Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I’m actually kind of surprised at how well these blog entries are turning out, but I credit them more to the excitement of my life than to my writing skills. Along those lines, here is a list of random things that I’ve noticed:

-You must be in a foreign country when you can see your breath in every elevator.

-When you’re walking down the street and you see parents taking their kid’s pants off, don’t worry. The kid’s just about to take a leak. On the sidewalk. Speaking of which…

-All of us kids in the Chengdu program live in two apartments right across the street from each other. Right next to one of them is the “West China High Tech Hospital,” and somebody reported that on her way to school, she saw some kid peeing on the steps of the hospital. I hope it’s more sanitary inside.

-When you press the “close door” button on the elevator in China, the door actually closes. I always feel deceived in the States when I press the button and nothing happens, but here if you want to close the door, you can.

-When you see Nike commercials with guys playing ping-pong in slow motion—it’s not a joke.

-I saw a Chinese guy with an afro today looking pretty fly. I think I looked at him as strangely as all the Chinese look at me.

-Climbing mountains while it’s snowing is an even worse idea than trying to climb mountains in Wyoming while it’s raining.

-If you go into a hair salon and it looks kind of sketchy, think twice before agreeing to have your hair washed, because you might have just been solicited.

-Everyone—including your middle-aged female Chinese professor—probably knows more about the NBA than you do.

So now you know.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Squat Toilets, Shadows, and Taxis

Today was my first experience with a squat toilet. All the girls have used them before, but since bathrooms here usually have urinals, guys don't have as many opportunities. Today after class, though, I really needed to go. Luckily I had accompanied the people who are in the cooking class to the restaurant where class was going to be held, so I at least had a ritzy squat toilet (they even had toilet paper in the stall!). I wasn't really clear on the procedure for a squat toilet, but I managed. My balance left something to be desired, and my legs felt sore afterward, but other than that it wasn't too bad. I prefer the western-style toilets we have in our apartments, though, even though our bathroom is missing some of the panels in the roof and you're always wondering what kind of rodent will spring at you out of the rafters.

It was sunny yesterday. Coming from the Sunshine State, I would have thought that I would have had my share of sun, and I actually haven't minded the weather here so much. Every day, though, it's overcast or raining, and so I can totally understand the saying they have about the province we're in: "Sichuan dogs bark at the sun." Seriously, yesterday the sun was out and I stopped walking and just kind of looked at the sun. Smog or fog or clouds or something was still in the way, so I wasn't in danger of being blinded--this is Chengdu's version of the sun, not Orlando's.

And then, I saw shadows. I actually saw shadows first, was surprised, and then thought to look at the sun. (It made me think of the Switchfoot song "The shadow proves the sunshine.") Today I was paying extra close attention because I didn't want to sound ridiculous writing here that people in Chengdu don't have shadows. But it's true. Two reasons: the sun is always obscured, so light is diffuse and seems to just come from the sky in general; and, the ground is usually wet and it's hard to see shadows through a city of puddles.

This afternoon Rebekah and I went to the middle of nowhere because we've been selected to memorize a poem for some Chinese New Year celebration. From what our teacher told us, it sounds like we're the token Americans in the presentation, and we have to just stand up, look American but sound as Chinese as we can, and then we're done. Anyway, we had to go down to the memorial park where the famous local poet lived hundreds (thousands?) of years ago so they could make sure we looked suitably American or something. They were satisfied, and so we had to find a taxi back.

Now, Rebekah and I had already taken a taxi to the restaurant for their cooking class, and then a taxi to this place, so by this point my endurance was being taxed (since it was hard to be taxied, if you know what I mean). Rebekah has never successfully hailed a taxi, so she's rather disillusioned too. Getting a taxi here is an art form. You have to guess where people are likely to be dropped off, because finding a free taxi chilling down a main road won't help you, and if you try that you're apt to walk home from Carrefour with a heater in your arms. After living here for two weeks, though, we've wisened up and now just pick a spot on the street and push everyone else out of your way when a taxi does stop there to let someone out.

One other thing to mention is that it was cold today. I mean cold. It snowed this morning but reverted to snowing rain this afternoon with a slight breeze to make up for beautiful snowflakes. This place we went is usually a good tourist attraction, but on days like today, no one wants to walk around touring thatched cottages, so we were out of luck on incoming taxis. Rebekah and I waited for about twenty minutes before I finally got one, but when we told him where we wanted to go, he didn't look like he knew where it was. Finally he figured it out, but started explaining something to us in a very dissatisfied voice and giving off the impression that he wasn't willing to take us. He pointed at his registration card, or something like that, and after I was sure that I had no idea what he was saying, we got out to start over. I was just hoping that there wasn't some regulation on the areas taxi drivers drove in, because if we were out of the right district, we would be really out of luck. We had gotten a taxi there, though, so we kept up hope.

