Chengdu panda-monium!

Ripe pandas ready for harvest.
Ripe pandas ready for harvest.


I knew my train trip from Xi’an to Chengdu would be a little difficult. I had a hard seat on an overnight train. A student came with me to buy my tickets, and she did the best she could with the limited seats available due to the holiday and students leaving universities for the holidays. Had I been making the reservations by myself, I might have changed things on the fly. But she did fine, and whatever, I’ll deal.

I should explain: there are four types of tickets on Chinese trains: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. I’ll get to hard seats in a moment. Soft seats are like the seats on Amtrak. A hard sleeper is what I had on the way to Xi’an: a reasonably comfortable bed in a compartment of six. Soft sleepers are apparently in compartments of four and a little bit more comfortable and private.

I found my place in the hard seats. It’s like a restaurant booth, with four or six people facing a little table. The table is for the instant noodles. Chinese people come strapped with instant noodles on the train. Lots of food in huge bags of it, but especially instant noodles. You can buy food at the station or on the train, but apparently that’s overpriced. So they use hot water on the train and make noodles.

The family I was sitting with spoke no English, but they were very nice and even offered me some of their Chongqing snacks. (I don’t know if there is another name for them, but they’re kind of like the breadsticks from Chex mix, but greasier. OK in very small doses.) The car was crowded and fairly noisy. People aren’t allowed to smoke inside the car, but they can (or do) smoke between cars, which wafted directly into our car anyway. I had my iPod and was able to rest my head on the table from time to time and catch a little sleep. So I made the best of it and, when everyone else prepared to get off at 6 a.m. or so, I grabbed my bag and found a taxi…

At which point I learned we weren’t in Chengdu. Guh? Nope, we were somewhere else along the way, not quite there. What do I do? I ran back to the ticket office and tried to get another ticket to Chengdu. The woman explained that I already have a ticket to Chengdu and I can’t have two. I guess she worked out what I was trying to say. A conductor…well, conducted me to the train, and I got on just before it left again. That whole experience was a giant pain in the ass. What did I learn? The same old lesson I keep learning: never assume anything in China. But at least it’s an experience few other travelers have, so maybe I can be proud of that?

I ended up riding that train from 8:45 p.m. Saturday until 12 p.m. Sunday. I was exhausted and hungry when I got to Mix Hostel. I checked in, signed up for the panda tour the next day, ate a meal, showered, and crashed in my bunk. Somebody has to be the weird girl who never leaves the hostel, and that day it was me. I got a good night’s sleep and felt much, much, much better the next day.

I mainly came to Chengdu to see pandas, so we headed to the breeding center nearby (an hour by van). Pandas are mostly active in the mornings, so we got there around 8:30 a.m. and walked around looking for signs of life. The photos say it all. The big pandas were mostly eating and waddling a bit. The young ones played a bit. The ones who slept liked to do it in trees. If you’re on board with pandas, it’s great. If you need action and adventure, maybe pandas aren’t for you.

We also saw red pandas, who are more like cats than bears. They can, apparently, come and go out of their enclosures as they please. One was walking on the path toward our group, and he sniffed my hand when I held it out to him. But they can be vicious, according to the signs, so I left it at that.

We also saw a movie about why the pandas are nearly extinct. All species have an average life of 5 million years, and pandas seem to be coming to the end of theirs. They also aren’t super into sexual reproduction; said point was illustrated by a video of pandas going at it (I’m serious!) and one of pandas trying and failing to score with a lady panda who was having none of it. It was a little graphic. And there was a shot of a panda being born. Like, “What is that? Is that a panda vagina?” PLOP. “Oh, jeez, that’s a baby. Wow.” So, yeah, we learned A LOT about pandas.

We got back to the hostel around lunchtime, and I decided to explore the area around Wenshu Monastery and the Folk Street. Folk Street was fine. There are a lot of souvenirs that are the same at every store/table. Lots of Tibetan stuff, lots of panda stuff. And tiger claw, which I’d never seen before but anticipate seeing more of when I go to Yunnan. I ate six steamed buns, an insane amount of buns but YOLO, and walked around the monastery and nearby streets. Oh, yes, and I bought a book that I want to use to learn to read. The three little pigs are featured on the front, so I think I can get there.

