Monday, December 23, 2013

Oh, hello there...

It's almost as if China heard me, like the country was monitoring my blog or something... after I raged against the winter-in-Guangzhou machine yesterday, because of my personal annoyance at building block after block of apartments that have stupid wall-mounted air conditioners for all but no heat sources, and my extreme annoyance at having to live in one of said apartments now that it has turned cold, and having to do so for four more weeks -- well, less than that, really! woo-hoo! -- and after that led me to further rage about the many ill-treated and restrained animals, including 'pets,' here in Guangdong, not the least of which are the cats and dogs caged and starved and maltreated and then slaughtered for the just-this-side-of-forbidden cat-and-dog-meat industry that operates in shady fashion with illegal transport and stolen domestic animals, and the connection between this cold winter and the total assholes around Guangdong who proudly 'eat anything that moves' and think winter is a good time to eat cat meat to stay warm (what the holy actual bleeding fuck, you monsters!) ... well, after all that blog rage, the very next day on my walk from workplace #1 to workplace #2, I was treated to the delightful sight of two - count 'em two! - cats who were not scraggly, not tied on a leash or god-!@%&*ng-forbid in a cage, and who were hanging out with their humans in their respective storefront. One man beckoned me over when he saw me looking at his big furry black and white cat, so we could scratch the kitty's head together, language barriers aside. The next cat, a few doors down, was enjoying a snack. I was so happy to see two cats who could just be normal, and have  'masters' who obviously actually like them. It was like a little reward from the universe.

I still want to point out that we need to save all the animals in the world that are currently locked up, and worse. Because, really, we need to not be assholes. Is that so much to ask of humans, that they not be assholes?

But maybe this was my Christmas present from China...?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's cold at winter solstice time!
But perhaps colder in the hearts of humankind

In Guangzhou right now, it's 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That's also known as not quite four and a half degrees Celsius. The high today was 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 Celsius) and the low tonight is 33 degrees Fahrenheit (.5555556 Celsius).

These are not temperatures at which it is reasonable not to have a heat source in your house.

And yet, oh, Guangzhou, that is how you have chosen to live, with no heaters, no central air, no vents, no radiators, no ondol floors (god, how China makes a person miss Korea!), no, nothing. Block after block in this city, this city of 12+million, this third-largest in China, this booming, fast developing, "modern," crowded, international (!), high-rise-filled, mad-for-big-business city, you will find apartment buildings crammed together, rising from the dirty streets in endless rows and patches like whitegray tile 20-floor stalagmites, and perched next to nine out of ten windows you'll see dirty mounted air conditioners because oh-my-god-whine-whine-whine-it's-so-hot-here in the summer, but inside we freeze.

I hate this mentality. I hate it with a feverish (feverish! I wish! would that I could feel so hot!) disgust because it's so pathetic. I do not understand why people, when faced with a choice of doing something that makes things better or makes things worse, choose to make things worse.  Why do you rapidly industrialize and build cities that you cannot properly heat? It's not even cannot. It's more like choose not to. The people of fucking southern China and its weird-ass habits drive me up a wall. "Ha ha ha," they laugh, "we don't like spicy food. Ha ha ha, we can't travel to Hunan province with all those fiery dishes. Ha ha ha, we eat frogs and snails and puppy dogs and anything that moves. Ha ha ha, we are the local people, and aren't we so cleverly Cantonese and quirky. We don't like hot air. We like fresh breezes."  AS IF, Guangdong. As if any breeze in this province retains a modicum of freshness. You're pathetic.

No, willful coldness INSIDE buildings is not as bad as eating cats and keeping every cat, dog, rabbit, etc. in sight in a cage. Because of the ways I have personally with my own eyes seen cats restrained, and because I know that some of these mother fuckers I have walked by/seen spit in front of me/been jostled by in the subway support the nasty, shady, sub-legal, violent-fringe cat-and-dog-meat industry, I will never call this bullshit not-having-heat-in-apartments the worst thing about Guangzhou/Guangdong. But willful coldness INSIDE one's home is a valid reason to be annoyed. And annoyed I am.

I am also cold.

In one of my offices, everyone bundles in jackets and hats except for the two people who have brought in space heaters to place next to their chairs.

My other offices are not frigid, because the international company that owns my institute has managed to do one thing right, apparently, although they're incapable of putting a decent bathroom in every location.

I have been wearing sweatshirts, socks, hats, and the like at home for the last week and only been warm when under the covers. Forget showering on days I don't go to the gym! I pick up my cell phone and it's cold to the touch. And no, I'm not running out to buy a space heater because we are leaving this godforsaken place in less than four weeks, and we'll have two out-of-town trips in the meantime (to Macau for Christmas day and Shanghai for New Year's), where I hope I'll enjoy a reprieve.

Stupid. So, so stupid.

I really wish I could save the cats on my way out of this place.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Down the Road From Hong Kong

For nearly a year (gulp! yes! that long!) we have been living and working in Guangzhou. While this has its ups and downs, and while on any given day Brian and I might expend just a tad more energy lamenting the downs (because: bodily functions. Just, no. Get it together, China) one distinct "up" is that Guangzhou is a great launching pad for travel around Southeast Asia and the southern parts of East Asia. Including that ever-fascinating, sophisticated jumble of islands, skyscrapers, hills, international finance, Cantonese, waterfront strolls, food, happy hour, and more that we call: Hong Kong!

If you still haven't quite registered where exactly Guangzhou is (I mean, really, would it kill you to look at a Google map?), we have been residing in the far southeast near the coast of China, in the Pearl River Delta, which means we are a hop, skip, and jump from HK. In this case, the hopping and skipping is generally done via T-class train from Guangzhou East Railway Station, which shuttles us to Hung Hom Station in Hong Kong in a mere hour and forty-something minutes, or slightly longer if there is a delay due to traffic/rain/some guy out to lunch/whatever other inexplicable thing makes the trains not run on time. (We did  not take this trip during any of the typhoons that have been on offer from the South China Sea this year, so can't blame that.)

Hong Kong has also been handy for flying: we used the airport to arrive from Phoenix via Los Angeles in the first place, back in January, and we used it again for a cheap roundtrip to Manila for our Philippines vacation during the Spring Festival holiday. But the really good times are not in the airport (though it's a fine airport), but rather, in the city, wandering the streets of Kowloon, Central, Admiralty, Tsim Sha Tsui, or Causeway Bay, riding the tram, riding the wonderful subway with our Octopus cards, walking ! up the escalators in the subway stations, looking at the water, and soaking up the sights and sounds and smells (food, naturally) that are so Chinese but so not really like China.

Hong Kong being its own (mostly)autonomous region since the handover from Britain, it has different currency and we have to pass through immigration on these jaunts. But, I grudgingly admit that it doesn't really count as another country, although I'd like it to for my tally. (It counts if I am doing the inspired-by-a-flight-attendant-acquaintance aviation-defined countries/territories count, because that list has nearly 300 places and aviation rules and regs clearly divide up the world differently than the U.N. But that's not the point for the moment.)

This week, we're heading to HK on our "weekend" -- which happens to be Wednesday/Thursday, because those are our days off, as we work Friday through Tuesday -- and it's going to be our last time! Now that is a strange thought. I've got used to Hong Kong being down the road. What will it be like to return to normal life where it's a far-off city, where the images of unbridled financial deals, dining and dim sum, light shows and ferry boats, all of those images regain their exotic tinge because one can't just spontaneously decide to head there for the day?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Can we please not make any more veterans?

It has been decreed that 11/11 is the time to honor the sacrifices of people who are sent away from their homes and families in order to make rich and powerful people more rich and powerful. Because this horrible way of treating one another is usually downplayed as "conflict" (instead of large scale violent death), promoted as problem solving, or characterized as defending freedom in order to manipulate people into thinking it is the right/honorable/just/necessary thing to do, one is considered a horrible person if one points out that the holiday's outpouring of rhetoric keeps everyone's blinders on and arguably does a greater disservice to veterans than anything else (by perpetuating the brutal paradigm and creating more and more wars and casualties and veterans and broken families and crippling injuries and traumatized lives).

TO THE VETERANS: I am sorry for your suffering. I wish fervently for your healing. I hope you can go forward in peace.

