Saturday, November 27, 2010


I left home at age sixteen to go to college in a town 120 miles away. Although I was itching to get out of the house, I found to my surprise that I was terribly homesick when I got to my new dormitory. I called home at least once a day and drove my parents crazy, especially my mom who wanted me to stay home for college in the first place. One night, I couldn't find my parents at home, so I called my sister Rhonda, who said, "Yes, they're here having dinner, and they could use a break from your whining, so go find something to do and leave them alone." (She probably said it more sweetly than that, but that's what I heard at the time.) After about a week or so, my classes started, I made friends, and that was the end of my homesickness.

In 1995, I moved to Louisville, KY, again for school, and again experienced homesickness. In addition to missing my family, I missed the sunny winters, changes in elevation, and the beautiful Western sunsets against a broad horizon. I would drive down to the Ohio River or just around the elevated loop freeways just to see the sun setting behind something other than buildings or trees. My family came out to visit often, but I was only able to go home once a year, at Christmas. Although I knew when I moved to Louisville that I might not be getting back to Arizona, I couldn't shake the yearning for my home and planned to move back after graduation, but of course I met Joe before that happened. When I agreed to marry Joe, I told him that we would need to move back to some part of the West in the near future, and we moved to Flagstaff just after our second wedding anniversary (curiously, due to something he wanted to do, but I wasn't arguing).

While we lived in Flagstaff, Joe had to handle his homesickness, more of family than of place, so he would travel back each year at Thanksgiving. I would head to the much closer Valley (that's the local term for the Phoenix area) more frequently, especially when the weather was right. I would toss an email to my sisters or mother once in awhile, but didn't have much of a regular visit with family.

Now that we are here in China, Rhonda has asked if we are homesick, and I have always said no, but that's not entirely true. It's just that now, the feeling is different than the terrible pangs of my teenage years or the endless ache of my sojourn in Kentucky. Here, I just get little reminders that I'm very far away: seeing a picture from home (like the one above taken last week), a note asking if our apartment building was involved in a recent fire (it wasn't us), wanting a particular piece of clothing or kitchen utensils (the search for the potato masher reached comic proportions), and this week, Thanksgiving without my family (and having to go to work on top of it). We arranged to talk to both our families, and Joe and I had our first dinner party with some of our new friends, but it wasn't the same at all, and I think my attitude on Thursday was affected by the distance. Fortunately, I am finding that homesickness is easier to conquer here, usually by going out and doing something fun - dinner with friends, dancing in a local park, even having the nice folks at Best Hair "straighten me out." I'm not sure if this is because this new adventure is still so exciting (I am always expecting someone to yell, "Cut, that's a wrap!") or because the older me knows that time is really fleeting and I'll be back home again before I know it. We are also much more regular about talking to our families through Skype, and my weekly emails have taken the place of my blog. Jack the Dog, by the way, is doing very well, having attached himself to my brother-in-law Andy, so I guess some parting is easier to take.

Just the same, Rhonda, it's hard sometimes, but I'm still trying to take your good advice and not whine about it... too much.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Food, the Never-Ending Dilemna

The real irony of our move to China is that I have never been a fan of Chinese food, or Asian food of any kind generally. I was won over to Mongolian barbeque when I received a gift certificate to Louisville's best establishment of that sort (2 Han's Mongolian Grill, don't miss it!) from a parent at conference time. I have no argument with the basic ingredients of Asian cooking (except the fondness for shellfish and other rubbery things), but the sauces and spices are not my cup of tea. I did try several Chinese places in Flagstaff and found dishes I liked, but of course everyone warned me that "real" Chinese food would be completely different, and would spoil me for American Chinese food.

Now that we are here, we find ourselves having the same conversation as we leave school: so what shall we do for dinner? This is a conversation we brought with us from home, and it's never an easy answer. Despite having a wok, countertop oven, pot with lid, microwave, and frying pan, we have still not figured out the rhythm of cooking at home, nor have we asked our dear ayi to start cooking for us, as some of our colleagues do. I wish we could ask our upstairs neighbor what she does, because she cooks every night and it smells fantastic. We have met her when she dropped something down onto our balcony, but our relative language barriers prevented much chit-chat. In the first few weeks, we ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and that is still a common fallback position, but we enjoy trying our local restaurants as well. The menu prices are so cheap that we can eat out every night if we want, and we order in about once a week (more expensive, but also more variety).