I saw a few taxis turn onto a more residential street, and so we followed them slowly. Finally I saw one pull over, and I ran over, ready to barrel any less deserving Chinese who were in my way. Rebekah caught up, the cab driver knew immediately where we wanted to go, and half an hour later we arrived. What a day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dinner with a Chinese Family, Pt 2

When Shayron, Rebekah, and I were done playing with the three kids, we got them to lead us back to their apartment. The apartment complex itself would be pretty nice by American standards, so I can only imagine how good it is here in Chengdu. Their house had a small kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and a few bedrooms in the back, and was heat so that we were quite comfortable.

When we came in, we had the option of taking our shoes off and wearing slippers (which I was pretty excited to know the word for: tuoxie) or of wrapping two pieces of plastic that looks like a shower cap over your shoes. They seated us at the table. It was the mom and her parents there. We wondered where the dad was and found out later that he was still at work—most Chinese I’ve met here work long hours.

About the time the food started coming out, I realized that when I invited Rebekah, I forgot that she was a vegetarian. This family had agonized over what to make us, as we found out later from our program director, but even at the time we didn’t want to be rude and mess up their dinner. We had non-spicy hotpot, which made it hardly hotpot at all. Still, the main components are various meats, and as the mom and grandma started loading food into our little bowls, Rebekah managed to make it look like she was just moving at a slow pace as she fished around for vegetables.

I decided what I liked by trying everything, including pig’s ear. It was striped pink and whitish with flesh and fat and came in half-bacon sized strips. It was tough, so you kind of had to gnaw on it, but didn’t have an unpleasant flavor. I’ve found that when I eat here in China, I’ll be excited to eat anything I can name, even if it isn’t something I’d normally like in the States. For example, at a lot of restaurants, they serve a dish that looks like scrambled eggs with tomatoes. I don’t like tomatoes, usually. But when there’s some green stuff on that part of the table, and some soupy stuff on this side of the table, and long white vegetables with little bulbs on the ends next to you, then eggs and tomatoes looks fabulously familiar.

Another thing about eating here is that it seems like I can only feel full after an American meal. There are two American restaurants in town, and unless I’m there, I feel like I’ve eaten a lot and am full for the moment, but in another half hour I’ll be ready to eat again. It was the same with this family. They kept giving us food, so I kept eating. I think we ate for like two hours. I tried to be sensitive to how much food they had and everything, but it didn’t seem like a problem, so I just kept eating. Weird tofu cubes, hard shreds of beef, rice, and whatever they pulled out of the pot in the middle: something like spinach, chicken legs, long strands of angel-hair type pasta. We washed it all down with soda. I think I drank more Coke that night than I did all of last semester.

As we ate, we tried to make conversation. It was really nice to have Rebekah there. If I didn’t understand what the mom said, I’d turn to Rebekah, and usually she wouldn’t know either, but at least then we were ignorant together. I think by the end of the evening the mom understood how bad our Chinese was. She talked really slowly, and used easy words, and paused at the end of every sentence to make sure we were almost following her. It was luxurious.

The kids got bored pretty fast after dinner, so once we were done too, we watched an anime tv show with them.

And that was pretty much it. When they heard that I didn’t have any plans for Chinese New Year, the mom invited me to come with their family to some mountain, I think. Maybe as the days get closer I’ll call her and see if she brings it up again. Rebekah had a great time and after talking the whole evening, she felt like she could finally look at Chinese with some hope. And on the ride home, the conversation turned to shopping, so Shayron even got involved and we had to translate every sentence. Overall, a successful evening, I’d say.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dinner with a Chinese Family, Pt 1

We had a field trip Saturday to the Yellow Dragon River. The river itself was pretty unimpressive, I thought, or maybe it was just overshadowed by the really exciting part: being paired up with a real Chinese family. Most people were paired one family to one student, but I had to share my family with Shayron. She doesn’t know any Chinese, and our family hardly knows English, so I knew it would be tough.

The first thing about them is that they’re rich. I don’t know how Chinese people measure wealth, but they have a car, and when we were in the little shopping area in the village they bought us whatever food they thought we might be interested in. The kids were even allowed to buy a trinket that they’ll probably never play with again—so they have more money than my family does.

Speaking of which, it took me the whole day to figure out that the three kids with us weren’t all theirs. One boy, 6, is theirs; the other boy and the girl are his friends, and the grandma who was there for lunch was the girl’s grandma.

