China

For once I watched something educational

Thank Ted Koppel from saving you from another nap post. (Although I seriously can't help myself: three hour morning nap, people! THREE HOURS. No afternoon nap and a HELLISH time going to bed! Gah!)

But anyway. Ted Koppel. We saw him on The Daily Show a while back advertising his new Discovery Channel series on China and since Phillip and I are usually pretty interested in that stuff, we promised ourselves we'd TiVo it. Except we totally forgot (and also my TiVo is completely full of Jon & Kates (is she getting meaner?) and that series about NASA that I only watched with Phillip because THERE IS NOTHING ELSE ON, WAH. Wherefore art thou Project Runway?)

By chance we turned on the TV last night and it was on. (Well, turning on the TV was not chance. The show being on was chance. The turned on TV is pretty much the State of Being in my house.) And so there was not a lot of work getting done or any going to bed early, like we'd planned. And this morning Phillip tells me he didn't sleep well, haunted as he was by dreams of working in Chinese factories.

I don't know if you guys are interested in this kind of stuff. The series is called 'The People's Republic of Capitalism'. I have to say, on the whole, I am way more interested in redecorating Jack's room and finding cute girly portable crib bedding. Actually, I guess that just goes to show how fully entrenched I am in my Middle Class American Lifestyle, huh?

But the Beijing Olympics are coming up (anyone else tickled that it starts on 8/8/08?) and I've been reading slews of interesting stuff about China. Human rights and globalization stuff, sure, but I also recently bored Phillip half to death summarizing a piece on Chinese artists and the influence of the Cultural Revolution in The New Republic. Phillip was all, "There was noting about the new iPhone in that article. You know I am only interested in the new iPhone. By the way, where is the huge stack of Mac magazines I was carefully storing under our bed in case the fire department wanted to use our house as an example of Major Fire Hazard?"

ANYWAY. We were transfixed. The episode we watched last night flitted between Chinese factory workers to American factory workers whose jobs had gone overseas, to peasants who spend half their yearly income to send their only daughter to school in the city, to a super rich Chinese couple who were filling their brand new Western-style house with American appliances and Ethan Allen furniture. Oh, and who shop at the Chinese Walmart because it's the "upscale" place to buy your imported (from North Carolina!) chicken feet. KRAZY.

We were especially touched by the farmers' daughter who slept in a dormitory exactly like the one we visited a few years ago- eight girls to a long narrow bunkbedded room. And especially grossed out by the rich couple and their BMW and fancy dishwasher. Until I thought to myself, "I have spend at LEAST that much time picking out furniture," and then I was grossed out by my own self. We felt horrible for the midwestern woman whose factory job had been shipped to China, yet shopped at Walmart because everything's cheaper at Walmart- I mean, what is she supposed to do?

Ted Koppel interviewed a seventeen-year-old girl who spends her days putting boom boxes together. "It's a waste of my talent to work here!" she declared and who can disagree?

When the story jumped, for the zillionth time, from the lotus farmers in their shack to the rich Chinese couple, Phillip said, "That's the goal. That's all there is. That's why they're sending their daughter to school. So she can buy a BMW and an ugly four thousand dollar couch. THIS is why we need God."

We were silent for a minute, letting the Misery of Our Existence sink into our MIddle Class American Brains, brains that have churned quite a lot lately in the quest to figure out houses and grad school and two babies and what from Ikea will look nice in our overpriced house.

And there ends the Rumination on The Point of Being as told from the Cheung Perspective. For those of you who are all, "Dude, I just wanted to hear about Project Runway" I've got a post on Wading Pool Etiquette up at Parenting today. In which I take care of a one-year-old and a random four-year-old for an hour and wonder where the heck her mother is.

We're off to the grandparents. I've got work to do and Jack has his weekly dose of spoiling to enjoy. See you tomorrow.


Insomnia

We made it home to 60 degree cloudy weather in Seattle, a much more familiar gray sky. We flew straight over the Olympics, then the Sound, then my aunt's house in Magnolia, then skyscrapers, the stadiums, I-5, and finally landed a half hour before schedule. I have to say these were some of the easiest plane rides of my life and I didn't even think about opening my bottle of nice and potent tranquilizers. Phillip had requested emergency exit seats (and I am probably the only person in the world who, upon hearing that she has an emergency exit seat does not immediately think, "Score!" but "OHMYGOD what if I have to actually OPEN the DOOR!?!?") and this made for a more comfortable ride. Watch out, though, all you who try this tactic, because you might be exchanging cramped legs for the flourescent lighting and the constant hurried movements and general eavesdrop-able bitchiness of the flight attendants hanging out in the food storage space inches from your sleep-deprived body.

It's now a half hour past midnight, a time I rarely see when I'm at home. It's the jet lag. And the fact that after we called the parents, emailed the friends, and unpacked our toothbrushes, we fell asleep at 10 and didn't wake up till 5. Seriously, I was just going to take a quick nap.

