Friday, January 26, 2007

City Shop

After hearing rave reviews from every American I know, I finally ventured to City Shop. According to their website, they are the leading retailer of imported food in Shanghai. According to my friends, some of whom shop there on a regular basis, it is a great place to shop. From the atmosphere to the items on the shelves, they all had wonderful things to say about City Shop.
I wanted some vanilla essence for my rice pudding (although it was great without it) and perhaps some canned beans or other veggies. As there is more than one City Shop in Shanghai, I checked their website for the one that would be most convenient. I found two that were only a minor detour from my route to work, and so I wrote down the addresses. I ended up going to both, one before work and the other after.
Now, I am not sure if the different stores are vastly different, I know that one of them has two floors, whereas the two I went to today were relatively small, but City Shop was a huge letdown for me. First, both of the stores were difficult to locate. One is in the basement of a mall in a nook behind the escalotor, and the other is in a huge hotel complex that has some stores, all the way in the back. I am pretty good with directions, and although I found the actual edifice without much of a problem, finding the store was frustrating. After arriving in each of the stores with a sigh of relief and sore feet, I was hit by the prices. Perhaps for foreigners making their normal US salary, the prices are not a problem. But for someone with my budget, the prices were outrageous. I'm going to give you a sample, so you can see for yourself.

Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate -
Dark Chocolate Sensation 19.90 RMB
No Sugar Added 54.00 RMB
Milk Chocolate 32.80 RMB
French Vanilla 39.80 RMB
Gold Medal Flour (5 lbs bag) 35.00 RMB
Heinz Baked Beans (English) 13.20 RMB
Del Monte Canned Vegetables 8.80 - 14.40 RMB
Green Giant Canned Vegetables 12.00 -15.60 RMB
Post Selects Great Grains Cereal 51.50 RMB

How much is that in USD? Well, the exchange rate is about 7.8 to 1, so that box of cereal is about $6.60 USD, the cheapest hot chocolate $2.50 and the most expensive one a whopping $6.90. A cheap can of veggies, just over $1 and the expensive ones about $2. Maybe not a lot to you, but at home I shop in Walmart, Target and a supermarket called Farmboy - with a name like that, you know they are not charging a lot for groceries. I only by canned veggies on sale (no more than .50 a can). And hot chocolate, it is about $1.50 regular price at Walmart. I understand that the stuff in this store is "imported" and therefore more expensive than local stuff, but honestly, for most of the items it would be cheaper for me to send money to the US and have someone mail it to me. $6.60 for Great Grains! I won't even buy it at home when it's more than $3.00. Even the more local items, like a juice which I buy all the time for 3 RMB was 4.50 RMB. By this time, I was so disappointed and exasperated, I just turned and walked out. I only went to the second store because I was so disappointed with the first, and by the time I left the second store, I was disgusted.
As I left the second store empty handed (they didn't even have vanilla essence or the beans), I thought that perhaps shopping there is about something else. I think that most people are happy to see things that remind them of home, no matter what the price. Some people can afford it yes, but even those that can't are elated at the site of Velveeta Mac and Cheese (about 50 RMB) or Spaghetti O's (didn't look). Me, I guess I just don't miss home that much. Or I'm too frugal. Or the company is not paying me in USD, in addition to paying for my housing, transportation and airfare. Perhaps I'm adaptable. The rice pudding was good without the vanilla, I can buy beans down the street and soak them, and I've begged everyone for hot chocolate filled care packages. Other than that, I can get rice, salt, sugar, fresh vegetables, and meat down the street, and all of that for the price of a box of cereal. That is probably what I should eat anyway, and not the packaged, preservative filled stuff. And even if I want the other stuff, I simply am not desperate enough...and I that kind of desperation is a long time coming - I'd rather spend my money on a trip to another city, a beautiful qipao (traditional Chinese dress), or a gift for a loved one. 32.80RMB for some hot chocolate -they must be outtatheyminds!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Little Things