TO THE MILITARY FAMILIES: I am sorry you had to spend so many days worrying and waiting, and my sympathy goes out to those who received the worst news ever. I wish your government leaders had the courage to admit how bloody unnecessary it was to sacrifice those lives.

TO ALL OF THE ABOVE: I wish they hadn't been able to convince you that dulce et decorum est...

TO THE CIVILIAN VICTIMS OF WAR: What the hell can any of us say?

TO EVERYONE:  You should watch this.  At least click that link and go watch the trailer. Go.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Truly Asia

As anyone who has watched CNN International in Korea for a while (this is actually a significant portion of my peeps, by the way) knows, Malaysia is "Truly Asia." And now we have seen some of the Malay peninsula and had the chance to ponder this slogan, so, well, simple in its simplicity.

Great things about Malaysia included: iced coffee (and many coffee/tea options, cheap!) in the many kopitiams, the cleanliness of Kuala Lumpur (I told Brian I'd rather lick the sidewalk in KL than sit on the sidewalk in Guangzhou), delicious and cheap food food food!, cats chilling out in the city (there need to be cats; they keep rodent population under control; cats need to wander; don't cage them, tie them up, or otherwise imprison them; thank you), being able to walk up and down escalators again without being blocked by the GZ citizens who find it expedient to run -- run! -- from the subway car to the escalator so they can get ahead of the backlog of people caused by the fact that no one stands to the right, walks to the left -- or, in Malaysia's case, stands to the left, walks to the right but -- cannot figure out that once they get there they should keep moving (just. keep. moving!) up and that if everyone did that they would not be concerned with making a mad dash from subway to escalator in the first place and life would be better for all involved, really, so much better for all of us...

Yeah, basically Brian and I were not exactly looking forward to returning from Malaysia to Guangzhou. But we did get a dose of Chinatown at the end of our trip that really prepared us to come 'home.'

Let's start with the fun stuff. Kuala Lumpur, so very often shortened to KL, highlights:

Petronas Towers: They are super tall and famous and gleaming. We went for it and did the tour, which includes a hologram welcome/introduction, a stop on the sky bridge that connects them, and then time at the observation deck. We actually spend a lot of time in the KLCC area around the towers, breakfasting at the adjoining shiny-fancy-superchic mall food court (SE Asian mall food courts aren't like U.S. mall food courts. We're not talking Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick...they are these really great multi-culti set-ups where you and everyone in your party can try whichever Asian cuisine you fancy that day for delicious and cheap, and they just happen to be built in air-conditioned malls) and making a few purchases in said shopping establishment, plus kicking it in the KLCC park outside  with its sunshine, fountain, chilled out people, and have I mentioned clean sidewalks?  That mall has a Kinokuniya, which is our new favorite Asian bookstore (we discovered last year in Bangkok) (and which apparently has branches in the U.S., like in L.A.'s Little Tokyo...who knew?!) where we happily whiled away some time and where I (obviously) found two Malaysia-y books to purchase (or was that...two truly Asian books?)

I am way too parenthetical in this blog post.

Batu Caves: These are on the 'outskirts' of Kuala Lumpur, but only 13 km from the city, and you can see their hill/mound from the Petronas Towers, and you get there by the public transit train in no time at all. And when you do, you find cool Hindu shrine things, a big ol' staircase to climb to get to the big cavern with cool rays of light penetrating through holes in the rock, the large golden statue of Murugan (a lord/deity/Hindu type personage), and a WHOLE bunch of monkeys. The monkeys come up and grab water/juice/soda bottles right out of your hand with a ferocious swipe of their long lithe arms, so keep the drink tucked safely away in your backpack if you don't want to relinquish it!  Caves are cool.

Happy Hour: Everyone knows this is my favorite thing about traveling life, and since Malaysia is "officially Muslim" there are apparently taxes on alcohol and therefore the imbibing is a bit more costly than in all the ridiculously cheap SE Asian countries (hello, 50-cent beers in Cambodia and the Philippines). But that just means it costs not quite as much as drinking in L.A. or Chicago or New York. And there were, indeed, happy hours about KL, including in our hotel lounge where we liked to relax, so all was well.

We loved our hotel! Stay at the Swiss Garden Hotel on Jalan Pudu. Great location, super-duper comfortable room, good amenities like spa and poolside bar, and hurrah that we got a good deal.

I should probably let Brian talk about the food, but let's just throw out a few words and phrases: roti. Breakfast for a dollar. Indian. Indian-Chinese-Malay. Street food block party at night. Chicken wings. Vegetarian stuff everywhere. Have I mentioned the prevalence of iced coffee? I don't even mind specifying "without sugar" or sometimes getting it with the sweetener and condensed milk. More Indian food. Yum.

After Kuala Lumpur, we went down the highway to Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage city on the Straits of Malacca (modern Malaysia has lots of simplified spelling and lots of the letter K, I noticed) that used to totally be the most important trading port, like, ever. In the 1500s, if you were a spice, you probably were going to pass through here, and it was so fun to imagine the harbormasters conducting business in 80 languages and thinking about the Portuguese, who would soon be ousted by the Dutch, who hung out until the British took over, etc. The mix of Indian-Chinese-Malay culture and cuisine, along with all these Euro architecture-language-style remnants, produces such a fascinating blend.

Melaka is all about the river, where one enjoys strolling, cute little bridges, old buildings, having a beverage by the water, and a river boat ride, during which you can see the city and spot really large (monitor?) lizards swimming IN the water, which is so bizarre to someone like me who thinks of lizards in Phoenix as being a distinct part of life but never really swimming.

In Melaka, it was fun to:

  • Walk along the aforementioned river all the time.
  • Wait in line ( = moving along a row of plastic or metal, I forget, stools on the street) at the famous, crowded Capitol Satay restaurant before enjoying its satay celup, a fondue/hotpot-like experience of dipping vegetables, tofu, meat in the hot bubbly spicy peanut sauce in the middle of the table. 
  • Ride in a weirdly garishly decked out trishaw cab, which involves a man pedaling you to your destination while you sit in the part covered by bright pink, magenta, fuchsia, and god knows what other color, flowers, like parade float paper style, with random 80s-like pop blaring. This is an experience not to be missed. 
  • Eat 'Baba Nyonya' cuisine, aka Peranakan Chinese, which is the Chinese peeps who came to Malaysia/Indonesia back in the 15th/16th century (telling you, it was the place to be!) and are also sometimes called 'Straits Chinese.' This food was really Chinese-like and also not. I love fascinating cultural blends.
  • Go to the Literature Museum, because everywhere should have a museum all about preserving its literary heritage and making sure historical and current texts in Malay are not overlooked in the scheme of things, plus you take your shoes off and wander around barefoot on the cool stone and dark wood floors inside.
  • Walk up the hill to see old churches, bricks, cats lounging about in said old church remnants, views of the water, and so on. 
  • Jam out in Chinatown and kind of see more Chinese architecture than I do on a daily basis here in Guangzhou, where there are soooooo many tall, similar, white/gray-tiled high-rise apartment blocks and modern skyscrapers and post-1960s/70s buildings. 
However, it was not fun in Chinatown to, of course, see a woman holding her young, pantsless child above a gutter to do his excretory business, which more than the buildings, Chinese characters, or speaking of Mandarin all around me is what really made me feel like I was back in China....god, that is my least favorite thing about living in Guangzhou!!! And there it was, welcome to Chinatown. So horrible. UGH. 

All in all, Malaysia impressed us and this was just a tiny taste of the peninsula's east coast. We have to go back for the highlands, the west coast, the beaches, the islands, and all the Borneo parts! But for now we are delighted because KL was way cooler than we expected (OK, actually we didn't really know what to expect, so we just had no idea, but it was great there) and the whole Malay thing is such an interesting mix of cultures and I am really enjoying reading the book I picked up, Thinking Through Malaysia, even though it is just a collection of college/academic papers analyzing various random fragments, because it explores the mixed-race identity in the country and all the socio-political ramifications of identity, race, ethnicity, definition, and the like in a perfectly fascinating place to analyze such things.

Yup, I'm good with Truly Asia.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some good, some bad

What's been happening 'round these parts?