I've gone on more than my share of trans-Atlantic plane rides and I'd like to say that I have met Jet Lag and Conquered him, but it's unfortunately not true. I think I might even be getting worse. This time will probably be especially awful because I've never had jet lag in this direction before. Usually I'm flying 9 time zones to the west, not the east. Coming home means going to bed at 5 and waking up at 3. This whole not-tired-yet thing is completely new to me- but it's only 3:30 in the afternoon in Xi'an. Ah, Xi'an.

I made tea this afternoon. I boiled water in my tiny teapot (a year-late never-used wedding gift from my little brother who just wanted to make sure that he got his wedding gift from me) and poured it into the teeny tiny tea cups (another wedding gift I've never used.) Before China I never drank tea, didn't like tea, couldn't stand the mere smell of tea. But when it's the only thing the restaurant gives you to drink, and especially when you find out it takes the sting out of the spicy noodles AND makes your sore throat feel tons better, tea becomes your friend. So I bought some loose jasmine tea at the 3-Floor Grocery Store in Xi'an and thought I'd try it out at home. I poured some leaves into the little strainer thingies that fit inside the cups and stuck the lids on (which also double as coasters) to let it steep. And oh it was like drinking Fields of Flowers Febreeze. So, my first attempt at tea was a bit too strong, but I'll figure it out.

Phillip and I both have the week off to figure out this sleeping thing, thank goodness. We intend to spend the week dilligently watching everything TiVo saved for us (Two episodes of Scrubs! Yay!), unpacking, buying groceries, and making the apartment look as if I didn't spend entire days hosing it down before we left.


These crazy Communists

Xi'an had 4 or 5 street food vendors across the street selling an assortment of meats and tofus and vegetables on sticks, ready to be dipped into the vat of oil and fried to lovely perfection. Beijing has an entire dajie (huge huge humongous avenue) of street food vendors, the sticks cost twice as much as they do in Xi'an, and you can get everything from octopus to frog legs to lotus root on skewers.

Xi'an had big streets with even wider sidewalks. Beijing has huge streets, actual pedestrian walkways, and a vast expanse of sterile Communist concrete called Tian'anmen Square. You will have gray hair, wrinkles, and bad knees by the time you make it all the way across.

Xi'an had annyoing souvenir hawkers shrieking "Hallo! Hallo!" the minute they caught sight of your big foreign nose. Beijing's annoying souvenir hawkers are completely fluent when they attach themselves to your side and insist that by God your trip to China will not be complete without purchasing a package of their special Forbidden City postcards, special price!

Xi'an had crowded buses and busy restaurants and people clamoring for the best view at the top of the Bell Tower. Beijing has the Forbidden City and 743 yellow-hatted camera-brandishing pointy-elbowed Chinese tour groups within. Do you want to get a good look at the throne inside the Hall of Heavenly Peace? Then you must chuck everything you've been taught about how to treat Old People and start throwing elbows and using your high school basketball experience to Block Your Opponents Out.

Beijing is Xi'an on speed.

The flight here was pleasant enough. (And our taxi driver to the Xi'an airport had us give him a lesson out of his English For Taxi Drivers Handbook on the way. "I think many more foreigners will come to Xi'an!" he told us brightly.) Our hotel is snazzy and a block north of the glitzy Wangfujing shopping street. There are a TON more foreigners here and not so many Chinese doing double takes when you walk by. This was obvious as we walked down Wangfujing last night on our way to Tian'anmen Square. Not only foreign people, but many foreign brand names (although I still can't figure out if the Nike store sells real Nikes.)

It was dark by the time we got to the square and we were standing by the south gate of the Forbidden City, right next to Chairman Mao's gigantic portrait. The party line is "70-30", that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. The Communists gave women equal standing with men, but as far as Mao was concerned, I think that just meant that he had no problem imprisoning female dissidents along with the male ones. As I know next to nothing about Chinese history, I think I will now conclude my commentary on Chinese Communism. Oh, but I will make fun of them. The Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of The Revolution on the east side of the Square, for example, were closed from 1966 to 1978 so that history could be "revised". Our guide book says it was closed at the time of writing and as far as we could tell, it's still closed. On the west side is the Great Hall of the People where Nixon met Mao in 1972. And at the southern end of the square we have Mao and his mausoleum. It was fun to be there in the evening when most of the souvenir people were gone and the square was left to foreigners taking pictures, locals out walking with their babies, and small children flying kites or rollerblading around the obelisk (the Monument to the People's Heroes) in the middle. Half the buildings are being restored and are hiding behind scaffolding, as seems to be the case with historic buildings wherever I go. But it seems that most of the construction going on in Tian'anmen Square is for the 2008 Olympics. At least, that's what we decided. A huge section of the square is closed off for what looks like a dozen or so circular above-ground fountains. And scaffolding is going up near the obelisk where they're building something else. I did read a few older articles about Tian'anmen Square possibly being the beach volleyball venue, but I think the proposal was retracted. The Chinese people and government alike are very excited for the 2008 Games. There are some hopes that hosting the Olympics will further open China to the world, but most of what I've seen and read is about how the international stage will finally be giving China the respect and honor it deserves. It's hard to believe that beach volleyball might be played where pro-democracy students were once massacred.

