" (which means 'foreigner' but maybe is a little derogatory) and he laughed like crazy. He corrected me, evidently "waiguoren" is a more politically correct term.

Anyways, as we were standing outside, about to say good-bye, it began to rain. So we stood under the doorway of my apartment and he gave me a kiss.

yes, it's me (Chengde, 2005)

***Nancy was the other foreign teacher at the school I worked at and we went to the gym together nightly.
****Ha! No you don't, silly girl. Because his name is actually Zhao Ming! 

More from Wednesday, June 1, 2005
I finished yesterday morning's lesson and guess who was standing outside the door? Tao Ming. He managed to get in the school. I'm not sure how because usually the gate keeper only lets teachers and students in the building. He took me to lunch in a little restaurant by the old outdoor market. He asked me what I wanted, "Chick?" [he asked]. I said chicken was fine. Rice and chicken, after all, sounds safe enough, but in China you never know what you're going to get.

It ended up being every part of the chicken, cut up and cooked in a sauce. I tried picking through it to find the meaty parts (I have a slight aversion to skin and fat, veins and feet.***** Such things don't seem to bother the Chinese). He scolded me for using my hands--a big no-no here. So he picked through the chicken with his chopsticks, finding the meat for me. He told me he would not be at the gym that night because he had to work (he is a train conductor******). I went off to school for my afternoon lessons, disappointed I wouldn't be seeing him again in the evening.

one of my classes at Chengde No. 1 High School, 2005
Shortly after I returned home for the night, there was a knock at the door. . . he took off work to spend the evening with me. He took me to KFC for more chicken. This may sound like a pitiful first date, but KFC is fairly high class dining in Chengde. Then we went to a movie; unfortunately it was in Chinese. Ming went to talk to the manager and the movie was changed. It was also Chinese, "God of Gamblers," but it had English subtitles. I found it to be a typical Chinese film, somewhat crappy, but funny at parts and violent at others. The theater was much different from an American theater. We had our own little cubicle to sit in, very personal! After the movie we walked home and he came up for a little bit.*******

Today he stopped by after lunch and brought me a bag of apples. He walked Nancy and I to the bus. I'm not used to all this attention! Now I am in Beijing. Nancy went off to Qingdao tonight and I am leaving for Guilin tomorrow.

*****I was such a rookie back then. I can now eat a chicken down to the bone.
******He was not and is not a train conductor, but his job does have something to do with trains so I guess. . .
*******Seems like I left out the juciest parts. 

Ming and I, 2006

Friday, September 11, 2015

Finding cheap flights to and around Asia

Koh Tao, Thailand; my first trip to SEA, 2007

I'm heading home in less than a week so perhaps it's fitting to write a post about flights. I've flown between the US and China once a year for the past 10 years. I've also taken a few trips by plane within China and many from China to Southeast Asia. I still wouldn't consider myself anywhere near an expert air traveler, but I still know something about it. Here are my tips for cheap flights:

1. Shop around
If you have some time before your flight, spend a few minutes each day (I usually do it for a week or two) poking around sites like kayak or skyscanner to get an idea of prices, both around the time you plan to depart and maybe a month or so on either side. This will give you a generally idea of price trends on a variety of airlines. I have found that it's better not to book too far in advance for flights on regular carriers (budget carriers are different), unless it's a holiday. If you find a price you are pleased with, you might just want to book right away. Also, if you are flying one way you may also want to take a look at round trip prices as they are sometimes cheaper.

Many websites also do price matching and Expedia will actually match the price you found and give you a US$50 hotel voucher to be used on their site if you found a cheaper flight somewhere other than their website. I did this once before successfully, but I had to call their customer service about which took about 10 minutes of my time.

2. Fly during the off-season
I always visit the US from China in the winter, as it can cut the price of flights nearly in half. For many destinations, you are going to get a better deal if you fly in winter (or monsoon season). If you are okay with a little cold or rainy weather, this can save you a ton on flights, as well as hotels and admission prices.

3. Try out a new credit card
If you are a US citizen and have decent credit, consider opening a credit card when you book your flight. I've gotten $75 off my flight when I've applied for an Expedia Citi card plus "reward points" which can be turned in for gifts such as money on! I've also gotten an American Airlines card which got me $50 off my flight plus one free checked bag on domestic flights and preferred boarding. Be careful with airline credit cards though as they usually have an annual fee. It is often waived the first year so if you cancel the card before the one year mark you can use it without paying the fee (usually US$100). Another great card is the Chase Freedom card which offers between 1-5% cash back and periodically does $200 off your first $500 of purchases (made within 90 days, but that's easy if you are buying a long haul flight!).

