Friday, October 30, 2009

While my native land of Minnesota is coping with record snowfall in October and chilly temps, I have to admit I am enjoying the longer fall we have here. We sit at the same latitude as Columbus, Ohio, and up until today have been hovering in the low 70's/high 60's. That's a bit higher than normal, and supposedly we will be experiencing the 50's for the next week (although a predicted 68 next Friday). Now, I know that sounds pretty warm to people in the frozen tundra of the north, but when I went to put on clothes this morning, I reached for my wool sweater. Why? Because 55 degrees outside mean 55 degrees outside. That's not because we're too cheap to turn on our heat. It's because we don't have any. At least not until the government decides we do.

The Chinese government controls when the heat gets turned on here. Officially I believe it has to be on by November 15th. Sometimes it comes on earlier, depending on your complex (maybe a good reason to pay your management fees). But I like to think that at some point, a government official says, "Wang xian sheng, KAI SHI!" (Mr. Wang, begin!), some crusty old guy shuffles over to a giant switch, and poof! We all have heat. On March 15th, the same ritual happens in reverse. So much power for one little man. (I realize this isn't how it happens, but it amuses me to imagine it as such, so don't spoil it for me).

So until November 15th, or some time around then, we are subject to whatever the weather is outside.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Haiku for Squatties

I was "inspired" the other day to compose a haiku in honor of China's most common form of toilet: the squattie. Not only are these holes in the ground more difficult to maneuver for Westerners, most of whom have not retained the ability to squat flat footed as Asians can (one benefit of daily use of the squattie), but they are often not kept as clean as one might appreciate. Squatties are why God gave us a non-olfactory breathing passage.

I composed the Haiku in Mandarin, but realized this morning that it works in English as well. I'll write the pinyin first:

Wei sheng jian zainar?
Zhi you zheyang de ce suo
Wo xiang wo hui deng

Where is the bathroom?
Only this kind of toilet
I will just hold it.

Forgive me, Mandarin speakers, if my grammar is poor. Call it creative license.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Half

As some of you know, I ran in the BJ Marathon last Sunday. I took the "half the distance, twice the fun" way out and only ran the 1/2 instead of the full. I started training back in June, and have enjoyed many long runs along the canal by my house. It's a beautiful place to run, especially these days as the leaves on the slope down to the water are all changing. It looks like the hills are on fire.

But I digress. My training went well until about a month ago, when I couldn't ignore the pain in my left heel anymore. I was sure I'd have to quite the race. Then I called a woman here who has a great deal of experience and education in healthcare, and her exact words were, "Gina, you're running long distances. When you run long distances, your feet hurt." Her recommendation: ice and new shoes. The ice was good. The new shoes gave me blisters. Chalk up a few more missed runs while those healed.

My biggest hiccup came when I got an email at 5 p.m. one day that said, "We've had a problem with your registration. If you don't contact us by noon today, we will delete your information from our system." The email had been sent the night before. So I called their number and asked to speak to someone in English, knowing full well that I would not be able to communicate what I wanted in Mandarin. The poor man on the other end must have been wishing he didn't speak English by the end of our conversation. He started by giving me the very cultural, "Sorry, there's nothing I can do" response. By the end of the conversation, he was saying, "Ok, calm down. I will do my best to get you reinstated." And he did. Thank you Jerry, from the BJ Marathon Office. I sincerely apologize for verbally haranguing you.

Back on track, I was feeling pretty good about the race. My goal was to finish under 2 hours. The great thing was, even if I didn't, making a PR for this record was a guarantee since last year it took me about 2 1/2 hours to run/walk it. According to my inike training program, which tells me my pace, distance, and time, I was on track to finish in about 1:58.

The day of the race I woke up, joined my three running companions (my husband and two friends from my complex) and had another friend drive us down to Tian'anmen Square. The runners were organized in clumps according their race: we had to push (quite literally) our way through the mini-marathon runners, and the 9K runners, until we broke out into the open area for 1/2 marathoners. After the guy next to us had his pre-race smoke, we were off. The first 1/2 mile we had to dodge discarded disposable rain jackets people had been wearing to keep warm. Me, I wore long socks on my arms until I got too hot (thanks for the tip Tammy!).

Since Erik had to leave for Hong Kong that afternoon, he didn't have time to run the entire race. So, being the gracious and encouraging man he is, he offered to run with me instead of loping off into the distance. It was a bit boring for him, since I run so much slower, and because I had my ipod on. At one point he struck up a conversation with a guy from Iowa. Only my husband makes friends while running a race.

Erik was supposed to run with me until mile 9 or 10, when we ran past our house. At mile 8 or so, he went to get water and never came back! I kept waiting for him to sprint up to me. I couldn't figure it out. But I had to keep running, so I had to rely on the cheers from the sidelines. And they were legion! Granted, most of the people watching were either people who happened to be passing by and decided to stop and gawk at the runners, or people who were just on their regular route to work and got blocked for a few hours. Still, even those people had their cell phones out taking pictures and videotaping. Because why not kill some time while waiting? Many people though were chanting the traditional "jia you" (pronounced 'jah yoh') which means "add oil!", clapping, and giving us thumbs up. I found a few of my own personal cheer squad (my kids and our friends) around mile 9-10. It kept a smile on my face most of the way.