Monday night was another tour to Sichuan Opera. This was a high-end performance of the opera, including a lot of acrobatics, dancing, singing, some silks work, costumes, fire breathing, broad comedy, and face changing. The face changing was apparently the selling point, and it’s quite impressive. They wear silk masks on their faces, and through some misdirection, POW! New mask. It’s incredible. I loved seeing it, and it’s reinforced my goal to see a live kabuki show (as soon as I get my ass to Japan!).

I did everything on Monday. I thought having Tuesday free for exploration would be a good strategy, but I was a little bored and ready to go home. Many people use Chengdu as a base for travels to nearby places, and I should have tried to go out to the Leshan Buddha or something like that. You live, you learn.

After a little bit of getting-lost time, I went to the Sichuan Museum. That was all right, but maybe too similar to the Shaanxi Museum without being quite as impressive. Plus an entire school of children showed up and swarmed the place after I’d been there for a while. In a way that was fun—like when a group of boys tore ass into the room, stopped in front of a silver bowl, and shouted “Whoa!”–but the noise and chaos was a little too much.

I followed the trail of Tibetan monks—seriously, there were a lot of maroon robes around, and they helped reassure me that I wasn’t getting lost—to the Tibetan quarter. Lots of shops selling the same things, once again. I did eat some Tibetan food that was pretty good. After a while I just felt bored and run-down and tired of the gray skies.

The reason I felt run down: I had the start of a cold that morning. Unfortunate timing, but not the worst, since I mainly planned to sit on the train that day. And I did: 2.5 hours in a soft seat and I was back in Chongqing. About 1.5 hours on the subway and I was back home.

This trip helped me see Chongqing in a new light. People do some strange things here, and I wasn’t sure how much is Chongqing culture and how much is China culture. I got to use my Chinese with some positive results. And I hope I am learning to live as a tourist in my home city, to get out of my habits sometimes and explore.

One more trip is planned for the break. My sister is coming on Sunday and we’re going to travel in Yunnan. I’m really looking forward to that, especially since my weather app is predicting sunshine! China is so huge and diverse that I’m very interested to see what we’ll find there.


Xi’an: history, food, and lungs full of carbon

What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious.
What is this? I had it for breakfast twice and it was delicious. I must know what it’s called and if I can find it in Chongqing.

My students sometimes ask me if I like to travel. I usually reply, “Well, everybody says they do,” to buy some time and because I’m not really sure of the answer. I like seeing new things, but I also like sleeping in my own bed at night. Of course, those of us who self-select to live abroad are more likely to be travel enthusiasts, but I consider myself more of a migrant worker than an adventurer.

Still, it’s winter break. We have about 6 weeks off, since Lunar New Year is so late this year. Staying in Chongqing is not recommended. Many of the stores around campus have closed for the month, and January and February are not the most naturally beautiful times to be here. (I’ll write more about what I’ve been doing here in another post.) I want to make the most of my time here in China and learn about this country, and it’s really inexpensive to travel here if you can economize a little. So off I went to Xi’an and Chengdu.


The day before I left for Xi’an, one of my students accompanied me to English CAFE. (He had just finished taking exams and was waiting to take the train home. He was bored and likes practicing English, so we made the trip downtown together.) I told him my plan and he said, “Who will help you on the train?” I don’t know. Someone? No one? He decided to go with me to the train station Monday morning, even though his train for home didn’t leave until Monday evening. I told him it was ridiculous for him to sit in the train station for 12 hours and that I would be fine on my own. But if a Chinese person wants to help you, they’re going to help you. You can only argue so much. (I don’t agree with all of Confucius’ teachings, but his ideas about respect toward teachers have been a great benefit to me personally.)

My student and I took the subway early on Monday. He found a comfortable seat and a cup of coffee, and I got on the train to Xi’an with little drama (the signs are not that hard to follow) and found my hard sleeper. I’m not sure if I’d want to sleep a long time on it, but it’s nice to stretch your legs and have a place to put your stuff next to you. The train took about 10 hours and tada! Xi’an.

I stayed at Hantang House, which I recommend. It’s very nice, bathrooms en suite, clean, beautiful dark wood, not too expensive, great location, a little noisy in the evenings but not unbearably so. The beer is not cheap, so it’s not the kind of hostel where you pre-game for your night out. But I wasn’t really there for night life. I stayed in an eight-woman dorm so I could have more money for other activities. That turned out great. Most of my roommates were Chinese, and they are used to sharing and being respectful. Your results may vary during peak season. (The most disrespectful people I encountered on this trip were Americans. Ugh. They weren’t that bad, they just stood out compared to everyone else.) I wasn’t in the room much, anyway, so aside from the need to lock my things in the locker when I left, I didn’t miss having a private room. So I checked in, signed up for the tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors the next day, drank a beer, and went to bed.


