homeward bound.

Well, it’s midnight reflections in my Beijing hostel’s bar. I fly home tomorrow after 10 months in what sometimes feels like an alternate universe. Already, I notice the ways this layover in Beijing is offering a more gentle transition – there are foreigners everywhere, so many people speak english, I ate vietnamese spring rolls for dinner, the airport bathroom I used didn’t even have squat toilets. Still, I anticipate re-entry into America will hit me hard. A friend of mine from college just arrived in Chengdu Sunday to visit my friend Walter; observing his reactions to what has become so “normal” to me made me keenly aware of how much my life has changed, and likewise my perspective on life and the big world we live in. A herd of employees doing an aerobic dance workout outside the hair salon or restaurant they work at doesn’t surprise me anymore;  I don’t even notice the way street shops hang fresh cuts of meat on metal hooks all day; I somehow have an unmerited brazen confidence riding my bike into oncoming traffic; I am still grossed out but by no means appalled to see adults helping their small children pee (or worse) right on the sidewalk (or worse). Have I become slightly Chinese? Or have I just chilled out?

There is so much I look forward to in going home – my family, my friends, the food, the law and order, the convenience, and on and on. But I’m aware it’s going to come with it’s fair share of intense reverse culture shock. It’s so strange to reflect on the trepidation of last August – when I was bound for a place I had no connection to and no real knowledge of, besides what I’d learned in school or from the news. While I’ve spent a lot of this year beating myself up for not having things turn out the “way” I wanted them to (whatever that means), I’m starting to realize dwelling on a “way” is a counterproductive exercise, one that prevents you from focusing on what you have done and seen and learned. Which is a lot.

I just spent 5 minutes trying to figure out if “learned” was the right verb tense in the sentence above- I officially need to go speak English for 6 weeks. Farewell for now, China. It’s been real.

the things they carry.

It’s pretty unbelievable what people manage (or just attempt) to carry on their bikes around here. The serious safety hazards come in all forms – from entire families lined up 4 on a bike with their dog (or baby) panting between their feet, to laborers trying to transport metal beams, or glass window frames, strapped to their back or teetering precariously under their arms. The water delivery guys get around on electric bikes fastened with metal contraptions that hold 4 or more giant water-cooler bottles on either side of them.

Surprisingly I’ve never witnessed an accident involving any of these oversized bike loads until the other day – a water delivery man was trying to veer from the divided bike lane (don’t get it twisted – no one actually sticks to their designated lane) into traffic and miscalculated the positioning of the metal divider. The bottles strapped to his right side collided with the beam, knocking the bottles off the bike and causing his bike to slam down on top of him directly in front of oncoming traffic, where luckily the giant SUV who collided into him was paying enough attention to slam on  their brakes. Quite alarmed, I pulled over to the side of the road and was relieved to see the water guy get right up off the street and start re-attaching those giant bottles to his bike. Everyone moved on and the incident seemed to shock no one. I’ve gotten really used to observing this kind of thing, despite spending the past 24 years of my life in places where traffic is regulated and seatbelts are mandatory. But, as my trip home approaches and I’m forced to reunite with traffic laws and general order, I thought one of the most amusing / disturbing issues in the chaos that is Chengdu traffic was worth a blog entry. Below are some pictures of old men carrying way more than they should. And these examples are actually on the reasonable side….

an old man squatting atop 30 foot long sharp metal beams.... in traffic.

ladder under the arm, twice his size.

sunshine

sunshine. clear skies.

The past few days have replenished my vitamin D in ways I assumed impossible in this valley of clouds and smog. Chengdu has been hit with a gorgeous weather weave – the temperature shot from 50’s to high 70’s overnight; it’s warm, breezy, and the sun has been shining since Friday.  All transitional seasonal clothing items have become moot, and shorts and sunglasses are officially required.

