Monday, November 20, 2017

National Novel Writing Month

In my last post (click here), I mentioned that I would be tackling NaNoWriMo this year.

NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month that takes place every year in November. Writers from all over the world join together to crank out the story that's been rattling around in their heads in one single month. The measurable goal is to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.

Now, anyone who has ever met me or even been in the same room with me, knows that I have no shortage of words constantly flowing out of my head. Primarily through my mouth hole. I can eek out 50,000 words from my mouth over lunch. There are absolutely no topics that I am not willing to fake being an expert in so I can hear myself talk.

However, NaNoWriMo is considerably more challenging. 50,000 words is approximately 200 pages of written words. And there must be a theme that runs through all these words. Not like speech where you can just talk and talk and change topics from politics to restaurants to polar bear mating habits to the ugliest Sex in the City cast member.

When you are writing a book, it must have a coherent path for the reader to follow. It needs a beginning, middle and end. And that does not even get into the need to have likeable characters, a plausible story arc, a significant conflict, and a resolution. It's rather a large task to undertake, but it has some great advantages.

First, it gets the story written. I came up with my story about two years ago. I even made phone calls to some published author friends to pick their brains about how to get started on a story. I carried around a notebook and made notes about significant plot points as I thought of them and I really enjoyed developing the characters in my head as I was at work. I would get so excited when a new angle occurred to me. It was great. It was energizing.

What it was not was…actually getting written.

I had almost the entire story in my head and a little of it in some notes, but that was all I had done. About six months ago, I actually sat down and wrote out the first five chapters. I wrote them and re-wrote them over and over until they were just they way I wanted them, but it was a very slow process. When I felt that I was happy with them, I even sent them out to about a half dozen people to get their feedback. I got some great pointers on things I could change to improve it. However, once again, that is all that happened. I went back and made changes to those chapters.

The book still wasn't getting written.

I really want to be able to just write for a living. I keep picturing myself getting up in the morning and sitting at my computer for a few hours to work on my next novel and not having to punch a time clock somewhere.  But in order for that to even be in the realm of possibility, I have to actually produce a book now and then. Thinking about a book does not get it written.

Stephen King at his writing desk

So, when people on Twitter started talking about NaNoWriMo, I decided that having the specific goal of having to commit 1,667 words to paper per day might give me the motivation I needed to actually get this book out of my head and onto paper.

Starting November 1st, I dove in with a personal commitment that I had to produce this daily quota. And I did. Turns out I just needed a specific goal to shoot for instead of "Just sit down and write, stupid." As of today (November 20), I have written 40,137 words toward my goal of having 50,000 by the end of the month.

This means, I will actually have my book written before December gets here. YAY!!!

It won't be ready to go yet, because I will then have to start the tedious task of going through it and editing it. For the past three weeks, I've just been cranking out the words to get the story out, but I wouldn't want anyone to read it yet. I need to tidy it up and give it my specific voice, develop the characters further, drop in some witty dialogue, and make sure that it flows well. I have no idea how long that part of it will take, but I have learned that if I set some specific goals for myself, I can get it done without dragging it out unnecessarily.

Once I'm satisfied, I'll be looking for volunteers to read it and give me feedback on what they think needs to be fixed before I start sending it out to publishers.

I can't even begin to express how excited I am that my novel is finally coming to life and that I have that space in my brain back. It's been in there long enough.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It's Really All About the Words - #NaNoWriMo

Note: This post has 3 entries in the middle of text displaying word count. They were added after writing to show how many words were written at various time intervals. They are in the format of (x min - xxx words).  The purpose for these are included in the post.

This post is a test to see what I can actually do with concentrated, uninterrupted time just typing away and not worrying about editing or word-smithing.

You see, I have jumped into something that is starting to be very intimidating to me and I haven't even started it yet. I signed up for NaNoWriMo 2017. This is the National Novel Writing Month that is held all over the world via internet in November each year. The goal of the month is to sit down and crank out a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. 30 DAYS. For a whole freaking book.

I know this is a mammoth undertaking because I have been working on a novel for the last year and have only written the first five chapters. Yeah. Five chapters. That's an average of about one chapter every two months.

