Friday, September 30, 2011

The China Diaries: The Cheese Sandwich

I went to Metro today, a market in Xi'an with a lot of imported western food. By American standards, it is not terribly expensive. By Chinese standards, it's horrifyingly so. I spent about ¥250, which is around $40, on western food. I bought things that you, dear reader, take for granted every day, including cereal, skim milk, and bacon. But most precious of all, perhaps, was the cheese.

After flirting with the 10 kg block of mozzarella and the two-gallon jar of grated parmesan, I decided to go with a more practical choice of two different cheddars. One of them is an extra sharp Land O' Lakes. Tonight, grabbing dinner on the go, I made myself a simple cheese sandwich. Five width-wise cuts of cheese. Two slices of bread. Nothing more, and nothing less. It may have been the best thing I've ever eaten. They don't "do" cheese in China, and so it is a rare treat. I found myself savoring the flavor, enjoying the texture. I treated this cheese sandwich like restaurant reviewers are meant to sample the new big dish at a hot restaurant.

I've never been a big foodie, but I think the only thing I want more right now than another cheese sandwich (I have to eat them sparingly, lest I burn through my supply too quickly) is a bowl of Stonyfield Farms vanilla yoghurt mixed with granola. My God, that sounds good.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Nessun Dorma

I have become obsessed in the last few days with "Nessun Dorma," an aria written by Puccini. It's led to a few things I feel worth noting:

1. Here's a clip of the unfortunately named Paul Potts performing the song on Britain's Got Talent. Paul does a lovely job, no question, but I show this to you to highlight the moment when Simon asks Paul what he's going to do for us this evening. "I'm going to sing opera," he says. Piers Morgan shoots the other panelists a look that says, "Opera?!? This silly little man thinks he can do opera! How amusingly droll." Ass.

2. I've been listening to different performances of it on Youtube, listening to as many different tenors as I could find. I've read all the comments, as people debate over who owns the best rendition. I've listened to Domingo, and Carreras, and Andrea Boccelli, and Mario Lanza. But none of them, for me, compared to Pavarotti. Watch him in this performance filmed in 1980. It is the way he hits those high notes, without a hint of struggle, soaring above the orchestration and into the heavens the song aims for. Watch his face, though, when the song is over; what I like most about this video is that, after that staggering performance, you can see in Pavarotti's smile that he's just as amazed by the whole thing as the rest of us.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The China Diaries: The "Crane" Index

Over the years, many a quick'n'easy method has been developed for determining the economic vitality of a city, methods that don't rely so much on crunching numbers as they do on quick observations. They are not meant for precision, merely a broader accuracy. The Economist, for example, created the Big Mac index back in the 80's, using the theory that you could tell how inflated an economy is by the relative price of a Big Mac.

Another popular one, more popular than most due to its ease of use, is The "Crane" Index, which operates on the theory that the number of visible cranes in the sky line is directly related to the economic activity and consumer confidence of a given city. I took this picture of a part of Xi'an's skyline yesterday afternoon.

Xi'an's doing alright by that system of measure, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The China Diaries: Happy Birthday

Today, I turned 23.

The celebrations started last night, when I went out to a club with most of my fellow teachers. On my part, there was very little drinking, and quite a lot of dancing. Anyone who's seen me at a wedding reception has a fairly accurate idea of what happened.

The morning was fairly mundane; I woke up around 9:30, listened to Radiolab, and did some laundry. I knew most of my peers wouldn't be awake until after 12, so I waited until about 12:30 to start sending out texts seeing if anyone wanted to go to the market. I received one reply saying, "I'm sorry, but I am not leaving my flat today," which made me laugh.

Being alone is not something I was in the mood for today, and it started to annoy me. For one thing, as I walked off in the vague direction of my destination, it occurred to me that I am still rather helpless when it comes to getting the food I want; unless I know from experience that a given restaurant has the dish I want, I don't know what they prepare, and I am frightened to ask. This evening, I stopped in a restaurant to see if they had Chow Bing; the man looked at me blankly and handed me a menu. The look I returned wasn't so blank; "If I could read your menu, would we even be having this interaction?"

I'd decided my birthday present to myself would be a guitar; I found a lovely Roxe (*shrug*) acoustic for 740 RMB. I was feeling pretty good today, apparently; I never barter, as my Chinese isn't strong enough for me to be comfortable with the idea, but I got the guitar down to 650 RMB (about $110) with a bag and a capo thrown in for good measure. I also ended up buying all five seasons of Six Feet Under (At $2.75 a season, you say no), A Dog Day Afternoon, and Beauty and the Beast. It's going to be the best marathon ever.