The past 2 weeks I’ve actually become busy, a condition which demonstrates the weird ways things works out if you just keep putting in the time. After 8 months of avoiding teaching English for a school or company (chaos, unreliable, crap money, bad schedule), I acquired 2 very different private students within a period of 24 hours. A day later, my  yoga teacher asked me if I would start teaching her and her friend once a week after class. And so, suddenly, I’m tutoring 8 hours a week and making surprisingly decent money doing so.  I can not say that I LOVE spending an hour trying to get a 6 year old who has never heard the word “no” to focus, but my other students are really interesting, and I always find conversation with them to be mutually informative. And as a little pressure tends to do, having more on my plate is making more more productive in my free time. Yay.

Time is flying, and I go home June 1 for a 6ish week reunion with all things America. As it approaches,  I’m forced to reflect on exactly what’s happened in the past 8 months. The easy answer is a lot; the tougher answer is identifying what I have to show for 8 months of mostly unemployed wanderlusting. While I attempt to figure it all out,  I am going to soak up this sunshine and what time I have left with many of my friends here who are on the verge of their own exits. This weekend is the Zebra Music Festival – touted as the best event of the year in Chengdu. Next weekend is a gigantic hash event where a large contingent of Suzhou (and Hong Kong) hashers fly into Chengdu which will inevitably turn into complete, liver-damaging madness. And then BAM – I’m two weeks away from clean(er) air, streets free of baby pee, the convenience of a CVS pharmacy, an endless selection of cheese, real coffee, bakeries, bagels, i could go on….

Because it’s been a while – below are some photographic highlights of the past month or so.

taxis run on natural gas ... the lines are epically long.

my new friend carrie's ADORABLE munchkin, christine.

stir fried beef .... with dragonfruit.

fulbrighters + connecticutians

... the hash.

time

Since we arrived in China 8 months ago, it became obvious that the structure of time is one of the most blatant differences between our lives pre-China and life now. It’s hard to explain my point without a story about one of our first Sundays in Chengdu.

living on chengdu-time.

Jeff and I made plans for an “interview” with a recruiter looking to place foreign English teachers after meeting him on campus. Before the appointed day we told “David” our parameters: we were hoping to work weekdays and we wanted to work at a school within 3rd ring road (Chengdu is a sprawling city; what’s considered the center of the city is within the first ring,  by the time you get beyond the third ring you’re talking at least an hours worth of traffic). We also told him that we were free for 2 hours on Sunday afternoon, and had plans at 5 o’clock. David picked us up at 1 p.m. and from the moment we jumped on the highway (bad sign), we realized we may as well have been kidnapped (not to be confused with another similar story where I was alone and really did think I was being kidnapped). Completely disregarding anything we had said – but in  the most apologetic and upbeat way – David proceeded to drive us over an hour outside of the city to an English school built within a construction site where they wanted foreign teachers to come once a week for an hour, making it completely not worth the journey. To add insult to injury, he proceeded to thrust me in front of a class of 30 4-year-olds and told me to hold a demo class, right then,  with no preparation or advanced notice. It was awkward.By the time we got back in the car we were both obviously annoyed, but somehow David managed to once again ignore our request to be taken home and drove us another hour to a public school where he promised good hours and good money. Unfortunately, the principal had taken the afternoon off so we waited in a conference room beneath portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao for the interview that would never occur. By the time we left the public school it was after 5 o’clock, 4 hours after he had picked us up and 2 hours past the time we thought we’d be dropped off.

The afternoon became a joke until we realized that what David did wasn’t particularly abnormal in social or business culture. Sure, his tactics were a little extreme, but since that day we’ve both been in countless situation with Chinese friends, acquaintances, potential employers where time has just elapsed, and whatever other plans we said we had, no matter the excuse, were disregarded.

On the one hand it highlights a very American concept of time – we are used to planning our days and booking ourselves up; scheduling a meeting with one person followed by drinks with another and dinner with someone else. It all fits, because no one expects you tospend your entire afternoon or evening doing something – everyone assumes everyone has plans, other social or professional obligations. Maybe we should stop overbooking ourselves and ditching one person for the next, cramming as much into 24 hours as possible.On the other hand it’s just annoying to lose control of your afternoon, or entire day, because you committed to a cup of coffee or an interview. I’m getting better at anticipating Chinese timing, which helps me not get so annoyed when it happens.