Well, for starters, my laptop is pretty much done, done, doesn't even start up, really, anymore, although I occasionally can get it to do something and I might salvage a few more things off of it. The lack of laptop is behind my inability to post, respond to emails, etc. over the last couple months. I'm borrowing a new-to-me computer now, and it's nice to make contact with the world again.

August was great because we returned to our previous work schedules -- you know, the normal ones, where you go to work five days a week? After spending June and July working six days per week, I was definitely happy to get back to normal. Unfortunately, my schedule wasn't *that* normal, because I am still working at my 'new' center, after all, where the manager and his two managers-in-training are sort of obsessed with not giving the staff fixed schedules. So, every week it changes - 5:00, 5:30, or 6:00 for the evening shifts and anywhere between 12:00-1:30 starts on the weekend. It bounces all over the place. I've taken to writing it on my arm so I know when to go to work.

Since we had our weekends back, Brian and I went to Macau again during August -- we still love it! This time around we saw a few more historical sites, went to the museum, walked all around, and ate even more (and more delicious!) Portugese egg tarts.

In September, our two friends from New York came to Hong Kong for their vacation (yay! visitors!) so we headed down there on our weekend to spend time with them.

For Mid-Autumn Festival, we had a 3-day weekend, and we visited Yangshuo, which is in the next province over from us (Guangxi -- or Guang-west, which borders our own Guangdong, or Guang-east). Yangshuo is where you find a gazillion stunning karst formations rising out of the earth, and where you cycle and float around and where you don't feel like you're in China and it's awesome.

September's almost over, and we have rescued a kitten! He was abandoned and tiny and screeching outside our apartment building and we had to help the poor little fella out. We've since taken him to the vet, deeply enjoyed spending time with him, and worked on finding him a home.

Now that I have access to a functioning laptop again, I'll try for some more frequent updates as we head into fall and the home stretch!

p.s. Go Braves!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

And it was all yellow...or some of it was yellow

Yesterday one of my (adult, Chinese) students in a group lesson checked with me to be sure she had the word "yellow" correct -- to describe her skin, she explained, motioning to her arm and then touching the skin there. Yellow skin, right? I explained that although she was right, we probably wouldn't say that anymore because it sounds derogatory. Now, before all you I'm-too-good-for-political-correctness people start rehearsing the pithy comment you're going to make about this post, please read the whole thing and realize I'm still setting up the context. Just pay attention for two seconds; it won't kill ya.

Well, the table of curious students asked me, how would you describe it, then? I told them, realizing even before the words were out of my mouth that it was going to sound weird, that someone in the U.S. might say "Asian." Sure enough, a few of them laughed. Asian? That certainly wouldn't tell them anything. What about the color?

I said we had really moved away from describing skin color, and moved toward describing various ethnic groups, usually based on geography, e.g. of Asian heritage, of African heritage, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, etc. in place of describing skin color. OK, she said, but just Asian? Well, I said, no, I mean, I might describe someone with more detail, like, "She's short, Chinese, with long black hair and dark round eyes" or something like that.  And to be fair, ye PC naysayer, is it really so much better to describe Han Chinese and Japanese and Koreans and Vietnamese as "yellow" without having any clue about their ethnic and national origins, than it would be to say "Asian" without having a clue about their ethnic and national origins?

But here's the rub, about "yellow":  Well, they asked me, then what if someone is Chinese but has white skin? Because some of us have white skin, they pointed out.

THIS, my naysayers, is getting to the point. Now you can start firing those comment cylinders. What this student means by white skin is not what you mean by white skin in the good ol' U.S.A.  When you see someone of Asian heritage that is first and foremost what you see. You aren't going to describe her skin as white, even if she is a porcelain geisha. So don't get too high and mighty. I was reminded of discussions in Cuba with my friends about the "blancos" and "negros" there, and how in a fierce discussion about racism one night, I was fascinated to discover that people were "white" in Cuba who would be checking a different box in the U.S.A.

I told my student that if we were specifying, we would probably say "light-skinned Chinese" or "dark-skinned Chinese" person, that people often talk about light-skinned and dark-skined Latinos, too. Of course, that's still only two options, but it would definitely sound more polite and acceptable, I think, in our usage than "yellow." Then they asked me, doesn't "dark-skinned" mean "black"? And by the way, they asked, can you say "black"?  I told them that dark-skinned doesn't always mean black, and that they could say black, usually, and that there are some who have made the term into a proper identifier, Black, to be capitalized, and so forth. Black, I said, sounds different in our accepted societal discourse than yellow and red, with regard to skin color. I can't think of any modern situation in which someone randomly says "yellow" or "red" in a non-pejorative way.  There are just so many other and more precise ways to describe people, so as a lover of language and words I have a lot of better choices. But what do you call the American Indian/not red person, they asked?  Indian is OK, I said, in a lot of tribal and American Indian Movement (AIM)-type activist circles, especially.  You could also say Native American. My students know what "native" means because we expats are sold to them as "native speakers" of English. They thought about this term. "You know," I said, "native - because, well, they were in America first."  And so we were back to heritage.

Obviously, skin color intertwines with heritage in so many ways ... but I think we would do well to divorce the color from the ethnicity if we want to be able to precisely describe people. But the question is, why do we need to be able to precisely describe people's skin color? Does it matter, really? What if there were a box on our driver licenses, next to hair color, eye color, and weight? Did there used to be?

I think it is foolishly naive and really wishful thinking to make the whole "we're color blind and racism doesn't exist unless you make it exist" argument. That's just hogwash. We all think about race and have ideas about race embedded in our minds--it matters what we choose to do with those ideas, though. But what I'm specifically interested in and curious about lately are the blurring, overlapping lines among skin colors and ethnic identities and nations. Why do we in the U.S. tie so many ethnicities to geographic locations and boundary lines drawn in the sand?  This causes so many problems. I recently finished reading David K. Shipler's book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land and through all the messed up messed-up-ness of that conflict, I kept coming back to thinking about how fixated the Israeli Jews were/are on making a nation state for their "people." Why? That seems to be the crux of the problem, no? Why does an ethnic group of people have to have a state only for them?  Don't we see this same idea in raging conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, etc.? Sure, you can argue that colonial terrorist imperialists drawing the lines in the sand to form nations didn't help things any, either, but why?  Athenian, Spartan, Abyssinian, Khmer, Cham, Navajo, Inuit... Greek? Cambodian?  Why not have an ethnicity and a nationality? Why do we blur them? And how  many years will it take until United States-ian can become an ethnic identity? 1,000? More? Less? Will it ever do so? I need the biologists to weigh in, here.

So if you think being an English teacher is all fun and games, well...OK, never mind, maybe you actually didn't think that.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Independent Nations

Well, another 4th of July has come and gone. I have now spent the U.S.A. Independence Day in five different countries, and it's always fun to gather with a few "fellow Americans" when in some far-flung spot on the globe and rustle up some patriotic feelings, or at least some hot dogs and beer. Actually, we rustled up fajitas for dinner last night, at one of Guangzhou's Irish pubs, in a gathering of folks that included nationals of the U.S.A., Canada, Scotland, New Zealand, and China. I suppose that in itself is very "American dreamy" in some viewpoint or other. I might add that I drank Dos Equis. Hey, I don't always celebrate the 4th in the land formerly known as Canton, but when I do...they are sometimes out of the Pure Blonde Ale that was actually my first choice order.
Earlier in the evening I had a small cup of Budweiser during our beer toast (!) to the U.S. at work, as I taught a little "4th of July hour" for the students. We had a bit of history (why 1776? why split off from England -- what's wrong with them?  why are there 50 stars and 13 stripes? etc.), a little bit of vocabulary (eagle, Statue of Liberty, White House, basically a collage of U.S.A.-like images), a bit of totally differing perspectives (they don't think of Guam as anywhere near China and in fact said "But it's much closer to Japan than here" whereas I think of Guam as "about the same distance" from Hong Kong/Japan -- and I'm living closer to Guam now than I ever have before), and a little bit of arguing when I busted out the Budweiser. "That's not an American beer!" they protested. I mean, first of all, oh-so-appreciative students, you're welcome. Right?!  Secondly, my boss just offered to get something simple for the 4th of July and I said, hey, why not Budweiser? But, see, they actually bottle some Budweiser right here in China. (Hence it being easily available without having to seek out a specialty store with a vast imported beer selection.) So my students were completely prepared to sit there and talk about how it's not an American beer. But, I mean, it is. Coca-Cola bottles stuff all over the world (they were among the first to "think globally, act locally")  but it's still an "American product," no? Or McDonald's and KFC -- also everywhere, here. It was so weird. It's freaking Budweiser. I'm sure many people have accused Budweiser of many things, but I never thought anyone would ever accuse it of being Chinese.
It all makes you think, doesn't it, in this globally connected economy and internet of ours? What does it mean to be anything? I hate the co-opting of "American," which actually refers to two entire continents, so I phrase my question thus: "What does it mean to be United Statesian?"