When I got the guitar back to my apartment, I realized how much I've missed having one around. I sat on the couch for almost two hours, playing through bits of everything. I felt a bit like Sweeney Todd, really; At last, my arm is complete again.

The early evening was spent finishing The Amber Spyglass (amazing; I'm not ashamed to say there were a few tears), and then I headed off to my first Chinese lesson. It's a funny thing about logographic languages; I know how to say the name of the bus stop I wanted to get to this evening (tai bai xiao qu), but I didn't know how it was written (太白小区). This made finding the bus and direction on the signs for the routes a very tricky thing. Fortunately, the bus driver understood my predicament, and signaled when it was my stop. There was a moment of misunderstanding; apparently, in China, waving your hand means "No, stop, don't," not the more personally familiar "bye bye." I'll leave how that came about to your capable imaginations.

The lesson itself was a lot of fun. The teacher and I ended up in a conversation about Japanese grammar, followed by my admitting to having spent a break at work the other day reading the Wiki on copulas, and she pronounced me to be "cool." That is the only time that has ever happened, and likely the only time it ever will. The electricity in her building went out about 2/3 through the lesson, which made the reading portions a bit trickier, but then I got to learn Chinese by candlelight. It added a certain something to the proceedings. Certainly made it memorable. I took a cab home, and had an hour-long Skype chat with my mom. It was, over all, and despite not having quite been to plan, a very nice birthday.

The guitar is wonderful, and I'm genuinely excited about Six Feet Under, but I think the best thing I did on my birthday was catching a scooter taxi home from the market. With a guitar slung on my back, I hopped on the back of a scooter/bike and rode home. I've taken them twice since I've been in Xi'an (they are a bit more expensive than cabs); There is a feeling that you will die if you are hit by something, and there's an equally large feeling that you will be hit by something, but the whole thing is relaxing: You sit on the back of a bike, with a gorgeous breeze coming by, taking in the sounds of the city, and the gentle undulations of the shocks. Totally worth 14 RMB (haggled down from 15, as I was feeling invincible.) ((Okay, fine, it was because I meant to say 12 RMB, but misspoke.)) (((And I'm still really hungry, because the place that sells dumplings down the corner was closed by the time I got home)))

Monday, September 19, 2011

The China Diaries: Untitled No. 1

One of my fellow teachers at EF is leaving in about a week. He's been here for a year, and has by all accounts enjoyed himself tremendously. He will be returning to his native UK for a few months before getting a job in Istanbul (not Constantinople). He loves Xi'an, and he loves China. Talking to him about his choice to leave has been quite interesting.

* * * * *

I sat down this evening to write one of the Funny Ones for the blog, about my first laundry experience last week. I was uploading some pictures of my laundry room when I ended up looking at all my photographs.

I have been a very fortunate man. To say any less would be impossible. I have been materially fortunate, certainly, but I refer to the friends I've made and kept over the years. "Clayton Moore," sir, I came across the pictures I took when you and Mrs. "Moore" stayed over in my apartment, and when we celebrated the twilight of your bachelorhood. Miss Knap, I looked at the pictures from our Ikea and Mitsuwa adventure. Mr. Varney and Miss Day; three separate sets of sterling memories which all brought smiles to my face. And I miss Disney World, and I miss everyone I met and grew to love there. I've never missed anything in quite the same way, really. It is the closest I think I've ever come to an addiction; I can feel the desire to do it again pulling at me constantly. That it was the closest I've ever come to a perfect experience is no coincidence.

That is, of course, why I can't go back; it was a perfect four month experience. To go back could do nothing but ruin it in the end. So I have moved on to other adventures. You can't go back to the ideal memories. No good can come of it. As individuals, the only way to survive is to move forward and find the next great adventure. The only other choice seems to be stagnation.

I say all this to convince myself as much as anything, I'm sure.

* * * * *

Realizing this is quite a ways off, talking to my peer has made me more conscious of my concern that I will decide to stay in Xi'an for the long run; there's nothing wrong if that ends up happening for a good reason, but it borders on the tragic if it is simply out of comfort. It is not the duty of the young to settle. I'm not done exploring yet. There's a lot more I want to do before I pick a place. Disney was the first step. China is the next. After that? We'll see in a year or two.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The China Diaries: Make An Appointment

I find the changes in the mundanities to be the most interesting. In the US, I don't have to translate the buttons on the microwave before I can use it. Nothing makes you feel quite so ineffectual as standing in front of a simple appliance for fifteen minutes, trying to work out what it's telling you.

