Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2nd Day of Bejing

Beijing: Day 2

I wake up on day two of my trip to the northern capital... which is what Beijing means coincidently enough. Bei...north - Jing.... capital. I get my bag packed for a day about town - hopefully finding my friends with the DPRK team at some point - while trying not to wake up my roommate (one of the families close friends). Fortunately he sleeps like a rock... cause I wasn’t entirely successful at being quiet.

I have breakfast ~ which was incredible considering it was the first time I have had cereal in a long time. Kind of sad I know.. but it was cereal c’mon. ANNND there were dried fruits and stuff that I put in it. All things considered - I was quite satisfied with my breakfast of cereal, assorted pastries and other chinese breakfast items (which are basically the same thing as lunch foods... but served earlier.)

After that ~ I asked an attendant about the best way to get to Beijing’s extensive subway system. Taxi he says... and he even strolled down to the road and flagged one down for me.

For a country that does not permit tipping in the service industry... I am surprised at the lengths some workers will go to for a guest. I wonder how hard their slave drivers must beat them... Should take notes I think.

Ethical qualms aside ~ I hop in the cap and we wade through the thick traffic that is perpetually clogging Beijing’s arteries... I mean roadways.

But we get to the subway system soon enough and after paying, I make my way into the subterranean realm where I have never before seen so many Chinese people in a rush. Naturally I felt kind of bad being the white guy holding up the line as I tried to figure out the ticketing machine. Ah well - suck it up Beijingers.

Fare paid, several yuan change and a credit card type ticket dropped into the slot below. I oggled the card in fine Chinese fashion... somewhat believing that the stranger a manner that I looked at it, the more it would reveal its secrets. After I got over my gawking, I was delightfully surprised to find out that the subway only cost ¥2 - the same as a bus in Zhengzhou. Surprised because the general cost of things in Beijing was up from that of Zhengzhou, but I suppose the gov’t had initiative to get people and cars off of the streets themselves.

Deciphering which direction I needed to go using the Beijing map my hotel had provided (with a handy little subway map on the back) I waited for the train. Having lived in Zhengzhou for 5 months, I was well aware that lines were distinctly not to be obeyed... and so I situated myself in a close proximity to the yellow arrows designating where the subway doors would open and scurried in quickly when the subway arrived.

Sweaty people were in abundance. Humidity and heat are an unfortunate combination that do not go well together, but far too often do come together. The actual temperature was not all that high, but it definitely was amplified by the humidity.

Weather aside I fortunately saw a stop for Tiananmen east. I got off at the stop and walked up the towering stairway from the subway, surfacing right next to arguably the most iconic sight in Beijing. Chairman Mao’s huge forehead posted in a frame directly above one the outer gate that leads to the forbidden city. Behind me, across the 8 lane “road” that constitutes Beijing’s roadway was the actual square where certain events didnt happen...

Well... I took some mildly irreverent pictures of the stone lions eating Chair Mao’s visage and then continued through the outer gate toward who knows what. I knew that the forbidden city was in the area... but what I didn’t understand is how truly colossal it is. I strolled past rows tons of kitschy tourist stuff, and weaved my way through swarms of tourists... most of which were actually Russian and looked like poorly dressed highschool students... but with beer bellies and visible age of thirty to forty something. Then I heard the language and it magically all made sense.

I paid my entrance fee and crossed the massive threshold among the throng of tour groups - whose leaders were all holding what looked like boy scout camp flags, and wearing the ever wonderful hip microphone apparatus that I had experienced a month earlier.

Skirting around them with my excellent Chinese line-dodging skills, I headed into uncharted territory... oh wait... just kidding. Everyone and their uncle had been to the forbidden city. If you’ve gone to Beijing... you’d be a bad tourist if you didn’t check it out.

The pictures do not do it justice. The entry gate is incredible - regardless of the amount of tourists present. I traveled through, taking pictures of all the informational placards that I saw, looked at thrones... and more thrones... and more placards... and more tourists... and LOOK! its another bronze dragon.... and another throne. and a huge bowl that has been touched by near a million people each year and therefore glows like the sun in certain spots!

Look - I wont explain the entire forbidden city or any of the sights I saw in Bejing, because everyone sees them. If you want to know about them - we can have a cup of coffee and I’ll lay the details on you, but the real Beijing - the real China... did not come until after I left the forbidden city. I made my way across the street where I saw another classic Chinese gate and bought the ticket for entry into a park. Then... I heard it before I saw it.

A coordinated flock of roughly 30 Old Chinese people all playing the Harmonica to such songs as Oh My Darlin’, assorted Christmas carols and other cherished American classics. Was that weird to me? No. Its China.

Old people love to do things together here. They will find each other and find something to do together. In Zhengzhou it is usually a terrible marching band that sets off all of the parked cars and E-bike alarms. Not only is their music cacophonous, but the shriek of the vehicles just makes for quite a splendid scene.

I continued into the park and set on my way up a very steep set of stairs, bolting up like Rocky and dusting plenty of out of shape tourists with my supreme China walking skills. In their defense... the stairs were quite steep.

However - at the top of yonder steep hill was a Buddhist temple that is visible all the way from the inner gates of the Forbidden City - making it look like the forbidden city continues on forever.

I made my way down from the temple area and found another group of performers - doing Chinese opera type music... but with harmonicas... and one lady singing. Normally I find Chinese opera distasteful, but this lady could really put life to it. It was incredible, so I took a bit of a rest on the retaining wall along with about ten other older Chinese folk who were also appreciating the spontaneous performers.