I have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors since I first heard about them on Ripley’s Believe it or Not! at at age seven or so. I saw the touring exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but there is more to explore. A bunch of us from the hostel took a van with a tour guide.

Overall, I enjoyed it. In Minneapolis I got to see some of the warriors up close, but it was hard to grasp the scale of how huge the project is. (And then after all that, they just covered it up and killed all the workmen.) But it was a bit overwhelming and a bit rushed. The tour guide was kind of a B-minus. I know she didn’t want us to feel bored and like we spent too much time there, but I think she erred too far on the other side. I’m really glad I went, but maybe going on my own would have been a better choice. Certainly less expensive.

That evening, four of us from the tour met up to go to the water fountain show at the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. A water fountain show sounds totally Vegas—music plays and the water shoots up in time to the music and there are colored lights. But it was free, so what the hell, right? I did like it more than I thought I would. It was 30 minutes but didn’t feel too long.

We were a little cold from sitting by the fountain, so we got some noodles afterward at First Noodle Under the Sun. The Xi’an specialty is biang biang mian, which I guess is one bigass noodle in a bowl. It was delicious. All the food in Xi’an was really good, without being burn-the-paint-off-the-ceiling hot like in Chongqing.


I struck out on my own and immediately got lost. I had a decent map, and Xi’an is laid out like a grid, but for some reason I had a hard time getting around. The map made things look closer together than they were, and that did not help. After about 90 minutes of fruitless staggering around (which, really, isn’t so long to be lost if you really think about it), I found the Muslim Quarter. And lucky me, it was time for lunch.

The Muslim Quarter is my new favorite thing. So much food, so many things to look at. I love the points where cultures intersect, and the Muslim-Chinese market was so stimulating to my brain (and belly). So I walked around there and ate hot beef on a bun. What else do I need?

The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are both nearby. Since I had to pay to go to them, I decided I’d pick one, not both. Drum Tower it is! It was pretty. They had a lot of antique furniture on display. It was fine, I don’t regret going, but it’s not a can’t-miss unless you really love architecture or furniture.

I wandered a bit more and found myself by the West Gate of the ancient city walls. I had plans to explore the walls; why not now? I paid to get in and decided to rent a bike to ride around the walls. That was a great decision. I would have been a little bored at walking speed, but riding was perfect. The ride was a little rough at times, and I think navigating through crowds might be stressful on a busy day, but this was great. (I was sore the next day; going on a ten-mile ride after no biking for months was not easy!) I also got into a conversation with another rider who just moved to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a small world.


On the Terra Cotta Warriors tour I had met a woman named Jo, and we decided to attempt to visit the Tomb of Jing Di independent of the Hantang tour group. We both like museums and felt rushed on the Warriors tour. We set out to take the subway and a bus, and it worked out really well. I also started to feel like I was in possession of some useful Chinese skills. The Xi’an accent is much easier to understand than the Chongqing accent, and I was able to conduct simple transactions. Knowing that “图书馆” means “library” meant we got off the subway at the correct stop. Practical language skills at work!

The Tomb of Jing Di is not world famous, but it’s really fascinating. Jing Di had a burial site with terra cotta effigies of men, women, eunuchs, and animals and chariots. The bodies of the humans were about ten inches high and dressed in silk clothing. Each face was individually carved, although the bodies looked to be mass-produced (with a bit of extra attention to the genitals). It looked like a Fisher-Price My First Emperor’s Tomb, and I just wanted to get on my knees and play with the pieces.

After half a day, we returned to Xi’an proper. I was hungry and Jo was cold, so we went to (sigh) Starbucks for a warm-up and then back to the Muslim Quarter for something delicious. We ended up getting deeper into the Quarter than I had on my own and found the places where the actual residents buy their goods. My big honky face apparently gave some gentleman quite a start, according to Jo, who was walking behind me. It’s interesting how unaccustomed to Westerners some Chinese are. (Xi’an was the first place I actually heard people refer to me as 老外, although that could be because their accent is easier to understand.)


Jo reported that the Shaanxi Museum was worthwhile and also free, so I did my best to find it. I had another bout of being lost and wandering in the wrong direction, but I got there. I found a lot of really incredible artifacts and historical pieces. Quite crowded, but I was still able to see everything I wanted. I highly recommend it.

