Abracadabra

I have not met the Chinese trash man yet. I am not sure if he really exists, or if he has an awesome garbage truck, or a day that he is supposed to come. All I know is – trash magically disappears in this country. Piles start in random places, for no apparent reason. Even on the street, at all times of the day, you see piles of trash that magically appear and disappear.

To test our hypothesis that the trash businesses in China is some sort of magic, C and I added to a random pile of garbage in the hallway of our apartment at 6:30 pm.

Now you see it.

And upon return to the Rainbow Palace at 9 pm ….

Now you don't.

 

I don’t know a trash guy in the US who works on evenings, much less weekends – but in China – it’s like he’s always on call. The real question is after this magic disappearance act – where does all the garbage go? I shudder at what a land fill in China would look like.

One thing the landfill would be free of is diapers.  Most of the kids walk around bare bottome, with carefully crafted outfits that have holes between the legs so children can do their #1/#2 anywhere they please. I’ve seen many a granny holding onto a baby assisting them in squatting in trees and bushes. Perhaps the liberal no diaper policy explains why most the sidewalks in China are tiled.

 

 

 

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Cockroaches in the Kitchen

At night, when the weather cools and it’s just dark enough out that you can’t see the cockroaches crawling around – the grills are fired up and the fridges are stocked with skewers of vegetables, meat, and indistiguishable food products. A man or woman, or a couple of them, stand over a hot grill – pouring spice and oil on food and slinging it back onto tables of anxious diners. By far my favorite meal – a welcome relief from rice and noodle heavy dishes served around campus.

After a few too many cocktails – Catherine had our first street food dining experience (note, called street food because “alfresco” is really all too classy a word for what it is). The chicken liver or kidney or whatever organ we had chowed on was spicy and tasty. Still, in the back of my head I kept the faith that perhaps it was all the beers and the fact it was 3 am and I was hungry that made this street food so delectable.

After a sober visit or 12 I can attest that it’s fabulous. C and I have indulged in way too much of it – and I can already tell – when I return to the US – I’ll miss it. It’s one of the few times ordering is a breeze. You pick up a basket (unwashed and still with goo from the last person who used it), walk to the fridge and take out the skewers that you want. You set it by the grill and in less than five minutes theres spicy deliciousness delivered to your table.

Catherine and I managed to wander across a cheap street food vendor, with an anxious server who uses his three words of English with vigour: “hello” “goodbye” “okay”. For 4 skewers of meat and endless skewers of mushrooms, lotus, eggplant, and onions – it sets us back $4.

Children out on walks with their parents stop by our table to smile and try their hand at interacting with the Americans (one boy told us we were beautiful the other night – obviously dining on the street comes with low light – so he couldn’t get a good look at us).

Everyone says to stay away from the street food – but it’s bologna. At least I can see the the “kitchen” and count the cockroaches – which is much more than I can do at any restaurant in America.

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The Chinese Buffet in China experience.

The international program coordinators at SWUPL organized a lunch for all the international students and teachers. We were ushered onto a bus and then off across the city. We had no idea what we would be eating, or where – but it would be free. (Students world wide will always agree that you have to love free food!)

After a 20 minute bus ride we had made it to the restaurant where there was a fat statute and a red painted wall with glittery letter spelling out “Four Seas”.  The fat statute (which I failed to get a picture of) was an omen of how everyone would leave feeling.

It was mecca for Americans – a Chinese Buffet, in China. (Something I never thought I’d partake in!) Football fields of food, with corners of food I left unexplored. I stayed away from the Western food, a side full of golden: french fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, and pork roast.  I ate Eastern everything I could, focusing on putting duck in my mouth as many ways as possible – smoked/bbq/stir fried/curried. For fillers I tried spring rolls, curry turnovers, watermelon, and sushi.

The sushi came with REAL wasabi – not the weak horseradish stuff they have in the US. This stuff knocked me on my butt. So strong my eyes teared up – BEFORE it got to mouth.

When I was far too full to be human, I wanted to tap out and nap in the corner. At which point, I felt so much comfort – as if the Four Seas was in Des Moines and I was sitting next to my mother. Doreen, a blond/german/24 year old version of Sheila insisted I go with her to sample desserts. If Doreen and Sheila were to go head to head in some sort of sweet eating contest – I imagine there would be a boxing match over the last piece of chocolate cake, (luckily Sheila has some kickboxing training so she might fare well in the match.)