Yesterday, I finally purchased a rice cooker. Small feat, you might say, but for me a very big deal. Having a rice cooker means that I will finally have more control over what I eat. And being a rice cooker recipe kinda gal, I know how to make more than just plain white rice, I can prepare full one-pot meals in my rice cooker. I'm talking arroz con pollo (anyone wanna send me some Sazon, for some reason I can't seem to find it anywhere), spaghetti (didn't see that coming, did ya?), rice pudding (turned out GREAT), and anything else that strikes my imagination, or google helps me locate. Be sure to let me know if you have any ideas.
And so, I was in Carrefour today, picking up some sugar, milk and a few other items, when I went to get some dish washing liquid. The last time I purchased dish washing liquid was in Sept., and I looked at the prices not the bottles. Today, however, I looked at the bottles (and then the prices). My choices? Papaya. That's a new one. Garlic. Yup, just what I want my dishes to smell like. Aloe. Must be good for the hands. Onion. Oh, that one screams fresh and clean. Ginger. Ginger was the overwhelming favorite, it appeared that ginger was the staple of dish washing liquids. I found myself wondering, "where is the regular dish washing liquid." Then I remembered. In China, this is the regular dish washing liquid. Finally, I found lime and apple. After a quick sniff, I picked the apple.
On my way up the escalator, well actually, it is a moving walkway like the ones at the airport, on an incline so you can push you trolley/cart on to it. So on my way up, I realized that every person going down was staring at me. Every one. Not just looked, not merely noticed, down right stared. I would look away and watch them out of the corner of my eye, look down, turn around and look in the opposite direction - no matter what, I always had at least 8 pairs of eyes on me. This is not uncommon, but today it felt a little extreme. So, I did like any good celebrity, I smiled and waved to my fans. I'm sure they loved it.
I tried to find vanilla essence, to no avail. But, I did discover that Carrefour carries at least 15 brands of soy sauce, and 10 of sesame oil. Not just types, but brands. I also came across spicy duck necks snack packs, with a very clear photo on the front, and English writing for extra measure. While looking for raisins, I discovered sunflower seeds and pistachios, but no raisins. And when getting chocolate milk (juice box size), I found strawberry milk tea, with a black girl on the front too. I'll go back and take a photo. My favorite find was the packs of MSG I noticed next to the salt and sugar. Ah, good old MSG. Nothing beats the dish washing liquid though. Ginger. Must make the dishes sparkle.
Here's the promised photo:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

From Purple to Brown

My feet were a lovely shade of violet a few weeks ago. Between uneven sidewalks, not the greatest shoes, lots of walking, and run-ins with other feet and bicycles, they have taken quite a beating. So, I started soaking them in hot water, in an attempt to at least sooth them. It was nice for the moment, but the next day the knot on the balls of my feet had returned, and by the time I walked in the door after work, my feet were often burning. They needed some TLC (Tender Loving Care).
I've been planning on getting a foot massage since I arrived in China. There are a bunch of storefront massage establishments that I pass on a daily basis, and I often think that one day I should join the others after work, reading magazines and newspapers, chatting or sleeping, as a Chinese woman works her magic. Massages here are not just relaxing, they are therapeutic. And they are cheap. The Chinese do a few things very well, and one of them is massage. And so today, on the spur of the moment, I ended up getting a foot massage.
Along with two other Americans I headed out to a relatively nice massage parlor. No storefront for me, this one has private rooms and two floors. And they do more than just feet. I decided to get the feet, to test the waters. We went to a room, and sat in big comfy chairs, sipping tea while we waited for our ladies to come in. Not long after, they arrived with wooden tubs for us to soak our feet in tea. Yup, not hot water, but tea. Sometimes they also have milk or honey, depending on what you ask for. After scrubbing my feet with a stone, the massage began.
This was the real thing, not some perfunctory pedicure massage. Sixty full minutes of foot soaking, scrubbing, and soothing. From my toes to my knees, she kneaded, pulled, hit, poked and massaged my feet into bliss. She even managed to work out the knot that has been on the ball of each foot for about two months. She told me about how a certain spot on my leg was connected to other parts of the body and so massaging it would improve my health.We chatted about how I'm learning Chinese, how my reflexes are quick (she almost got accidentally kicked in the face), and what I was going to do after the massage. And after the second foot soak (where she massages your feet in the water for a few minutes), she finished off and told us to rest for a while, and leave whenever we were ready. This is the way to live.
One of my friends got an upper body massage, and when she came downstairs she looked so well rested, it was amazing. I enjoyed my foot massage so much that I want to go back for an oil massage (full body). I'm going for the gusto.

