Sunday, June 20, 2010

feliz dia del padre

I originally wrote this essay with the intention of submitting it Fremont News Messenger for publication today. Unfortunately, I’m an airhead (blame it on the blonde) and missed the deadline while I was gallivanting around the rice paddies. The good news is, I’m no longer limited to 250 words. Especially now, given the recent passing of my dad’s father, I just want him to know how much I love him and miss him. I’m not sure they know this, but there are a lot of times—even here, so far away—when I just can’t believe how I got so damn lucky to have the parents I do. I don’t know where I’d be without them. So here goes:

Lying under the summer sky, my sister and I shrieked with laughter, shattering the silence of the bay. “No way, Dad!” We’d yelp as we secretly clung to each other under our sleeping bags.
From the boat’s cuddy our father grinned, satisfied with his ghastly tale about the Headless Horseman haunting the Portage River drawbridge. His stories always included a rich history of the area: battles on the lake, noble Native Americans, valiant settlers. We didn’t realize it then, but our dad has always shared life’s lessons in a magical way.

As children, he taught us through his love for Lake Erie, as he revealed the beauty of the waves, the triumph of a fat perch on the line, and the importance of respecting nature and people alike. When we got older, his lessons moved to our driveway basketball court, where the sky darkened and dinner cooled as I practiced endless free throws. He taught me patience, persistence, and unconditional love as he waited out my poor shooting skills and surly teenage attitude. In college, he’d write letters. Homesick or heartbroken, I’d find a note in my mailbox, reminding me that, “this too shall pass.” Now, as I navigate the nebulous world of adulthood, he reminds me of one simple rule by which to live: help people. Be kind. Focus on family.

Today, half a world away on Father’s day, I smile and remember those summer days long-ago, knowing how just lucky I am to have such a wonderful father—and friend.

Friday, June 18, 2010

the hills are alive....

After finishing data collection last week, a bunch of us decided to get out of the city for a few days and head
to Jian Shui, a small city in southern Yunnan, followed by theYuanyang rice terraces.

Now, I’m no stranger to traveling on a budget. I’m a grad student, I’m poor—I’ve learned not to expect much from my accommodations. Or so I thought. On Sunday night, my roommate and I took a bumpy busride to Jian Shui to meet the rest of our friends. We showed up at the hotel, which compensated for its namelessness with holographic wallpaper and disco music. The first room we went to was filthy: skid-mark wall stains, cigarette-burned comforters, and more mosquitoes than I’ve ever seen in a natural environment. We decided to check out a second room. Room#2 was slightly cleaner, but the clouds of smoke hovering above the beds were less than appetizing. We entered Room #3 to find it was already occupied—by a cockroach. Shit. Choosing between which insect with whom I would sleep is not a dilemma I thought I’d ever face. But, it was late and we were tired, so we rationalized: a roach in one, a roach in all. So we climbed into bed, praying for no bedbugs, and turned off the lights. Two seconds later, Hila turned the lights back on. Bad move: roaches scattered across the floor like shy kids on the dance floor.

After a relatively sleepless night, we woke up and explored the town. Jian Shui’s a neat little city, composed mostly of alleyways, shops, and tiny restaurants. Most of these places have only a table or two; eating in one is like sitting in someone’s kitchen while they prepare the food a few feet away. The food is always fresh, usually from the market just a few hours prior, and usually quite tasty: rice with stir-fried eggs, tomatoes, or vegetables with plenty of la jiao, a searing spice I dump on everything. The specialty in Jian Shui is cho dofu, or literally, “stinky tofu.” The place reeks of the stuff; I never knew beans could smell so bad. ‘Course, most dishes apparently arrive with a side of bacteria, which now have taken up residence inside my GI tract. I’m pretty sure a small Chinese dragon has been chilling in my gut for a few weeks now. Everyone here’s some stage of sick though, so you learn to get over it and keep on movin’.
One bus, one van, and one taxi ride later, we made it to the rice terraces in Yuanyang. Truly, these mountains and villages and people are indescribable. The terraces are over 2000 years old, and in many ways it seems as though not much has changed. The villages that pepper the mountainside are home to several of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities. The women wear these brightly colored headdresses and carry woven baskets full of fruits and vegetables as they trek over the mountains to the market. Food is so central to life here: harvesting it, finding it, eating it. Pigs, cows, and roosters roam everywhere; they are slaughtered and cooked right on the cobblestone streets. The couple whose home we stayed in cooked for us each day—vegetarian, per request. Never have simple greens and rice tasted so delicious.

