Friday, December 9, 2016

My New Found Love for McDonald's

I have always seen myself as a happy-go-lucky type of guy. I am not someone who really gets depressed. Very few things actually upset me and I can recover very quickly from anything that somehow manages to get me down for a moment. Despite all of this, it does not mean I am stress-proof.

I do get stressed, but quite often I am not even aware that it is happening. My apathetic "hey, things could be worse" attitude is real, but that doesn't mean none of the crap happening in my life doesn't rattle around in my head sometimes. Stuff does get caught in there occasionally because, if I'm being honest with myself, there are some things that do require a little more thought than a simple shoulder shrug and cute smirk. Although, I've been told I have an adorable smirk.

Because the concept of stress is so foreign to me (this is not a joke - it's just not how my brain works), I don't always recognize the signs that I may actually be stressed. Whatever situation comes along, I just keep plugging along and do what I do. It is often later when I am exhausted or experiencing muscle tension that the events of the day occur to me.

Wow! That was really messed up! I hope tomorrow is easier.

Another way for me to discover that I was stressed is for something to happen to suddenly remove the stress. It's like when you are doing something outside in the winter and don't realize how cold you are until you step into the warmth of the house. At that point you feel your toes beginning to thaw and the color coming back into your face. Stress works the same way sometimes and I discovered that this happens to me here when I sit down at McDonald's. It just leaves because it is so familiar.

Fruit doesn't even look right.
What is this thing?
Since moving to China, there has been plenty to stress about. I can't read the signs. I don't recognize any of the food. I can't talk to anyone to even ask for directions. I don't know how to pay my bills. Nothing happens the way I expect it to. All the rules are different and I don't have a rule book. Plus, moving is generally considered to be pretty stressful anyway. My wife and I just added the culture and language barrier to the process.

This is why the McDonald's here is so great. It's familiar.

I'm lovin' it

Yeah, I do have to order off the picture menu because I'm basically illiterate. I can't order anything custom like extra pickles or no ketchup because…well, the language again. And they don't have everything on their menu that we have in the States (although they do have a lot of extra weird stuff), but the few items they have that coincide with the U.S. menu are identical in not only appearance but taste.

Now, please understand that I am not someone who always gravitates to the familiar. I love the food here. I've had my share of sheep intestine soup, millet pie, ji'angbing, and more rice than you could imagine. I visit the back-alley street vendors every day to eat some fantastic exotic foods, but every now and then, I need to step away from all the different and come back to the familiar just to refocus by brain. McDonald's provides that for me. It has become my once a week treat. Every Sunday morning, on my way to work, I stop in for a Sausage Egg McMuffin and a hash brown. It helps me reset myself for the coming week and gives me a break from tackling this new culture for a few minutes. For half an hour, I'm not in the new world of China. I'm just at McDonald's reading about the anti-Trump riots on my phone.

In a few months, this place can be my normal.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My #2s Should Be Someone's #1 Priority

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I pride myself on being a person of above average intelligence. In fact, I can often be downright arrogant about it and impatient with people who are deficient of the 50th percentile mark. Did you catch all those big words?

Now, I am not claiming to be a genius or anything, but there are some things that I can recognize about myself concerning intelligence.

  • I retain knowledge easily
  • I can learn by a variety of learning styles (watching, listening, reading, doing, etc.)
  • I hate Nickelback
  • I can explain the reasons behind my opinions (there are many) rather than just shout them louder
  • Stupid people make me want to cry/scream/punch/set fire to things, etc
  • My momma always told me I was too smart for my own good
So, while I have walked around for the last four decades with my head held high because of my superiority over all the troglodytes surrounding me, it all came crashing down the moment I left the country. I've been in China now for two months and have come to realize that there just might be a few things I don't know.

I have already written about my confusion over paying bills, getting to work, traveling, doing my job, the crazy traffic and understanding my role here. Things are slowly starting to fall into place and every day that Red and I figure out something new it feels like a huge victory. Especially when we figure out that we were doing something incorrectly and it's not just "the way China is".

We may live in the land of advanced computer technology, radically cheap communication services ($15/month for cable and internet combined and less than $2.50/month for a cell phone w/ a data package), bullet trains, cell coverage everywhere (including tunnels, 30 feet underground parking garages and remote mountain regions), apartment lighting that changes softness depending on the need, monthly power bills that cost less than a trip to Starbucks in the States, and Jackie Chan, but simple things like plumbing are still a problem.

Since coming to China we have had to have the toilet in our hotel and our apartment fixed because we broke them. As dumb Americans, we didn't know that most of the world's plumbing cannot handle the increased stress of flushing toilet paper. It's just too much. Don't do it.

