Archive | July 2004

The daily grind


I open one eye and glare at the alarm clock. 7:00AM. Time to start my day.

I haven’t been getting much sleep lately so 7:00AM is always a bit too early. I find it impossible to get to bed before 11:00PM and when I finally do, I lie awake for another hour or so as thoughts whiz through my brain. All sorts of memories from the past 11 months (not to mention the whole host of crazy stuff that usually happened during that very day) flood back into my brain as I stare up at the ceiling. And then, somehow, I eventually manage to drift to sleep. Oh well. The price you pay, eh?

I hop out of bed, smack the alarm clock and flip on the computer. As it starts up, I glance out the window. Hmm…cloudy day. 95 degrees already. Attaboy, I would expect nothing less.

I flip on the electric kettle and hop in the shower. You have to turn on a series of knobs to get the gas to start heating the water, and sometimes it just stops in the middle of your shower, so you have to hop out of the bathroom, slide naked though the kitchen (still dripping wet, of course) and turn the knobs until the gas starts back up and continues heating the water. I let the hot water (almost too hot, but not scolding) wake me up as the streams of water massage my tired body. There is only one knob, ON and OFF, so you either get really cold water, or really hot. I precariously dance around the toilet so as to NOT FALL IN. I know that I’ve mentioned it before, but yes, I have a squat toilet in my apartment. It’s a toilet inset in the ground and you have to squat above it to use it. It flushes and everything and is made out of porcelain, but it’s just in the ground. Seeing as how the toilet is in the same room as the shower, and they smartly put the shower nozzle just above the toilet (you have to twist the head to spray to the left so you don’t have to stand in the toilet to take a shower), the whole process a bit interesting. Taking a shower is NEVER boring here. It’s an adventure.

I hop out of the shower and start getting ready for the day. Berlitz requires that its teachers wear ties, so slacks and a dress shirt complete the picture. I throw some clothes on, button up my shirt, screw with my tie for 20 minutes (DAMNIT, why can’t I get it the right length?!) while I drink some tea, put the books I’ll need for the class I’m teaching in my bag and I’m off. As soon as I step out of my room, the heat hits me. It’s really hot in Beijing right now. Really hot. It feels like it’s over a hundred most days, and when you combine that with the humidity, it gets nearly unbearable. Stepping into it from an air-conditioned room is like opening a the oven while baking cookies – the heat just HITS you. I tromp down the five flights of stairs to the ground floor from my apartment and step outside.

The “YES” bugs hum in unison.

What are “YES” bugs? One day I was leaving work and I heard a bug, kind of like the Cucoo bugs in Bolivia (a bug that emits a constant and annoying high pitch sound for hours at a time), but different. In the middle of its humming, it stops for a second, yells “YES” and continues humming. It’s a really weird “YES”, though. It sounds like someone’s yelling, but whispering “YES” at the same time. It sounds kind of like a machine. But it says “YES” about once a second. It’s pretty wild. Whenever I need to make a big decision, I either avoid or seek out the yes bugs accordingly. They really help with subliminal justification (“Should I buy this thing that I don’t really need?” “YES! (ANNOYING NOISE) YES! (ANNOYING NOISE) YES!” Okay. Fine, I’ll buy it).

I march through the apartment complex and avoid the puddles of water in the mud. The large, brick, dilapidated old apartment buildings loom over me, bars over every muddy window, hand painted Chinese symbols over every building doorway. Old men play chess on the sidewalk, cackling and slamming their pieces down as they capture their opponents’. Old women hang their clothes on lines strung from trees. Little kids play in the big pile of sand that was left in the middle of the courtyard last night. One of the little kids looks up at me, gives a HUGE grin and yells “HELLO!” and goes back to his digging.

The “YES” bugs hum in unison.

I walk out of the complex and onto the main street lined with all sorts of stores and restaurants. People hurry to work with bags, books, briefcases, and umbrellas in hand. Old ladies sit on the sidewalks and chat amongst themselves. Cars, taxis, bikes, and buses roar by, weaving in and out of each others’ lanes, honking horns, and narrowly escaping death.

An old man with a huge straw hat putts lazily down the sidewalk on a motor-driven three-wheeled bicycle-trailer piled three times his height with drift wood.

I jump out of the way of a lady riding her bike straight toward me. Old men look up at me from the ground, point at the blanket before them and the trinkets laying upon it and say/ask, “HELLO?” People sit and stand in storefronts and chat and laugh at nothing and everything. People glance at me as we pass on the sidewalk, make eye-contact and look away.