I guess their boy took to me—I actually don’t know his name (the other boy’s name is Dan Hao, though, and you have to watch your tones because if you mispronounce it it means Good Egg, I think)—because at the end of the day he invited to me to his house for dinner tomorrow night. I had already said yes to his question before I fully understood it, but I was happy to once I realized what he meant. The mom said that Shayron could come too, and that if I wanted to invite any of my classmates, that would be fine. I forgot to translate that last bit to Shayron, so she was taken by surprise when five minutes before we were supposed to meet them outside I asked if she was ready to go. I asked Rebekah to go. She says she’s shy when she’s alone and doesn’t already know people well, so her time with her family on the field trip wasn’t as good and she was jealous that I had been invited to dinner.

All three kids were there again. Once we drove like half an hour to their apartment, we spent like half an hour going to the complex playground and playing with the kids. Shayron and Rebekah worried themselves over their safety, so I was free to have a good time hanging from my knees on the rope net and stuff like that. Some other Chinese kids wanted to join whatever fun the Americans were having, so we started playing keep-away with the basketball we had. I was worried that our kids, who seemed younger, wouldn’t be able to keep up, so I also passed the ball to some of the other kids, and it became an interesting mix of attack the kid with the ball or petition him to pass it to you. I think kids play pretty much the same way all over. One kid got greedy and didn’t want to pass it, so all the others mobbed him until he gave up the ball. Some of them were lighting a small fire of leaves in the sandbox. They were a little grimier, but kids are kids.

More on dinner in the next post.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Watching a Movie

I've been joking for the past few days about finding a Blockbuster here so we could relax in English. It turns out there's something way better: a DVD store 2 minutes from where we live. They sell DVDs for 8 kaui, so for a little more than a dollar I can own a movie. They have new movies, too, ones that aren't even on video yet. We bought No Country for Old Men and tried to ask to make sure that it would play from our computers. There's some kind of program that lets you play all the pirated DVDs and without it all the ones you buy are useless, so we tried to make sure that this wasn't of that type. She said it would play on our American computers, so we decided to make the leap and pay 8 kuai for it.

We went to one of the apartments that has a large living room and a tv and watched the movie. It even had English subtitles so if it was too hard to hear it wasn't a problem. I don't know how they made the DVD, and I can't ask. The resolution didn't look any different from usual, and the movie played the whole way through without any problems (which is more than I can say about trying to watch movies on our PS2 at home--or movies from Blockbuster, for that matter).

In other news, I finally slept in my own room last night. It turns out that my outlet hadn't broken a second time, but that my heater fan has a safety precaution that if it's tilted at all, which it had been since my rug was right there, then it won't turn on.

I saw some old family friends last night and went to church this morning. Chengdu is organized in a circle, with "ring roads" extending outward from a statue of Mao in the center of the city. We live right off the first ring road in the southern part of the circle, and church and our friends weren't far from the second ring road, so I can walk pretty much everywhere I want to go. Tonight, however, a few of us are going to have dinner at a Chinese family's house. They're rich enough to have paid the 10,000 kuai or whatever it is to get their license to have a car, so I'm interested to see what their house looks like.

Oh, and it's snowing. I talked to some people who have lived here decades and they say that in the twenty years they've been here it's never snowed this heavily. The snow doesn't stick, but it sure was coming down when I was walking this morning.

Friday, January 18, 2008


spoke too soon. Last night I went to take a shower, turned on my heater in my room so it would be warm when I got back, and after I took a shower my heater wasn’t working any more. I plugged it in for a second in an outlet in the living room and it worked, and that was all the testing that I could handle at midnight when I was freezing in a towel. This morning my heater still wouldn’t work, but Traci said that when the maintenance guy came to fix her hot water this afternoon (she’s paying higher rent for her own bathroom, and her heater broke last night) the outlet worked fine.

But on to the most successful conversation I’ve had in China. I was on break this morning, so I had already been in Chinese mode for 2 hours and still had one to go, and I went to the bakery nearby to buy some breakfast. This was my third time there, so I decided to make the leap and get more than a “hello” out of the girl who works there. I asked her how she was doing today, she said well, and then asked if I studied at the university. A week ago I wouldn’t have been able to hear her question, but now I’m getting better at listening.

It gets better. Once I told her that I was a student there, she asked why I wasn’t on vacation. This was it. If I couldn’t understand her here, I’d be back at stupid foreigner, and I did have to ask her to repeat her question once or twice. It was a complex process that led me to figure out her question. First, I knew that everyone who goes to Xinan Mingzu Daxue (our university: “Southwest Minority University”) had just finished up their fall semester and are now partying in preparation for Chinese New Year. Also, I knew that while I didn’t actually remember the key word the girl used (fangjia), I knew that we had learned it at UF, and that even though the syllables sounded like it could have something to do with home, that it might mean something about going on break. I answered by trying to say that we were on a different schedule than the rest of the university, and that we only get off Feb 6-12 (Chinese New Year this year is Feb 7th). She said that sucks, since they all get a month off, and I agreed, since I didn’t have the presence of mind to remember and say that we already had a month off.

