In keeping with being tardy in everything lately, the Love List on a Saturday:
- Most importantly, Big Sister M. Happy Birthday, sister!! I’ll be home soon to give you presents and birthday love.
- Finding money in your pants when you pull them out of the laundry.
- Art projects. RP and I are getting married 5 weeks from today, which means it’s time to seriously get moving on the ksube. So far, it looks like this:
What else could BirdAbroad do but fill it with birds?!
I’ll be back in NYC in less than 3 weeks – phew. I’ve been working like crazy and need to come up for air.
This is going to be a quickie because I’m leaving for India in half an hour and I still need to wash a sink-ful of dishes. (YES! India. I’ll be there for two weeks, ostensibly to see my best friend from childhood get married in Kerala, but also to get out of China for a while. RP is already in Delhi and tells me that it is so dusty that we may need to get masks of some variety to protect our lungs…whatever. I need a break from Kunming and no amount of urban pollution is going to stop me.)
Anyway it’s been kind of a slow week in the things-I’m-loving department, so there’s really only this one:
- Friendships rekindled. About four and a half years ago I did a bad thing to my friend RB – what she needed was support in a tough time, and instead I antagonized her in a misguided attempt at tough love. It didn’t work, and we didn’t speak for four years. Then, using Rosh Hashanah this year as an excuse, I finally apologized. She was the only person in the world with whom I had bad blood, and I finally realized that the whole thing was my fault and told her so. My reward for swallowing my pride and admitting that I was in the wrong is that I get to be friends with her again and, even though we’re thousands of miles apart, it is great to be back in her life. In case you’ve been looking for a sign that you should apologize to someone you’re fighting with, here’s your sign! You’ll feel much better afterwards, I promise.
Passport – check. Plane tix – check. Alka seltzer – check. India, here I come. I’ll be back with pictures (plus the rest of the pictures from Laos, courtesy of RP) in a couple weeks.
Everyone set your watches for April 13, when sister G will be turning 24!
- Corporate guts. I’m looking at you, Google. Although I am not happy about not having free access to the US version of Google, and although I fear that the Hong Kong version of Google to which I am now redirected will soon be blocked by the Chinese government (leaving me to search with…Bing…<shudder>), I applaud Google’s move to shut the Mainland site. Although I generally favor engagement over embargo, the Chinese government has had foreign companies and governments in a stranglehold for too long, often by holding out the threat of losing the business of hundreds of millions of people as punishment for failure to adhere to its oppressive policies. This week’s lesson: sometimes the ends do not justify the means.
- Hard-won progress. I’m looking at you, US Congress. Or rather, I’m looking at you, Most Members of the Democratic Party. Yes, I think the health care reform bill has serious flaws, but this was too large a problem, too corrupt a system to wait for the perfect bill. This is how progress begins. For any Dems out there wondering where their representatives came down in this, feel free to send these people shame-mail!
- The generosity of strangers. After putting out a call on a Kunming expat forum for fellow seder-goers next week, I have yet to find a seder but I am now in possession of a giant box of matze, a bottle of kosher red wine and some kharoses (but SO not as good as the kind you make every year, sister G) courtesy of a friendly stranger who purchased these items in Beijing. Peysakh partydown!
Man, it’s been a long week.
- Mysterious cultural stereotypes. This morning I walked into work wearing jeans and a slightly lacy, periwinkle-colored top. One of my coworkers inspected my outfit and declared, “You’re looking very Scottish today!”
- Language skill progress. Even though I still have plenty of days where I shake my head at how poor my Chinese is, I have noticeably improved in two areas: speaking to people on the phone, and engaging in smalltalk.
It used to be that if I needed to call someone on the phone I would plan out what I was going to say, and look up any key words I didn’t know; when people called me, I would get a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and wonder how I might be able to avoid picking up. (The reasons for this are basically that speaking on the phone robs you of the physical cues and props you might use to make yourself understood if language fails you, plus the other person usually sounds tinny and distant.) Now I just barrel through phone calls, repeating myself if necessary, asking people to speak more clearly if necessary, and only have a minor feeling of dread when I get calls at the office. Progress!
