Archive by Author
18. Nov, 2010

Dog – A Late Night Snack

Dog – A Late Night Snack

“Biju, I’m going to show you some place hardcore. Some place really Chinese.”

We had already spent a late night at our local hangout and I am more than ready to go to bed. It’s late, but my friend cannot be denied. Grabbing my hand and shoving me into a taxi, I assume that we are going to find a local place to eat nearby, a comforting meal of late night barbecue cooked up to order at virtually any street corner in China.

But as the taxi meter counts steadily upward, I realize my friend is serious. A long time resident of China and a fluent Chinese speaker, his exploratory powers far outshine my own.  As we pull into a chop shop to ask for directions, he tells me how ridiculous it is when people say that our city is small.

Xiamen is home to over 3 million people and covers an area of 1500 square kilometers. By Chinese standards Xiamen is a small town. But the tendency amongst foreigners (myself included) is to stick the easy-to-reach comfortable areas where foreigners tend to congregate. Bars, cafes, and the university are places that are safe and familiar, where foreign faces are expected if not common.

An intense conversation in Chinese with the chop shop workers results in the bewildered taxi driver dropping us off in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The cab fair reads 50 RMB. 50 RMB! I didn’t even know you COULD pay 50 RMB and stay on the island!

As rain dribbles through my clothes I lurch into motion after my friend in the dark as he barks at a series of sleeping shop owners at 3 in the morning in Chinese.

“What’s open?! Where’s the restaurant!?”

The shopkeepers start, muttering and motioning to keep going down the road, promptly falling back asleep as we pass.

It’s so easy to lean back and rest on your laurels as an expat. After all, we’ve moved, we’ve settled, we’ve found the places of interest in the guidebook or the expat forums online. We’ve plumbed the depths.

But sitting at that restaurant, eating the dog and pan fried silk worm larvae as my friend chats with the grinning restaurant owners, I realize again that I’m in a new country. There’s no end to the exploration and when you find yourself in a new culture, there are always hidden depths to explore.

27. Sep, 2010

Everything’s Bigger In China

Everything’s Bigger In China

Great Wall, China, Beijing

Yeah, I know the moniker of that Wall they have close to Beijing, but I didn’t think one small section would take hours and hours to climb. I also knew the Forbidden home of the emperor was a palace, but I didn’t really understand why they called it a City, until hours of trekking got us passed multiple squares and castle walls the scope of which simply cannot be described or photographed well.  In comparison, the Summer Palace, with it’s more modest name, was even more grandiose, with temples, pavilions, and a gigantic lake.

Birds Nest, Olympic Stadium, Beijing, China

Honestly, beautiful views aside, I just ended up getting numb to the gargantuan temples, parks, and palaces we went to – The Jade Temple, The Summer Palace, The Temple of Heaven….great names for big places, added upon by new structures -Tianaman Square, The Water Cube, and The Bird’s Nest.

Jade Temple, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

But what I remember are the little things. Panting up the watchtowers on the Great Wall, happily seeing other foreigners and natives equally as worn out as my own nonathletic self. The call of locals trying to make a buck selling water at a price gouging rate in the Forbidden City. And looking at the faces of Chinese tourists and realizing that these places are just as awe inspiring to them as they are to me, a testament to how big this country is and how interconnected we humans can be, no matter our background, while traveling.

Forbidden City, China, Beijing

10. Sep, 2010

The Two Faces of Beijing

The Two Faces of Beijing

I was personally very shocked at Beijing. What I knew about the city was from documentaries and National Geographic Mags I had read as a child, so I was expecting a small area of traditional buildings  overfilled with people bicycling to work on cluttered streets.

What I saw was a city that dwarfed almost any other city I had seen. Our large tourist bus trundled along unnoticed amongst the sea of traffic along wide, clean streets devoid of bicycles. Our routes took us through downtown areas (although “downtown” is relative in a city with so many skyscrapers marching without stop across the horizon) filled with behemoth buildings.

I suppose it was the modernness that really shocked me with my static notions of Beijing. Our tour guide told us that back in the day, the mark of a upwardly mobile family was a bicycle and a watch, but that old Beijing was long gone, driven over by sleek new, imported cars. The streets were impeccable, and surprisingly green, hedged by carefully manicured flowers, trees, and grasses.