But then came the 10-12 mile loop. Along that route, there were no bystanders, and I began to start having those, "Why on EARTH am I doing this??" thoughts. I also began to realize that my inike program was not as accurate as I'd hoped. At the 10K mark it had been dead on, but it was telling me I was nearing the end, and I really wasn't.

As I came around the corner for the last stretch, it announced, "Congratulations! You've reached your goal!" but the finish line was nowhere in sight. It was more than disappointing to run the last MILE without music, fully knowing that though my inike had told me I'd finished in under 2 hours, that would not actually be the case.

I finished in 2:07:14. Certainly better than last year, and better than the 2:10 I initially anticipated before I started training. I caught up with my friends and, after doing a short interview for a local TV station, we took the subway home. All in all, a good experience. And just like labor, I vowed for the first 24 hours that I would never, ever, do that again. But now I'm thinking, "So next year . . . "

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Memory Lane

Last night Megan asked me if I knew my mother's parents when I was little. I didn't have the fortune of knowing my grandmother, as she died long before I was born, but I do have many fond memories of my grandpa John, and weekends spent at his house.

So I began to tell Megan about my grandpa. I told her what his house looked like (strikingly similar in layout to my parent's current house). I told her about the box in the basement next to the TV that always had peanut m&m's or chocolate stars, and how we'd try to sneak them without anyone hearing. I told her about eating dinner on Friday nights at the mom and pop root beer stand at the corner, where we'd always have corn dogs (and root beer, of course). I told her that my grandpa's refrigerator always had 20 kinds of soda, and that we would eat Alphabits for breakfast with half and half poured over it, and braunswauger sandwiches on white bread for lunch. But best of all, I told her, were the mornings my grandpa made pancakes, sausage and bacon for everyone, with Karo syrup.

As I talked her eyes lit up, and she said, "It sounds like so much fun!" I told her it was fun, just like it's fun for her to visit her grandparents. On reflection, I realized I made it sound like all we did at grandpa's was eat. Tonight I'll have to tell her about riding our hot wheels in the driveway, playing with old toys we'd find in the closet, the bright green antique dentist chair in the corner of the basement, the salon style doors leading to the back room that made it feel like a secret hideout, the time we stood out on the patio in our bare feet on Christmas Day because it was 50 degrees, the collection of antique dolls in my mom's old bedroom that we used to play with, playing piano while my grandpa dozed in the armchair, and how he'd always snap awake when I was done and say, "Very good!"

I actually can't play piano or make pancakes (like I did this morning, but not at the same time) without thinking of my grandpa. I wonder what our kids will remember about visiting their grandparents?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Race prep

Last year I entered the half marathon with as much forethought as someone who basically wandered into it from off the street. Sure, I had running shoes on, and my ipod to keep me company, but beyond that I was just armed with my 11 weeks of training.

This time, I'm trying to be a little more prepared. Spurred on by a dream the other night that I was halfway down to the race and discovered I'd forgotten my ipod and my hydration belt (which sounds like sounds like something the astronauts wear) I made a list of things to bring tomorrow. That's better than my friend Meg though, who dreamt she'd forgotten her shoes.

Since I'm recovering from a mid-week cold, I've been drinking copious amounts of liquids and sucking down vitamin C and cough drops. This morning I went for a walk and came back to stretch. I iced my left foot just for good measure because of the pain I had earlier in my training. I'm about to head out for a head massage, and then tonight we're having a pre-race potluck.

I have my clothes all picked out for tomorrow too - short sleeved shirt and running capris, plus long socks with the toes cut open which I can wear as sleeves until I warm up (forecast is 50 degrees). I think I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Loss of skills

I'm trying to think of what new skills I must have acquired in Singapore which pushed out skills I used to have revolving around cold weather clothing. I'm at a loss to know what those new skills are, but something has caused me to lose my ability to know two particular things:

1. When do you fully make the transition to cold weather clothing in your wardrobe? By this I mean putting away all the summer stuff and pulling out all the winter stuff? How long does this transitional period last?

2. Do I need just one jacket for the fall, or two? This was the question I encountered today while shopping for a coat. I have a winter coat, but I need something until then. I tried on one light weight coat, then found a similar style that had a thin wool/fleece like outside layer instead of cotton. Obviously warmer, right, but necessary? Couldn't I just wear more clothing under the first coat? I can't tell you how plagued I was by this dilemma. The little Minnesotan inside of me was ashamed. How could I forget this kind of information?? In the end, I let my money decide for me - I had to get the awesome shoes of the previous post, so I only wanted to spend enough to buy the lighter weight coat. I figure if I get too cold before I want to pull out my winter coat, I can go back. I also want to take Megan back because she want pink Uggs and a quilted pink vest.

Give me time. I spent the first 26 years of my life in Minnesota. We know how to do cold, and everything leading up to it.