This past Saturday we planned to have dinner with Jenny and Hang and Jenny’s boss at 5 p.m. They had a young kid so we were expecting an early affair. Our friends were going to see a Mongolian band play at Little Bar at 8, which I told Jenny we wanted to go to before we even arrived at dinner. By 7 o’clock I tried to subtly check in with Jenny; to gauge how much more bai jiu we were going to have to drink and how much longer we’d be picking at what was left on the lazy susan of Sichuan dishes. Like clockwork, her boss (a big deal kind of guy) informed the table he had just booked the biggest room at his favorite KTV spot. “Clara, I think maybe you can go to the concert some other time,” was Jenny’s apologetic way of saying “This is my boss, neither of us have a choice. It’s time to sing some Lady Gaga.”

Sometimes Chinese time is not on my side – like our memorable Sunday afternoon with David. Other times it surprises me. We missed a great concert Saturday night, but if we’d gone we would’ve missed out on a pretty amusing KTV experience. It’s easy to say Chinese time drives me crazy but, like many cultural contrasts, it has both entertainment value and instructive life lesson: stop thinking time is something to control; just relax and let the night unfold.

moment of the day

I often arrive home in the early evening cursing myself for once again testing just how much I can fit on my bicycle between my basket and my body (although this is China, and today I saw a man with two women clutching his back and a 2 year old between his knees). Regardless, when I’m weighed down with a bottle of wine, bushel of vegetables, a backpack of schoolbooks, and a grocery bag of canned beans I’m usually not in the greatest of moods.  But every time I pull into the garage, our lovely and diligent bike keeper changes my mood.  She has an eternal smile on her face and always asks me what I’m carrying and where I’ve been, despite the fact that I am rarely able to articulate a proper answer. Lately, when I bring home vegetables she comes over to my bike and goes through each vegetable with me, having me repeat the names in Chinese. Today, when I pulled out a fat, bright orange carrot she asked me how to say the name in English. I said it slowly: “care-OT;” she started repeating over and over “care-us! care-us!” while simultaneously erupting into giggles at the sound of her own voice. It was the biggest smile I’d seen all day, and I’ve never seen a carrot make someone so excited. I left her there laughing, and even as the elevator doors were closing behind me I heard her hollering – to her husband, to exiting and arriving residents – “care-us! care-us!!!!”

highlights

we fit quite a bit into 8 days. some highlights:

giant buddha, leshan.

Giant Buddha, Leshan – I finally paid a visit to the stoic, giant Buddha with my mom and brother after months of being told it was well worth the trip. The “Big Buddha” at Leshan is the largest Buddha in the world, and sits at the confluence of the Min, Qingyi, and Dadu rivers, where back in the day tempestuous waters caused frequent boat accidents that the people blamed on a water spirit beneath the waves.  The Buddha was thought to tame the spirit and protect the boats and was completed in 803 AD after 90 years of unimaginable effort. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s incredible to stare up at, which validates the excess of tourists you’ll encounter there no matter when you go. To see the Buddha you start at the top and navigate your way down a steep, narrow staircase built into the cliff that doesn’t deter the Chinese habit of pushing / generally ignoring personal space. This was more obvious than usual because we were escorting my mom who a) hates heights and b) isn’t used to Chinese tourists. My friend Bev graciously guided us on our Big Buddha tour and after hiking back up led us to a much quieter, less popular temple that is connected to the Big Buddha park by the most picturesque bridge, set atop fields of bright yellow rapeseed and a river on whose banks elderly Chinese men fished; a pretty idyllic site. Hiking up to Wuyou was also amazing and clearly an oft-ignored part of the tourist trip to the Buddha. At the top of the otherwise ordinary forest, the temple is an incredible display of the Buddhist heritage of the region. If it wasn’t partially under construction when we visited (surprise!) I would probably call it the most peaceful place I’ve seen in China.

sichuan opera.

