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.

THE ENTIRE COUNTRY GOES ON VACATION!!!
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.

ROUGH TRANSLATION:
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.

Sunday, July 16, 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.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Did I Do Wrong?

I love Thursdays.

My teaching schedule is Monday through Thursday, so it is the last day of my work week. Plus, on Thursday nights, I go to an English salon. It is a place where a bunch of Chinese adults get together to hang out with native English speakers and practice their English.

At the very least,
a burger has to be made of ground meat.
I don't know why it's called a salon. The Chinese sometimes have funny names for things. For example, any piece of meat served on something that even slightly resembles bread, they will call a burger.

As near as I can tell, a salon is basically an informal teaching setting. The English salon that I attend is in the front room of a school, but it's set up like a living room. It's usually me and 5 or 6 Chinese locals who all want to talk to me. And this is great for me because I love to be the center of attention. Plus, I'm pretty awesome, so it works out for everyone.

We talk about the differences between China and America. We talk about food. We talk about travel and spend a lot of time talking about American politics. Everybody always wants to know what I think about Trump. The conversation flows freely. There are no suggested topics. It is just conversation that happens naturally. Once again, the purpose of this is just to give them an opportunity to practice their English outside of a classroom setting. I love going to this every week and I even get paid to be there. It's great.

Since I don't have to work the next day, when it is over I am not usually in a rush to get home. My wife, on the other hand, has an early day on Fridays. This is why she never attends these events and is generally in bed pretty early. Since she will be in bed when I get home anyway, I often find excuses to find something to do. Sometimes I wander the streets and call one of my friends back in the States. Some weeks, I will go try out a new restaurant or explore a new part of the city I've never seen. Last night, I just decided I would walk home instead of taking the subway.

It's only 9 subway stops. No big deal. Right?
It's over 7 miles, but I didn't know that yet.


The school is right next to the subway stop and the number 10 subway runs right under the Third Ring Road. I live next to that same road. All I had to do is follow the road and I would see some parts of the city I'd never seen above ground. I popped into a convenience store to grab a Pepsi and started be-bopping up the road. I enjoy exploring big cities and this night was no different.

About 20 minutes into my walk, I started to become very aware of the 96 degree temperature, but was determined to push on and I kept walking. I walked and walked and walked and walked while the sweat poured into my eyes. It was miserable, but I began to see this as a challenge to overcome and stayed my course. I maintained my quick pace and made it back to my apartment building in just over two and a half hours.

I was so happy to step into the elevator and begin the ride up to my shower. The ride seemed to take forever due to the Chinese belief that air conditioning is unhealthy and I no longer had the benefit of the night breeze. I was roasting in that metal box. I finally hit the eleventh floor and found my way to our apartment in the dark (the Chinese also seem to have some belief about light being bad for you). I turned the handle and pulled the door only to discover that it was locked.

Red doesn't lock the door on Thursdays before going to bed because the sound of me unlocking it always wakes her up, but it appeared this week she had changed her mind. I dug out my keys and tried to turn the lock slowly to keep the noise down, but the key turned too easily.

It wasn't locked.

I tried the door again and realized she had locked the bolt on the inside. The bolt cannot be unlocked from the outside. It is a hand bolt on the inside only.

Crap! Now, I'm going to have to wake her up.

I knocked on the door while also being careful not to disturb our neighbors. After all, it was after midnight. There was no answer. I knocked again louder, waited 30 seconds and then knocked even louder. Nothing.

I pulled out my phone to call her, hoping that she had not turned the sound off. As I started to dial, I thought, "Wait. Is she mad at me? Is that why she locked me out?" I started running through the day's events in my mind to think of what I might have done.
  • I ordered food to be delivered while she was in the shower without checking to see if she wanted anything.
  • When she apologized to our Chinese teacher for distracting the lesson by talking too much, the teacher said, "Oh. It's not a problem." I was too quick to say, "Just wait."
  • I had bragged all day due to all the retweets my joke about her squishy boob was getting on Twitter.
  • When our attractive female Ukrainian friend suggested Red use some of Red's essential oils on her, I asked if I could watch.
No, it couldn't be any of that. I do that kind of stuff all the time and I'm precious.