Yup, my feet. Brown again!

The massage room. There was a flat screen TV on the other wall, so you can bring a DVD if you want. People go and get massages to hang out. They bring food, drinks, DVD's, whatever floats their boat. I think we are going to try that next week, get a DVD and hit the massage parlor for a last hurrah- before two of the American girls leave on Wednesday.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Self-Guided Tour of Me

First, I have to give a shout out to the amazing singer and songwriter, T.K. Rose. The title of this posting is borrowed from the lyrics to one of her songs. Thanks.

Now about that self-guided tour...

I have swallowed some of myself since being in China. Already different, isolated and often lonely, I became afraid that some of the more flamboyant aspects of my personality would serve to widen the gulf. So I strove to be neutral, to be "all things to all men". And it has had its positives. There is nothing wrong with being neutral, adaptable, even pliable, once you can do it while staying true to who you are. I've learned things about myself in these past few months, and the things I've learned will stay with me. I've strengthened and improved some of the "bad", as well as the "good" aspects of who I am. Oh, I have a long way to go, but I am trying to be thankful for the process.

And this process brings me to the place where I am now. I was rethinking my current mindset, and some friends affirmed what I was already thinking. I needed to relocate some of the less neutral aspects of myself. I am not yet the proud owner of thick skin, but I do have a tenacious tongue.
I discovered early on the power of words. We all know that some of our deepest and most lasting wounds came from words, and not sticks and stones. I learned to use words like the girls of my youth used razors. Held in the mouth they cause no pain, but in the blink of an eye the gleam of metal draws blood. And when I read in the Bible that life and death are in the power of the tongue, I understood immediately. For the most part, I no longer aim to draw blood, and my tongue is being tempered and refined with age and wisdom, but nevertheless the skill is not lost.

And so who is this docile woman standing before me? Who is this person, who does her hair and picks her clothing increasingly aware of the voices of a few tormentors? Who is she, this woman allowing people to stomp on her self-esteem unabated? Who is this person that will not say the answer in class, although it is correct, because of the veiled comments of others, obviously struggling in their own self-esteem? Have I regressed? On the street with pushy, obnoxious, rude, straightforward Chinese people, my skin has begun to thicken and I retain much of my sass. It was touch and go for a few weeks, but I pulled it together. And yet, amongst my "community" - my classmates, peers, country-mates and acquaintances, I found myself retreating daily. Afraid to be beautiful, intelligent, strong, fierce, outspoken - unashamed. I woke up the other morning, and images began to flash through my mind.
A little girl with an accent afraid to speak.
A butterscotch colored girl wanting desperately to be the color of milk chocolate.
A smart girl acting dumb so she wouldn't stand out.
A broken teenager scarred from attempts to end the pain.
A lonely teenager compromising her very life for her "friends".
A beautiful teenager hiding and disguising herself as much as possible.
A struggling woman who would look in the mirror and cry before leaving the house.
A healing woman fighting through voices, words, years, tears and fears to find the pieces of her broken self and rebuild.
A loving woman able to give, accept, and even demand love and respect.

And the images, instead of being a burden, were like a gentle breeze, just enough to remind me in a whisper of who I am. I am every strand of my corkscrew curly hair, every point of my IQ, and every inch of my curves. I am very intonation of my voice, every drop of ancestry in my blood, and every letter of my name. I am every dime of my college education, every nucleotide of my DNA and every page of my passport. I have worked too hard to finally be able to embrace everything that I am just to give it up.