Eventually I decided it was time to move on, and I found my way to the other side of the park to another park/ place of historical influence after passing through the essential Chinese alley market. After seeing all of those tourists, it was a very welcome sight to have “Real China” back.

The signs said “Winter Palace this way” ... and considering my general dislike of summer... I was allured. I never actually found a winter palace, but I found another nice park with yet another performing group. Seeing their banner, I believe they were called the “Red Sun Chorus” or something. Regardless, they were quite significantly younger, and definitely more imperious in sound. Instead of being old folk with harmonicas, this congregation of performers had trumpets and some serious lung power.

Finally I got bored with all of the tranquility and loneliness as I waited for my friends from the DPRK team to call me.

I stopped for some La mian - long noodles that inspired the Japanese “ramen” way back when to my understanding - and decided that Zhengzhou people made them better...

I made my way back down towards Tiananmen, using the Beijing bus system... another thing that tickled me as being something your average tourist would not do. This bus was actually cheaper than Zhengzhou’s BRT buses at ¥1. They were however, much less impressive than the BRT which moved psychotically fast and with complete disregard for other traffic because of its self-awareness of size. Whatever... the bus saved my aching feet from shoes with absolutely no cushioning qualities.

Finally reaching my destination at Tiananmen, I took some pictures of some statues that looked eerily similar to the Iwojima Marine Corps Flag-Raising statue.

I got bored with that and decided to look at my map after checking my phone and realizing that the day was moving along and I was still without contact from the DPRK team. It was now about 1 o’clock. I checked my map and realized how close the ever-famous “Temple of Heaven” was, so I found my way to the subway again and got out to the temple complex. Upon entry I decided that this was my favorite place in Beijing. It is a huge planned forest walled inside the city limits. For ¥10 anyone could come in and enjoy the fresh air that perfectly rowed cypress trees provided. There were old people doing calligraphy on the walkways with 3 foot long sponge brushes and water, more performing groups, some with more traditional instruments, and even normal Beijing people playing Badminton.

This was by far - the most lived in tourist attraction I had seen. The forbidden city was old and impressive, but devoid of everything that had life to it. It was all just a poster attraction to me. Nothing was “real”

But this... this was different (until you get to the actual Temple of Heaven... and circular mound... which are devoid of life again). I saw the additional attractions and decided that I needn’t do it twice. However, the park would worth seeing again.

After I had seen my fill, and my feet were about to fall off - I found my way back to my hotel using the subway, and a sort of motor rickshaw operated by a rather brave old man who was either illiterate or had bad eyesight, because he had a random schoolboy read my hotel’s address, which was in characters that were unfamiliar to me. Whatever - for ¥10 he got be back again, and I appreciated it.

Somewhat hungry... but deciding that it was too late for me to go adventuring for food that I didn’t really care about... only to eat alone, I opted to drink tea, take a bath and go to sleep early.

Beijing Day 3:

The next day I went down for another incredible bowl of cereal with my other breakfast foods, reminded myself of why I absolutely love hotels and then went back to my room to do some reading.

And then something peculiar happened.

My phone Rang.

I answered and heard a white voice... also surprising.

And then it registered that this voice was too pleasant and enticing to be just any white person, this was Rose Collins - the coordinator of the DPRK team, and easily one of my favourite people ever.

It turns out that none of the DPRK team had checked their work email (the only ones I had...) and had only just this day been able to get away from debriefings etc. They were however quite keen on meeting up with me in the few hours before they had to depart for Canada again. We set a meeting place: the Silk market. We set a time: soon. And I quickly got checked out of my hotel, signed away the bill and got back to the subway carrying my messenger back and rolling suitcase (a common Chinese sight... though not usually done by white tourists - fortunately I don’t entirely qualify.)

The Moment I Had Been Waiting For:

I came up out of the subway system right under the silk market, and after some back tracking and bobbing and weaving - I found her: my wonderful friend Rose. We went inside and, after some fashionable waiting, Dave arrived.

The best way to use our time we decided was to find some sort of cafe and park it for a moment so we could chat it up.

It turns out that one of their favourites was just around the corner, and so we hastened thusly. They suggested that we relax outside under so I greeted the shop workers and as asked them to hold one of the tables for us in Chinese ~ which they did with very big smiles. From behind I hear Dave proclaim, “I hate you... You just wanted to show off didn’t you! Well... Im glad that your straightforward about it.”

This coming from my professor of Language and culture acquisition... I was pretty proud of myself HAH!

We settled in with some delicious iced drinks, and after answering several questions from the worker who had watched our table for us, we got to our own conversations after Dave and Rose made known that they were proud of my language progress - which made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

For far too short a time, we spoke about the things that had happened to each of us over the subsequent six months since we had seen each other last. We then moved into the silk market and proceeded to take it by storm. Despite a lack of Mandarin skill - both Dave and Rose proved to be incredible hagglers - securing vast loot and swag at an almost negligible price, especially considering the trade off for how much the product would cost in North American shops.

Dave... a full Kilogram 100% silk comforter bargained down from ¥900 to ¥150... or $22... ridiculous.

Rose... a large stack of all-silk robe-like get-ups for ¥65 yuan each I believe... slightly under $10... also ridiculous. You cant even buy a cotton T-shirt these days for that. Let alone full on silk.

We found Dave again, getting his feet massaged at one of the various massage parlours in the Silk Market.

There... Rose had to take off to get packed, but Dave had already done so - and continued his massage while we talked.

