Saturday, May 29, 2010

pickin' flowers

My research is not taking as much time as I thought, leaving me restless and wandering most of the day. My whole life, I’ve dealt with problems by pouring myself into sports or school or work , as if achieving the next big thing will help me achieve peace—or revenge—or whatever it is I seem to be seeking. It doesn’t. In fact, it never does. And as I’ve learned this year, running away does nothing for assuaging anxiety either: first Chicago, then Charlotte, Seattle, Georgia, Costa Rica, and now China. The problems are the same; only the landscape changes.

And here I’ve been given this gift—this incredible summer of time- and I can’t sit still long enough to enjoy it. So I walk. I walk for hours, meandering through the streets, getting lost, getting un-lost, and getting lost again. I buy stinky candies in small shops and honey from street vendors and cheap plastic flip-flops in the Chinese Wal-mart. I sit in cafes. I sit in restaurants. I sit on a sunny bench next to the lily-padded pond. I take bad photos of sunflowers and willow trees. I read. I talk to myself. I talk to strangers. They rarely understand me. I walk some more.

Today’s excursion led me to what was advertised as an English “bookstore.” Turns out, it’s just a bookshelf full of used books tucked in the back of a restaurant—a delightful little secret. I adore used books, and discovering this little sun-lit, glass-ceilinged room was like discovering a hidden treasure. I sat there for hours, curled up alone on the little couch, reading Pollyanna and rediscovering Peter Hessler, who led me to China in the first place.

Eventually, it started to pour. The rain blew in, spraying me and my piles of books with a gentle mist. I’d forgotten about that 12-year-old spitfire, Pollyanna, namesake of the “Pollyanna principle” as well as "pollyanna-ish," an adjective describing people who always find something to be “glad” about regardless of the circumstances. The term is sometimes used pejoratively to describe people whose excessive optimism leads to naivete. As someone who was once described as “relentlessly optimistic,” I’ve wondered about that tendency myself and my ability to move on; I’m not always sure such optimism is a help so much as a hindrance. Spending most of your life with your head in the clouds means that sometimes you can’t read the warning signs on the ground, I’ve learned the hard way

But reading Pollyanna was like getting reacquainted with a childhood friend: refreshing and wonderful. Tucked away in this secret little bookshop in China, rain billowing from all sides, I found such joy. If my Pollyanna proclivity is the source of my anxiety and restlessness, than I suppose that’s okay. As another childhood favorite once said:

"I will be the gladdest thing under the sun! I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one!" (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Note: said rain is a product of “cloud-seeding,” or the Chinese government’s attempt to end droughts by injecting the sky with sodium iodide and dry ice…only a lil’ creepy, no?

Friday, May 28, 2010

heart disease and the chinese health system

Today I had my first encounter with the Chinese healthcare system. In order to get my visa extended, and in order for China to exert its endless bureaucracy and make a quick buck, I had to get a medical examination at this international health center. I was pretty annoyed about the distraction from my work (namely, watching a bootleg version of some f-ed up Spanish film…rough life, I know). However, since I’ve quickly learned that everything in China needs between 1-100 red stamps, off I went.

First of all, according to the center’s giant map of the world, China is apparently free from all infectious disease, including malaria, yellow fever, SARs, dengue, the works! Funny, that’s not what the CDC says.

Secondly, this medical exam was strangely more thorough than any US medical visit I’ve had in years. As I passed from room to room, I got the works: urine test, blood draw, eye exam, ultrasound (?), x-ray (?!), EKG (?!?!). The place was bizarre: entirely deserted, with a white-clad nurse silently sitting in each room. Each one would perform her procedure wordlessly, stamp a big red stamp on my form, and then point to the next door. It felt a little Alice and Wonderland-esque. Because my imagination tends towards the twisted, each time I passed through a door, I wondered what kind of bizarre, macabre scene lay within: jars of pickled brains, shrunken skulls, bloody carcasses?

Oh wait, no…that’s just the local grocery.

