natalie slightly scattered

everything in between

Category: China

An Incomplete End

Six weeks ago I moved home unexpectedly. I had been planning to stay in China until December. Coming home three months early doesn’t sound like all that big of a deal, but it threw my world off kilter. The decision came after weeks of not feeling well, where I was existing but not really living. Next week I am going to move down to Washington D.C. to live with family while I look for work there. Some friends don’t even know I’m back in the state, and by Monday I will no longer be a resident here. One can never say for sure, but I likely never will be again.

Leaving China went by in a blur. A life that I had taken a year and a half to establish was unraveled over a few days and packed into two suitcases over the course of one. I cried the Tuesday it was suggested, the Wednesday it was mulled over, and the Thursday it was decided. There were so many people I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to. The teachers with whom I had spent over a year establishing a relationship couldn’t know I was leaving. I was at work on Monday and then they never saw me again. The family who provided my first real introduction into Chinese culture was treated to a hasty goodbye. I had spent every Wednesday evening at their home, tutoring their daughter and then eating dinner. The parents didn’t speak English, and were the foundation to my Chinese, practicing and teaching me during the twenty minute ride home. They wanted to take me out to dinner, but there was no time.

After booking my ticket on Thursday I existed in a false reality, aware that I was leaving but pretending it wasn’t really happening. I didn’t cry again until Monday, when I went to say goodbye to my family, the people who had anchored my time in China. I spent hours in their apartment, playing with their son and holding the baby while grandma cooked dinner. I called her grandma too, an endearment they might have at first found strange but later accepted. I simply called her what the children did, because I didn’t know enough Chinese to know how else to address her. By the time I learned, calling her lăolao had already stuck. Lăolao wasn’t there the day I left; neither was the baby. Our time together that evening was the same as always and yet marked by the knowledge that I was leaving. I had been with this family on nights when both babies were crying, evenings spent making play dough Iron Men only to have them crushed by the baby. When I got into the elevator that night is when the tears came. The real, hurtful tears, the ones that acknowledge something you have held dear and cherished is ending, is in that moment over.

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A Sense of Should

I didn’t intend to be here. I intended to still be in China. Until the air pollution became such an irritant that I became chronically ill and had to come home. My last month in China I spent the majority of my time in bed, ordering take-out from the Italian restaurant  with the speedy delivery service.

No one goes to China to lie sick in bed and eat pizza.

One of the worst days I had in China was about two weeks before I made the decision to come home. I had gotten to work that morning and taken Benedryl, to no effect. I was sneezing uncontrollably, my eyes were itchy and watery; I have no idea how I got through the day. It was raining and cold, despite the fact that it was only the beginning of September. I decided to take a taxi home, even though the rain makes driving conditions horrendous. Going by subway and bus my commute took 45 minutes to an hour on a good day. The rain pretty much guaranteed that it would take me an hour and a half. I grabbed a cab and started directing him towards my apartment. I was so tired and worn out that simple Chinese I had mastered over a year ago was coming out in a jumbled mess of words, my tones flat and inconsistent. I managed to get out a duì bu qĭ, sorry, while resorting to hand motions to get me home.

When it rains in Beijing the streets become grid-locked. Traffic ceases to move. I’m not sure why. Even the slightest drizzle guarantees an hour delay. A city that regularly experiences roadblocks does not need any further obstruction to the flow of traffic. We took the exit off of a major highway onto a road leading into my neighborhood and were sitting still, when we were hit from behind. The good thing about getting into an accident in Beijing is that you are never going fast enough to get seriously injured. The bad thing is that you can get left on the side of the road in the pouring rain. I was standing on an exit ramp, where it is almost impossible to be picked up, attempting to talk  myself into resilience. I was a good 25 minute walk from my apartment, something I routinely did when the weather was fine and I felt better.

I believe there are moments in life where the cosmos realize you need a break. You can call it dumb luck, but I’ve spent enough time waiting for taxis in China to realize that they rarely come when you need them to. Before I had ventured ten feet, a taxi driver put his blinker on and came over to pick me up. I could have cried, I was so grateful.