The crowds did make me want to do something a bit more relaxing afterward. I made my way back to the Big Wild Goose Pavilion. I ate again at First Noodle Under the Sun and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens around the pavilion. I didn’t pay to go inside, but I felt I had enough to do. I bought a coffee and just watched the people outside, then walked a bit more when I felt ready. I also walked up and down a street called “Chinatown,” mostly out of curiosity. It looked like a Bar Street with some restaurants (mostly Korean and Indian). OK, call it Chinatown if you want, Xi’an, see if I care.


I didn’t really have a plan for Saturday, unfortunately. I was leaving, but not until later. I think I thought I’d sleep in a bit longer than I did and have less time to fill. So what did I do? Starbucks, then Muslim Quarter for lunch. Hey, it’s my damn trip, I’ll do what I want.

I did pop my head into the Great Mosque. I had read that there would be a charge and that I would not be admitted during prayer times. No one charged me, and no one stopped me from going into the courtyard. I removed my shoes and went into the mosque itself. I looked around a bit, then the imam saw me and shooed me out. It was really beautiful (again, cultural intersections), but all my photos from the courtyard got lost.

I did a little more shopping. Then I thought, what the hell, I’m going to get a massage. There is a place in the Muslim Quarter that advertises massage by the blind. I was still sore from the bike ride and general walking around, so I went for a full body. I kept my clothes on and the guy worked on my through my clothes with a cloth over. He had really good technique and I felt much better afterward.

Overall, I really love Xi’an. Except for the pollution. I should have bought a mask to wear, and if I’d stayed longer, I would have. I felt horrible every night, with a hot scratchy throat and watery eyes. I may go back some day, but I really hope they can manage the air quality. (Some of my students are environmental engineers; Godspeed, you guys!)

At that point, it was time to return to the hostel, pick up my bag, and go to the train station. And there my troubles began.


my (first?) Christmas in China

This is what it's all about, you guys.
This is what it’s all about, you guys.

About 3 weeks ago, my students started telling me, “Christmas will be coming soon.” Oh, really? It does seem a little strange, since the grass is still green. And it’s cold, but a different kind of cold than back home (partly because many buildings are indifferently heated–my home is OK, but the classrooms are like meat lockers with less ambience). And it stays light a little bit later than back home. So it feels like mid-October, not Christmassy at all.

Then around December 15, the Christmas decorations came out everywhere. Mostly just pictures of Santa’s face plastered everywhere. The library coffeeshop had two Christmas trees, one of the Charlie Brown variety. Decorations tend toward the garish; I bought myself a little wreath made entirely of tinsel. (I showed a photo to one of my students but I forgot to explain irony to him first. He thought it was a little strange, and he wasn’t wrong.)

So we have Christmas here. But we still have to work. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day in most of the US, I suppose–it’s just a fun thing to do with your friends. Also worth noting that 圣诞节快乐 translates as “happy gift-giving festival” and 圣诞老人 is “gift-giving old man.” What’s the reason for the season?

It’s apples. I don’t totally understand, but I guess the word for apple rhymes with the word for good luck, so it’s traditional to eat an apple on Christmas Eve. (So maybe we should eat wood duck?) One of my students bought me an apple in a little cardboard gift box, which is apparently a fashionable thing among students. So I ate that after work, and answered a butt-ton of “Merry Christmas” texts from students.

Then Thursday I had my normal office hours. I could have cancelled them, but my Friday students had their final on Saturday, and I wanted to help them if they had questions. A few students brought me candy and the cards in the photo (I DIE), and I brought some candy with Santa on the package that was kind of nasty. (Side note: I’ve barely had chocolate since I’ve been here, and I don’t really miss it. No wonder my jeans fit like a gang-banger’s.) A few teachers had a little Christmas party that afternoon, but I didn’t want to drink before work.

And that was it. I had a little trouble expressing to my students that I don’t really care about Christmas. I told them that the important thing about Christmas for me is being with my family, and since I can’t do that, it’s not that important. And I explained that Christmas is most fun with little kids around. And I tried to explain that not all Americans celebrate Christmas (they were tickled by the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food). I told them that I’m not a typical American. (Who is?) But you know, it’s sweet of them to care.

cultural explorations

We made these!
We made these!