But on a simply practical level, where are they going to put all the people? Beijing already has 14 million residents and I think most of them were at the Forbidden City today. The Forbidden CIty itself is one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. It's a real life movie set, an enormous private playground, temple upon temple, concubine residence upon empress residence. There's a stunningly beautiful garden at the north end where the emperors went to unwind. But if the emperors knew how many screechy pushy commoners were tramping through their palace they'd be thrashing around in their graves. I lived in Italy for a few years and know a thing or two about Japanese tour groups, but Chinese tour groups are something else. (Of course, the world has yet to find this out as the Chinese are hardly ever allowed to leave the country.) These people are loud, excited, and joyous on one hand ("We're in the Forbidden City! Take THAT, Emperor Qin!") and impatient, tough, and sneaky on the other ("I must get to the front of the line NOW NOW NOW! Out of my way you big fat foreigner!"). After a while it wasn't worth it to me to push to the front to get a quick view of the emperor's throne. (You weren't allowed into the big halls, you had to gather around the entry ways and fight for a glimpse inside.) The English audio tour is narrated by none other than 007 himself, Roger Moore, but in the garden, when Roger begged me to "feel the beauty of the this quiet retreat" I burst out laughing. Phillip said it wasn't this crowded on his previous trips, so they must have all known I was going to be there and wanted to make it a special event for me.

We're leaving in a bit to go see the hutong, the tiny historic alleyways where the courtyard-style dwellings are. We hear that most of these will be demolished soon to make way for wider streets, another construction project readying the city for the 2008 Olympics. And tomorrow? The Great Wall!


Last Day

Usually when you go on a trip, especially one that lasts longer than a week or so and even if you're having a great time, you're kinda sorta looking forward to going home, getting back to normal, having your own space again. Tonight is our last night in Xi'an and I don't know that I've ever felt this reluctant to go home! I even almost regret that we are spending the next 3 days in Beijing- wouldn't I rather stay here and work more with the students and watch more stupid movies with Blondie? There are still dishes I haven't tried, places I haven't seen, and oh my gosh there are a zillion more things I could buy!

We spent yesterday afternoon at a nearby orphanage. After 15 minutes careening across a huge dirt road with giant potholes and huge deep puddles, we finally drove up to a 5-story Pepto Bismol-pink building with turrets and a new-looking jungle gym out front. A foreign organization runs the fourth floor and I was told I wouldn't see anything too frightening there. We arrived at nap time, so we spent the first 20 minutes looking through photo albums of adopted children, and then individual albums the staff will give to the families once the children are adopted. I was thankful we got to see those pictures, because some of the kids did have some major problems and it helped to be prepared.

Almost all of the kids in the orphanage were abandoned as babies. Most of the small babies had cleft lips and palates, but all the older babies and toddlers we saw had their lips repaired. Suyuen, the woman who invited us, told me that one baby without a cleft lip had actually been abandoned by her drug addicted mother who walked out of the hospital after giving birth. Suyuen laughed about how the baby had to quit "cold turkey". Her name was May and she smiled a lot and I wanted to take her home with me. We also got to play with the 2 and 3-year-olds. They seemed to either immediately latch on to us or glare at us from a distance. One of the glowering ones, Renee, was about to be adopted and Suyuen asked if we'd spend more time with her, to get her used to strangers. We took Renee and Emily, a little girl who had been burned on one side of her face and body, outside to play on the jungle gym. Emily glowered more than Renee, but would allow Phillip to hold her for some reason. (Suyuen told us that the children are hardly ever around men and seem to gravitate towards men whenever they're around.) We spun them around on a merry go round and put them on swings. After a while Emily finally stopped tearing up and Renee let me carry her back inside. Success!

We also saw some older kids, although Suyuen took us one at a time and didn't let us play with them. Some are autistic, some have epilepsy, some are still mysteries. There was Jonathan who had too much water in his brain and a much larger skull than normal, and Anna whose limbs were twisted and couldn't move, although she did smile at me. We were all having a good time just playing with the kids, but there was a short period of time where I came back from saying hello to the older kids and went straight to the baby room. I'm not sure where Phillip and Blondie were. Some of the staff (and the staff child ratio is nearly 1:1) were all feeding the infants. The older babies were left to play on the other side of the room and a few of them were crying, so I went over to play with them. They didn't want to play, they wanted to be held. Eventually I found a way to hold three wailing boys in my lap and entertain a fourth with rattles, but there were three or four more that weren't getting any attention and there wasn't anything I could do. All the workers were busy with the infants (and the infants that were already fed were crying too). Sometimes a worker would take a baby out of my lap and give me another so she could feed the next one. So that part was horrible. There was no way I could hold all of the crying babies. And you could tell that's all they wanted- the minute I picked them up they'd stop crying. They'd hold onto your neck and fingers and stare up at you and calm down a little.