I called her phone. No answer. I sent her a text message. I left a voice message on WeChat (Chinese social media app). I called again. Nothing.

I knocked on the door much harder. I have to wake her up (or apologize). After several more attempts, I began to realize that I was not going to be spending the night in my bed.

I started looking around for a place to lie down and quickly ruled out lying on the filthy concrete floors in our hallway. I was going to have to go outside, find a bench and ride this out until morning.

I checked my phone. It was at 40%. I figured if I stayed off my phone, then when she does wake up and realize I'm not there, she will probably call or text to find out where I am. If, and only if, I haven't drained my battery, I would get the call letting me know that she was now awake. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I knew I was tired and hot and really needed to get back out to that breeze and find a place to ride out the night.

My sweaty hands made my finger slide off the elevator button when I pressed it and I began contemplating what a miserable night this was going to be. This was going to suck. As I waited for the elevator, I thought I'd use those last few seconds trying again. I knocked one more time and then immediately again hoping to further register the sound in her sleepy mind, but still got nothing.

Defeated, I lumbered back toward the elevator. As I waited, I heard a small click behind me. She was fumbling with the lock! I ran back to the door. "It's me. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that or eaten all the food or tweeted about your boobs. Please let me in."

The door slowly swung open and she's crouched down covering her naked body with her hands and peering into the dark hallway. As I stepped inside, I could see that she wasn't really awake yet. "Why are you crouching like that?"

She said, "I'm naked and didn't know who it was."

"And you opened the door anyway. I love you. Go back to bed. I need a shower."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cave Dwellers

When I was a kid, our family vacations often consisted of going camping at Rend Lake in Southern Illinois. Rend Lake is the lake that was a few miles from our house, but to make it feel like we were on a major journey, our parents would always take us to camp on the other side.


Now, we did have some fun times, but I would yearn for the times when we would go further than the next county over. And get to sleep in an actual bed. And didn't have to catch our food if we wanted to eat. And use a real shower.

I don't blame my parents. A trip to the lake was a low-cost vacation and we didn't have a lot of money. Plus, the main purpose for a vacation is to get away from the stress of work. My dad worked hard in a coal mine and just wanted to get away now and then. Planning a big trip often just causes more stress and my father was of the belief that encouraging man's careless eagerness to live indoors just exaggerated that stress.

Despite the desire to stay close to home and eat burnt potatoes dug out of a campfire, sometimes we had to venture further out because my mother's family lived on the other side of Missouri. On one of our trips to visit them, we made an unscheduled stop to visit Onondaga Cave. I don't know how our parents felt about it, but that cave blew my brothers and I away. It was awesome. From that day on, anytime we were in the St. Louis area, we would beg to go back and see the cave.

On one of these trips, as we saw the interstate sign advertising that the cave was 87 MILES AHEAD, we started our usual pleading and my mother pointed out that there other caves beside that one. Now, that may have been true, but we had not seen those other caves and as stupid children (you may have noticed this about your own children), we wanted to see the one we knew we loved.

Despite how adorable we were, my mother denied our request and forced us to go to Meramac Caverns instead. Once we stopped crying about how horrible our mother was being to us, we looked around and noticed that this cave was even better than Onondaga. It was amazing. From then on, we became cave people.
Wait. Not "cave people" like we quit school and started living naked in the caverns while eating the few bats we could knock off the ceiling and using their guano to protect our skin from the sun when we stepped outside, but "cave people" like people who really enjoy caves.
Every time we were on a road trip, we kept our eyes open for cave systems and since Missouri has over 6,000 chartered caves, there were plenty to find. Our vacations started to center around cavern systems instead of the local lake. One of our vacations even took us to Arkansas because of a large system of caverns we were eager to explore.