But...I know that I could be going at a much more acceptable rate if I just sat down and wrote the thing. Everything I've read about writing (yeah...I read about it a lot even if I'm not doing it), says that you just have to sit down and write it. Just get the words out. Worry about editing it later. So, I am practicing (5 min. - 205 words) just writing without having to worry about making sure the words are just the way I want them to be so I can see how many words I can actually produce in a given amount of time.

My time for this post is 30 minutes. Just 30 minutes. I want to see how many words hit the screen if I write without interruption and without sitting to think about just the right way to say something. Just get it up on the screen and I can perfect it later.

So, I have set three times for myself. One is at the 5-minute mark. I already hit that one. You can see the formatting for it above. One is at the 15-minute mark (that one is yet to come) and the last is at the 30-minute mark. For the moment, I am just pasting a symbol into that spot when the alarm goes off so I can go back and look at it later, calculate the word count and see what kind of progress I am making when it is all over. When I am finished, I will edit this post to include the numbers when they actually occurred.

So, here is why I am doing the challenge. I want to be a writer. I really, really, really do. My ultimate goal is to not have to go to work each morning, but sit down at my computer instead. My job would be to write.

I'm not even looking to get rich off of this. I just need to make enough money to be able to rely on my writing for my income. And, of course, I need enough money to be able to pay back my massive student loans also, but that is another story.

However, in order to be a writer, I have to write. Like actually write. Not just think about writing or read about writing or take notes for story ideas. I need to actually write. I have every confidence that I have some good stories in me. And I know that I write well enough that I could do this, but the difficult part is getting those words out of me. I have found that it is very easy to not write.

For one, I am a lifetime procrastinator. Always have been. Thus the word 'lifetime'. It takes a concentrated effort for me to get past it. If I want to get something done, I have to really focus because I am a master at putting things off.

Next, even if I do get started on a project, I move very slowly. Especially with writing. Suddenly, my mind is filled with all the things that need to be done and, for some reason, demand my immediate attention.

I need to fill the ice cube trays.
Did that shirt get ironed?
I still have all those emails I never went through?
I need to call Adam back.

The list is endless. Plus, even if I don't have other things that are demanding my attention, I constantly want to go over everything that I have written. I like my words to be (15 min - 674 words) perfect so they reflect exactly what I want to say. This means that after every paragraph (and sometimes after a sentence), I go back over what I just wrote to tweak it. I have written some of the sentences in my book over 20 times. Making little changes here and there. It never ends.

This is an issue that I have seen addressed in many of the blogs and books that I have read about writing. It's called "silencing your Inner Editor". When writing, it is not the time to edit. It is time to write. Editing can come later.

I know this is true, but I find it rather difficult to do. Which, once again, is what I am trying to do with this post. I am just writing it.

A book will never get written if the author does not write it. If it has not been written then there is nothing to edit. And, as I have learned, editing each chapter as it comes out just brings the entire process to a grinding halt. It moves so slowly. So, if I am going to even come close to finishing the NaNoWriMo challenge that I have entered, I will have to learn to just move forward. The editing can come after the month is over.

One of the excuses (and I know it is just an excuse, not a legitimate reason) I have used since getting to China is the size of our apartment. As I have mentioned in past posts, we live in a very small apartment. Very small. We can't even both fit in the kitchen at the same time.

Because of the close proximity, I feel like I can't get away from my wife.

I love my wife. I don't really want to "get away" from her, but with the close quarters, it is difficult to get into my own head and write. Our proximity to each other is distracting. At least, that is the excuse that I have used.

Lately, I have been trying some different tactics to try to get past this. For instance, I am taking advantage of the little times during the day when I have the house to myself. Sometimes it's just 20 minutes before she gets home. Sometimes, it's when she is in the shower. Occasionally, I will actually get a few hours. Not taking advantage of these moments before was time that I was wasting.

Next, I am experimenting with ways to write even when we are both in the apartment. I have always preferred to write in silence, but have begun to learn that putting in some earphones to listen to soft music is enough to take away most of the distraction of having someone else in the house. It is beginning to work.