I am loving me right now. I am loving my hair, my face, my mind, my talents, my gifts, my body, my heart, my desires, my shortcomings, my failures, my being. I am enjoying my self-guided tour of me, 'cause I am an excellent tour guide and a tourist with a thirst for knowledge. And so, when I shake my hair, put on my clothes and step outside of my door, the people who make earnest attempts to break me down just might run in to something that has returned from a wonderful vacation, rested and ready to go - my mouth. My skin might be a little thicker but my tongue is even quicker!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


are over! Yippee! I just finished my last final!
Officially, the semester ends next week. But, my finals are done, and that means that my first semester, and almost half of my time here in Shanghai, is over. (Okay, 2/5 of my time, but who's counting?) Oh wow. It didn't fly, I feel like I've been here for AGES. I'm starting to get used to it though, the other day I actually even considered staying (if I got an absolutely amazing job, which for me is not teaching English. I did see something online the other day...) Can you believe that? But, I still feel isolated, and I'm not trying to sign up for another year of that. Hey, if anyone wants to come to China and teach, NOW is the time to apply for teaching jobs for next year. The good ones pay just under 30,000 USD a year, but in RMB you'll be quite comfortable with that salary. They also provide housing, round-trip air fare, and visa. You can apply online, and for the American and other International Schools, qualifications (BA is the min., teaching experience helps) actually matter, not just the fact that you are a white native speaker. If you want more info, you can e-mail me, or if you have no idea who I am, post a comment or "google" it (Shanghai American School, Livingston American School, Shanghai International School, use keyword searches for the other schools). Have fun!
Maybe I should have some of that too. I have a few day trip ideas in my head, maybe they will materialize. I'm trying to work out another way to get to Japan, as my first plan fell through. Oh, and I'll be in China for Chinese New Year next month, that should be great fun. Any other ideas? Got any friends in Asia that want to invite me to their house for a week? Got some extra cash and want to donate it to a good cause? I'm a GREAT cause! Wanderlust is a disease, for real...
Until next time. 再见!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How much has changed?

Since August 28, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King made the now iconic "I Have A Dream" speech, how much has changed in the lives of most African-Americans? Oh yes, on paper, almost everything has changed, but in practice, when you look at the teeming masses, how much has changed? Has his dream, not just the last paragraph of it, but the entire thing, come to pass? Read it, the whole thing, without the news reports of the last 2 minutes, without the McDonald's commercials, without the school assemblies (if you attend a school that has one), without the pomp and circumstance. Read it, and see what you think. Being as we, as a nation, have set aside an entire day to acknowledge this man, let us thing about his goal, his purpose, the reason behind his success, and perhaps even some of his sins. Let us not talk about the figure, but about the goal. Has the goal been accomplished?