One difficulty we have is in finding something to drink. Every place serves hot tea as soon as you sit, but it tastes to me like the leaves were burned before being brewed, although Joe assures me that it's very good. I drink a lot of Coke unless I can get bottled water, and Joe tries to order diet Coke but often ends up with the straight stuff as well. Once he ended up with some kind of canned flavored tea that tasted like cough syrup, so he just gave up and ordered Coke.

We have two favorites, each about a block from our house: the Japanese place, where the beef is as tender as you could ever imagine; and the Savory Eatery, where there is no English, not even on the menu, and we operate under the "point and pray" method of ordering. We have also tried a Taiwanese noodle house, a Vietnamese place, a German place (complete with Chinese waitresses in dirndl skirts), and even a lady who sells dumplings out of a doorway on a street near the subway. The last one scared me when we did it, because I had heard stories about sickness from bad street food, but her dumplings smelled and tasted delicious, and we had no ill effects.

One thing that makes us laugh is that almost every time we sit at a table, someone in the restaurant finds some Western music for us. Sometimes it's a pop hit parade including "Barbie Girl" and Michael Jackson, but probably the best was when the Japanese place played a collection of covers of Beatles and Paul McCartney tunes, including Sir Paul's hit "Live and Let Die" done in reggae. I nearly spit out my tender beef! I'm glad to say that we haven't experienced any health issues due to the food, and we hope to keep it that way, although we won't pass up good dumplings when we smell them!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Style: The Eye of the Beholder

After waiting until we were approaching a Bigfoot hairstyle, Joe announced one night that he'd like to go to Best Hair, where our kindergarten friend Ocean had a very successful experience for only 30Y (about $4.50). It's very close and I had given up on solving my tangled ends with any type of product, so I agreed to give them a try as well. We were ushered in, seated right away and brought the usual cup of hot water (which is faithfully offered even on the hottest day in August). After some negotiations in broken English and limited Mandarin, with a healthy dose of charades thrown in, the stylists went to work.
I had asked for a shampoo prior to my cut, having heard rhapsodies on the subject from our new friends, but Joe went right for the scissors, and his stylist (Jason #8) never once touched a razor, doing everything by careful and precise scissor work. Meantime, I was lathering up under a process whereby the shampoo is dissolved in a bottle of water and applied to my dry hair like tint or bleach. My stylist (Bao Bao) worked up quite a head of lather and piled it on the top of my head until I looked like a white haired queen. She also started a very thorough head massage with her thumbs of steel (more on that later). After a couple of latherings, we went upstairs to rinse out and apply great smelling conditioner, then back downstairs for the cut, I presumed. However, when I got back in the chair, a second stylist (Pa Pa) came over with her blowdryer and Bao Bao offered massages to my neck, shoulders, arms and hands, in which her thumbs of steel seemed sure to leave bruises. Massage is a funny thing. Bao Bao also cleaned my ears with a finely twisted Q-tip, which was pretty much as weird as you might imagine, but I kept my hearing.
By this time, Joe, figuring we weren't going anywhere anyway, was in the middle of his own shampoo and abbreviated massage (he skipped the arms, hands and probing Q-tip). It was a good call, because Pa Pa had started on the process of blowing my hair out completely straight. This is a totally useless quest, whether done by me or by a professional, but there was no way to explain that to Pa Pa, so I sat quietly and smiled a lot. After about half an hour, she got a beautiful, flat glossy look (seen above) that was no doubt the best she could do with my crazy kinky Western hair. The pics have been the hit of my Facebook page... too bad such a 'do requires so much effort (and would frizz right back at the first hint of humidity).
A couple of nights later, after finding too many knots that simply wouldn't come out, I headed back to Best Hair. Bao Bao and Pa Pa weren't there (and I haven't gotten a translation yet for their status, probably because I can't reproduce the sound of the word correctly), so I sat down with one of Joe's stylist (called Gui), who went upstairs and brought down another male stylist (never got his name). I went straight for the cut, indicating that I just wanted a trim of the ends, and that worked fairly well, but then the boys really wanted me to have a shampoo (which is after all, part of the fee), so I said yes. At this point the hard sell started, because my hair really was quite ratty, so Stylist Not-Gui decided that I had terrible hair damage and needed a very expensive treatment. Once I figured out what he wanted, I turned him down (a few times, even after he went upstairs to get the treatment bottle and show me). There was just no way to explain that I hadn't been to the salon in about six months and the cut was really all I needed to restore health. The blow dry was charaded as the "curly" style, which consisted of blowing everything out straight, then putting the curl back in with a small barreled round brush. When he was finished (and it looked very pretty, if rather flat), Stylist Not-Gui gave me a look that said quite clearly, "Well, crazy woman, this is the best I can do with it." Having seen that look before, I laughed out loud and assured both of the boys that it was just great (hen hao). I'm sure Best Hair will rest easy knowing that I might not be back for awhile!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Spots of Contentment