My next distraction is the biggest time waster of all. I am an internet addict. I am well aware of this weakness, but it is easier to identify than it is to conquer it. I have to be sure to shut down the internet to my computer before I start writing. I don't need any Facebook or email notifications popping up to let me know that someone just had an amazing lunch at a new restaurant or their kitten did something cute. I know that if I do peek over to Facebook, I will lose the next three hours without even realizing it.

When I decide to write, I need to be able to do it and not be pulled away by these things that really aren't going to matter for anything anyway.

I know that I am reaching the end of the 30-minute goal I had set for myself and am really curious just how many words I have gotten typed. (30 min - 1299 words) I am amazed at how easily the words came.

Ok. Experiment over.

I came in at about 1,300 words for 30 minutes of uninterrupted time dedicated to just getting the words out onto the screen. Not bad.

To complete the NaNoWriMo and hit the 50,000-word target by the end of the month, I need to write an average of 1,667 words each day. That seemed pretty intimidating, but now knowing that I just did 1,300 words in 30 minutes, I have much more confidence that this is actually doable. I just have to discipline myself to sit down and do it.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Embrace Variety

In my last post, I wrote about the wonderful vacation my wife and I had in Qingdao. We love when we get the opportunity to get away and experience someplace new.

When we got back from our trip, we were recalling some of the places we've been since we got married. We've done a lot of traveling in the three years since we said "I do" and even moved to the other side of the world. In the middle of that conversation, I was on Facebook and noticed that a mutual friend had just returned from her trip to Disneyland.

I asked Red, "Wait. Didn't she just go to Disney last year?"

"Yeah. She goes there every year for her vacation."

Now, before everyone goes all Colin Kaepernick on me, let me say that I have nothing against Mickey Mouse other than him owning the Star Wars franchise. I have no problem with someone going to Disneyland for their vacation, so I don't want to hear the defensive arguments:
  • Disneyland helps connect with my inner child.
  • Anyone who thinks Disney is just for kids is a miserable person.
  • I take my kids to Disneyland because I love them.

 Honestly, I don't care where anyone goes on vacation. People have a variety of different interests and things they enjoy doing. What I am calling into question is someone going to the same place year after year.

Even if you're one of those freaks who gets off on dressing as a cute little animal and hanging out with other people who do the same, you can at least get some variety by going to those furry conventions in a different city each year.

The world is a BIG BIG BIG place and there is so much to eat see and experience, I can't wrap my mind around picking one place and being happy with not seeing anything else.

The woman who goes to Disney every year says that she does it because the family has learned they enjoy Disney and don't want to spend a bunch of hard-earned money and time off work on a vacation that might end up not being enjoyable. I guess that makes sense.

Sure, if you're a petulant 9-year-old child who discovered he likes frozen waffles and now refuses to eat anything else because it might be

It doesn't seem to bother her that despite having the means to provide her children with deep cultural experiences and expose them to various ways of life and types of people, she would rather have them stand in long lines every day and get their picture taken with a guy in a duck costume and come home having learned nothing other than Florida is hot and any food shaped like a mouse head costs three times as much as non-mouse head shaped food.

Which, once again, I don't have any problem with. But why would you never attempt to branch out from that?

Now, some people are worthy of a pass when they take the same vacation every year. For example:
  • The one time a year you can actually travel is spent going to visit your parents (or children) who live far away. That is understandable.
  • You foolishly bought a cabin or condo time-share somewhere and now you have to go there for every vacation or you're throwing even more money away and your wife already nags you enough about buying it.
  • You bought a GPS unit for your car years ago, but now can't justify paying the outrageous fee to keep it updated, so all the maps are outdated and you don't know how to go anywhere you haven't already been.
I do understand that not everyone cares about cultural experiences. Everyone's taste is different. Personally, I would never book a vacation that revolved around basking on the beach. I can't do it for more than an hour. I also have no desire to go hiking for more than an afternoon. If you are vacationing with me and suggest going shopping, I will meet up with you after you're done. However, many people do love those sort of things. Going to a tropical beach is a very popular tourist destination, but would you really want to see the same one every year?

When I was a kid, we went to the Current River to go tubing every year and I loved it, but it wasn't our only destination for the year. We went with friends on one of the three day weekends and enjoyed each others company and the time on the river. So, please don't think I'm against going anyplace more than once. But if your main opportunity to get away is always the same, it kind of defeats the purpose of getting away. It's just more of the same.

