Thursday, July 30, 2009

Road trip!

Inspired by the BBC Wild China DVD, our friends, my parents, and we decided to take a trip. When I searched for rural retreats around our city, I was amazed at how much I found! That was good news because our time is limited, and being able to drive somewhere in a day is so much more pleasant and less expensive.

So our first adventure was to take a loop around the west side of town. As we were driving, we happened to see some caves poking out of a rocky hill (see picture in previous post) so we decided we had to stop and explore. Megan later said this was her favorite part of the trip!

Our next stop was planned - Chuan Di Xia, a Ming dynasty era village set against a hill. Most of the homes here are now places where you can eat or even stay the night. We wandered around until we found a woman who welcomed us into her home for lunch. She told us her family had been there for 16 generations! Do you know where your family has been for 16 generations? Well, thanks to my dad I do, but it's not in the same little ancient village.

Our next destination was a further 40 km, at the base of Ling Shan, a 2,300 meter mountain. We turned down the first offered guest house and chose one where we took all four rooms at 80 kuai per room. Our host for our stay was a Mr. Yan, who seems to be the big Kahuna in their little town. In addition to taking us up to his restaurant more than once, and helping us arrange horseback rides up the mountain, he also outfitted my dad with a coat. We had anticipated slightly cooler temps there, but it was probably in the low 60's at best and promised to be colder up the mountain. So Mr. Yan led us to his secret stash of coats. First he offered my dad a quilted metallic peach coat that screamed, "I am a 20 year old Chinese girl. Let me get my Hello Kitty backpack." I wanted that coat to fit so badly. When it didn't, he gave my dad the standard giant green army jacket, suitable for sub-zero temps.

Thankfully, he didn't need it. While the majority of our group rode horses up the mountain, I drove my parents to the cable car so we'd all have a way of getting back to our hotel (although now that I think about it, Mr. Yan might have come in handy there). As we crept up the mountain in a chair lift that certainly was purchased from a ski resort garage sale, suddenly we broke through the cloud bank into sunny skies and beautiful country.

At the top of the mountain we realized we hadn't nailed down the details of where we would meet our party. A few women tried to convince me to hop on a horse to traverse the final distance to the peak. When I told them I was waiting for friends, they said, "They've gone up, we've seen them!" Yeah, I'm not falling for that trick. They insisted that they had seen foreigners go up, one with red hair. Well now, that seems compelling. I asked to borrow a phone. As I was dialing, the woman said, "You should give him 2 kuai to use his phone since you aren't taking a horse ride." The man said, "No, 10 kuai!" We all chuckled. He tried again a minute later, "You should give me 20 kuai to use my phone." I replied, "I'll give you 20 kuai to buy your phone." We all laughed again. Nothing like a little good natured ripping in another language. I finally decided to head up the hill on foot to see if I could find them. Halfway up I started asking people, "Did you see a bunch of foreigners at the top riding horses?" When the answer was "no" I turned around.

The people at the bottom seemed genuinely surprised that I hadn't found my friends. I don't know what foreigners they thought they saw, but our group had come around the other side of the mountain. After our reunion, we all took the lifts back down. I'm a little disappointed to have missed the horse ride, but the chair lift gave a great view.

After another (I'd like to say quick, but it wasn't) lunch, we headed off again on our western loop. We intended to find a reservoir, but along the way we encountered village after village that was too picture worthy to pass. Then we came around a corner to see a giant church on the horizon! We stopped in the village and talked with the locals a little. As we traveled further, we passed through terrace farming, which is a sight to see. By the time we'd found the highway back to town, we decided we'd seen enough to ponder for awhile and cut our trip short.

Who knew all this was so close to town? I lived here five years before and never knew it existed. I think we'll be taking a lot of Saturday drives!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Guess where these were taken?

Right now a bunch of our friends are in Colorado taking great pictures of Rocky Mountain National Park. It's a beautiful place, but I think these scenes are pretty beautiful aren't they? Thankfully we only had to travel about 100 km from home to see them, instead of thousands of miles. More pictures and details to come . . .

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Binge and purge

Confession: I've never pulled an all nighter. Partly this is because my brain is essentially useless after 10 pm, and obnoxiously perky by 5 am. It's also because I've never really been a procrastinator. I hate the stress of it. I don't cram well.

So when it came to taking this driver's test, I started studying last week. Even then, I went to the driver's test feeling like I had gorged myself on the illogical and sometimes contradictory information in the study booklet. As we sat reviewing on the subway, my brain felt like it was told myself, "You can make it to the test room and throw it up all over the computer screen!"