Gina vs the Vendor

Bargaining at markets in Asia is fun for tourists. It's like a little game with Monopoly money. But when you live here, and you go with a mission to find something specific you actually need, it becomes like a show down at the OK Corral.

I went today looking for a fall jacket, shoes for cold weather other than the one pair I bought at Target about ten years ago, and a silver chain. I found these particular shoes in black leather and had that, "I must have these" feeling, while simultaneously trying to look only mildly interested. This is when the guns got drawn (cue The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme song):

First, the women try to convince me that it doesn't really matter what size shoe I wear. These are close enough. I counter with "they fit right or I walk." They find my size (this is a very abbreviated version of what happened. In reality, I saw about 4 pairs of shoes in two different colors).

Somewhere in the midst of finding a complete pair of size 7 shoes (these run small!) I inquire as to price. 500Y. My eyes narrow, just like in the Old West. I chuckle, and tell her she must be joking. She draws her calculator so we can bargain without others hearing. She drops to 480. This is where I leave the store.

Ah, but she grabs me and pulls me back in. I was prepared for this. I give her my highest price, 200. Her eyes narrow. She pulls out the calculator again. 450, 200, ok, ok friend, best price 400. 200, 375, 200, 350. I step away to field a phone call from my piano tuner, most of which I don't understand, but it impresses the vendor to hear me speak more Mandarin. She counters with her final price: 275. I stick to my 200 guns. She begins pleading with me to come up a little. She even drops down to 270. I'm weakening - my desire for the shoes and to be done with this transaction causes me to break my cardinal rule of never budging from my initial price: 210. That's all she needs - 220, she's reaching for a bag. The deal is done.

We wipe the sweat from our brows and promise to be good friends in future face offs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From tropical to temperate

Each morning my kids wake up and ask me, "Is it cold outside mom?" And my response is, "Yes, and it is going to keep getting colder." Then they look at me with this baffled, "What is going ON in this country?!?" expression. Ah, kids, welcome back to a temperate climate.

In all fairness to my upbringing, it's not really cold. The morning temps are in the 50's, daytime highs in the mid to upper 60's. But when the coldest temperature you've experienced at night for the past five years was 70 something, and daytime highs were regularly 85-90, it's cold. This takes some adjustment. It's at least enough to pull out the long sleeves and pants, and for me to rethink the time that I run each day.

In addition to finding our cold weather clothes, I am also rediscovering a desire to make soup instead of salads, to take baths, and to drink tea (and I don't even really like tea). To my husband's great delight, I actually want him to snuggle with me in bed. He doesn't even mind that I'm just using him for warmth. On the downside, we have also rediscovered static cling. This fascinates my kids. It just annoys me. That's right - for five whole years I never saw static cling.

While I was raised in a temperate climate (some might call it tundra), I have to say I enjoy the fact that this spot on the globe is slightly warmer than my hometown in southern Minnesota - no snow flurries in the forecast for awhile. It's a nice way to ease back into temperate.

Friday, October 02, 2009

National Day Parade

I'm not one for drinking games, but if I were, and the phrase for drinking yesterday was, "Socialism with Chinese characteristics", all the people at our house would have been tanked. We got our cable installed just so that we could watch the National Day Parade on TV. I had forgotten the awesomeness which is Chinese television. The commercials alone are fascinating - usually about 5 seconds long, often repeated within 20 seconds of their previous showing, and generally involving embarrassing situations for those in the commercial.

But yesterday wasn't about commercials - it was all about the Chinese, and their ability to coordinate events with large numbers of people at a level of precision that is awe-inspiring. The parade kicked off with President Hu sticking out of the top of a black car, looking not unlike a Ken doll when similarly stuck in the Barbie convertible, being driven along a long line of troops and military equipment. This is called the "review of the troops", a.k.a. "check out our massive military strength." Periodically he would call out "tong zher men xin ku la!" (Comrades you are so hard working!) and they would respond, "Wei renmen fu wu!" (for the people!). Heart warming. While he was reviewing, and while the troops subsequently marched past the main square with perfectly coordinated moves, there were 80,000 children in the square holding up colored signs that were changed into 41 different pictures. The pictures included different phrases in characters, and the Chinese flag. Don't worry, these poor children had stands on which to put their signs.

After the troops marched past, there was a line of floats - one for every official minority group in the country. Many were surrounded by people making patterns with things they were carrying - flags, sashes, flowers, large colorful rings, and my personal favorite - giant colored puff balls like something from a Dr. Suess book. And all of it accompanied by a 2,000 piece band.

The sheer amount of organization required to pull off an event like this is staggering. Everyone was in step (how do you drive giant rocket bearing tanks down a street exactly in a line?), everyone was happy, the skies were blue. That in itself was a feat - the previous day visibility was about 50 yards. These people are experts at cloud seeding.

And all throughout, as we listened to the English commentary, we were reminded that this is a country which is "socialist, with Chinese characteristics." Apparently that includes pulling off major parades for 60th anniversaries. Well done, China, well done.