If your family doesn't have the money for big vacations or even travel, whatever you do can have variety. My father was a big fan of going camping. I hated it, but we went on many camping trips. In the first 10 years of my life, I camped in every state and national park in Southern Illinois. It sucked was still camping, but at least we had different trees to fall out of each time we went.

I make this argument mainly for people who have children. Parents should take every opportunity they can to help their children be well-rounded individuals. Show them the world. Show them people, cultures, food, scenery, and ways of life that are different from what they are accustomed. Let them experience more of the world than what their hometown or single vacation spot has to offer. It will make them not only better people but give them a broader outlook on life, the world, and humanity.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Happy Golden Week

October 1 is the China National holiday and the Mid-Autumn Festival happens during the first week in October. These two holidays combined create what the Chinese call Golden Week. There are a variety of ways the Golden Week is celebrated across this huge nation, but they all have one thing in common.

That is not a joke. It really happens. It's like someone pulled the Godzilla fire alarm for China and everyone is scrambling to get out. It's crazy. Roads are clogged, airlines and trains are packed and there are no hotels with vacancies in any bordering countries.

We actually moved here a year ago just as Golden Week was starting. However, (at that time) we had no idea it even existed. We just thought Beijing was a huge ghost town. Public transportation wasn't running, shops were closed and we couldn't get basic services turned on in our new apartment. No one was around to do anything.

But this year, we were ready for it and happily joined in the chaotic migration. We just returned from Qingdao. Qingdao sits on the coast of the Yellow Sea about 425 miles southeast of Beijing. We enjoyed sitting on the beach, seeing the sites, eating tons of seafood and relaxing in a small city for a while.

Now, when I say 'small', I mean small by Chinese standards. Qingdao is often referred to by Chinese people as a small city. Small. Remember that word.

That's right, 9 MILLION people.
Small, right?

Now, let's compare that to the American definition of the word 'small'.

Here is the population of Chicago, the largest city in the state I am from in America.

 That's over THREE TIMES the size of Chicago.
Even New York (America's biggest city) only has 8.5 million.

So, we vacationed in this 'small' city and had a blast. We were near the home of famed Chinese philosopher Confucius. We were at the site of the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the shadow of the most revered mountain of Taoism Mount Tai. However, being the shallow Americans we are with virtually no sense of history, we gravitated toward our interests.

TSINGTAO Beer Museum

The Wall of Beer
The Birthplace of Beer Culture
That is a bold statement

Tsingtao beer is basically the equivalent to what Budweiser is in America. It is huge here and is sold in over 100 countries around the world. Apparently, this region was under German control for 16 years at the beginning of the 20th Century before being run out by the Japanese during World War I. Once the Germans were gone, the Chinese kept the only part of the German culture they liked: the beer. We might have been in the old stomping grounds of Confucius, but it was Confucius who said "Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!"

Who can argue with 2,500 year old Chinese wisdom?

When we weren't downing all the local adult beverages, we were eating mountains of seafood since we were on the coast and walking along the beach. Once again, because we were on the coast.

On our way back from Qingdao the traffic started getting a bit thick so we had to grab another hotel to keep from driving all night. We got the only hotel out in the middle of nowhere in a tiny little town called Huanghua (pop. 419,700).

The lobby of Shengtai International Hotel

Our modest room

That same room from the other side.
Notice the window to the bathtub.

I made these friends when they saw me
sitting alone in the bar.

The view from our hotel room

Front entrance to the hotel

Now, this may look extravagant, but it is not my normal style of travel. Things in China are significantly cheaper than in the States. A night at this hotel cost us about $85 USD and it cost that much because the hotel is built right on top of natural hot springs, so there is a hot spring spa on the ground floor! The closest I ever got to something like this in the States was using the hairdryer in the bathroom with the door closed.

Today, I am back in my cramped Beijing apartment choking on smog I have to chew before inhaling and wondering if I will ever be happy again.

I'm already looking forward to Chinese New Year. That holiday lasts for the entire month of February.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

One Year Down...Don't Know How Many To Go

According to my "On This Day" section of Facebook, Red and I landed in China one year ago today.