We encountered one couple on the top of the mountain on their way home to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. The man was carrying a live hen upside down in one hand; the woman had a giant basket full of leechy fruit and other goods strapped to her back. The irony of this situation is that we were all dressed to hike: backpacks, boots, snacks. The woman? She was carrying an oversized bedazzled handbag and was wearing heels. High heels on a mountain! Never again will I complain about uncomfortable footwear, that’s for sure. Later, we were treated to an impromptu concert on a cliff when a group of men, also returning home, stopped to play their recorders for us. There’s truly nothing like the sound of music with villagers and cows and roosters on a cliff overlooking ancient farmland.

We had great weather during the day, but the nights were chilly and rainy. Even so, I hiked alone to the overlook one evening to watch the fog reach its cold grey fingers down the mountains. Never have I seen something so haunting and beautiful. The next morning, we got up before the sun to watch it rise over the paddies. With the wind rippling through the rice and the clouds swirling around us, we watched in silence as the sun rose and crested over the peaks. Breathtaking.

So yes, I slept on dirty cots with Mickey Mouse comforters and cigarette burns. I shared a room with a small army of cockroaches. I got violently ill while standing inside a cloud. I took more than one shower literally standing on top of the toilet. But it was worth it. Incredibly worth it.

Kind of pretty, I suppose...

Might have had a lil' Sound of Music moment at the top....

The world's cutest kid....until you notice HE'S GOT A GUN! 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

runnin' down the road, tryin' to loosen my load

I’ve started running again. Well, by running, I mean a pathetic combination of running and walking, or as I used to call it when I’d go with my dad- slogging (slow jogging) (sorry Dad!). I think it’d be fair to say that most Chinese grandmothers could outrun me at this point. That is, if Chinese people ran. So far I haven’t seen anyone exercising outside-and usually, the hordes that are walking are moving at a snail’s pace…which means I look even more out of place with my blonde ponytail and glasses as I bound through the streets.

Running in Kunming is like an obstacle course. I don’t use an iPod for fear of certain death from motorbike, bicycle-and-cart, stray dog, stray child, or one of a million other moving targets flooding the sidewalks. The worst would be running into one of the human toilets: parents forming a makeshift potty with their arms as their toddler pees on the street (made all the easier by the well-placed hole in the baby’s bottoms).

I try to be attentive, especially in the circles-of-death, or the enormous tunnel-like crossings where motorcycles and bicycles and pedestrians stray through the shadows and chances of survival  hover around 50 percent. Still, I find myself daydreaming, mostly about other routes I used to run. When I need energy, I think of New Haven: nothing motivates like the omnipresent threat of muggers. When I need calm, I remember my Arizona path. Running through the empty streets at twilight, I’d come into view of another sun-lit mountain range every time I turned a corner. Bliss.

Mostly, though, I daydream of Chicago. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I left. Perhaps it’s being in a city again—a real one, with people and sidewalk shops and movement—that makes me miss it.  Perhaps I’ll always be a bit homesick for the city I loved for so long. In any case, I like to imagine myself running a familiar path. Down the tree-lined sidewalks of North Orchard. Left at Fullerton—sprint through the Clark intersection before the stoplight timer ticks out. Jog through the park. Cruise down Lakeshore, occasionally racing the next runner ahead of me, more often cranking up the Sufjan Stephens and zoning out. Hit my stride as the blue of Lake Michigan stretches endlessly to my left and the skyline teases from the right. Spit out a few gnats. Pause for a stretch on North Avenue beach. Ogle the volleyball players. Turn around. Cool down through Boystown, dodging waitresses serving summer brews at Wilde’s and stray Cubs fans fresh from Wrigley Field. Sprint the homestretch back on Orchard. Take a breather on the bench in the garden in front of my apartment. Watch a butterfly or two. Go home.