It's better still when the translation gives you a small giggle. The cleaning powder in the kitchen that translates literally to "Go dirt powder." Computers are called, sensibly enough, "electric brains." The timer portion of the washing machine control panel translates to "make an appointment," which makes me laugh simply for its formality.
The school I work for, English First, has been superb about making me feel welcome in Xi'an. One of the teachers came over my first day to take me around the area. Wednesday night, I met up with all the teachers for a welcome dinner. As it stands now, I am the only member of staff not from the U.K., though another American is inclement, and should be here any day now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The China Diaries: 你好。您有... er... sponge吗?

*Hello. Do you have... er... sponge?*
*Ni hao. Nin you... er... sponge ma?*

When I was inspecting my apartment on the night of my arrival, I noticed that the toilet and the fridge were in dire need of some cleaning. This was just fine with me, really; gave me a reason to go out and about my first morning in China.

My apartment building is in an apartment block, which is pretty much how the entire city is set up. Apartments aren't right on the street; they're in vaguely gated communities, where all the buildings are apartments. Don't let the "gated" part trick you, as the gates only stop vehicles. This place isn't exclusive by any means. People can come and go as they like. Back to the point, that block is surrounded by shops and restaurants. It's quite nice, actually. There's a, well, I suppose it's really a stall that happens to have walls, where you can buy the best bread for about 2 RMB (6.4-ish RMB = $1), and a few blocks away there's an amazing stall with dumplings... I digress.

My first morning in China, I woke up around 7, puttered about the apartment until 8:30, and then headed down to the streets. I found cleaning powder (去污粉, literally "Go dirt powder") in my apartment, so I only needed sponges and gloves. Simple enough. I went left out of my apartment block and rather quickly came across a shop selling cleaning supplies. I say "shop"; it looked a bit like I was walking into a professional cleaning company's storage room, which I may very well have been. I went in, asked, "您有。。。" (Do you have...), and fumbled with my dictionary until I found "gloves." I pointed. The woman nodded briskly, ran over to a shelf, and came back with some rubber cleaning gloves. Score. Next, then. "你有。。。" "sponge"? They didn't, oddly enough, but that was alright. I had gotten gloves. I felt invincible.

There was a book store next to that, selling exercise books for children. As I want to learn characters, it seemed like a good place to pick up a first-year's My First Characters book. I looked around the shop a bit, and couldn't find what I wanted, so I pulled out my dictionary and my journal and sat in the corner, scribbling what roughly translated to "I want to learn Chinese characters. I don't know much. Do you have a good book?" After a few minutes of the store keeper shuffling around with a Chinese dictionary (If you haven't ever glanced at one, by the way, I think trying to navigate a Chinese dictionary is one of the key arguments against a logographic language), it became apparent that my message was failing. At least she was nice about it. I retreated back to my corner and had a think. I grabbed a My First Maths book, and wrote (again, roughly) "This book teaches me math. Do you have one that teaches me characters?" I showed her, she nodded, and came back with that which I sought. She spoke to me for a bit in Chinese, from which I picked out almost nothing. I know I told her I was English, which was not actually on purpose, and that I was a teacher (I had to write that down, as my pronunciation is still dismal). She gave me a thumbs up as I was leaving, which I took to be general, across-the-board encouragement. "You got your book," that thumbs up said. "You're gonna do great."

I ran my hard-won wares back to my apartment, as I didn't know how far I would have to travel for a sponge. I came back down and took the right out of my block, eventually coming to a CVS-style market. As close as one can get to that in China, anyway. I found an employee, and repeated the motions; "您有。。。" *fumble* "sponge?". Her reaction led me to believe that I may have been pointing to the word for Sea Sponge, or that perhaps it was a regional thing. She didn't know either. After some quick communication with her and a coworker, miming "for your face?" "No, to wash counters", they took me to the sponges. Having accomplished my goals for the morning, I decided to walk around the store for a bit (It's not a very big store, really, but baby steps).

What happened next felt like being carried away in a stream, so out of my control was everything that occurred. The woman who had helped me decided I still needed help, and that she was going to give it to me. I flipped through the pages of my dictionary to look for the word "nothing," pointed, and it did not have the desired effect. Two more employees came seemingly out of nowhere, and they all talked. The more I insisted I didn't need anything (all in English with big, emotive gestures), the less they seemed to believe me. I was surrounded by five Chinese women, all in their fifties or sixties, determined to help me, whether I liked it or not. One of them led me to the underwear; they had decided as a group that I was embarrassed to ask for what I needed. When that didn't prove to be what I was after (as, clearly, I was after something), the council continued. More employees gathered. Some decided they needed time to rest on the bench, and were substituted for fresh players. I flipped desperately through my dictionary, trying to find some way to get across that I needed nothing. Oddly, my dictionary didn't have "I'm really sorry, I've been trying to tell you I don't need anything, but all of you are so keen on being helpful, and my faculty with the language is so low, that I've not managed to get that across, despite my myriad attempts" in the phrases section. And I thought I'd bought a nice one.