Doreen managed to sample ALMOST every dessert available (we had to leave or she would have tackled them all), loading them onto trays and schelpping them back to the table – insisting people take bites of them all. I tried to stay on pace but my sweet tooth just wasn’t up to snuff – and because the Chinese haven’t exactly figured out the whole “OVEN” thing yet – nothing really suited my taste buds. (WHERE ARE TEH CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES IN THIS COUNTRY?)

The buffet costs 130 RMB ($20) and came with a scoop of Hagen Daz and endless beer/liquor – so I’m sure we will be going back sometime. Hopefully then there will be more pictures, when my appetite isn’t crying out over my camera and when Doreen doesn’t come with – so there are pictures of things other than dessert.

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Honey, I’m home.

I have been on a pretty standard sleep schedule, waking between 6:30 and 7:30 AM. This morning I woke up like usual, in a pool of my own sweat, cursing the 105 degree weather and swimming through the Chongqing humidity.  I threw on some clothes, the least amount possible (but just enough to prevent scaring C should she leave her room) and headed to the sofa to try to keep my skin from melting while I surfed the web and watched some CCTV5.

Showers are the highlight of my day right now, because the water is a comfortable cold and it’s the only 10 minutes of the day I don’t spend sweating out the toxins.  At about 10 am, I was ready to give in to a shower to begin my Thursday layer of sweat. As I headed for my room there was a knock at the door.

Who’s there? I’ll give you a hint: It was not the cops, a crazy crack head* or Publisher’s Clearing House. Yes, standing at five feet tall and weighing in at 100 pounds it was GRANNY. Replay her last visit, minus the washing machine. Granny came in and began toiling away over our marble floors. The little girl was with her and immediately got to watering the plants. I knocked on Catherine’s door – warning her they were back. Again we toiled, mystified as to what they needed. Why is our landlord’s mother in our apartment? Why is she cleaning? What does she need? Does she think we’ve picked up Mandarin in the last 3 days and will be able to chat with her?

C picked up the phone and we called the foreign relations office to ask for some translation and inquiry to why Granny was back. Let this be our first lesson in how different American and Chinese culture is. Granny was just there to be helpful and friendly. Seriously. Our translator attempted to explain to granny the American way of being left alone after renting – asking Granny to give a bit of warning before dropping by next time. If you are thinking what I’m thinking, it’s that there will be many more stories in the Granny series to come.

Our apartment is now an even better deal. A 2BR/1BA apartment with a built in cleaning lady – not bad for $238/month. Has there ever been a time in the US when your landlord has showed up to clean for you? If so please let me know where and how much your rent was – I’d happily live there.

 

*This is mostly a jest on my brother, who opened his door to a stranger – who ended up being a crack head. However, I will admit my own stupidity because I opened the door only after asking “Who is there?” twice and getting no reply. In my own defense – I’ve not seen any crack heads since arriving in Chongqing so I was willing to bet on my own life and Catherine’s that opening the door would reveal some sort of pleasant and non dangerous surprise. 

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You don’t have to put a man on the moon to put women on TV.

I generally don’t like watching TV (I don’t even own one), but when it’s 105 degrees out, you are in the middle of China and you have nothing to do – you find yourself laying on the sofa sweating it out in reach of a remote and thirsting for easy entertainment. So far, the TV in the Pink Penthouse has been stuck exclusively on CCTV5, China’s version of ESPN.  Normally you wouldn’t catch me watching sports on tv, but Chinese Soap Operas and television programs are painful to watch (with period specific wardrobes, fake facial hair, bad makeup, questionable “acting”- add in the fact they aren’t in English and my comprehension falls to about two words in every 2000).

Since sports generally transcend language, C and I have watched a healthy amount the last few days. Things were desperate after a few days with nothing to do, when C and I were sweating on the sofa, screaming at the TV as we watched an Olympic Qualifying track meet. We were cheering on different runners in the 10,000M men’s run and bickering over who was going to win. (I was right, FYI – there was no way Ethiopia would let Great Britain win… it’d just be un-African).

