China

Leaving on a jet plane

This is what I was dealing with this morning:
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And this is what it looks like now.
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This was accomplished while watching the entire 4 hour womens' gymnastics all around finals on the TiVo. Thanks to the suspense-ruining force that is The Internet, I already knew that *SPOILER!* Carly Patterson was the champ, but I cried anyway. Her coach! So happy! Marta Karolyi roaring in the stands! The other American gymnast- you know, the one fifty times more personality than Carly- going through her routines with a bad leg! The gobs of free advertising for the clippy-manufacturing companies! And the glitter. Oh my, the glitter.

And now? I'm exhausted. Besides all the packing, I cleaned the whole apartment so that our apartmentsitter won't feel as if he is inhabiting a sty.

Things We Packed:
-Lonely Planet guides for Beijing and all of China
-iPod
-a Costco size carton of Handi Snacks and a can of Cheez Whiz (as per Blondie's request)
-the new InStyle
-rain coats for the predicted daily thunderstorms
-our host and hostess gifts: baby clothes in every shade of blue
-The Nanny Diaries
-Deet, originally purchased for the Montana wedding
-chai tea
-Crystal Light mix (Phillip says the water tastes bad)
-little shampoos and soaps from the Westin St. Francis hotel
-laptop full of Projects We Want To Work On, but which will only be used to surf the internet
-pirated copy of Waiting For Guffman, which we rented, but didn't have time to watch

Our flight takes off at 2:30 tomorrow afternoon. Our hotel in Beijing boasts broadband internet access. Score! If I don't immediately crawl into bed, I'll be sure to let you know we're alive.


Five days and fourteen hours

Dear Matt Drudge: Stop posting Olympic swimming results before I have a chance to watch the races!

In other news, Phillip and I now have all of our China tickets plus a hotel reservation. We leave Saturday afternoon and get to Beijing at 9pm the next day. That seems like a long time. Especially since we are going BACKWARDS. Jeez. Ten hours to Tokyo, four hours to Beijing. Then we plan to locate a friendly and honest taxi driver who will deposit us at the Beijing Landmark Towers for the night. Our flight to Xi'an leaves at 9 the next morning and hopefully Blondie will meet us at the airport because we'll be absolute zombies by this point, stumbling around the Xi'an airport and muttering to ourselves. Gosh, I hope we don't embarrass her.

There's a bunch of stuff to do between now and Saturday, namely packing. I am an awesome packer. The Ziploc company should have paid me large amounts of money to promote their gallon size freezer bags among the college backpacker set. But on this trip we'll be spending most of our time in one city. With our own apartment. And I keep translating this into, "I totally think there'll be room for my hairdryer."

This brings us to the First Official Fight of the Trip To China: will Maggie allow Phillip to become one of those Really Annoying Airline Passengers who incur the wrath of thousands by insisting that their barely zipped-up carry on WILL fit in the overhead compartment, even if it takes thirty minutes and nine bloody fingers to get it done? I hate those people. I hate them more than the people who hog the arm rests and the people who keep talking to you, even when you are trying to make it obvious that you find your sociology textbook infinitely more interesting than any possible conversation. Although when you hold up the plane to stuff your bulging suitcase in the overhead bins AND hog the arm rests AND talk about personal matters on your cell phone AND stick your humongous knees and feet into the space of the person sitting in the middle AND pass the time by reading PLAYBOY next to me, then you are not just Really Annoying, you are The Absolute Worst Fellow Airline Passenger In The World and should thenceforth be banned from all manner of public transportation. Except rickshaws. And Playboy? Seriously?