One of my favorite things about Chinese is the expression “yīng gāi de” which translates to should, but we do not use it in the same sense in English. If I thank you for something you have done for me in English, the common response is “You’re welcome.” In China, a country where a deep sense of duty pervades the cultural landscape, you can also be treated to the refrain, “yīng gāi de” which means, “It is what I should do because I can do it;  it is my duty to do so.” We do not as much have this concept in the west, where the word duty is seldom mentioned and we do not explain our actions as the result of an inherent responsibility to do them because we can. Instead we color our experiences as they relate to the self; I did this because I am a good person, or because I am a person who goes out of their way, not because, “I am a person who does this because it is what I should do.” Thank a Chinese person and they may seem baffled by you. Thank them profusely (as we tend to do in western culture) and it will be off-putting. “Why do you westerners constantly say “Thank you,” is a common question I received. It’s a cultural difference, I would explain, and indeed it is, but one that I do not believe can be explained as simply as that. Cultural differences abound, but the need to express thanks and gratitude the way we do in the west as opposed to the east is a deeply ingrained cultural identity as to what is meant by someone’s sense of duty.

As I sat in that taxi in the pouring rain, only a short distance from home, I kept saying “xièxie nĭ, xièxie nĭ,” thank you, thank you, only to have this acknowledged with a smile and a flip of the hand, “yīng gāi de, yīng gāi de,” this is what I should do.

How to Not Get a Massage or Take a Taxi in Beijing

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We met in the bathroom on a retreat, during the fall semester of my senior year. She liked my hair, I adored her style – it was the start of a friendship destined to last. Ours is a foundation built on random encounters at Mass, mutual affirmation, and one failed attempt to go to a Sugarland concert. Despite the fact that we never managed to hang out, I had no hesitation in saying yes when we ran into each other before I left for China, and she asked if she could come visit.

Liz could not have come at a better moment. Anyone who has lived abroad knows that there comes a point where you almost begin to forget that you had a life back home. You miss your family and friends, but you’ve spent so much time and energy creating a life in your new location that the life you left behind starts to feel like a distant memory. Liz’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of everything at home that’s waiting for me upon my return. A reality check that it’s OK to not fully stock my kitchen here, because I won’t be here forever. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being around people from home until I laughed more in one week with Liz than I have in five months. Liz’s visit reminded me that China is not permanent, and that I came here with a purpose. She gave me the motivation to work towards achieving the goals I had set, and to remember that my time here has a deadline attached.

Beijing is a fast moving, international city; it can suck you in, and as the common story goes, before you even know it you’ve been here three years. So many people I meet tell me that they came here for a year, but just couldn’t seem to “get out.” The longer I have been abroad the more I have come to realize – I am not a wanderer. I have roots, they are firmly planted, and while I always want to grow, I cannot be torn away from what’s important to me. That can be hard to remember when you’re adrift in a sea of transplants, people who have moved and put down the most fragile of roots as a manner of survival. It is hard to ever truly feel settled in a place where a common topic of conversation is how long you want to stay.

I don’t yet have the answer to that question, and I’m not sure that I ever really will. I think I will just wake up one day and realize it’s time to go home, that this chapter is over and I am ready for the next phase of my life to begin. That time is not now, and I constantly debate with myself when it will come. For the moment all I can do is live my life here to the fullest, taking advantage of every opportunity, and remembering that once I leave I may never return. It’s a life of Resident Limbo; because while I am not a tourist, I am not a citizen either.

I Am Not a Tourist is a complex that happens to people living in Resident Limbo. A few examples:

I Am Not a Tourist

…I know how to barter with the illegal black cabs, as I know the approximate cost of a legitimate cab ride to almost anywhere I want to go.

…I know how to get to the grocery store!

…I understand the value of the currency, and can bargain well at the market instead of converting everything to dollars in my head and declaring it cheap.

Unfortunately Liz did not fly all this way to go to the grocery store, which meant that for a week I was resigned to playing the part of tourist, albeit one who at least understands the subway system. As it turned out, I didn’t know much about being a tourist in this city where I have come to reside, because being a tourist is so very different from figuring out where to buy forks and knives. Apart from knowing where we should go, I didn’t know much about how to get there, because I am resident enough that I don’t usually frequent those places. I know where I like to go, and I know how to get there. I don’t spend my days wandering through places like Tian’anmen Square; I have to do laundry.