I tried "Nothing." Didn't work. I tried "No" "Need" "Help". Didn't work. I don't think the Chinese retain words well in these types of circumstances. If you pointed to "No," "Need," and "Help" in an English dictionary in America, I like to think the individual attempting to help you would get it. I even found "Can I just look around?" and pointed to that. Nothing. At this point, the store had called in employees from their other stores to try and help, so I was surrounded by roughly 237 Chinese corner-market employees, all certain I needed help with something. "But what is it?," they asked one another. They'd turned me into a Zen koan, as though the first to figure out what I needed would attain enlightenment.

Finally, they found someone who spoke English. A fellow customer, he came up and asked, "What. Do you. Need?" I said, "I don't need anything, actually. These women have been incredibly friendly and helpful, but I've been trying to tell them for the last five or ten minutes that I don't need help with an... you don't understand what I'm saying, do you."



"You. Need. Nothing?"


He translated the message. They all smiled and returned to their stations. I paid for my sponges and left, looking forward to spending an hour or so listening to some Carol King and cleaning the bathroom. "Big day," I thought to myself. "Big day."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The China Diaries: The One About Getting to China

Interspersed throughout this entry will be ill-organized notes from my journal.

* * * * *

For the three or four hours I managed to sleep, I slept pretty well the night before I left. I got up at around four-thirty, and was ready to go by five. There's nothing quite like an early morning slog to the airport; there's no one else on the roads, which is great, but I always end up wondering how I got to the terminal in the first place, like highway hypnosis extends from the car to checking in and security.

The connector from Nashville to Chicago took off as scheduled, around 7. The plane was so small that I could not stand upright in the cabin, which was a new experience. I usually make regional flights with Southwest, so I haven't been in a puddle-jumper, as my family calls them, in a very long time.

* Cities look beautiful from the air. Their sprawl can be a bit terrifying, but they look gorgeous and impressive. Small town centers, where all the development is low-lying and gathered in a small spot surrounded by farm fields or what-have-you, look like a scar on the Earth, as thought everything has died and gone black.*

The nerves started to settle in when my plane pulled up. Even then, though, I was surprised by how calm I felt. My last text was to my mom, saying "I'm about to board the plane. I guess I was serious about this whole China thing."

* * * * *

I set a goal of listening to all ten of Gustav Mahler's symphonies during my travel. The total running time for them is about twelve and a half hours, so it's a pretty serious goal, but I thought with 24 hours of travel time, it would be easily accomplished. I was wrong. So wrong. I made it through five. It was an odd experience, because his music is full of a lot of portent and doom; I don't think it helped make me feel at ease. Have you ever played Soundtrack, where you put on some instrumental music and go about your day, seeing how it effects your mood and your perceptions? Behold the picture to the right, taken not too long after take-off. The sky is perfect. No turbulence, a lovely blue tint, gorgeous fluffy clouds. Yet, with Mahler's Symphony No. 3 playing, I found myself checking for gremlins on the wings. Strangely enough, I spent most of the trip alternating between Mahler and Suede.
*The sky looks beautiful, yet the pilot and the plane insist it's turbulent. Jerks.*

Here are some of the pictures I took flying over Eastern Russia and Northern China. If you click on them, they get much bigger, and they look quite nice.

The flight lasted a surprisingly quick 14 or 15 hours; I did not think it was that long. I also forgot how the flight TO China is quite gentle on jet lag. Because of the flight path, the sun never sets. I arrived in Beijing in the afternoon, and was in my apartment around 10 Tuesday night.

*Greeted in Beijing by a massive billboard of Nicolas Cage trying to sell me a watch, and a book store playing "The Way You Lie." Cultural hegemony: It's everywhere.*
**To be fair, that is the point**

Beijing airport was an impressive, impressive place. The metal bars you see in the photo to the left were all across the ceilings. It doesn't seem like much in this photo, because the room is flat and straight, but in the bigger parts of the airport, where the ceilings domed and turned and had unexpected angles, the effect was stunning. I tried to study a bit of Chinese before I left, but just about everyone who worked there knew just the right English words for their role. "You have laptop? Take out," said the nice woman at security.