Back to the point of this blog – I found CCTV 5 after spotting a volleyball match on television. It get’s better – there was A WOMENS SOCCER MATCH DURING PRIME TIME – ON what is essentially PUBLIC TELEVISION. I thought it was a fluke to see women’s soccer match at all, but it has happened a few times. There have been numerous women’s sporting events breaking up the monotony of professional table tennis. Write CBS/NBC/ABC – hell included ESPN, because really – if China, culture that prefers male babies since they only get one, can put women’s sports on TV, so can we!

 

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Day 1 in the Pink Penthouse, AKA The hostage crisis

Day one in the apartment was lazy. I woke early, C slept late. I hemmed and hawed with nothing to do in an internet-less world, compiling blog posts to upload at a later date and listening to Mandarin CDs I had downloaded.

Around noon there was a nock at the door. I had just gotten out of the shower and needed to toss on some clothes, so C answered it. In walked our landlord’s daughter and her grandmother. They welcomed themselves in as if it was a usual occurrence. The little girl spoke the two words of English she knows “Hi” and “Hello”. Granny unfortunately is not a master of English so we were automatically trudging through uncertain territory. (“What the are you doing here?”, unfortunately not a phrase I learned to say during the 6 hours of Mandarin.)

C and I stood around looking at each other and the large box they had arrived with. After a few minutes they began opening the box. It turned out to be our washing machine.We began trying to help set it up, afraid of the 65 year old woman hurt herself trying to move a washing machine (despite the fact our washing machine is the weight of bread machine – and looks like it too). We were quickly scolded and told to sit down.

Every proper home has a washing machine next to the sofa, right?

So began the strangest 90 minutes of my life, being held hostage by granny.

Despite scolding, we managed to get the machine out of the box and set in place. Thereafter we faced more scolding, instructions to go away and shoo. C and I relegated to our rooms talking to each other discussing what was going on and how long they would be staying.

Before long the little girl was sweeping the floor and dusting the place while Granny mopped the floor. They were cleaning our apartment. Were they saying we were bad housekeepers, it had only been one day and we were still barely unpacked?

After about 30 minutes of cleaning they sat on the sofa watching cartoons. C and I continued to pace in each other’s rooms wondering what we were to do. We checked the English/Chinese dictionary and couldn’t quite figure out the words Granny had repeated to us.

At 1pm and C and I were officially Ethiopian hungry. We debated telling them we were going to go get food and would be back later (actually, I only had enough Mandarin to say “Lunch, Okay. Goodbye”). Just as we walked out to the living room to try our hand at communicating – there was a knock at the door.

At this point I’m expecting Grandpa to walk in, or the police, or just about anyone but the washing machine man. But there he was in all his glory, to save the day.  He connected 2 pipes, something both C and I could have done ourselves, and he was back out the door. Just as soon as the door closed behind him,Granny and girl said their Goodbyes (the girl passed on a ‘see you later’ that sounded more like ‘see you layla’).

We have no idea what any of the buttons on our washing machine say or do, but that’s a minor detail… they will always bring back the memory of being held hostage by Granny.

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CQ and the Apartment

Arriving in Chongqing we were ushered to a guest hotel. I’m unsure what “guest hotel” actually means, but it was very nice (if you could ignore the condoms next to the bed and prostitutes roaming the hallways).

After a nice night’s rest and wallowing in the joy of a fast internet connection, it was off to find an apartment with the assistance of a student, Amanda. After looking at a few places it became clear a one bedroom was not going to do. As it turns out, C and I, having left the Peach Pit are in a new apartment together halfway around the world (a nice comfort, and way to save money and share expenses.)

Sitting in the rental office, you can see the apartment building. It's the tall one on the Left.

The name for this apartment is still in the works but I like to think of it as the Pink and Purple Penthouse, on the top of our building with pink and purple furnishings galore. It’s brand new and comes with all sorts of exciting features like a washing machine with no English instructions, rainbow colored light fixtures (an entire blog post about these soon) and a squat toilet.

Settling in at the apartment has been exciting, only because it has meant I no longer have to lug my life around in suitcases.

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The Shiz and the Homestay

Shizajuang (‘the Shiz’ for short) quickly transformed from hell to the high life after spending the night with my host family. I was nervous for the homestay – add to it my inability to utter much of anything in Mandarin – and I was almost nauseous.