And on a completely unrelated topic: what is up with gymnasts and their bizarre fixation with Hair Accessories? Back when I was a Young Athlete myself, the girls on my team sometimes wore matching sweatbands and sometimes we braided our hair exactly the same way and one year my volleyball coach's wife made us all matching scrunchies in our school colors. We were, like, SO EXCITED. So I understand the matching-ness. Even the sparkly eyeshadow and the glitter in your hair. Go team! You kick the most ass AND you are the prettiest. But the little hair clippies? Like, a hair clippie for each and every single strand of wayward hair? Is there a tenth of a point deduction for every flyaway? What's up with the skinhead look? Well, except for Romania who mistakenly thinks a little sprayed-stiff forehead fringe softens it up. I wish NBC was doing a feature on this. Really. "Next up in our Olympic coverage: Gymnasts and Those Metal Hair Clippy Things. The Mystery Revealed."


What do you mean, I'll have to bargain?

I know how to say two different phrases in Chinese: ni hao which I think means "hello" and and wo ai nee which is woefully mispelled and means "I love you". But I've been thinking about our upcoming trip and what it will be like to run up to, say, a magazine stand vendor and blurt "Hello! I love you!" when what I really want to say is, "Please please please point me towards the restroom!"

This is why I've asked a somewhat-to-mostly-fluent-in-Chinese friend to stop by later this week and label everything in my apartment. I don't know that I will ever need to say "potted plant" or "coffee table" or "beloved and holy TiVo", but knowing the right words can't hurt, right? She is also going to teach me Very Important Phrases such as "Where is the bathroom?", "How dare you attempt to snatch my purse, you filthy thieving rat!", and "Why thank you, Prime Minister, I think I will have a glass of wine."

This somewhat-to-mostly-fluent friend also tells me that the majority of signs in Beijing and Xi'an will use Chinese characters and pingying, the romanization of Chinese characters. Since not being able to read the signs was the thing most freaking me out, I feel a little better. At least now I might be able to look something up in a pocket dictionary.

Not that that is going to get me anywhere. As a very shy and incredibly embarrassment-prone white girl carting around a fanny pack full of U.S. dollars, I am sure to provide at least a dozen children of lying swindler types with a large assortment of counterfeit Nikes for the upcoming school year. My father-in-law cheerfully assures me that all the hustlers and their drunk hustler uncles will be gathering at the airport, just to be the first to cheat me. I am bringing an extra suitcase full of money because I know I can't win.

Northwest Airlines should be taking care of my naive and spineless self all the way to Beijing, but once we get off the plane it will be all terrified foreigners for themselves. Tonight Phillip and I will be reviewing that Friends episode where Chandler sucks at bribery because I imagine we'll need to master this skill. A set of pirated Simpsons DVDs to whoever wants to come over and teach us in person!


Reading at the zoo

I bought the plane tickets today. I walked into the travel agency and Charlotte didn't remember me. It was a little disappointing. But I walked right up to her and said, "Hi, I'm Maggie, I'm the girl who reserved the tickets to Beijing," and suddenly she was very happy to see me. "Ah! You have come back to see me! Charlotte! I will fix you up with a pair of splendid electronic tickets which will fix me up with a nice and tidy commission! Welcome welcome welcome!"

The best part of my day? The moment hours later when I realized that no nervous breakdown had occurred during the signing of the credit card receipt. Hallelujah! I signed over our entire savings, plus our first five children, without breaking out in hives- not to mention the fact that the tickets are nonrefundable and we have to actually use them. This is no small victory in my quest for increasing mental stability.

As for the visas, of course they are not in yet. "Someone" in San Francisco got "sick" and was "unable" to "promptly" return the visas. Charlotte assured me she had nothing whatsoever to do with that.

The rest of the day was not entirely uneventful. I went to the Suburbs this morning to visit an old friend and the fabulous red-headed child who calls me Mahjee. I picked up another friend for lunch and bridesmaid dresses were discussed At Length. And Phillip and I went up to the zoo (concerts at the zoo! awesome!) to hang out with Bela Fleck and his most fantastic Flecktones, as well as most of hippie Seattle and their half-naked hippie children. Okay, so I nearly finished a book before the encore, but it was a warm happy evening and banjo jazz is some good thinking music. (Yes, "banjo jazz." Shut up. Quit reading this and go back to your Blink 182 CDs.)