On one of these trips, Dad heard about a cave we could explore ourselves and we drove out in the middle of BFE to find it. We went down miles of dirt roads and eventually parked in a field and started walking. It was a long walk, but we eventually found the mouth of the cave and ventured in. I was in junior high and my brothers are 3 and 5 years younger than me. This means that we are significantly younger and more nimble than our parents and were able to move through the cave more quickly and easily.  As the ceiling of the cave got lower and lower, my brothers and I pulled further ahead.

Before long, it required crawling on our hands and knees to progress further. Our parents checked our lights and told us we could go a few yards up to see if it opened up on the other side. If it did, they would follow us through. We edged forward as the ceiling lowered and lowered and soon had to pull ourselves along on our bellies. We yelled back that we were fine every time we heard our parents voices calling for us and continued forward.

As the ceiling started scraping our backs when we moved forward, we decided to move over into the small stream that was flowing beside us. The water was freezing, but the erosion of flowing water gave a few more inches of space to work with. Unfortunately, the ceiling was still getting lower as we progressed. We eventually had to flip over onto our backs and just keep our faces above the water as we pulled ourselves through. Imagine lying on your back in about a foot of water unable raise your head out of the water because there is a slab of stone about two inches above the surface. This is what we were pulling ourselves through. Of course, now that our ears were underwater, we could no longer hear the cries of our parents screaming for us to answer them.



We slowly pushed forward with no regard as to how we would back out of this if the ceiling got so low we couldn't breathe or what our plan would be if the water started to rise. Remember my earlier statement about children being stupid? We inched along and began to notice that we had a little more space than before. We were soon able to flip back over to our stomachs and move much faster. And then, we found the opening. It opened up into a HUGE room. Stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns were everywhere. It was beautiful.

As much as we wanted to see everything, we could see that there were several paths out of that room and did not want to get lost, so we needed to head back to let our parents know that there was a room back here and they could come on through. We went back into the hole we just came out of.

Using the same method of lying on our backs to breathe, we inched our way back to our parents and surprisingly found them much sooner than we expected. When they were no longer able to hear us, they had done their best to follow us and prayed we didn't all get lost in there forever. They stopped in one of the little rooms we had found not knowing where we had gone after that. They didn't realize there was a path deeper in if you were willing to submerge yourself in water and pull yourself through on your back. Who was being stupid now?

I think that was the first time I ever got grounded on a subterranean level.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

Red and I have been in China for nine months now and we have one of those "first-time since arriving" milestones coming up. We are going back home to visit.

Now, we have not even been here a year yet, but since our jobs are in the education field we have chosen to take advantage of the summer school vacation to come back to the States to clean out our storage unit and tie up a few loose ends we weren't sure what to do about before we left.

We have a list of tasks we need to do, but there are several things I have been fantasizing about ever since we booked the plane tickets.

No, China, no!
Bad China!
Learn what a hamburger is.
The meals we each want. As much as we love the food of Beijing (and we do love it), the food here leaves much to be desired when they attempt to create a food from other places (for example, any place outside of China). It took us almost four months to find a decent pizza here, over six months to find a hamburger I could choke down, and we still haven't found anything that remotely resembles Mexican food. Eggs are always radically overcooked and I think they boil their bacon. I've had Mountain Dew exactly twice in nine months and I had to pay a fortune to have it shipped to me from Thailand. And lastly, I miss American-style Chinese food. I plan to visit the #6 China Buffet in my hometown. That may sound crazy, but you can't get any of that stuff here in China.

Walking down the street knowing what's happening. Right now, we can't read the street signs, we don't understand the conversations around us, we can't appropriately respond to store clerks or waiters questions, and we're basically guessing about everything all the time. We have gotten pretty good at shutting the world out to prevent mental exhaustion. Although, we do have some concern that when we get back into an English-speaking country, the sudden influx of understandable dialogue and readable street signs may be information overload.