4. Use local websites
I haven't booked that many domestic flights in China as I actually really enjoy traveling by train. When I have taken flights, I've usually turned to Chinese websites that offer deals that aren't found on sites like kayak. There is an option for English on these sites which is great if you are unable to read Chinese. The ones I've used in the past are elong and ctrip. Another popular one that I haven't used is qunar. Thanks to these sites, I've gotten some deep discounts on flights that I've booked just days before departure. You can also search for deals on international flights as well as hotels.

5. Try budget airlines
I love, love, LOVE budget airlines (though Spirit Airlines may be an exception). You have to keep your expectations in check, but you can really find some amazing deals, especially if you book in advance! My absolute favorite budget airline is AirAsia, which I've flown about two dozen times. They are based in Malaysia so they serve Southeast Asia very well and they offer direct flights from a number of points in China to Kuala Lumpur (also known as KL, which is Malaysia's capital) as well as a few other destinations. If you are going to be living in Asia, do yourself a favor and get on their email list. They have incredible sales and if you have the flexibility to book your vacation far in advance, you can book tickets for next to nothing. I was able to get a round trip ticket from Beijing to KL for just over US$100, a flight that normally costs about $400. I also got a ticket from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to Singapore for 13 bucks!

6. Hidden city 
Hidden city seems to be the new thing in cheap air travel, though I have a feeling it might be on the way out.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept of hidden city, it uses algorithms to help you find a cheap ticket by using your destination as a stopover. For example, if you are flying from Chicago to Atlanta, hidden city websites such as skipplagged will try to find you a cheaper flight that has Atlanta has a stopover rather than the final destination. I've had friends who have used such sites successfully, but most airlines are not taking too kindly to people trying to beat the system. In fact, skipplagged is being sued by United Airlines for the practice.

One thing I haven't utilized is frequent flier miles. I fly so many different airlines and the thought of keeping track of them all seemed overwhelming.

Do you have any helpful tips for scoring cheap flights or good travel deals?

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Ode to a Chinese Taxi Driver

Today, like many days, I took a taxi. My driver was special in ways that only one who has lived in China awhile can appreciate. He had a mole on his cheek, out of which sprouted several long hairs, which he sported with pride. Stay hairs are auspicious to Chinese men (I know, Ming will never let me pluck one of his). I think my driver had food stuck in his teeth while also suffering from a head cold. He alternated between making odd sucking noises and hacking out the window. It made me realize that in my list of Things I'll Miss about China, I had left something out. I forgot to mention my adoration for China's taxis and their drivers. 

Beijing taxis, photo via
When asked if taxis are safe in China, I answer “yes” without a second's hesitation. Of course, there are times to be weary of them, especially if you know nothing of the country or the language. There are certainly unscrupulous drivers out there, who hatch schemes in hopes of earning a few extra renminbi. In the event that you become a victim of such a plot, try not to panic. It may seem though your driver is taking you out into the middle of nowhere to leave you for dead, but he is, in all likelihood, just taking the scenic route home in an attempt to run-up the meter.

In ten years, I have probably taken hundreds of Chinese taxis, licensed and (occasionally) unlicensed, both alone and with others. The one time I got taken advantage of, I was with my husband. Once we called the driver out on his shenanigans, he quickly became apologetic and lowered the fare. Though at times on alert for being overcharged, I've never felt threatened by a driver. In fact, taking a taxi—if you can catch one—is usually a pleasant experience. The drivers are generally jovial and curious, the perfect traits for those who want to practice their Chinese. I've found that you can learn a lot from local cabbies, depending on how you'd like to expand your Chinese vocabulary. I've learned how to curse out every Zhou (Joe) from here to Shanghai simply by spending a few rides stuck in Beijing's rush hour traffic. My salute to you, Beijing cabbies, for teaching me words that would make even your weird, perverted uncle blush.