And that's what I did. I was surprised that most of the 100 questions were the more logical ones from the book. There were about 5 I wasn't completely sure on, so when my score came up as 95 I thought, "Well, I guessed wrong on those apparently."

Now all the information has fled my brain like birds released from a cage, and I am free to drive the streets of China like a madwoman, honking and overtaking at will. I feel much better now.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Take a guess

Erik and I just hit upon what might be the best question in the study guide for the Chinese driver's test. I'll let you guess which one is the correct answer:

After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to:
1. Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle.
2. Immediately use hand to open the door.
3. Let the water to fill up the driver's cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal.
4. Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely.

My first language lesson

They say the first thing you learn in a new language is something bad, like how to swear. I'm not the kind of person for whom that would normally be true, but in the case of Chinese, it kind of is.

I was 12 years old when I learned my first phrase in Chinese. You see, my best friend then was Chinese American, and she and her mom would often converse in Mandarin in my presence. Once, in an effort to join in, I spoke some random gibberish, and accidentally said, "Ni you mei you" which means, "Do you have . . . ?" or "Have you . . . ?" So my friend decided it was high time I learned something, and springing off that she taught me, "Ni you mei you fan guo pi?" Which means, "Have you farted?" She also taught me how to ask someone if they pooped their pants. I asked those two questions of every Chinese person I encountered thereafter. No, I'm kidding.

But learning that did come in handy yesterday in the swimming pool locker room. There was a woman, her daughter, and her friend dressing next to me. While trying to avoid the woman's naked and freely moving near me body, I overheard a little noise escape from her daughter. The friend then teased her saying, "Hey, who farted? Was that you?? Did you fart? It was like a little song!" and so on. I think she was a little surprised when I started giggling into my locker. I'm usually more mature than that, but it amused me that I understand what she was saying.

So thank you Vicki Chia, for my first launch into Chinese language. Thankfully I've gone beyond my auspicious beginnings, but they are still helpful from time to time.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Preparing to drive

Erik and I are studying for our driver's tests. There are (we've heard, but not counted) 1300 questions to study, but only 100 on the test. I'm hoping the test questions range more toward the logical ones, such as this:

When encountering a flock of sheep crossing the road, the driver should:
1. Honk continuously to drive away the flock
2. Speed up and bypass the flock
3. Drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock
4. Reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary.

I don't anticipate encountering a flock of sheep, but if I do, I plan to reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary. But I am a little unsure about my first aid skills. What would you answer for the following?

When there are many wounded persons, those who should be sent to hospital last are the persons:
1. suffering cervical vertebra damage
2. suffering massive haemorrhage
3. suffering breathing difficulty
4. whose intestines and veins are exposed

When there is a bleeding in an upper limb or shank without bone fracture or joint damage, the bleeding can be stopped by . . .
1. tourniquet
2. compression dressing
3. cushioned limb folding
4. pressure bondage

If you're curious, the answers to those questions are 1 and 3, respectively. What on earth is a cushioned limb folding? I don't know but I promise to do it if I am ever in that situation.

Most of the questions are in reference to how to behave with other drivers, and it appears that we should answer according to what they want us to do (reduce speed and yield) rather than what people actually do (honk, speed up, and overtake). There are a number of questions that deal with fines and illegal activity, but it seems that the answer to those is always, "the traffic control department of the public security organ", "200-2,000 yuan" or "detain the driver." So I think we're good. Wish us luck!

Friday, July 17, 2009

How to watch a movie

China is notorious for pirated DVDs. I'm sure somewhere on the streets of China right now there is a copy of Harry Potter to be had. Of course, it would be a copy with echoing audio, and peoples' heads popping up at the bottom of the screen. I didn't want to see it that way.

So yesterday, while the kids were up in another part of town visiting friends, my friend Jen and I decided to see it on the big screen. The earliest showing was at 11:30 in the "VIP room." To get in there, I had to buy a VIP card which allowed us to purchase the tickets at half price, which was a whopping $9 US. And that for a matinee! But we soon saw that VIP really does mean VIP.

For starters, we were escorted into a coffee room, where we were given free snacks and coffee or tea. The snacks included little dog bone shaped crackers and sandwich crackers with rock hard icing in the middle. Thanks but I'll pass. The tea was decent, but I wasn't about to give myself any reason to have to leave during the film. If I had, I would have not only missed the movie, but also an extra five minutes of sitting in the mother of all movie seats!

