I’m in freaking China!
After the worst chunk of long, boring and painful travel in my life I’m finally in that mysterious land to the East. It’s kind of weird for me. For the last five years I’ve dreamed of coming to the land of great food and Great Walls and now I’m really here. It’s kinda like being able to sneeze after your nose tickles all day.
I’ve only been here for three days now but it seems a lot longer than that. I’ll blame the jetlag and the language barrier for that. Now that I’m over that, I think time should resume its allotted course. And by that I mean the jet lag, I don’t think I’ll ever overcome the language barrier. It’s hard for me to imagine that I ever got by in Sydney like I did. I think the people there spoke a different kind of Chinese. Of course I think a lot of things.
Before we left, I would make fun of Sally because every time I would ask her what we would do here she would talk about how much good food we’d eat while we were here. That was really all I could get her to talk about was food, occasionally she would saying something about going shopping but then she’d talk about all the treats we’d be buying from street vendors while we’re out. Now that I’ve been here a few days I realized why she talked like this. All we do is eat. Occasionally we go shopping, but mostly, we eat.
We start at the traditional first stop of breakfast. I’ve never been much a breakfast eater. A pop tart or toast is more than I normally eat and more than I need. That theory doesn’t fly in this family though. Breakfast is usually a couple hardboiled eggs (usually one from a goose and at least one from chickens) a plate of Chinese cucumbers (thinner and crispier than the English variety), a plate of huge shrimp or a shrimp like animal I’ve never seen before and a huge chunk of this chewy sweet bread that we bought from a street vendor for 5 kuai. One the whole breakfast is okay. A little bland, but okay. The problem is the amount of food involved. By the time I forced it all it, I’m good for the rest of the day. They don’t seem to think it’s enough to get me through the rest of the morning. I’m usually handed a huge bowl of strawberries and told to go watch TV while they clean up and figure out what we’re gonna do the rest of the day.
The rest of the day usually includes lunch. Lunch is usually really, really good, although yesterday Sally made me eat a pig’s foot even though she knew I didn’t like them. Sally loves seafood more than she loves me so we have seafood a lot. We’ve had clams and scallops so far and I’ve sure there’s a lot more in store for me. Sally told her mom that I like meat so we have a pork dish and usually some meatballs for lunch each day. We have Chinese salad (raw radish slices and sauce) and soup too. Add a bowl of rice to this and it’s hard to eat it all. It’s delicious, but I’m only one man, my stomach has limits.
Dinner is usually what we couldn’t each for lunch with a couple other dishes made especially for the occasion. It’s a whole lot more food and my crappy schedule of work and school has left me ill prepared. It’s getting easier though. Largely because I think I’m gaining weight. I was actually hoping to lose a little of that here but maybe (warning: I’m about to give way too much information, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph) once I start pooping like normal, I may actually be able to do that. As of right now I’m still carrying most of the food I’ve eaten since we landed.
Fortunately, there’s one thing in this country of tea and beer to help me wash all this food down, Smart. Smart is a Coke product that Sally introduced me to while we were in “Coke World” in Las Vegas. It’s an apple flavored pop that they have here and it is delicious. It’s like I can finally get that flavor I’ve enjoyed all my life without the hassle from all that unnecessary chewing. My life is now complete.
Okay in truth we do do a little more than just each. We have gone shopping a few times already and I’m sure we’ll go again. Shopping is popular activity in China, you have endless opportunities. Everywhere you look there are make shift street markets with people selling everything from produce to electronics. You can get all your shopping done before you even get to the store. Of course these merchants often try to get my attention because I’m foreign but so far I’ve resisted their every business skill.
Things are really cheap here too, when I remember that the prices are in kuai, not dollars. Since one US dollar is worth about 8 kuai, this is a pretty important conversion to make. So far we’ve gotten me a nice pair of shoes and Chinese national soccer jersey. We bought Sally all kinds of stuff, none of which I’m able to remember right now. I may be okay with shopping in China, but I’m still a guy.
Dalian is a very amazing city. Often in travel guides they will talk about the rhythm or the pace of a city. Dalian doesn’t have a pace and rhythm indicates some sort of order. Here in Dalian, they are a chaos, and yet it’s a chaos that works. Everyone and everything is happening completely independent from everything else. There are so many people that everyone has stopped caring. The other people on the street aren’t people, they’re just an obstacle on the way home. Everyone just pushes their own directions and because there’s five million people all going in a different direction, there not enough in any particular direction for anything bad to happen. It’s a beautiful thing to just sit back and watch because even though you don’t know how, it works.
I used to feel the same way about Sydney, but then I became a part of the chaos, rather than an observer, so it lost some of the mystery. Dalian still has it. Now that I’ve had more experience, I’m willing to bet that all big cities do.
