Tuesday, December 7, 2010

oh, the sights that you'll see

If I was really impressive, I'd write this post in the style of Dr. Seuss, as a play on his graduation-gift-worthy "Oh, the Places You'll Go." But I'm either not that good or simply not willing to put the time into it. Not quite sure which.

I woke up this morning when it was still dark and early. That's one of the unfortunate aspects of winter here in Shenyang -- the sun no longer rises at 4:30 a.m. Which, most people might think that's a good thing. But I'm honestly a big fan of the sun coming up really early. Makes it much easier to get up early.

Walking to work this morning, I was glad I had chosen to walk and not try to take a bus -- since I was passing most of the buses along the way. The air was chilly, of course, but it's been beautiful bright sunny days for almost a week now, which means that the sidewalks are completely clean of ice (except for the one spot where the store owners wash their sidewalk daily with water, but thankfully I know to be careful in that spot by now). I wouldn't say the sidewalks are completely clean... but at least clean of ice. So I had a lovely, brisk walk to work.

You know work is going to be interesting when the morning conversation starts, "I have a question. On my way in this morning I saw traffic police with big jugs of water and toilet brushes." Indeed.

After our meeting at work, I started on my list of errands around the city. Of course, the frugal side of me thinks that paying for a gym membership and taxis all over town are a waste when walking all over town eliminates both expenses and gets the same results. As a result, my errands tend to take a while. But just think of all the interesting things I would never see or the random things I would never experience if I was always sitting in taxis when en route.

Take, for example, just today's experiences:

I saw a Buddhist monk riding in a taxi. Somehow that just struck me as funny.

I saw a 12 year old boy relieving himself in a very public setting -- on a Charlie Brown style tree decorating the sidewalk along a major road. I'm sure I didn't need to know quite that much about 12 year old male anatomy, and I'm not sure the rest of the city did either.

Not unusually, I had a random Chinese girl greet me on the street... what was unusual, though, was that she greeted me in Spanish.

I walked through Shenyang's version of "Alice in Wonderland" -- where the full-grown trees are painted white and the newly planted ones are wrapped up like presents with red, white, & blue stripes. How trees ever survived winter before us humans started protecting them, I'm not sure.

I had my newest favorite street-food lunch: a hot, steamy, freshly roasted sweet potato! To tear into one of those and let the steam heat you up as you walk down the street in below freezing temperatures is a delight beyond belief. Seriously. If you're ever in China in the winter, try it.

I also had my other favorite: a tea egg. Literally, eggs are hard-boiled in a flavored, salty tea (black tea leaves, star anise, etc), giving the eggs a fun look and an even better taste.

I almost certainly made somebody's day when I purchased 100 Christmas cards for 7.5 mao each. Given that the lady who bought a thousand cards at the same place yesterday paid only 4 mao each, I know I didn't get the best deal. But somehow I couldn't be upset when she cut her own price from what she quoted me yesterday, I only ended up spending half of what I was told I could spend for this purchase, and 7.5 mao is a grant total of 11 cents each. So merry Christmas, lady in stall 51!

I stopped by a random guy with a cart attached to his bike, filled with mugs, bowls, and plates of various sizes, shapes, & colors. I picked out two small condiment dishes that I will use for my coins and my paper clips. And for 5 kuai (about 80 cents), I have plenty of coins left over to put in the dish.

Then I made a turn. I had to go back to a store today that I had dropped something off at yesterday, but I was tired of walking down the one same road every time I go out that direction. So I turned down one street further south, just for the sake of diversity. Apparently I should diversify more often! As I was walking down the road, knowing exactly where I was yet never having walked that way before, I came upon a famous Shenyang site that I've never actually found before! The "Marshal Mansion" or the old residence of Zhang Xueliang. Who is Zhang Xueliang, you ask? Good question. I had to look it up too, because when I tried to chat with the old women standing by his statue in the outer courtyard of his mansion in order to find out (or rather, remember from all those years of Chinese history I took once upon a time where I know his name came up), they couldn't understand my (non-Dongbei dialect) Chinese. Oh well. To be fair, I had a hard time understanding them, too. But when I stood and looked at the statue, I was struck by what this gentleman must have seen in his lifetime in China -- spanning from 1901 to 2001. If you know anything about China's history, you know those hundred years encompassed a ton! Well, Zhang Xueliang himself was a leader of this northeastern part of China (once known as Manchuria) until the Japanese took it over in 1931, and he had a hand in creating the united front between the Communists and the Nationalists (effectively postponing the Chinese civil war) to fight against the Japanese during China's experience of what became WWII. 