I’m trying not to be the kind of expat who only speaks my native language and hangs out with other expats. So far I’ve achieved about a B-minus in this area. This is mostly due to language barriers. Chinese is fairly impenetrable to me. I have a tutor who is helping me, but it’s slow going. She and I are both trying new things to help me, but I can’t exactly make a lot of sentences yet.

I did learn how to make Chinese dumplings! I eat them a few times a week. There is a restaurant near me that makes amazing dumplings. And they have a menu I can point to, which is key (I only recognize a few characters, but most of them are food-related by design). I’m going to miss those dumplings when I return home, so when Emily, my Chinese tutor, offered to show me how to make them myself, I cheerfully agreed.

One Sunday morning, Emily came to my apartment and took inventory. I had very little stuff in my kitchen. “In China,” she explained, “we cut our vegetables on a board.” Yeah, I’m familiar. I just haven’t bought one yet. So we walked to the supermarket and bought all the ingredients and tools.

Food shopping is a much more active process here than in the US. I usually just skulk into the meat department and grab what I need out of the cooler. If I do need to approach the meat counter, I wait to catch the eye of the counter worker and say something like, “Excuse me, terribly sorry to trouble you, but could I have a pound of sliced turkey? Please oh please?” But Emily seemed to be straight up negotiating with the guy to get a decent cut of meat. I don’t know a lot about meat, not because I’m American, but because I’m a bonehead. So I’m not sure if I can go back and recreate these dumplings, even though I mostly know what to say to the butcher.

After we had everything, we came back home and started working. Emily knows her way around food and the kitchen. She kept sniffing the cabbage and saying, “So fresh!” It really was, but I don’t know if I would have noted it the way she did. When my students did presentations on cultural differences, I got a little offended when they said that Chinese culture values delicious food more than Western culture does. But maybe they aren’t entirely off base. (And to be fair, many of my students have never met a foreigner before meeting me; they don’t mean to offend, they just copy-pasted from the wrong source.)

Dumplings are less of a recipe and more of a technique. I had trouble pinching the outsides so that they’d stay together. A few of my early ones fell apart, but Emily said that stirring the pot in the same direction would keep things together, so we could eat least eat the insides and outsides separately. I got better, and the end results were pretty good. I will likely change the insides to suit my tastes (we used pork, cabbage, ginger, and garlic) next time.

Emily also taught me Chinese paper-cut art. I thought this was going to be an unusual technique, but it’s essentially making paper snowflakes. Paper snowflakes are one of my favorite things to do to unwind. We used lightweight red paper and little scissors, and they turned out really well. Truthfully, mine looked as good as or better than Emily’s. I’m planning to look for more paper at the shops near the Sichuan Art Institute and go to town on them. My place could use some decoration.

Also, I’m making a Chinese friend, I guess? Truthfully, I was looking to date, but I met this guy and he sort of declared it a friendship before I had a chance to declare otherwise. Honestly, I am having a little trouble getting my head around dating here. Most of my students have very little dating experience. They were too busy studying so they could get into college. So maybe they’ll start now, maybe they’ll wait until they’re done with school. But they want to be married by age 27 (especially women) because anything older is “left over.” So nobody has any experience and wants to meet the love of their life right away so they can be saved from being single. Getting experience does not seem to be valued. I suppose the closest analogy would be Mormons.

But this guy seems cool, and I could certainly use a friend here. We had lunch today. It kind of felt like a date, but maybe because it was a little awkward due to the language barrier (his English is not so great, but much better than my Chinese). And he ordered and paid, but that’s a normal Chinese thing. And we talked about going out next time. But his keychain has a heart-shaped photo on it (not that he mentioned a lady friend). So, I’m thinking not a date. Oh, well, maybe he knows someone. Shit’s kind of overwhelming enough without getting too into dating, maybe?

my first Chinese haircut

Do you think it's red enough?
Do you think it’s red enough?

I don’t know when I became the kind of person who cares a lot about her hair, but I am. Maybe it was when I was lucky enough to encounter my Minneapolis hair stylist, Bri, who showed me that my hair can look great with a great stylist, and most stylists are merely good. And then when I went from blonde to red, I found I could stand out in a good way and still look like myself, not a Halloween costume. So I’ve been stressing about getting my hair done here.

I picked a place called Yes I Do in Shapingba, partly because I could see in the windows and it looked like a nice place. I also thought the English name meant they’d be a little more cosmopolitan. Maybe they wouldn’t expect me to have the thick lovely black hair most Chinese people seem to have, and that I would need a different approach in cut and dye.