Sometimes when I'm riding in the backseat of a car or on the bus and I'm thinking at 60 mph, I mentally add Big Country to the background and then I'm in my own movie.


Domestic Goddess

Welcome to my third week of Blissful Unemployment.

Unemployment is being very good to me. Except for the laundry. What is UP with the laundry? And who was doing the laundry before I quit my job and became a Domestic Goddess? Did we have little laundry fairies floating around? Did they find out I quit my job and suddenly decided they were no longer needed? Because oh my gosh I can't believe all the laundry. Come back, laundry fairies! Mountains of smelly clothes are threatening to bury us alive!

Anyway, when I'm not hauling laundry baskets up and down the apartment stairs, I'm scrubbing the toilet, doing dishes, making the bed, picking up a Certain Person's socks (again with the laundry!), watering the plants, dusting the furniture, and attending to General Apartment Maintenance. Occasionally I even bleach the heck out of the bathtub grout. Right? Because I have the TIME, right? You'd think I'd have the Cleanest and Most Sparkly Apartment Ever, but alas, this is not the case. When I quit my job I had all kinds of happy chubby housewife visions. A clean place to live! Dinner on the table at six o'clock sharp! A made up bed to crawl into every night! Freshly pressed clothes! And after all the errands were run and chores finished, I'd sink into the bath with a People magazine and a box of bon bons.

But here we are, three weeks in, and I haven't even broken out the iron. WHAT is going ON?

Let me tell you about last Wednesday.

Last Wednesday I woke up at 5:45 am to make it to my 6:15 am yoga class. When that was over I dropped by the DMV to pay the taxes on my newly acquired vehicle. But when I finally got up to the counter the Friendly DMV Man said, "Oh, no, we don't do that here. The closest office that processes that paperwork is in Ballard. Have fun driving to Ballard which is a gazillion miles out of your way!"

After the Wrong DMV, I went to Target. I love Target. Thank you Northgate City Planners for building a beautiful two-story Target ten minutes away from my apartment. I purchased a Target Gift Card for the Montana wedding which we were planning to drive to THAT NIGHT. Keep this in mind.

But this is boring. Let me tell you about the travel agency.

There was a little travel agency across the street from Target and it occurred to me that, hey! A travel agency might know how to get a Chinese tourist visa! Meet Charlotte:

CHARLOTTE: Hello, I'm Charlotte, the big bossy German lady who works part time at this travel agency, just to serve you AND to annoy the crap out of my fellow co-worker.
FELLOW CO-WORKER: I am going to put on my phone headset and pretend Charlotte does not exist.
ME: I have lost my mind and want to go to Xi'an for three weeks. Can you help me?
CHARLOTTE: I am Charlotte and I can do anything with the help of my zippy travel agency computer. Here are your tickets! And they are cheaper than the tickets your father-in-law found for you!
ME: Yay!
CHARLOTTE: Yes, I am Charlotte. I am Fantabulous.
ME: I also need a tourist visa.
CHARLOTTE: Oh no, I do not do visas. Robert does the visas. (Hollering at fellow co-worker:) Where is Robert!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Please don't talk to me.
CHARLOTTE: Why isn't Robert here! This young lady needs a visa! What is his cell phone number?
ME: Oh, no, don't bother...
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Charlotte, he said he's having car trouble. He said he'd be in when he can.
CHARLOTTE: But he should be here! Why isn't he here? I will call him right now!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: If I were rolling my eyes any farther, I'd be looking through the back of my head.

Turns out Robert, the agency owner, is a Chinese man and knows everything about everything. I was told to come back at 11:30 and Robert would take care of my visas. Charlotte told me so.