Having people laugh at my jokes. As a person who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm, back-handed insults and witty banter, it is sheer torture to be surrounded by people who don't understand my sense of humor. It's not just a language thing. The Chinese find totally different things to be funny. Just yesterday, I was explaining to a Chinese girl that I prefer to watch movies at home and don't really enjoy the movie theater experience because they won't pause the movie for me to run to the fridge and I always get thrown out when I take my pants off. She paused for a moment, looked at me scornfully and said, "No. You can't take your pants off" and then proceeded to tell me how nice the Beijing theaters were. A few months ago, I asked my boss (I teach English) how many kids I could choke each week before I would get in trouble. She just said, "We don't do that here" and continued explaining my pay schedule. I NEED people to laugh at me.

Let's go back to food for a moment. I want a steak. A big, fat, juicy steak. I've been out for steak a couple of times here and (once again) I don't know what they do to meat here, but I was depressed for a week afterward. I have to get a good steak while I'm in the States.

Step outside without people staring at us. We live in a very international city, but in a strictly Chinese neighborhood. There are exactly ZERO non-Chinese people living in our neighborhood. It is not uncommon for children to point at us or for us to hear the words 老外 lǎowài (foreigner) or 美国人 iguórén (American) from people who don't realize that those are two of the seven words we actually know. We are such a novelty, people even approach us to have their picture taken with us. I know I'm ready to just blend into a crowd and not be noticed.

"That man is so tall. How does he not fall over?"


Have a conversation with someone that is not my wife. I love my wife. Very much. She is my favorite person in the world. However, sometimes…just sometimes, I want to talk to someone who is not her. I talk to a lot of people, but due to language and cultural issues the conversation is generally quite shallow. I'm looking forward to sitting in a group conversation involving complete understanding from all participants.

We really need to learn Chinese.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Am Who I Am

Since moving to Beijing, I have been continually amazed at how much of my previous knowledge about China and Chinese people is totally wrong.
  • Rice is not nearly as prevalent as I thought.
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's anthing? You will never find any of these foods.
  • Although it is a highly respected ancient skill, almost no one knows kung fu. Which means no kung fu battles on the streets.
  • Their children are not math geniuses.
  • There is an alarming lack of ninjas.
  • I have yet to come across a panda digging through a trash can.
These misconceptions work both ways. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the Chinese belief that all foreigners hate cilantro (click here to read it). Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, but I have had many encounters with people here who are surprised that I am not what they consider to be a "typical American".

My wife and I both enjoy spicy food. Now, I know that not all Americans can handle spicy dishes, but I know many people who love to test their intestinal endurance. Any time a dish is being prepared in front of us, when the cook gets to the spicy ingredient s/he pauses. "Oh, crap. This is for an American. They can't handle this stuff, but I can't just leave it out. That might be insulting and Americans like to shoot people." The cook then holds up the spoonful of red powder and gives us a look that clearly communicates, "Are you going to want this stuff." We always smile and nod 对 (duì, duì - yes;that's right) while we point to the dish. It becomes immediately obvious that they are surprised by that answer or concerned that we may not be sure what we just agreed to.

I don't care about sports. When a local here learns that I am from Illinois, they don't know what that means. But if I tell them it is where Chicago is, they want to talk about the Bulls. This is something I cannot do. All I know about the Bulls is that Michael Jordan played for them until he quit to make a movie with Bugs Bunny and sell underwear. Every kid wants to know what my favorite sport is and what teams I follow. Due to the language barrier, it takes great effort to get them to understand I don't care about any of it. They always seem genuinely confused. This happened in the States too, but at least I could explain that I think grown men chasing a ball is not quality entertainment.

I am not a big drinker of alcohol. I get the impression that Americans are viewed as being big partiers and I know there is a Chinese belief that Americans can hold their liquor better than the Chinese. Because of this belief, in social situations (even when work-related) they want to see this demonstrated. The liquor flows freely and there is always someone to keep refilling your glass or bring you a new drink whether you want it or not. I am not opposed to having a beer or two, but that's it. When I say I'm done, it always causes confusion and I am sure that I am breaking a few social rules. Although, on that one I am a typical American. I have no problem breaking social rules. Been practicing for years.