I Have a Dream
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

text courtesy of

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chirstmas in China

Well, I have decided to take a study break (finals are next week), and write the slightly overdue posting about Christmas in China.
As I mentioned in a previous posting, Christmas is the Western holiday of gift-giving, Santa Clause and Christmas trees. The Chinese have hit the nail on the head as far as the commercialism of Christmas is concerned, and retailers have cashed in on the general love of all things Western. As I stopped celebrating Christmas a while ago for numerous reasons, I have a slightly different perspective from most of my peers about the way the Chinese celebrate the holiday. I did not long for "real" Christmas trees or the general "holiday spirit", and I did not lament my inability to find beautiful ornaments and the perfect lights. I did not mourn the absence of Christmas Music or the ability to watch It's a Wonderful Life on TV all day, and I did not mull over the Chinese "not knowing the significance of the holiday". Quite frankly, I think that they've hit upon the heart of the holiday, and I have no qualms with the way they acknowledge it. No conflict between what the Bible says and what we actually do, no trying to find a religious holiday amongst the commercialism, no lying (Santa Clause. Jesus' birthday. I can afford all of these gifts.), no unnecessary debt-inducing spending, no competition and fighting on account of the "best" or "perfect" gift, none of that stuff here - not yet anyway. I give gifts and see my loved ones whenever the mood hits me and the money is the bank, so that part of the holiday is not necessary for me. I did miss all of the food, especially those seasonal delights that people make on "special occasions". I think I gained a few pounds just thinking about what I could have been eating a few weeks ago. Aside from that, Christmas here was a mostly a side note, celebrate it if you want, and if you don't, no problem. It is a Western holiday after all, and this is China.
As such, there were Christmas trees and various other decorations to be found in numerous places, especially malls and other retail establishments. In Shanghai, the larger and more expensive malls had quite extensive holiday decorations and advertising. Of course, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and other foreign establishments were in the "holiday spirit", as were local establishments that cater to foreigners. There were fake trees on sale in the larger stores, as well as holiday decorations and such. The selection wasn't vast, and I heard that they were mostly tacky, but they were there. I saw Chinese teenagers writing Christmas cards to one another, and some people exchanged gifts. However, it was not overwhelming in any respect. In fact, in most places it was barely noticeable. On my way to work, for example, I take a route that does not go through any major commercial centers or foreign dense areas, and I saw very few decorations, trees or signs announcing the arrival of Santa Clause. It is not a national holiday, and so unless you work somewhere that caters to foreigners, it was just a normal day.
While in Beijing, it seemed the general acknowledgment was similar to that in Shanghai. If you stayed away from the stores and foreign-establishments, you might not even realize it was Christmas day. Occasionally we would see a "Merry Christmas" sign, a picture of a smiling Santa on a restaurant door, or a small tree in a window, but in most places it was not a big deal. We did get little gifts, on the train and at the restaurant, and that was it. And that is what Christmas is here, a Western, and often specially American, holiday of gift-giving, as noted by the American Flag ornaments (I didn't see any other flags). Not a big deal, just an opportunity to get a present (and who turns those down?), and embrace another aspect of American culture.
As for Christianity in China, it is not as underground as I thought it would be. No, you can not bring a suitcase of Bible's into the country, but there are churches everywhere, and some of them have congregations that consist of locals and foreigners alike. The rules/laws are different for foreigners than for locals, but Christianity is not illegal. I have met a few Christians here that attend regular (as in, not underground) churches, and are active in their Christian community. So far, they have not suffered overt persecution for their faith, that I know of anyway. I think that they exercise caution and moderation in all things, as will I. If you really want more information, you can "google" it, and be thankful that you are not behind a national firewall when you click on those links.
Well, back to preparing for finals.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Grave of Dreams

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
A free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky. But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom. The free bird thinks of another breeze and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own. But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

越来越胖 - yue lai yue pang

Okay, I am supposed to be studying, but obviously I'm not. You see, I need just a quick blog venting session. I have a question, and maybe some of you know the answer. Is it typical for men of any African nation to unnecessarily discuss or mention a woman's weight in conversation with said woman?
Tonight, I was eating dinner with some males, and they were mostly talking to each other. Then the conversation lapsed and there was silence. Suddenly, one of the guys looks at me and says, “李欧娜,我觉得你越来越胖。”
Translation :
李欧娜 Li OuNa - my Chinese name
我觉得 wo juede - I think
你 ni - you
越来越 yue lai yue - more and more, increasingly
胖 pang - fat
Now, what am I supposed to say when he says that? Huh? Any suggestions? Thanks? Okay, I'll hit the gym? Excuse me? Should I explain that unlike him, and most of the Africans here, I know how to layer, and so I have on a tank top, an A-shirt (also known as a wife-beater), and a long sleeve top under my sweater as well as leggings, tights, and knee-high socks under my jeans? Or that because I am sick my face is a little swollen? Or that my face always looks rounder with my hair pulled up like it is today? Is that even necessary? Maybe I should tell him that even if I've gained 50 pounds, he has no reason to mention it. Ever. I could ask why my weight is of any consequence to him. Or say that only gay men in America make those kinds of comments. That would really get his blood boiling. Can you tell I'm a little angry and quite annoyed? I settled for "Really?" in Chinese, and nothing more.
The thing that bothers me about it is that he isn't the only one. Before I came to China, I had never heard a man describe me as fat, say I am getting fat, or say that compared to him I am fat.
Do most American men ever even compare their bodies to womens' bodies? And on the occasion that I have heard it in the States, it was almost always intended to hurt. Otherwise, it was between people in an intimate relationship. I've never heard a male casually remark while eating that he thinks the female sitting at the table is getting fat, except when he was dropping a hint that she eats too much. And when you are dropping those kinds of hints, you better know said female pretty darn well. And most African women, c'mon, they generally are NOT skinny Asian girls, unless they are suffering from hunger or malnutrition. So what's up with telling me I'm fat? I've heard it quite a lot in the past few weeks, from a classmates inclusion in his description of me for his homework assignment, as fatter than him (the men I know would never even admit that a woman of my size and stature is bigger than them in any respect...he would find everything else under the sun to describe me), to tonights' dinner table comment.
The other day, I was with the Ambassador and another guy, and the other guy said that he heard about a black girl that was a good student. So I jokingly said it wasn't me, it must be such-and-such (who happens to be quite petite). So he said, oh no it was me, and in the process of the discussion, he said that I am fatter than her. It was so unnecessary and unexpected, and I was so taken aback, that I hit him on the arm and asked if he was calling me fat. He said, well you are fatter than such and such, and then he turned to the Ambassador and asked if that wasn't so. The Ambassador just stared at him, refusing to answer. Then the other guys says to the Ambassador, "Well, how else would you say it?" And the Ambassador grinned and replied, "How would you say it?"
Ah, smart man. And that is why I like to spend time with specific guys, you know, the ones that act like men, and know better than to say my name and the word "fat" in the same sentence...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Stick A Fork In It...