You can’t help but notice how busy the people on bikes seem to be. People are taking stuff everywhere on bikes which have been converted to transportation vessels. They have all sorts of stuff on bikes. Boxes, bags, TV’s, food, fans, wood, clothes, bamboo, animals, crickets, refrigerators, other bikes, tires, computers, stereos, barrels, speakers, cardboard, cans, books, and a wide assortment of other miscellaneous junk. And of course, they are also carrying propane tanks. There is always someone taking a propane tank somewhere. I noticed this in Bolivia as well. They take them in make shift beds on the back of their bikes, they strap them to the side of bikes (and ride the bike at kind of an angle so as not to fall over), they strap tanks on the front of the bikes and on their backs – it’s crazy. And I’m not just talking about small tanks here. Some are really big. I mean, really big! There is a whole bike transport network here in Beijing and it’s really interesting to watch. We have sort of a bike depot in the center of the apartment complex, which centers around a hub of trash. I’m not quite sure where the trash came from, but there is a lot of it in the courtyard and it is slowly dissipating as the bike transporters pick at it like worker ants at an apple and take it back to their respective nests. Wherever the trash came from, it wasn’t there last week, and it sure is going fast now. I considered going down and checking it out, but all the good stuff is probably gone by now.

I finally arrive at the bus stop. I take out my list which has the buses’ numbers that will take me to the subway. People wait on the sidewalk and look into the distance, awaiting their own buses. Number 817 pulls up and grinds to an ear shatteringly brake-screeching halt. Everyone’s hands rocket up to their ears and we all grimace in pain. I confirm its destination with my list and hop on. It is packed full of people so I grab onto the bar and melt into the crowd. I give the ticket lady one yuan and say “GONGJUFEN” and she gives me a ticket. I watch the city slip by as we rumble down the street. Beijing is just waking up. And so is the sun.

Five stops later, I hop out of the bus, dodge past the people handing out fliers in a language I can’t read and walk toward to subway. But first I have to cross the street.

There are a lot of bikes here in Beijing, so many in fact that get their own lane on the street. They even have their own signals! And they are just as hard to maneuver around as cars. You see, you don’t just “cross” the street here. You progress. It’s kind of like layaway back home. First you take a few steps, then stop as cars and bikes whiz by behind and in front of you. That’s like your first layaway payment. You don’t get the product yet, but you have pretty much committed yourself to doing whatever it takes to get it (getting across the street). You may have to take a step forward or a step back so as to avoid getting run over by a bus or taxi that roars by literally a few inches from your big toe or heel. Then you take another step – but do so confidently. And that taxi speeding towards you? If he smells your fear, he will run you over. But if he sees that you know what you’re doing, he will stop. Or maybe he won’t. In that case, you take a few steps forward or backward again accordingly. And eventually, after a series of successive “payments”, you get across the street, which may last for several minutes for a 20 foot stretch of road. You win. And so do the people you “herded” with along the way. There is safety in numbers.

I walk towards the subway and glance at the stuff the people are selling on blankets along the way: flowers, cell phone holders, wooden boxes, wallets, chairs. People beg for money, people offer to shine your shoes, people sell pirated DVDs, people offer to sell you forged autographs of famous people (what a novel idea, eh?). I step down the subway stairs, past the woman selling corn on the cob and hardboiled eggs and over to the ticket counter.

It suddenly occurs to me that I see a lot of corn. Yeah, corn. The Chinese seem to love corn. People sell cooked corn cobs on the street, in the subways, and at bus stations and in the markets from a big box or a bag filled with the stuff. You can buy a wide variety of corn breakfast porridges from cans in any supermarket. Whether it be on a stick or just in the person’s hand, you can always find someone eating corn somewhere every few minutes or so. They also have corn ice cream. I don’t know if it’s corn flavored, or what, but it is shaped exactly like corn and it’s frozen. And lots of people eat it. I was eating a bread roll that I bought from the bakery yesterday morning and inside, it was filled with corn. They even sneak it into normal things without your knowledge! Yup, corn is pretty popular here. I don’t really mind though. I have nothing against corn.

But even more common that the corn eaters are the cleaners. People are cleaning the streets, stairs, buildings, windows and walls nearly everywhere you look. There is someone with a bike/garbage container hybrid on nearly every street sweeping up the dirt or picking up trash. The other day I saw someone outside a bank shampooing the stairs. Yes. Shampooing them. The city is remarkably clean and it is obviously due to a very community conscious effort to keep it that way. There are trashcans everywhere. But, like I said, occasionally, you stumble upon huge heaps of trash in random places…like the center of my apartment complex.