Home. Where is that now? Where the heart is? Or, more likely, where my internet connection is? In any case, I'm off to explore some rice paddies for a few days, and then maybe on to do some hiking in Dali and Lijiang. Vamos a ver!

Friday, June 11, 2010

it's the end of the rrrrrrrrrrrroad

I did something sorta bad. Well, before I explain, answer me this: is it wrong to go out with someone for purely anthropological reasons? I asked this myself, and then started to worry about the guys who may or may not have gone out with me for similar reasons—then I said naw, no way—I’m far too comfortable in my blonde, Midwestern genericity  (yes, I just made that word up. Whatevs). I’m sure any guy going out with me for less than honorable reasons was in it for other reasons. Probably, my car. Who wouldn’t want a free ride in a beat-up ’99 Cavalier with a hood that’s attached with a string and only a 90% chance of starting?

Anyway, so I went out with this guy I  met a few weeks ago, only because he is Chinese and I thought it would make for an interesting story. And yes, as I was sitting in his car last night, I thought to myself: “Wow, you really are an asshole.” I admit, going out with someone only so I could tell people about it later made me feel guilty. But, like any good former Catholic school girl, I did it anyway.

So he picks me up and takes me to this restaurant by Dianchi Lake for dinner. Because my Chinese is limited to food-and-drink words (the important stuff, obviously), and his English is rusty, our conversation hovered around a pre-school level. Like, less than 5 syllables per sentence. No problem, since I spent my days with Chinese 5 year olds (one of whom today looked at me and started singing “Ra ra oh Ga-Ga! I wanna a bad romance”….did he actually think, perhaps, that I am Lady Gaga? Shit, I thought, I really  need to start brushing my hair before work!). So our conversation went something like this:

“Do you have a pet?” (My Suitor)
“Yes, I have a pet. I have a cat. His name is Victor. He is very mean.” (me)
“Do you know they eat cats sometimes in  Guangzhou (southern Chinese city)?” [Insert 10 minute conversation about “special” animals some people eat: mice, snake, cat, dog (only certain breeds, lest you worry), monkey, etc]
“Wow. That is gross! …But maybe it is very tasty depending on how you cook it?”(me, first being judgmental than attempting to appear culturally enlightened)

The convo continues:
“Do you have a sister or brother?” (Suitor)
“Yes, I have a sister. She is in law school. She lives very far away from me…. Do you have any siblings?”

Then I cringe.

WHY DO I ALWAYS ASK THIS?! Per the one-child policy, most people my age (or a decade older as my delightful suitor turned out to be), very few people have siblings unless their parents  1) paid a fine, which sounds cheap by American standards but would probably bankrupt most Chinese 2) are farmers or 3) belong to a minority group (2 and 3 are both permitted to have additional children). Still, it understandably saddens many people and they (like My Suitor), launch into a sad story about how lonely they are, how bad they feel for their parents who are now old and alone and need taken care of, and how they long for a big happy family, Steve-Martin-is-my-dad-in-Cheaper-By-The-Dozen-Style   style (ok I just made that last part up…maybe only my own personal fantasy? whoops).

So after we hashed through this scenario, we finally made it to the restaurant. My Suitor (it sounds so gallant when in caps, right?) was generous enough to order vegetarian to me—for which I was exceedingly grateful , considering that the dishes du jour included larvae and half-hatched eggs. We shared some really excellent mushroom dishes- Yunnan is famous for them, and a lot of silence. This will come to a shock to anyone who knows me, because normally I will babble on about just about anything to fill a void in conversation, but I’ve gotten really comfortable with silence here. I feel no need to talk. I just eat or daydream in peace. It’s quite nice, actually, not hearing myself chatter all the time.  Makes me wonder—how many people feel the same way?!  Don’t answer that.

After dinner, My Suitor and I took a pleasant evening stroll around Dianchi Lake, a body of water nestled up against an impressive mountain range (which, as I learned, is named “Sleeping Beauty.” You know you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a pollution-laced sunset with a dude who’s pointing out the “breasts” on a mountain in broken English).  Honestly, Dianchi Lake is far the most disgusting, vile water I’ve ever seen. It’s tragic, really: it would be so beautiful but it’s literally coated with a layer of green slime. I kept waiting for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—or frogs or snakes  or fish- to crawl out of the oily liquid and kill us all.  I don’t know why everyone was so impressed by this Jesus character—if you’ve ever visited Dianchi you know that just about anyone could walk on the water. If you want instant cancer, that is.

