Saturday, December 20, 2008

China Again

The fancy Scroll Store. Those of you who have scrolls from me can see the store they came from!

Three Chinese Brothers: The Scroll Man was born pre-one-child policy. One brother paints, one brother carves, and he, the third brother, sells the scrolls and carvings.

The next picture is Will in front of our grocery store, the Lotus, decorated for Chinese New Year. (Red, is, well, lucky...and good and festive. Brides wear red on their wedding day. White means death.) Lotus sold eels and fish fresh to eat, and when you bought one, the fish clerk put it in a plastic bag and pounded the bag on the floor to kill the fish inside. A dreadful spectacle to watch. Lotus sometimes played Christmas carols sung by Chinese Children's Choirs in Mandarin, and Ave Maria sung by an American. Bizarro world.

The next picture is a very happy shot of me in front of the lovely Hong Kong Disney at Christmas, and the final one is of the kids and me in the wind-ey streets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a fun slice of Americana and western-ness right at the time of year we needed it. We walked into the lobby of the Victorian Disney hotel and a man was playing Greensleeves on a grand piano and a gloriously large Christmas tree was covered in sparkling white lights.

More Pictures of China, While I Am On the Topic

The top photo is of Will and Ben sitting in our apartment with our ayi ("eye-ee' "), named Ai Ping ("eye-peeng' "). Ayi means "auntie" and it is what the Chinese affectionately call anyone who helps in any way in the home.

Diminutive Ai Ping came and helped with laundry and house cleaning a few times a week (!), and sometimes with the grocery shopping. She also helped me with my Chinese! She spoke a tiny bit of English and taught me how to ask the clerks for things. She greatly disapproved of us for sometimes keeping our shoes on in the house, for not wearing slippers to keep warm, and she told me that I could lose weight by eating more vegetables and less meat. I am a size 6-8 and was considered large -- fat, almost ("da" they say when something is big) -- by some of the ladies in China, who aim for extreme tiny-ness!

The next picture is Sarah, and her own picture of her home...a tall tower!

The next two pictures are of the Pearl Tower, the emblem of Shanghai. We lived about 2 km from it. It is about 350 m high, and sits right across the HuangPu ("hwong-poo") River from The Bund (think Nixon and ping pong diplomacy). One picture we took from within the tower, its shadow stretched across the river.

The next picture is of Will and Sarah in Hong Kong. We went there for Christmas. What a beautiful island. More in the next blog.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Flood of Memories and Images of China

We lived one year in Shanghai, from January 2006 or February 2007.

We moved there in a whirlwind amount of time, giving away stuff, storing stuff, selling our house, driving out to Ohio to say goodbye, vaccinations every week for 3-4 weeks, passports speeding our way, and a quick respite in DC with my family....then a big gulp and the kids and I jumped on a Korean Air plane from the 22 hour exodus to meet David there. We had no prior particular interest in China or Asia, had no cultural training, and had never been there. And we were so busy trying to get ready in record time that we didn't read or absorb much about the culture ahead of time.

David ran an office there staffed entirely by Chinese nationals, and 2 westerners, though he hired another westerner along the way. We touched down in Pudong airport, grasped a big glorious bunch of flowers, climbed into a tiny van, and were suddenly living in a high rise in what looked to me like the biggest, sprawling-est, noisiest, poorest, richest, smelliest, fantastical city of lights.

Jetson towers and trains and a sitting beggar with no legs and a wide grin. Next to the Coach store knelt a woman selling cartoon-decorated shoe inserts off a folded sheet on the curb. The brown and wrinkled and work-worn man who cut hair and cleaned ears out (with a bit of wool on a stick -- shared between customers) worked alongside the granite and marble facade of a high class high rise. Chock-a-block concrete apartment hovels squatted by gleaming gorgeous lobbies and fountains and sleek high rises.

When the kids and I would head out to explore and wind down the back street hutongs -- narrow off-street alleys geared to locals -- we found little close, tinkling shops with very clean dirt or concrete floors -- ears, clothes, hair may not be fresh, but floors are always clean as can be -- selling goldfish, cigarettes, crickets, art scrolls, statues, pots, key rings, cages, puppies, plastic washbasins, raw meat, familiar and unusual vegetables and fruits, Hello Kitty baubles, tea, and red paper decorations and silken pillows.

I would point to a given bauble or symbol and shrug my shoulders and point to gesture -- what does that mean? Always the answer: "Lucky." (After a few months I stopped asking. I shared a joke with a western friend -- "If anyone shows me something that means 'unlucky' I will surely pay mounds of money to buy it.") This was a special afternoon treat and mini-adventure, to take a detour down one of these hutongs, though it was easy to get lost in the teeming centers of every colossal street block.