It turns out that his masseuse was a girl from Zhengzhou - MY TOWN! So we chatted a little bit before I moved the conversation jealously back to Dave. I proceeded to talk as fast as a professional debate team member.

So much to ask, so much to talk about... and no where near enough time.

However, I was grateful for the time that was available to me, and it was well worth taking off the extra day of work.

His massage came to an end, and we hopped into a cab and I escorted him back to the hotel ~ where I met another professor of mine who was actually my technical course advisor. I say technical, because more often than not, I would use Dave as a sounding board for my course decisions in University. They worked in the same office, and it never really turned out to be a big deal... but it was certainly an interesting situation.

We got them out the door, bags packed to exploding, and down into the lobby.

There I had to say goodbye... until next time.

I find that the more I say good bye in an international context... the less emotional it gets. The farther I get in the world, the more I realize that “far” is a figment of your imagination. I have grown to be content that I can see people again, and that it really is quite feasible.

And these are certainly people I intend to see again.

So Salaam, and safe travels - until next time.

Alright, so what about my purchases you say.

I know how long haggling can take, so I waited until after my friends left to start up my real shopping. I had somewhat more time than they, so I went back to the silk market with my suitcase... which was rather unpleasant to have around, but plenty acceptable on a chinese paradigm - though I think “the other tourists” or “tots” were giving me some looks. I dont really know: i’ve learned to just ignore people unless they are talking to me directly or throwing a punch basically. More skills from China.

Anyhow - Through the course of events, I bought some silk fabric for Tangzhuang (stereo-typical chinese jacket thing with the ball-knot clasps). Nice...ish but not super impressive.

I also bought possibly the nicest silk tie I own... for ¥30 ... under $5, oh and did I mention that all of this was not really trying that hard because I had just successfully negotiated the purchase of an all-silk oriental carpet and was kind of tired of intense negotiation.

I acted all smart like ~ I cased two stores, argued with one in chinese for a while after pulling out about 8 carpets, which the shop keeper and I pulled out and spread all over the floor so I could look at them. I like to have the visual as I eliminate the carpets I don’t like.

They tell me all sorts of things between their broken English, and my growing Chinese. I learned that when you look at the back of a handmade carpet - that the smaller the knots are, the higher the quality. I also saw that the knots were somewhat irregularly spaced on the back, which was further proof to me that the carpet was actually handmade.

The shop keeper told me in negotiations that the carpets I was looking at take six months to make by hand. Wow I think.... but I’m still not paying your ridiculous price.

So I didn’t buy from the first shop, but proceeded to the next after some browsing and repeated my game. However, this time was different. After some very stressfully placed and dare I say cunning rouses... I got my new shop girl to drop the price to ¥1200 from ¥3480 - the same price as the other store. Was I content with that... heck no. I liked the carpets, but I wanted to go see what I could get at the other store now, and I wanted to be sure of the carpet I actually bought. SO I started heading for the entrance to the store and the girl asked me to wait while she asked her boss what she could do for me.

She came back and her boss looked fairly upset and she said that she would give me ¥1000... still more than I really wanted to pay. I insisted on going to look at the other stores (I had been real purposeful about reiterating that I was looking at another store’s product too.)

She said if I leave and come back she won’t be able to give me this super cheap price... WHAT! dont give me idle threats woman! (slap) ... ok I didn’t slap her... but I did call her bluff by saying... “fine then I wont come back and buy from you”

Her “stage temper” (an attitude that seems to be brought out for the use of selling in a haggling context) calmed a little bit after that comment.

I continued on my way... I was out the door... and then another shop girl says - “pongyo duhng ee sha. Nee ting shunma ta shwoah ma?” (friend wait a minute - did you hear what she said?) (the real pinyin way that would be written if you care is... pengyou deng yi xia. Ni ting shenme ta shuo ma?)

I look over my shoulder and I see her boss talking to her and after he spoke (which I couldn’t hear) he swatted at the door in a shooing motion. I figure he said something along the lines of...

If he doesn’t like that price, he can %#$^& off!

¥950... I bought. Basically USD $135 for a fully silk tiny knotted oriental carpet.... I was pretty pleased with myself. Im not sure how much they are in the US... but I hear tell they rank in the 300-400 range for the same size for a normal wool or cotton carpet... and silk would make that even more expensive.

Im not sure about those numbers... but I’m still pleased with myself.

Homeward Bound:

After all my mad commercialism, I went back to the coffee shop that the Dave, Rose and I camped out at, and greeted my new shop friends. I was quite hungry and decided that eating was a good thing to do before getting on a night train... There is food on them, I know now.... but I had some time... So I relaxed and killed a little more time until it was really time for me to head out to the train station.

I got all the way to the train station using the subway system, and a motor rickshaw.

I waited for just a little bit before the train started loading, and the second time around... I was an expert. I knew to hold on to my paper ticket, because the train agents come and exchange it for a plastic one - a lot like a credit card. I knew how to find the right train car and bunk row. Finally I found my place - on the bottom bunk - and studied a little bit of Chinese on the train while loading freshly bought music onto my computer. PS you should all love me for buying music this time, because everyone else pirates it.