Actually, the blood draw was actually quite upsetting. Much to my parent’s chagrin, I’ve had a vasovagal reaction to getting blood drawn since I was about twelve. Namely, I sweat and pant and pass out. Not a pretty sight. I tried to warn the nurse what she was about to witness, but of course the meaning was lost in translation. Since we were both panicking, she called in a well-meaning “English-speaking” doctor. He held my hand as I lay there, reassuring me that “It is not a problem! We only use the needles once! One time use!” In my mind I was screaming: THIS IS NOT HELPING!

After surviving that debacle, it was time for the ECG.

“Expose your heart,” the nurse told me solemnly.
Um, I just met you- let’s not be hasty, I thought.
“OK,” I said.

And as I was lying in this tiny room in this deserted hospital, with a dozen electrodes clamped to my chest, I started thinking about all the things I’ve done since I’ve been in China that could possibly get me in trouble. Taking photos of the Mao statue? VPN-ing into YouTube and Facebook on a semi-regular basis? Googling the crap out of everything? Why am I such an idiot?! I started to sweat as I waited for the electricity to surge through my veins. I was sure I was going to die. Good-bye world, I thought, melodramatically—and what a way to die, half-naked on a lumpy bed in a Chinese exam room waiting---

“Your heart…,” the nurse said, pulling off the electrodes.
“What?” I asked incredulously. “Is it bad?”
“No. It’s slow. Your heart is slow.”

Amen sister. Tell me something I don't know.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

dance like...the chairman is watching?

I’ve been dancing. There’s this Swedish art gallery/café downtown where many of my girlfriends take class on Wednesday nights. Most of them are talented, and I watch with envy as the music transforms their lithe bodies. I am not. I haven’t taken a dance class since third grade, when I gave up on ballet because, although the shoes were pretty, my pathetic attempts at a pirouette were not. I am heinously uncoordinated, and have almost no memory for dance steps. Luckily for me, this class is more of a modern/freestyle class, and there’s no scary instructor giving me the evil eye as I topple over time and time again. In China, I’ve been making a concerted effort to do things that I’m terrible at: if not here, then where? I am awkard and ungaingly.But increasingly, I am okay with that.

Yesterday’s class was an experience I won’t forget. We gathered in the studio around 7:00, this group of girls who share little in common except temporary residence in Kunming and a flare for movement. Though, there’s something about people who live in foreign places, I’ve realized. Perhaps by virtue of choosing to leave their lives and move halfway around the world, most everyone I’ve met has been warm and welcoming. They almost always have an interesting story: how did you get here? No one has the same answer, and many of these tales are far richer and wonderful than something I could ever create. In any case, these girls have taken me in, despite my paltry Chinese, utter uncoordination…and, at best, unsavory appearance.

See, we dance barefoot. My feet, unfortunately, are absolutely hideous. First of all, Kunming is a dirty city, and we’re forever weaving our way through grimy alleys and leaping over puddles. Secondly, the Chinese have tiny feet. In an attempt to prevent the layer of dirt that has sprouted over my feet like a second skin, I decided to purchase a pair of sneakers. They’re cheap here, and shoe stores abundant, so no big deal I thought. Wrong. As it turns out, very few stores carry my size (an 8 in the States, nothing unusual), and when I ask for my size in women’s shoes, the clerks usually laugh uproariously and steer me towards the men’s section. The other day, however, I discovered a pair of cute purple Converse for about 60 RMB, or about $10 USD—a steal, I thought. But of course, they only have the shoes in a size 7. Tired of the dirt, and also of feeling enormous, I decided to buy them anyway. Wrong move. This is not the first time I’ve gone to war with a pair of shoes—like any woman, I’ve spent weeks battling precarious stilettos or unrelenting sandals. But these Converse are made of rubber, and after wearing them for one day, I limped home from Chinese class certain that their purple canvass would be stained red from the bloody stumps that were now attached to my ankles. So anyway, I show up to class with no fewer than five Band-aids on each foot, already dismissing any illusion of grace I might have conjured.