Sichuan Opera – My mom and brother told me in advance they wanted to check out a performance before they arrived, and a friend told me friends of hers booked discounted tickets through a popular hostel in Chengdu, Sim’s, who not only booked us seats but also picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel. Convenient. The opera itself was a trip; foolishly I didn’t anticipate that choosing the more authentic teahouse experience would mean the venue was completely outdoors and we were unprepared. It was freezing. But, the staff offered complimentary “overcoats” to stay warm and kept refilling our teacups. The performance was very cool, even if an obvious tourist trap.  It was basically a variety show showcasing the traditional acts of Sichuan Opera – there was singing, Erhu-playing, hand-puppet-play, shadow play, a hen-pecked husband skit, and of course the famous face changing. The show lasted exactly 1.5 hours and was hosted by a Chinese lady whose voice and English “translations” were a show in their own right. Overall we were pleased and it was a worth-while activity if you’re visiting Sichuan  and want a glimpse at a form of entertainment that has been around for centuries (and don’t mind that the authenticity has been inevitability compromised in the process).

home-cooked sichuan... + bai jiu

Dinner at my friend Jenny’s parents apartment – OK, you need a Chinese friend to re-create this experience but it was the highlight of the trip, meal-wise. Jenny is a close friend of ours and Jeff and I have had the privelage of eating at her parents apartment once before; they speak no English but are unbelievably sweet, hospitable, and thrilled to host foreigners. Her mom insisted on cooking a dinner for my mom and brother, fully taking into consideration the fact that my brother is a vegetarian, and the evening turned into a hilarious and delicious event – and rose to the level of epic when my brother happily threw back a bottle of bai jiu with Jeff and Jenny’s dad (I’ve never seen my brother take a shot of anything in his life). The food was better than anything you can order in a restaurant and it was so unique for my family to get to experience a Chinese family dinner. They also realized I’m not lying when I say people in Chengdu do not turn on their heaters, even in the wintertime.

the hash.

 

The Hash – Equal parts inappropriate banter and beautiful countryside, the Hash ended up being a great way to spend our Sunday despite my initial reservations about bringing mom along. I was punished for doing so, and I never thought I’d see my mom attempt to chug beer out of a piss pot, but it all happened. My brother was beyond amused at the level of adolescent humor encouraged at the Hash and we all enjoyed the scenic village, despite the fact that the Hash crew was missing several of it’s usual characters.

feisty panda cubs.

Panda Base – The general advice on this tourist-staple is to go first thing in the morning to catch the pandas before they sleep the day away. However, this is the second time I’ve ignored this advice and been pleasantly surprised. The highlight of the day was encountering a discovery channel crew filming the panda cubs who you usually only get to see behind glass in their nursery. For the filming all the cubs were out in the grass, climbing all over their handlers and the cameramen who looked as thrilled as I would be to have a baby panda climbing through my legs or even biting my bum, like the lucky handler above.

dufu.

Dufu’s Cottage – Another Chengdu site I’d yet to see, Dufu’s Thatched Cottage is a monument to the famous 8th century poet who is said to have experienced his most creative and prolific writing period during his 4 year stay in Chengdu after being exiled from Gansu Province. The grounds surrounding his cottage are scenic and peaceful, and the greater Huanhuaxi Park right beside Dufu’s former digs also makes for a nice walk. Just don’t get confused and think they are the same and spend 2 hours winding your way through the maze like trails looking for the cottage in Huanhauxi. Because it’s not there. Which we eventually learned.

veg-friendly hot pot.