And then we had a great conversation. I’ve taken Chinese for a year and a half, I’ll be in China for 7 months, in Chengdu for the rest of the winter and the spring, and then in the summer I hope to study in Harbin. She had some comment about Harbin. I only know two things about it: it’s really far north, and they have really pure Mandarin. I figured her comment was one of those two.

Then I managed to say that the pastry (饼干, a new vocab word) I bought yesterday was really tasty, but I couldn’t find it on the racks now. She found it for me, and I paid. I asked if she was a student, and she said that she graduated.

I know, chatting with the cashier is not the most exciting topic if it’s at your local Publix, but when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, you can almost write a whole page about it because you’re so excited.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why there haven't been any pictures

My laptop has slowed down ever since we got to Chengdu and I can’t figure out why. Plus, our apartment doesn’t have Internet yet because the people who lived there before us didn’t think that paying the phone bill was important, so any time I want to check my email I have to come to one of the other apartments.

The most significant reason for not having uploaded pictures yet is that China censors my blog from me. That’s right, I can’t go to websites with a domain. I can write posts and edit them, and I get emails of people’s comments, but I haven’t actually been to my blog since I created it before I left.

Today is a breakthrough day. We arrived in Chengdu last Saturday, and on that first day I realized that I didn’t have a heater, so I slept in Traci’s bed. On the second day, I realized that I wouldn’t be getting a heater, so I slept in Traci’s bed. On the third day, I went out and bought a heater (and carried it all the way home), but couldn’t plug it in, so I slept in Traci’s bed. On the fourth day, I went to the store to buy an adapter, but they didn’t have any of the type that I needed, so I slept in Traci’s bed. On the fifth day, I found an adapter that worked (it turns out that you only need two of the three prongs to be adapted, so I used one that converted American plugs to the European circly kind), but realized that the plugs in my room didn’t work, so I slept in Traci’s bed. On the sixth day, today, I got the maintenance guys to come and fix my room and now I have heat, so tomorrow on the seventh day I will rest. It’s been like the creation story, except that every day has ended will “Will saw that it was bad, so he went to sleep.”

And good news in a different category: we have hot water again. A few days ago our hot water heater decided that it wanted to join in on the fun of things going wrong and has worked spottily. I thought I had a system worked out in which I turned the faucet on full blast, igniting the flame to make our water hot, and then I could turn on the shower and turn off the faucet. It turns out that was just luck, though, because last night when I was feeling sick and really just needed to take a shower, hot water was nowhere to be found and I just gave up. Today I got our program director to bring her husband over and he diagnosed that the problem was as simple as a dead battery, so tonight we should be set.

I think that pretty much sums up the kind of triumphs I’ve been having recently. I wish I had more time to do fun things online, like add pictures from when we visited Shanghai, or talk about how there’s like 30 people in the program this semester, but I still haven’t met all of them because the year-long students are trickling in from their winter traveling, or basics about Chengdu, like how you can only see the sun a few times a year, how it doesn’t really rain, it “mists” according to Google weather—an accurate description, I’d say—or how Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and is the tenth largest city in China, with a population roughly the size of LA. But at this point when I’m just trying to stay healthy using my holiday-tinted lip balm and copious amounts of vitamin C and Chinese vocabulary, I think information will just have to be picked up as I happen to mention it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

This is Real Studying Abroad

We're in Chengdu now, classes just started today but I'm going to talk about yesterday. We were supposed to do a tour of the city, since we had done a tour of the campus the day before, so after our bus drove around for a while and our teacher explained some of the sights, we divided into groups and each group had a mission. I didn't know what I was doing, so when she said we would go to Metro, a shopping center, that sounded good to me.

It turned out Metro was an hour's bus ride away and you needed a membership card. We waited 15 minutes for someone to bring our teacher's card, and then started walking to the bus. It was freezing. I had on a t-shirt, a sweater, a sweatshirt, a scarf, a hat, and my two-layer coat. I was almost warm enough on the bus. We didn't have to worry too much about what stop to get off at, because it was the second-to-last one on a schedule of about 25. We finally got there, got in the store, and it looked like a Chinese Costco. There was a cell phone table at the front and I decided to try my hand at buying one. A very kind man and his wife happened by while I was fumbling around with my Chinese and walked me through the whole process. They were all so nice, and I ended up buying one without the SIM card (because I wanted a pay-as-you-go phone and couldn't make them understand that) for 350 kuai. I felt a little worried about how much that was, but later I realized that it was cheaper than a gallon of ice cream costs here, so I didn't feel so bad.

