Archive | August 2004

More crazy adventures:

The front of the bus is always hot.

The seats and center isle are all filled with people bouncing in unison with the bus as it bumps along the pothole-ridden side road to the next stop. The anxious bus driver harshly grinds the indigent transmission into 2nd and the gears grind – and growl like a half drunk/half hungover obese man does as he rolls out of bed after a night of far too much whiskey. And the heat? It hovers and hangs in the front of the bus, where you are trapped. An impenatrable barricade of bodies blocks the way to the back of the bus where not only the open windows lie, but also the AIR. The bus lurches to the left to avoid the taxi merging into your lane, and the taxi in the next lane lurches onto the shoulder of the sidewalk narrowly avoiding the old man on a bicycle riding next to him. You nearly fall to the ground but are able to grab onto the shoulder of a tall Chinese man and get your balance. Your foot accidentally slammed down on his in the commotion and he grimaces in pain to which you respond by looking at him surprised and putting up your hands so as to show that it wasn’t on purpose. You can’t apologize: you don’t know how to say the words in Chinese.

Your focus turns to the front of the bus where the bus driver stares intently through the murky and dusty windshield, focusing (as though with supernatural ability) on everything all at once. His pant legs and sleeves are rolled up and his hair a mess. Several trails of sweat pioneer their way down his face and suspend off his jawbone, threatening to jump. But don’t worry, it’s a familiar path. They know what their doing.

You suddenly become aware that you are also drenched in sweat and it is starting to seep through your shirt in splotchy dabs. Your sweaty palms continue to grasp the railing compensating for the slippery sweat by tightening. Your knuckles are white.

The bus jams its way into the mess of other busses jamming their way into the mess and pulls up at the stop. The harried bus driver flips several buttons, pops gear shifter (the scotch-taped in several places) into neutral and the doors stagger open. And you escape.

God bless public transport, eh?

I’ve been busy. My brother has since gone and I’ve spent the past week recovering from working a lot and entertaining, only teaching in the evenings. Simon and Kat are still in town so I’ve been doing stuff with them in the evenings and weekends. It’s really fun hanging out with people you know from other parts of your trip. You always have something to remember or talk about, which is something admittedly lacking from my travels, usually. People from time to time ask me if I miss not having someone with whom I can constantly do that with: travel and reminisce. My response is always the same: it would be nice, but there are tradoffs with such an arrangement, as with anything. When you travel with someone, you are 1) less likely to meet new people, 2) more likely to be annoyed on a regular basis by your companion, and 3) less likely to do what you want to do all the time. A big part of traveling with someone (as with any relationship) is compromise. Is it worth it? I think traveling alone is ideal. You meet people, travel for a while, split up, sometimes meet back up, sometimes don’t – but you always have memories. In my opinion, you collect more memories on your own that you would with someone else. You just do more.

* Some recent developments in the deodorant search *

In desperation, I eventually bought a deodorant type I didn’t want. It smells like wilted flowers and reads “caring for deodorizing with delication”. Sounds very reassuring. I had asked around. Apparently deodorant is a new thing, only about 1-2 years young in China. Imagine that. Some things never cease to amaze. Please keep in mind that people don’t smell here. But I finally found some. Actually, my buddy Simon found some and gave me the tip.

“The expat grocery store by your work has the exact type of deodorant you’re looking for.”

My eyes widened and I looked at my watch. I felt like running outside to my convertible patrol car, hopping into it without opening the door and flipping on the siren (as Dukes of Hazard music plays in the background – “hold up boiy! We’s gotts an old fasion police chase goin’ on HEA!”

But I settled for a taxi. I opened the door and sat inside (I did try to make it dramatic) and asked him if he knew where the store was. The odor of cheap Chinese beer filled the taxi cab and his head rolled as he pointed backwards and asked if that’s where it was. I looked at his half opened eyes and let the fact that he was sopping drunk settle into my brain. I got out, walked to the cab behind him, got in, pointed to the guy in front, made the patented “he’s been drinking” motion with my hand (you know the one: the imaginary beer can in your hand and several jerking motions up and down as your head does the same). The taxi driver nodded and we were off.

I soooo got my deodorant that day. As a matter of fact, I’m wearing it now. BOOYA!

I went out for dinner the other night with my students after class and enjoyed some incredible food at a really nice restaurant. Everyone took turns ordering something and the waitresses brought all the food to us on plates and sat them on the massive rotating table top. The outward border of the table doesn’t rotate so you get to keep your own plate and the nine of us all hacked away at the different dishes together. Everyone shares everything and it’s great. By the end of the meal, we were each out 20 yuan ($2.50) – and stuffed beyond belief.