 Anyway, we continued our stroll, and My Suitor tried to convince me to move to China permanently (because near-engagement is normal  after 2/3 of a date). To sweeten the deal, he serenaded me. First with a little Chinese love song about “Sweaty Mice.” I’m think he actually meant “sweet mice,” but I’m not really sure how that’s better.

But then came the clincher. My Suitor told me that he also likes English music.

“Like what?” I asked,   painfully unaware of the performance about to ensue.
“You know. Boys II Men.” He replied.

….and then proceeded to launch into a full-blown version of “So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” We’re talking top-of-the lungs falsetto. I was stunned
“You know, you’re right. It really is hard to say goodbye to yesterday,” I told him, clapping enthusiastically.

But, sadly, not hard to say good-bye to him. I mean, if I’m gonna go out with a Chinese guy I might as well hold out for one who can sing me N’Sync…right?  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

dontcha know that i'm toxic?

Last weekend was an interesting experience: my first time participating in the time-honored tradition of KTV…or as it’s known in the States, karaoke. Although both KTV and karaoke begin with k and often involve copious amounts of cheap booze, the similarity ends there. Invited by my roommate’s teacher, we taxied through several deserted neighborhoods until suddenly we were confronted by this garish, neon-lit building. Once inside, the guards promptly shuffled us off to a lounge area to wait. Of course, being the oblivious tourist that I am, I was fiddling with my camera until my roommates implored me to put it away—fast. I turned around in time to see about half a dozen women in barely-there bedazzled dresses and pancake makeup parading through the halls. Prostitutes? This was definitely going to be a good night.

A few minutes later, Sally’s teacher led us to a private room. KTV, as it turns out, is actually a fancy event here- far from the tequila-fueled shit-show that is Gypscy (or any other student bar in America) on Friday nights. The room was lined with plush couches with people reclining lazily, sipping wine and eating fruit.  A huge flatscreen on the wall played Chinese music videos; a jukebox in the corner offered a variety of selections ranging from cheesy love songs to children’s dance videos. One by one, people would grab the microphone and loudly belt out whatever tune they’d picked. Usually the songs were slow and melodramatic—my favorites were the duets sung by couples who would gaze into each others’ eyes as the others waltzed around the room. It really killed me: these people, so earnest, singing their hearts out, and not a single one of them seemed to give a damn that they were heinously off key.

Towards the end of the night, my other roommate’s boyfriend, Ricardo, decided it would be a good idea for us to pay homage to that goddess of American pop culture, Brittney Spears. Typically, I don’t even broach the idea of karaoke unless I’m well under the influence. As I’ve learned, however, Chinese red wine --the only beverage of choice in this fine establishment—tastes like a rancid Capri Sun and is the fastest way to end up in the fetal position.

 So, completely sober, we got up there and belted out a rendition of “Toxic” that was…less than intoxicating. Actually, it sounded eerily similar to Alvin and the Chipmunks--if said chipmunks had their little paws rammed into an electric socket. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

laowai got back

It's been a rainy few days in Kunming. The sky and the city are grey, with only the bright turquoise of the taxis and the rainbow-colored plastic ponchos of the bikers disrupting the monotony. My favorite are thepanchos, usually in a neon pink or yellow, with two holes cut out for the heads dual-riders. Hilarious, cute, and functional- who can go wrong with that?

Today was also my first day teaching English in the kindergarten. The first class, one of the youngest levels (3-year olds), was nothing short of adorable. Amazing how quickly these kids absorb English! I taught them the words for “sick” and “cold,” which they picked up in mere minutes. This was ironic on several levels: one, because each child undergoes a brief (less than 15 second) medical exam before entering the school. I’m not sure how effective this can be, although apparently enough children became ill in one of my classes that I had to drop the whole class from my study, destroying any attempt at randomization.  So much for the scientific method! Second, I had to chuckle as an entire classroom full of three year olds stared at me and chanted “cold! cold! cold!”…let’s put it this way: it wouldn’t be the first (or last) time I’ve been told I’ve been cold. Perhaps I should have taught them the more suitable term, “ice queen,” instead? Or maybe just “Catholic” would be more fitting…so many synonyms, so little time.