Because it took so long buying a cell phone, we got on the bus late, and then since we hadn't memorized what stop we got on at, we didn't really know when to get off and ended up having to walk for twenty minutes. We finally got back to the rendezvous point over an hour late and thawed while we ate lunch.

After that it was off to Carrefour (the French version of Wal-mart) to buy a space heater for my room. The last two nights it was too cold and Traci, Shayron, and I ended up having a little sleepover in Traci's bed, so I was really looking forward to being able to heat my room enough to be able to sleep in it. I bought a heater, and a large rug for my wood floor, but after we checked out we got separated and I ended up trying to hail a cab with Liz and Shayron. It seemed like it was rush hour or something, though, so we waited for quite a while, but had no success finding an empty cab. We started walking, and whenever I got tired of carrying a large heater and rug, we'd stop and try to get a taxi. We ended up walking the whole way back, which took us about an hour.

Then it was time for dinner. The six of us or so who were all together were tired from our other expeditions that day, so we didn't want to walk far. We went in to the first restaurant that looked good and were immediately escorted to a table. As we were seated, we got a look at what everyone else was eating, and it turns out that we had gone to a place that did hotpot.

"Hotpot" is a local specialty which is known for its spiciness. There's a pot in the center of the table divided into a blackish "ridiculously spicy" sauce and a white "not as ridiculously spicy" sauce. When the oil starts boiling, you put in some meats and vegetables (now is the time for exotic materials like cow's throat or chicken feet) and then when those are done cooking, you fish them out, dip them in the sauce that you've concocted according to your preferences, and then eat it. See, we didn't know any of that, though.

It was the most embarrassing evening we had ever had. The restaurant was emptying as we came, so it seemed like every employee got to try their English skills on us. Our language skills were horribly insufficient. We could say that Rebekah was a vegetarian, but we didn't know how to pick what meats, or even to say "whatever you think would be good." And as we looked around, everyone else, dressed in suits and other well-off outfits, watched the stupid Americans try to order. Once the food started coming, we didn't know what to do with it, so one waitress stayed with our table practically the whole time helping us mix our soy sauce and stuff into a combination that she thought we would like. We were all laughing out of extreme embarrassment. The height came when there were these slices of what looked like potatoes (it turned out they were garlic) and we figured out that we had to put them in the hotpot. Rebekah reached across to put one in, her chopsticks slipped, and the whole garlic slice fell in my bowl of oil. We were almost crying as we laughed.

Once we ate some of the ingredients, they brought out more, and we weren't sure how long this would go on. They ended up taking out all the peppers that made the black oil spicy, but even so it felt like my mouth was being disintegrated. It was a pretty upscale place, too, so we were a little worried that we wouldn't have enough money to pay. Saul had a lot of money, though, so we were okay.

We got back around ten and I was ready to take a shower and go to bed. But our hot water had decided to stop working and my room didn't have the right kind of plug for my heater, so I couldn't even feel comfortable in my room and ended up sleeping in Traci's again.

It was a very full day. Ride to the middle of nowhere to buy a cellphone that turns on but doesn't do anything after that, ride back feeling freezing to show up an hour late, walk to the supermarket, buy a heater, carry it all the way home. Then go to dinner and have no idea how to order, how to eat, what we were eating or how much it cost. There was no hot water and I can't use my heater yet.

Rebekah bought chocolate at the store, though, and that did sooth me a little. Maybe girls on to something when they say chocolate helps everything. If only it could make me speak fluent Chinese.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Day 4 in Shanghai: Eating by Ourselves

Today we had a free day. A lot of people went to a museum, but I was all museum-ed out, so I decided to go to the Chinese bookstore nearby. I was surprised by its size--3 floors of Chinese books. I bought a little notebook in case I'm struck by a burst of inspiration and want to write a story. It only cost me 3.50, so that means I probably got ripped off a second time when I paid 2 kuai for a worse notebook in the watch lady's shop.

I managed to eat lunch by myself. There was a noodle place that looked like it had decent food, and after looking at the menu for two or three minutes, I found characters that I recognized--Giblin, hongshao niurou sounded obscure, but it's actually very useful. Restaurants in China have tight seating, so people sit by you and don't think anything of it. I said hi to the guys who sat next to me and we got into a conversation of all the typical stuff.