The Chinese internet is a very fickle thing. Our colleagues report some intermittent problems in service, but we really had a bad weekend after our first week of regular school, and that was very frustrating. Seeking some peace, we hopped on the subway to YuYuan Garden, a small plot of land made into a garden for a local ruler back in the 1500s, which is being restored after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. The garden sits amid giant skyscrapers and commercialism of every description, but is itself a beautiful haven, and we were able to relax a little and remember that patience is a virtue. We bought a new router and did what we could throughout the weekend, finally calling our young friend Joey, who is 15 or 16 and knows everything tech. He waited patiently for the second China Telecomm technician to leave, tapped away on our keyboard, physically separated our modem and router, and had us working again by Sunday night. We also had our first Mandarin session with Tony, a young university student who is trading Mandarin lessons for help with his conversational English, so let's hear it for nice young people everywhere!

Our second week with students was threatened by a typhoon, and school was canceled on Wednesday, per order of the Shanghai Education Department. The day in question happened to be the first regular day of classes for the Shanghai public schools (Sept 1), so the local kids just got an extra day of summer. We were summoned to work at school just the same, so we got some extra planning time, which is always welcome. The typhoon, by the way, veered off toward Korea at the last minute, so the rain that fell would barely have been noticed in Phoenix, but it was nice to know that other school districts have difficulty dealing with weather predictions.

We had little bits of happiness during this week. First, I tried leaving a very short note of Chinese characters for Luo Yan, our ayi, to indicate that we were leaving her monthly wages. When we issued her August wages directly to her, we had some trouble communicating the purpose of the money, so I looked up the characters in the Oxford dictionary to say "for you." To my amazement, I got it right, and Luo Yan left a note saying thanks in English and characters. Next, we got our first piece of personal mail in our apartment box, an envelope of Sunday comics from my sister, Jill. What fun! Finally, we went on our first Payday Friday dinner to a Taiwanese restaurant named JoJo. Our Mandarin colleague, Helen, did the ordering, and the food just kept coming. We learned how to ask for a doggie bag (da bao) and how to count with hand gestures, which Joe is ready to use at his next wet market visit.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meeting the New Students

The weekend was a good one when we finally got the internet connected at the apartment, and we were able to give our families a Skype tour of the whole place. We found a large grocery store much closer than Carrefour, so that will be useful, and we tried our first pizza delivery. It was delivered by bicycle and the toppings all slid to one side during the ride, but once we got everything shoveled back into place, it was "not bad," which is a popular way for Westerners to describe things, especially food related things, in China. "How was the new noodle shop?" "Not bad." We are hoping to find the places that are maybe a little better than "not bad."

The new students are definitely above the food standard. They are energetic (especially the first and second graders!), bright, and very cute. We have a lot of Asian and American students, but also a strong contingent of Swedish and Dutch. One of my first graders speaks nothing but Dutch and has no Dutch speakers in his classroom, so he is really operating under the sink-or-swim method. The kids had a great time laughing at me as I tried to pronounce their names, and many of the Asian students were quick to offer their Western names instead. I have a lovely fifth grader from Germany, so I asked him to say my last name over and over because it sounds so great when he says it. Each class is just under twenty students and I have fifteen classes, so the week stays very busy, but I managed to be in the right place at the right time.