We walked in to the theater which was small (VIP only you know) and filled with about eight rows of giant red leather (nice leather) recliners. This is how to watch a movie! The screen was big despite the room being small. Now that I've done it that way, I don't know that I'll ever be able to go back to a regular theater.

Oh, and Harry Potter was quite entertaining, by the way.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It just got interesting . . .

I've had a full time maid here in China for two weeks now, and I had seriously starting thinking this thought, "I don't really need someone full time." She comes to my house every morning at 8:30 and leaves by 4 - most days before 4, unless I have cooked up some extra work for her, like cleaning the curtain rods in my new apartment (yes, I really had her do that). Even then, several days she has come to me at 3:30 or so and said, "Is there anything else you need me to do?" and I am at a loss so she leaves.

So I told Erik maybe I didn't need someone and he tried to counter by saying that this woman saves me so much time. But the reality is, if I didn't have her, my house just wouldn't be this clean. I wouldn't sweep and mop every day, or do laundry every day, and I'd use the dryer instead of hanging everything up, and I'd probably not make my bed every day either if I'm really honest. When my kids were little, I needed someone more because if I had to go out my kids needed someone to actually watch them. Now, I head out the door and say to my maid, "I'm leaving. The kids are somewhere in the complex. They might come back." Yesterday I even sent her across the street to the market while I went to Carrefour and the kids both stayed home for about 15 minutes. They just don't need the same level of supervision they did back in the day.

But I'm holding on to her for now because I know that when school starts my time will be quite different than now. In the meantime, I'm trying to think of things for her to do. Today I thought I'd teach her how to make some honey whole wheat bread. As we were making it, she commented that she knows how to make tortillas. And cornbread. And coffee bread. And she can teach me how to make dumplings. So now I'm thinking a daily baking order might be good. This is the blessing of having someone who already worked for an expat family! Things just got more interesting. What else should I have her make?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

It doesn't get much better than this

Can I tell you about my weekend? Because it rocked. Friday night we had dinner at a friend's house here in our complex. It was a going away party for a Chinese friend who became a believer a year or two before we came to China. As we were leaving to go there, I prepared the kids for who we would see there, reminding them that this girl was their favorite babysitter when they were little. Megan said, "Is she the one who let us drop stuffed animals on her from Ethan's bed?" Uh, I guess so. I don't remember that happening. Since those days of pummeling, she has gotten married and had a little girl. They are moving to Ohio this week so he can study. Also present was one of our first Chinese friends, a teacher at a nearby university. We spent some time reminiscing, and she helped me with a few language questions I've had. It's amazing to think I've known these women for 10 years!

Yesterday morning I went to my friend Jen's house to help her finish painting her bedroom. She'd done most of it except a bit of the edging and one large spot in a corner. As I painted, I commented that the color seemed lighter. She said, "Yeah, I thought that last time I painted too but it dries darker." After an "I'm stuck halfway off this wardrobe" incident in which we both laughed hysterically (at me, because I was the stuck one) I realized the paint had dried and was still no darker. Turned out it was a different liter of paint we'd tried before the color she chose. Oops. Not so fun for Jen, but I enjoyed the time with her!

In the afternoon, our furniture man came. I don't know how it's all going to turn out, but he walked away with drawings and pictures for nine pieces of furniture he's going to make for us, and we were only $1,400 poorer. Nice.

In the evening, some friends came down another part of town and we shared a BBQ meal and celebrated Erik's birthday while our girls ran and giggled through the house. Ethan mostly watched. Our friends also tipped us off to the fact that this morning at their church, Steven Curtis Chapman was going to lead worship and speak. I love it when this happens (it's happened before - SCC likes China).

So after a six mile run in the early morning cool weather (have I mentioned how much I love the canal where I run?) we went and were hugely blessed by SCC, his sons, and Geoff Moore singing and sharing about their experience in China. Then they invited us to join in and led us in a bunch of worship songs. After the service we had a great lunch out with a load of friends, then came home.

I don't know how this weekend could have been better unless maybe there was a pony ride.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pottery Barn, Welcome to Asia

Our initial search for furniture here was a bit of a shock. Where'd all the cheap furniture go? Suddenly IKEA looked like a more viable option. But the thing is, I'm not Swedish. It's not as appealing I think if you aren't Swedish.

But a friend of ours gave us a phone number for a guy who's made some furniture for him. We gave him a call, and out of curiosity asked him how much he might charge us for a solid wood dining table, 1x1.8 meters. His quote was around $250. Ah, this is more like it.