It’s only when you operate in a foreign language that you realize how truly inane smalltalk can be, because you have to learn what it is that other people say when they don’t really want to have a conversation but are just trying to be polite. I used to not engage in this at all and, when encountering people on the street, the conversation would go something like this:
ME: Oh, hello!
UNFORTUNATE ACQUAINTANCE: Hello!
ME: Well…goodbye! <breaks into a run>
It was only this afternoon that I noticed I had gotten better at this when I ran into a professional acquaintance on my way home. After some minor hesitation I was able to ask her about her weekend plans, make some banter about being tired (Chinese people are like New Yorkers – they LOVE to talk about how stressed and tired they are), and exit the scene with only a few key moments of awkwardness. Progress!
- Chinese desserts. If you have a very Western flavor palette, one of the tricky things about eating in China can be dessert. The Western appetite for dessert is generally dependent on an intimate relationship with dairy products (if you have ever tried to make vegan brownies on the fly, you know what I am talking about) and dairy comprises a very small part of, and very recent addition to, most Chinese people’s diets. As a result, more traditional Chinese desserts are simply fresh fruit (sometimes mysterious sour fruits that you don’t really feel like eating), or dried and candied fruits, or things that rely heavily on glutinous rice and soy milk.
More recent additions to the Chinese dessert world are imitations of Westerns desserts gone VERY wrong, such as elaborately designed and delicious-looking cakes that deflate into a pile of crumbs and drippy filling when you poke them with a fork, or Mexican-bakery-style cookies covered in sprinkles that would actually be better used as a weapon in a street fight.
But I have actually come to really like Chinese desserts because a) I like glutinous rice and soy milk, and increasingly enjoy random candied fruits, and b) I get so much pleasure out of looking at frothy cakes sculpted into dragons and Hello Kitties that it’s sort of OK with me if you don’t really get to eat them. PLUS! Yesterday I discovered this dessert:
Looks like soft serve over vanilla pudding or something, right? But get closer…
It’s totally made of ice! But it is soft and refreshing, like running outside after a fresh snowfall and planting your face in the ground. It has the amusing effect of making you feel totally full immediately after eating it, and then hungry again 20 minutes later when you realize that you basically consumed a giant pile of water with a bit of sugar on top. The stuff underneath is sort of reminiscent of vanilla pudding – except it’s overly reliant on glutinous rice, as far as I can tell…ah well. It can be purchased at the hilariously named shop pictured below, which I hear is actually Taiwanese (but I subscribe to the political philosophy of “One Country, Many Desserts”, so it’s OK).
The above version is “caramel” flavor; it comes in variety of others including green tea and “chocolate”, surrounded by lotus seeds, red or green beans, and chunks of corn. I’m working on it.
Happy weekend, Readers!
- Spring. I will grant you that it never gets very cold in Kunming, but Spring is finally here and I haven’t worn a jacket to work in a week. Aaaaah!
This image does also show you the other side of living at a high altitude; how am I supposed to dress for a 40-degree difference between night and day…?
- The casualness of Chinese dress. The first time you get invited to a wedding in China you will probably make a fool of yourself by wearing, say, a tie. Then you will get to the banquet hall and notice that all the rest of the guests are wearing jeans and sweaters and basically look like they just rolled out of bed.
Chinese people around here almost NEVER get dressed up and, for foreigners like me, this is a little confusing at first. But we’re going to a business meeting with a top government official – don’t you want to comb your hair?…But you’re interviewing for a Director-level position at our organization – don’t you think it would have been wise to put on a sport coat?…But you’re OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT – don’t you think you should have changed out of your pink pajama set and giant fluffy slippers before going to the bank? (True story.)