But we danced for hours, and as the night wore on, I was able to forget more and more the inhibitions that weigh so heavily: the foot wounds, my clumsiness, the perpetual anxiety that’s wracked my brain and body since early last September. After a few hours, a few friends joined us. They wheeled out a piano, some bongos, and someone brought a saxophone. As their music filled the gallery, we danced- both sound and music improvised to some unspoken theme. Dancing on that light-filled stage, in a gallery filled with beautiful paintings of the Kunming skyline, giving and taking with friends I’ve known for two weeks and also a lifetime: catharsis. Suddenly, there’s nothing but me, and music, and movement.

Although, as it turns out, that’s not entirely true. Just below the stage, under a glass cover, lay a starkly white sculpture of an old, naked man, his disproportionately small penis glinting under the lights. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty: expectant somehow in his repose, I kept expecting someone to bend down, kiss him, and awaken him to the music. Yet, after class, reading the tag underneath the sculpture, I’m glad no one did. The man, as it turns out, was Chairman Mao. I left unsure of whether his strangely small man-parts were an artistic error or a comment on communism, but certain of one thing: though I finally learned to “dance like no one is watching” as the cliché goes, often, in China, someone is.

Monday, May 24, 2010

raindrops keep fallin' on my head...

Or some kind of mysterious liquid, that is. For some reason, walking on the sidewalks here is an invitation to get splashed -- water, toothbrush juice, urine, who knows—falling from an unidentified location above. Also, Chinese babies pee in the streets—in fact, they have a hole cut out in their bottoms for easy access—so I have become wary of even the most innocuous looking puddles.

As it turns out, the Chinese find Westerners’ obsession with hygiene totally bizarre. Of course, this hygiene issue—or lack thereof—leads to some interesting, albeit sometimes disgusting, dining scenarios. For one thing, knives are nonexistent-chopsticks only- so people just grab large chunks of anything and cram them into their mouths. Since my chopstick use is mediocre at best—I’m way far too clumsy/shaky to get a good grasp on those things—I spill food everywhere (yes, more than usual). But it’s cool, because I’ve found that meals here frequently involve bits of rice and noodles flying everywhere as everyone eats in a flurry of chopsticks and chatter. Also, people use their chopsticks to eat common food: everything is shared, which as a public health student and the daughter of an infection control nurse, makes me secretly cringe with every bite. No one has a problem with bringing their bowl to their mouths and sucking up noodles or rice like a human Hoover. Also, subject is too personal or bizarre for conversation. This weekend, I was chatting with a biostatistician at the Chinese CDC, and he asked me friendly but strange questions like how much I “prioritized money.” This question, I’ve found is a common one, as all Chinese people seem to think Americans are loaded. When I told him I had a cat, he asked me if my cat had had “its genitalia removed;” we proceeded to have a five minute conversation about the pro’s and con’s of removing Victor’s junk. He segued right into a more philosophical realm with next question: “Are you a Christian?” (my response: uh…..)

Actually, much to my personal delight, I’ve been exploiting my so-called Christianity here. At home, where my Catholicism consists of little more than church attendance for the rare wedding, the memory of 12 years of hideous plaid jumpers, and a lingering sense of guilt, I can hardly claim the religion as my own. In China, I find myself employing my so-called faith to get out of things I don’t feel like doing. This works well with Chinese people or Westerners of the non-American variety, because they either don’t understand what Catholicism is (Chinese) or they are somewhat afraid of it (Europeans). The excuse is handy because of its versatility: I can use it to get out of eating meat, doing things on Sunday, or just about anything I like, as my recent encounter with one feisty Scot exemplifies. We were at a bar around closing time, when he invited me under dubious pretenses to share an after-hours hot pot. (dear family: FYI, hot pot is a type of food, not a type of illegal herb).

“I totally would, but it’s Saturday night, and I have to get up early for Church tomorrow. You know, the Catholic thing…” I said by way of explanation.