September 27, 2016

The first few months were really rough, but we survived. And now that we've been here a year, I can mark Item #166 off my Bucket List. Live overseas for one year.

Click here to see the full list.

The year has flown by at an incredible pace. It seems like we just left the States.

There is still much that we are getting used to and miscommunications still happen daily, but we have gotten pretty comfortable with our lives here. We know how to do the things we need and want to do. Difficulties come less and less often and when they do occur, we can usually figure out what we need to do. Plus, we now have a bigger network of friends we can call for help if the need arises.

Many people have asked us when we will be coming back and we have a pretty simple answer for that.

We have no idea.

Here's what we do know. When we got here a year ago, we signed a three year lease on our apartment. That means...

Let's see...3 minus 1
...we have two years left on our lease. My wife just signed a two year contract with her employer and I'll be signing a new contract at the end of this year. So, we are committed to two more years. After that, who knows? We may decide to stay longer or we may not. However, we are fairly certain that even if we do leave China, we will not be coming back to the States. It will be time to try out another country for a while. We have a few we've been checking out, but haven't gotten very serious about it yet since it's still at least two years off.

In the meantime, we're just enjoying where we are now.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Alcohol-Infused Education

In a few more days, I will have been in China for an entire year. A year. An entire freaking year! Wow. Time really flies. Now, you would think that in that year I would have gotten used to China and all the ways it is different from America, but you'd be wrong.

Kind of like that uncle who always bites down on his fork and then drags it through his teeth as he removes it and you can feel the metal screeching against his enamel and it's piercing every square inch of your spine. You've had the same reaction ever since the first time you noticed it at Thanksgiving dinner when you were six and now it is almost 40 years later and it is just as irritating as the first time it happened except now all the little diodes in your brain are extra sensitive from overuse caused by the Trump administration and the upcoming second season of Stranger Things, so his grating feels like those inflamed diodes are being scraped by one of those metal tooth hook tools used by the same dentist who tells you to keep metal away from your teeth. Just can't get used to it.

Last week, I was teaching in one of my 4th grade classes and I mentioned that I was going to Qingdao for the upcoming mid-Autumn Festival. Several of the kids got excited and one jumped up and shouted, "Teacher, do you drink beer?"

I thought this was an odd question to come from a nine-year-old. Especially when directed to a teacher. I paused for a moment and said, "Sometimes." A murmur started through the entire class as they smiled and nodded. The child who was still standing proudly said, "You can drink beer in Qingdao."

Once again, that's an odd statement. You can drink beer pretty much anywhere. There are bars and liquor stores in Beijing just like there are in the States. He spoke up again, "Qingdao has some very famous beer."

Okay. That makes a little more sense. This is a city that is actually known for its beer. I get it, but why do kids this young care about this? I changed the subject because it just felt wrong to discuss my alcohol habits with my students. Particularly at this age.

I told the kids to open their books, but a student in the back interjected, "Qingdao beer is very good. I love it." I cheerily called him out, "You don't drink beer."

Oh...okay (wink).

He shot me a look that clearly said, "What are you talking about?" I was playing with the kid, but I suddenly realized that I don't think I know what's going on here. Hands started going up around the room.

"I drink beer."
"I like beer."
"We have it every night at dinner"

Now, I am not appalled at the idea that a child has tasted beer. Here is a picture of me at 14 months old. I really didn't seem to mind.

I moved on from PABST before my teenage years.

Almost every kid I grew up with had a taste of their parents' drink at some point, but this was different. I could tell they weren't bragging that they had gotten to drink an adult beverage. They seemed genuinely confused that I would even question this.

When I got home, I looked up the drinking age in China and discovered that it is 18 as it is in most of the world. However, it only seems to apply to the purchase of alcohol, not consumption. And even the purchasing restriction is not a law, but a regulation. A regulation that isn't really enforced.

In the first month I was here, I was out with a friend who had his preschooler with him. When our drinks arrived, the boy reached for his dad's glass of wine. His dad held it so he could try it in order to help the child discover that he didn't like it and wouldn't want it any more. As he was doing this, my eyes were anxiously darting around the restaurant to make sure no one was seeing this. You don't do this in the States!