It ended up being the most amazing time. My family was so generous, and I know have a sister in Shizajuang! Angela is a 16 year old girl at one of the most prestigious foreign language schools in the Shiz. She spoke perfect English and was a typical teenager with a penchant for pop music (we bonded over Lady Gaga and Rhianna) and a love of ballet. She wants to be an architect, a perfect career, as they are tossing up buildings in China faster than the Department of Transportation can fill potholes on the highway.

My homestay student, her mother, and their beautiful home.

Their home was beautiful and modern, something you could pull out of Dwell magazine. Angela’s mother was an amazing cook, putting the most delicious breakfast on my plate, the perfect treat after catching up on sleep I’d been missing since my arrival in China.  I wish I had more to offer them as thanks for their hospitality and know I will see them again in the future, whether in China or abroad.

The homestay was a good follow up to 6 hours of Chinese Language classes. 6 hours was barely enough time for me to figure out how to say “my name is abbie, I am American” (easy and obvious, right?) so it was a treat that Angela and her friends all spoke fluent English.

It had to be good luck, or careful organization, that C and I ended up having girls who were friends. We met at the mall with a gaggle of 5 Chinese girls (and one boy) accompanied by 2 other Drake students. After a bit of shopping it was off to eat.

It was SO GOOD, my mouth still waters thinking of the meal. Mountains of food poured on to our table (imagine the biggest meal you’ve ever had, multiply it by 10 and that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of food that flew out of the kitchen and on to our lazy susan.) We were truly eating like kings. I shudder to think of what the bill was.

After shoving our faces full of food (honestly, the best meal I’ve ever eaten) we paroosed the city. I fell in love with the city watching old people in the park dancing, live music pouring from speakers, crisp greenery and bright lights of city’s infrastructure. At that moment I knew I had survived the homestay and found a soft spot in my heart for The Shiz.

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Where have I been?

Lots of updates to come…. stay tuned. Finding good internet is hard, but I now have it in my apartment. Wooohooo.

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Beijing to Shijiazuang

Beijing was beautiful, hipster, and oh so relaxing. Spent the last day in town hitting up tourist attractions and eating copious amounts of dumplings. Mid-afternoon it was off to the airport to meet up with 23 Drake graduates, all in China to teach English for a year. We boarded a charter bus for a 4 hour drive to Shijiazuang. We stopped twice for the bus driver to smoke, the last of which was 15 minutes away from our destination. The rest stop resembled downtown Las Vegas (less the gambling): smoky, lit up and bumbling with noise, in this case the same Chinese Pop song playing on repeat.

If Beijing is a Lexus, Shijiazhuang is definitely a YuGo. While our hotel is westernized, I’ve stayed in cleaner motels. After a 4 hour bus ride cramped with luggage, beer and meat seemed like the only cure, so after dropping things in our room, C and I headed out with a group to dine al fresca: TsingTao’s all around, lamb on a stick, noodles, sheep intestine, did I mention TsingTao’s?

The next day it was early to rise for a trip to the bank and the “Future” Mall.  It took 2 hours to exchange money while The Bank of China did a copious inspection of every American bill. I spent my time on the street people watching and waving to Chinese children, many who were seeing white people for the first time. You could spot good parents, who encouraged their kids to wave and say “hello” and others who stood alongside their tykes staring aimlessly. The mall reminded me of an even classier Frontenac (see also: out of my price range).

Saturday afternoon and this morning was spent in Chinese Language classes. I’ve now got about 3000% more Mandarin in my vocabulary and will be able to interact with the curious little children.

Every meal is a never-ending-feast. We've yet to leave a table clean of food.

Today after lunch, D + C + myself shipped off to an electronics market. Counterfeit everything (or “legitimate” products at rock bottom prices). Being white came with high prices and lots of stares. Our bargaining skills were warmed up, and some of the Chinese we had learned earlier in the day was shelled out. When the woman said 5 yuan … I exclaimed it back to her, excited to have understood she said. D and C both bought something but I left purchase free. D didn’t think I was quite in the spirit of things – but my mother would have been proud – I just dont’ have the palette for cheap stuff.

Tomorrow is the day everyone has NOT been waiting for: the home-stay. Heading off to the home of a Chinese family. I can’t wait to show off my new Mandarin skills and indulge them with Starburst candy. I’m sure the next update will come with great stories.

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