Anyhow - this train ride home was a little less comfortably refrigerated, but overall was nice. I met a really nice Ph.D who talked with me for a while in English/ Chinese and commended my efforts at studying Chinese (especially because she has English speaking students who study Chinese... and evidently I am much more hard working than they). As I listened to her give me an impromptu lesson on stroke order for characters, I was reminded about the difference in my learning of Chinese and that of Spanish. It was easy for me to listen to rapid fire Chinese, because no one ever slowed down for me. Spanish had a learning curve when I moved to faster speech things like movies or native speakers because I had only studied in school - and teachers adjust their speech for their twitchy students. My new teacher left, after showing off some of her new-found French skills (she’s on language three now hehe), and at around dinner time when I was eating my instant noodles like everyone else on the train - a group of old ladies couldn’t stop staring at me, or talking about me. They eyed me with smiles and wonder. Naturally and somewhat involuntarily... I smiled back , and then I was done for. The chief old lady came over and had to know more - which really I was ok with.

We talked for a little while and I told her that I was working in Zhengzhou... how long I had been there, what I was doing etc. etc - all the standard questions - and after once again agreeing with other people she told me that my Chinese was very good. I don’t think it is that amazing yet, but the contrast between me and other foreigners has shown to be quite significant and has drawn some serious attention.

Anyhow, between patchy sleep and listening to my new music, I arrived in Zhengzhou, walked up from the underground region of the train station and was glad to be back in Zhengzhou... minus the pollution and filth. I suppose even that has an awkward “Zhengzhou appeal”. I hailed a cab... got fleeced on cab fair, but I was too tired and glad to be home to fight for it. Also... Im not really in the habit of taking cabs at three in the morning so I wasn’t sure of the rules. I watched the meter on the way home and it seriously went up every 15 to 30 seconds... grose.

Home again, I took an hour nap and then woke up to go back to work... bringing home the bacon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

And That Was Beijing ~

Sweating like crazy due to the almost unbelievable humidity (aside from the two facts that I’m from St. Louis and I’ve been inside the tropical plant exhibit at the STL botanical gardens {oh my goodness} ), I tried to cool off on the lower bunk of the sleeper train. Heading home to Zhengzhou was a good thing for me. I’d rather enjoyed my visit, but it was good to be on a train knowing that progress towards home was being made and that there was no further walking for at least 8 hours.

sorry for the disturbance... but imma change tenses here.

It has only been three days since I left Zhengzhou, but it has been so loaded with experience that it truly qualifies as an American vacation. However, unlike an American vacation, this was for the most part relaxing. I will divide it into days. Read at your leisure:

Friday Night: In the beginning

My day really started after a normally full day of teaching. I sat at my desk thinking of my to-do list that I needed/wanted to accomplish:

---> Finish moving my stuff from one apartment to the next. (This included me loading up the last bag of stuff into a 4 foot-long, dark-blue duffle bag which I back-packed and then hopped on to my bike with. Unsurprisingly enough, turning is very difficult... or very easy depending on how you want to look at it. I had made two trips with that duffle bag and a rolling suit-case the day before... in a taxi those times... dont worry)

---> Get a glorious massage to work out the destruction I wreaked upon my back by moving my dwelling via heavy bags.

---> Meet the previous owner of my house to have my toilet fixed at (not so)precisely 7:00pm.

---> Have photo copies made of a the textbook my substitute would be teaching out of... so that I could create a lesson plan... and they could therefore teach it on my extra day off. (silly me)

---> Pack to go to Beijing

By the way Im still cursed by being raised by a Marine Mother. My first instinct is to pack for every possible situation... but I did a decent job reigning myself in.

---> Get to the Train Station
(1st time ever experience on that one)

AND YES! all of those things happened (though not entirely in that order)

Well where this story gets interesting again is then I am walking out the door about 15 minutes later than I expected... make those photo copies and then grab a cab. Slightly crunched for time (I thought), I got into the cab and get us heading in the direction of the train station... or as we who have been in China like to call... the Fire Car (火车 huo che) ... ok so no one calls it that in English... but I still think its cool.

I then get somewhat assaulted by a taxi driver who had just learned two english phrases. Well I was feeling particularly jovial, so I gave him two more.

We practiced those phrases a good part of the way to the train station, and then I made my way through the security check point. Thanks be due for the fact that Chinese train security is nothing like American plane security. A metal detector and an x-ray for the bags later... and your off to your gate to wait in a hall that easily has a half-thousand folk waiting for 4 different trains.

It was hot.

Fortunately there were tall bastions of cool air that look like speaker systems placed throughout the outer rim of the hall. I planted myself there.

I am directed to #1, so I buy some quick food, and go camp out my spot in the hall to wait. As the time gets closer... I get itchy feet, so I check the gate assignments and find that my train has been relocated. I got to the gate with perfect timing to get on the train, find my spot and get “seated.”

Yes, “seated” because I was in a sleeper train and you have one of three bunks that you select (when you buy your ticket that is). I was on the top bunk... and plenty fine with it. These bunks are vertically stacked, and not much more than two feet wide. The train itself is about ten feet tall (on the interior). The bottom bunk has the most room and thus carries a small surcharge. There is enough room to comfortably sit up. The middle bunk is accessed by a small ladder and is roughly 4 feet off the ground with enough room to sit up... while hunched over like Quasi Modo. The third and final bunk was my domain. Standing a wonderful 7 feet off the ground at the top of the small ladder, it was not exactly spacious. Fortunately for me, I appreciate small spaces, and am quite thin. At the same level, but on the other side of the trains hallway (a 1.5ft gap), was the rack that you put your bags on.

Well let me start from going through the gate (ticket stamping stage). Chinese people have no concept of “the line.” Im beginning to think they’re illegal to have.