Right now, I’m contending with a bit of a stomach bug. I woke up at about 2:00AM this morning with a 10/10 cringing and heaving in my stomach. It repeated every 10 seconds and lasted for about 10 seconds. Now its down to about 180/6, not a bad ratio. I’m on the road to recovery, I think. You’ve just gotta keep hydrated, eh – teaching class is going to be a blast this evening, let me tell you. Living and traveling in third world countries, you just need to keep one thing in mind: Where there’s blood, there’s danger. My bloodless misery is nothing to be concerned about. You just have to TAKE IT LIKE A MAN (you MAGGOT!). Sorry, that’s my imaginary drill sergeant motivating me to get ready for work. That’s my cue. Class starts soon and I’ve gotta run.

Ok, ok. Here’s the post.

All right.

All ready for work. I had just spent about 10 minutes getting my tie perfect, and was tying my shoes when *SNAP* – one of the laces broke in two.

“No worries,” I thought to myself, “I’ll just go buy another one.” I tied the broken lace back together and made do; A temporary fix for a minor problem.

And thus began a two week long search for shoe laces.

I went in shoe stores, supermarkets, small stores on the street. Nope. They did offer to sell me a new pair of shoes, though.

I went back to the person from whom I bought the shoes. Nope.

“Sorry. No have. I remember you, and if I had shoelaces, I give them to you. But no have,” she said regretfully.

“Okay, where can I get some?” I asked.

“Not here. We don’t have them here,” she replied.

I put my hands out and turned around in a circle. “In ALL of China, where could I buy shoelaces. Where would YOU buy shoelaces?” I asked in desperation. I imagined secret midnight meetings during which two shadowy figures met and exchanged a nondescript envelope containing small quantities of shoelaces (after all, if you had large quantities, you might get busted for trafficking).

“Try some small store,” she explained.

Hmm…Got it. Small store.

I asked my students: “Where can I get some shoelaces?”

“We don’t know, it’s a big problem for us, too. They are hard to find.”

I looked around at their shoes and noticed that they were all of the laceless variety. They just had buckles, or were slip-ons. Genius.

I put my feelers out at work and asked some of my fellow English teachers. They didn’t know either. One person had seen some once, but in an area very far away. And I wasn’t ready for a pilgrimage just yet.

A few days later, I was walking through a shopping complex and noticed some shoes. I got the lady’s attention, pointed at my shoelace and asked if she had any. She came back with a box of shoes. Five minutes later, I was able to get her to see that I did not, in fact, want shoes. I wanted shoelaces.

“Mei you” (don’t have), she replied.

“Yes you do. On these shoes are shoelaces! Sell these ones to me!” I begged.

She laughed and shook her head “no”.

“20 yuan. I will pay 20 yuan for THESE shoelaces.” They should only cost about 3 yuan, but I was sick of looking. She still laughed and shook her head no.

A girl in the next stall over overheard the conversation and frantically waved at me with a huge smile on her face.

She was no fool. She knew that with 20 yuan, she could buy new laces and have TONS of money left over. Her boss came over to see what she was doing. She explained that I was going to pay 20 yuan for the laces that she was taking off a new pair of shoes. He didn’t believe her. Until I paid.

And so I had shoelaces. I tried hard not to cry at the joy I felt at that moment. Victory was mine.

And that’s how things go in China. Simple little things that you would think a free market economy would provide for, and does in more developed countries, are sometimes the most difficult to find. In all my time here in Beijing, I have found only two stores that sell deodorant. In those that do sell it, it is locked behind a wire cage (after all, you wouldn’t want just ANYONE to get a hold of this stuff) and they have two (count them: two) kinds: ONE for men and ONE for women. One brand, everywhere. No different scents or kinds (spray, gel, stick, etc…) or anything else. It’s quite a difference from the whole ISLE of deodorant we have in every supermarket back home. Yet, remarkably, people don’t really seem to smell here. Every morning on the subway, I notice that even though EVERYONE is sweating like pigs, no one really stinks. It’s remarkable.