He's coming this afternoon to see what we want, so I am in a mad scramble on the internet, looking for pictures of the furniture we want. Of course my first stop is Pottery Barn, and Pottery Barn Kids. Ironically there is a good amount of Asian style furniture there, which I am going to have him replicate. Granted, my furniture won't be kiln dried like the stuff from Pottery Barn, but it won't cost me an arm and a leg either. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, July 10, 2009

China Days

I think that Murphy's Law was conceived in China. "If anything can go wrong it will." The original law actually stated, "If anything can go wrong in a frustratingly illogical way, it will." And from this law was birthed a common occurrence known as "A China Day."

My first China day happened back in the summer of '98 when I was helping with a group of students on a summer language study program. I was in charge of changing some money, and I had to do it that day (I was supposed to give someone the money that morning) and I had to go to SEVEN places to change money. Every place it was a different story - they didn't have enough money to exchange, they weren't open yet, they wouldn't change with me because I didn't stay in their hotel, the name on my passport was my maiden name and they couldn't understand the amendment in the back with my married name, they were closed for nap time . . . . and on it went. By the end of a China day, it's best to go home and watch some Jim Gaffigan talk about ketchup or something equally American. Actually, it's probably better to pray but you make the call.

So far here this time I haven't had any major China days. Just China moments where your phone runs out of money suddenly without the usual, "Your balance have little money, please recharge in time" message, or you get lost at the mercy of a taxi driver who smells like cigarette smoke and tea, or you drag 20 pounds worth of cardboard 600 meters for 5 kuai. But yesterday, I had a China day.

Thankfully, I had a China day with Erik. Usually he can keep my spirits high on days like those, but he'd been fasting for several days so we did a role reversal. I told him if he would like me to be consistently positive and joyful like that all the time, maybe he should be more consistently grumpy. It's like there's only enough joy in this family for one person at a time on a bad day. We're working on that. :)

It began when we decided to leave the kids with friends and maid support, and get our driver's licenses. We had been told differing things about the best process for this. Some said "do it yourself, it's easy" and others said, "Pay this company to help you - it saves tons of time!" We are all about valuing time over money, but it did seem like all we had to do was get our eyes checked at a local hospital and take the forms to the driver's license bureau. From there we would have to sign up to take the test at a later date. But we forgot - there is no easy in China.

Well, our first problem came in not being able to find the hospital on the congested street. When we finally found it, they kept sending Erik back out to the car for more pictures and documents while they tried to have me fill out their forms in Chinese characters. We both then managed to fail the eye test - Erik because of his lazy eye and me because all my contacts are in the shipment and my glasses broke. We told them these facts but they were undeterred. So we walked to another hospital 2 blocks down and found the office we needed to visit was closed. (as we walked we planned how to cheat on the next test by giving each other signals. Look what China does to us!) That was enough for us to say, "Ok, we're paying someone to do this!"

That required a drive across town. That's right, a drive. This is the second time, in the second country, that we have driven to our driver's test. I hate to say it, but China has made me comfortable with some level of illegality. There, we couldn't find the office. The guard in one building said, "It's in building B, go there." In building B they said, "That's not here, try building A." Repeat step 1, back to building B. The problem many places in China is that workers are only given enough information for their small circle of influence. Beyond that, they don't know, but they don't want to tell you they don't know. So they tell you whatever you want doesn't exist.

We finally located the office on level 7, gave them all our paperwork, and were informed that the receipt from our local police for Erik had the wrong birth date on it. We had to go back to the police, get a new receipt, and bring it back. It didn't matter that his driver's license and pasport gave the correct date. I just shook my head and said, "Erik, do you think this is the flat tire on our airplane?" He said, "I doubt it."

Sure enough, on our way home we decided to placate ourselves for having had such a runaround and also not having the opportunity to go furniture shopping as planned by going to Jenny Lou's, a western grocery store here, to pick up some fun snacks for Erik's birthday on Sunday. We missed the turn. Determined, we went to the next one, a few kilometers down, and turned back. Those were hard earned tortilla chips with lime and butter rum Nips.

Erik's China day didn't end there because he still had to go back to the police station, the bank, and the hard ware store, all on no energy. A lesser man would have cracked under such pressure.