We booked the most expensive train cabin, a "soft sleeper". What I did not realize when booking the ticket is that soft sleeper = first class. And first class is nice. My previous train experiences consist of the NYC subway, MetroNorth, and Amtrak between D.C. and NYC. So, the soft sleeper was a pleasant surprise. Two pillows. A bed. A little table with a white table cloth. A fresh flower. White on white five star hotel linens. Yeah, we enjoyed the train. The train to Beijing is 12 hours, which seems like a long time until you realize that you can actually go to sleep. And not wake up with a weird cramp, or closer to your neighbor than you would have liked. None of the discomfort of plane journeys here. No painful ear popping, no stale air, no wishing you and the person sitting next to you were both 50 pounds lighter so that you could have some space, no climbing over people to go to the restroom...none of that. And going first class train is still cheaper than flying, so it worked well for us. We went on Christmas eve, and so in addition to the complementary meal (very much like airplane food), we got a little "gift" of chocolate and goodies. Ah, I love first class.

We arrived in Beijing to wonderful brisk air. The nigh before our cabin was hot, because we didn't realize that we could control the temperature - something we discovered on our way back. And so, for the first few minutes the brisk air felt good. I got over that good feeling quickly. Beijing was cold. We took an expensive cab journey to our rental apartment, got the keys, dropped our bags, and made our arrangements for the day.

Within our first hour in Beijing we realized two things. First, Beijing cabbies are notorious for the way in which they cheat foreigners - and we learned that this reputation is well earned. Our first two cab rides were twice what we were told they should have been. After that, we tried to get female cab drivers (more honest) and we started using public transportation. Second, the "r" of the Beijing accent is as serious, noticeable and pronounced as everyone said. We had some hilarious moments trying to get them to understand words like "15", "shi-wu" in Shanghai, but "shir-wu" in Beijing. We spent the next three days cracking jokes that ended in "r".

On the first day, we went to the Summer Palace. It was nice, and cold. I wonder if it defeats the purpose to visit a "summer" palace on Dec. 25th. The grounds are beautiful and large, it was a palace after all. I spent most of the time wondering what it would have been like to be there in its heyday, before it was a tourist site. As the Emperor's niece, perhaps, with the benefits of royalty without much of the responsibility. The famous lake at the palace was frozen, and after much convincing, almost to the point of annoyance on their part, I joined my classmates as they walked across the frozen lake, thinking the entire time that this was a stupid decision on my part. Hearing the shifting and creaking of the lake did not help my general disposition, and the pockets of bubbling water that became visible towards the middle of the lake, well those almost put me over the edge. I walked NYC long-stride style across the rest of the lake. When we finally arrived at the other side, and climbed the fence to get to get back on solid ground (we did not climb a fence to get down), we saw the following sign:

Yup. That was a stupid decision, and the fact that I am safe does not make it exhilarating for me as it did for others. I am not from the culture of thrill-seeking at the expense of safety, my people do not say "Here kitty, kitty" to lions. We are the people that move in the other direction while the other tourists are taking pictures. Things like bungy-jumping and hand-gliding are big deals, complete with safety equipment and licensed, trained professionals. Walking across a very large partially frozen lake...well, that's just not our thing. And now I know why. Grateful that nothing untoward happened, I appreciated being on solid ground for the rest of my trip. And I took in the beauty that is the historical sights of Beijing.

