beating the block.

I’ve been suffering from a bad case of blog block, a condition that just gets worse because the longer I go without writing the less blog-worthy what’s happening around me starts to feel, as though my return to the blog world must cover something truly epic. But wise people have told me this is an endless conundrum, the only way to break the block is to blog. About how much bitter mellon costs these days or the sparkling new 711 that opened up near my office, if I must. Luckily, last weekend gave me enough to work with.
November’s a special time for ex-pats in Chengdu, as with the end of fall come two of the biggest ex-pat-oriented events of the year – the Christmas Bazaar and the Marine Ball. Last year I heard about the Christmas Bazaar in retrospect and felt mighty disappointed I hadn’t heard in time about a Christmas fair in a land with very little Christmas spirit; it may have helped my dawning winter blues to mingle with like-minded ex-pats, Christmas goodies, Santa Claus, etc.
This year we were more prepared. The strangest thing about the Bazaar was how it made me remember that we’re not just 1 or 2 ex-pats floating in a Chengdu sea of Chinese, but one of (on last count) +11,000. An ex-pat community so large includes all the stereotypes  you’d expect in any social community – it’s hard to believe that the waspy lady swathed in pearls that I spoke to has also eaten at a hot pot restaurant or used a squat toilet. But she probably has.

bros at the wine table. duh.

Although I have an imported boyfriend and the majority of my close friends are foreigners, my daily life does not include large gatherings of ex-pats or environments reminiscent of home. The Marine Ball was quite clearly set up to bring a little taste of America to Chengdu, as I assume marine balls around the world do for whatever marines are stationed there. Everyone looked dapper, there were special guests (like the Secretary of Agriculture), I ate a lot of smoked salmon and drank a lot of American wine. This was clearly an evening guests anticipated – a great excuse to get dolled up, have a tailor turn out a flashy bow tie for your husband in the same hue as your ball gown, etc. It was a particular privilege to briefly meet the Consul General and observe the dignified yet accessible way he and his lovely wife interacted with the guests, and enjoyed themselves on the dance floor. It was all fun. Until a female party goer decided mounting the VIP table for an unrequested table dance was a good idea and in the blink of an eye all remaining VIP guests had made a swift, diplomatic exit. At least she wasn’t American.
Worth mentioning are the 2 very Chinese encounters that sandwiched my serious concentration of ex-pat time this weekend, encounters that highlight some of the (countless) social contrasts in the worlds between which we are balancing.
Our ayi was over cleaning while Jeff and I got ready for the Marine Ball, so naturally she started “oo”ing and “ahh”ing as she watched our transformation from sweatpants to better than sweatpants. She kept repeating something else to me in between little fits of laughter as I got ready to leave. Finally I figured out what she was so hysterically telling me: [Abridged English Translation] “You have no chest !!!” Yes. It happened.
Then I was whisked away to a ball where no matter what anyone thought of your appearance, affinity for table dancing, or overindulgence in alcohol, such opinions would never be voiced out loud. Not socially “Appropriate.”
Monday night – after my weekend of ex-pat smiles – Jeff and I had a long overdue dinner with our Chinese best friends. There, over egg battered crab legs and abalone (harvested from the outrageous aquariums on the first floor of the restaurant) my friend Jenny put her hand on my stomach and said “Bigger than before!” Also happened. Also can’t think of any previous context in my life when a comment like that would not end my conversation, or friendship.

In case you feel like ordering Alligator.

So yes, in a 48 hour period two of the most important Chinese people in my life called me boobless and fat. And somehow I’m not that offended, or particularly concerned, because life here tends to boost an ego more often than hurt it. I’m OK.
The point is no matter how foreign friendly my weekend may have been, this is still China. And that’s something no amount of Christmas cheer, American patriotism, or homemade-Apple-Fritters-California-Pinot-Smoked-Salmon-Buttered-Foccacia-Bread can make me forget.

hong kong.

A necessary visa run gave me the chance to escape the mainland for a few days and get a taste of Hong Kong for the first time. Leading up to this adventure, I’ve heard a lot about Hong Kong; varying levels of enthusiasm, awe, and even some disappointment. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

view from the top.

My 48 hours there certainly weren’t enough to draw any conclusions about this thriving metropolis, so close yet so far from the China I’ve experienced for the past year. There are definitely similarities to the mainland, but it is – on first impression- a different world.  There are foreigners everywhere. I ate veal meatballs and fresh mozzarella. I found fresh-baked lemon poppyseed muffins and green olive and crushed almond tapenade. I marveled at the immaculate public bathrooms. The cashier at Pret A Manger gave me a free latte because I was just so grateful for the warm carrot muffin he sold me. Starbucks made me the iced soy chai latte I haven’t had in a year (hasn’t made it to the mainland quite yet). The woman across the table from me openly said a prayer before eating her sausage roll. It was a trip.

prosciutto and wild figs. yes please.