That little bit of water makes
all the difference.
They also don't use a piece of plumbing that is very common in the States. It is the lowly S-pipe. The S-pipe is a very simple piece of hardware that serves a purpose that I have only recently learned and apparently always taken for granted. It keeps your house from smelling like three day old sun-dried fish.

I'm not a plumber, but this is my understanding. Having that S-shaped (or U-shaped depending on what was installed) curve in your pipes causes water to not drain completely through it. The simple force of gravity keeps some water in place at the bottom of the curve. That water provides the fantastic service of preventing the potential for poo gases from the sewer lines coming back up the pipe.

Now, this is a pretty low-tech solution, but it is very effective. However, it is not a common practice throughout the world. China being one of those places that does not do this evidenced by this photo of the space beneath our sink.

That open pipe leads to where all the
apartment building's fluids converge

This design is sufficient for its intended purpose which is to get used and contaminated fluids from the home.  I know this because I'm so smart. Unfortunately, I am also one of those stereotypical spoiled Americans who has a stereotypical spoiled American nose which has historically proven to be more easily offended than most of the noses throughout the rest of the world. Even the big Italian noses.

Because the Chinese don't regard the practice of pampering their olfactory orifices to be a priority, we have had to learn how to adjust. By adjust, I actually mean get used to it. It actually was just a slight smell and could easily be forgotten about. However, on some days, it was downright unbearable, but it took a little while to discover why.

Our entire apartment is heated by hot water-fueled radiators. The heat is actually controlled by the government and they decide when we do or do not need to be able to feel our toes. The only control we have is the ability to turn it off or on once they have started the heating. Although, I can't understand why anyone would ever turn it off since they only turn it on when Yetis start wandering out of the surrounding mountains and onto the city streets. So, we just keep them on all the time and go to bed every night praying that the Chinese Ministry of Hot Water will still be nice to us when we wake up.

The controls for the radiators are pretty simple. Each one has a shut-off valve on the top and the bottom to allow the flow of water through the unit. These valves are mostly inconspicuous, but we have found a use for one of them.

Bathroom radiator
shaped as a towel rack
This is the radiator in our bathroom. The bag hanging from the valve at the bottom of this photo contains our "haunted" toilet paper. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, Chinese plumbing cannot handle the added stress of paper. This means we have to collect our precious bundles of tissue to be transported out of the apartment at a more convenient time when our pants are up.

This improvised bag hanging method worked well for the first six weeks we were in China. However, it eventually got cold enough for the government to finally turn on the heat and it was soon followed by a horrible stench that we could not escape from without leaving the apartment and risking the inevitable Yeti encounter.

It took about two weeks for my wife to discover that our malodorous dilemma was actually our fault and not due to Chinese plumbing practices. I quickly realized that I wasn't a smart as I thought I was when she pointed out that we had been cooking our poop by hanging our used toilet paper on hot radiator pipes. This is one ancient Chinese secret that should be included in a pamphlet given to all foreigners coming to live in this country.


STEP 1: Don't cook your crap

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Road to Hong Kong

Yesterday concluded the two month mark of the day we arrived in China. It's been a wild and eye-opening month, but this day had a very special significance for us. It meant that our visas were expiring. Being an illegal immigrant is a much bigger deal in China than it is in the States. They don't just look the other way or have long discussions about the ethical thing to do. If you are here illegally, you are by definition a criminal and you are treated as such. And the penalties are significantly worse than in the States. Plus, if our visa expires, it also means that our residency permit expires since you cannot get a residency permit that extends beyond the length of your intended visit. This would make our already illegal status even illegaler (more illegal, less legal...choose the one you like).  So, we had to do something.
The tourist visas we have are good for multiple entries into the country over the course of 10 years. We can come and go as we please, but we can only stay for 60 days at a time. For now. Once we get our work visas straightened out, we will be good to go and won't need to leave the country every couple of months. However, for now, we had to hit the road because air travel is not cheap.

We are pretty close to the border of Mongolia, but the visa application process was not fast enough to meet our needs. We only had three days to exit China, so we opted for a train ride to Hong Kong.

1,228 miles - 23.5 hours one way by train

This journey was going to take three days to complete. It's 24 hours each way and one night spent in Hong Kong. We would get back with just enough time to get to the police station on Friday afternoon to renew our residency permits using our newly stamped passports. Let the adventure begin.

On Tuesday afternoon, we took the four subways required to get us to (北京西站) Beijing West Train Station. We had been informed by a local (who had purchased our tickets in advance for us) that the station would just be upstairs once we arrived.

Okay! We're here! (We think)
Now what?