This was not a scary orphanage. The colors were bright, things were clean, the workers (all Chinese women) were friendly and spent a lot of time just playing with the kids. They had a lot of toys, enough beds, enough clothes, huge sinks for taking baths, and they weren't hungry. But none of that seemed to make up for the fact that no one could hold all the babies.

But today- today was Phillip's birthday! We ordered a cake from the bakery on the first floor and celebrated with some students this afternoon. It was so hard to say goodbye to them. When it was time to go, they didn't stand up or get ready to leave. They just kind of sat there and looked at us dejectedly, but after much hugging and discussion of letter-writing, they left and Blondie and Phillip and I went into town for hot pot. Hot pot again! Whee!

And then, on the way home, we stopped at Music Town for about the fourth time in two weeks. Music Town exclusively sells pirated music and DVDs. In fact, you can go upstairs and ask Garfield, the nice English-speaking employee, if you can preview your movies on a little TV so you can make sure that there are English subtitles and that there aren't any people coughing or talking on their cell phones in the background. The movies cost about a dollar each and we will have to hide them in our luggage on the way back to Seattle.

We leave for Beijing at 10:30 tomorrow morning.


Chinglish

***UPDATED PIX***

I've seen a few girls around the city wearing a shirt that says“Suicide Impact" in great big scary letters. Blondie told me about a previously popular shirt that read “I Eat Your Skin". The other day we finally asked our students to read the English paragraphs on their t-shirts and even the students agreed that the English makes no sense. Who knows how these phrases translate, but one thing is clear: wearing the English language is definitely cool.

The Chinese also attempt to translate many of their signs and this is a source of never ending amusement for me. I shouldn't be so snotty, as I'm very grateful for any English translations they offer! But the mixture of Chinese and English, the literal translations of Chinese into English, and just English signs in general are often pretty funny. (Especially to a nerdy English major.) Like, was this one necessary?

nuclear

This is a good example of Chinglish, I think. Notice the many places where the carved letters were whited out and edited, not always for the better. Also, the Chinese like to tell you the exact measurements of whatever you're viewing, as if you know the length, width, and depth of, say, the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower and you want to compare.

chinglish

Our visit to the Wild Goose Pagoda also afforded these treasures:

takepity

fragrant

And they don't have to be eloquent to be funny.

pickles

The best signs are the most informative. It's nutritious too!

beef

Need more?


For you? Best price!

I thought I would be used to the apartment bathroom by now, but I'm not. It's hard to take a shower, use the toilet, brush your teeth, shave your legs, and wash your clothes in the same two foot by two foot area, and even harder to keep that area clean. Phillip says it could be worse, Phillip says the toilet could be a hole in the floor, Phillip says it's nicer than many other Chinese bathrooms, pointing out the fact that whenever the Chinese students come over, they almost always use the bathroom before they leave. I believe him. It's true. And I hate to be a spoiled American, but I am a spoiled American and I really miss my bathroom!

I also thought I would be used to all the people staring by now, but that's actually become more annoying. When everyone was warning me/giving me tips about China, "they stare at foreigners" is the one thing they all agreed on. So it was okay at first, because I was prepared! I'm new, I'm different, small children will hover around my table at dinner gawking at my big eyes and my big nose and hmm, what is the foreigner eating for dinner? Fine! Besides, everyone is friendly once you start talking to them. Okay okay, everyone is friendly once Blondie starts talking. I just stand off to the side with a big Non-Threatening Foreigner Smile plastered on my face. Besides, Blondie probably gets more stares than I do on account of the whole blond thing. STILL. It makes me really self-concious. Do I have food on my face? Am I wearing something wildly inappropriate? AM I REALLY THIS STARE-WORTHY?

We have a little routine: class in the morning, lunch, siesta, some afternoon sightseeing, and then dinner with a little shopping, TV watching, and taxi riding squeezed into all the spaces. We do a lot of eating and sleeping which is what you're supposed to do when you're on vacation. One of the best things about being here a few weeks is that we don't feel pressured to see everything right away. But at lunch today we realized we have only one week left in Xi'an and Blondie, the list maker, started writing down all the things we must see, do, and buy:

1. The Wild Goose Pagoda
2. The Bell Tower
3. The grocery store with 3 floors
4. Eat hot pot
5. Another round at the Muslim market
6. Sit in on one of Blondie's university classes
7. Eat more street food

...and some other stuff I've forgotten already. Phillip and I will probably go see the pagoda this afternoon while Blondie works on her syllabus. Tomorrow I'll sit in on one of her classes. We'll probably go back to the market on Saturday and do the grocery store and church stuff on Sunday. Tuesday we'll visit the orphanage and a week from today we leave...