We decided to settle in a complex populated mostly by Asian expats (Taiwanese, Japanese), a few westerners (a Brazilian family, an Australian family, one-two American families, a Brit family), and a very few wealthy Chinese -- so we were with other foreigners, but not to the point of living in "little America" or "little Britain." I didn't want to move to China to live in an American-style home with other Americans, but I knew we weren't ready to plunge into a sheerly local area having had no exposure before to this part of the world other than an art history course in college.

The kids and I were thinking back yesterday on our more vivid memories...

...We remember the man across the street who would fix our bike tires for 1 rmb -- the equivalent of 2o cents. He worked outside in his spot on the corner no matter the weather. He wore a hundred layers of jackets and caps, and on cold dreary wet days in January he was steadfastly out there with his little folding chair, grocery bag of tools, and big wide smile. David always insisted on paying him more than he asked, and that plus the 3 children always made him happy to see us. That is him at the top of this page with Will. I hope that man is doing well.

...He worked next to the Family Mart, where we paid our utility bills and cell phone bills in cash and bought Dove chocolate bars and Nestea in bottles. We could have purchased green eggs fermented in lime in the ground, or pigs feet, or eggs boiled in tea, too. But we didn't! I have eaten duck foot and cow brain, but I personally draw the line at questionable eggs. I never have figured out why we paid all our bills there but the rent. I just don't know; it was basically a 7-11. I always had so many questions, that when we'd come across a knowledgeable westerner, I was tongue-tied and stymied and forgot them.

...Don't let the English writing confuse you, rarely would a shop clerk or taxi driver or anyone on the street speak English. It's a trick of the eye -- having an English sign is a cue that a place is or wants to be considered hip and upscale. And the translations can be abysmal -- we shopped regularly at a bookstore -- with signage, cards, flyers, bags -- all printed boldly with the words "Chater House." I suppose a Brit or a Kennedy said "Charter" and the Chinese wrote down what they heard.

...I think, I see China the way a child looks at the world. I half-understand. I see how things are done before I understand why they are done that way. And I want to know why and what.

...What are the carts that drive around ringing bells with flattened boxes in the back? (picking and delivering old appliances) Why is that woman carrying bundles of trash on her bike? (hopes to sell the things somewhere -- findings from trash cans) Why don't the people follow the traffic laws at all? (only follow the rules if the authorities enforce them, otherwise don't bother) Why do I pay for my electricity at Family Mart? (still don't know) And what the heck is that pan of meat doing sitting by the heavy traffic on a muddy day on the dirty curb? Is no one concerned? (apparently not) Why do the restaurants cut up all of their vegetables and meats out on the sidewalk at night? (it's cooler outside and less crowded) And what exactly is bean curd, after all? (not sure, but it tastes good) And why do they rot the eggs before they eat them? (ancient Chinese tradition, I guess)

...We paid our rent in the office of our apartment complex. We paid it in cash, a large wad of bills which I would put in an envelope, and they took the large sum and put it in a tin box. They wrote out a receipt for me on paper with carbon under it, and inscribed what we'd paid in a lined ledger, by hand. There were computers in that office, but apparently they weren't used for these huge rent transactions, and there were always 4-5 workers in uniforms in that tiny room and a work table with a dressy cloth banquet skirt on it. Everyone smiled and nodded as I paid while one person handled the transaction. Then they would give my kids a hard candy, make much over them, and we'd be off.

...In China, everything is handled by Informal Committee, but the rulings are firm. Any dispute, any simple question, any car accident, any injury, any repair -- requires large numbers of workers and onlookers to involve themselves, listen to the parties, heatedly argue or joke with one another as well as those involved, and agree on a plan of action. (It's interestng, everyone seems bent to get to where they are going in a mad hurry careening and whizzing all around, until they happen upon an event of even small magnitude -- then everyone is most eager to stop and discuss. I have seen Committees consisting of a hundred people when there is a big traffic accident.) You must bend to the Committee's decision. I wasn't afraid to drive, but I didn't, because in any car accident, the foreigner always somehow is the one to blame, according to the Committee and and police. In fact, we were in a few car accidents, one medium-bad-ish one, and as the kids and and I sat as one does, a bit stunned and baffled in the short moments immediately after the impact, the taxi man urgently waved us to get out and hurry on away -- before the Committee arrived, I assume. I was happy to oblige.

...We remember how on hot summer nights, all of the cramped families, grandparents especially, would come out onto the city sidewalks, unfold tin lawn chairs, and sleep, or talk, or maybe dance -- ballroom dancing on the corner by the one department store, Ba Bai Ban.