“Are all Catholic girls this difficult?” he asked, disgruntled.

“Only ones who are studying to become nuns,” I said, before grabbing my roomies and hailing a cab, laughing all the way out the door. My Israeli roommates, by the way, find my Catholic excuses hilarious—the next step is to get them to try it out.

I’ve also been telling a disproportionate number of nun stories lately, mostly to horrify my UK peers, who apparently view Catholicism as some sort of draconian torture. Of course I have to perpetuate this belief by regaling them with tales of the time Sr. Adele punished me for poor reading skills by pinching clothespins to my ears, bruising me for weeks, or how, every time an ambulance passed, Sr. Mary Norberta would pray that the victims were not Catholic. These stories are not only untrue, they’re stolen from Pat Conroy, who has a far more imaginative and distorted view of a Catholic childhood than do I. I’m not sure why I find this so amusing, when I should be grateful simply to have some undiluted English conversation. In fact, the tiny fraction of my soul which has been forever imprinted with twice-a-week Masses and endless confessionals recoils in horror—I know I’m gonna pay for this someday. But in the meantime, since I highly suspect that the Chinese are laughing at my own poor dining etiquette (in fact I know they are—I finally learned the word for chopsticks, and can hear them saying something about kuai zi as they stare and laugh), and the Israelis gab away in Hebrew, I’ll take my mischief where I can get it—even if I’m the only one laughing.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

el supermercado

The title of this post is in reference to the fact that, given my lack of Chinese, I find myself trying to speak broken Spanish to everyone here. I guess it's my default travel language in the Western world, but honestly, explaining to a Chinese fruit vendor that yo quiero seis manzanas por favor is about as useful as speaking in haiku. Good thing I can always resort to my other tried-and-true technique: sign language and a smile. Good thing I have no shame- or at least, not anymore. Here are some pics of the neighborhood market on my fancy new camera, which I (again, shamelessly) wear slung around my neck at all hours of the day. (Edit: I'm far too lazy to wait for this spotty, stolen internet to upload all my pics, but sooner or later I'll have a Shutterfly account for anyone interested in my amateurish attempts at photogrpahy)
The picture below is my favorite of the market, where we shop every day for fruits and vegetables, some familiar, some exotic: waxberries and leechees, mangoes and bananas, eggplants and chinese cabbage and the most delicious peas I've ever tasted. In China, everything is fresh- sometimes, alarmingly so. I was startled to walk through the beautiful market of colorful produce to find buckets of live snakes, rows of hanging ducks, live chickens stuffed into cages, pools of live fish, and buckets of live prawns, squirming insidiously inside a giant orange vat. So much for preferring my food without a face!
Notice the people snoozing in the background--napping is the norm here, a cultural rite I wish we could export to America, where no one stops for even a second, let alone in the middle of the day. The Chinese people have made an art form of napping in the most boisterous of circumstances is impressive: on crowded buses, in the middle of meetings, or even in wheelbarrows in the middle the street. (Here's where a picture could speak a thousand words if my internet didn't suck)

Friday, May 21, 2010

donde el crepusculo corre borrando estatuas

My favorite time of day here is twilight. The streets awash in a buttery light, the sidewalks and shops bustle with parents and children returning home. In my apartment complex, a calm missing from the rest of the day settles over the courtyard: grey-haired women line up to dance, waving red fans and gently swaying to the music floating from a nearby boom-box. The old men- most of them toothless, or soon-to-be- are finishing up their games of cards or dominoes, their voices often rising and pitching in angry outbursts over the din of children playing on the sidewalks.