My friend saw me getting nervous and laughed it off. "No one cares here," he said.

I've learned that he was correct. Drinking is looked at differently in various parts of the world.

I'm not suggesting that the kids here are alcoholics.

Or even that they spend all their spare time chugging beer with their friends. They don't.

But there is a distinct difference in attitude. For example, here's a picture of my wife's pencil case that I have seen many students have.

I just want to get drunk.

This is a common phrase here that is used in the same way a white girl in America might say "I can't even".

It's these differences in thinking that are the most difficult to adjust to. The Chinese attitude toward almost everything is typically very different than the attitude in the West. This applies to marriage, money, time, manners, medicine, diet, hygiene, work expectations, friendship and basically anything you can think of.

I love my life here, but don't know that I'll ever reach the point that I don't feel like a foreigner.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Chinese Lessons - 中文课

Summer is almost over and I start teaching again on Monday. All my free time is about to evaporate. It will be nice to have something outside the apartment to do again. However, it really takes away from the task I have poured myself into all summer.

Red and I have been taking Chinese language lessons.

After living in China for almost a year and being essentially clueless about everything the entire time, we've decided to finally tackle the language.

I've made and memorized hundreds of flashcards.

I have notebooks filled with pages
of practiced Chinese characters

As I mentioned in a previous post about learning Chinese (click here), there are literally thousands of characters to learn. And so many of them seem to make the same sound when pronounced. The difference is very subtle. And for the many that actually do make the exact same sound, you just have to pull the correct meaning from context. From context. In a language I am already clueless about. This seems more and more like an insurmountable task, but I'm tackling it anyway.

Despite its difficulty, learning Chinese definitely has it moments. For example, last week I learned the character 太. This is a very simple character that pops up quite often. It is an adverb that basically means 'too'. If something is too much or too loud, you would use the character 太.

However, almost every character can be paired with another character to create an entirely different word. For example, the character 天 (day or sky) when paired with the character 气 (air) produces 天气 (weather). It makes sense.

Here are a few others:

女(female) + 人(person) = 女人(woman)
买(to buy) + 电(electricity) = 买电 (power bill)
长(long) + 大(big) = 长大 (grow up)

Pairing two characters together to make another word prevents having to create a separate character just for that one word. Since there are already thousands (have I mentioned there are thousands?) of characters to learn, I am less suicidal very grateful for that. Especially when you see some of the entertaining pairings. Earlier, I explained that 太 means 'too; overly; excessive', but what happens when you pair it with itself.  e.g. "overly excessive.

太 (too) + 太 (too) = 太太 (wife)

There is no explanation needed here.
The joke writes itself.
The married guys get it.

Since I can now recognize some (0.0000417%) of the characters, all the signs and ads around the city have words that jump out at me. This means that they are starting to make a little more sense.

This is one of the stops on a subway near my house.

Before taking Chinese lessons, I only saw this as Dawanglu, but I have since learned that 路 (Lu) is a word for street or road. So, it's Dawang Street. I've also learned that 大 (da) means 'big'. That means that this subway stop is for Big Wang Street and who isn't curious about a big wang? And whose wang was SOOOOO big they named a street after it?

Because I can only recognize some of the characters on a sign, I have to try to infer the meaning through context. For example, here is a sign that is outside a construction area near our apartment.

Now, I can't tell you exactly what it says, but knowing enough of the words paired with the context of the surroundings means I can deduce the general meaning.

In the middle of the day,
a person who is 21 must go out to get beer.

It is good to know that the construction company takes care of its workers, but does it in a legal way.

For weeks, I've seen this (↓↓↓) advertisement on the wall in the subway station and never had any idea what the product was for.

After this week's lesson, I now recognize the last two characters on the ad. I'm not positive about exactly what each word is, but I feel that I finally understand its purpose.

人 (person)
生(to be born)

This ad seems to be urging people to consider traveling to the mountains to have their babies on this beautiful waterfront. It's an excellent marketing campaign.

Until I can read and speak every word that I see, I must keep my nose in the books and practice with every Chinese person I meet. And there is no shortage of Chinese people in Beijing.

