Monday, November 27, 2006

China 2006

In 2001 I spent about half a year in China, most of it in Mudan Jiang, a smallish city in the north- eastern part of the country, teaching English and falling in love with a number of new found friends. For some time now, Gordon* and I have been trying to plan a trip to return and visit both the motherland and these friends. Although scheduling, money situations, health conditions, etc. never seemed to be right, we finally just committed to a trip for this past October.

To be honest, I really wasn't nearly as excited about it as everyone assumed I was, or as much as I felt I should be. I have become rather obsessed with my business in the last year or two, and it was really hard to leave it for 2 plus weeks, especially since I was already weeks behind in my work; I'm maybe the slightest bit clingy and I really don't like being sans Shawn for so long; plane tickets and traveling are expensive; my Chinese language had regressed some; etc. etc. Even after arriving I was still not so excited for the first day or two. But as soon as I saw my old "family", it was all immediately worth it. I had a fabulous trip and was so grateful that I had decided to do it. The following entries chronicle these 16 days. I posted them backwards so they could be read in chronological order.

*Gordon, known by several names for some reason but always to me as Gordon, had already been in China for about 6 weeks when I arrived in 2001. We immediately became very close friends living, working, and eating in sync for that time of our lives.

Day One: Getting there

Gordon and I left San Francisco late Sunday night. I was pretty sad after saying goodbye to Shawn so she tried to cheer me up by "exercising" on the dirtiest workout machine I've ever seen, really- it was even more crude than Jared and Karen's from the Crush Party. And it was just out in one of the airport stores for anyone to try- in public!
So in addition to knowing how to seriously work this machine, Gordon is great for other reasons as well. Next being the fact that she totally hooked me up with some Ambien. I was a bit nervous; I usually don't even like to take Asprin, but I was sad, grouchy and tired and figured what-the-heck. Anyway, I'm totally converted. I swear the plane ride took like an hour. I think we kinda woke up to eat one meal at one point but I really don't remember much else. We were sitting in the middle and isle seats and there was a larger man who was sitting in the window seat and when we finally woke up right before arriving this man was telling us how he tried several times to wake us up so he could get out to go to the bathroom and finally gave up and climbed over both of us- and we apparently didn't even stir. I wish I had a picture of that but this will have to do.

Day Two: Arriving

We arrived in Beijing to find that Gordon's bag unfortunately did not arrive with us. But fortunately B12815 (All throughout China in places of business people wear what appear to be nametags but are really number tags) had a really sure-fire system for finding it.

Which one does your bag look like?

Gordon has this super nice friend Vanessa who is studying at Qin Hua University in Beijing right now and was great enough to meet us at the airport, and hang out with us for half the day until we left to go to our first destination.
We rode the subway over to do some shopping but the real highlight of the trip was recognizing that I was truly in China again as I saw the first baby bum and balls hanging out.

So it is very rare to see a baby in China wearing protection over his/her privates. All the clothes are just made with an open crotch area. It might seem strange at first but it really speeds along the potty training process since they start learning from the time they are a few months old, and the environmental benefits are priceless. I'm sure it's a messy learning process, and maybe a bit cold, but it seems to work for a fifth of the world's population. I'm thinking it's the way to go.

We didn't have much of a set itenery for our trip- just basically that we'd make our way north for a few days until we got to Mudan Jiang, hang out there, and then with some of those friends we would head back southish. So that afternoon we took an 8 hour train ride to Shenyang.
I think I honestly hate arriving anywhere by train in China. There are always tons of Huairens (bad people) there waiting to exploit vulnerable people arriving in a new city, tired and disoriented. So we always make sure to ignore people at train stations, and try to have at least our first destination planned in advance so we don't look quite as lost getting off the train. The challenging part is that we kindof stick out like a sore thumb everywhere we go. They are there to prey on people who are out of their element and seeing as how most of the places we visited aren't accustomed to having foreigners I think we appear to these huai people to be the most vulnerable, so they tend to fight for our attention.
"where do you want to go"?
"Get in my car".
"I can take you to a hotel".
"where are you going"?
"Where are you going"?
"Wanna go to Beijing"?
So we had looked online for a hotel close to the train station since we knew we'd be arriving late at night and didn't want to be lost in a city we were completely unfamiliar with. While still within the train platform area, before going to the otherside of the gates where lay all the huairens in waiting, we asked one of the workers which way it was to a particular street so that we wouldn't have to ask one of the vultures on the other side of the fence, but this helpful person completely blew our cover by yelling to a group of taxi driver/criminals on the other side of the gates, "these girls want to go to such and such street- do you know where it is"?.
Nice! So anyway, so much for that plan. We made our way through the station trying to figure out which way to go while trying to appear to the small crowd around us that we actually knew exactly where we were going, and Gordon, probably flustered and out of Chinese pratcice, tries to yell at everyone that we are leaving, but she actually told them that we were sitting, over and over again. "Leave us alone. We're sitting right now"!!!
So we made it to the hotel which really looked quite luxurious in the advertisements. But in reality looked like this:
Note the squished mosquito on our bathroom wall that the maid had probably been kind enough to kill for us, just not clean up. And the roll of toilet paer that was gone after 7 squares, and that room light that was a lot more like a night light.