Freshly showered, I move through the dusty streets silently, spinning stories in my head from the day just past or repeating some fragment of Chinese over and over like an impromptu mantra. (Hong shan nan lu, for example, is the name of my street, which I so badly mispronounced to a taxi driver the other day that I ended up in a strange suburb before “phoning-a-friend” for help). I can’t help but grinning nearly constantly. How is it possible that I am here, in a Chinese market, haggling over eggplant for tonight’s dinner, when a year ago I was in a cube counting down each agonizing minute until my 5 o’clock escape? Everything delights me: the men brushing their teeth in the streets, the sudden burst of sparks from a second story construction site, the smoky scent of sidewalk barbeque. I seem to evoke a similar effect; although the Chinese are fairly discrete, I catch both men and women secretly staring. Dressed in a summer top and flowy skirt, “yellow” hair falling around my shoulders, I’m not sure if they think I’m Pamela Anderson or a blonde Godzilla. “Nihao,” I say as I walk past, smiling brightly into their curious faces.

Ironically, the only thing tainting my twilight zen is the residual anxiety of life in New Haven. Walking along some dusty railroad tracks with my roommate the other evening, we were approached from behind by a menacing figure.

“There’s someone behind us,” my roommate warned, well aware of my Dwight-Street paranoia. I shrieked and spun around to confront our attacker: a four-foot-five Chinese woman, balancing on her hip a watermelon that may have outweighed her. I laugh sheepishly and let her pass.

Except for these minor aberrations, evening in Kunming is a laid-back affair. It’s refreshing for the sky ‘s darkening to signal the end of the day as opposed to the start of another endless night of studying, for a change. So I go back inside and stir-fry my vegetables, read a little, write a little, and finally, after a year of perpetual motion, relax.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

joyful, joyful we adore thee

       Today was my first day visiting one of the kindergartens (read: glorified daycare centers) where I will be doing my research. First of all, let me say that I'd kind of like to live in one of these places. Far larger and more magical than any American preschool I've been to (although that's admittedly a sample size of one), Kindergarten #1 was like a little oasis of sunshine and color inside of a crowded city of concrete.
         We walked into a courtyard where two dozen children were lined up, playing the tiniest accordions I've ever seen to the tune of "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," or whatever the name of that song is. About half of them broke rank to point and stare at me--living in China makes me feel like a celebrity or a total freak of nature, although I haven't quite decided which. We were then led on a tour of the school, which enrolls 360 children (a small school, by Chinese standards), which included a sleeping room, a computer room, and my personal favorite--a room with a giant pool of plastic balls and slides, kind of like the best McPlayground you've ever seen. I was tempted to jump in. Thankfully, I ignored the urge and was taken to one of the more creepy things I've seen in China: the "Science Room." The Science Room, I learned, is a place where animals live in taxidermy eternity in small glass cages. I saw a stuffed rooster, rabbit, mama duck and baby ducks--and believe it or not, what appeared to be a small albino hedgehog. I made some polite "ooh ahh" sounds and sighed a breathe of relief when we left to attend the nutrition class.
     Apparently, because of the one-child policy, Chinese parents are especially attentive to their children's health. These kindergartens, where my preceptor does her research, have received well her nutrition and physical activity program. Today's lesson was about the Chinese Food "Pagoda," which resembles the American food pyramid in all its misguided glory-- heavy on the grains and meat, not enough fruits and veggies. I was treated to a couple dozen children entering the classroom by waving laminated fruits above their heads and singing a song about going to the market. Ironically, the lessons have a double purpose: the kids get to learn about nutrition, and I get to learn the Chinese words for apple, cucumber, and eggplant. Turns out that sharing a classroom with a bunch of three-year olds may be the most educational lecture I've attended all year....

