Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Delightfully Tacky

I have developed a bit of a bad habit lately. When I have a series of crappy days (and there have been several in the past few weeks), I start looking for a way to get out of my funk. This in itself is actually a good intention. It is not healthy to wallow in self-pity, anger, depression, angst, horniness, pizza boxes and Reese's wrappers. A person should seek out a solution and lately mine has been food. Sort of.

This is how I look at cheese now since I rarely see it in China

Most people are familiar with the term "comfort food" and know what it means. It is not a pork loin stuffed with Xanax. Although, that could technically qualify. It is the food that a person often consumes when they want to feel better about themselves or a situation. It may be because of a feeling of nostalgia for a simpler or happier time. It may be the food that just helps them forget the moment the person is in. It may be a simple matter of habit to gravitate to a particular type of food when someone is depressed. Or maybe, it is just the right food that triggers the pleasure centers of your brain causing you to reach for it any time you need a little pick me up. That could be due to an addiction to that food or it sparks the memory of the time that bleached blonde, tanned beauty who was spilling out of her rainbow-print tube top that was two sizes too small winked at me when I was stuffing that taco in my mouth. Who knows what a person's motivation may be.

My recent bad habit is in this realm, but has a little more to it. It's not as much about the food as it is about the escape. You see, Red and I moved to Beijing in September and the fascination with being in an exciting exotic location has worn off. China is just where we live now. We have grown accustomed to it. There is still a lot we do not understand about this foreign culture, but navigating these differences has become commonplace for us, but that does not mean it isn't sometimes stressful.

Some days, we just need to decompress and get away from everything that is different. We just want something familiar so our brains can stop working so hard. I often download movies and American TV shows which allows us an escape for a while, but you can only sit and watch television for so long. I feel the need to get out, but going out means that I will be surrounded by China and on the days I want to escape that just won't do.

I have recently found a solution.

This is where the food part comes in.

On days when I am feeling like I really need a pick-me-up, I start scouring the internet for American restaurants. In a past post, I wrote about going to McDonald's for this. That is nice for 20 minutes, but when I'm looking to get away for an entire evening, I need something more substantial and last week I stumbled upon this.

Not the bank. The HOOTERS!

We hopped a bus that night to go to a restaurant that we could spend a considerable longer time in and have food we were familiar with in a setting that is not foreign. We knew that once we got past the ordering part, we could take our time without the sensory overload of CHINA CHINA CHINA everywhere we look.

Red and I both appreciate the food of China, but it was nice to sit down to this and know exactly what we were getting.

This Hooters was just like the ones in the States except for their fried pickles (they just didn't taste quite right) and the main feature that Hooters' waitresses are best known for. Chinese women are typically of a smaller stature in the 'hooters' region.

On a side note, we learned (from the one waitress who spoke English) that Chinese men typically find small breasts to be more attractive anyway. We didn't ask for this information. She just volunteered it for some reason. While American standards lean toward women having curves, Chinese beauty standards favor the tiny framed, slender woman. She then gestured to another waitress, "Like her." The woman she pointed out was what some Americans would label as being of the "bean pole" variety.

Because of the difference in what the locals would consider beauty, this changes the Hooters uniform a bit. The girls still wear the short shorts, but the tight t-shirts are out. For one, China is significantly more conservative than the States. That type of uniform is just unacceptable. Second, without the assets to fill them out, the point is kind of lost anyway.

Our waitress (pictured above) had long sleeves and kept her zipper up to the neck. This practice was fine with us. We hadn't really gone to Hooters to look at boobies anyway. We were there to be someplace familiar where we could let our guard down and just enjoy a nice meal. Hooters provided that for us. It was a great night and we felt much better as we left.

However, two days later, I needed a China break again. That's when I found this...

Ignore the salad. That belongs to my crazy wife.
 A Memphis-style barbecue restaurant! 
I think we're going to be all right.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Don't Rub Me the Wrong Way

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that I was concerned I had been too negative about our experience in Beijing. Most of that is just from us trying to adjust to all the differences between Chinese culture and American culture. Trust me, there are many. In that same post, I pointed out that many of these differences I am actually a very big fan of. In this post, I will address one of those differences I enjoy taking advantage of: THE CHINESE MASSAGE.

It is not difficult to get a massage in the States. There are plenty of places that offer this service if you want to seek them out. However, you do have to seek them out. Most places that offer massage offer it as one of the myriad of services they can provide. And finally, it is not cheap. The lowest-priced massages I know of in the States run about $50 and that is only for 20-30 minutes.