In additional to being a learning experience, taking a taxi is very economical, at least by western standards. In Chengde, a typical ride costs between 6-10 RMB (US$1-1.50). In the US, you'd probably have to tip a driver more than that. You don't have to tip Chinese drivers, though sometimes you may have to bribe them to pick you up. Would you expect anything less in the Middle Kingdom? In Chengde, there is an ample fleet of cabs, so passengers still hold the upper hand. The situation in Beijing, however, is problematic for potential passengers. Due to lack of taxis, tech-savvy Beijingers have turned to apps such as Didi Dache to help them grab a cab. Use your smart phone to alert all taxis on the network where you need a pick-up—sounds convenient right? No more standing on the side of the road desperately waving your hand at every approaching car, squinting to see if the vehicle is a taxi and if so, if the stupid “unoccupied” light is on. Sure, you can avoid that indignity. But there's there's a price to pay for that luxury. If you are in serious need of a ride, you better be willing to add cash (call it a tip, but it's really a bribe) to the fare. You can start by adding 10 RMB ($1.50) and try your luck. If it's rush hour, plan on adding 20 RMB or more. My friend told me that many Beijing taxi drivers have conspired to avoid 5-star hotels unless the passenger offers 50 RMB on top of the fare. Those sneaky little buggers. But even with a pick-up bribe, Beijing taxis are affordable compared to the US. On a recent journey, I spent 56 RMB on a 30 minute ride (36 RMB fare + 20 RMB bribe) during Beijing rush hour. That's less than US$10.

So yes, I will miss the built-in language tutor plus the convenience that comes with taking a cab in China. But as my husband reminded me, in the US I'll have my own car. I suppose that will be pretty nice, too.

What type of transportation do you typically use where you live? Do you rely on other types of transportation when on vacation or while abroad?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No burping or farting in the store!

tourists at the Forbidden City, photo by Kim W
One thing I've noticed during the ten years I've lived in China, Chinese people love to travel. As the economy has grown, allowing more and more people have disposable income, the number of Chinese travelers has risen markedly. Domestic tourism is a huge industry in China, and I find that the Chinese tourist industry does a lot to cater to their countrymen, while surrounding countries go out of their way to cater to foreign travelers. Catering to foreign tourists usually means have English signage, English-speaking tour guides, and pizza on the menu. But in many places, that's changing. More and more countries are implementing tactics to attract Chinese travelers and their money. Hot drinking water, free tea, noodles for breakfast, and luxury shopping excursions along with Chinese-language menus and signs, it's all becoming the new standard in many travel hot spots.

But how do people feel about this new influx of Chinese tourists? The feelings seemed to be mixed. Some welcome them with open arms, as they appreciate the money Chinese tourists spend while on holiday. Others are annoyed, unable or unwilling to understand Chinese habits. I can speak to this firsthand, as I'm often mistaken as a Chinese tourist due to my last name. When I check-in to my accommodation, I am often met with interesting comments. One time, in Indonesia, I arrived at my guesthouse and the owner looked at me.

"Your name's Zhao, but your not Chinese?" she puzzled.

"No, I'm not, but my husband is," I explained.

"Well, I'm glad you're not. Those Chinese, they make such a mess, and sometimes they even bring rice cookers and use them in their rooms," she lamented.

I was a bit offended on behalf of all Chinese, not to mention I had just told her that my husband was Chinese. I realize there was some truth to what she said, after having run a hostel myself, I know that Chinese people generally leave a room messier than guests from many other countries. But I felt torn. How much do we expect foreign guests and tourists to bend to our standard when visiting our city or country? And how much should we cater to them as they spend their hard-earned cash and help fuel our local tourist industry and economy?

I was discussing this with one of my Chinese friends recently. She lives in Germany, so she is used to seeing the world from two different perspective's--as a person who grew up in China, but has spent much of her adult life in the west. I told her about a picture that I saw posted on WeChat. It was taken at a German shop and listed a number of rules, clearly directed at Chinese visitors. I've translated it into English below:
list of rules for Chinese tourists

Please don't eat or drink in the store!
The store is not a rest stop!
Please don't clip your nails in the store!
Please don't use toothpicks in the store!
Please don't spit in the store!
We politely refuse to haggle, but you can have receipt for duty free!
Please don't talk loudly, in order to avoid disrupting other customers shopping.
Please, no burping or farting in the store!

We both agreed that this was over-the-top and a tad offensive. I can understand asking customers not to eat and drink in the shop and I think posting a sign not to spit is, unfortunately, still a needed reminder for many older Chinese tourists. But I so rarely see Chinese people using toothpicks (especially outside of a restaurant) or hear them letting one rip in public (elderly men excluded), I don't think it needs saying. If I were Chinese and saw such a sign, I think I would kindly move on to the next shop.

What do you think? Do you try to adapt your habits to local culture when on vacation? Do you think we should afford some leeway to how foreign guests act when they visit our country?