Being with Liz gave me a chance to really explore Beijing. Sure, I know a noodle shop that would make Anthony Bourdain jealous, but I haven’t necessarily taken advantage of the sights that are within my reach, because I live here. On Saturday afternoons I’m more likely to be meeting up with friends for coffee and then off to dinner somewhere than I am to be exploring the Forbidden City (though really, if you ever do go, I would not recommend making your visit on a Saturday). Liz’s visit gave me some badly needed perspective, and helped me to go from Resident Limbo to Resident Tourist, a whole other category indeed.

The following is the complete itinerary of our tour through Beijing, as promised to you, Elizabeth Rooney.

Sunday

I took Liz out for her first meal in China, a crucial make-it-or-break-it moment, as traditional Chinese food is unlike anything most Westerners have ever seen. We went to my favorite restaurant, which my roommate and I refer to as “Our Place,” because we cannot read the Chinese character’s that denote its name. Here I introduced Liz to some of my favorite dishes in China.

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Moving clockwise, and starting at the bottom left, are as follows:  cucumbers with garlic in vinegar, peanuts in vinegar with garlic & cilantro, dry chip potatoes, dry fried green beans, kung pao chicken, and fried rice.

Monday

I was absolutely adamant that Liz have Beijing style noodles, but it turns out that I don’t know where to get them, which was how we ended up walking around Sanlitun for an hour in search of an elusive noodle house, only to wind up eating at Yashow Market. The dining options at the markets are the Chinese equivalent to a shopping mall food court. Having not lost any of my snobbish tendencies towards food while in China, I like these establishments about as much as I enjoy eating at a food court in America, which is to say, not at all. When Liz finally admitted that she was really hungry I gave in to defeat, and it was there that she had a bowl of noodles with cucumber slices, bean sprouts, and a dollop of bean curd (better than it sounds / looks – the bowl on the left).

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From there we spent the afternoon shopping around Yashow, an absolute must for any tourist who is looking to score a fake handbag, the latest Chinese fashion, or some cool China trinkets. After shopping we went to The Bookworm, Beijing’s resident hipster / coffee shop hangout.???????????????????????????????

For dinner I took Liz to “Tony’s,” another local spot of mine. Tony’s is obviously not the name of a restaurant in the heart of Beijing, but is instead my own moniker, because the owner introduced himself as Tony when we first met, and furthermore, he speaks English, the main reason for my faithful patronage. There I introduced Liz to a number of things that I would not have ordered five months ago. Liz bravely tried a century egg, a Chinese delicacy where an egg is boiled and then buried underground until the yolk turns black and the white becomes a gelatinous brown substance, which is about as appealing as it sounds.

Her favorite dish was the pork, which is served in strips over a bed of Chinese onion, then wrapped in thin sheets of tofu, which I was first introduced to by Chinese friends of mine. It’s important while in China to go out with people who know the cuisine, because ordering by sight recognition won’t get you very far, and you’ll miss out on some of the tastier dishes.

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Tuesday

Noodles for breakfast!

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I took Liz to the noodle bar right outside my apartment, where we dined with the locals and garnered many odd looks. It’s not a place that foreigners usually (if ever) frequent. You quickly get over Western cleanliness standards if you want to eat the best food in China. My survival tip is this:  if a long line of Chinese people are always waiting to eat somewhere it probably won’t kill me, even if the dishes are washed through a rather dubious looking method. The noodles are made on the spot, and served in a piping hot broth garnished with cilantro and meat shavings.

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From there we went to the Lama Temple, where the air is perfumed with incense as worshippers come to pray and pay homage to Buddha. The main tourist attraction is the 75 foot tall Buddha in the last hall. Carved from one piece of sandalwood, it has to be seen to be believed (so most of you will have to take my word on this – it’s awe-inspiring).

The rain ruined the rest of our plans for the afternoon, so we improvised with Starbucks and Cold Stone, then headed back to Yashow Market for foot massages.

Tip:  Go to a real massage parlor, the ones in the market are not all that great, nor are they any cheaper.

We rounded out the evening with dinner at a famous dumpling house in Sanyuanqiao, where Liz was less than impressed with some of Beijing’s best dumplings.