After handing the woman at the ticket counter three yuan, I get my ticket, hand it to the lady at the stairs that go down to the subway and wait for the train. Cold air flushes from the huge subway tunnels and over my sweaty skin as the train approaches. It screeches to a halt and the doors open. Almost as if it were a cartoon, or some sort of sick magician’s trick, an impossible amount of people stand literally smashed uncomfortably together and stare back at me, begging and pleading with their eyes for me not to attempt to wedge myself in. I do so anyways and they scrunch even closer together. When the doors shut, the crowd expands as everyone lets out the breath they were holding in (I was only able to fit because the people held their breaths, like a fat man who sucks up his gut to button his pants). I get smashed into a short man who gets smashed into a door behind me.

I can feel his chin digging into my back. My hand and bag dig into the woman’s back in front of me. Sweat drips down my back. The man’s shirt beside me is drenched with sweat and soon, mine will be too. The train lurches forward and everyone leans on everyone else in unison until the crowd corrects itself and is able to stand up straight. The air is thick and hot. The humidity is all from sweat. I endure 20 minutes of it before stepping out at my subway stop and breathing COOL AIR. My back, and everyone else’s is drenched.

I hop on the escalator and it carries me and a hundred other people up up up about 200 feet to the ground level. I walk outside, past the cars, past the guys offering to give me a ride in their rickshaws, past the people selling water, soda, candy bars, dvd’s, magazines, and finally arrive at the office. I greet the doorman with a “Ni Hao” and take the elevator up the 8th floor.

I have arrived to work. And the day begins.

Outside, the “YES” bugs hum in unison.

What a life…

I sat in McDonalds in awe. Yes, you could say, Western Culture has arrived to the East. I’m not even sure if the word “arrived” is appropriate even. Exploded is more like it. People sat around, munching on hamburgers, sipping Pepsi, listening to the latest Brittany Spears album blasting through the air. Through the window, I could see the Starbucks across the street, packed with people gladly paying American prices for a cup of coffee – which is quite a big deal seeing as the Chinese have been pretty big fans of tea for the past, ohhhhh, several thousand years. Could you imagine going to the corner chinese tea house in America and paying around $15 bucks for a cup of Chai? That’s what it would be like, relatively. Yet they do it. I read an article about how popular cosmetic surgery is becoming here. What’s the most popular procedure? Double eyelid surgery.

What’s that? A simple procedure in which doctors “cut, fold and sew the upper eyelids with what looks like a fishhook to create a crease above the eyes”. Why is this popular? It opens up the eyes making one look more western, and thus, more beautiful.

And I just sit back and observe. It’s quite interesting. You can’t really make judgments about these things. Not only are they pointless (China doesn’t care what you or I think), it’s only natural. Cultures and societies have been influencing each other for many thousands of years. It’s just how it is.

And so, what have I been up to lately (besides not writing much on the site)? Well, let’s see if I can backtrack…My friends Mette and Rasmus left back to Denmark and I was stuck with the lumbering snoring American monster in my hostel room. After a few days, he left and I got a new crowd in my room. By then, however, I had made friends with plenty of others in the hostel and was having a great time. We all watched movies today, Sam and I played chess every night, we went to eat together and just enjoyed hanging out. Every time I saw a newcomer, I would give them a quick tour of the place, draw them a map of useful stores and restaurants around the hostel, maybe take them on the subway to show them how to do it and go out to dinner with them.

I had nothing better to do and it was fun. I met quite a few people and then, just before I left, met some Scottish girls with whom I had a great time also. I showed them the markets and some stores in Beijing, we went to the Great Wall of China together, and went out to the Bar Street the night before they left. One of them was one of the most incredible girls I’ve met on the trip and I was quite frustrated to see her go.

Frustrated? Not sad? Yeah, frustrated. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve become an expert at saying goodbye to people without feeling sad. You get that way pretty quick after starting to travel. You meet some many people and have such great times with them and then just as quickly as you met, you have to say goodbye. You cope by knowing that you can still talk via email and such.