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jesus is the reason for the ... what, now?

I know, let's talk about why I reject Christianity - -that'll surely be fun for all and sundry, if admittedly a bit off the subject of China. Today I got a hymn stuck in my head, thanks to someone's Facebook post. I will do you the favor of not getting it stuck in your head, too, but let's just say it was one of the many, many hymns that reference how Jesus loved me enough to die for me.

Now, I could cite a lot of reasons, actually, as to why I've severed my ties with church/religion/belief. Let's see, there's ... the logical inconsistencies, the sexist patriarchy, the inability to appreciate the Bible -- a work of literature -- as literature, the !@#* creationists and abortion clinic bombers (yes, I know, they are the extremists, but quick: name three ways their churches try to put a stop to their actions), the sheer unmitigated boredom of the hours and hours and hours of my childhood and adolescence wasted in church ... yeah, there's all that, but I'm here for a much more fundamental (see what I did there) reason today, to wit: the whole "Jesus died for me" thing.

 I mean -- what the hell? So to speak.

And no one will explain it to me. (Believe me, I've asked.) They like to say things like "You have to take it on faith."  But they miss my point. This isn't about the impossibility or possibility of it, no, nor is about the (totally respectable) question so many have asked as to why exactly their loving, omnipotent, etc. God-the-father would send His Son to be savagely butchered and all that. No, I ask a much more to-the-simple-point question of how exactly one dies "for" another.  Like, OK, you put this guy (sorry, this Guy) on a cross and pounded in the nails and he ascended to Heaven and -- this was for my sins?  What's the connection? I'm pretty sure I never asked for all that. And this atones for my sins how exactly?

I mean, it's clearly like all the other barbaric, old-school, ritualistic, like-so-many-cultures, pagan, animism, Aztec, whatever, bloodthirsty animal sacrifice just amped up a bit, like if the people who wrote the New Testament were sort of the Quentin Tarantinos of their day. But everyone has totally fallen for it. I find it to be no small coincidence that many of these same people are convinced that the young men and women who are routinely slaughtered by savage, institutionalized, government-led butchery in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Germany, Japan, Bull Run, Valley Forge, etc. are also said to have died "for me."  It's as if that argument is too powerful for anyone to resist. Oh, this terrible sad awful tragic deplorable thing .. oh, wait, it was for me? Oh well, then it's so powerful! Oh, I'm so moved!

No, dude. Someone was murdered. How does that help you? What does that have to do with you? Nothing.

But government leaders who convince you of that get to be rich(er) and (more) powerful because your powerful belief enables their slaughter. And so it is with the Christians. You can almost hear a warmongering council back in the day: "How can we really get this Roman Empire off the ground? Hey, what about those wacky Christians -- remember that guy we killed? He said, 'Greater love hath no man than this...'  Sure, maybe he was talking about running in front of a car chariot to push an innocent child out of harm's way, but let's say instead he was laying down his life for the sins of his friends - of his people - wait, I've got it! ALL humanity! Then everyone has to believe in us! Let's put a Holy in front of our name."


I will give a hundred dollars, straight up, to the first person who can explain (actually explain) just exactly how the f**k (even ostensibly) Jesus died for us. What does that even mean? It is the absolute most basic tenet of Christianity, I mean, that is the WHOLE THING, and no one can explain it.

No, thanks! say I.

OK, but it really was boring going to three hours of church every week, too, though.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Guangzhou and permanence and skies

I've been having technical issues recently - it may be time for a new laptop - and that is why the posting schedule has been yet again thrown off. Sorry! 

Five months of living in Guangzhou. Seven months remain. How does Guangzhou compare to the other places I have lived and taught?

Well, Korea in general is easier in a few ways than China in general, as far as just living there goes. In Korea, an expat teacher feels s/he can pretty much do whatever s/he wants all the time. This is largely true, within reason, but the problem is that so very many expat teachers -- so very many twentysomethings the world over, of course -- lose their focus on that "within reason" part. In China, I don't have the same sense of abandon that I can do whatever I want and that everything will be conveniently somehow available. Many, many things are here, sure, in terms of food, fashion, transport, technology, etc. But, I do have to put forth what I perceive as more effort as opposed to the ease of daily life. It is also so much easier to become functionally literate in Korean, and being unable to read everything around me is really, really, really annoying -- almost as annoying as being unable to find an affordable literacy/reading/writing class here.  Living in Mexico is on a whole other planet from the Asian bewildering-days experiences. I mean, living in Mexico is not even exotic or particularly "different" from my Southwest U.S. heritage, geography-climate-food-wise -- plus, Spanish is easy, being in North America is easy, eating is cheap and delicious and easy, and basically everything except cockroaches is easy there. But, you don't get paid enough money to live or do anything much, so you definitely finding yourself wanting to head back to Asia.

Job-wise, I much much much prefer my current gig to all of my other ESL teaching jobs, mainly for the reasons of hours worked per week, the materials and curriculum provided, and the fabulous adult students as compared to the cat-herding atmosphere of teaching five or six or seven classes of Korean kids and 'tweens all day.  I loathed the split shifts in Mexico and the only problem here is that we have had a very recent development in which they have changed all the foreign teachers from five to six-day schedules for the summer (and possibly beyond). Needless to say, we are livid at having our "weekends" (two days off in a row) taken away. My 26 hours of work are now spread across six days, so I've got time to organize my life and do things, but can't take weekend trips for three months -- or possibly more -- which is so lame.

Food is easy and cheap here. Not quite as cheap as Mexico, more vegetable options than Korea (and far less seaweed, thank you very much! said the allergic-to-seaweed-lady), not much English on menus, lots of pictures though, and in Guangzhou, plenty of Western, Indian, and other foreign restaurants including multiple expat-filled pubs and taverns.

But am I planning to stay in Guangzhou past this year? No. One might wonder why, since I seem to like the job and whatnot. Yesterday, it hit me quite strongly while I was running, the reason why I won't be here forever. As I ran through my neighborhood of tall, gray, skyscrapers, "Useless Desires" came on my running play list and Patty Griffin sang that wonderful line of hers, "The sky turns to fire/against the telephone wire..."  I looked around me and realized that in the gray Guangzhou rainy season haze and the utter lack of expansive view, I haven't seen that sight in ages! For that alone, I will hie myself to a good ol' open space to wander and ramble again in my lifetime.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

I sit 10 stories above the street

I was unable to post on Thursday due to a random can't-connect-to-Blogspot error. Apologies!

Anyone who likes music and/or deeply loves some band or other has probably listened to quite a few live albums in his/her day. The story I am about to tell will resonate with Indigo Girls fans but also, I think, anyone who enjoys a live album -- as for you people born five minutes ago who only download your music one track a time, I can't help you.

I enjoy listening to a live album (say, 1200 Curfews) that is put together with songs from various shows and interesting artist chatter to link and introduce the songs, but there is one thing that just really annoys me. There are a few occasions on the aforementioned album when one Indigo Girl (OK, its's usually Emily) starts to talk about the next song and before actually introducing it, she gives it away by something she says in her little intro. For example, "So I was thinking about Galileo..." which elicits a huge cheer from the crowd and even a sarcastic "Nice segue" from Amy. Well, before another certain song she mentions that she was thinking about her little boyfriend Danny in sixth grade, and a faint recognition cheer can be heard from in the background, clearly coming from the tenth or so of the fans who now know she is about to launch into the story behind "Least Complicated" because we are just that devoted and know all about the whys and wherefores of most of their songs' origins. OK, fair enough that some people are still in the dark - no problem. She then says, "I went to Woolworth's and I bought him a ring." At this point, there is a huge, loud recognition cheer (for which Emily has to pause in her story, even) because now most everyone knows what's coming. The damn chorus of the song, after all, involves the fact that "[she] bought [him] that ring because [she] never was cool." OK, great. Now we are all in. Here come's "Least Complicated." Emily finishes talking about the "beginning of the rest of [her] life" and we're off ...