Wednesday

Decidedly over Chinese food for breakfast (as well as lunch and dinner) and wondering how I manage to do it (I made the conscious decision to move to China, so it was part of the deal) Liz was really excited when we went to the ever popular Tavalin Bagels for breakfast.

The forecast was still calling for rain, but we decided to hope for the best, ditched our umbrellas, and headed to The Forbidden City, also known as The Imperial Palace, where it started to downpour before we’d even gotten through the main gate. Here Liz was a tourist attraction in her own right, being tall and blonde. Most of the Chinese that are at the Forbidden City any day of the week are not Beijingers; they are tourists from the rest of China, and when you get outside the main cities, foreigners become about as rare as pandas, meaning you’re likely to get a lot of looks, stares, and requests for photographs.

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Hot Facts:  “The Forbidden City is the largest palace in the world, as well as the best preserved, and offers the most complete collection of imperial architecture in China” (Fodor’s).

It didn’t just rain while we were at The Forbidden City, it down poured. We were quickly drenched, which at first made for some great photo opportunities, but after an hour we looked like we had taken showers with our clothes on. The Chinese, who apparently pay attention to the weather forecast, were all extremely confused by our lack of umbrellas, and kept pointing to theirs, as if this was any help to us. Yes, I KNOW I’M WET. I don’t know exactly how to say that, but I was able to convey that it had not escaped my notice that we were soaked. Since we had little other option we embraced our predicament, and decided that touring an ancient palace in the rain is the way to do it.

Tip:  Watch out for pairs of women who approach you and are very friendly (almost too much so). They will speak English, ask where you are going, and perhaps suggest that you go for traditional “Chinese tea.” DO NOT DO THIS. It is called tea housing, and is a very popular tourist gimmick. I know people who have had it happen to them. They will take you to a tea house, pretend to be your best friend, rack up a ¥2,000 bill, and leave you to pay. Liz and I were approached by three separate pairs of women.

After leaving the palace we walked back to the subway, then it was on to the Pearl Market, another one of Beijing’s famous shopping complexes. This market is famous for electronics and jewelry. Definitely haggle here. The rule of thumb is that if you are a foreigner they will raise the price by as much as six times the normal cost. Bargain bargain bargain! Someone tried to sell me shoes for ¥750 a few weeks ago (which I bought for ¥90, and even then I think I could have haggled a little more).

Tip:  If you do buy pearls, make sure the vender scratches it to prove that it is legitimate (real pearls don’t scratch).

As previously mentioned, Liz was over Chinese food, and a tad distrustful in my taste after the dumpling fiasco the evening before, which was why she was less than enthusiastic when I insisted that we go for hot pot.

Beixingqiao, also known as Ghost Street, is an absolute must for any visitor to Beijing, and it’s one of my favorite areas. The entire strip is lit by lanterns strung between the buildings and the trees, and you can get any manner of Chinese food you crave. Here the vendors all speak enough English to hawk their wares, and will try to tempt you inside the doors of their establishment. “Hello! English menu!” is a common refrain. I knew what I was looking for, and didn’t find it until almost the very end of the strip, at which point I’m pretty sure Liz thought I was crazy, but she soon became a convert.

Hot pot is a fantastic style of dining from the Sichuan province of China, and is traditionally very spicy. I wasn’t a huge fan of spice before coming to China, but I now notice its absence whenever I eat anything where it is lacking. Hot pot can come either spicy or plain, and I recommend that you get the spicy broth, it’s nothing that the average palate can’t handle, and the plain broth is rather bland. The Chinese order any number of things to cook in hot pot (duck stomach, anyone?) but I usually stick to the more traditional options. Lamb, sweet potato, mushrooms, and tofu are some of my favorite things to eat this way. I’m not a huge fan of tofu, but it is absolutely delicious in hot pot. My favorite part of the whole thing is probably the sesame sauce which you dunk everything in after it’s been cooked. As Liz aptly put it, hot pot is more of an experience than just a meal. Chinese friends told me that if you invite someone to your home for hot pot then that person is a true friend, because you will only serve hot pot to the people who are closest to you.