The weather brightened up this week. I may have mentioned the BLUE SKY. Oh, I love you Blue Sky. Yesterday, because Phillip had absolutely no interest in shopping for curtain material with us, we went downtown to the Muslim market. This is a gazillion-mile long alleyway full of souvenirs and other assorted junk, not a place where they sell Muslim babies or anything. It's Muslim because it's in the ancient Muslim part of town. Anyway, I was glad to have Phillip and Blondie with me because bargaining is the order of the day and if I'd been alone, who knows how rich the merchants might be today! You could practically see the dollar signs (kwai signs?) flashing in their eyes as I walked by. If I found something I liked, I would yell for Blondie or Phillip who would then perform a little drama as follows:

MAGGIE: Oooh, I like this little painting. How much do you think it is?
BLONDIE: Oh, I wouldn't pay more than 10 kwai. (to the merchant) How much is this painting?
MERCHANT: For you?! Friend price! Friend price! I will write down the Real Price here on my little notepad and then I will draw a big line through it, just so you can see that I am giving you a Friend Discount!
BLONDIE: How much then?
MERCHANT: Cheaper price! Cheaper price! For you? One painting? (Scribble scribble. The foreigners peer at the notepad and much scoffing ensues)
BLONDIE: 55 kwai? No thanks.
MERCHANT: But see? This is good quality! A professional paint this painting! 55 kwai!
BLONDIE: Ha ha.
MERCHANT: Okay, okay, what is your best price?
PHILLIP: 5 kwai!
MERCHANT: I am completely and utterly offended!
BLONDIE: (to Maggie) Well... I'd pay a little more than 5 kwai...
PHILLIP: I would only pay 5 kwai for this painting.
MERCHANT: I don't make money with 5 kwai! 50 kwai! 50 kwai best price!
(continued foreigner-scoffing)
MAGGIE: Well, I like this painting too!
MERCHANT: Ah! Two paintings! For two paintings, better price. For two paintings, 80 kwai!
BLONDIE: That's too much.
PHILLIP: 10 kwai!
MERCHANT: 10 kwai! You humiliate me!
MAGGIE: This whole bargaining thing is really cutting into my shopping time. And can't we all just remember that 8 kwai equals ONE DOLLAR? ONE DOLLAR, PEOPLE.
PHILLIP: Maggie, this is about principle.
BLONDIE: Yeah, Maggie, just stand over there and try not to ruin everything.
PHILLIP: Well, let's LEAVE, because there's NO WAY I'm going to pay 80 kwai for two paintings.
(foreigners begin to shuffle out of the shop, one of them much more reluctantly than the others)
MERCHANT: Wait wait! Maybe 65 kwai! 65 kwai for two paintings! (Sensing that Maggie is the bargaining wuss) You! You! Your sisters like these paintings, yes? Your friends? Paintings for your friends? Only 65 kwai!
BLONDIE: But I thought we were friends! What is the friend price?!
PHILLIP: 15 kwai!
MERCHANT: This IS friend price! What about 3 paintings? You want 3 paintings? Your family will like these paintings!
MAGGIE: Two paintings! Two paintings!
MERCHANT: Okay. (glowering at Phillip) 50 kwai. Final price!
MAGGIE: Hey, wasn't one painting 55 kwai?
PHILLIP: 15 kwai. That's my best price.
MERCHANT: Your best price?! Your best price?! 40 kwai! 40 kwai final price!
PHILLIP: 15 kwai! (beginning to walk away again...)
MERCHANT: 30 kwai!
BLONDIE & PHILLIP: 20 kwai! FINAL PRICE!
MERCHANT: Oh you Americans are mean little people. I will nod in acceptance of 20 kwai, but this sour expression on my face will make sure you know that I am definitely not happy about it.
BLONDIE & PHILLIP: (as we are walking out of the shop) Man, I bet we could have gone even lower!

I got a lot of stuff like this and not all of it was junk. But the most I could do on the bargaining end was shake my head balefully at the price jotted down on the notepad. 50 kwai? For a singing Mao lighter? Even I know that's ridiculous. Blondie's method is to talk them down, point out flaws in the merchandise, turn the Friend Price tactic against the merchant, to stand indecisively for many many minutes hoping the merchant gets tired of us first. Phillip's method is to give the merchant a look of Great Disdain and walk away. Most of the time the merchant will scream for him to return, but if not, there's always someone else selling the exact same thing next door. It was a successful afternoon for all of us, I thought. Win win for everybody. Especially me. I didn't have to do any work!

Please think happy thoughts for Blondie and Phillip who have sore throats and stuffed up noses. Please hope that one of them wakes up soon so they can accompany me to the Wild Goose Pagoda!


Tour de Xi'an

It was sunny yesterday with a tiny bit of blue sky peeking out. We even saw clouds! Just being able to differentiate between the color of the sky and the color of the city made my day. So instead of sitting in on one of Blondie's classes that afternoon, Phillip and I opted to take advantage of the good weather and go downtown.