Except! Except then!  When they start playing the song, there is another recognition cheer a few bars into the guitar-strumming intro. It's like, what?!  Who is doing that?  We've already established that we knew what was coming and cheered for it. The people who give that oh-my-god-thank-you-for-playing-this recognition cheer at that point just remind me of the jackasses on Facebook who comment on someone's "OMG thanks for all the birthday wishes!!" status with a "Happy birthday!"  Do you just want the whole world to know how entirely you have missed the boat, or what?

Yes, these are the musings of someone with too much time and/or Indigo Girls trivia on her hands.

And here we are in June. Summer in Guangzhou is shaping up to look a lot like spring in Guangzhou: warm gray, hazy days punctuated with rain. I guess it is a bit hotter, because we are running the A/C. Haven't yet got an electric bill with this new cost factored in. Our bills overall have been pretty cheap, so here's hoping it's not too much of a shock to the system!

What an adult-like nerd I am blogging about weather and electricity bills. Other recent happenings in the GZ; work, work, work; a new schedule at work about which the foreign teachers are not happy; two consecutive first-place trivia wins at the pub quiz in two different Western-themed, expat-filled taverns in Zhujiang New Town; occasional Chinese class; Game of Thrones withdrawal this past week just like for everyone else around the world who watches it; reading; being crowded on the Metro -- you know, the usual.

I think June needs a thing. You know how March has in like a lion, out like a lamb? Why doesn't June have a thing like that?

Monday, May 27, 2013

How to learn a language without really trying

The short answer: you can't.

The longer answer: you still can't, but I'll talk about it in more paragraphs. Ever since I have started trotting off to teach English in Asian countries, one of the most common questions from friends back home has been more of an assumption than a question. They'll ask if I speak Korean, or, now I guess, Chinese, but they seem kind of surprised to learn that the answer is no, that I am not fluent, not by a long shot, in these languages of countries where I have lived.

And by the way, I am the person who likes studying languages, who has always liked studying languages, who got the highest of my high grades in high-school German and French, who took Polish for a semester in college just 'cause, who regularly reads newspapers and books in French and Spanish and is always looking for simple German books, who has taken Korean and Mandarin classes while living abroad,. etc. etc. The spirit is willing, indeed! One of my friends said to me the first time I lived in Korea, after a few months of my being there, "If I know you, you're speaking better Korean than the Koreans by now." But I wasn't, and I still don't, and here's why: when you teach English abroad, you often find yourself working full-time in an English speaking environment, immersing your students, disciplining the children who speak in their native language. Even at my current job, teaching adults, there's an English-only policy that is indeed enforced.

Most people don't very much of my day is spent speaking English. Add to that the fact that I live with an English-speaker, and the tendency of expat teacher communities to be separate from locals in nightlife, poetry readings, arts, etc.. and you have a recipe for being nowhere near fluent in the official language of your country.

Yes, I believe you should try. You should take a class (I'm doing that) and listen to the language in various media and study a bit on your own and jabber with people in your daily encounters. I got really proficient at store/taxi/ticket counter Korean!  As it happens, I would try to learn Mandarin even if I didn't feel compelled to, because I like language and languages. I just invite you to consider how good of a football player you would be if you hung around watching football practice for a year, or how well you would play the violin if you worked in the box office of symphony hall.  News flash: language is a skill. It totally needs to be practiced to be acquired, just like a sport or musical instrument. You might have a talent for it, but you still have to pick up the equipment and do something to bring out that talent.  Living abroad gives you chances to practice a language, of course! But not 24/7.  Not when you are teaching English and being paid not to speak any other language.

I would also invite you to consider how a person from Honduras or Ecuador living in Phoenix who gets a job as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant and speaks in Spanish with a bunch of co-workers every day and then goes home to Spanish-speaking roommates might not magically become fluent in English overnight. Just putting that out there.

That said, my goal for June is to ramp up my language study. The first four months here were busy, chaotic, and full of out-of-town commitments. I plan to spend most of the summer right here in Guangzhou, and I am going to improve my Mandarin when I am not working. Let's check in come August and see how I did!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cool runnings

It's air-conditioning season in the GZ! You might also know it as sticky-muggy-sweltering-it-rains-every-day-and-when-it's-not-raining-life-is-a-mushy-pile-of-sweat season. Now, I am not here to complain about the heat because as anyone who knows me knows I am sort of mystified by all the folk who are always complaining about the weather all the time. I mean, it's like, well, summer is hot. Winter is cold. This does happen regularly -- every year, in fact -- and yet they always seem so surprised... Anyway, no, I am not going to lament the fact that the summer rainy season in a sub-tropical place is steamy and hot because that would just be silly. I am just going to point out something, just this one teeny little thing. OK? Ready, China, are you listening? Here goes.

It's not that I don't like the feeling of the cool blast of air that I feel through the wide open doors of the department store/office/coffee shop ATM vestibule when I'm walking down the sidewalk. Like today, when I was running and all gloriously hot and sweaty and I trotted by the Bank of Whatever and felt a little arctic blast for a second. Yeah, that felt great and all, but here's the thing: every time it happens I kind of freak out a little bit and lose a little piece of my soul. I come from a place that would actually not exist as we know it without air conditioning (Phoenix!) and I come from a family of engineers, several of them electrical engineers, and they design power plants for a living and coordinate all sorts of mysterious power grid supply things, and in particular I have a parent who worked for Arizona Public Service, electricity provider extraordinaire. I was raised to shut that door quickly quickly quickly no that's not quick enough!! if the air conditioner was running (which, in Phoenix that could be like nine months out of the year. Maybe more.)  So I'm just pretty much blown away (see what I did there) every time this whole "Wow! Feel that A/C blast through the open doors out to us here on the sidewalk!" thing happens.

The thought does occur to one that if you people would maybe, you know, just kind of shut the !@#$&* doors you could save a whooooooooooooole lot of energy and maybe you wouldn't have actually needed to build that gargantuan mighty largest ever Three Gorges Dam and stuff. Just a thought.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A tiny glimpse of Guangzhou life and food

A faithful blog reader asks what a typical day is like for us. We actually have a few different "typical" days here in the G-Z based on the particulars of our work schedule, but there are some common themes among them. 

Being part of an English teaching couple, a lot of our days at home -- that is to say, in our residence -- are actually indistinguishable from days at home-home in the U.S. (wherever that home-home may be). If Brian and I are hanging out in the apartment watching a movie, blogging, reading, or having a glass of wine, there is nothing particularly Chinese about the scene. Our apartment is in one of many, many indistinguishable apartment buildings found in Guangzhou and other cities: tall, grey or earth-toned, rows and rows of places to live. It's a one-bedroom (desk, wardrobe, nightstands) with a small living room (couch, glass coffee table, bookshelf, TV, cable, DVD player), dining area on the side (where we also have our shoe rack), small kitchen (fridge, microwave, stove, sink, tiny countertop, dish drainer) and small bathroom (dark blue tile floor, glass-doored shower, no bathtub). I'm reminded that I am in Asia by the washing machine on the balcony/laundry area whose buttons are still indecipherable and the rods on which we hang clothes to dry. Dryers: the ultimate electricity-devouring appliance that is definitely not standard in minimalist apartments around the world. 

It only now occurs to me that I should probably take pictures for this blog post. Oh well, a thousand words are worth a picture. We'll do a visual tour in some upcoming entry. 

Since we work in the evenings, we usually spend our weekday mornings at home. We make French press coffee and breakfast on fruit and/or bao zi, the latter of which are sold hot and fresh about a 2-minute walk from our building. I'm partial to the shu cai bao (vegetable dumpling) while Brian often gets pork. This is an incredibly cheap breakfast of champions -- 1 RMB per dumpling! That's like 16 cents. Yum!  We always get bao zi  when we head out to our weekly morning Mandarin language class or when we head to work at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, too. 