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After dinner I insisted that we walk to Nanlouguxiang, a preserved hutong that has been turned into a happening nightlife area. Hutongs are an endangered cultural relic as the government continues to tear them down in favor of new high rises. Epicenters of culture, they are emblems of real Chinese culture amid the hustle and bustle of this ever ambitious city. Traditionally places of residence, a few of the hutongs have been turned into hot spots with bars and shops, such as Nanlouguxiang. This spot is cool, however, because it doesn’t cater just to foreigners, but to local Chinese as well. Whereas Sanlitun is more a mix of clubs, high-end bars and fancy restaurants, Nanlouguxiang is for all of Beijing’s displaced hipsters.

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We got there late in the evening on a Wednesday, so things had died down, but Liz was still able to buy a tea pot and haunt all of the funky little shops selling any number of oddities.

Thursday

We started the morning off with coffee (Starbucks, how I adore thee) then headed off to Tian’anmen Square to hang out for a bit.

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Tian’anmen, as most people know, is where absolutely nothing happened in June of 1989. At least that’s the official story over here, but security is still very strict and heavily enforced within the square (by which I mean guards are posted at intervals throughout, and it’s not odd to see a group of men in uniform marching past).

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Here we were once again a tourist attraction of our own, and pretty much invited attention by sitting down on a ledge. After about an hour of photographs with random passerby’s we decided to call it quits, and headed to Wangfujing to see the Catholic Church and grab lunch.

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The evening was spent at the home of the eleven year old girl I tutor, where Liz was able to enjoy an authentic meal with a Chinese family. Thankfully they didn’t serve her anything completely wacky, a special treat which they seem to reserve for me each week.

Friday

Liz was able to get a taste of being a kindergarten teacher in China, which is to say that she absolutely fell in love with the kids. They are the cutest things ever. We had unintentionally coordinated so that we were wearing the colors of the American flag, but it somehow seemed fitting as we taught them such classics as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” which they all call “The Eensey Weensy Spider” despite my best efforts. I blame their former English teacher.

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That little munchkin pictured is Edwin, who I previously referred to as Harry, until he told last week that he prefers Edwin. I tried to explain that Harry is a better name than Edwin (or at least more modern) but he would have none of it, so Edwin it is. He’s four, and really clever. One day I was asking everyone in his class their Chinese name, and he stood up and said, “Wo de zhong wen ming zi shi xi gua.” Or, “My Chinese name is watermelon.” Needless to say, I lost control of the class at that point.

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Outside the gate at my school.

Friday afternoon we went to Houhai, a very popular destination in Beijing. Comprised of a lake and the surrounding hutongs and restaurants, Houhai is a happening area at night. Here Liz was finally able to get her ride in a rickshaw, something she had been hoping to do all week. The driver originally wanted ¥180 per person for what ended up being about a fifteen minute ride, but we were able to negotiate it down to ¥50 for the both of us.

Tip:  When bargaining, just walk away if the price is not what you want. Do not stand there and argue. State your price, look at them for a minute, and if they refuse to drop theirs start walking. If their price is too high they will immediately shout after you (and in some instances, chase you) and you can usually agree on a price that leaves both parties satisfied.

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Our driver was phenomenal.

Along the way we stopped to tour a 700 year old hutong courtyard house.

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The entrance to the house.

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The courtyard.

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The lake that gives the area its name, Houhai (literally Rear Sea).

Saturday

THE GREAT WALL

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Not wanting to spend our Saturday on the Great Wall with a thousand other tourists, Liz and I opted go with the Beijing Hikers, an excellent company that provides guided tours to some of Beijing’s remote locations. A big bonus is that they keep the group size relatively small and take you to places that won’t be swarming with hoards of tourists. We signed up with a lovely chap named Thomas, with whom my conversation went something like this:

Thomas:  “Beijing Hikers.”

Me:  “Hi, my friend and I are interested in hiking the Great Wall tomorrow, do you have a tour going?”

Thomas:  “Sure do!”

Me:  “Awesome, what’s the day entail?”

Thomas:  “We’ll meet at the Lido Hotel at eight, and from there take a bus two hours to the mountains, where we will hike to an unrestored section of the wall. From there we’ll hike to a village, and finish the day with a lunch prepared by locals.”

Me:  “Sounds good. Is there anything we should bring?”

Thomas:  Sunblock, a long sleeve shirt, pants… We’ll provide you with a chocolate bar, a banana, and all the water you can drink.