The final connection flight to Xi'an was quite pleasant. I was unconscious for most of it (otherwise, I would have gotten in that sixth symphony), though the woman who sat next to me lives in Naperville, one of the Chicago suburbs. She's a native of China, but moved there a long time ago. I tried out what little Chinese I knew, in the context of "If you could help me, that'd be great."; "No," she said, "It's not understandable. My son is much better than you." I'm sure he is.

* * * * *

My transportation from the school was waiting for me at the airport. They took me straight to my apartment, where I spent about an hour unpacking, and then passed out.

After all the travel, after 30 hours spent mostly awake, after landing successfully in China, a country with which I am almost completely unfamiliar and where I will be spending the next year of my life, laying on an almost impossibly hard mattress, my last thought before falling asleep was, "Did I fucking ask you if I was better than your son?"

Monday, September 12, 2011

The China Diaries: A Shocking Development

Unfortunately, tonight's long-overdue recount of my journey to China will have to be postponed. The only plug adapter I have is a bit chintzy, and when my laptop is plugged in, there is a static charge running throughout the metal casing of the Mac. I'm typing this with my arms suspended above the keyboard completely, which is quite a bit more tiring than you'd thing. Once I get a new plug adapter that does not threaten to stop my heart, I will write up the new post. It will, I hope, be a corker.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The China Diaries: Climbing the Great Firewall of China

I have finally set myself up to be able to blog from within the belly of the beast, as it were. I have quite a bit to talk about, all of which I will get to in the next week or two, but I wanted to post this briefly to let everyone know that Thought's Dowinion is alive, and will be updated regularly from here on out!

I'm using a VPN service called Astrill. It works very well, and I highly recommend it. It integrates itself with your web browser. Quite spectacular, really. I will write a real entry tonight, talking about my trip getting here, and my arrival.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The China Diaries: Bon Voyage

I leave for China in the morning. I am, of course, nervous. And I am, of course, excited. It hasn't, to be fair, really hit me yet. I think I chucked that particular pebble towards my Lake of Knowledge at just the right angle for it to skip along the top, without really sinking in. I expect it to hit some time after I've boarded my flight in Chicago, and I feel sorry for the individual sitting next to me when it does. There will probably be a combination of crying, screaming, laughter, and euphoria. Perhaps I will actually purchase an in-flight drink and take advantage of the effects of high altitude on blood. Have you ever tried drinking at altitude? It's fabulous.

I will miss everyone, but I am also looking forward to making new friends, learning a new language, and experiencing a radically different culture. Nothing bad can really come of this, I don't believe. Adios, United States of America. We both knew this day would come.

The China Diaries: The Hardest Part

Person: "When do you leave?"
Me: "September fifth."
Person: "That's really cool. Are you all packed yet?"

That interaction has occurred, with negligible variation, no fewer than eleven times in the last few weeks. When I was asked on September third, it seemed reasonable enough. When I was asked on August fifteenth, it was a bit much.

Now that it's September fourth, I have, of course, packed. I am, in fact, finishing up right now. The suitcases (nicknamed Silver Frog and Blue Lion after their respective colors and adorable Li'l Lewis ID tags) are ready to go, save for toiletries. I myself have little concern that I saved packing until the last day, because I had mentally packed well in advanced, but everyone asking about it kept making me nervous.

In my experience, the hardest part of packing is the carry-on. It didn't used to be, but, then, we didn't used to have laptops. It's really the computer that seems to kill the whole deal. it takes up so much space, is so integral to the whole process, that packing the carry on without the laptop seems silly, yet so does packing the computer up at 11 in the morning of the day before I leave. So here I sit, in a bizarrely uncomfortable stasis, waiting until just before bed, I guess.

* * * * *

Whomever looks at the x-ray of my carry-on tomorrow is going to be puzzled. I have eight different Moleskine-type notebooks coming in my carry-on; Planner, address book, multimedia log (I'll explain some day), a notebook for notes on teaching, my songwriting notebooks Mach I through III (too valuable to risk losing in checked bags), and the new Mach IV. Odder still because that's just about all my carry-on will contain, besides the aforementioned laptop.

I will also have my iPod with me. As an experiment, I've decided to spend a concentrated portion of my travel time tomorrow and Tuesday listening to all of Gustav Mahler's symphonies. It will take about twelve and a half hours of my 24 hours of travel time. Around that, I plan to read The Amber Spyglass, the final book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, a series you should seriously consider reading if you haven't. I will also, naturally, have a Terry Pratchett book with me, just in case. Never, ever hurts.