But sometimes you meet people (girls) that you would love to date were you back home. You meet all kinds of incredible girls with whom you enjoy yourself thoroughly (for about 2 days) and then it’s “goodbye” – for most likely the rest of your life. Yeah, people always say “if it was meant to be, it will work out”, but those rules go out the window when you’re traveling. People move on. They have new experiences. They meet new people. If you’re lucky enough to meet an incredible person who is single, they wont be for long, plain and simple – let alone the rest of your trip (15 months for me). If you win the lotto, you don’t leave the ticket out in the city park for a few months until you have the time to come back to it. Someone will eventually cash it in (hah, eventually). Yet that is what I get to do all the time. Of course, I can hear it now: “Carpe diem, Casey!”. But that is to miss the point. The people I meet, and myself included, aren’t looking to run away and get married and live happily ever after right now. That’s a bit extreme and drastic. I would just like to go out on a few dates with the person and get to know them better. But you don’t get to. Everyone you meet is traveling just like you. It’s just how it is.

And then I look at it from a different perspective and realize that I am traveling around the world and am actually capable of having this problem. It would be like a billionaire complaining that no matter how hard he tries, he can’t spend all his money and it makes him feel bad. Yeah, yeah. I know. I merely said that it was frustrating.

So anyways, back to China. I’ve gone to the Great Wall and it was incredible. We walked from one part to another, with spectacular views of Mongolia in the distance and our own pit crew of old Chinese ladies selling us water and hounding us to buy picture books of the Wall along the way.

“Vedy hot! Vedy hot! YOU WATER! Vedy cooooool!” they chanted. And each time you had to bargain with them.

I took the opportunity to practice my Chinese.

“zhega yi shi tou! (that is a rock!)” I declared, pointing at a rock on the ground.

The old ladies cackled.

I flipped through my phrasebook looking for something funny.

“wo zai nar keyi xuexi gongfu? (Where can I study kung fu?)”

“Shaolin!” they replied.

“Qing gei wo kankan caidan! (Can I see the menu please?)”

They all looked confused. HAH!

And so that’s how it went for 10 kilometers. At the end, we strapped ourselves to a metal cable and zoomed down the mountain to a boat waiting nearby which took us to the bus (which would then take us home).

I also started teaching at Berlitz. It’s great! I have my own classes and am really enjoying it. The instructor’s manual makes it a breeze and I have met some really cool people, including a few people from Cuba and Spain. I’ve been able to keep up my Spanish with all the Spanish speakers I’ve met since arriving – Mexicans, Spaniards, Cubans, Colombians, Brazilians (that speak Spanish), you name it. It’s been great.

And I’ve moved into my apartment now. It’s nice to have my own room for a change. I bought a computer and all the stuff I need to live a comfortable life (a fan), went clothes shopping, enlisted the help of a girl who lives nearby to tutor me in Chinese (which is going really well) and bought an insane amount of music CD’s and DVD’s. I’m really living it up.

The apartment is in a part of town where all the Chinese go to school and needless to say, I don’t get to speak English very often. Eating out is always an experience. You never know what you’ll get (I basically just point at a bunch of symbols on the menu and hope for the best). I’ve learned what the character for spicy is and avoid that. You can’t be very picky, needless to say. I just got back from lunch and spent no more than $1.30 USD for a huge plate of food and a bottle of cold tea. Occasionally you meet people who know English and are anxious to practice with you or help you out. That’s always fun. But usually I just spend a lot of time pointing and smiling.

Sometimes a smile can communicate more than words ever can.

It’s a 20 minute bus ride to the subway station and then another 30 minute subway ride to the office, so I get plenty of time to see daily Chinese life, which was the point of this in the first place. It’s funny because I always get told by people that I could probably get a place much closer to downtown. People travel for all sorts of reasons, but it seems to me that people really miss out on a lot of opportunities they have handed to them while traveling. Lots of people come here, surround themselves with westerners and English and go from work to home to work, basically replacing their life back home. What’s the point? It’s certainly not for the squat toilets.

Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that. My apartment has a squat toilet. How does that work? I’m still not sure. It’s a toilet inset in the ground (it does flush and everything), but you don’t sit on it. You just squat over it. The shower is in the same tiny room, on the wall right over the toilet so you have to be careful not to fall in the john whilst bathing (which would necessitate another shower – which could start a pretty vicious cycle if you aren’t careful).

Of course, I’m not as hardcore as I make it seem. I’ve been getting a lot of help from my roommates, Sherry and Brad. Brad’s visiting his family in another province right now so it’s me and Sherry (we each have our own rooms) here right now, and I never hesitate to ask her for help on things like calling someone to give them directions to the apartment.

And of course, I could continue to ramble about a million more things, but I’ll spare you for another post. At least I’m caught up and my routine will stay pretty standard for the next several months, which means I can put more interesting observations in the posts, rather than simply recounting what I’ve been up to.