Everyone has been telling us to take a walk along the city wall, but we decided to one-up them- we rented bikes. Strangely enough, Phillip and I had trained for this event several weeks ago when we rented bikes to ride along the Burke-Gilman trail. Those were American bikes, though, and better suited to the Large People we are. These Chinese bikes were rickety and even though the seat was comfortable at first, 100 cobble stoned-yards later you felt as if you were sitting on a pile of sharp rocks. Also? Our knees were practically up to our chins. Phillip looked like he was riding his 10-year-old brother's Huffy dirt bike. (Phillip also doesn't fit on Air China airplanes or Chinese tour buses. His legs are about a foot too long.)

It's a pretty big wall, about 10 sidewalks thick. The South Gate is heavily populated with souvenir stands and people trying to get foreigners to pay more than 50 cents for a bottle of water (5 kwai! Unbelievable!), but once you get going the wall is pretty much deserted, save for a few other foreigners on bikes.

After we'd left some Italian foreigners in the dust, Phillip announced that we would ride around the entire city.

MAGGIE: Ha ha. You must be joking.
PHILLIP: We can do it! It's not that far!
MAGGIE: We can't even SEE the next GATE!
PHILLIP: Oh, that's because it's hazy. C'mon! Don't you want to tell everyone that you rode all the way around Xi'an?
MAGGIE: Do you WANT me to need a butt transplant??

But because I did think it'd be kind of cool to tell everyone we rode around the city wall, I kept going. It wasn't like it was uphill or anything. So we're passing the Peace Gate and the East Gate and suddenly we're turning the corner so we're riding on the north side and oh! The wall! There is no more wall! And suddenly I felt very triumphant. We didn't even make it halfway! We had arrived at a metal gate set up so that we would not careen into the divide. We did, however, have a good view of the polluted insanity that is the train station and a spectacular view of the workers restoring the wall on the other side from us. There is so much construction going on in this city.

Later Blondie met us for some good tourist-junk shopping (we bought some paintings. For 20 kwai. 8 kwai to the dollar) and dinner (yet more dumplings. This time everyone was happy. Except the waitress who was REALLY REALLY SICK of dealing with the foreigners and their ridiculous demands and WHY are they only ordering dumplings and dude, I SHOWED them the menu with the PICTURES and they totally ignored it so whatEVER.)

We also bought airplane tickets for our return to Beijing. We thought about taking the train, but a 15 minute bus ride to the train station was more than enough experience on Chinese public transportation for me. So Blondie called up her travel agent who got us 40% off airfare to Beijing on September 9. Yay! Going by plane also means we might actually feel like doing something when we get to Beijing. Anyway, the tickets will be delivered to the apartment sometime in the next 20 minutes and we will pay with cash. Because that is how they do it here. I have no complaints!


Our brush with celebrity!

The other night Blondie and Phillip and I took a taxi downtown in search of a dumpling restaurant recommended by another English teacher. The taxi driver said he wouldn't be able to drop us off right by the restaurant, but pointed us in the general direction when we got out. Then we walked 10 minutes in the wrong direction, asked a girl in a shop where the restaurant was, walked another 15 minutes in the right direction and finally found the restaurant. And when we got there, they were out of what Blondie wanted and out of what Phillip wanted. And me? I'm not so big on those dumpling thingies.

So we were all just a tiny bit disappointed when we got back in a taxi to come home. And then? A traffic jam.

I think I've become a little more used to the driving here. It's best if I don't look out the windshield and I just concentrate on what's going out outside my window. The goal is not necessarily to drive fast, but to never stop. The drivers who figure out how to use their brake pedal the least are the ones who end up with careers in public transportation. Anyway, riding in the taxis and buses is even a little thrilling for me- no one else is concerned with dying so why should I?

But there is lots of stopping involved in a traffic jam and our driver was unhappy. "There must be something going on," he told us. "Some kind of gathering spilling into the streets."

And there was! I was on the wrong side of the taxi to see most of the people hanging out on the side of the street, but I could tell that everyone was very focused on the opposite side of the street. Maybe it was a political demonstration! No one was holding a sign or chanting anything, but Blondie had told us earlier that most demonstrations in China just mean a whole bunch of people standing around in one place doing nothing, waiting until it's time to go home.

As our taxi kept inching forward, the throngs of people grew. We saw policemen lined up about 10 feet apart on my side of the street- it turned out they were positioned there to keep all the people from swarming through the traffic to get to the other side. When we were a few yards outside of the city wall, we finally saw what was going on. Sort of. On the next bridge over (there's a HUGE moat-like ditch around the entire city wall and every gate has a bridge) there were giant movie set-type lights hovering over the intersection where you turn to head into the city wall gate. Right at the gate were dozens of people in medieval-looking red and gold costumes (or China's version of medieval, I guess. I thought I saw suits of gold armor.)

"Ooooh!" Blondie shrieked. "Maybe JAY is here!"

Jay is China's Justin Timberlake. He's cute, he sings, he's introduced rap to China, and he's holding a very large and very well-promoted concert here tonight. Signs for the concert are all over town and you can even find copies of Jay's CD that aren't pirated.

