Ok, ok. Here’s the post.
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.