So after that brief step into history, I completed my errands and headed for home. By this point in time, of course, I was carrying two armloads of stuff with me, and I was definitely glad to drop it all as soon as I had managed to climb those five flights of stairs and get my key into the door. Phew, all of that and it's only 2:30!

Perhaps when I go back out this evening I'll figure out what those traffic police were doing with the toilet brushes. Then again, perhaps I don't really want to know.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


What's the best way to celebrate an American holiday in a country that doesn't recognize it? I remember Thanksgiving being one of the hardest days of my time in China two years ago. In fact, Thanksgiving was much harder than Christmas, because all my foreign friends wanted to celebrate Christmas and only the very very small handful of us Americans even knew that the third Thursday of November was anything special. So this year I just wasn't going to make anything of it.

As expected, my Thanksgiving was indeed turkey-less, mashed potatoes-less, cranberry sauce-less, even (biologically speaking) family-less. But it certainly wasn't friend-less.

My American friend A and I ended up spending the entire day together as a holiday baking day. And let me just say, there is nothing quite like holiday baking done in a country that has just recently been introduced to the oven! In fact, our morning started by going out and buying an oven. And by oven, I certainly don't mean one of those convenient devices built into your kitchen that becomes a temporary home for your 20lb turkey during the hours leading up to your Thanksgiving feast. I'm not sure a 5lb turkey would fit in the kind of oven we have to work with. Perhaps that's why we ditched the turkey idea.

Perhaps also because turkeys don't exist in China and are therefore outrageously expensive to purchase. Yeah, that could be it, too.

So we went and bought an oven. We got quite a few stares as we carried this (surprisingly not-that-big) box down the street from the electric market back to my friend's apartment, but I can never quite tell if the stares are because we're carrying an oven down the street or because we're white. Could be either. I would go on to tell you now about the difficulty of getting this new oven up the multiple flights of stairs in my friend's elevator-less apartment building, but that would be a lie. The oven is so ridiculously light, it took basically no additional effort beyond that of simply climbing the stairs regularly. In fact, it was so easy that we then went to my apartment to carry our oven over to A's apartment for the day. Carrying oven #2 down the street? Definitely more stares.

Despite our early morning (okay, okay, 9 a.m. ... which in a country that is bustling by 5 a.m. every morning is not actually early at all), it was already lunchtime by the time we had purchased all the necessary ingredients and equipment (the oven being utmost among them). Being Thanksgiving Day and all, we certainly needed to eat lunch. Japanese rice bowls from the street vendor it is! Woot! Turns out whoever decided Thanksgiving should be about turkey has never tried our Japanese rice bowl place. It's definitely something to be thankful for.

Then to the baking. No day of baking is ever complete without some sort of mishap in the kitchen, but again, baking in a country that just met the oven is really just asking for trouble. Why does my brown sugar taste like ginger? Is this thing I bought actually a pumpkin or am I making an "unknown vegetable" pie? How do I turn the oven on? Why did the oven turn itself off (in the middle of baking that tray of cookies)? Will this yeast rise? Uh-oh, how do we make the yeast stop rising?!

Somehow, by the end of the day, our endeavors proved worthwhile. Nearly 75 crescent rolls, 100+ speculaas cookies, and 3 pumpkin pies later, the apartment smelled better than ever before and we were pleased! Now hopefully all our non-American, never-experienced-a-real-Thanksgiving-before friends will enjoy the goodies at our Thanksgiving/family dinner on Saturday. We might not have the turkey, stuffing, or cranberry sauce, but we have rolls, cookies, and pumpkin pies. Not bad!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Day in the Life

In the past week, my apartment has slept anywhere from one to seven people on any given night. And that just gives you an idea of the Grand Central Station nature of my apartment.


I took a trip last week to visit some old college classmates in another city, a few hours from here. Tons of fun! It was a refreshing break from the routine and responsibilities of life in Shenyang. As I headed home from the train station upon arriving back in town, however, I knew I needed to be prepared… Eleven p.m. in my apartment could be anything. And I mean that quite literally. Absolutely anything could be going on, from nobody being home to having a houseful, from all sound asleep to excited dancing and screaming, from warm and friendly to tense and argumentative. Anything.


This time it was extra people. Two American girls here for a brief visit. I totally love meeting all the foreigners who trickle in and out of this city, and usually enjoy having the girls stay with us. I just feel bad for them that they get stuck sleeping out in the living room, which I end up traipsing through at completely ungodly hours of Saturday morning as I get ready for work. And our living room floor creaks. A lot.