It did kind of look like a huge photo shoot. Since we were still on the bridge heading out of the gate, our taxi was now being used as a barrier between the people and the police. The people kept getting closer and closer and the police kept yelling and yelling. We even saw one policeman storm out into the crowd waving his baton. Everyone shrank back a bit after that, but a few minutes later they were squeezed right up to the window. Phillip had a good view of an assortment of Chinese belly buttons.

Blondie was beside herself. "WHAT IS GOING ON?" she asked the driver, but he had no idea. So she asked him to roll down his window so she could yell at one of the policemen. "WHAT IS GOING ON?" The policeman was about 16 years old and had a toothpick in his mouth, so we couldn't quite tell what he was saying. It's entirely possible he was saying, "Get your head back in the car you crazy foreigner." Finally Blondie rolled down her own window and began shouting at the people crowded around our taxi. (Keep in mind that there were officially supposed to be about 3 lanes of traffic next to us and unofficially maybe 6 or 7. These people were very brave.)

"I don't know! I don't know!" they yelled back. And we realized that no one had any idea what was going on, except that there were lights and flashes and people in costume on the next bridge and SOMETHING WAS HAPPENING.

Then one kid yelled at us, "Jackie Chan is here!" And we looked at each other and said, "NO!"

But it turns it out it was Jackie Chan.

We really really wanted to get out of the cab and gawk with everyone else, but none of us had much education in the skill of Chinese Onlooking, especially when police and traffic are involved, so we stayed in the taxi and went home. Blondie and Phillip were a little jealous of me because, as I had the only actual view of what was happening on the next bridge, I might have actually SEEN Jackie Chan! I rock! Blondie asked the school's Foreign Affairs department about it and they said that Jackie Chan was in town because he will be filming a movie in Xi'an. Then they told her the name of the hotel where he was staying in case they're looking for foreign extras to be in the movie. We thought this was pretty funny. Imagine knocking on Jackie Chan's hotel room door. "Hello, Mr. Chan? May I please be in your new movie?"

That was our first time going downtown and the first time it really dawned on me that there ARE 3.3 million people in this city. The street we live on, about 10 minutes outside the city wall, is large and tree-lined, but so is every single other street in town. (And the trees are the same color of gray as everything else.) What matters is how many cars can fit on your street. Then you know if you're downtown or not. The shopping malls are seven stories high with flat screen TV monitors posted outside. You have to go underground to cross the intersection by the Bell Tower. There are couture gowns displayed in shop windows and street food vendors on every corner. It's pretty exciting. It's also been rainy and gray every day and there is constant danger of getting your eye poked out with unbrella spokes. Phillip was the only person in Xi'an last night wearing a rain coat instead of carrying an umbrella. (I, the foreigner, decide to "fit in" and NOT wear my rain coat. I get stared at anyway.) It's too hot to wear a jacket. It's 80 degrees out, but gray and rainy and dark. Kinda weird.

Today we're heading out to see the Terracotta Warriors. It's a half hour bus ride to the train station and an hour bus ride to the site. The woman at the noodle shop across the street says it's "boring", but we're going anyway. We are also taking some Chinese students with us who, hopefully, can score us the local ticket price and not the foreigner price. I will be hiding in the back.


Some wine with my cheese

Yesterday I saw some bottles of Chinese wine in the little convenience store down the street and thought it might be fun to try some.

BLONDIE: Chinese wine is like grape juice.
MAGGIE: Well, which bottle has the highest alcohol content?
BLONDIE: Let me see!

But we needed to go find a police station (explanation below!) and didn't think it'd be appropriate to haul a bottle of wine around town, especially in front of police. So last night we went back to the store and while Phillip bought more yogurt and Tang disguised as peach juice, Blondie asked the store owner which wine he suggested. (This was the third time we'd been to the store that day. We are now his favorite customers.) Of course he suggested the expensive bottle on the top shelf and cornered some teenager in the store to climb up there and get it down for us. 12%- score! The teenager was also a little confused because the foreigner speaking Chinese was the loud blond girl and not the tall Chinese-American man and started up a little conversation with Blondie about, and I quote, her "excellent Chinese." By that time we had acquired a small audience of Chinese boys who were standing outside the store trying to get a pack of cigarettes out of that arcade game with the claw. You know, the game in Toy Story with the cute little alien toys who are all, "Oooooh, The Claw!"

The store owner rang up the peach juice and the yogurt and the wine and then asked Blondie if we had a corkscrew. We had no idea. The apartment we're staying in belongs to none of us and who knows if the actual residents drink wine? Visions of happy wine-soaked evenings were beginning to drift away when the owner began to rummage around in some boxes and pulled out his OWN corkscrew. He then offered to uncork the bottle for us right there! What a saint!

BLONDIE: We can start drinking before we get home!
MAGGIE: Why not party with the store owner?
STORE OWNER: Hee hee!
PHILLIP: Uh, I find this all to be slightly embarrassing.