In China, if you want a massage, just pick a random street and close your eyes. Start walking and don't open them until you trip over the curb. When you open your eyes you will either be in front of a massage parlor or a noodle shop next to a massage parlor. You may not recognize the letters on the outside of the building because it is in Chinese, but you can trust me. In the very slim chance it's not a massage parlor, there is someone inside who will offer the service if you know how to ask.

The picture above is a joke, but you can seriously find 2 or 3 places for massage on just about any city block. Two blocks from my apartment, there are two massage places right next to each other with another right across the street. And every place has their own special way of doing it.

The Chinese are big believers in relieving yourself of stress and keeping your entire system in balance. And while most people would agree that relieving stress is a good thing, the Chinese will go that extra mile.

First, you need not worry about the exorbitant cost of getting a massage. While they will cost a minimum of $50 in the States for a short neck rub, here the standard price is RMB 50, which is approximately $7.50 in American money for a ONE HOUR treatment. ONE HOUR!!! Incredible.

What makes it even more amazing is the services that are offered. Here is a services list from an establishment near my apartment. Please forgive the English translation.

Some places don't offer all these services.
Because not every place has a young Russian lady on staff.

If you are wondering what the "Male sexual function obstacle" option is, I will try to put this delicately.

It's a hand job.

That's right. You can walk into an establishment on your way home from a stressful day at work and get your chicken choked for less than $10. Plus, it also comes with an hour long massage. Not a bad price. And you don't have to listen to her talk about her day.

You may be wondering how they can be so blatant about this, but the answer is quite simple. This is perfectly legal here. It is considered to be a legitimate technique to help achieve a more relaxed and balanced state. For many places, this isn't even an extra service. It is just part of the massage experience.

Now don't go planning a trip to China because of the legal prostitution. You can go to Nevada for that. Prostitution is not legal here. Sex for pay carries a heavy penalty in China. The massage 'happy ending' is looked upon as a medically beneficial service and is an acceptable practice to most people.

Now that you have the necessary information, let me tell you about my first experience getting a Chinese massage. This is not R-rated.

For the last few weeks, I have been having some pretty intense lower back and shoulder pain. I do believe that this is due to stress. Our work situation has caused a lot of grief. Red has been concerned with my lack of mobility and inability to sleep and has been wonderful about rubbing my back and finding those knots, but it wasn't helping.

A few days ago, we were returning from the grocery store and a woman approached us on the street to give us a flyer for the massage parlor near our house. Our Chinese is atrocious, but we got the impression it was advertising a sale and Red convinced me to go the following day. I really didn't want to spend the money, but she thought it might relieve my pain.

This is why I have the best wife in the world! I challenge you to deny this. She knowingly sent me into an establishment which openly offers orgasms to its customers because she thought it might make me feel better. She wasn't sending me for the hand job portion of the service, but sent me anyway.

Please know that I had no intention of getting any services performed below my belt line, but was still nervous about going because I know virtually no Chinese and really didn't know what to expect.
  • How do I order the massage that I want?
  • How can I let them know that I don't want my manhood handled?
  • Will I have to watch to see if she reaches for it and smack her hand away?
  • Am I expected to get naked and lie on a table?
  • Why am I getting even more stressed?
I stepped into the place and presented my flyer to the two very attractive Chinese women behind the counter. She looked at the flyer and gestured toward the establishment next door (I told you they were right next to each other). So, I apologized and went to the neighboring business and was met by another slim attractive woman who started to take my coat. I presented the sales flyer and she spoke the only English word she knew, "Sorry" and gave me back my coat.

I have no idea what the problem was, but I went back to the first place and pulled out a 50¥ note. One of the women took it and said "foot?" I said "back" and pointed to where the trouble was. She nodded as she took my money. She then yelled something into the back room and pulled back the curtain for me to enter.

I stepped into a large room with 12 beds along the walls, six on each side. There was a woman on one bed in the corner getting a massage and I immediately noticed that she still had her blouse on. Good. That means I don't have to get naked.

Soon, a small albino man came shuffling toward me from the back of the room carrying several towels. He gestured toward the nearest bed and I noticed that he was blind. I looked at the man giving the massage to the woman and realized he was blind as well. This was one of those blind massage places. The reason for blind massage is to alleviate any discomfort from someone seeing you naked despite the fact that they will have their hands all over you and they do not separate the male and female clients.

I got comfortable on the table and he quickly went to work. He never spoke to me a single time, but was good at communicating with his hands what he wanted me to do (sit up, roll over, lie down, etc.). He found the sore spots very quickly and dug in with his elbows. He rubbed my entire back, my shoulders, neck, back and top of my head and even did my arms. It was great.

When the hour was up, I walked home feeling great. Red wanted to hear all about it and I was ready to brag about how I turned down getting felt up despite it not even costing extra, but she didn't even ask about that part.

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.