I like to go on walks, listening to my mp3 player, and I haven't really found a good nearby running route yet. I've done a few runs to the river and back, which sounds nice, but isn't at all -- we are in the middle of urban crowded urban-ness, and the route to the river is a throng of cement, people, storefronts, traffic, hotels, taxis, parking lots, restaurants, you name it. I can go either by busy street or by the little canal/river off-shoot, which, again, sounds like it would be nice but is really just full of people walking and is more like a sidewalk. A crowded sidewalk. I spend most of the run, about 3/4 of a mile from here to the river, dodging people and cars. I should also add at this point that neither the river nor the canal smell nice -- the Pearl River is evidently quite polluted. Such a shame.  Brian usually works out on our all-purpose balcony, which is small, longer than it is wide, and sadly has a not-very-exciting view of the sides of tall grey buildings and a smattering of green plants and treetops.

We live right next to the subway station, at the corner of a very busy thoroughfare-like road and our less busy road from which you enter our place. Everything small is within walking distance: convenience stores, snacks, banks, the pirated-DVD selling man, Lenscrafters, 7-11, the bottled water place with which we have a contract for delivery -- you know, those big bottles you turn upside down into the water cooler, like in an office, and then they come back to trade out the empties for new full bottles. It's a little bit farther (one subway stop or a longer walk) to the big grocery stores, of which there are many in GZ, including several with imported goods (I totally found everything I needed for a Cinco de Mayo party for my students), but within a five-minute walk between here and the river is our local market, a crush of people and stalls and chaos where we can buy vegetables, meat, tofu, snacks, condiments, live chickens (no thank you), and plenty of other things for incredibly cheap. 

Within a 1/4-mile radius we probably have three dozen restaurants; we have tried a bunch and have a few favorites. Sometimes they have picture menus. A few have English printed on the menu, including our much loved northern cuisine restaurant right on the corner which has a giant menu we are working our way through. We dine out weekly or so at one of these nearby places. Our evening work schedule isn't really conducive to going out to dinner, so we often dine separately on our way to or home from our separate workplaces. We like to lunch at the delicious noodle places and other spots nearby, and Brian has been using his wok to cook up delicious lunches with vegetables, tofu, pork, fried rice, and his newly discovered favorite condiments. 

Every afternoon I spend time at my desk writing, checking in online, emailing, organizing my life, making lists of books to read, etc. From the desk I can gaze through the window at the less-than-thrilling view of the air conditioners and windows of the side of another wing of our building and the always gray sky. I do mean always gray. We see the sun for an hour or two about once or twice a week, but even then the sky isn't really blue. This is partly because of the seven-month rainy season and partly because of the ever-present pollution haze, as I understand it. 

We leave for work around 5 p.m., scattering in opposite directions on the subway. The Guangzhou subway is extremely crowded and although it is clean and convenient, the sheer mass of people who refuse to stand-to-the-right-walk-to-the-left on the escalators drives me batty. It's cheap, though! We have our transit cards and probably spend about $20-25 a month on commuting at most. 

On Saturdays and Sundays we leave for work in the morning and work a full 8-hour day. I almost always lunch at this place by my center called Long Lin which is kind of like a cafeteria -- you go down the line with your tray and just tell them which dishes you want (or in my case, you point). There are always at least a dozen options, and I almost always get a tofu dish (I've had five or six different ones there) and a vegetable or two, but I've also had fish -- even a whole fish once, just there on my plate -- and accidentally some unidentifiable things too that I had thought were chicken or beef but could be any animal, really, to hear the Guangdong province locals tell it -- they eat everything from turtles to what we would call house pets. It hurts my heart and brain. I have been trying to go completely back to vegetarian, and it's not too difficult to do so, but I tend to indulge in a meat dish when that is the path of least language-barrier turmoil. I also eat the occasional burger at the Western, expat-filled pubs we go to. I suck. Brian has an awesome lunch spot near his center, and we eat there together every week after our Wednesday Chinese class, which is also held at his center. It's a large food court in a huge, nice mall, but get those pictures of Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick out of your head. This mall is full of Louis Vuitton and Dior and elegance, and they don't let people loiter around near the doors, and the food court is full of real, delicious food of all sorts: Flavors of Xi'an, Macao, spicy hotpot, vegetarian place, Japanese place, Vietnamese place, etc. 

We've been doing a bunch of traveling on our days off but there is also stuff around here to do. We like to go to Shamian Island, which is a tiny little island of city created by the river that was once a foreign concession and now has an interesting look and feel, architecturally and plant-wise. We enjoy our favorite Starbucks there -- it's in a really cute setting with great outdoor seating -- followed by a walk along the river and dinner. Yes, I openly go to Starbucks, often. There are eleventy gazillion of them in Guangzhou. I have also tried a few other coffee shops, and I drink tea, too, but coffee is just a part of my life and it's completely a part of the (urban) landscape here as well. On Wednesdays we go to trivia and dinner at The Tavern, a British-y pub with lots of western grub. Imported beer is much more plentiful here than in Korea, although it's still cheaper to drink Tsingtao or Harbin or Pearl River Brewery beer, but Chinese beer is leaps and bounds ahead of Korean beer, in my humble opinion. 

We're friendly with a bunch of our co-workers including a group of teachers who live in the same apartment building as us. We often join them for dinner or drinks or to see a band play live. I've been to a bunch of different bars and restaurants, which are everywhere, but there are definitely concentrations -- in Zhujiang New Town, the super-modern, all high-rise district where the Opera House, Guangdong Provinicial Museum, and two of our Western pubs are located; in Taojin, the foreigner-laden district with all kinds of nationalities and some sketchy people and several Indian restaurants among other cuisines; Tianhe, which is where Brian's center is and has a bunch more tall buildings, malls, modern things, cafes, bookstores; and the Party Pier, which is a new crop of restaurants and bars and clubs along the south side of the river, also within 10-15 minutes of our place by cab. And this really only scratches the Guangzhou surface! The subway stops running at 11-something, so we head home in a taxi for about $2-3 dollars from many of our nightspots. 

It rains at some point about six days out of every seven. 

I like to stop at the little Uighur-bread stand near my work, when I get off early enough and they are still there, or sometimes I'll get bread before work. The Uighur culture is from the far west Xinjiang province of China, bordering Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and in multiple places you can find Uighur Muslims here in GZ selling the round bread baked in their oven right there on the sidewalk and kebabs that they grill up right there as well. There are other late-night street food options to be had, too. You cannot go hungry in Guangzhou and you will not run out of new places and delicious foods to try. We also have a favorite Uighur restaurant, in the Tianhe district, one subway stop away. 

I'll stop jabbering for now and maybe even go take some photos to illustrate all of these things I've been babbling about. And I will talk about our work and students and job environment in a future post! 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Great Birthday Hong Kong Adventure of 2013

From the "You don't say..." files, Hong Kong really is a nice place.

We just returned from our birthday celebration, wherein we spent the 3 days between our 2 birthdays in the city/territory/not-quite-another-country-except-it-kind-of-is-though down the road. We once again stayed in Causeway Bay and we once again did some wandering in both Tsim Sha Tsui/Mong Kok and Central. We also discovered new areas, like Stanley Beach and its neighboring promenade and market, and we ate at a bunch of new restaurants. We checked out the Hong Kong Museum of History and we became enthusiastic fans of the tram as a convenient mode of transportation in addition to just the subway. We knew this before coming to Guangzhou, but it's worth saying again: living down the road from Hong Kong is kind of awesome.

Among the restaurants we sought out this time were a vegetarian place highly recommended by the guidebook and one of Anthony Bourdain's favorite hole-in-the-wall meat spots. I would call Pure Veggie House overpriced, considering that the food is not particularly spicy or mind-blowing. It's got tons of delicious options, and that's great, but I was not blown away. I would definitely return if in need of some meatless sustenance, though. The meaty hole-in-the-wall was much cheaper and sinfully delicious. On one night of our trip, the place we sought out was already closed at 9:30 (despite having posted hours saying it's open until 10:30...) so we had to find something else. We had tacos on the brain and so we put on our Mexican food radar and - here's the shocking part - found  a Mexican place! Yes, I am still in Asia. This is why Hong Kong is special. Can you imagine me typing that sentence in Korea, or China, or even Japan? That we started thinking about Mexican food, set out looking for it, and found it? No, no you cannot. Hong Kong rules. Brian even now has an "I-heart-HK" t-shirt to prove it.