Me:  “A banana!”

Thomas:  “You sound really excited about that banana.”

Me:  “My friend really likes bananas. What kind of shoes, do we need hiking boots?”

Thomas:  “Those are great.”

Me:  “We only have sneakers. But don’t worry, we won’t hold the group up. We’re in shape.”

Did Thomas need to know that we are in shape? Was it in any way relevant to sneakers? No. I have no recollection of what Thomas said because Liz was laughing so hard that I had to get off the phone before I lost it. We wore sneakers, and we were absolutely fine. However, one of us did manage to hold the group up…

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The first person to scoot their butt down the Great Wall. Steeper than it looks.

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Gazing out of a watchtower. The hike up was tough, the view was worth it.

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On top of the watchtower.

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One of the watchtowers.

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It was really foggy the day we went (fog, not smog) but it added an ethereal quality.

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The village.

We finished with lunch, where true to Chinese custom our hosts provided more than we could have ever hoped to eat.  Out of a table of all boys except for the two of us, Liz and I did America proud by eating the most. After we got back from the hike we decided to chill for a bit, then it was onto Sanlitun for dinner, where we rounded out the day with Mexican food at Cantina Agave.

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We didn’t mean to coordinate, but it happened, and we were OK with it. Girls actually coordinate here all the time, except by that I mean they were the EXACT same outfit. It’s like Twin Day from when you were in elementary school, except real life. A little odd the first time you see it done.

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If you ever get to Beijing and are jonesing for Mexican (stranger things have happened) this is the place.

Sunday

By our last day together we could not believe that the week had gone by so fast. It was almost complete, except that I had yet to take Liz for a massage, something she had been asking to do since Monday. Having pretty much completely given up on Chinese food, we went to Tavalin Bagels again for breakfast, then spent a few hours shopping around Yashow and grabbing last minute gifts. Then we headed to Wangfujing for Mass at the Wangfujing Cathedral, alternatively known as St. Joseph’s and the East Church. Mass was a little hard to understand, because, bless the priest, his accent was so thick that we caught maybe every other word.

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After Mass we headed over to the strip where vendors sell every edible oddity that you could possibly imagine. Scorpions? Sheep testicles? This vendor knows only one word in English, and he gleefully shouts, “Testicles!” whenever any woman walks past. We took the safe route, and had dumplings, which were pretty good, but the food here is not the best, in my “I live in China and am not a tourist” opinion. However, it’s a lot of fun and definitely should not be missed. I like going just for the atmosphere, as well as the sugar glazed fruit on a stick, which you can get any time of year here, but which is traditionally only sold in the winter.

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Liz loved the pineapple, which is also my favorite.

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Dumplings.

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That would be starfish, sea urchin, shark (not sure exactly how one would go about eating that on a stick) squid, and on the bottom here, tarantula, centipede, and snake, among other things.

After we were finished we went and got ice cream at McDonalds, something I eat far too often here. Then it was onto the last thing on our list:  massages. While Liz was excited at the prospect, I was less than thrilled with the idea of some stranger rubbing their hands all over my body, but I decided that I would chalk it up to experience and take one for the team. I had no idea where to go, but luckily some friends of mine did, which was how we wound up at Dongfangliang Massage in Sanlitun. They don’t speak English at Dongfangliang. We don’t speak Chinese. After they communicated that it would be two men performing the massages, and checking to make sure that we were OK with that, they left us in the room with a garment akin to what you wear when you go to the dermatologist. After looking at it for five minutes, Liz and I decided that we didn’t want to put it on, but at this point we were already in various stages of undress. We opened the door a crack and showed them the garment while trying our best to look confused. A minute later the masseuse came back with another garment, but this time it was a shorts set. Still convinced that this wasn’t what one is supposed to wear for a massage, Liz and I opened the door once more, now genuinely confused. At this point, everyone was confused. The masseuse returned yet again, this time with blankets, which Liz and I assumed he meant for us to wrap ourselves in. So we disrobed and swaddled. We would have done many a maternity ward nurse proud we were wrapped so tight. No way a masseuse was getting his hands in there! Come and see if you can find my shoulder, boys!