I showed up around 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday, and most of the staff was just hanging around. A few of the stylists seemed to be washing and styling their own hair. This is something we definitely did at the spa I worked at, but not in full view of paying clients. My Chinese tutor had taught me how to ask for a haircut and color, but I forgot, so I just mimed finger scissors and said, “颜色,” which means color. I also showed them a photo of myself with a lovely Bri cut and henna color (reddish brown).

They had me lock my purse in a locker, and a guy I took to be a manager, since he wasn’t wearing a uniform, took me to a seat in front of a mirror and looked at my hair. He then passed me to another chair, where the Permist/Colorist (that is what her name tag said in English and Chinese) took a look at my hair.

Then the confusing part came. The manager showed me a book with a price list and was basically like, “Which one?” I don’t get it. The cheapest one, I suppose? The Permist/Colorist managed to get it through my head that the price would depend on which type of dye they used. So I just picked the cheapest one. Like I know which dye to use. She then had me put on a kimono, then a cape, then got to work applying dye. She also brought out a glass of water with a straw, which turned out to be hot and not ice water. I’m getting tired of saying “assume nothing in China,” but it is never not true.

I could tell she was an experienced colorist, but she left that dye on my hair a long-ass time. Some of the other stylists came up and looked at my head while she was working. I was blind, since I of course wasn’t wearing glasses, and that’s always disorienting and uncomfortable. Finally she guided me to the shampoo bowl. She washed out my hair and gave me a little scalp massage. Now, everywhere I’d read that Chinese hair stylists will stone cold give you a 30-minute chair massage. Not here.

Then the Permist/Colorist passed me back to the guy I thought was the manager in a third chair, and he cut my hair. I was a little stunned to realize that my hair color looks like the Heat Miser and was, I can’t lie, fighting back some tears. I think he did a fine job cutting my hair, but not great. He didn’t add any layers, so that shit is going to collapse under its own weight in a few weeks. (But I didn’t know how to say that.) Like I said, my hair is not like Chinese hair, and the same old techniques are not going to work. Also, he didn’t use any product, which I found odd.

So, the result is what you see in the photo. I’m getting used to it. I washed a lot of dye out this morning and added some product, and it looks a little more like me. It’s still insanely red, though. The nice thing about the henna was that it looks natural. People legitimately told me they thought it was my natural color. Nobody is going to make that mistake now. But it will fade, and it will grow. Meanwhile, I am thinking of a new strategy, maybe grow it shoulder-length and go back to (sigh) blonde.

Yongchuan weekend

Probably my best photo from Dazu Rock Carvings
Probably my best photo from Dazu Rock Carvings

I’ve been in China for a month. I haven’t got enough perspective to really write about it yet, but I’m working on it. I’ve been busy preparing lessons and teaching–on paper it’s only a few hours per week, but it takes a lot of prep time! For now I’m just going to write about what I did this weekend.

My first day here I met a few people from my placement agency. They, and a few others from that group that I hadn’t met, got together last weekend to watch rugby and go out, and we talked about visiting Dazu caves. Kate arranged for us to stay at her home in Yongchuan (which is technically Chongqing, but it’s about 90 minutes from where I am, and I’m at the end of the subway line) and go there together. I was a little anxious because I am kind of a loner and don’t do well if I don’t have my space. But I know these people and like them, so I went.

Friday night we took a shuttle bus from Chongqing University campus to Kate’s school. Yes, CQU is where I work, but this is a different campus than the one where I live and work. It’s not exactly far, but it’s not exactly near. The bus got to Kate’s around 10 pm. That’s also known as “bedtime” around my house, but once I saw everyone and had a few cheap Chinese beers, I was fine.

After a little talking and drinking and eating of peanut butter (!), we went to Yongchuan’s Bar Street. China shuts down early. Hardly anyone was there at 11:30 pm on a Friday. It was a cute little area with a walkway on the water, but where were the people? We ended up at…Hooters. It wasn’t bad–they had pool and some cute Tibetan guys. (Young Tibetan guys; I pinched their cheeks and gave them a Werther’s.) I should note that the waitresses wore sweatsuits, not traditional Hooters gear. Assume nothing in China, I always say.