The history museum is highly recommended, by the way. It goes from the prehistoric natural state of the land and the islands rising up as the sea level went down all the way through dynasties, opium wars, and being handed back to China, then leaves you with the question of what lies in store next for Hong Kong?

My favorite thing about Hong Kong, which we experienced on our previous trip as well as this birthday celebration journey, is probably the amazing Lan Kwai Fong happy hour scene. I really love a place that knows how to do happy hour right. Well, actually my favorite thing might be walking on the promenade and gazing from Kowloon at the water and at Hong Kong Island across the way. Or maybe my favorite thing is taking the Star Ferry and gazing at both sides.

Who says I have to pick a favorite, anyway? I just like having it available down the road for our birthday celebration!

Monday, May 13, 2013

How the other half karaoke

It should go without saying that one of the greatest things about living in Asia is the plentiful, unabashed karaoke. As many of you know, this usually takes place in karaoke room establishments. Unlike in the U.S. where, if you're lucky, you have one or two bars within stumbling/cheap cab distance that have karaoke once a week, and it's packed, and you can probably do your song, maybe, three hours after you put in your request, and if it's in any way problematic (bizarre, tinny accompaniment/weird key/you realize you don't know it after all) then your night is shot, the karaoke places in Asia are a different animal. You go into a room for which you pay by the hour. The room has couches, a screen, a song book, etc. You and your friends have it to yourselves. You can sing whatever you want, as much as you want. You can press a button to skip ahead when a song turns out to be a bad idea. You don't have to worry about anyone who is annoyed that you're making a fool of yourself. You can order beer, and often some salty snacks show up. The places don't ever close, it seems. This is a wonderful industry, and I find it delightful that in certain cities in the U.S. (New York, Boston, where else?) enterprising Asians have started these same businesses there (although they are sadly more expensive in the U.S.A.)

Now, I have been to multiple noraebang ("singing rooms") in Korea, but I must say the softest spot in my heart is for the one we frequented in Andong, there in lovable Ok-dong with the woman who I developed quite a rapport with throughout our year of late night arrivals. The place is tiny, cheap, and a little dingy, with a convenience store cooler-like fridge of beer in the lobby. It's like home. If home had squat toilets and a few disco balls.

Here in China the karaoke magic happens in KTV establishments. Due to our whirlwind of activity these first few months as well as the general (and annoying) tendency of most people I know to not want to go singing every week (I mean, why not people? Really, why not?) I had not even been to KTV yet (I know! the horror!) until last night.

But about last night:

Wow! This was our company party for the center where I work, a reward for hitting all of our sales and numbers targets for the quarter. The place we went, apparently a favorite of our staff, is quite the posh karaoke joint. First, you walk down a wide, marble-like hallway lined with aquarium walls -- fish on one side and sharks on the other. I mean, they're little but geez! And no, I do not approve whatsoever of imprisoning little sharklets but I'm just trying to convey the sort of "glamorous" approach this place takes. Then you check in at a desk that looks more like a hotel reception. I happen to know that our center director made a reservation for our group, although I don't think you have to do that. Then, we go into our absolutely palatial suite. Did I say suite? Why yes, there was more than just the room with couches and tables -- there was also a wet bar and a private bathroom. (With a western toilet!)  The biggest screen was HUGE, and there were two smaller screens on each of the side walls. Then we got a printed menu (Chinese and English) and proceeded to order beer, and bottles of wine, which were brought to us along with wine glasses (!) by uniformed service staff. Our snacks included things like M&Ms, popcorn, noodle dishes, and god knows what else we ordered up, plus fruit baskets -- really beautifully arranged with the fruit of many colors all carved in spirals and whatnot.

Meanwhile, rather than punching numbers into a grubby keypad, you have a touch-plasma screen to scroll through and search by artist or title (with Roman alphabet options) as well as a one-touch button to move your song to the top of the queue, which by the way you can see on the side of the screen the whole time, or minimize if you prefer. Note: I do not approve of skip-your-song-to-the-top features any more than I approve of the sharks, as they are constantly abused despite a noble effort to keep the Chinese-English-Chinese-English rotation balanced.

Needless to say, I won't be spending all of my hard-earned yuan at this place, but when the boss is paying? Yeah, fill up that wine glass and let's sing!

For those interested in the set list, I believe I was involved with Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, "The Loco-Motion," "American Pie," "Single Ladies," and "Waka Waka," among others. But I may have been at my best most drunk when we did "Gangnam Style" and the words were actually in hangeul and out of the 40 or so Chinese, Canadian, Scottish, New Zealand, and me employees, but one of us knew how to read the language of Psy, and so the microphone was passed to me and I handled vocals while the others galloped around gloriously.

I would not really like to discuss the hangover with which the KTV gods saw fit to punish me this morning. Didn't someone once say that there's no such thing as a free night of luxurious karaoke? I have certainly paid the price.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

And so this is 1/3 of the year,
and what have I done?

Blog! Blog o' mine! Here I am. I am so sorry, little bloglet, to have neglected you so, but I was stuck behind this big ol' wall* and I've only just found my way out and back to you, oh dear little blog. And readers. Readers! There you are, reading the blog, because I have come back, and it is nice to be with you again. What, the readers must be breathlessly asking themselves, has life on the other side of the wall been like? This is indeed a question to be answered. But where to begin?
*(a wall of fuego, as they say) 

Today it has been four months since Brian and I boarded the plane that would take us across the Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong, from where we would hie ourselves up the road a piece to our new home for another year of teachin'-in-Asia. As I mentioned in my last post before disappearing, we accepted a job in Guangzhou, also formerly known as Canton by ye olde foreign westerners, and so it has come to pass that we are now living in the Pearl River Delta and learning the ins and outs of life in this big, crowded, brightly lit, restaurant- and skyscraper-filled metropolis. It has also come to pass that we have learned very few of the linguistic ins and outs ... but more on that in a later post devoted to language troubles.

In fact, our first four months of living in China have been an insane whirlwind of taking forever to get settled and kind of being forced to travel all the time, thus dragging out even more the time it takes to get settled. I know, poor us, right? Oh, we've just been forced to take these international vacations, boo-hoo... but seriously, I would not plan it this way if I had my scheduling druthers. First and foremost, this is because I am a complete and total save-the-best-for-last kind of gal, and I would much much much much much rather start out my year contract in Asia by diving into weeks of work work work and then, a few months in, start having holidays, and I would take my annual leave vacation and my long holidays as late in the year as possible, whereas we of course had quite the opposite by arriving in January because that meant Spring Festival was right around the corner.

  • February / Spring Festival / Lunar New Year / The Philippines

Therefore, we had to start planning a vacation before we even had internet in our apartment and practically before we even had an apartment and definitely before we had received our first paycheck. This is not as easy as it looks, my friends! But the alternative would be to sit at home for our 9 days off in a row (shudder to think!) and furthermore to squander the biggest holiday of the year. It would be like moving to the U.S. on December 5th and not figuring out what to do with yourself for Christmas break. Unheard of! But because of the aforementioned lack of even one paycheck, we had to plot this carefully, and that's where Expedia saved us by popping up in my inbox with a last-minute deal from Hong Kong to Manila, and so we were off to the Philippines for the Lunar New Year holiday, and we rang in the Year of the Snake on the beach at Boracay, followed up by a few days of strolling around Manila. And we planned the whole thing using Starbucks' wi-fi. (This concludes your corporate shout-outs paragraph.)