But at this point, I like it; it’s sort of like living in a giant dormitory. Everyone is relaxed about their clothing all the time. I never worry that I’m inappropriately dressed for a social activity, or a restaurant, or a business meeting. And should I ever feel the need to get a bowl of spicy noodles in the middle of having my hair done, as apparently the woman sitting next to me in a restaurant yesterday did, I won’t worry about people staring at me even if I’ve got rollers on the bottom half of my head, little sheets of folded tinfoil pleating the top half of my head, and a shiny salon gown still wrapped around my neck. Because hey, you’ve gotta eat. And that salon gown handily doubles as a bib when you spill chili oil down your front.
- My white hairs. I think I spotted my first white hair when I was a teenager – although it soon fell out and I never paid much attention to it – but this is the first year of my life that I have a couple of white hairs that are always there. When I first noticed this I made a decision not to be self-conscious about it, and in fact have noticed that all of my twenty-something friends have a strand or two of white. Coincidentally, I usually part my hair in a way that doesn’t show my white hairs. But even when they don’t show, I periodically go looking for them; I seek out the single strands and hold them up to the light, inspecting their lack of color and their slight coarseness. There is something about them that I find inexplicably comforting. Plus, they remind me to get a move on: I won’t be young forever.
Devilishly speaking of which: Happy 30th Birthday, N! Wish I could be at the festivities with you all tonight.
P.S. I put my first post on this blog about a year ago, months before we moved to China. Read my first post from snowy Brooklyn here.
This Love List is dedicated to things that have nothing to do with my life in China at the moment. It’s been that kind of week.
- Vancouver. I’ve been there twice. Dramatic scenery, politically progressive, rich cultural history, diverse population, excellent cinnamon buns.
Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia
- Radiolab. Everything I know I learned from this podcast.
- Train travel. If you’re in the US, I recommend the Capitol Limited from DC to Pittsburgh.
- Going to baseball games on the fly. I don’t know anything about baseball teams, but I always like picking up a pair of nosebleed tickets for $10 and rooting for the team of whatever stadium I’m in. I make an excellent, spontaneous fan.
- Isadora Duncan. A free spirit. I did a biographical presentation on her for my whole 6th grade class wearing one of my mother’s night gowns.
- Manischewitz macaroons, original flavor. They are delicious, remind me of my grandma, and come in a giant can. My grandma was a woman who appreciated things that came in cans.
This is the chocolate kind - the original flavor is best
What’s on your Love List, dear readers?
- My new camera. All the photos you see on this site from now on will be taken with my amazing new camera (thank you Mom and Dad!). It will look like I have taken some kind of crash course in photography and become massively skillful. In fact, I am just as much of a photo-dolt as ever, but my new camera makes me (and everyone else) look goood.
Handsome even without the fancy camera
- Dongfeng Square. My office overlooks a large, open Soviet-style square. Every day of the week, any time of day, the square is alive with all manner of spontaneous activity – particularly impromptu performances of Beijing-style opera, accompanied by a minimal orchestra of an erhu and maybe some kind of small drum.Today there was another solar eclipse (what?! again?) so the neighborhood was out in full force in Dongfeng Square to witness the event, of which my new camera took very abstract photos. (The sun is actually located where the bright light is, but it was refracting the image of the eclipse off to the right. The large black areas are actually buildings.)
After the eclipse passed, I walked around the square taking a photos of the afternoon activity. A few men, who appeared not to know one another, began a hypnotic circular dance in the middle of a large crowd after someone put on some creaky tunes:
In another corner of the square, the fellow below was entertaining an audience of appreciative onlookers with popular classic songs:
…until he was spontaneously joined by this dancing gentleman (to warm audience applause):
I went back to the office for my last hour of work, full of smiles.
- Laobaichic (that’s “lao-bye-sheek”). This is a word that I have created to describe the style in which a certain section of Chinese people dress. The etymology of this word is laobaixing, which literally means “old one hundred names”, and is the term that is used to refer to Average Chinese People.Laobaichic is a determinedly un-hip sense of fashion, eschewing Western trends, that manages to make particularly older people look killer cool. It is a hard look to describe, but immediately recognizable. Today I took the plunge and bought a padded jacket – very laobaichic.