But a creaking floor isn't the only noise that may keep the girls up tonight or in the morning. Today we have a Chinese lady and her 8 month old baby staying with us as well. The kid is as cute as can be… as long as there's no crying or screaming involved. Which, for an 8 month old, is not often the case.

Chinese kids really are cute, though. Teaching my handful of them today, I was reminded of my old eighth grade Spanish class. My teacher was quite laid back and let us get away with a lot – as long as it involved Spanish. So I remember the studious boys in the class getting really excited about looking up insults in their dictionaries so they could say the craziest or silliest insult to the next person. Not that there was any actual meanness to it. It was just fun.


I'm not sure how much meanness was behind my nine year olds today, but two of the boys were definitely insulting each other and calling each other names (in Chinese) in the way that so many nine year old boys do. Now my Chinese is alright, but when it comes to insults, I'm a bit behind the learning curve. But no problem: we have a rule in our class that we're only supposed to speak English. So I avoided dealing with the actual insulting going on by simply enforcing that they had to speak English only.


And to that, the one boy turned to the other and said in the same insulting tone of voice: "You're a piece of cake."


Yup, pretty sure he doesn't really know what that phrase actually means in English! I definitely cracked a smile at that one. Sometimes it's so hard to be the responsible adult in a situation and not just laugh with everyone else!


So lesson learned? Next time someone is getting on your nerves, just go ahead and say it. "You're such a piece of cake."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

An Ode to Little Guy

Several weeks ago, I came home from a tough day of teaching to my very first pet! "Little Guy," as he became known, was a bright blue, beautiful beta. He was special. Not only because he was honestly a very beautiful fish, nor even simply because he was mine. He was a delight because my roommates cared enough about me, knew I was having a tough day, and just decided to bless me with him. What a delight!

Coming home to a new pet was only the beginning of the adventure, though. Then came learning how to take care of a pet -- in China. Some of you know about my track record with pets in China. For those of you who don't, let's just say it involved a rabbit that wasn't even mine ending up either being dissected at the Medical University or eaten by some students. I'm not sure which. I didn't ask.

But Little Guy was mine, so I needed to learn how to care for him. So off I went to go buy him some food. Turns out, the rabbit was easy: lettuce and carrots from the local vegetable stand. Fish food in the US? Also easy: a bottle of pellets or flakes. Fish food in China? Now this is entertaining.

From what I understood (and granted, my Chinese is limited), I was supposed to go buy Little Guy some food every 5 days or so. A lady on my vegetable market street sells it, so it was easy enough to pick up whenever I bought vegetables. And at only 2 mao for a bag, it wasn't going to break the bank. (Two mao is about 2 or 3 cents.) But here's the entertaining part: what I was buying for Little Guy to eat was actually little live plankton! And every 5 days or so, I was supposed to dump a whole 2 mao worth of these reddish colored squirmy things into Little Guy's bowl, and he should have plenty.

The first time I fed him, I was a little nervous. Sure seemed like a lot of food to give him at once. So Little Guy and I made a deal that he wouldn't eat too much. It was fun to watch him go at those little reddish things, and, as he had agreed, he filled up on them and then stopped. No overeating.

Three days later? Not sure what happened. The little reddish things were still there, still squirming around, still ready to be eaten. But poor Little Guy passed away. Bad water maybe? Too small a bowl? Just sick? Not sure.

But it was fun while it lasted.

This past week, I came home from a similarly difficult day of teaching to a clean room and a little plant! My roommates are amazing. And hopefully I won't kill this one. :)


Thursday, September 30, 2010

dead things

I remember being very concerned when I found out, as a child, that eggs are actually from a chicken and that's how baby chickens develop. Every time I cracked an egg, I feared there would be a chicken inside that was more developed than most and I would be totally grossed out. Relief, then, flooded over me when I later learned that the eggs we commonly eat are actually unfertilized eggs -- so the yolk is not actually a really young baby chicken per se and there is no need to worry about cracking open an egg with a chicken inside.

Or so I thought.

Here in China, my roommates and I usually buy our eggs from the lady on the street corner. She's really sweet and gives us a good deal on the eggs that sit in big bins out on the sidewalk. But one day recently, my roommate was at the big, fancy, foreign-owned "everything" store (like Wal-mart, except that here these kinds of stores are the expensive ones). Since she was there, she decided to just pick up a carton of eggs there for convenience sake, despite the fact that the eggs were probably more than twice as expensive as the ones on the street. No problem, she figured. At least they would be good, since cartoned eggs actually go through inspections in a way the street eggs don't.

Ah, but inspections are guarantees of nothing sometimes.