Monday, May 17, 2010

every day you play with the light of the universe

Juegas todos los dias con la luz del universe.
This line, which I have always loved, speaks to me of my mornings here in Kunming. I don’t sleep well here, which is no surprise, after a year of little sleep and even less rest. My sleeplessness is different here, however—my nights are not tormented and ruthless the way they were in New Haven. Perhaps because of the time change, or more likely because my mattress leaves me stiff and sore after only a few minutes, I wake early. (Is this what getting old is like, I question, as my knees and back protest in pain?). I sleep next to a window the length of my bed, and am often awakened by the morning light streaming in (How many mornings has the sun kissed our eyes? Neruda wondered, as do I). Or, just as likely, by the cheap Chinese curtain billowing out my open window, or the roosters crowing, or the bugles blaring their morning song fifteen stories below.
In any case, I rise early, and begin my days with a cup of black tea, with “fresh milk,” as the Chinese say. I love this concept of “fresh milk”: as opposed to rancid milk? Vintage milk? I sip my tea and read some Neruda each morning, which sometimes leaves me sad but more often leaves me hopeful. He is like an old friend, a reminder of the beauty of words in any language: a comfort when I am surrounded by the sounds of a foreign tongue. I read for awhile, or practice my Chinese, before trying to sleep—typically unsuccessfully—again. My dreams here are strange, a mixture of residual New Haven anxiety (still dreaming about SAS coding and data management, weeks after exams) and the new sights and smells which bombard me each day. Eventually, I rise for good, and select one of three possible outfits: my Chinese uniform of jeans, tank, and cardigan. Simplicity in all things, I’ve found, is a refreshing change. Admittedly, even if said simplicity is forced, to some degree, by my missing luggage and foreign locale.
The mornings here are beautiful. Imagine the most perfect mid-summer day: sunny, dry, and seventy degrees. Already the streets are bustling, and the markets churning with vendors yelling in their strange tonality about things I can only imagine. My research hasn’t started yet—and might not in earnest for awhile—so I walk. I walk until my heels bleed. When I can no longer stand it, I find a café where I can access the internet and maybe call home. So far, I’ve spent my days reading and writing and learning Chinese. The luxury of endless time spent to indulge in my old favorites has brought me endless pleasure, although it is a bit strange and a little agonizing to relinquish my American habit of endless multi-tasking. Slowly, I’m learning. I’ve been reading an anthology of writers, most of whom have spend their own endless days and nights alone, writing, and I find hope in this—that maybe this summer will force me to drop the pretense of endless activity and finally do the thing I’ve been wanting to since age seven: write something worthwhile.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

slip and fall down slowly

I’m even clumsier in China than I am at home. Shocking, I know. Uneven surfaces, ancient sandals, and an inherent lack of grace have conspired to leave me stumbling or flat-out falling every few hundred yards or so. Luckily, China has removed any shred of dignity I had left: in a land where you’re a complete anomaly, you can get away with almost anything. I look so strange, so utterly foreign, that people expect me to be odd. So I am. I just smile and make a funny face, as if I toppled face-first into that statue on purpose, and keep walking. By my calculations, it’s a suitable trade-off for all the ogling I do myself: at the midnight barbeques, smoke filling the street corners with the scent of some unmentionable meat; at the families piled four deep on one precarious-looking bicycle; at the wizened elderly couples strolling arm-in-arm at twilight. I may fall down— perhaps not slowly, or carefully, as the Chinese say—but it’s a price I’m more than happy to pay.
China has also stripped me of my vices: chocolate, cheese, wine—and with it, the occasional drunken cigarette—hair straighteners, my beloved morning coffee….
And men. Perhaps the most challenging and suitable vice to give up after a year of having my heart batted around like a soccer ball in a muddy field. It’s not as though I was expecting to meet someone here—jokes about Chinese sugar daddies aside—but after last night’s excursion, it’s clear that the closest I’ll get to the opposite sex is probably with the toothless old man at the market who sells me leechee and mangos each morning.
Case in point: Last night, my roommates and I went to a concert at a hostel/bar called “The Hump” (another Chinese malapropism? Or just an ironic twist on my current predicament?). The band, endearingly named “The Sea-loving Mammals” (apparently “Dolphins” was taken), was mediocre at best, the beer warm, and I found myself physically propping my eyelids open with my fingers. The men-- the first Western guys I’ve seen since I’ve arrived—were all sporting some form of strange uniform: Wayne’s World-style hair-do/ponytail, sleeveless t-shirt, and (optional) sunglasses-at-night. What god of fashion decided this was a good idea? I wondered, before ironically adjusting on my own ridiculous skinny jeans and trendy little top.
Thankfully, my roommates wanted to leave rather early. On our way out, I was approached by a man whose hair resembles mine now that I am sans-straightener: an uneven mop of blonde frizz. He must have thought I liked him, given the way I was staring and giggling—but he misinterpreted my gaze for a not-unkindly snicker at his ridiculous rose-colored sunglasses and 90’s style hemp necklace.
“Why are you leaving?” He asked in some unknown accent, sidling up to me with an arrogant grin.
“I’m jetlagged, and she’s tired,” I replied, gesturing at my roommate, who was slowly creeping towards the door.
“This is why girls suck!” He complained, sucking noisily on his cigarette (at which I secretly stared with envy).
“Well,” I retorted, “Perhaps if men were capable of making more interesting conversation, we wouldn’t be so bored and tired!” Triumphant, I turned on my heels, delighted at the facile of English words and my ability to manipulate a language at my will. Chinese, I’ve found, is a slippery language. It lacks the rough weight of English, heavy like marbles, or the sweet melody of Spanish. Beautiful in its own right, at the moment Chinese words are like snakes to me: difficult to catch, and impossible to hold. It was nice, if even for a moment, to feel in control of words again.
In any case, I went home to my room and settled in for a night with a long-lost literary love, Dave Eggers. This looks like it may turn out to be a man-less summer, but I think that I am more than okay with that. I need to learn to be alone again—even in this country of a billion people—and to savor the luxury of silence for a change. To learn Chinese, and Buddhism, and yoga. To listen more, and talk less. And maybe to slip and fall a little more slowly :)