Anyhow - I don’t obey them either anymore... unless it’s involving food... because that is when lines do apply (loosely speaking). I get through the gate and scurry down the stairs like everyone else to the platform. On the landing I follow the length of the train looking for my specific car... at somewhat of a run because I didn’t want to be left behind for my first opportunity to see part of China outside of Zhengzhou.

Heading down the dark isle of the train, I find my row and ask one of the other people in my bunk just to make sure. In the late night whisper, he told me I was in the right place and helped me get oriented as I situated my bags and then myself on the “upper crust” with my shoes still on and bag over my shoulder(PS i’ve always liked the top of things... even sometimes when they are technically lesser quality.) Seeing my situation... the man told me, “ahh... just put them next to your bag.” I agreed with his idea.

Sweating and somewhat laughing to myself because I was finally on a train, I tried to cool down from all the excitement and humidity of Zhengzhou (Im pretty sure all of northern China is humid these days...).

The train began to depart and then the most wonderful air conditioning kicked in that I can think of since perhaps those hot summer nights as a child when my entire family would move upstairs (because the best air-conditioner was up there). Fresh and clean it felt as I listened to the new sounds and reveled in all this common place stuff that I’m sure everyone else thought was deadly-boring.

Eventually I drifted to sleep under the light comforter that matched the refrigeration perfectly. I awoke a few times throughout the night, more than happy to have a reason to wake up and find out more about the inner workings of a train, but otherwise slept quite well.

A mixture of excitement and anticipation made my sleep quite interesting, but none-the-less refreshing. Excitement to be on a train and to be leaving Zhengzhou for the first time -- Anticipation to be seeing the ever-famous Beijing and most importantly - to see my long lost friends from Vancouver on the DPRK team.

Day 1: The longest and most wonderfully uneventful day yet

The next morning at about 5am the car full of bed-headed Chinese clambered down from their bunks to pour out tea (in multiple senses), brush their teeth, and get ready for arrival in Beijing. A welcoming overcast and fog was present across the whole region near Beijing. What can I say? I’m meant for gloomy weather.

I was met at the train station by a friend, their older brother and uncle. Rolling out in the Uncle’s car, we headed towards breakfast along the highways of Beijing. And then I decided: this looks like Zhengzhou. It wasn’t until we go to the restaurant that I thought it was at all different... and that is only because it was cleaner (HAH).

We ate at a restaurant with 180 years of history... it didnt look like it. However, I imagine it wasn’t really the restaurant but the family itself that was significant, because the older brother told me that this was the 8th generation of the family that was running the place.

Let me explain the situation a little more clearly... The older brother told me through my friend. My friend is the only one of their family who speaks English aside from a few words including “Beijing is number one”.

I was really impressed with what I could do in Chinese after this weekend was over. Every day right? It just keeps changing, growing and becoming something you didnt expect.

So after eating more than enough of something that seriously resembled split-pea soup, and some sort of pork sandwich on a marbled chinese bread... we headed to the hotel. This hotel is under the part ownership of the uncle, so I was being put up free of charge. By put up I mean... treated like royalty.

This hotel is not just a hotel. It is a spa resort on the outskirts of Beijing with a south Asian flair. Theres even Grass huts inside and the staff are all adorned in faux-sarong pants (pants that look like a tribal wrap skirt from the front).

I am full on escorted by an entourage of be-microphoned staff to my room and we all relaxed in my room for a while, chatting away pleasantly.

Well... my train got in at 5:30 and we’ve been going strong for about an hour... so my hosts are tired and they get me set up to go take a shower.

We wait around for a “waiter” that might speak English to take me to the shower area and escort me through the process. I mentioned that it wouldn’t be necessary and shortly there after, I am lead down through the hotel to the male area. I did not realize what I was in for.

In a nearly empty locker room, I was escorted to my locker and bidden to take off my clothes. And off they came - each article being recieved on a nice wooden hanger and then placed in my locker by the “waiter.” So there I stand... next to stark... and out comes another hanger.... and shortly I became... quite stark aside from the beach sandals that I was provided with.

And then my brothers wisdom came back to me. The last message I received on my phone as I was on the plane from St. Louis.

No matter what - you cannot forget.

You have got to

got to...



And so I strutted.

Getting sideways glances at my family jewels from the waiter and getting the full-on standard Chinese “eye-grope” by the other staff as my svelte fleshy whiteness was led down the stairs into a wide chamber with deep wide baths and and a long row of tiled showers with tall mirrors over stone sinks at either side.

Aside from generally being uncomfortable naked, it was an incredible experience. It also serves to break down some of my walls of inhibition I suppose.

Anyhow - after my shower - am I led to my clothing once again? No

I am led in another direction -- and seeing a salon... I was wondering if I would be asked to make the full circut through the kitchen and everything... however... we stopped in front of a stack of silk outfits.

I was given some kind of scandalous disposable underwear made from that see through fibre that they use on massage beds or airplane pillows... and then my silk garb.

Well that was interesting --- though I did feel regal enough.

Then, I was escorted back to my room where I did some light reading and relaxed. I soon realized that I did not have my cellphone (in my pants down in the grand locker room) and so I waited for another waiter to check in on me (which they did somewhat frequently) and then fetched that up.

There were no real methods of communication with the DPRK team aside from the emails I had sent a few of them, and the cellphone which I had given them the number of.

And so I waited.