There are many other similarities between Dalian and my home down under. Both have brick sidewalks, which are beautiful, but are hard on the feet and harder on the knees. At least I’m not wearing church shoes this time. It’s also really, really humid. If you’ve never lived right by the sea, it’s an experience. Your clothes are never really dry, your sweat just stays on you and you pee a lot more because of it. Both Sydney and Dalian have a growing city feel to them. Dalian has a higher percentage of Asians, but not by much. Both have a lot of restaurants, none of which have tacos and a lot of adult bookstores. I don’t know if the adult bookstores sell tacos and I don’t care enough to ask.
There are differences as well. In Sydney, if you were in a crosswalk, you were the king of Australia. You could step out in front of anyone and they would stop. It was quite the empowering experience to have. Here, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. You just run out and try to squeeze in between cars because nobody is gonna wait for you, even if you were the king of Australia. It’s scary trying to cross the street, it’s like very high stakes Frogger. So far I haven’t seen anyone lose though. That’s heartening.
I’m sure there are more differences worth mentioning. I’ll have to write them down as they come to me.
I do spend a lot of time here watching TV. This is just to fill the time. We’re not here to travel all the time. First and foremost, we’re visiting family and that leaves some spare time. While I’m still not sure of everything I can usually find something worth watching. There’s usually a movie or a kung-fu series on. In fact the first thing I saw on Chinese TV was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Mostly though I watch sports. Sports are easy because I don’t have to understand everything they say. There big into the NBA here so I’ve watched some of the finals. Best of all, the Chinese ESPN has been gearing up for the World Cup so they’ve been showing classic games from previous tournaments along with plenty of Chinese league soccer. It’s good to have one while I type or draw or do whatever.
The bed that we sleep on is far from comfortable. It’s just a layer of foam on a wooden slab. While it takes longer for me to fall asleep and I have roll around I like, my back hasn’t been hurting me lately which is good. I’ll let you know how it goes.
We’ll that me so far, any questions send them by email. That’s the best way to communicate with me. See ya’ll later.
-----------------------Tuesday and Wednesday, May 10, 2006--------------------------------------
Well it’s been a bad day, but the worst days make the best blog posts.
It’s actually not been that bad, it’s just been long and hard. But like most things that are long and hard, it’s been worth it. Let me explain.
Part of our plans here were for Sally to renew her visa. For students like her that’s just part of coming home. She and her mom were going to leave on Tuesday for Shenyang, the capitol of the Liaoning province (that’s where Dalian is by the way) and would come back really late on Wednesday. The cheapest way to get from city to city in China is by train. They left around noon to catch the train for the capitol.
While they were gone, Sally’s father was going to stay home from work to look after me. I told him that I was fine to stay alone and just watch TV, read, draw and write but he insisted. After our wives left the two of us went to XingHai (Star of the Sea) Park, the largest public square in Asia. It was a really impressive place. There were a lot of fountains going down the center of the square, statutes of various sports around the perimeter (Dalian is a very sports oriented town) and some low budget carnival style rides. XingHai Park is right by the ocean. Surprisingly, there weren’t very many seagulls and only a few pigeons. On the walls of the pier, we could see people scraping off some kind of shell fish (small clams I think). There was also a huge monument dedicated to the 100th year anniversary of the founding of the city back in 1999. It had a thousand footprints leading up to a couple kids playing in the sand. It was one of the many things that I wish I had brought my camera for, but without my wife, I tend to forget pretty much everything. I understand it only gets worse from here.
The square earns its rank of biggest in Asia. It’s pretty darn big. Sally’s dad was impressed with my being able to handle walking the whole thing. Apparently when they take Sally, she has trouble keeping up.
We got to the park via bus. We took a double decker bus and at Sally’s dad’s recommendation sat in the front seat on the top level. It was an exciting and terrifying view of the city. I was actually seated a little bit further forward than the driver so there were several times that I thought we were surely going to crash into a cab or a scooter or an old lady with a cart. However the bus driver seemed to really know his trade. We weaved in and out and no one got hurt. After a few minutes I was able to relax and take in more of the city. There are statues, huge modern shopping centers and KFCs everywhere you go. Even among all the hustle and bustle of modern Dalian, I was able to see glimpses of a more traditional China. These ranged from old people doing Tai Chi in a small grove of trees to playing mahjong on a cardboard box. It’s an interesting dynamic.
We came home from the park and started dinner. We made dumpling. The filling wasn’t made from shrimp or sausage like Sally normally makes, but rather some kind of sea worms. They tasted alright but after a couple their chewy texture got hard to swallow. Her dad taught me a better way to wrap dumplings that is quicker and looks pretty. With practice I will become the best in the world for sure.