Joe's office is really a work in progress. He has no furniture except a chair, no phone, and (horror), no air conditioning. He has the A/C control pad, but the office is a fairly recent partition of the building, so they forgot to include a vent in the ceiling, but the powers that be assure him it will be done soon. We celebrated our first week with a couple of dining forays, first to a burger place that offers burgers and drinks at two-for-one on Mondays, then to a neighborhood place called Casa Rosita which has absolutely no Mexican food, but we loved the Chinese food anyway (far above "not bad" so hooray). They put us in the front window table so the rest of the 'hood could see the Westerners eating there, and they played some Western pop music ("Barbie Girl" and various Michael Jackson tunes) so we would feel right at home. For those who wonder what one eats at a Chinese restaurant with a Mexican name, I had a Taiwanese fried pork chop and green beans fried with as much bacon product as possible. Joe had kung pao chicken and pork fried rice, although we skipped the pork parts, as they were somewhat wormlike in appearance. Just the same, we'll be back.

We had a tough Friday night because our internet was down when we got home. Joe did some fiddling and got it back, so he left to meet some friends, but was back shortly because he couldn't find a taxi. The internet had gone down again, so we watched some NCIS and went to bed. We have bought a few movie DVDs and decided to try a TV series. We got the entire set, all six seasons, for the low low price of 40 RMB, which comes out to about $7.75 US. Many of the titles are very recent (even some movies still in US theaters) and the quality is, you know, not bad.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Small World Syndrome Hits Shanghai

Last night, we went to hear the London Symphony Orchestra play in the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. Joe had noticed the concert on a website before we moved, and we would never have this kind of opportunity in the States, so we were looking forward to the concert: Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Liszt Piano Concerto #1, and Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. Amazing and chop-wrenching repertoire, and our seats were perfectly placed to see the keyboard and hear every note from the stage below, especially the power and precision of the brass section (lead trumpet is 22 years old). We really got our money's worth, as the pianist gave two encores (Chopin Etude in E flat and Satie Gymnopedie #1) and then the orchestra gave three (Dance of the Buffoons, a Chinese piece very popular with the audience, and... wait for it... Star Wars)! It was thrilling from the first note, and I was amazed to be hearing such a great orchestra and proud to be from the country that produced Bernstein.

Our friends the Giffords were there, because one of the violists from the orchestra is also the piano teacher to the Gifford children. We weren't sitting with them, but we talked to them before the concert and they asked us to come with them after the concert to meet the violist, so we agreed. By the interval (called the intermission by us common folk), we were looking for food and drink of any kind, but nothing was available, to my surprise. However, we discovered that meeting the violist involved getting on one of the orchestra buses and riding over to the hotel with the players post concert. In addition to the violist (Caroline), we met a violinist (Colin) and a cellist (Jenny), all of whom spoke to us as if it were perfectly natural to have strange Americans on the bus. We got to hear the story of the orchestra's flight over, when an oil light came on over Holland. Without the ability to check the dipstick right there, the flight was returned to London Heathrow, where the orchestra sat for the rest of the day. The funny part is that the concert tour is sponsored by Rolls Royce, and the engine that blew was, you guessed it, a Rolls engine. What sort of karma is that?

Upon arrival at the hotel (after I slobbered over both the principal clarinet and the principal bassoon), we went up to Caroline's room with Colin and found a great spread waiting for us, including lovely English cheddar, which is a great delight in this land of unbelievably sub-standard cheese. While we munched on cheese, grapes, chocolate, drinking either Chinese wine or Earl Grey tea (from the real country - Caroline believes in bringing her comfort food), we were joined by Nigel (violin), Jenny (cello) and Dick (viola). While chatting about this and that, Colin asked where we lived and when we told him about Flagstaff, he said he had been there to visit a violinmaker. Well, there's only one in Flag, so I mentioned Jeff's name, and all of a sudden, Colin didn't seem like a stranger at all. When we also mentioned our friend David (former LSO horn player), the room erupted with people who knew him, and somehow we were then among friends. The evening went until well after midnight, and Joe and I were pinching each other to be sure this was really happening. If you had told us a year ago that we would be partying with the LSO and talking about the next time we might get together, we'd never believe you, but this is China, where unbelievable things happen all the time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Getting Around

To properly enjoy the traffic in Shanghai, it helps if you are a die-hard roller coaster fan, which I am. Let's start with the taxis. They are very cheap, about $2.00 for a short ride, maybe $4.00 if you're really going somewhere (30 minutes or so). We have ridden with cabbies who got lost a couple of times, and the driver turned off the meter both times, which was very impressive to me. I was in a cab in Louisville and we got lost in Cherokee Park, an easy thing to do, but believe me, the ride was full fare even on the scenic route. While there are traffic laws in Shanghai, they are taken more as suggestions, so trips really feel like a giant game of chicken, and the cabbies are often the boldest drivers on the road, even against buses and delivery trucks. I like to sit behind the driver, because you really get the best view of what is coming, especially the creative lane changes and mergers. Horns honk in abundance here, so my genteel friends from the South should probably bring earplugs for their visits. I gasped a lot in the first couple of weeks, but now I tend to laugh more and give the cabbie encouragement where I can.