Not receiving a call, and sort of absently reading a book - another waiter came and told me it was time to go eat. Being only about two hours since I ate at the “ancient” restaurant, I was still full -- but I figured my hosts were down there, so I came right away. Well... I was the only one, but they filled my table with various things and I tried my best to eat a little bit.

I was beginning to think of ways to get out of my predicament when my friend’s mom came to eat - evidently by coincidence more than planning. She sat down and we chatted a little bit using my limited language skills. I was more than willing to try to talk, because it gave me a chance to do something else with my mouth than eat.

However... I think she began asking questions about my friend’s english that I’m not fully sure I understood... and I felt a need to tread somewhat lightly.

Then my friend came down to join us! Oh imagine my relief, especially when a massage was suggested. I asked if there was a way to get the internet to check my email (in case the DPRK tried to email me...) so they got me set up in a row of well furnished computers (even if they were PC’s). Nothing.

I went back the short distance to the dining hall and they asked if I would like a massage...
I said - yep I’ll take one of those. Next step -- my room or “the relaxing hall” ... mmm well relaxing hall sounds... relaxing - lets do it there.

As I was being escorted there by my incredibly hospitable friend, I was told that they had asked for a glass of Tieguanyin (one of my favourite teas) and that I could choose any from the selection of girls for my masseuse. Clips of Rush Hour 2 were running through my head at this point - wondering what that meant - and trying to figure out how I would go about choosing.

Fortunately I did not have to choose from a closeted pantheon like in Rush Hour 2, but my masseuse came out forthwith and I was settled into a very large, wide reclining massage chair with a personal TV attached.

They turned on the TV... and I looked around, but found nothing interesting, and much prefered to enjoy my tea and massage in relative quiet.

Im not gonna go into any details at this point because its all kind of a euphoric haze... but once again my concept of personal space was severely adjusted.

Anyhow, my masseuse was awesome.


I got back to my room and realized that I could catch a Wifi internet connection from m room... and Magically... I got to skyping with my family. And LO! my ever so clever sister suggests web caming. Well - hey, Im game.

So after a little finagling we got the web cam up and running on a somewhat pirated internet source - I was impressed.

Anyhow - that is the first time we have actually gotten web cam up in running, and there was my mom -- beaming. This is the first time she has seen my face in over five months I’ve realized. She has heard from me plenty, but not gotten to see me.

And they say that ‘men’ are visual creatures - well I think the same thing goes for moms with their children.

After a not that entirely long of a chat - I am visited by the entire entourage of my hosts and spirited away to lunch, which by this time I am ready for (being a few hours later... and after what may have been a 1-2 hour massage... I dunno... I had no concept of time at that point.)

So I say good-bye to my mom and sister quickly and dash off in the politest way I can - accompanying my hosts.

The whole first ring of the family is there: friend, brother and uncle from this morning - mom, dad, and random friend are new acquaintances.

I see forks, knives and spoons, but no chopsticks. Secretly thinking that it was on my account, I asked them if they didnt like chopsticks. Well... chopsticks quickly materialized and all was well with the world.

After hearing that I speak a bit of Chinese, I quickly become the topic of conversation. Whenever I am asked if I can understand Chinese, I usually say... ‘half’. I dont say which half... sometimes its the unimportant half and I dont really understand what people are saying - and sometimes it is the important half and I can put together the general meaning.

Eitherway - they were super impressed when I could put together the meaning, and decided that I was way underestimating my skills... who knows if that is true.

Through the course of lunch, we got to know each other better and their respect for me kept growing... oddly enough. We’ll the truth is - they brought out the baijiu and American drinking culture is different than that of Chinese.

Only about three to four of us were drinking, but from the drinking i’ve done back in “homeland” - if someone toasts you ~ you either take a healthy quaff or drink the whole thing. Well... its not as restrictive in Chinese culture. I didnt quite get that. Anyhow - the fact that I was still playing by American rules was greeted with applause... literally.

With my glass of baijiu I had probably 2.5oz remaining - a little bit over a full-sized shot you would receive in the west (not those stupid skinny ones in Canada... the fat ones with the line halfway up (denoting 1 and 2oz)) -- I was toasted, and so I drained my glass in respect to the toast ~ I was trained right :P.

As I tipped my glass back they looked at me and started to say something... but it was too late... and then my glass went back all the way ~ did a quarter turn at my lips like a waiter would do when pouring wine (a characteristic quirk when I drink I suppose) ~ and then I set it gently down on the table. Before my glass made it to the table I hear (oh!) and an eruption of applause from the mother. So I smiled (figuring out that it wasn’t entirely normal to do what I just did).

A few people asked me if I was ok... “yes...” I politely said... though with definite tones of “why wouldn’t I be?” in my voice. There was laughter.

Through the course of lunch - they made sure that I knew it was not necessary to do such things ~ which I will keep in mind for the future.

Eventually lunch ends and I ~somewhat hazily~ look forward to further relaxing. BUT NO! Dinner is coming with a family friend and there is to be more drinking Im told. And the friend is bringing his Japanese business partner ~ whom I am supposed to drink more than. OH....

Oh sweet lord. Not good.

We have a little bit of time before that it seems ~ as we move to another hotel closer to downtown Beijing.

For about two hours we talked, and joked and I eventually got adopted into the family - dubbed Didi (younger brother). I was taught two local chants ~ which were really difficult to keep in my head because I had no idea what they meant. Anyhow - it was quite the roller coaster.

Lets just say that two hours is not nearly enough to digest my portion of 40%+ potency baijiu... and there was sake at dinner. I was in a tight spot once or twice, but my hosts were incredibly understanding and very helpful.