I’m like the coolest old lady in Kunming.
Have a great weekend! Everyone should have a delicious brunch this weekend, much like this one that RP and I consumed greedily last Sunday:
Beijing is a cold place. A frigid, dark-at-4pm, kind of place. I can tell you this because I am currently in Beijing, holed up in an airport hotel.
What’s that? You’re wondering why I’m not currently sailing over the Arctic Circle, due to land at JFK in 7 hours? That would be because I am an idiot, and due to various things that are completely my fault, I missed my connecting flight in Beijing to NYC and am now stuck here until tomorrow.
Being that I am feeling particularly annoyed with myself about this, and due to the fact that I had completely forgotten that Beijing is a gloomy ice box (the last time I was here in the winter it was with my then new-ish boyfriend RP, and I think the love glow might have blocked out the Siberian winds) AND due to the fact that I just had the worst Chinese food in history at the hotel canteen downstairs – what better time for a tardy Friday Love List?! Ahem:
- Air China. Ok, I know they have a bad reputation…due largely to a 2002 crash in South Korea that killed 128 people…but they were exceedingly kind to me today in a situation where I was the one who had screwed up. They got me on a plane to Beijing with about 5 minutes to spare, they had a lady with my name on a sign meet me at the other end when it became clear that I wasn’t going to make the NY flight (and she endured my hysterics with a lot of understanding, let me tell you), they rescheduled my flight for free, and shuttled me for free to a hotel for the night, WHICH IS ALSO FREE. In the morning they’ll pick me up and take me back to the airport (for FREE) so that this idiot can finally get on a plane to New York. Above and beyond, Air China! (Note: I think you may have to speak Chinese in order to get this service…they’re not so good with the English.)
- Beijing accents. I’ve been in Kunming for almost 6 months, and have gotten used to the Southern brogue common to those parts. That is to say, I have gotten used to straining my ears and catching every 3rd or 4th word. Despite Beijing’s version of this, which is the addition of a strong “r” sound at the end of many words, northern people speak a Mandarin that puts me in mind of my classroom Chinese days. Ah, “我听得懂!”
- The anticipation of home. I may be getting there later than expected, but I’m on my way back to NYC. (Knock wood – please finish soon, giant New York blizzard!) I am going to eat 86 pounds of smoked salmon and soak up some family time. I will be fat and happy and I CAN’T WAIT.
I may or may not post while I’m in NY, since I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be seeing oh, say, everyone who reads this blog while I’m there. But I may.
Either way, I’ll be back before the new year – wish my luck on my way across the planet.
It has been brought to my attention that what with all of my grand revelations, little exotic jaunts to here and there, and general lovey dovey-ness, life seems just swell for me over here – really just hunky dory. And isn’t it soooo fantastic to be me.
Sorry if I make you all roll your eyes sometimes with my Marveling at the World, but seriously – I could easily write a Friday Hate List. I could write a 2pm Every Single Day Hate List. For example! An item on today’s Friday Annoyance List (let’s call it that instead):
- Coughing, Sneezing and Spitting in China. You may have noticed from some of my previous posts that I kind of have a thing about this: coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth, and spitting all over the place, is a pretty regular part of public life here in Kunming. Indoors, outdoors, in restaurants, on buses, wherever. Particular culprits in this area are men, for whatever reason. I know that a big part of my problem with this is just at a visceral level, because I (like most Westerners) was taught from a very early age that these behaviors are not only disgusting but unsanitary.
But here’s the thing: IT IS UNSANITARY. Allow me to lay some knowledge on y’all: every year in China, 1.4 million people are newly infected with tuberculosis. Every year, a quarter of a million people in China die from TB. To put this in perspective, that’s 5 TIMES more people dying of TB in a single year in China than have died here of AIDS - EVER. In all of history. And you know the main ways people get tuberculosis? You guessed it: coughing, sneezing and spitting.