Every time we start to get confident that we know what we are doing, we get thrown into one of these situations and become more confused than a cat high on catnip trying to decide which laser pointer dot to chase. The train station was much like what I imagine a rave to be like. It's very loud, people are rushing around everywhere, there's lots of flashing lights and I hate the music.

We had no idea where we were supposed to go to pick up our tickets and no one could help us. The first line I got in resulted in me getting to the front of the line so I could shrug my shoulders, show the attendant our ticket confirmation email on my phone and her pointing off toward another building.

We wandered around the crowd for a while and landed in another line that we believed to be ticket sales and prayed this was right because it was going to take a long time to get to the front. It was a 45 minute wait and people were fighting to get in front of us. We don't know the language, but we put on our scariest angry American faces and made our way to the front without losing a single spot.

We actually were in the correct line and used our new tickets to enter the terminal. The terminal was even more crowded and was total chaos. Plus, we were about three hours early. It was going to be a long wait, but at least there were plenty of people to talk to. Oh, wait...never mind.

Just grab a spot on the floor because you are not getting a seat

The time passed and we got on the train without incident. We made our way to our assigned spot and finally got to see where we would be spending the next 24 hours.

8 feet off the ground in the third bunk up

Our bunks were at the top

The bunks were quite small. Not really made for six foot tall Americans, but they were reasonably comfortable. Plus, with the total lack of security and privacy (notice the lack of doors), being on the top made me feel safer. As small as those bunks were, getting out of the bunks felt really crowded. There just wasn't a lot of space outside of those rooms.

The tables were tiny and usually already taken anyway.

We found the dining car, but had to share the table.
These guys were fun.

Near the end of the trip, I was hanging out in my bunk just waiting to get there and Red made a few friends. No real conversation happened, but they were enjoying the novelty of an American being on board with them. They started offering us food, helping us pronounce Chinese words and took several pictures with us. We were celebrities.

About 8 p.m. we finally reached our destination city of Shenzhen. We took three more subways, fought our way through customs and arrived in Hong Kong.

We had no idea where we were and had no hotel reservations, so we wandered the streets for a while. We eventually ended up in the beautiful Lan Kwai Fong Hotel and then ventured out to fulfill a yearning I've had for the last several weeks. We went and got some pizza. I haven't had a decent pizza since we arrived in China and it was starting to get painful. In Hong Kong, pizza was much easier to come by.

The next day, we started onto the subways again and got through customs to get back into China so we could catch the train back. While waiting for the train, we were approached by a couple who thought we looked out of place in China for some reason.

Emanuel & Mimmi Viksten from Skellefteå, Sweden
This couple got married a year ago, worked and saved for one year and then quit their jobs to travel the world for a year for their honeymoon. We got to hear their story and share some of the things we have learned about China to help them with their journey. They had just entered the country that morning after spending the last two months in Russia and I'm a bit jealous of their trip.

On our return train trip, I was quickly approached by a Chinese man who wanted to practice his English. We spent the rest of the trip talking. He said that our meeting was fate and asked for my contact information.

He uses the English name of Koko and was a wealth of information for us. We were able to ask him all sorts of questions about China. Since we were in a confined space for an entire day, there was lots of opportunity to think of new things to ask and discuss. He will only be in Beijing for the next two months, so we plan to get together again for a meal.

After three long, long days, we finally made it back to Beijing and I was able to dash off to the police department to get our residency permit renewed before we got all dressed up to attend a formal Thanksgiving dinner. A few more hours of smiling and shaking hands and we made it back to our own beds.

All this adventure, time and money was spent for only one purpose.

To get that little stamp right there.

That was an expensive piece of ink, but I think I'm ready to do it again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Need To Start Shaving My Arms

It has been an interesting morning. I just got back home after over of hour of riding on the back of a moped in sub-zero weather through thick Beijing traffic. Sometimes we were going the wrong way, sometimes we were on the sidewalk and several times my coat hit the side mirrors of the cars we whizzed past. Since the driver didn't speak English, I couldn't even yell out warnings when I thought we were about to be smashed.


Once we finished all our business, I motioned that I would be walking home. I had no idea where I was, but I had no reason to be on the thing any more. My days of living dangerously are far behind me.

These men are paid to push the
crowd in enough to get the doors closed.
Our concept of personal safety is one of the things we have had to let go of since arriving in Beijing. Obviously, many things are different here, but some things you just can't be prepared for. Red and I have learned that in order to cross a street, you may have to walk through heavy (and still moving) traffic. In order to get to your destination, we have to walk through neighborhoods which are not lit and often through very dark alleys. We rarely have any idea what we are eating. We still can't read road signs and we have learned that the Chinese have no concept of personal space. While being felt up by a stranger is fun and exciting at first, it becomes tedious after about the third week. I think I enjoyed it a little longer than Red did.