Dinner’s memory basically is me fighting for control of my stomach and that is the moral of the story.

Don’t make Peter career drink and over-eat 2 meals in a row! It’s dangerous!

So we go back to the hotel talk for a little while longer, I practically absorb a bottle of water, and after a good bit of talking which was increasingly sentimental from my hosts, I eventually went to bed being told that they would be leaving the next morning before I awoke. Just about spirited away like delightful fog. I however was invited to continue to stay at the hotel at their expense. Talk about hospitality.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Suits, Digesting Dog, Care packages

Forgive me Readers for I have sinned. It has been nearly three weeks since my last blog.

And what a long three weeks it has been. I have eaten dog, watched a news report where they showed a security camera fully depicting a man being stabbed to death in a computer lab... and repeated it three times which was followed by some of the most unpleasant bicycle/e-bike/vehicular collisions I have ever seen filmed beyond a hollywood staged event, I have started the process of getting train tickets to go to Beijing. OH yah ~ I also am now wearing pants that were made for me... out of material that I haggled for in the “fabric market” - but you’ll hear about that later.”

Well... I guess I should start at the beginning.

About two weeks ago, a few friends of mine to the fabric market. “basically a city block of little shops and booths that are loaded with fabrics of almost every type, denim, alleged silks, cotton prints, “suit”-able wools (sorry bout the pun there), and polyester... oh look... more polyester.

We took a taxi out to this place, taking about twenty minutes and costing a colossal ¥25-30 (yuan - /yoo anne/) which is basically 3-4 dollars total for four people :D .

After arriving, we spent the next three or so hours wandering the aisles of this colossal market looking for “the perfect” fabric to go with the various garments we had in mind. None of us groove the polyester... so we oddly enough ended up buying from one of 2 vendors for the majority of our supplies. The bulk of our purchases (not including mine, because I found a special something that NO one else was selling) was from a man who loved to prove that his stuff was pure wool by burning the edge of his large hanging fabric. He would then crumble the ash in his fingers and stick them in your face.

Yep... you’d think... smells like burnt hair... not plastic.

That was enough for us.

My own wool however is a delicious grey with white pinstripes made from an ultra light summer wool sold by another vendor. Mmmm is it ever comfortable. The guy knew his stuff was rare - so he was trying to sell at ¥75/meter but I wasn’t feelin’ it... so I kept looking. After the necessary leaving and coming back later (after shopping the fabric burning chap’s wares), I used my evidently improving Mandarin skills to bargain him down from ¥75 to ¥50/meter.

Take that America! BAH You think white people can’t bargain. It just takes some perception, learning from mistakes, persistence and a heavy dose of patience (it can take a long time to get a good price sometimes).

Anyhow after some fierce bartering, I got my price and even though it was basically even with what my compatriots were paying... I knew that my super-fine summer wool was in fact an elevated quality (which is evident in the delicious wear factor) and that I had done well for myself. In addition... if memory serves... I helped negotiate their lower price....

After that tiring but incredibly validating affair, we took another taxi to the initiating friend’s seamstress (the friend who knew where the fabric market was/ had the experience with the whole process and thus helped facilitate our participation)

We get to her place, and show her the pictures that we had printed off. She has done this for quite a few foreigners throughout the years evidently, so she was quite comfortable with our requests. She took our measurments... and after stressing quite vividly that we did not want pleats... nor the incredibly high waistline that most chinese dress pants have... we were told that we could come back in 2 weeks and collect our suits etc.

Ah yes... I also got some brick coloured linen which is now a dress shirt in my possession. It makes me feel Moroccan... despite my apparent whiteness and complete lack of exposure to Moroccans... Regardless ~

Two weeks later (this past weekend) we went and collected our wares, and I fortunately did not have to have any adjustments done. Everyone else did though.... hahah.

But seriously now - my suit is ridiculously good looking, and it cost a grand total of ¥410 which is basically $75.... hahahah eat it all of you department stores!!!

The first suit I bought in the us was $350 on basically 50% sale... and while completely worth it... is still hysterical comparison to my $75 custom tailored get-up that I now own.


Ok so next affair. Somewhere in the downtime, I was invited to go eat dog by a student in one of the programs I have taught in. And yes ~ of course I’d love to go. I’m a gourmet... i’ll eat anything once. Myself, this student and some friends (actually two of the people went to the fabric market with) went out to a restaurant he knew of.

We had two choices... cold dog meat or dog hot-pot. We all agreed that hot-pot was the way to go. Cold dog sounded like dog jerky... and that does not strike me as the best way to try dog for the first time.

We order a variety of things to go with the hot-pot because you never just get one thing. It’s a schmorgespord. For those of you who dont know, hot-pot is a boiling cauldron of soup in the middle of the table that you dump things into to cook and then snatch out using your chopsticks. It’s lots of fun and is a nice drawn out meal.

Our thinly sliced dog meat comes to us along with our other ... ingredients? potatoes, tofu, noodles, carrots, mushrooms etc. and we enjoyed a nice meal of dog and ... etcetera while chatting away.

We kind of decided that dog tastes like dark meat turkey (which is odd... because “they” say that everything tastes like chicken), but looks and has the texture of beef. It is a bit fattier though. The type of fat is the more repugnant fact of dog. it is long and stringy... and speckled. We all decided that it was much better to remove the fat. Definitely palatable meat though.


Onto the most morbid of my topics.