After that, we headed back toward Kate’s house, but stopped for shao pao (I’m guessing the spelling) on the way. And more beer, I think. There were some Chinese guys who were really into our friend Brennan. Like, Chinese guys are a little more touchy-feely with their male friends than Americans are, and they decided Brennan was one of the boys, to the point where he almost got a lap dance. So they were speaking Chinese to some of us, and one of them asked me if I speak Chinese. I said, “Look, guys, I don’t mean to brag, but I can count to ten.” So I showed them and we all counted to ten together. I’m sure they thought I was ridiculous, and they were probably right.

We had to get up early in the morning because the water was going to be shut off and we needed to take showers. My friend Tahina and I stayed in Kate’s friend’s apartment, since they were out of town, but the other 5 were packed into her place. We made it to the bus station and met The Canadians. The Canadians are teachers at a Canadian school in Yongchuan. That’s a thing, as the kids say. We weren’t able to get a bus to Dazu until 12:30 pm, and the bus took about 90 minutes to get to Dazu, so we shot the shit for a while and hung out at a weird park and got stared at. Once in Dazu we caught a city bus to the caves.

If you get a chance to see the Dazu Rock Carvings, do it. I think I will go one more time before I leave China if I can, despite the expense and long trip. It was really beautiful and tranquil, and the carvings themselves were spectacular. I am a terrible photographer and my pictures don’t do it justice. I also felt a little rushed because I got separated from the main group because I went to the bathroom when they were buying tickets and a bunch of other shenanigans.

After we got back to Yongchuan, we went out for hot pot. Hot pot is a Chongqing specialty. I’ve been asked several times since I’ve gotten here if I’ve had hot pot, and I can now say yes. Apparently, Chongqing hot pot is different than other Asian hot pots, I think due to the spices. A pot of broth is put on the table and cooked to a boil (there was a burner built into the table; a smaller restaurant near my home uses a hot plate, I think). Then you throw whatever you want–vegetables, raw meat–in. When it’s cooked, fish it out and eat it with some dipping oil you have added custom spices to. This place was buffet style, so we could grab whatever and chuck it in and not have to risk random brains or buttholes in the pot. It was good, but the place was about 88 degrees and humid. Fortunately, beer is included in the price (!). The imitation crab, bacon, and shrimp dumplings were really good. But hot pot gets spicier the longer it simmers, so I didn’t eat as much as I might have.

The others went to da klerb after that, but I was way too tired. I instead woke up early and left around 7:30 a.m. to head home. I was pleased that I was able to find the correct bus to get home (with help from friends). I did have a little trouble in Chongqing proper. I was on the city bus on my way to Shapingba station when the bus driver said something and everyone got off. I don’t know why, but I thought it was prudent to just get off, too, even though I didn’t know where I was.

I found a taxi and asked for the subway. I couldn’t understand why the driver had so much trouble with my request. I even used my phone app to translate. What’s the deal, Chinese taxi driver? Well, he drove me 100 feet and pointed: There was the subway entrance. Oh, OK. I tried to pay him but he refused. It took me about an hour to get home and the subway was packed, but I made it.

assume nothing here

A photo from Shapingba district, just a few subway stops from where I live.
A photo from Shapingba district, just a few subway stops from where I live.

In the words of Barenaked Ladies, IT’S BEEN…one week. It feels like a month. I feel like I’ve been here for a very long time, but I still have a lot to learn and do for the first time.

I betta’ work!
I haven’t started teaching yet. I arrived on the 27th. October 1-7 is National Holiday (celebrates the founding of PRC), so I haven’t started teaching yet. Also, the freshmen I teach have 4 weeks of compulsory military training, so they haven’t started classes either.

I will be teaching Level 1 freshmen. They have had English in school, but they did not test into a high level of college English. Did you know that all college freshmen in China take English? Can you imagine if all American college freshmen had to take Chinese? (Seriously, though, monolinguists are going to get left behind. Teach your kids a world language.)

Interesting note about the students I observed: They know a lot about the world. They’re informed. One student referenced Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There is a stereotype that China is isolated from the world in the way that North Korea is. It’s not true. I think it’s more that China is, like the United States, big enough that they don’t have to pay as much attention to the outside.

I have no idea what anything costs
Some things are so ridiculously cheap. 100RMB is about $15, just for reference. A can of Coke is 2.30-3.00RMB. A short cab ride is 10RMB. A bowl of soup at a hole-in-the-wall place is like 12RMB. But I wanted to buy nail polish today, and it was 210RMB! Bare nails it is. The more Chinese you can live, the cheaper you can live. I’m still getting used to learning what’s a normal price and what isn’t.