Day Three: First day in Shenyang

We took a bus to Beiling Park which was quite lovely in it's pseudo-deserted state. It was starting to get rather cold in the area so most of the park attractions were either closed or empty, but we were admiring this boat when somebody asked us if we wanted to go for a ride.

It took us a while to agree on a price, but finally we agreed on a particular boat and that a particular man would row it for us so we could relax. But then they took $20 extra than agreed upon and said it was a deposit and when we returned they would give us that $20 back. This would make perfect sense if we were taking the boat out by ourselves but since we had one of their rowers taking us, the only thing we could figure was that it was a deposit on the man.

I'm not sure what they thought we were going to do with him but I do feel bad that they only thought his safe return was worth $20 RMB.

Us on the lake.

After the boat ride we were heading toward the tomb entrance which was the real reason for being here, but on the way we saw an artist and decided to have our portraits done. I swear up to this point I'd seen 4 people in all of the entire very large park but as soon as the foreigners sat down to have their picture done, there was like twice that many people just around us, including this lady disguised as a present.

Now, whenever in China, Gordon and I get told quite often that we look like sisters. Given the fact that actually we don't (she is one of those super white-skinned redheads and I am one of those olive-toned with crap brown-colored heads) I think I can safely say that to those without a lot of exposure "all round eyes look the same". And this experience serves as further confirmation.
So Gordon was drawn first, all the while with onlookers commenting on how similar it was, and me agreeing with them all in Chinese and telling Gordon in English that it looks nothing like her at all and she is going to get the biggest kick out of it. When the artist was done with Gordon she struggled to keep from peeing her pants after seeing her representation. It was a bit of an awkward moment as she was trying so hard not to laugh. So I'll let you guess first who is who:

When we showed it to Shawn after returning home he actually guessed wrong. But I am on the right and Gordon on the left. I actually think it looks a little bit like me (except for my upper lip totally isn't that big) but it really looks nothing in the world like Gordon.

So on to the tomb. . .actually now that I think about it, it wasn't that exciting. Let's skip over that. So we finally got some really late lunch at this place where some slightly inebriated, more-than-slightly annoying guy kept trying to talk to us by saying "Hello" over and over again. Gordon finally told him we were Russian (then later blew our cover by telling him he was correct in pointing to the tomato and saying really loudly, "Tomato" in English).
So we went over to Shenyang's "walking street" where we each scored ourselves a new pair of glasses using the latest technology, checked out the night market where we finally started to catch on that it was not just one or two girls who had adopted the Tina Turner hairstyle, but that it was actually everywhere.

We also realized just how much these people love McDonalds and KFC. You can't see it from my poorly taken picture here, but not only are there 2 McDs within a block of each other, there are also two KFCs equally as close. KFC is definitely the winner in most towns though, from what I can tell. In some of the bigger cities like Beijing there were more of those on a block than you might find Starbucks on a block in downtown SF. So sad.

And speaking of depressing American influences, I also noticed in Beijing that the Wal Dynasty has begun. Yep, they now have a WalMart. The night ended by going to the scariest internet bar I have ever been to.

Day Four: More of Shenyang and Goodbye to Shenyang

Update on Gordon's bag: It's apparently still in LA, which is where it was 2 days ago when we asked them to send it to us in Shenyang. Nobody seemed to be able to tell us why it hadn't yet been sent. Gordon suggested that they just send it to her home in Salt Lake out of fear that she'd never see it again if she kept trying to get it sent to her but the lady on the phone said Beijing would be easier. Gordon pointed out that actually Salt Lake was a couple 1000 miles closer to it's current location and within the same country, but the helpful lady insisted it would be easier to send it to China.