I know that I work in public health, and so am perhaps slightly more sensitive than most, but: THAT, China, is what’s called hitting the goddamned trifecta. GET A TISSUE, MORONS.
DO WHAT THIS GUY IS DOING
Sadly, the thing about a Friday Annoyance List is that it actually doesn’t make me feel better, it makes me feel angry and stressed. One of the unintended happy consequences of keeping this blog is that it gives me an excuse to mark great moments and joyful insights – they carry me through what are sometimes very long days, particularly when RP is away doing fieldwork, as he is now.
So here’s a Friday Love List bullet point to balance out the irksome issue above:
- Power failure dividends. My office is real cold. As in, I-don’t-know-why-I-bother-wearing-different-clothes-every-day-because-I-never-take-my-coatscarfgloves-off cold. And when we try to plug in space heaters the power shorts out.
But while we were waiting for the power to come back on earlier this week so that we could go back to work, a couple of my colleagues sat on a couch with me and taught me various tricks and games from their childhoods involving random office supplies – twirling pens around in their fingers, elaborate magic knots with defunct headphone cords, tongue twisters. It was silly and sweet and gave me a reason to laugh for a solid 45 minutes in the middle of the day.
And I don’t know why it is, but everywhere I go in the world, women know how to play Cat’s Cradle.
Happy weekend, loyal readers! Stay warm.
- My little group of friends. Although several people I liked a lot have left Kunming over the past couple months, I have a good group of friends here and we all see each other often. It’s been a while since this has been true for me; most of the places we’ve lived in the past few years I’ve had a group of friends most of whom don’t know each other, and I’ve been stuck in the Tyranny of the One-on-One Coffee.
Much as you love your friends, that routine gets really old. What doesn’t appear to get old is having delicious Indian food with a couple friends and one handsome fiancé, and then going to see the Michael Jackson concert movie (yes, I was dragged to it – but YES, I also really enjoyed it. I’M NOT GONNA SPEND MY LIFE BEIN’ A COLOR.) In case you’re wondering: all of my friends are Western. I don’t really like admitting that, because this was always something that I criticized about foreigners living in China before I moved back here. More on that issue at some point.
- Chinglish. In case you are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a mashup of Chinese and English (like Spanglish or Franglais), but often refers to translations into English from Chinese gone very, very badly. (Remember that story about how when Pepsi first came to China the Chinese translated “Pepsi Comes Alive” as “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead”? I’m pretty sure that was an urban legend, but oh how I wish it were true.)
Anyway, I know that it’s a little childish to continue to be amused every time you see “fried crap” on a menu when you know they meant “fried carp”, but I can’t help myself. And occasionally you get the right combination of being in a ridiculously silly mood and then BAM! you spy a couple great pieces of Chinglish, such as these 10-foot tall posters spotted while exiting a movie theater last week:
Here’s lookin’ at you, Henfly.
- Possibilities for strangeness in China. After four and half months living in Kunming, life is starting to seem pretty normal. I do normal things like going to work, doing laundry and seeing friends. I could definitely use more experiences that expose me to the many strange experiences that are allowed to occur in a developing society that, authoritarian impulses aside, appears at times to exist in a state of back-street-anarchy and otherwise promote pastimes that Westerners might consider…questionable. For example, why have I not yet visited Kunming’s Dwarf Kingdom after consuming copious amounts of some hallucinogen or other? I REALLY DON’T KNOW.Nevertheless, Kunming has excellent little ways of strangifying your day for you, even when you’re not looking for it: Troupe of shoe store shop girls dressed in mock-police officer uniforms performing a synchronized hip-hop/military dance routine on the sidewalk? Oh yes. Being offered a drink over dinner from a bathtub-sized jar of grain alcohol with giant pickled lizards suspended in it? And how.
Just when you’re fixing to tackle the guy who full-on SNEEZED directly on an unsuspecting woman’s face as she exited an elevator, something bizarre little wonder will present itself to bring a smile to your face. Thank you, China.