For dinner, Rebekah and I wandered around until we decided on Magaroni's. I couldn't tell whether it was a misspelling of "macaroni" or just a made-up name, but it was a sit-down place and there were Chinese inside, so I figured it probably wasn't that bad. We had a tough time ordering, and then the food was only mediocre, so the experience was only horse horse tiger tiger. That's me translating literally the phrase mama huhu, which means so-so. I think horse horse tiger tiger could be the next big slang phrase. Start using it with your friends now and we'll see how fast it spreads.

Anyway, I decided that the novelty of being able to communicate at all is wearing off and the frustration of not being able to communicate perfectly is setting in. In the restaurant, there were two girls next to us who were studying French, and Rebekah is fluent in French, so we tried to have a conversation. Their French was better than our Chinese, because when we couldn't figure out how to say something, we had better luck if Rebekah asked them in French. We were both tired of trying to be multilingual, though, and after a few minutes we both kind of gave up on the conversation. You reach a point where telling people that tomorrow you're flying to Chengdu and not taking a train is not worth the effort of talking.

I think it's good that I've hit this point now. I had a few days of being enthralled with Shanghai, and now I can rest a few days before class starts because I know what I'm going to be going into. At the same time, though, I'm really excited about the idea of eventually being able to talk to people, and overall I'm pretty upbeat about everything.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Day 3 in Shanghai: Selling Shoes

I had enough self-discipline to stay up until 11:00 last night, so I managed to sleep until 7:00! Once our day started, we went on a subway under the river to get to the land the French used to have control of. We went to the tallest building in Shanghai, but it was foggy and when we got to the top our favorite part was buying ice cream cones.

In the afternoon we went to an indoor shopping center for tourists, so every shop a clothes, jewelry, or electronics store. I figured out that they didn't carry any smalls, and one of the vendors explained why. I think he said it's because most foreigners are too big for small, but regardless, not being able to buy clothes put a damper on any shopping spree that I might had. I did decide that I wanted a scarf, though, so my roommate Colin and my fashion help Rebekah came along to bargain. I ended up buying a nice light blue one that they said looked pretty good. Then Colin went to the bathroom and we lost him in the maze of shops, so it was Rebekah and I with an hour left.

We wandered around for a while and then I saw a stool by one of the shops that was unoccupied at the moment. I sat down and decided to start hawking their wares to people in as bad of Chinese as they have of English. Actually, there were a few stools open, and when Rebekah and I decided we didn't know the word for "luggage," I changed stools to a shop that sold shoes for babies.

As people came by, I asked them if they wanted to buy some shoes. The nearby vendors found this entertaining, and asked if those were my shoes. "Of course," I said in Chinese. They said something about the owner and lunch, but we couldn't understand, so they gave up on that and asked us how much we were going to sell the shoes for. "Too much," I told them. "How much money do you have?" I mimicked. "These are very good shoes. How much do you want them for? That's too cheap. Come on, just have a look." They decided that it was great fun talking to the crazy foreigners and asked us more questions. We didn't catch all of what they said, but they had a good time teaching us and told us that it was too much trouble to go to Chengdu and we should stay in Shanghai and keep them company.

Eventually our conversation turned into a quiz of body parts in Chinese, which we've never really learned. Rebekah and I learned that "eye" and "sunglasses" are the same sound (yanjing) except the second syllable is first tone for one word and fourth tone for another. As we moved on to other body parts, my knowledge was really being taxed, and they could tell. I think that tou and tui sound pretty similar, but the vendors thought it was hilarious that I pointed to my leg and said "head." After that I don't think they could take anything I said very seriously.

Unfortunately, we left without selling any shoes, but the women we were talking to didn't sell anything while we were there either, so I was proud that I was as productive as they had been.

After that, we went back to the hotel and I slept straight until 9:00 when we all decided to try to go to a club. That bit of sleep killed my progress in overcoming jetlag and now I think my body is back to being confused about where I am and what time it is.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Day 2 in Shanghai: Getting my Money Back

This blog entry has to do with what happened before our day's tour got started at 9:00. It's not that the day was bad--we had a two hour bus ride to a remote village to check it out, and then went to a pretty good acrobatics show in the evening--it's just that when you're getting over jetlag, you're wide awake at 4:30 in the morning and end up getting a lot done then.

I juggled for a while in the lobby of our hotel. The night guard was very impressed. Then I went and ate breakfast, then I blogged yesterday's entry. Then, since we still had an hour left, it was time to go back to the shop where I had bought my cheap watch (with my retinue in tow, I wouldn't go alone for this kind of mission) and try to get a refund.

I knew going in to it that this would be a difficult prospect, especially since I didn't actually know the word for "broken." The only one we learned that was close was "broken into pieces", but considering the state my watch was in, that came pretty close.