Here's how most lessons seem to go.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to Basics

We moved to Beijing on September 27, 2016 and earlier this month we went back to the States for the first time since moving here. Despite the Trump presidency and everything we've been told in the media, the country was still there and we got some much needed work done.

It was great to get to see family again, but this trip was intentionally planned to serve two main purposes. We needed to empty out our storage unit and sell Red's car.

We had a 5x5 foot storage unit in Indianapolis full of all sorts of stuff we couldn't decide what to do with when we first came to China. When we moved here a year ago, we literally brought three suitcases with us. That's it. Our entire lives were condensed down to what could fit into three suitcases. That is all we brought to Beijing.

To get it down to so little, we got rid of tons of stuff.
  • Threw crap into the dumpster
  • Took truckloads of furniture and clothes to Goodwill
  • Donated to food pantries and shelters
  • Contacted people in neighboring apartments to come see what they wanted
  • Cried out to people on Facebook to take things off our hands
  • Posted sales flyers in the laundry room to unload furniture
  • Gave dozens of bottles of liquor to wandering vagrants

However, there were items that we just couldn't part with despite knowing that we couldn't bring them with us. And items that we didn't want to pitch if we were going to be coming back in a year. That was part of our dilemma.

We were going to China almost completely blind. We knew frighteningly little about what we were getting into. We had encountered endless difficulties getting straight answers to the questions we asked and had encountered a quagmire of legal chaos in obtaining the gargantuan amount of paperwork required to work in China. We had no idea if this venture was going to pan out and how long we would be staying which made it difficult to decide what to do with our stuff.

See, if we were going to be back in a year, it would have sucked to come back to nothing and have to start watching for abandoned furniture on the side of the road again. However, we couldn't take on the expense of shipping it all to China if everything is just going to fall apart and we were going to have to ship it right back again in a year. Since we didn't know how long it would take to track down a Chinese fortune teller once we got here, we decided to get a storage unit and come back in one year to empty it. At that point, we should know what we are doing and will be able to make better decisions about our belongings.

Something happened on this trip that I hadn't expected. We ended up just pitching about 75% of the stuff that we originally thought we couldn't live without. After going without that stuff for an entire year and never really giving it a second thought, we realized that most of it was just stuff. We really didn't need it. We tossed it in dumpsters, gave more stuff away, and made many more generous donations to Goodwill. We ran up to Red's sister's house to leave a few things with her (family cedar chest, dresser drawers, and a few other things), but once again got our "needed" belongings down to a few suitcases. However, this time we don't feel like we left anything behind. We have everything that we need.

Plus, everything is so cheap in China, we can just buy stuff here if we need it. That's how I got my panda.

After we got our stuff taken care of, we found a buyer for Red's car. So now, we don't have a car sitting in the States that we are still making car payments on.

No car payment + no car insurance + no storage unit fee = about $400/month

Now I can buy more pandas.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Forbidden City, Great Wall, Monster Trucks, Etc.

It has been a crazy week. In the last few days, I have celebrated my wife's birthday, attended Monster Jam in Beijing, visited the Forbidden City, and walked on the Great Wall of China. I'm exhausted. And tomorrow, we're hopping on a plane to fly back to the States for the first time since we moved to China.

MONSTER TRUCKS! - A whole lot of this.
A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from my high school best friend's high school girlfriend's little sister. She informed me that her soon-to-be sister-in-law worked for the monster truck show Monster Jam and they were coming to Beijing. Would I be willing to show them around?

Now, I don't know this girl, so...I jumped at the chance.

You may not know this, but when you move 12 time zones away from everyone you know, you tend to not get many visitors. Whether you actually know the person or not has no bearing on the excitement level.

I quickly friended this woman on Facebook and started informing her of some of the things she may need to know for traveling to China. When she texted me to inform me they had landed, I made it to their hotel before they did.
As soon as they got checked in, I took them to the Nanluoguxiang Hutong to get them an authentic Chinese experience right off the bat. Over the next few days, as soon as they would finish working, I took them to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, out for a Peking Duck meal, and the Beijing Harley-Davidson shop.

I walked up 58 flights of stairs for this shot.
I hope you appreciate it.