Hot Pot – You literally can’t visit Chengdu without getting hot pot, but this requisite was difficult given my brother loyal vegetarianism and the fact that every hot pot I’ve had (so far) uses a meat based broth, whether you opt for spicy or yuan yang (half spicy, half not). On their second to last night in Chengdu, horrified that my family would leave this city without the life-altering gastronomic experience, Jenny and I remembered a Chongqing hot pot place near my apartment that does things a little differently – the circular table is covered in personal electric hot plates, and everyone gets their own individual pot of either spicy oil or non-spicy broth. It’s a little (alot) nicer than our usual hot pot haunts, and on our last visit there was a large table of tourists taking advntage of the foreign-friendly system so we decided to give it a try. Luckily, they offered a non-spicy mushroom broth that did not have any meat base (or so they said). They also offered an all-you-can-eat price AND a station to make your own sauce that offers all the regulars – sesame oil, vinegar, oyster sauce, cilantro, garlic – plus a lot of appealing extras – scallions, several chili oils, ground sichuan pepper, peanuts, sesame seeds, soy sauce, and so on. In the end, my brother was able to eat hot pot guilt-free, and my mom was spared the (for some) nerve-wracking experience of eating hot pot in a loud, smoky neighborhood joint where the soundtrack is loogies being hawked and drunk men yelling. But I gotta say I’m getting quite accustomed to the latter. (The Chongqing Hot Pot restaurant is located on First Ring Road 2 overpasses past Jiu Yan Qiao if your heading in the direction of Chunxi Lu).

my lovely world-traveling mama :)

family!

It’s back to “normal” life after an amazing 8 days having my mom and brother visiting. For them, the trip allowed the opportunity to get a small glimpse of a country you really have to see to believe, as well as a look at my life here. For me the visit was of equal magnitude – I realized how much I have changed and adapted in my 8 months living in a city that simultaneously amazes me and irritates me; a place that teaches me as much as it makes me aware of what I already know. Being their tour guide and their translator boosted my confidence but also increased my affection for this place – my mom and brother were struck by the generosity and sincerity of my Chinese friends and my own interactions with people on the street (apparently they remember me as kind of a snarky bitch in my life before China). My mom couldn’t tell me enough how impressed (read: shocked) she was with how patient and “tough” I’ve become; better equipped to weather small annoyances and more able to solve problems and get around in a city where I fail at communicating 85% of the time. Having them here gave me a little perspective on my situation and also let me give myself a little credit – which is nice because I’ve spent the better part of the past 3 months lamenting my unemployment, or the freezing weather, or the fact that I can’t suddenly speak fluent Chinese.

I think my mom especially was in awe of Chengdu, for a variety of reasons. First – when she was 24 going to China was virtually not an option, let alone up and moving here without a plan. Second, the way people live here – social behavior, manners, the traffic, general order, standards of cleanliness, the volume, the way they eat and what they eat – is all so foreign. At times it seems in complete and polar contrast to everything we are used to in the West. I’m opening my eyes to it after 24 years and it often shocks me, it’s even tougher to get your head around after 55 years. The speed of development in this city (which is of course a country-wide phenomenon) is also quite overwhelming. The floor to ceiling windows in their hotel room captured this trend visually – there’s no direction you can look where you don’t see a crane or a skyscraper under construction or a flattened plot of land lying in wait for whatever structure it’s destined to become. It’s just so different from a city like New York or Washington that for the most part is already built; where there is always some development but it never feels as though the entire city is being built around you.

sampling some of my favorite noodles

I’m satisfied we made the most of their time here, and grateful they travelled around the world to see their still-kind-of-snarky daughter/sister. Hosting them forced me to play the role of organizer and care-taker, which often enables me to be a lot more positive and patient of a person than when I’m just rambling around on my own. I realize now I have gotten to know Chengdu quite well, despite the fact there’s a whole lot more to know (like, the language), and made me think about how weird it will be to re-enter America in all it’s glorious freedom and convenience (and a whole lot of negatives that I’m starting to forget the longer I’m away). But in that same way I love my family unconditionally, I’m able to forgive America some of it’s flaws and remain grateful for the opportunities it has allowed me. And I of course can’t wait for my next reunion with my mom and bro, as well as everyone else I miss so dearly, stateside :)

ps – I’ll follow up this post with some highlights from our 8 day adventure…