Something that I hadn't thought about until I got here was what it would be like to be a minority. A major minority. I just moved here from Indianapolis which is praised for being the most culturally integrated city in the country, so there were other cultures everywhere. Before that, I was from Mt Vernon, IL which is predominantly white, but there are black people, Latinos, Asians and other cultures around. I would never be surprised if I ran into a black man or an old Asian woman. However, here it is quite different.

In Beijing, I can go days without seeing another white face and when I do see one, it is just in passing on the street. I have also learned that just because someone has similar facial features as me does not necessarily mean they want to talk to me. I've been disappointed more than once after approaching someone in a store or on a bus only to find out that my question of "So, how long have you been in Biejing?" cannot be answered because they only speak German or French. Or, even worse, I find out they're from Cleveland and I can't get out of there fast enough. I've approached many black people (I don't say African-American because they probably aren't American) as well hoping to have some English conversation, but find that they usually speak French, Swahili or Arabic.

These encounters are very rare because we generally only see Chinese people. We do not live in a particularly internationally diverse area. I believe we are the only non-Chinese in our entire apartment building. In fact, I have gotten quite used to being stared at because Red and I are the stand-outs in any crowd. We are both very tall and she has red hair. We attract attention. We don't really get people coming up to us to touch us or pull on our hair, but it is not uncommon for a child to point at us or even an adult to point us out to their friends. The students in my classes are much more comfortable with me and often pull the hair on my arms since the Chinese are not particularly hairy. I'm not really very hairy either, but the amount I do have really seems to be a novelty. Robin Williams would have hated it here.

Hopefully, this doesn't sound like complaining. It just takes some getting used to and is a great motivation for us to start learning the language so we can better fit in and stop relying on other people for so much of what we need to do (bank stuff, online ordering, paying bills, getting directions, etc). It really has been a great adventure and we seem to find a new one every day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Can't We All Just Get Along

Red and I landed in Beijing on Sept 27th and there has been plenty of drawbacks and advantages to living in China rather than the States for the last six weeks. It sucks that it is so much colder here, but it is great that I no longer have a car payment. It sucks that we have no control over the temperature of our apartment (the government decides when to turn on the heat), but it's great that we can just step right outside to buy great and cheap food.

But I think the best part of not being in the States for the entire month of October has to be living on the other side of the world in the month leading up to the presidential election. All the political stuff came to a screeching halt as soon as we left the country and I cannot begin to express how freeing that was.

All the hatred and vitriolic content was still on Facebook, but that is very very easy to shut off. I just avoid those posts or walk away from the computer. Quite easy to do and there was no stress involved. The nice part was that outside of my computer, this election almost ceased to exist.

The only discussions of politics that I have had since coming to China has been on the rare occasion that I've run into another English speaker. I've talked American politics with an Irishman, an Australian and a Moroccan. Luckily, they were all civil conversations despite having very different ideas about what is best for America. Something that is hard to come by in the States if you are not in a room full of like-minded individuals.

I really don't understand the venomous attitude toward our fellow man that seems to go hand in hand with politics. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is a key belief for living in a free society. Another key part of that is the freedom that any of us have to tell someone that we disagree with them. Believe it or not, both of these freedoms are supposed to be good things. They are good things.

However, for some reason, as soon as that difference in opinion concerns politics, everyone assumes that the person who disagrees with them does so because of extreme stupidity, close-mindedness or lack of morals. Almost everyone agrees that a child should grow up to be his own person who thinks for himself until that same free-thinking child has a political opinion that does not align to their own.

Almost everyone agrees that a political candidate who utilizes mud-slinging as a tactic should be looked down upon, but that same person is usually happy to use those same dirty tactics when arguing their political view. To make it worse, quite often the person who is defending their candidate isn't just slinging venom at their candidate's opponent, but also at the person they are debating with. In many cases, it is a friend, coworker or family member. What switches off in their brain to make them not notice how they are talking to this person?

I completely understand that there is a lot at stake in this election. I also understand that there are some fundamentally different beliefs about how most of our nation's issues should be addressed. I especially understand that we have an exceptionally angry electorate for this political season. What I do not understand is how that anger is directed at the guy across the street who has the wrong political sign in his front yard.

I definitely have my political opinions. And I am more than willing to share them if I feel that I am in a safe environment to do so. I am also willing to openly disagree with someone and allow someone to disagree with me. I will even go as far as to say that I greatly enjoy a good debate and I am thrilled when I encounter a person who feels the same way. Especially when they disagree with me. However, it is rare that I encounter those people.

I know that it is almost over, but everyone has the opportunity to be nicer to people today as they head to the polls. The ads will stop in the next day, but politics will still exist. Can we just respect each other now?