By the time my roommate got home, she realized that the carton of eggs she had purchased smelled absolutely horrendously. And as soon as she walked in the apartment, I knew it too. It was awful. So we took them in the kitchen and started to do our own inspection. Thankfully, our Chinese roommate soon got home as well and joined us in the effort.

We eventually narrowed down the smell to one individual egg. Nasty. So since our Chinese roommate is our go-to person for anything us "foreigners" are grossed out by here in China, we made her crack it open. Of course, we knew it had gone bad -- that much was obvious. So I expected some nasty red ooze or something like that.

But no.

It was a chicken.

A dead chicken, of course. The smell gave that away.

But a chicken with fuzz and filling the egg completely.

Let me tell you, that is one of the nastiest things I've ever seen. If it hadn't smelled so bad, I might have just been intrigued enough to do some science on the thing. But it reeked. So after more than a few screams at the fact that we had just cracked open an egg with a chicken inside, we quickly disposed of the thing outside our apartment. We get enough bad smells coming from our drains... we didn't need any more from the garbage can.

But the good news, for those of you who can relate to the concerns I had as a child, is that I highly doubt you'll ever just crack open a regular egg and completely unsuspectingly find a chicken inside. Unless your nose has absolutely no sense of smell at all, the smell will certainly give away that there's something weird about the egg.

As if finding a dead chicken in an egg isn't bad enough, the next week I was walking by a trash collecting area, where people from a nearby apartment complex come dispose of their garbage. It disturbed me greatly to see a rat by the garbage. Not that I don't see rats by garbage fairly frequently here, and usually I'm okay with it. Seems relatively natural, and I certainly would rather see rats by garbage areas than in other places. But what disturbed me this time was to see a dead rat by the garbage. Any garbage that is potent enough to kill the rats is pretty disturbing!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Adventures from Home

I love living in China. Every moment is an experience, every activity an adventure. Even the annoying things are entertaining in their own way. You know, things like stepping over piles of smelly garbage to get to my apartment. Annoying… but good. It’s home.

Speaking of home, my apartment is a great example of how the “made in China” jokes that float around the U.S. are equally valid here. One morning our water heater went out. Just stopped heating water. Not the most pleasant thing in the world, but I will say I was thankful the cold showers were just for a few days during the heat of summer… not during the freezing Shenyang winter. (Although I might could have gotten away with not showering if I hadn’t been sweating so much…) The day after it broke, we dutifully called a repair guy. But of course, living in a foreign country is all about maneuvering the miscommunications. In this case, the guy never showed up. Not sure what happened, but I was really bored sitting at home all day, that’s for sure. Day three we finally got a different company to show up and replace the broken piece. We all took extra long showers that night.

The day after the water heater was finally fixed, my roommate ran into the sliding glass door that goes into the kitchen. We never close that door, but we had a guest sleeping in the main room and she was cold so closed the door. Middle of the night run to the bathroom? My poor roommate definitely ran right into the door, and it shattered. Not pleasant. But the entertaining nature of the entire situation increased exponentially as our guest spent not one, but TWO days sitting at home waiting for a repair person to come. And she’s Chinese! I’m starting to doubt anything that comes from a repairman’s mouth, at least when they say they’re going to come.

So by the time issue #3 came around, we took a different approach. This one was totally my fault. Lightswitches in China aren’t quite the same as those in the U.S. It’s more like a button that you have to push up or down. Well, one morning when I went to the bathroom, I apparently pushed a little too hard, and perhaps at the wrong angle… I pushed the lightswitch completely into the wall. Oops. Three days of no light in the bathroom. Entertaining, to say the least. But we learned our lesson… Instead of calling up a repair guy, we grabbed a screwdriver and some other tools and went at it. Impressively, we now have light again. And nobody was electrocuted.

At least, no one was electrocuted fixing the lightswitch. We won’t talk about the lack of safety standards that result in plenty of electrical cords just hanging in the bathroom, sometimes touching the metal windowsill. And I’m not going to bother passing along the multiple stories my roommate just told me today about her experiences with electrical incidences in bathrooms in China.

So we move on. As of today, the apartment is pretty much functioning normally. You know, door handles fall off when you use them, but besides that everything is fine. Good thing, too, since we’re stuck inside today. It started raining about five o’clock this morning, and in every Chinese student’s favorite expression, it is raining cats and dogs. Glad we live on the fifth floor, since we’re flooded in about two steps deep. My roommate and I went down this morning to see how bad it was, and this was from three steps up at the entrance to our building.