I am huge and weird-looking
The first day I was here, the program coordinators took us on an outing to a really old part of the city. We got stared at a lot there. One of the women is fairly tall with blonde hair and blue eyes, and people were calling out “Hi!” to her; one person asked her to pose for a photo. Later on, some teens came up to me and were saying, “Hello. Beautiful! Beautiful!” I’m like, yeah, I know, but nobody at home is stopping me on the street to tell me that.

For the most part, nobody gives me a second glance on campus. The students don’t care. Sometimes I’ll get looks from older people, especially women, if I wear something that shows my legs, which are pretty chunky by Chinese standards. Older guys will stare sometimes. I just smile, which doesn’t seem to do anything.

I know that China is much more homogenous than the US (although it’s 8% minority groups, so maybe not as homogenous as we normally assume). But I guess I thought there would be more diversity on campus. I was in Shapingba district today. I must have seen a few thousand people today, and I was the only white person. And believe me, I looked. Being a minority is a good experience, but it can’t be fun every day.

I am illiterate and a huge dumb-dumb
I studied Chinese in college, but it didn’t really take. I’m doing some self-study, but it’s slow going. I think learning Chinese isn’t so much difficult as time-consuming, so bird by bird. We will have free Chinese lessons after the holiday, and I think I might be able to get a tutor as well.

I had a volunteer help me last week with things like setting up internet, buying a phone, etc. But he’s busy and has his own life, so I’m mostly on my own. I can buy food at a supermarket–just grab stuff that looks not-too-weird and hand it to the cashier. Ordering at a place with counter service is a bit more complicated. Truthfully, I avoid it, although I have gathered the courage to look foolish and do it a few times. I just point and take what I get. So far, so good.

When people say things to me, I just smile and shrug. I can say hello and thank you. Thank you gets a lot of play. People mostly just keep talking in Chinese, even though I obviously don’t know what they’re saying. Not unlike what I do at home. But you can get pretty far with pointing and holding up fingers. And I’m damn lucky that I speak English.

Truly, everything I assume turns out to be not quite true. I still have a lot to learn about this place, even though I’ve made huge strides this week. It’s really, really difficult, but it gets easier every day.

OK, for real this time

Artist's rendition.
Artist’s rendition.

My visa will be in my hot little hand on Wednesday. I leave Thursday evening. I arrive Saturday morning (yeah, that’s going to be a long-ass flight). It is finally happening.

Not much else new to report. I’ll do a longer post on studying Chinese–I’ve found a lot of resources over the last week or so that have made things easier. I’m also taking an edX course on Chinese history, and that’s been useful. Still haven’t fit everything into my suitcases, but I guess I’d better do that.

I have to say, every time I think I’ve gotten to the point where I have achieved a state of healthy acceptance and infinite patience, something happens to make me realize that I have a lot of expectations about how things should go down. That’s good, and it’s part of what’s going to make this a good and enriching experience for me. I just have to walk the fine line between accepting what I can’t control and being passive about my situation(s).

Next time I update, I’ll be in China.

another change in plans

Where are the magical giant visa pandas when I need them?
Where are the magical giant visa pandas when I need them?

Remember how I was planning to leave on Monday the 18th? Well, I didn’t get my visa, so that’s not happening. I am a silly person and I assumed that, since I was expected to arrive in China on the 20th, the visa would be ready by then. I guess it COULD have been ready, in theory. Theory isn’t practice. Lesson learned.

Just a paragraph of reassurance: I still have a job waiting for me. The school wants me, but the government is taking longer for whatever reason. I’m not the only one in Chongqing with this issue, so there will be a separate orientation for us, and I’ll start work when I’m ready. I did have to cancel my reservation (yes, I made reservations without a visa–ask me how well that worked out), but it wasn’t as expensive as one might guess (and I believe the school will cover the cost). And my friends said I can stay with them longer if needed.

So, now what? I guess I have some time to take care of a few things I wanted to do before I leave. I can go to the Minnesota State Fair! My friend says she might have some work I can take care of (for money, which is a thing I may run out of if I treat this like some crazy pre-China rumspringa). I can study Chinese in earnest.

Psychologically, though, it’s taking a toll. I turn 40 tomorrow, and it’s a natural time to look forward and backward. But I don’t know what I’m looking forward to, or how long I have to wait until I get out of this liminal state. The birthday is just adding to the weirdness of the situation.