Rickshaws in Beijing

Yet, the rapid destruction of ancient buildings to make way for new high rises and condominiums has been halted in some areas. Close to the center of the city, we got a chance to take a tour of the traditional extended family houses, the houtongs, which offered yet a different perspective of the city. Riding in rickshaws through the narrow alleys and visiting a houtongs family, we got to catch a glimpse of what Beijing might have looked like before, albeit a tourist-friendly, government subsidized rendition of the past.

Photos courtesy of Jim Darling

Inner courtyard of a houtong

Rickshaw cyclists on a break

08. Sep, 2010

Typhoons!

Typhoons!

Typhoon Lion Rock has has past Xiamen, marking my first typhoon!

Typhoon Lion Rock

My suspicions that something were amiss were quite indirect, since I can’t get my TV to work and in any case the weather would probably be in Chinese. Some friends in Korea mentioned that typhoon Kompasa was about to hit there. Someone else mentioned that there were three typhoons in the area. That was when my Spidey senses started tingling.

Finally I saw a post from people in Taiwan talking about typhoon Lion Rock, a noble sounding name that seemed to foretell the wrath of God. Since Taiwan’s weather is my future, I have resolved from now on to always keep an eye angled at our island neighbor.

According to one news source (not my TV) around ten flights were cancelled at the local airport, a dozen were delayed, schools were closed, as were scenic spots and the ferries to Gulangyu, the mainland, and presumably Taiwan.

Snug in my 20th floor apartment far away from the wet, I pondered only one question – what exactly is the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane?  Apparently, a typhoon is the name of a large storm that occurs in the western Pacific, while a hurricane is the same thing, but occurs int he eastern Pacific and the Atlantic.

In either case, I think I prefer my storms to have cool names rather than ridiculous people names. Like Earl.

05. Sep, 2010

July 4th – Amurrca Day!

July 4th – Amurrca Day!

Late post, but heres a pic of our 4th of July in China. Bought a small grill, grilled the world, and had Team America playing on repeat. Had a bunch of friends and couchsurfers over.

04. Sep, 2010

Pablo Project Description

Pablo Project Description

I recently had the opportunity to meet a very interesting individual who couchsurfed with us.  Pablo is bicycling across the world, and has been doing it for the past 9 years – he’s traveled through South America, the length of Africa (from Capetown to Cairo), Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance of having him if only to interrogate him on his experiences.

After giving him a series of bad directions, I finally saw Pablo as he came chugging along on his bicycle, his third on his trip, weighed down by clothes, camping gear, and a tattered tail of flags, pluming up from the tail end of his bike displaying the countries he had been to. My profuse apologies for the wrong turns were waved aside. When you’ve ridden as much as he has, what’s a few more blocks?

I got the opportunity to interview him, and discovered that he wasn’t some maniacal machine, counting the countries that flew by like some tally of points, nor was he a happy-go-lucky hippy spouting aphorisms exulting a life of no bagguage. He was surprisingly….. normal, something I wasn’t quite prepared for. He talked with longing about traveling with a girlfriend through europe and the middle east, and of missing home, missing cooking, and dogmatically described traveling the way he did as a royal pain, filled with annoyances.

The spirituality, that sense of flow gleaned from thousands of encounters across dozens of countries was there, but I discovered it was a private thing, a thing I had to dig at to discover, and one I found all the more special, more meaningful, than the up front hand waving spirituality  common among armchair philosophers.

In the end we said goodbye to Pablo, his tail of worn flags bouncing buoyantly in the breeze as he sped away from Xiamen, onward to Korea and Japan, to Indonesia and Australia, and finally, his home country of Argentina.

Check out his website HERE.