Poppyseed muffins and prosciutto aside, I also attribute my positive impressions of HK to my hosts – family friends who live and work in Hong Kong. They were amazing and I was very lucky to stay in their gorgeous apartment at mid-level rather than spending an arm and a leg on a shoebox of a hotel room. They also gave me great HK advice, delicious meals, and adorable kids to hang out with, which was a nice bonus.

victoria peak. with a light saber.

Finally, HK rocked because I had the privilege of attending the first annual China Wine Awards, where I spent my Thursday tasting glass after glass of entrants from across the world. The Awards were organized by Kelly England of Kelly England publishing, the leading independent publishing house in HK and a generally gorgeous / super sweet person. The Awards are the first of their kind – catering specifically to the Chinese palate, focusing on what the Chinese consumer and major wine buyers across China actually want in a bottle. I’ve also gotten used to attending events in Chengdu for which my expectations are high, and misguided. This was not the case for the CWA, which I think speaks to the way things work in HK, and also to the organizers of this particular event. The entire day was meticulously planned and everything was considered. I drank well, ate well,  and met a lot of interesting people.

wine!

It’s strange returning to Chengdu with the acquired awareness of all that Hong Kong is. The city, it’s inhabitants and lifestyle, blend Eastern culture with Westernized notions of time, manners, openness, efficiency, not to mention Hong Kong exudes a genuinely globalized, cosmopolitan feel that I haven’t found elsewhere in China. It’s pretty ideal transition point between life in the West and the East; a place to dip your toes before jumping into the deep end. Unprepared and unaware, we did a cannonball into the frontier of mainland China a year ago, which doesn’t stop sounding crazy whenever I answer that frequently-asked-question “What are you doing here? Why Chengdu?”

For the record – still figuring out the right answer to that question :)

*mis.type.

This is now 2 posts in a row on awkward moments. Really, it’s been a life trend. Like that time my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend moved in as my sub-letter, by chance. Can’t make that stuff up.  A side effect of this predisposition for awkwardness is the frequency with which I sent text messages (or emails, with attachments) to the wrong recipient. I won’t sully this blog with all the times this has mortified me, but I got an amusing response last night when I accidentally sent the message “Cocktail waiting for you!” to the Chinese coordinator at the school I’ve worked at instead of my friend, who I actually had a cocktail waiting for. Response: “I am so sorry Clara, I just read your message now But I can’t understand the sentence “Cocktail waiting for you!” Do you mean you want me to join in the cocktail party or do you mean something else? I am sorry for my narrow knowledge… Are you available now? Can you explain it to me? Where are the cocktails?”

photo montage: What Surrounds my Bike At an Intersection

Puppy in a basket:

The cost effective way to move your shit:

McDonalds Delivary:

gaffe!

I received a lesson in humility yesterday (after watching gaffe-prone Biden deliver a pretty gaffe-free speech, but more on that later) while sitting on my stoop with Jeff and a few friends enjoying some sunday afternoon beers.

One of the best things about our new apartment complex is the huge courtyard around which the buildings are set. It is one of the larger patches of grass I’ve seen in Chengdu (other than some amazing parks) and is kept perfectly landscaped and unusually green. In other words, we finally have a lovely spot to sit outside right on our doorstep. It’s nice.

A middle-aged chinese man walked by us with a beautiful golden retriever and an equally beautiful husky (unusual sight, most Chinese prefer small dogs). Said husky decided to do his business on the stone pathway directly in front of where we were sitting, so he got started, right as I was thinking how lovely the afternoon was. In alcohol induced irritation and disgust I declared “That man BETTER pick up that dog’s shit or I am going to ….” (fill in the blank). I said this because I frequently watch people watch their dogs (or kids, which is certainly worse) go to the bathroom on our communal property (and every street / sidewalk, ever) and not do anything about it. It’s gross. Unfortunately, this particular man turned around and said “I can understand what you’re saying. I’m from Texas, and I always clean up after my dogs. So, are you still going to kick my ass?”

Foot In Mouth.

Being called out in this way has surprisingly never happened to me before, and was a useful lesson for someone who has gotten quite comfortable complaining in English about what is going on around me. It doesn’t matter that I had a point (my friend accurately pointed out that although he said he “always” cleaned up after his dogs, he was carrying no bag and in fact asked me to hold their leashes while he went to retrieve some newspaper), it mattered that my response was belligerent BECAUSE I did not expect it to be understood. Bad move! At a time where every Chinese kid learns English in school, and in a city that is rapidly developing and increasing it’s numbers of foreigners and elsewhere-born Chinese, it’s good to realize that I’m not always safe talking smack in English. I was obviously mortified and spent the next 10 minutes oogling over his dogs and being overly enthusiastic in my conversation with him so as to reverse the embarrassing damage I had done. He was a pretty nice guy, and probably a good neighbor to not have offended/threatened on first impression. I’m pretty sure I successfully redeemed and explained myself,  but I still blush just thinking about it. I’m awkward, what else is new.

our sacred lawn.

the 1 year mark.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary to me , and Jeff, and Chengdu. It’s been an amazing year, and it’s crazy to reflect on the ways I’ve developed as a person, an ex-pat, a student, a wanderlust-er, etc.  Our adventure has unfolded in so many interesting ways.