So yes, I’m starting to get used to everything now. I’m starting to get into a routine and I’m getting used to being a teacher and navigating the city to buy stuff that I need. I’m slowly but surely learning more Chinese and can piece together things I want to say when I need to say it (although I sound like a caveman). And I have spent the better part of the past two weeks entertaining my brother who arrived who just left for back home. Luckily, my friends Simon and Kat are in town for a month and were able to do stuff with Chris while I was at work. My other friends Matthew and Katrina also returned from Xi’An and were able to give my brother some advice for when he went. He, Simon and Kat went there last week and visited the Terracotta Warrior Statues there. I’ve been told that it’s pretty impressive (plus I’ve seen the pictures). It’s a 15 hour train ride away from Beijing and I am really happy that my brother got the chance to check out the backpacker scene. Although walking around Beijing and checking different things out is fun – going out to new and exciting places on your own is even more interesting. He travelled with Simon and Kat, two well seasoned world travelers, but I think it gave him a taste of what it’s like to live out of a (my) backpack. As he found out, it’s quite a life.

During these past few weeks, we have visited the Forbidden City (where the emperor used to live separate from the common people in ancient China), the Summer Palace (the emperor’s Summer getaway), checked out a few markets, eaten a variety of local Chinese dishes (like Beijing Duck), gone shopping, and spent nights on the town drinking. We spent several hours trying to fill an order from my Mom, Aunts, and Grandma for “designer” purses (which were suspiciously lower in price). My mom sent us pictures and we walked around the markets bargaining for the purses they had. We left with some pretty good deals. Chris was also able to visit the Great Wall on his final full day here and was left pretty impressed. He said it was the perfect end to his trip…understandably so.

We also checked out a “crazy” food market and ate some pretty crazy stuff. On a certain street, there are about 100 stalls all lined with seafood, bugs, meat (including dog), goat testicles, animal internal organs, and stuff that they didn’t want to translate into English so we didn’t know what it was. Chris is a very picky eater, so he sat the crazy meals out, but Simon and I ate all sorts of stuff, including Silk Worm larvae, snake skin, and some other crazy stuff. It’s not a good sign when even the Chinese look at you like you are crazy for eating it.

I must admit that I was pretty impressed with how my brother handled his visit. I hear stories about people going into culture shock and being really freaked out, but Chris took everything with stride. Although he did get weirded out by the “crazy food” markets, he was able to quickly master the bus/subway system (despite the fact that it was his first time ever doing so as we don’t use the bus and don’t have a subway at home), never got lost and from all reports handled the trip to Xi’An like a pro. Simon and Kat said that you wouldn’t have known that it was his first trip to a foreign country. He is a pro traveler and didn’t even have to try. His photos are also spectacular. If I have space on my site, I’ll post a few of the best ones. It’s nice to have such a cool brother.

Oh yeah, and I have been teaching a lot too. A whole lot. I now teach classes for Berlitz, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Motorolla, Seimens, Boeing, Mars Chocolate, and even the CEO of the largest computer company in China. My students are usually between the ages of 23-40 and are professionals in their respective fields. The nice thing is that they already speak English relatively well and so we can all have fun in class and enjoy ourselves. From what I gather, my students really enjoy my teaching style and thus enjoy the class – and the material I teach is very interesting and thorough, as well. Berlitz makes it pretty easy to teach because they provide the lesson plans for you. You just have to provide the explanation and passion, which is no problem for me. It’s really cool when I get a class of programmers because we all have something in common and I can tailor the examples specifically to them using computer jargon. Although it does take a lot of energy, teaching is something that comes pretty easily to me and I have been trying to use this opportunity to perfect my speaking and presentation skills. I have also been trying out different methods of making large groups comfortable, motivated, and excited about something – which I think is a “must have” skill if you ever want to have a job where you lead people. It’s amazing how little things pay off so much, like making a joke you calculate will work well for the group, touching someone’s arm when you make a comment to them, calling people by their names, making eye contact, smiling, thanking individuals or groups for their attention and effort, complimenting individuals or groups on things you notice they are making an effort to improve, and things like that. It’s just so easy to “captivate” a group of people if you just pay attention to a bunch of calculated small things. It’s almost too easy.

So anyways, the explanation as to why I haven’t had a post in a long time is simple: things have slowed down and at the same time gotten very busy. I don’t do many new things, but I do a lot of the same old stuff. Now that my brother has gone though, I think I’ll have time to post more often. I do apologize for the long delay in getting this post up though. I promise, I’ll make a better effort to keep them more regular – if for any reason, just to keep my friends and family off my back.

Ohhh, and I was getting my shoes shined in the store not 100 meters from the front door of my apartment and guess what I saw hanging on the wall. Yes. Shoelaces: 5 yuan. I bought a pair and am saving the ones I paid 20 yuan for. Much like one might only wear a Rolex on special occasions, I will only lace them on the shoes when I want to impress people. After all, you don’t want to sport that kind of luxury every day. One needs to be able to blend in with the “common folk” at least some of the time too.