On the second day we went to the Great Wall. Oh wow. I am not sure what it was, but from the moment I stepped on the Wall, I felt like China was done. I started saying, "I've done China. I can go home." And I truly do feel like that. Perhaps it was simply being at one of the most recognizable wonders of the world. (Although it is not a part of the Greek canonical list, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, most scholars currently include it as part of The Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind or other revised list.) The Chinese name for the Great Wall is 长城, Long Wall. And it truly is long. Apparently over 6,000 km. We only walked and saw a small section, it is mind boggling to consider a wall of that length. The fact that we went in winter meant that the wall was pretty empty, which was good for us. Apparently in the spring and summer it is choking with tourists. If only the vendors stayed home in winter also. Alas TIC, and vendors are everywhere, including on the Great Wall of China. We took a lot of pictures, joking about our Great Wall photo shoot. We met some other travelers braving the Wall in bitter cold, including a group of Bahamian New Yorkers. And the beginning of our camera troubles began. Between dead and dieing batteries, frozen cameras (both meanings) and otherwise uncooperative technology, we also enjoyed trying to figure out whose camera would be functional at any given moment. So, our time on the Wall (and the next day also) was also punctuated by the following words "Quick, quick, mine is working now."

After a long, cold and tiring day, we returned to Beijing (the wall is outside of the city, in the mountains). That night, a Business English student of one of the girls took us all out to dinner. He booked a private room in an upscale establishment. I still wonder what the employees thought about our group, one older Chinese man surrounded by young foreign females. Apparently we were the talk of the staff, as various employees would sneak a peek throughout the night. In order to make life easier, we told him that we're all vegetarians (that avoids offending when you turn down cow tongue, duck feet, and in my case, pork, among other things). So, after the hilarious hassle of trying to order vegetarian dishes (This one only has very small pork), we began a very lovely meal. Three different managers came in and gave us their business cards on two separate occasions. And then later Santa Clause and an elf came in and gave us Christmas presents (chocolate and candies). We took pictures with the managers, and the Santa and elf. Gotta love the Western holiday of Santa Clause, large decorated trees and gift giving otherwise known as Christmas. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere. We think the photo with the managers will end up in the lobby, as soon as I e-mail it to them as per their request. At the end of the meal, one of our servers asked if she could have a picture with each of the foreigners. I obliged, having the only camera, and took 4 separate pictures which I have to e-mail to her. I wonder where these photos will end up.

Completely exhausted, we went home and went to sleep. Our last night in Beijing. On the third and final day, we visited 天安门 (Tian'anmen, I think sometimes the English spelling is Tienanmen), Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, a Cultural Street, and the Temple of Heaven. The highlight for me was Tian'anmen, because of the history (including the 1989 protests). And of course, I finally got a picture of myself in front the infamous HUGE picture of Chairman Mao (I've been envisioning myself in front of that picture since my East Asian Civ. class in 1996). What a whirlwind day. The most striking thing on the last day for me was the beauty of everything. Of course, they are sprucing things up in preparation for the Olympics, but even the things they haven't gotten to yet exude excellent artisan and craftsmanship. I know that we didn't see the "real" Beijing, as we only really visited the tourist sites, and apparently the non-tourist site Beijing is filthy. But it was a great experience and I am so glad to have been able to go. We managed to do all of the "major" sites in Beijing.
Our three day trip was over, and it felt like we had been there for at least a week. We made it to the train station with time to spare, back to our wonderful first class cabin and home to Shanghai.

Stick a fork in it, China is done.
Oh, and 新年快乐,that's Happy New Year folks!