In the meantime, I went to the post office to return one million dollars in online purchases and also found another place to pay my new car taxes. Whatever, Ballard. Then I went to Kinko's to pay a scandalous amount of money for two passport photos needed for the visas- fifteen bucks, I kid you not, because their camera uses SONAR- all before returning to the travel agency.

Robert wasn't there. So commenced the arguing between the two travel agents.

CHARLOTTE: Look! Now she is back! And where is Robert?! WHERE is ROBERT?!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Gah. Leave me alone.
CHARLOTTE: I don't know why Robert isn't here! He is the owner! He should be here!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: He had CAR TROUBLE.
CHARLOTTE: But she is back! How is she going to get her visas?!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Charlotte just doesn't understand how things work sometimes.
ME: Maybe I will go wait in my car because this is embarrassing.
CHARLOTTE: No! Wait here! Let me get you a travel brochure to look at! Sit here at my desk! Keep me company while I take care of another client!
ME: Do I have to?
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Now you will know my pain.
CHARLOTTE: Aiiee! My computer is not working!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Charlotte-
CHARLOTTE: Where did the internet go! Where! Where!
FELLOW CO-WORKER: Charlotte-
CHARLOTTE: And my zippy little travel program! WHERE DID IT GO?
FELLOW CO-WORKER: OH DEAR GOD.

Robert didn't show up. Charlotte promised to have him call. I promised not to take my business anywhere else.

And I went home. I DID LAUNDRY. I made BROWNIES to give to the family we would stay with that night on the way to Montana. Then Robert called and I hurried back to the travel agency. I don't know why I hurried, because all Robert wanted in exchange for two tourist visas was my first born child. Seriously. Do you know how many relaxing unemployed days at the spa I could buy with the money I willingly gave Robert? A LOT.

After that? Off to Boo's house to drop off my key so she could keep my plants happy. I have a lot of plants. They like water. And then? Off to Blockbuster to drop off Boo's movies because I am an excellent big sister. I had 20 minutes at home to pack before I had to catch the bus downtown to meet Phillip and begin our drive east.

This is why I do not have the sparkliest apartment. Also? The family I made the brownies for? They're on the South Beach diet.


Chinese Red-Tape

Anyone out there know how to get a Chinese tourist visa? Anyone? Anyone?

I've spent the past hour in the company of the friendly recorded voices who answer the phone at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. I kept telling them I'd already checked out their website and could I pretty please talk to a real person? but they kept insisting that everything I needed to know was on their website. Which is not pretty. Or informative. Or helpful. Or any of the things an Official Consulate website should be. Go see for yourself.

Because Phillip and I, proving that we have completely lost our minds, are planning to spend three weeks in Xi'an around the end of August and beginning of September and we need that visa! We also need plane tickets and maybe some shots and I am definitely going to need some Valium to get me all the way across the Pacific Ocean.

A month or two ago our English teacher friends in China proposed that Phil and I take some time off to hang with a fellow teacher friend of theirs who is moving to Xi'an. Let's call this friend Blondie, because that was pretty much all I knew about her- she's the blond chick who works with our English teacher friends. Okay, so Blondie was going to move and teach in Xi'an, but she'd be there alone for six weeks before her new colleagues would show up. What was Blondie to do? Did we want to go to Xi'an and be her Substitute Friends?

My reaction, upon reading this email from my English teacher friend, was along the lines of, "She has GOT to be kidding me, right?" What was oh-so-serendipitous was the fact that Phillip happened to be in my office fixing computers when I read the email. And when I read it to him, he was all, "That could be cool..."

Fast forward to today, where I am feverishly trying to figure out if I can mail my visa application to the consulate or NOT. I am tempted to believe the friendly recorded voices who tell me to go on ahead and mail my application and my photo and my gajillion dollars for a tourist visa. But then there's the aforementioned un-pretty and un-helpful website that says in big red letters: ALL MAILED APPLICATIONS WILL BE RETURNED. And then gives you the link to download the application should you care to fly yourself down to San Francisco and turn it in yourself.