I just wish pictures could capture smell, too. That green thing you see out the door is the lid to the garbage bin, which is dug into the ground. Convenient, usually. Not so convenient during a flood, when all that water is now steeped in garbage. Yuck.

Gotta love it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Last week I returned to my favorite mode of transportation: the Chinese train. Any of you who have traveled in China by train will understand what I mean and must certainly have your own stories to share as well. So here are a few entertaining thoughts from my train trip to and from Changchun, China, a wonderful city about 3 hours by regular train and 4 1/2 hours by slow train from where I live.

First, no train trip is complete without the awesome period of waiting at the station beforehand. Perhaps Chinese people don't see the joy in this period of time, but for any of us non-Asian foreigners, this part is always adventuresome. Especially when traveling with a group of 30+ foreigners. So our train out was to leave at 3:48 p.m. Since security is nearly non-existent at Chinese train stations, it's usually safe to arrive at the station about 20-30 minutes before departure... and even then you may have to sit around a while. But we had a big group, and a group not particularly known for its promptness, so we were told to meet at the station at 2 p.m. Fair enough. Thankfully, it was a beautiful (read: hot and muggy, but at least not raining) day, so we could hang around out front of the station to greet everyone as they trickled in. (Impressively, the last one of our group showed up at 3:20... no running to catch the train!) Big group of white and black foreigners standing outside the train station? Definitely the center of everybody's attention. Also, the center of the cell phone cameras' focus. I'm half expecting to some day travel out to a small town or village in the middle of nowhere China and find my picture on people's walls or on advertisements. But we played along, even smiling and posing for a few pictures. And starting up conversations that we may or may not be able to finish because of our limited Chinese ability. Ah, the joy of being a superstar.

The train station experience before the trip home, however, was even more entertaining. People from our group were just trickling out of the hotel and grabbing taxis together to the train station, so I got in a taxi with three others and off we went. We were having a great conversation with the driver as well as sharing with each other about the great things that we had experienced during our time in Changchun. We even got the driver to plug our mp3 player, playing P&W music, into his car's stereo system so we could all listen to it -- including him. Pretty fun! But I started to get a little nervous when we passed right by the train station without even slowing down. Where on earth are we going? Finally, the driver stopped on what seems like a little side street, with no clear indication of where we were or why we were there, except that he said we had arrived. What? Arrived where? There were little convenience stores and restaurants along the street, but definitely not a train station! But he patiently pointed to a little alley on the other side of the street and told us to go in there. Sure enough, there was a little sign that read Train Station Waiting Room and had an arrow pointing in. Turns out our driver knew the back way into the lowest-end waiting room, which was ours since we were taking the slow train home. So not only were we two white girls, an Indian, and an African walking together on the streets in China, about to take a train far below most foreigners' standards, but we were heading to the worst of the waiting rooms and taking the workers' route to get there. Quite an entertaining site we must have made. At least, all the workers taking that route certainly thought so!

Yet the fun of waiting at the station must come to an end when the train is finally about to arrive. Theoretically, the Chinese have the system all figured out and timed exactly to know when they need to open the gates for people to start going out to the platform so they can all get on during the short window of opportunity while the train is stopped. Theoretically. Unfortunately for us, we were nearer the end of the crowd of people going through the gates when we were heading home so by the time we got through, all the security people started blowing their whistles and telling us to hurry up. Also unfortunately, the gate put us out at car #16 and we were sitting in car #3. Of course, you can only get on at the door of your own car. So while we weren't late in arriving at the station, we definitely did have to run to make the train. Amazingly enough, though, we all made it on. And I think by the time we reached our destination, we had all regained our normal breathing patterns, too. :)

On the train ride up to Shenyang, a group of six of us decided to play Uno (the card game). Now the three Americans in this group all knew how to play, although each with slightly different house rules. But we had the great fun and privilege - and challenge! - of teaching the Africans. Perhaps the funniest quote from the train ride up: "Who knew playing Uno cross-culturally could be so hard?"

The trip home had a different feel. One of the Ghanaian guys managed to have his guitar out on the train (which is impressive when so many "no seat" tickets had been sold... meaning people just stand in the aisles the entire way), so we started up a great P&W jam session. I absolutely love the pick-up P&W with the Africans here, but it was definitely a new experience to have that on the train! I'm pretty sure the entire car was standing up and looking at us, trying to figure out why there were so many foreigners on their train, much less why we were singing. But nobody seemed bothered, and in fact we got a lot of smiles and support. Not only were we occupied by giving Him glory, but I think we managed to entertain a lot of other people too!

Ah, trains. I'm already back from my trip to Changchun, but I'm certainly looking forward to the next opportunity to take a train here in China!