Of course there have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles (a bone-freezing winter, eternal traffic chaos, routine stomachaches, a language barrier, the general bureaucracy of accomplishing normal things like renting an apartment or paying a bill, questionable sanitation practices and lots of baby pee, air quality not conducive to clean, pink lungs, etc, etc ) but the year has also been a series of lessons and blessings (an amazing appreciation for local cuisine, hospitable and generous new friends, the gratification of progress learning a beautiful and challenging language, a once in a lifetime road trip across China, an insane month on the beaches of Thailand, the connections to new people and places that result from life as an ex-pat, the improvement in my baking skills to compensate for lack of real cookies-muffins-cakes-bread, introduction to the art of “hashing“, hour long reflexology treatments for $5, etc, etc).

Most of all, I’ve learned (read: am still trying to learn) to live in the moment, appreciate what I’ve got, and above all – just be patient. More than anything else, patience is a critical requirement of living in China, and a virtue I haven’t always had much of. I have no idea if I’ll still be here a year from now, or even a month from now (here’s hoping I can extend my visa) but making it through our first year here is worth celebrating.

first night in chengdu. first fapiao victory.

beginning of our love affair with late night bbq.

first china boat ride ... hangzhou

first chinese new year!

rabbit + tiger <3

moving on up.

We’re not homeless! It’s a nice feeling. The past 2 weeks have involved a lot of packing, cleaning, spending money, moving, spending more money, picking up heavy shit, unpacking boxes, and organizing our new space. And a pretty epic housewarming party.

As I mentioned before, I toured a dizzying number of apartments in search of The One. Early on, we were shown a place that we were in unusual accord on. The unit was spacious and well-priced, with a lot more room and a much better layout than our last apartment (you don’t have to listen to someone pee while you’re sitting at the dinner table, a nice upgrade). We told the agent we wanted it.

The next day, 2 different agents showed me the same exact apartment, which I took as some higher-power-confirmation that the apartment was meant for us. Unfortunately, my original agent called the next morning saying the deal was off because the landlord was refusing to pay the necessary commission to Century 21 ( 1 months rent typically split between tenant and landlord.) We were disappointed and I was frazzled, because we had 72 hours to find a new apartment and move. The next day yet another agent happened to show me the unit directly next door to the apartment we had wanted. I noticed the door was ajar and bolted from my agent escort, slipping inside the apartment and happening upon whom I assumed to be the landlady. In incredibly broken Chinese I tried to explain  that we looked at her apartment before and really wanted it, frantic as the Century 21 agent was approaching from behind to interrupt our meeting of fate. The amused landlady responded, “Do you want to just speak English? I speak English.”

And so, in her absolutely fluent English, we agreed to meet later that night and work out a deal without the greedy, overeager Century 21 agents (OK – they’re not greedy, just doing their job, but saving 1,000 RMB sure feels good). Not only did we find a great deal, but we also found a great landlady. Her kindness has been yet another reminder of one of the greatest things about living here – in America, if someone (especially a landlord; a relationship that is notoriously distant at best tense at worst) was being this generous and helpful, I would wonder what’s the catch; in Chengdu, the people you develop relationships with -for any number of reasons – are often just that kind and helpful.

 

party party.

WTF Sedaris!

At the moment I’m a little short on time, internet, and patience. Sipping an iced chrysantheum puerh tea at Bingo Bagel (a note to BB: get with the program, bagels are a breakfast food, NOT best consumed at 9:30 pm when you finally take your hot bagels out of the oven), I was going to make a delayed attempt at expressing my not-so-positive opinion on David Sedaris’ piece in the Guardian a week or so ago recounting his generally disgusted impressions of his time in Beijing and Chengdu; an article that was sensationally vivid, painfully elitist, and predictably whiny and sarcastic. I’m down with the whiny sarcasm, and generally down with Sedaris, but this went too far (maybe my return to Chengdu is turning me soft).

Most irritating are his digs at Chinese food on the whole, and specifically what Chengdu had on offer, and his unnecessary (and apples to oranges) observation that Japan, specifically Tokyo, kicks China’s ass in areas of hygiene, convenience, food, etc etc. I think the two countries have enough issues without Sedaris throwing his biased weight on one side without a proper understanding (or remote appreciation) of the other. Anyways, I made the mistake of reading my friend Ashley’s response first, and now I basically have nothing to say that wouldn’t be complete plagiarism. I’m in complete consensus with all of her points. So, if you love Chengdu, or hate Chengdu; if you’re interested or disinterested, I still suggest you read her blog post on the matter:

Dear Mr. Sedaris, it’s Chicken Feet. Get it Straight.