While we were eating, Sally called to tell us that she had forgotten an important piece of paper in her backpack and that she needed to have it brought to her if she were to get her visa. So at 10:30 at night we headed to the train station and caught a train for Shenyang. I’ve read in people of travel books about the charm of the Chinese rail system. Well as we took the all night train, I didn’t see any charm. All I saw was a crowded train car with butt-numbingly hard seats, smoke coming in from the area between cars and people constantly jostling for seats. They sell seats by number but they also sell plenty of “no seat” tickets incase some one misses the train because they’re waiting at a bus station instead of the train station or something like that. If you have a “no seat” ticket you have to pounce on what you can as soon as you can so you never have an empty seat next to you. It’s hot, I’m sweating like a Mexican monkey and the train keeps shaking me awake just as soon as I fell asleep.
The train clattered through the darkness from 11:00 p.m.until 4:00 a.m. We got off at Shenyang South station but after an hour we learned we really wanted Shenyang North. While we were sorting this out I saw my first argument in China. Some lady was fighting with the ticket seller about the price of something. I’ve seem such confrontations many times before but what I thought was funny was how here, people weren’t at all trying to hide the fact that they were watching and enjoying the show. It wasn’t like in America of Australia when once a situation turn tense everyone pretends they’re not there.
We took a cab to the northern station where we met up with Sally and her mom. We went back to the place they were staying, a room in some one else’s apartment they’ve turned into a bed and breakfast, minus a breakfast. No sooner than I got through the door than I collapsed on one. This ended my hope that the bed we sleep on at Sally’s parents’ was the exception not the rule for beds in China. At this point I didn’t care, I was asleep within moments. When I woke up, the wives had just come back from something. We all went to get breakfast, breads and milk from a little store around the corner. I’ve had a lot of Chinese friends in America complain to me about the quality of milk and bread we have in the states. For milk, I can see their point. I wouldn’t say it’s any better than our milk, but it’s not any worse either. It’s just different. I guess it’s just a matter of what you’re used to. In the bread department, we win though. These weren’t the steamed breads that China is really good at, these were Western style packaged breads. The first one I ate was OK, but the other one was a sweetbread with pieces of dried ham, lines of cheese and a chewy mayonnaise center. Not a good mix.
After breakfast Sally and her mom went to the American Embassy to take care of everything. I slept more. My sleep here is hardly ever without dreams. When I woke up, Sally came back with good news, all was well and she would be able to come home when this trip was all over. We were actually a little worried that there may be problems because of our marriage. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t even an issue. Prayer works, just in case you were wondering.
Once that was behind us, we were able to go out for lunch. We went to a Korean Barbeque, of which there are many here in Liaoning, which was pretty good. This let me see a little more of Shenyang. It’s a lot more of what I expected a Chinese city to look like, although the only specific thing I can put my finger on is the presence of bikes. Sally explained that Dalian is too hilly for most people to ride bikes.
After lunch me and Sally’s dad went to catch our train, leaving the women to shop and pick up Sally’s visa. On the bus to the station, I met I guy from Nigeria named Miked. The bus was just packed with wall-to-wall Chinese people and there we were this one white guy and one black guy. He was really friendly and spoke good English. It was nice to know I not the only foreign person here.
We missed the train though so we had to switch our tickets for “no seaters” on the same train Sally and her mom were on. Since the train didn't leave until 11, we had a lot of time to kill. I read a bit from “Ender's Game,” the only thing I brought with me to Shenyang, but mostly we just waited. Since there was no guarantee that we'd be able to sleep on the train, we went to a place were you were able to rent a bed for a few hours. They had “rooms” fenced off with particle board with a TV and eight beds in a room. Travelers often pay a few kuai to get out of the waiting room and lay down for a little bit. These beds were also the hard kind but by this point I'm used to them. What I wasn't used to was the TV blaring the Chinese equivalent of the Lawrence Welk Show (I assume it was basically the same thing because there were people singing and bubble, that was Lawrence Welk right?). I still managed to grab a short nap, which made all the difference.
That train left at 11:00 at night and we didn't get back to Dalian until 6 a.m. Even though it was a lot longer than the first right, it was a lot easier to deal with. It's always better when the person sleeping on your shoulder is you wife, not some old man. We made small talk with some to the other passengers. Most were impressed that I spoke Chinese but still preferred to ask them questions about me than ask me directly. This bothered me at first but then I remembered I was too tired to care. I finished Ender's Game and tried to sleep with varying degrees of success. Finally, after blaring the Dalian theme song over the PA system, we rolled into the final station.
From this point it was a quick trolley ride back home. The Zhus all wanted to eat breakfast but I was too tired. I excused myself politely and crashed in bed. I didn't wake up until about 10 a.m. I finally got to shower after 50 plus hours. I finally busted my Gillette Quatro out of it’s packaging. I'll admit, I used to make fun about how the razor company is getting out of control with the race towards infinite blades, but I enjoyed the shave. I could hear my stubble crying in vain for mercy against the power of the fourth blade.
So that's my adventure so far. It's one heck of a ride. I may not be having fun all the time, but I'm enjoying every minute of it. Yeah China