On second thought, Blondie and I decided that we were not utter lushes and did not have an urgent need for Chinese wine right that very second. If we weren't able to find a corkscrew in the apartment, we'd walk back to the store and ask the owner to open the bottle. We tried to explain this, but the owner wanted to send the corkscrew home with us. (Did I mention that we are his favorite customers?) We talked him out of it, thanked him profusely (the only Chinese word I've learned so far is 'thank you' and I barely whisper it because I'm so afraid of mispronouncing it), pried our way through the crowd of boys snickering at the Wacko Foreign Girls, and went home.

Where we immediately checked to see if our recently purchased DVDs were any good. Here I should mention that China has somewhat of a counterfeiting problem. The Britney double disc I bought the day before (there will be no slandering of Britney, thank you) cost about 90 cents. Anyway, our DVDs were no good. The Terminal kept skipping around and Collateral looked as if someone brought his camcorder to the movie and dubbed it over with his own voice. I guess you get what you pay for.

Oh yeah, the police station. Well, we're supposed to register ourselves with the local authorities. The government is able to track us up to our night in Beijing, but since we're not staying at a hotel, anyone who wants to pick on us wouldn't be able to find us. Bummer! So off we went to placate the police- and they turned out to be super nice! Unfortunately, they weren't the right police- they were just extremely helpful when we asked a group of them walking down the street where we might go to Follow The Rules. They led us to the right building and one of them even took us to the right office and knocked on the door. No one was there. That officer was probably still out on his afternoon break playing mah jongg somewhere. Kind of embarrassing for our friendly officer who quickly escaped and let someone else deal with us. Then they told us this wasn't the right office anyway. We had to go to another office across town. So we get back on the bus and with the help of Blondie's mad rad Chinese skillz, we found the second police station. (After walking by an entire block of people selling fish tanks and all the little plastic things to put your in fish tank. I mean, DOZENS of fish aquarium stores. ???)

We walked into a room that contained one desk, one young lady, one old lady, one newspaper, and one sign in the window that probably said something like, Don't Bother Coming In Here, We Have Absolutely No Interest in Helping You. The younger woman informed us that she had nothing to do with registering foreigners and that, duh, Blondie just needs to tell her school that we're here. Which is contrary to everything Blondie has heard thus far, but we were all a little tired by then and not terribly interested in making any authorities happy. So we took the bus to Blondie's university where, instead of registering with the local authorities, we tried to get a good look inside the dorm rooms (there are EIGHT girls in one McMahon-sized room, people!), checked out the future Yao Mings on the eight million basketball courts, and were heavily disappointed when we realized the beautiful green grass in the middle of the track was FAKE.

It's a good time. Oh, and we had pizza last night. Yay cheese!


Staying inside the lines

As I have now experienced exactly three taxi rides in two different Chinese cities, I think I am qualified to say that those little stripey things they paint on the roads? Mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. One wonders why The People Who Build The Streets even bothered to waste the paint. At one point we found ourselves passing a car that was passing a truck that was passing a bicyclist- on a two-lane highway with oncoming traffic.

I don't know if it's to the credit of, or in spite of, our taxi driver that we made it to Xi'an in one piece. And here we are, in a 2 bedroom apartment a block away from the university where Blondie teaches. She's there right now, in fact, discussing an article about Yao Ming in her "Newspapers and Articles" class. Apparently he made some critical statements about his Olympic teammates and the government is none too thrilled. One official is quoted as saying that Yao Ming has picked up some "bad personality habits" during his stint in the American NBA. Hmm.

In the meantime we are holed up in our loaned apartment with its splendid air conditioning and internet connection. It's not that hot, though- I actually think it's raining outside. We will most likely explore a little outside before Blondie gets back, but I'm not sure how that's going to work out. We can't read a single thing and even if Phillip could figure out how to take the bus or order something in a restaurant, I'm not sure I could make it across the street for fear of being smeared into the concrete by a bus, three taxis, and seven bicycles.

Ah! My father-in-law just called. It must have been HIM who called at 11:30 last night. (I was so disoriented. "Is that the phone? The alarm? The doorbell? What? I've only been sleeping for TWO HOURS?!") He is concerned about me. "Is she eating the food?" For anyone who is interested, YES, I am eating the food. Sort of. I had to switch dinners with Blondie last night because my noodles were too spicy. But the tofu and green onion dish was yummy. And the green beans. And the spicy chicken (which wasn't TOO spicy). I am also drinking the tea, which is poured into tiny disposable plastic cups. (And our noodles last night were in dishes lined with plastic bags. I thought this was so we could easily wrap
up any leftovers and take them home. Blondie said its so that they don't have to do the dishes.)

This afternoon we will meet some Real Live Chinese Students and I'm looking forward to that. But right now I should attempt to take a shower. I say "attempt", because the shower is a nozzle hanging off the side of the bathroom wall, two inches from the toilet and the sink.