...Caught in the pouring rain, cold and wet and no taxi to be had, far on the other side of town leaving FuDan Children's Hospital, the children and I are crammed under a storefront. It was one of those lonely, fatiguing moments. Then... a stranger gives us his umbrella. A generous act in western countries, this is a magnanimous and really huge act of kindness in a country where basic needs are never taken for granted and incomes are severely limited.

...Eating at Element Fresh every Sunday morning (church was in the afternoons) at the "Super Brand Mall" (with a shrine to the Buddha out front -- that's the mall up top decorated for the Year of the Pig) -- hot western style coffee (ie NOT nescafe powder), smoothies, and the kids would order bacon by the platter, and astound the Chinese at the hugeness of their appetites!

...Everywhere, people shouting across the street or murmuring as they passed -- "SAN GA HAI ZA!" -- my pigeon pinyin Mandarin spelling for "Three Children!" Women and men -- strangers - hugging and even taking up the children to embrace them. A few times I was asked, "All from your belly?" "Ooohhh." Camera's flashing at every national holiday and tourist-y area, and posing with strangers. One lady said, through a translator, "Your children have eyes like Bambi."

...White collar, English-speaking women coming up to me and saying to me -- sometimes matter-of-factly and sometimes -- no other way to describe it -- forlornly: "In China -- only one child."

...We remember the smoke and flying papers from Chinese New Year, slapping and pluming against our living room window, and becoming so thick we couldn't see out our window anymore on the 15th floor, which was actually the 13th floor (since the 4th floor and 13th floor were so unlucky, the builders just skipped them when they labeled the floors). We remember that the next morning the city workers -- one per block, with bamboo brooms -- had cleaned the city streets so effectively, that you would never have known of the chaos and papers the night before. No other firework demonstration will ever compare to that one we watched casually out of our living room window.

Chinese New Year is coming, so we wish you all, Gong Xi Fa Cai...Happy New Year!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advice from the Experts and Products I Love Part II

Advice from the Experts

There is so much information out there it gets overwhelming for a "bear of very little brain" like me. So I have taken up the habit of asking people who are experts in any given field what one or two things they wish other people could know. Here are some of my results from people I've known over the years:

My hair dresser became very animated about this...
1. If you can help it and don't have very oily hair, don't wash your hair every day. Every other day or even "every other-other" day keeps hair healthiest.
2. Take a little extra time on your hair, it is not that much time, but the results are much better. "For Pete's sake, can't you spend an extra 5-10 minutes? I mean, How busy are you? Are you the President?" She said something like that. :-)

1. Best single step for home protection is to get a dog with a good, deep bark. (This means our dog Lucy would not qualify.)

Interior Decorator:
1. The single thing people most frequently do wrong in their homes is hang their pictures way too high. Pictures should be right at average person's eye level at the highest.
2. Have a friend look over your home and give ideas. One decorator told me she does this, since everyone needs "fresh eyes" to see their home.

Dental Hygienist:
1. Floss every day. My hygienist says, if you can't find time, carry floss in your glove compartment and do it during a down moment in carpool line. Or do it in your bed at night right before bed (keep it in your bedside stand).
2. Drink water.

1. There is just no substitute for eating well and exercising, my neighbor, a nutritionist says. Sorry, no way around that, she told me. :-)
2. A book I have on general health, a recent edition, says if you take NO OTHER supplements, take Vitamin C and cod liver oil.
[I think, if you're a lady, and you just add a multivitamin and calcium (not taken at same time in the day as Vit C) you should be in good shape. ]
3. An article I once read said that you will get better health results from aerobic exercise 30 minutes a day than from quitting smoking! Not kidding! Though of course you should quit smoking.

1. Make up the beds in a new house first of all on the day of moving in.
2. Label boxes, when packing, to be unpacked first with linens for everyone's bed and a few towels. Bring soap for showers, and paper towels and t.p. on the first day.

First grade teacher:
1. Read aloud every day, and have a quiet personal reading time every day.


Products I Love Part II: Clothes Edition

1. Dansko shoes. For walking all around on errands or trips or whatever. Sort of ugly, very functional-looking, and amazing relief for the legs and back.
2. Air Pegasus women's running sneakers (half size up). Oh, they are good. So cushiony!
3. My new Nike thermal running tights. Just got these yesterday at an outlet, a new favorite. Toasty warm, soft, and I never once felt too hot on my first run in them!
4. Liz Claiborne button front, no-iron blouses. My 2 have lasted about 4 years, never need to be ironed, never fade, always look fresh. They even survived Chinese washing-machine water, which famously "dingifies" everything.