The second classroom, consisting of 4-5 year olds, was a bit more…interesting. As the other teacher prepared for the class, one boisterous little boy started hitting me. I have no idea why, but to stop the onslaught I gave him my hand as a high-five. He started hitting that too, and then a mob of screaming boys and girls descended on me. I was a little confused in the blur of arms and legs, but I’m pretty sure one of the little boys was audacious enough to feel me up! I swatted him away only to have my ass grabbed by an even more daring little boy about two seconds later. This little daredevil just looked me in the eyes and laughed as Igently but firmly removed his hands from my rump. Who are these children?! All I can figure is they were getting some kind of major kick out of having a lao shi (teacher) with junk in the trunk. In any case, I had no idea a year ago, when I was quitting my tidy little career in hospital administration that I was heading for what seems to be a lifetime of weighing people’s leftover food…and apparently, getting groped by Chinese pre-schoolers! 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

a shrine to buddhism...and also, consumerism

“Waiting with patience means actively accepting the current circumstances and giving up the illusion that you can control the world. Actually, patience is a practice. The best way to cultivate it is to remind yourself constantly that every moment is the only place your life is occurring. The point is to train yourself to live completely in the present, in peace, even if you’re sitting in the middle of a traffic jam.”
[Geoffrey Arnold, Buddhist monk]

This quotation, which has adorned my notebooks and walls and now my desk in China, is my omnipresent reminder to live in the present. Not easy for me, but I’m getting there. At the very least, I’ve got the “remind yourself constantly” part down cold—it’s just actual peacefulness part that still eludes me.

On that note, my roommate and I set off the other day to Yuantong Temple, a Buddhist temple in Kunming which is roughly 1,200 years old. We entered the temple through a path of cypress trees and a sign welcoming you, in Chinese, to the “yuantong wonderland.” An early morning fog hung over the gardens and ponds, as if you could inhale the palpable peacefulness or feel its coolness upon your skin. The temples themselves were ornate, overflowing with colorful cushions and banners and flowers. And the Buddha(s?): these enormous gold statues shining from within. Silently, and one by one, worshippers would come forward to kneel and say a brief prayer. I felt much like an intruder, with my fast-talking and photo-taking and inability to ascend stairs without falling. But I’ve been a proponent of Buddhism, however much a novice, for a little over a year now, and this was my first visit to a real place of practice.  The grounds truly emanated this sense of calm; I wanted to lie down in the shallow, sunny water with one of the hundreds of turtles and snooze for awhile, or maybe more.  

 But, being an avid practitioner of a different form of religion—namely, capitalism—my roommate and I eventually left and met some other friends at the Kunming second-hand market.  The second-hand market is, quite frankly, like Goodwill done Chinese style: mountains upon mountains of cheap clothes, heaps of used undergarments (uh, gross!), racks of furs and shoes and dresses, all of it radiating some sort of synthetic stench. Even so, we had fun combing through the various goods and haggling with the vendors….and by haggling, I mean making sad-puppy dog eyes and asking “Duō shǎo qián?” (how much?) over and over until they lowered the price. [Sidenote: my Chinese is so terrible that sometimes I find it amusing to speak with a different accent--usually some sort of British/Scottish/drunken-slur-sounding hybrid. Somehow this is less embarrassing? And why I find myself wiggling my eyebrows excessively when attempting to order food or drinks from kindly waitresses, I do not know. Apparently I’m well on my way to becoming some sort of faux alcoholic British/Chinese womanizer?…]  I ended up with four cardigans (I’m in grad school in New England, cut me a break!) and a funky 70-ish rainbow-stripe dress that I may never wear but was fun to buy. Exhausted from our day, we headed back to the flat, where we were confronted with more strenuous decision making: to watch Precious or The Blindside…or, ok, ok, I’ll admit it:  maybe just more bootleg copies of Ugly Betty. Tough life. 

sidenote: i can't post pictures on this blog b/c the internet is far too slow. if you want to see pics, check out my album on facebook called "china y'all"...and if we're not friends already, add me!