We found the shop, I told her that she had sold me a crappy watch and that I wanted my money back, and thus began a half hour argument with a lady I barely understood in an effort to recover my 8 kuai (about $1.15). I think that her argument was basically that I had left the store and all sales were final, and my argument--in broken, half-intelligible Chinese--was that she had falsely advertised the watch. She said that of course it was a crappy watch: it was 8 kuai! I told her that that didn't mean anything to me since I was a stupid foreigner and that she shouldn't have told me it was a good watch if it really wasn't. We went back and forth, which was tough since I usually only got about 20% of what she said, and 95% of that was from her hand motions. She ended most of her statements with "right?" Well, I knew I disagreed, but didn't know why or how, so I would reply with an angry "Mm" sound and a slight shake of my head. Occasionally other customers would come in and she'd ask their opinion, but they never said what they thought.

Finally I told her that it was my first day in China and she shouldn't have sold me a bad watch because I didn't know what I was doing then. When she heard it was my first day in China she softened up a bit, and so when I told her that I did kind of want to buy a little notebook to write characters in and she should give it to me because she owed me 8 kuai, she said she was willing to give me a discounted price on the notebook. I told her I would pay the 2 kuai she offered for it, but she would have to take the broken watch (which now displayed the time about an hour ahead of what time it was). She said she didn't want the watch, I said I didn't either. I gave her the 2 kuai, then put the watch into her hand too. She threw in on the floor, I smiled tersely and said thank you, and left. On balance, it was basically a 10 kuai notebook, which is pretty expensive, but maybe all this experience at arguing in Chinese was worth it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Day 1 in Shanghai: Getting Ripped Off

The hotel we're staying in is surprisingly good. The beds aren't the softest, but it has a better breakfast than hotels in the States, hot water, and basic room service. When we first arrived there was a loud drilling noise from nearby. A piece of paper in our room kindly let us know that we should be "informed the items marked bellow will be done from 12/10 to 1/31." I was only annoyed at seeing "fix up and construct" checked until I saw our other options, notably "suspension of water supply."

We woke up by 5:30 at the latest because of jetlag, and after breakfast decided to go try to buy some things before our tour began. Rebecca, Colin (my roommate), Jessica, Sofia and I went exploring. I was out to buy a watch, since without my cell phone, I had no way of telling the time. We figured out the word for watch (shoubiao) and started asking around. Finally we got to a little shack where a lady offered me a watch for 10 kuai. The exchange rate is 7 kuai to 1 dollar, but even though she offered it to me for about $1.50, I figured that was probably too expensive and negotiated down to 8 kuai. Before we even got back to the hotel the strap had broken, but since I didn't like the strap, I didn't mind. Then the timekeeping part of the watch started acting up, and the only time it showed the right time was when I reset it.

During the tour some guys were hawking these really cool skates that are just two rollerblade wheels attached by a little platform. They make your shoes into the rolling kind that are popular in like 7th grade, and I thought that it was nice that they attached with a strap for easy removal. Well, the guy first said they cost 140 kuai, so I cut it about in half, offered 80, he agreed, and I had paid before I even realized that I had just paid over $10 for these plastic shoe attachments. Seeing that we were suckers, the hawkers offered everyone else a cheaper price and before they left us alone the going rate was down to 30 kuai.

Everyone in our group was convinced that I was an impulse buyer who would buy anything offered, which is funny because that's pretty much the opposite of how I spend money. The others weren't convinced, though, and took my two bad buys as proof that I didn't know what I was doing.

I really didn't know what I was doing, but I figured the more I tried to buy, the better I'd get at it, so later that day I went to buy a new watch. I found a good stall, the lady started off at 80 kuai, and then I said that I could buy a cheaper watch in America. It probably didn't come out that way, but she got the drift and went down to 50. Then I managed to tell her the story of how I had already bought a crappy watch that morning and didn't have a lot of money to spend, and that I would only spend 35 kuai. She finally relented, and I got a watch for $5. It's silver, and simple, and it still has the right time twelve hours later.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Flying to Shanghai

This morning I woke up at 4:30 so I could be at the airport in time to check in for my 7:00 flight. I was up so early my toothbrush wasn't even dry from the night before, but I made it as wakefully as I could to check in for my flight. That's when they told me that my flight to San Francisco had been cancelled and I was being rerouted for a direct flight to Shanghai.

So it's 5:30 in the morning on a Sunday, I don't know what happened to the rest of my group, I don't have anyone to call, and I don't have anyone to rendezvous with until I'm already there. My new flight was set to take off at 10:45, so I did what I think anyone would do in my position: curl up in the seats at my gate and take a nap.