I should mention that this process, which probably takes the normal person about two minutes, took us twenty. After finally lying down on the beds the men came in, and this was where we all learned that Liz is exceptionally ticklish. To the point where her massage had to stop intermittently, and I was told to tell her to calm down and relax. They had figured out I speak a little Chinese, probably from my attempts at small talk, because I found it crucial that we know the names and ages of our masseuses. I’m not sure my attempts at communication made the situation any better, however, because at random intervals we both kept bursting out laughing and they had to stop. At times we were all laughing, communication barrier be damned, wasn’t this funny, these two white girls are nuts! We’re convinced that’s what they were thinking.

After finally getting through the body massage we had the foot massage, which went much smoother, except for the fact that Liz is also ticklish on her feet. I’m pretty sure we were all relieved when the massages were done, and not in the general way that people normally feel after a massage.

After beating it out of there (our masseuses waited by the door to wave us off) we went for dinner, after which it started to downpour. Taxis are exceptionally hard to come by in the rain in Beijing, so we started walking in a direction where I was fairly confident taxis congregate. We managed to find one, but it was a black cab, which are notoriously expensive and usually unwilling to negotiate, especially in the rain. Luckily this guy was young and bored, and after bargaining with him for a few minutes I got him to agree to my price by telling him in Chinese, “We’re pretty.”

We were in his cab for about five minutes when I remarked to Liz that he had a nice car, and all of a sudden he said, “Thank you.” He spoke English! I always find this very exciting, so I started to pepper him with questions.

“Where do you work? Why are you driving a cab at night?” At this point I should mention that the last black cab I took, the driver was working weekends and holidays to make extra money because his wife was pregnant. So naturally I decided that all men who are driving black cabs must have pregnant wives at home, prompting me to remark, “You must have a woman in your life!”

Well, turned out that no, he didn’t. Not really sure where to go from there, I told him that I liked the music he was playing on the radio, and asked if he normally listens to American music.

Cab Driver:  “I really American music.”

Me:  “Me too! So do you live around here?”

Cab Driver:  “Right up the street.”

Me:  “Oh, we’re practically neighbors! Do you like the restaurants in this area?”

At this point he had a grin on his face and was shooting looks back to Liz, and I realized, a bit too late, I was hitting on the cab driver. However unintentionally, that is absolutely how it was coming across. I couldn’t wait till we got up the street. I don’t remember what else I said, but it didn’t get much better. Needless to say, I was quite relieved when we finally got to my apartment, where we pretty much went to bed so we could get up early the next morning and get Liz to the airport.

If you’ve read it all this way, congratulations. I wasn’t aware that I would have so much to write, but that week had to have been one of the best of my life. I don’t remember many other times when I have laughed so hard or so much, and it was incredible to spend the week with someone who I know will be a lifelong friend. Here’s to you, Liz, and the many memories we are going to make.

Will Work for Bagels

I have been in China four months, two weeks, and two days (to be precise). I have eaten dumplings, noodles, and all manner of things I would rather not recall. I have made a best friend (the kind that you know will last a lifetime) painted my bedroom, and scrubbed the dust out of my apartment until my hands hurt, only to have it reappear a day later. I have received two packages from home, sent five letters, and exchanged hundreds of emails.

I have been on three dates, found the best bagel shop in Beijing, and now tutor the employees for credit. I have drunk enough Starbucks coffee to personally cover the cost of a nice dinner for the CEO (if he eats it in China, that is). I have found the grocery store that sells cheese, and done a happy dance when coming across a familiar product. I have been stared at enough that I will likely go home with a minor celebrity complex.

I have been driven to the Great Wall in the back of a black Mercedes, and to a rose garden on the top of a mountain. I have become friends with the family at my breakfast stand after all attempts at language failed, and I snorted at them to signify that I would like the pork dumpling. I have been asked if I am single and interested in dating their son. I have watched aghast as small children (and on one occasion, an adult) go to the bathroom on the street, and now I walk right past it. I never assume it is dog poop.

I have learned how to give directions in Chinese to the taxi drivers, and how to say, “I don’t understand,” very well. I have become friends with the owner of a restaurant, and spent an evening conversing and drinking with a group of old Chinese men.

I have given money and food to the homeless, and come to seriously question what it means to give, and to assess my own blessings. I have conversed with a crippled beggar who told me he was a Christian, heard some of the best sermons of my life, and actually read my Bible.