I went over to a friend’s house for yet another of our 2-3 week get togethers where a group of us get together and make pizza or something and chat the night away. At some stage in the process... we ended up watching the most abominable TV show that was somewhere between the news and America’s most wanted... but Chinese style.

Basically, the underbelly of Chinese society is exposed on film... well- that which doesn’t involve the government or larger organized crime that is.

First atrocity. A man sitting in a computer lab is held to his chair and stabbed by a gang of about seven other young men. My Chinese isn’t good enough to know exactly why... but the fact that they just showed a man get murdered... on film... on a public broadcast... blew my sheltered mind. It was awful. And then they showed it two more times.

In less than a minute... seven men appeared in this business (I’m assuming an internet bar)... stab a man to death as his girlfriend vainly tries to fend them off, and then they stroll out of the place.

Second atrocity. The show turns to vehicular deaths. where they show traffic camera footage of various people on bicycles and e-bikes getting hit by busses, running into taxis etc. People dying and being seriously injured right and left. Sometimes it is their fault for completely not paying attention to their surroundings, and sometimes it isn’t.

Regardless... I was watching people die on film. And I was not O.K. with it. Does it happen? - evidently, but I do not want to spend my time watching T.V. that basks in that kind of depression.

The rest of the show focused on the children of stupid parents who had their hands caught in doors or machinery of many types.

Ah... and also showing the body of a 9 year old boy underneath the black car that ran him over... along with the bloody streak where he was evidently ploughed over by the vehicle.



Following that was a very spirited political discussion on whether or not first generation immigrants should be allowed to be president. There were some folk present who were rather dogmatically against the idea. Fear of a foreign prodigy child planted by a malicious government to destroy America ranked highly in the debate. I didn’t fight too hard against that one... they’re entitled to their fears.

Honestly the whole thing really just furthered my real question. What is America becoming? We started out as a global nation where anyone could come for a new start. A nation of dreams if you will. But where are we going? I see a lot more closure and exclusion when I hear of my country.

I am not content with that direction.

Oh and How could I forget: the most emotional event that I have had since I said good bye to my family in Saint Louis.

I received a mystery package from home. Upon opening the package, I found an array of wonderful and meaningful things. Altoids, green pens, the best mechanical pencil in existence... The Zebra, two letters (one marked open first, the other open last - when you have a quiet moment) and chiefly among these - A digital photo frame that my sister has been scheming about for a while.

The frame was mentioned when I first came to China, as a way to “homey” up my abode. It fell off the radar as the months went by.

I read the first letter which contained a super adorable letter written by my super adorable six year old niece ~ kind of shocked that she had the literary skills to put the whole letter together. The new school she is at must be doing a good job to funnel her super-brilliance into writing skills.

Anyhow, I get the package home and open it. I take out the frame, and get it set up. I read the instructions and move to the second letter marked “open last.”

By the way - a well labeled and coordinated care package is a wonderful thing. I have met a very small number of people who take the care to do it, and they are some of the best people I have ever met - mostly because it shows they honour and love they have for a relationship. Anyhow, back to the letter.

The letter described the heartfelt efforts of my sister and everyone else involved to get the package organized, and the associated photos taken, bought and sent to me. The whole effort was absolutely olympic. I took the included memory stick that contained a secret cache of photos and plugged it in at this point.

At the sight of all the friends and family that worked together for these photos, I was absolutely crying my eyes out. I haven’t been moved like that in a long time. (at least five months :D).

Due to a secret and nefarious plot ~ there were photos taken of a very meaningful nature without my knowledge... well almost... but i’ll get to that in a bit.

There were photos of family, my growing nieces, my fresh-out-the-oven nephew... maybe he is on the cooling rack now... he was fresh out the oven 5 months ago... my brother and his growing colossus of a hound, and then there came the pictures of my friends from CanIL. You know who you are!

Well my friends found the Flat Stanley project online. This is basically a coloured cut-out that you take pictures with in various venues... doing various things etc, but Flat Stanley always makes an appearance.

They decided to turn me into Flat Stanley... and I was thusly dubbed - Flat Pedro.

In proper homage to my position in CanIL society - there were Flat Pedro appearances at Turkish Coffee gatherings, a “dim-sum” outing and down Dave’s shirt.

There is one hang-up with the plot however. There was a leak. Even though all participating members of the Flat Pedro Project were sworn to secrecy... there was one who either forgot their vows or otherwise completely spurned them.

A month or two previously - I saw two of the Flat Pedro Project pictures before their official release. The current holder of my image also decided it was “prudent” to open up their web-cam and show me my effigy. Needless to say - it also made my day when I was actually shown these details, and completely did not distract from the glory of the ultimate package delivery. In fact, I found it kind of stimulating to have all the pieces fall into place at the grand unveiling.

Anyhow - the leak was made known to the appropriate authorities through a series of events... and those authorities were none-too-pleased: with good reason to be sure. A nefarious plot should be treated with respect and secrecy.

The letter continued and described the frustrations of having a secret surprise package almost thwarted by an infidel (hmmm... a literal use of the word). I could sympathize with that frustration, but was also very impressed by how the writer described their own moving on from such irritation in a healthy and balanced manner.

All that to say -- If you know/ are assisting someone in a nefariously loving plot (or I suppose any type of nefarious plot)... do your utmost to safeguard their intentions. So much can be cast down in a moment of half-baked thinking.

And also -- organized and thought out care packages are one of the best things EVER.

With love in admiration for all who took part,

-Fully Inflated Pedro