Around 8:00 when I was done with my early morning juggling practice Jessica arrived wearing a USAC shirt. And then, an hour after that, Rebekah came, and that made three of us. Rebekah had called our contact from the program and told her about the change of schedule, so we were all set. It worked out really well for us, because the flight was only an hour longer but we avoided the whole flight to and layover in (and, as we found out later, the five hour delay in) San Francisco.

During the flight I had my first cultural experience. I intend to use that term loosely to mean "any behavior that I can't understand." We were a few hours in on our way to China and they came by to check on our drinks. Two seats next to me, a Chinese guy asks for some ice. The Chinese stewardess looks at what he was drinking and said, "Ice? For red wine? Red wine doesn't come with ice. I'm sorry, sir." She said she could give him a little water (to temper his wine with?) and he respectfully took it.

I watched the whole exchange and was completely confused. In America, you can't question people's whims, because unless their action affects other people, they can do whatever they want. There is no right and wrong with personal habits. In China, apparently, they don't have the same ideas. The encounter suggests that there is a cultural judgment associated with every action (or if not every action, way more actions that we care about). After all, everybody knows that you don't put ice in red wine, so why would this guy here buck the trend and implicitly say that the Chinese custom wasn't good enough? That's the way I imagine it would go anyway.

The implications of this difference are interesting. America thinks that thinks are wrong if it hurts other people, this woman seemed to think something is wrong if it isn't already accepted. Each perspective has its benefits, I think. America has more room for innovation, but China has unity, loyalty, and community. America relies on individuals, China relies on society.

This is all guesswork, of course, but I'm encouraged that my perception concurs with what I'm reading in my Understanding Chinese Culture book. I had a second cultural experience today. When we arrived in Shanghai and were waiting to see what was happening with the San Francisco group, the three of us and a fourth girl, Sofia, were all talking about China. I said that I wanted to try to have a conversation with a random Chinese person, and Sofia said that in her experience in New York, Chinese were either really friendly or really cold. Well, I decided to try to talk to the woman sitting next to me, who was probably in her 20s, so I turned to her and said a simple greeting: "Ni hao."

The woman barely looked at me when I said it, smiled a little, and then faced fully forward again. I waited for a second or two, and when she didn't reply, I was about to turn back to Sofia and try to interpret the situation, but the woman finally says in pretty good English, "You only speak a little Chinese, right?" I said yes, and that was that. She faced forward and didn't say anything more.

Sofia said that she told me so, but I'm not convinced that the woman was naturally unfriendly. I probably broke some cultural rule without knowing it. For all I know, men aren't allowed to talk to woman who are by themselves, and I unwittingly sounded like I was trying to pick her up.

Maybe by the time I come back and can understand whatever they were saying over the airport loudspeakers, I'll know more of what I'm doing.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoy my stories about going to China. But first, a disclaimer: This blog will not be perfect. I tell that to myself as much as to anyone reading this, because I don't like to do things--especially writing--without doing it as well as possible. Unfortunately, though, I won't have time while I'm in China to compose great passages. So, I thank anyone who intends to follow this blog, since it will be more an act of your love than a demonstration of my ability. This post might be okay, but there's no way I can manage quality and consistency.

Self-deprecation (even though I'm serious about it) isn't all I have to talk about, however. I'd like to move on to the most exciting part of my adventure: the adventure part.

I left Orlando this afternoon on a plane to D.C. and am now composing this first blog entry during my flight to Chicago. Once I get there, I'll check into a hotel until crazy early tomorrow morning I'll meet up with people from my program and start the really intense part. We arrive in San Francisco before noon, have a few hours layover, and then start our thirteen hour flight to Shanghai. Yes, thirteen hours. That's about 46,000 silent ticks on Verizon's clocks (although once I leave the country my cell phone will be useless and I'll need to buy one there). That's more than a month's worth of McNamara, with less legroom. That's twenty-six episodes of Barney, and since kids who still measure time that way probably can't reliably count to twenty-six, it shows you how close to forever thirteen hours is.

And yet, thirteen hours is still not enough time to find a comfortable position in your seat. I was practicing on my flights today, trying to find a decent way to sleep. I have a small body, so I figured I'd have no problem, but almost every way I lean over my legs fall asleep, and with the .7° tilt that airplane seats recline, leaning back didn't help. When I fly with Andrew and Melanie, we all just lean on each other, but tomorrow I won't know anyone well enough to do that.

Well, well, I'll quit complaining now. I'm only complaining out of excitement. After all, when I went to Brazil after 10th grade, we had a nine hour flight and while it was torturous, I'm still here. (Otherwise it would be murder, not torture, see.)

I'll post again from the other side. If you'd like, you leave me a comment to let me know you were here.