Friday, May 14, 2010

nihao, kunming

Well, I’ve only been in China a few hours and yet there’s so much to tell I don’t know where to start. Traveling was an absolute nightmare, starting with my trip in Cleveland, which was delayed b/c of fog at JFK. Imagine this scene: once I finally arrived in JFK, I sprinted-- huffing and puffing and sweating—across the airport, nose-diving once into the tile floor in front of an entire crowd, scraping up my hands and my face a little—to Air China, where I was informed I’d missed my flight by 15 minutes. In a storm of rage and tears that recalled my old corporate airline battleground days, I got American to put me on the next flight to San Fran—which, serendipitously, I only got on because it was also delayed. I had to sprint to that flight again, just barely making it before the doors closed (note to self: work out more!).

The guy sitting next to me on the HK flight blatantly ignored my no-eye-contact, no-talking rule on flights (created explicitly because it’s much easier to drool in anonymity than it is when you’ve actually held a conversation with someone). Anyway, this dude turned out to be a radio-frequency engineer from Singapore, staying in HK for a few days. Once we landed in HK, since I had six hours to kill, he helped me negotiate the final leg of my flight (note to self #2: learn Mandarin-stat!) and we headed into Hong Kong. It was really cool that I got to see the city, if only for a few hours. The only way to describe Hong Kong-and China- is that it is so utterly foreign to me. In comparison, Costa Rica seemed more like home than a field of corn on the Fourth of July. There is just so much I do not recognize: the language, the letters, the food, the way the cars and buses and bikes and pedestrians all seem to mix and merge into one giant river of commotion. I love it though—for the first time, it feels like a real adventure!

I finally got to Kunming, 2 full days after I left Cleveland, and of course my luggage is nowhere to be found. Met my Chinese interpreter, Hongmei- and my fears are confirmed. I cannot understand her. She cannot understand me. This could make for a loooooooooooong summer. We may have to resort to sign language…or the progressive face, I’m not sure which yet. Also, it’s incredibly ironic that I’m here to study obesity- I am by far the largest human I’ve seen here so far. I tower over all of the women and loom over most of the men as well—and I’m the only blonde in the entire city, I think. I definitely got racial profiled in line for immigration- these scary looking dudes in green uniforms with hedge-like haircuts pulled me out of line from everyone else just to inspect me. I actually think it will be interesting from an anthropological perspective to see what it feels like to live as such an extreme minority for the summer. Honestly, it might be the most important lesson I get out of this entire trip—we’ll see.