  • March / Hong Kong 

Of course, this meant we had now passed through Hong Kong multiple times without ever being able to really stop and smell the Hong Kong roses; we just kept arriving and departing at the airport and the Guangzhou-Kowloon train station and even riding the subway and having lunch at an Indian restaurant or grabbing a coffee but not getting to explore the city. The city a mere couple of hours down the road from us, this fabulously exciting, beloved-by-every-traveler, one-of-the-greatest-cities-on-Earth city. And so it was time for a proper trip, a "weekend" in Hong Kong (our weekend actually being on Wednesday and Thursday, due to our work schedule - but also we don't work until 6 p.m. on Fridays, which is awesome). So we got back on the train and spent a couple of days checking out all the glories of Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour, Tsim Sha Tsui and Admiralty, happy hour in Causeway Bay, the steep and winding streets, the dim sum, the laser light show, the art museum, the tailors who whip up a custom-fit suit in 24 hours or less, and not least of all the markets and shops and street of kitchen supplies where Brian had his sights set on wok shopping. In fact, Brian had basically been talking about buying a wok since the day we had our first job interview for this China gig back in Mexico in September, and he had determined that a particular street in Hong Kong would be the best place to procure a wok, and so procure it he did, along with some other wok-cooking utensil essentials including a knife that had to be checked as luggage on the train back to Mainland China. Since we had traveled with only our backpacks, the authorities took the big ol' chopping knife -- one of those rectangular deals that you might have seen being whipped around on a "But wait there's more!" infomercial in years gone by -- and wrapped it in newspaper and put a little tag around it and off it went down the luggage conveyor belt, to be retrieved by us back in Guangzhou.

  • April / Macau

And back in Guangzhou, we had another holiday on the way. I really wanted to catch my breath, get into a routine, attend my Wednesday ("Saturday") morning Chinese class more regularly, and start saving up some freakin' money, but instead we had to decide what to do for Tomb-Sweeping Day on April 3rd, which gave us a three-day "weekend" April 2-3-4. The obvious answer, of course, was to head to the other kinda-sorta-China-but-you-cross-a-border-to-get-there Special Administrative Region hereabouts, that being Macau. And I am here to tell you that Macau. Is. Awesome!  So much awesome is the Macau! It was Portugese, you know, or perhaps you don't, seeing as Macau kind of flies under the radar in terms of Places the World Often Jabbers About, but like Hong Kong, it, too, has reverted to being part of China. Sort of. This is actually an ongoing debate, as to whether it counts as going to another country when we go through immigration to Hong Kong and Macau. All I know is that Macau now offers the following: cobblestone streets, Portugese egg tarts and other ridiculously delicious cheap food, and gambling galore! "The Vegas of the East," they say. (They who? I don't know.) Massive big name casinos -- Wynn, Venetian, MGM Grand, you name it, and I have rarely enjoyed wandering around any city for two days quite as much as I enjoyed wandering around Macau. Oh, yes, I will be back there.

  • April Redux / Vietnam 

But no rest for the weary!! Because now our company was suggesting - strongly suggesting - that if anyone would please like to take a couple of days of unpaid leave during the month of April then we should definitely take them. Please do so. Please. And maybe some teachers might be forced to reduce hours if we didn't get enough volunteers, please, and thanks. What's an English-teaching couple to do, but realize that May 1st is going to be YET ANOTHER holiday (Labor Day/International Workers' Day -- you can thank Grover Cleveland for it not being celebrated on that day in the U.S.) and therefore if one were to take a mere three days of unpaid leave (highly appreciated by one's regional director!) and switch one's days off in the previous week, one would find oneself with eight consecutive days off that are clearly meant for one to travel to Vietnam...? And so, there we were again, eking out a budget for tickets, hotel, visa, etc. in order to not lose this time-off opportunity (I know, I know, such problems...but SERIOUSLY why did this all have to be in our first three and a half months?)  and then we were off to Hanoi! By the way, if you have yet to look at a map, Guangzhou is very close to Vietnam -- closer to Hanoi than to either Shanghai or Beijing, for example. Anyway, Vietnam just may have been the most revelatory trip yet, largely because of Sapa. Holy cripes! This mountain destination is ten kinds of amazing, and I can't believe that before whipping out Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring I had never even heard of it. All I know is that a wise man would do a lot less dropping of bombs on northern Vietnam, and a lot more sitting in a hotel on the Sapa hillside sipping his beverage of choice and staring at the stunning view.

Which brings us to mid-May. Which means it's our birthday month! Which means that Brian and I totally have to spend another weekend in Hong Kong, right? (Right?!) I mean, what else would one do for one's birthday when one lives a mere two-hour, $24-ish dollar train ride from the H-K? So that's where we'll be. Next week. And then I am going to just absolutely sit still for a minute and ... plan my celebration of the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival.

Meanwhile, you want to know what it could possibly be like to live in China. Isn't it an interesting question? Sure it is. However, I'm so close to the situation that I'm having a hard time at the moment figuring out what to talk about. But now that I'm back on the blog (praise be!) I will happily answer all your questions. So what are they? I would love to know what you want to know about life in Guangzhou. Ask and ye shall receive -- especially if you ask in the form of a comment here -- because the blog is back! Check in every Monday and Thursday for all the latest and greatest Linda Without Borders happenings. Although lately it feels like a more appropriate name might be Linda With Lots and Lots of Borders to Cross...

Monday, January 07, 2013

Drink to the bird!

Next stop, China! Actually, that's not really true. First we have to stop in Los Angeles, which delights me exceedingly because I get to bid farewell to the USA in (my true home?) California. I'm kind of excited that my international comings and goings of late have included these random little California stopovers, because I can pretend that it is a cosmic sign that I should live in L.A. again once I finish teaching English in Asia. I mean, I plan to return to California anyway, but all of those who know me know that I like nothing more than a little cosmic sign from the universe affirming my random decisions. The problem, of course, is that I also want to live in Chicago when I return from Asia, because I'm not quite finished with Chicago, and this doesn't even address the fact that I still want to live in Boston as well as New York. (See a pattern here? I like the places I've lived. Not to mention the other places I love and in which I want to live but haven't got around to yet like Atlanta and San Francisco and Washington D.C., and that's just in the U.S., because I also have so many places abroad still to dwell in..,.)

I digress. I fully intend to do another stint in Chicago and then hie myself to L.A., where I belong, but first! First, I must go to China!

Brian and I have been to China twice. The first trip was in September 2011, and we did the whole Great Wall/Beijing/Shanghai thing. Loved it. (Really loved all the rooftop bars, in both of those cities. I am a China convert based on the rooftop bars alone. Nothing tops a rooftop bar.) (Literally, I suppose.) Then in January 2012, after we had finished our spectacular Habitat for Humanity experience in Cambodia, we visited southern China "on our way" to Thailand. (It's really not that much of a stretch - check the map. Just kind of a little roundabout circle. OK, oval. Oval-like blob shape.) For our southern/south central China experience we hit up Kunming, Jianshui, Chongking, the Yangzi River cruise (this was our key goal/achievement for that trip), Wuhan, and Guangzhou. Many of these places delighted us. One of the places that delighted us was Guangzhou. And guess what? That's where we're headed now.

So, the English teaching adventure continues, and for those of you who don't know anything about Guangzhou, China, here are some fun facts:
  • It's the third largest city in China. (Population: 12 million+. Estimated metropolitan megalopolis area population: 40 million.) 
  • It's on the Pearl River delta. 
  • That means it's down the road (about 80 miles) from Hong Kong and Macau. Yeah, NOW you totally want to visit us. I knew it! 
  • You might know it as "Canton," the former/Western name. You know, as in Cantonese cooking...Cantonese language (that other Chinese language you hear about that's not Mandarin)...or, as Wadsworth famously tells Mrs. Peacock in the fabulous movie Clue, "And monkeys' brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington D.C.!" 
  • I am not going to eat any monkeys' brains.
  • It has among other things: a nice, modern, eight-line Metro transport system that we love; river cruises; skyscrapers; lots of business; lots of expats; universities; etc. 
  • The Canton Tower is there. It's tall. 
  • Sister cities include Fukuoka, Japan (another place we love) and -- wait for it -- Los Angeles! 
And so we're off. I would kindly ask of my peeps in the United States that you please not start a war with China while I am living there, please, and thank you. Or, you know, any other time either. Because war is dumb, as I may have mentioned before. 

I yield the blog to the Pulitzer-winning poet gentleman Edwin Arlington Robinson for a few lines about life and departures: 

"...The bird is on the wing, the poet says, 
And you and I have said it here before. 
Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will." 
                       ---------E.A. Robinson, from "Mr. Flood's Party"