I finally caught my breath enough to lift the camera again.

The petals are Peking Duck.

The (not so) Forbidden (anymore) City

Just like every other Harley shop in the world.
Except the t-shirts say BEIJING.
Other than the meal, this was all stuff that I had never done. Despite living in Beijing for the last 10 months, I spend most of my time setting panda traps to keep them out of my garbage. So, I was excited to get to knock something else off my bucket list. Walking on the Great Wall was #127. Now it's time to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

After such an eventful week, they gave me tickets to attend the monster truck show and then I had to sleep for two days. After all the running around, I went for a massage and decided to try another new thing. I asked for the cup treatment where they heat up glass cups and attach them to your skin to suck the toxins out of your muscles.

6 hours later, I look like this.
It's been a good week.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Chinese Language is All Greek to Me

The title of this post isn't really accurate because I took biblical Koine Greek in college. Saying something is "Greek to me" is supposed to mean that it makes no sense, but the fact that I actually know Greek takes away the punch of the statement. However, if I were to say "it's all Tagalog to me," the purpose of the idiom would be lost and some people may even have to pause to look up what Tagalog is which would sever the continuity of the thought and I would have to stop to explain everything. Which it looks like I may have to do anyway.

Maybe I should just say learning Chinese is like walking into your bedroom because you thought you heard a pygmy goat being strangled by a Mormon divorce attorney, but when you open the door the floor is covered in slimy eels wearing clown makeup and a naked Roseanne Barr is sitting on a beanbag in the corner asking if you brought any cheese. It just makes no sense. Especially since I don't own a beanbag.

Oh, and Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines.

I only say all this because after living in Beijing for 10 months, Red and I have finally started taking language lessons and it has been…um, challenging.

Chinese doesn't really have an alphabet. At least, not as we understand an alphabet. It is thousands of separate characters. And by thousands, I mean thousands. This is not an exaggeration.

We don't really have to know the characters in order to speak and understand the language, but that doesn't help when trying to read a menu, street signs, bus schedules, or apartment notices. This note is in our lobby right now.

Are they doing maintenance? Fumigating?
Evacuating the building?
I kind of need to know!

So, we are learning it all. We need to understand the language when we hear it. We want to speak it, read it and even be able to write it when the need arises. This means we have decades of memorizing seemingly obscure chicken scratch patterns ahead of us. As well as learning what they all mean and how to pronounce them while stringing them together into comprehensible sentences.

However, before we even get around to learning those characters, first we need to learn pinyin. Pinyin is the method for learning how to say the different characters.

Each of the thousands of characters is pronounced with a combination of the initial sound (pictured above to the left) and the final sound (pictured above to the right). And, as if that isn't already difficult, it is not enough to be able to recognize those apparent English-looking letters because the pronunciation is rarely what it appears to be.

The sounds of the letters have to be relearned to make the Chinese sound. And since I already have a background in not only English, but Greek, Hebrew and Spanish as well, it is often maddening to try to remember and produce the correct pronunciation since each of these languages use letters however they want without regard for what the rest of the world is doing with them. And let's not forget that Chinese has plenty of sounds that don't even exist in any of these other languages meaning I have to do 90 minutes of tongue yoga before every lesson to get it limbered up.

Then, once I feel like I might have a decent handle on pronunciation of a word, I am told that I used the wrong tone. A single sound can have up to five different tones and each tone gives the word an entirely different meaning.

For example, the above chart shows four of the five ways that the word 'ma' can be pronounced. These tones are important. Otherwise, you could end up calling your mother a horse or you might really confuse your weed dealer.

It also shows the two different ways that each word is written in Chinese. Yeah, that's right. When you learn Chinese characters, you have to decide which of their TWO alphabets you want to learn. Isn't this fun?

Using the word 'ma' from the chart above, I can just use that word several times, but with different tones to produce an entire sentence. Ma ma ma ma. That means "My mother scolded me for feeding her hemp to a horse." And if I tack the fifth use of the word 'ma' (neutral tone) to the end of the sentence, it becomes a question.

Simple enough, right?

For now, my goal is to be able to read my Frog and Toad books in their original Chinese by Christmas.