The good news: my roommates are awesome! I am going to learn a ton from them, both in terms of Chinese, Israeli culture, and general life in Kunming. Shelly’s going to be tons of fun- we hit it off upon meeting; Hila’s slightly more quiet, but I like her quite a bit as well. She yelled out “FUCK!” when we were in the supermarket (you’ll see why in just a minute), and after that she earned high marks in my book. It’s a little strange because sometimes they speak Hebrew or Chinese to each other, so I’m just in my own little world. Honestly, I’m very much like a blind person here- I don’t know how I’d get by without them already. Today we went to a Wal-mart type place and oh my god, I have never seen so many kinds of disgusting meats. I saw chicken feet prepared at least half a dozen different ways. I saw a five year old fingering fish heads. I saw what appeared to be bloody eel stew. Aaaand, I’m pretty sure I saw a dead baby cow. Disgusting. But we all came back and made dinner together, with Hila’s British boyfriend, Richard, who’s smart and quite hilarious in that droll British way. Both my apartment and my neighborhood are nicer than New Haven, ironically. So far, the only negative are the beds: apparently, Chinese people like to sleep on beds as hard as boards. My roommates even bought nicer, "softer" mattresses, but still--each morning I wake up feeling stiff and as though I am emerging from a few years inside a coffin. Ouch.

Otherwise, I’m feeling a bit anxious about my luggage, my project, and quite honestly, what to do with all this free time. I’m not sure how to live in a city where I am illiterate and essentially mute. Time for exploring, I think!

Monday, May 10, 2010

nothing ventured, nothing won

"And then supposing the Spirit has conquered and you have done this impossible thing, do you find afterwards that you possess yourself in a sense that you never had before? That there is more of you?…So it is throughout life…you know ‘nothing ventured nothing won’ is true in every hour, it is the fibre of every experience that signs itself into the memory.” 
- J.N. Figgis

       The first time I encountered this quote was as a fresh-faced fourteen year old, about to embark on my first trip alone: sailing on the Chesapeake Bay as part of an Outward Bound excursion. An introverted bookworm, just the act of leaving home was nothing less than a major voyage for me.  I remember feeling as though the anxiety radiating from my chest must have been palpable to the other tweens paddling away on our thirty-foot boat. But that trip-- rowing through the rain, the sweet freedom of finally sailing, the glow of hundreds of jellyfish hovering just below the waves--the first time I fell in love with a curly-haired boy with an impish grin (if one could call a week of nervous smiles love, of course)--opened up something new in me. I was still afraid--that hadn't changed. But suddenly, I felt less afraid to feel that way.

      I re-read this quotation again before another trip into the wilderness- a freshmen orientation excursion the week before I started at Northwestern. Again, nervous as hell, and without a clue about the whirlwind that was about to engulf my life. While my four years there can't be summarized so succinctly, again Figgis was right: there was somehow more of me than there had been before. And always, the fear. Fear that accompanied me long after that first week--fear that became my near constant companion for the better part of two years, in fact.  But, more intimately acquainted with it, the emotion became more of a compass, telling me I was doing something right--taking chances, making moves--rather than the warning sign I once thought it to be.

     In the years since, Figgis' quote has adorned my walls and journals in some form. This year, my first in grad school, he spoke to me from directly from a Post-it above my desk, where I'd read him during lonely four a.m nights or restless days studying. It's never easy to start a new life--or a new journey--and then, even as now, it's not easy to distill my experiences into life lessons as comforting or as true as his words. 

      But now, I turn to him again, a day before I leave for what may be my biggest--or at least, longest--journey yet: to China, for the summer. My first time abroad. My first real research project. My first time being illiterate! (Hello, Chinese characters). So, "A New and Splendid Life," it truly is--and this time, an entirely foreign one. I can't wait.