After taking the scariest taxi ride ever we made it to the Shenyang Zhiwu Yuan, or the Shenyang Botanical Gardens, which our guidebook explained as an intriguing, quaint, hell-of -a-time little spot. Our first clue that this was not the case should have been the fact that the name had been changed last year to The 2006 International Horticulture Exposition. (I'm not sure what that means, but I totally hope they win) So anyway, we went. Turns out it's now like an amusement park based on . . . plants. Not an activity I would have chosen had I been fully informed but still slightly entertaining.

At first I thought we'd been lucky enough to go on the same day as the local army, but really that's just a group of college kids on a field trip, right before they got in a big line to have their picture taken with us. Really. We were held up here for about 15 mins. But I didn't mind at all because you never know who might be an angel among us. . . .

So, we saw. . .
preying mantises:

mini temples

unidentifiable stuff

the tree of life

a marching band that actually only sat

cool architecture and pretty colors

and I probably shouldn't be posting pictures of such things on the internet, but really some things they do there just aren't right.

and some of the best Chinglish signs ever:

So after we got our fill of plants, passed on the International Food Court's Italian booth offering Squid and octopus pizza, took note of a few more awesome new hairstyles (this is totally gonna be the in thing in the states in like 6 months),

We then had time for a nice massage before getting on the train that night for a 13 hour ride to Mudan Jiang.
That massage came at a good time since we got stuck with the top (3rd high) bunks which don't leave anyone over 4 and a half feet with enough room to sit up straight.

I got especially lucky with this particular bunk because the speaker used to announce arrivals, train rules, food for sale, play instrmuntal versions of "yesterday", and toothpaste commercials for our section of about 75 people was placed about 18 inches from my pillow!!

Day Five: Arriving back "home"

The next morning we got up early enough to score ourselves the window seats for a few hours and enjoyed sitting upright for a while.

We also thought, seeing as how we would soon be seeing old friends, this would be a good time to brush up on some romantic phrases, found in the "social" chapter of my phrasebook.

Outside the gates of the train station, this is the first time I saw Wang Yan in almost 5 years.

This isn't a very good picture but I was so happy to see her face at this moment it feels like a good place to say a few words about her. Wang Yan is honestly one of the most amazing women I have ever met. She is so many things. . . . In a city that is pretty much completely unfamiliar with foreigners, she had some come live in her house with her, without having had any past experience with any. In a world that still makes it so much more difficult for women to succeed, she has now opened 7 schools in two different provinces. In a place where people with disabilities are rarely even seen for a variety of political and cultural reasons, she is practically famous in her city. Wang Yan has a disability that doesn't let her walk like most people walk and yet she has been more places than most of her peers. I am really constantly amazed by her progressive way of thinking and her ability to be so different from what her surroundings tell her she should be. She is my dear dear friend.

So after some hugs and tears we went back home and immediately, of course, ate a huge meal with the fam. (By way of introduction. The family is Wang Yan, then her husband, the ape, Mr. Xue, then her mother Lao Lao which means Grandmother, but the literal translation is "Old Old" and then her daughter Xue Cheng, but we call her Pang Pang, which translates to "Fat Fat"). I think that while in China the focus of my life changes to food. It is everywhere. There is so much of it. It is wonderful and it is terrible. But it's an experience each and every time. My guidebook also names food as one of the main reasons to come to China. While I know that food is a huge part of any country's culture and any one person's life, it's just different here. I will work on a better way to explain that. . .

Anyway, Hao Li Jun and Qiao Bing Na and Er Yi (Wang Yan's sister in the back there) also came over to welcome us.

Right after our meal we moved on to another long lost love- the public showers! oh, how I'd missed those. We went with Zhao Bing and got scrubbed, and a massage while in a milk bath, or "milked" as Wang Yan likes to say, just like the old days. Sorry, no pictures available. But if you're a good enough friend I might be willing to scrub you someday. It's an experience no one should have to die without having had.