But the good thing about China days is that later you can look back and laugh. And hope for better days.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A recipe for staring

The sun is fully up by 5 a.m. here, so getting up to run is much easier than it was in Singapore. This morning I slept in til 6 and regretted it a bit because normally when I walk out the door I get hit by a nice breeze. Today, not so much. That was unfortunate because our new maid has mistaken some of my clothes for the kids', my running shorts included. Since the kids were asleep I had to put on my running capris instead which are warmer. I'm always a little self-conscious in them because they are stretchy, and let's just say I have a different body shape than the Chinese women out there who are not even wearing exercise clothes. On top of that, my chiropractor's "scraping" technique on Friday left me with two wide, dark red streaks down either side of my neck which were easily seen with my hair in a pony tail. There's a canal about two blocks from our house. I like to walk there to warm up, then set my inike for my run (today was 5 miles) and head out. Since I left later than usual, there were even more people out walking, running, and fishing (one of the fisherman nearly smacked me in the face with one of the fish he was reeling in) In other words, this all added up to:

Stare at the foreigner! She's dressed in strange clothes we've never seen and I think she burned her neck! What's that thing on her arm? She keeps poking it! She's sweating! She's running! There's so much to see!!

It's not unusual to be the object of attention here. Just yesterday when I was picking up drinks for our 4th of July party, I heard a little Chinese voice say, "Are you a foreigner?" I looked down at a little girl with sweet eyes peering up at me. "I am, are you Chinese?" I asked back. "I am," she replied solemnly. Very cute.

But this morning I felt more freakish than I have in a long time in China. I finally just kept my eyes focused straight ahead and zoned out the people around me (another reason why I almost got slapped in the face by that fish). To my credit, there were others doing equally weird things, like that guy who was practicing his whip cracking. But I guess I was just the most interesting thing going at the canal this morning.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Finding a new chiropractor

After being blessed for years by my friend Fiona as my chiropractor, I wondered what I would do here in China. I heard that there is a woman several of our friends use who will do house calls, so when I woke up this morning with a pain on the left side of my neck unlike anything I'd felt before, I gave her a ring.

She showed up at 11 this morning and set to work on me. She gave me a great massage using copious amounts of a Tiger balm like oil, then said something about scraping me. She said it in English so I had no mistake what she said, but the meaning escaped me until she went and found a small bowl. She then proceeded to drag it down various parts of my back and neck until my toes were curling and I was doing my, "Go to a happy place, go to a happy place" chant in my head. She seemed competent though, pointing out parts of my back and saying, "You've had problems here for a long time haven't you?" Yes, yes I have.

It's yet to be seen if she fixed me, as these things usually take some time. She did say she should come back within a week or so. If nothing else, I learned and re-learned a lot of vocabulary regarding my body.

Bonding made possible by cardboard boxes

What do you do with a pile of empty flattened cardboard boxes? You recycle it of course, and in China recycling is theoretically easier than almost anywhere because someone, somewhere out there, wants what you have. When we lived here before, all we had to do was put something outside our door and it was gone within 1/2 hour. People would rifle through our stuff, keep what they wanted, and pass the rest on. I was curious to see what would happen the time I left some old maternity clothes out. I fully expected to see some old man walking around in the courtyard wearing them. You have to hand it to the Chinese - nothing is wasted here.

But in our new complex, the standards are a bit higher. I was shocked the day I left a bunch of plants down in the basement near our lift for several hours and no one disturbed them (this was before I killed them). Last night I put the 30 or so boxes outside our door and no one touched them. More surprising, no one objected to them taking up the hallway. But they had to go, and Erik told me there was a place on the east side of our car park where we could dispose of them.

So Ethan, my new maid, and I dragged them into the lift and down into the basement. There we found a shopping cart (a very small shopping cart) onto which we piled the boxes as best as we could. By the end of the car park, Ethan was pushing, and my maid and I were both trying to keep the boxes from falling off. We pushed the cart up to the street and out to the gate, where we hit a speed bump and my maid, myself and the cardboard kept going while Ethan stopped. We were laughing pretty hard by that point. We managed to drop it all next to a man sleeping on his cart. We yelled at him a few times until he woke up, assessed our pile of cardboard, and offered us five kuai for it. That's less than a dollar.

My maid tried to argue with him a bit, saying that we'd dragged it all through the carpark and it was an extremely hot day. He told her to go use the five kuai and buy an ice cream. I looked at all of us, covered with sawdust from the boxes, dripping a bit from the heat, and thought, "Wow. Well, at least we got rid of the cardboard."

I'll tell ya though - nothing bonds you with a new Chinese helper like struggling with a load of recyclable goods.