02. Sep, 2010

Couchsurfing in Xiamen

Couchsurfing in Xiamen

Couchsurfing has given us the opportunity to meet with a bunch of fellow travelers who have gotten to visit places in China we haven’t been. We started by attending a monthly meeting of couchsurfers set up by our friend Brad – he got about 40-50 people out, and it’s always a great time.  That night three Taiwanese students of XIamen University stayed the night – one of them spoke excellent English, and I found out she spent a summer in Texas. Since then we’ve hosted 9 people, many from Shanghai, many who have been traveling China for quite a while or are native to the country, and many who have had different takes on their stay. Talking with them, and going on our recent guided tour of China have made me think there seems to be several types of travel.

1) Guided Tours – tour guide, transportation, food, and events preplanned and taken care of.
2) Hostel Travel – going to a country, setting up a few things like where your going to go, but generally being laid back about what you do.
3) Expat Travel – Living in a country, knowing the expat hangouts, not really as interested in the tourist track, some basic language
4) Native/Close to Native Travel – mastery of the language, greater knowledge of the culture.

It’s easy to think that all travel in a country is all the same, but as we learn more about our city, it has slowly started to open up. It’s exciting to think of what our travels and interactions will be like once we master the language.

31. Aug, 2010

We’re back!

We’re back!

Sorry for the lack of posts.

We’ve both been very busy the last month traveling. Lots of pics and stories to come!

Tibet, Jade Lake

17. Jul, 2010

Mystery Liquids

Lydia’s family is coming to travel with us around China, which has put me in the frame of mind of how to explain everyday  life here.  After living in China for a few months and talking to others who have traveled extensively here, I’ve come up with a small, albeit common, group of general experiences.

1. The Mystery Drip – The mystery drip, as our friend Bryce named it, seems to be common even in  bigger cities like  Shanghai. Tromping through the streets, you’ll be hit with a dab of liquid, sometimes clearly from an overhang, other times from no place in particular.

2.  Streams – Like my college dorm, it is always better to avoid Mystery Streams (perhaps caused by Mystery Drips) that drizzle throughout China. Step carefully….

3. Children. Yes, they’re cute, yes they wave at you, but just avoid looking at them. You never know when they’ll be engaged in some other activity. Like elimination. The Chinese carry their children in a certain way so they can do their business in special split pants made for just that purpose. I can spot that posture a mile away with my peripheral vision and know when to ignore it, but new comers  should just avoiding looking at children altogether.

4. Mouth breathing. China is a pungent place and the summer is particularly filled with aromas both earthy and just downright noxious. I have started developing the habit of switching from nose to mouth automatically when starting to smell something questionable.  There are some streets I just automatically switch to mouth breathing on – just in case.

5. Napkins. The street foods of China are great, but are always messy. Always carry napkins, as you’ll never know when and where you’ll find your next one.

6. Perforations. I don’t know why, but things just don’t tear as easily here. Or they tear too easily. Whatever amount of pressure I’m used to exerting in the states is wrong, and always ends up with awkward tears that are incredibly annoying.

Feel free to use these techniques and observations in tandem!

Stage 3 Level 1
You find yourself in a side alley. You see a CHILD and a MYSTERY STREAM.  Exits are NORTH and SOUTH.
Command: Switch to mouth breathing.
You switch to MOUTH BREATHING. +3
Command: Avoid looking at child.
Using the powers of IGNORANCE you avoid visual contact with the child. +3
Command: Go NORTH
Traveling NORTH your face is splattered with a MYSTERY DRIP -2.
Command: Use NAPKIN
You forgot to bring a NAPKIN with you! Your face sizzles as the MYSTERY DRIP lingers on your head. -5

31. May, 2010

Reading Journey to the West

Reading Journey to the West

Journey To The West

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Journey to the West, a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Since I know next to nothing about Chinese culture or history, this seems to be a good a place as any to begin.  The book features a great deal of Chinese folklore and mythology, and from what I gather, is a tale of the essence of China, like the Mahabarata is to India, or the Iliad was to Greece.  I saw the movie The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan which is supposed to be based on it.

Somehow I think a lot was lost in the adaptation.

So far I’m reading about the creation of the world, which is a good start to any mythological text. I also managed to get my hands on the other books in the four great classical novels of China – Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber – all of which I will read after completing A Journey to the West.

I would love to be able to read it in the original Chinese (simplified), but since I just read my first paragraph in Chinese characters last week, this may be a project for a later date…