Update on Gordon's bag: Here she's on the phone with them again and they have good news this time: They found it! (in L.A.) . . . well that would be good news if we'd known it was LOST. We're so confused by this point. So Wang Yan tells them to send it to Mudan Jiang. . . .

So after our shower we went over to New Concept English School where we used to teach. Most of the teachers are different now but it was fun to see the school again and even more fun to see that it turns out we're kinda like celebrities.

These are big laminated posterish type of advertisement things that hang in several of the schools. Some of them are just pictures of us with captions about us being the first foreigners to come teach at the school. Then others are actually enlarged versions of newspaper articles that were written about us when we were there. Gordon was in the paper 3 times and I was in it twice. The ones here show a reproduced article from a time we organized a little garbage clean up with our students and talked to them about not littering. The other is about how we would go to the local orphanage once a week and play with the kids and hold the babies.

My bio here reads:

"Robyn as the second foreigh from America teacher to come our school The warm sunshine in California gave her a kind and easy-going heart She was also welcomed by the students because of her beautiful speaking veice and sunned American English".
If I was single I'd totally use this for my personals ad.

Best of all though is the fact that we're actually even more famous than you think.

During the end of our stay there in 2001 we were actually in a Billboard advertisement- I mean like huge, full-on, side of the highway Billboard. So how in the world do I have a claim to fame like this and not have a picture of it?! I know- completely lame. But it only went up a few days before we left last time and Wang Yan hired a professional photographer to take a picture of all the teachers in front of it and I thought I would get a copy of that but somehow never did. Anyway, this is a picture of the picture but it completely cut off most of the advertisement. We're standing in front of it so you can kinda get an idea for just how big it is.

So that afternoon Gordon finally agreed that she should probably get some new underwear since it didn't look like her bag would be arriving in the next few days. Luckily this meant vendor after vendor showing us their panties by patting every thing on their display table saying "look" with each pat., usually followed by pulling the crotch of the underwear in opposite directions and explaining what good quality they were. More interesting though was more great Chinglish.

Sometimes things aren't so much Chinglish as much as they are just inappropriate English, at least for where it's found. For example these underwear here say "Fresh and Sweet".

And then there's these. . .

And next to the Fatty underwear is that black pair which reads "Beauty Bean" across the waist.

So after underwear shopping with Zhao Bing we went over to her parents' restaurant. Her parents own a dumpling place and were so nice to make us a whole bunch of dumplings to take home for dinner.

When these pictures were taken I was so happy. It was my first night back in Mudan Jiang; I was with Zhao Bing and Gordon with the sweet smell of dumplings (which are on my top-five list of favorite foods) all around us, and somebody who barely knew me was in the other room making them for me. Sometimes I wonder why I love China so much, which is a valid question since it's smelly, dirty, loud and million other undesirable things. But it is moments like these that just mean so much to me. I know this is a huge generalization but from my experience, the people are so selfless. . . . and in so many ways. Situations like this honestly
happen everyday there- where friends of friends, or even friends of friends of friends, or even strangers go so far out of their way to help. Really, there are so many people there who will literally drop whatever they were doing at the opportunity to give, or if a friend suggests the need of a favor.

I'm not sure I'm describing it right but I just don't think I've seen this same willingness to be of help, service, or use in any other place I've ever been. And just being in the middle of all of that again gave me a moment of overwhelming happiness.

So back at home we pulled out the dumplings- they are truly a little piece of heaven. Not included in that heaven though is Gordon's metal mouth after eating dumplings.

Here Pang Pang finally got home from school (they stay there until like 7pm) and we got to see her for the first time in five years. She was sooo grown up (she was 12 when we left five years ago and now she's getting ready to go to college) and we were incredibly happy to see her. I would love for her to come to school in America and live with me! (cute Lao Lao in the background there, and Gordon cleaning out her braces in preparation for the picture. . . her timing is often off as you can see).

And my closing picture for the day is quite possibly one of my all-time favorites. It is a perfect representation of Lao Lao's endless quest to feed us. Here, at the end of this day when I have been fed 3 huge meals, completely stuffed myself at everyone; I have already said my "goodnights" for the evening, brushed my teeth, changed my clothes, and am literally in bed, and Lao Lao comes in to the room to bring me some oranges. . . . . She was worried I might still be hungry so she placed a handful of oranges just right snuggly there with me on the bed and then went to bed. . . again. Gordon came in from the bathroom and found me sleeping with them.