I have gone to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and spent one lazy afternoon wandering down a hutong.

I have eaten Peking duck, been taught how to make dumplings, and become friends with the chef at my school, who caters to my love of noodles and dislike of fat, even though he has repeatedly tried to convince me that I should eat it.

I have forgotten I am in China, and wondered why I am surrounded by so many Asians. I have stopped to marvel at the sights before me, and come to love taxi rides at night. I have been squashed on the subway, and scrutinized on the bus.

China feels like the most natural place for me to be, even though it will never truly be home. Whenever I forget that I am white and think I am starting to blend in, I spot another foreigner from half a mile away. One person once thought I was Chinese, for one second.

I have walked in the rain because I am so happy just to feel it, and acquired an oven.

I have witnessed dust storms, and been so cold I thought I would never get warm.

I have been sad from missing family and friends, and exuberant with all of life’s possibilities.

I have been astounded by the generosity, warmth, and graciousness of the Chinese people, and I have fallen in love with the children I teach.

In My Dream World

Normally I take my time to plan out and write my blog posts. I first write them down on paper, longhand, because I feel like I can better collect my thoughts when my hand is holding the pen. I like the flow, as if the words are coming down my arm from my brain, ink stains on paper the evidence of my thoughts. The same argument could be made for typing I am sure, but to me it is not the same. The pen feels like an extension of my hand, while the keyboard feels foreign, requiring taps instead of a gentle caress. The paper is very important as well; I like the feel of its smooth surface beneath my hand, the way an entire page can suddenly come to life with my words. It doesn’t look quite the same filling an endless blank space on my computer screen, the font impersonal, the permanence seemingly less so, even though what we put on the Internet is doomed to last forever, and my words on paper are mine alone.

But tonight I am going right to the screen. I do not have enough time for my normal process. I cannot sit here spending hours writing down the ideas that form in my head, my brain two sentences ahead of my pen. Tonight I do not have the time for such a luxury, because tonight I am supposed to be packing for China. In my dream world, I was packed hours ago. In reality, I haven’t even started, it’s 6:33 pm, and I am soon going downstairs to make farfalle carbonara and watch a movie with my family. I want to pretend things are normal, and ignore the fact that in 36 hours I am getting on a plane, leaving all that I know and love behind for one year.

I am excited, but I am at the part of the process where the emotions come on strong. I haven’t yet cried, but as I went shopping with my mother today, the last time for a year, tears started to well up in my eyes, and I couldn’t look at her. It was ironic that this moment almost brought me to tears, because my mother and I don’t even like shopping. Which is actually why we ended up at the mall the Saturday before I am supposed to fly out of the country – I don’t have any clothes. This is mostly because I like to pretend I have outgrown them, then give them to my friend Courtney, who looks fabulous in everything, but particularly this pair of white pants that she doesn’t wear all that often. Her boyfriend Eric would do well to make a request that he see her in them.

I digress (this happens a lot – see the title of the blog). So I’m at the mall, trying not to cry, which would just be a total disgrace, because a) I don’t remember the last time I cried in public, and b) I was in yoga pants, a tank top that probably has holes in it, and an oversize sweatshirt with my hair up in the bandana (it’s making a comeback) so I would just be that girl. Not the refined shed-a-little-tear-but-doesn’t-she-look-lovely type, no, the wow, she must really be having a bad day type. The, there she is bawling and she couldn’t even put herself together for the occasion, type. I did not need to impose this sight upon the other patrons of the Bridgewater Commons. I am always looking out for the best interest of the public.

Thankfully the desire to cry evaporated as soon as I left the mall, and I was able to regain my composure enough to make it home and get upstairs. I am now sitting in my room, looking at piles of things that are not supposed to be going into my suitcase, and wondering how this happened, as I cleaned everything up yesterday. I am trying not to panic at the fact that I have about five things I would like to do tomorrow (none which involve packing) and I really don’t have time to get it all done, unless I stay up all night, at which point I will get sick and have a miserable flight. This is what it’s like inside my brain right now. So I am going to put on some music (thank you Grooveshark) straighten up these piles, and approach things from a calm and rational perspective.

Did I mention before that I have a dream world?