You can also use the buses, which we haven't tried, but many of our colleagues swear by them, or the subways, which we use with pleasure. Our neighborhood subway line (Line 10) is the newest in the rapidly expanding system, which means that it is the cleanest, best air-conditioned and most high-tech. While waiting for a train, which comes every five to six minutes on the weekdays and twelve minutes at most on a weekend, we are entertained by video feeds of Expo commercials, sports highlights (a surprising amount of volleyball lately), or news. We have tried some transfers to other lines, but still have a lot of work to do in that area, as the maps are obsolete almost as soon as they are printed. We found our English map underneath our sofa, and it's not bad.

Another transportation option is the scooter or bicycle (electric or otherwise). These vehicles have a special lane at the edge of all major roads, one way with that side of traffic. Most of the time they all go that direction, but this lane can be obstructed by someone who decides to ride opposite traffic, a four wheeled vehicle that decides to park (usually quite suddenly), or (God help 'em) a cabbie who is tired of sitting in traffic and uses the two-wheeled lane instead. Again, horns are honked with great enthusiasm, and absolutely every human-powered bike takes special pride in having the squeakiest brakes possible so that you know that you have offended the rider by walking too slowly in front of him. The really impressive bikes have giant loads of all sorts of material that dwarf the rider and make the vehicle slightly more dangerous than a car, mainly because the brakes probably aren't as good.

Now we come to the lowly pedestrian, farthest down on the transportation food chain. The sidewalks are beautiful, tree-lined and broad, but that only makes them more convenient for the bikes and scooters, who are trying to avoid the cars and cabs in their lane. We have seen one car driving on the sidewalk, but usually cars are just parked there. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are the best place to see your neighbors out relaxing, sitting on various blankets or other ground cover, entertaining the preschoolers and babies. If you are walking late enough at night, you will also see people sleeping beneath the huge trees, as it's pretty hot inside at this time of year.

Of course, you can't walk down these beautiful boulevards too far before you have to cross a road. One of our friends who lived in China says she is only afraid of two things here: using a public toilet, and crossing the road. The intersections are governed somewhat by traffic lights, but again, these are merely suggestions and don't always apply depending on the type of traffic that is approaching. Government or police cars are completely immune to traffic laws and lights, and the hapless pedestrian has to watch out for right hand turns, because those are lawful regardless of the light color. Seriously, they don't even slow down, and don't forget, you have two lanes of turners, the cars and the bikes/scooters. The new arrival book suggests that you just cross when you think you can, and don't take too much time. I start just off the curb, move quickly through whatever two-wheeled traffic is coming (figuring that my large bulk will scare them off a bit), then stand at the slight curb to watch the four-wheeled traffic. If the road looks clear, I book it across, regardless of the color of the light or the pedestrian signal, although I do look behind for potential left turners from the intersecting road, because they can take you out and you never see them. I'm pretty sure a lot of the locals are laughing quietly at me, but I'm getting good at this. If you are good at the video game "Frogger," you're probably ready to cross a Chinese street.

Our neighborhood is fairly well off, and we see a startling (for us) number of very expensive cars; Audi, BMW, Mercedes, a Bentley, and even a lovely Rolls on frequent occasions. They tend to be black, perhaps because the earliest cars on the road were government cars and they were black. In all this controlled chaos, we have seen only one accident so far. A delivery truck had rear-ended a cab (most of the good cabs are VW sedans - not Beetles) on Hongqiao Road and the two drivers were out discussing the matter while the rest of traffic darted around them, honking angrily. Although the accident occurred right in front of a police station, the police were not involved, and after a lively discussion, the cab driver picked up his back bumper, somehow stuck it back onto the rear of the cab, and they both drove off.

Moral of the Chinese transportation story: Mao helps those who help themselves.