Some Wandering

Let’s be honest: I’ve neglected this blog since the summer, and even in the spring, I got skimpy with my updates.

I’m not here to give excuses, though I have to admit I did type a few before I decided on the moral high ground and deleted them. Let’s play catch up instead.

Last May I helped chaperone a trip to Beijing (not to be confused with the trip Xiao Ming and I took later in June to Beijing with the six high schoolers, although Xiao Ming did join me for the Lego trip, too. She helped out quite a bit when we needed to find a hospital for a student who somehow wound up with an infected insect bite of some sort, but more on that at a later time) with 23 middle schoolers for a Lego Competition at the British International School, Xiao Ming and I took the three-day weekend of Dragon Boat Festival to visit Nanjing and Hangzhou (West Lake and the storied Lei Feng Pagoda were inspirational for another novel idea), I travelled to Shanghai with a couple friends for a Guy’s Weekend in the middle of June, went back to Beijing for another chaperoning trip (wrote about that already), spent all of July in France (a few days in Paris then a train ride south to Nice where we camped in a one-hobbit sized hole in the wall for more than three weeks while we hung out on the oddly comfortable stony beach and wandered around ancient villages tucked away in mountains–all while also working on our tans), started work in August and welcomed new teachers, another Guy’s Weekend to South Korea to catch a baseball game, took part in some professional development, one of which sent me, along with three others, down to Shenzhen, a southern city next to Hong Kong for the weekend, and then…

Nangjing, Hangzhou, Beijing Legos 463

Nangjing, Hangzhou, Beijing Legos 615

Nangjing, Hangzhou, Beijing Legos 442

Sun Yat-Sen, Father of Modern Day China and leader of the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing.
Sun Yat-Sen, Father of Modern Day China and leader of the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing.
Ruins of the original Lei Feng Pagoda beneath the newly built one.
Ruins of the original Lei Feng Pagoda beneath the newly built one.

France 2014 198

France 2014 112

France 2014 156

At night they break from their stone prison and fly around Paris protecting people....I may be thinking of a different kind of Gargoyle...
At night they break from their stone prison and fly around Paris protecting people….I may be thinking of a different kind of Gargoyle…

France 2014 241

France 2014 248

France 2014 063

France 2014 616

France 2014 609

France 2014 573

__ 1(2)

France 2014 025

France 2014 038

France 2014 157

France 2014 146

France 2014 114

France 2014 074

France 2014 167

France 2014 181

__ 2(4)

I suppose the next thing I should mention is that Xiao Ming and I got married.

As I write this, the two of us are in Sanya, the only sunny, beach paradise that China has to offer, spending the winter break and our honeymoon soaking up some sun and enjoying the sand and water. It has been a very relaxing trip, and I’m incredibly glad that the cloudy,windy weather of the first few days passed by, letting the sun out for a measure of freedom that has made for gorgeous afternoons and cool evenings.

Now that we are officially fuqi (a married couple), it would be dishonest not to disclose a personal agenda of mine. Part of my master plan to indoctrinate Xiao Ming into American culture includes movies, and so, each evening leading up to and including Christmas, we watched well-known American Christmas flicks. We watched Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and the list would have continued, but, unlike me, she has a hard time sitting still for extended periods of idleness. Last Christmas we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation–my personal favorite, and next Christmas I intend on expanding the list to include all I’ve mentioned (because repetition ad nauseam is the key to any happy family tradition) and also A Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, and even though it’s not a Christmas story, per se, and even though we’ve already watched it, my second favorite, Groundhog’s Day.

This idea occurred to my while we were in France. At some point we somehow stumbled into a conversation about the great American patriot, Rocky Balboa, and it became obvious to me that Xiao Ming did not know of his remarkable tale. I remedied that by downloading all six films and watching them with her over a week-long period. A lover of American music, mostly the Grammy winners CD collections from the nineties and early 2000s, Xiao Ming surprised me by having very limited knowledge of film. Through my detailed investigation I uncovered that she is not familiar with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and basically any Western that has Mr Badass Himself, The Man with No Name–Clint Freaking Eastwood.

This is actually all my fault. I should have guessed this alarming deficiency a long time ago when she and I watched all three Back to the Futures and she admitted having never seen them before. Yes, I dropped the ball, but I’ve since picked it up, dusted it off, and taken to carrying it around with me so much that people make their small children walk on the opposite side of the street as me.

My point is, as you can no doubt guess, I like swimming on vacations.




During New Year’s Eve, the two of us attempted to find a bar, but Sanya’s nightlife is a bit….local. I have no qualms with chillin’ in mostly Chinese bars, but these ones were not just bars, they were Disco Bars. Full of emotionless, talentless, techno schizophrenia and too many identically young nouveau riche, or as they call them in Mandarin, baofahu, toting around phones the size of my forearm, these places are just a jumble of noise and posturing egomania. So we ditched the effort, found a reasonably quiet patch of sand along the beach, and brought in 2015 holding each other, talking of our hopes for the year, and kissing.

And then they lit off an inordinate amount of fireworks because, you know, China.

We’re here for a few more days, and then we head back to Dalian and the Siberian winds that whip across the peninsula and force people into several layers of clothing, one of which usually being long, thick, fuzzy underwear. Can’t wait to get back.

Last School Trip of the Year

This is what it feels like for me to be in Beijing...
This is what it feels like for me to be in Beijing…

On my fifth time to Beijing I found an area that I’d actually like to visit again. Generally, as a rule, I dislike Beijing with a fiery passion. The only other big Chinese city that’s elicited such ire from me is Zhengzhou. Each time I’ve been in Beijing the weather has been atrocious, the crowds overwhelming, and the humidity incapacitating, but on this fifth go-round things were different.
Xiao Ming and I chaperoned an internship with six high school students during the final week of June. Overall, it was uneventful (that adjective is good when children are involved) and pleasant (that adjective just isn’t often associated with the Chinese capital).

photo(81)We had reservations at the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, a clean, centrally located place that served pretty decent Chinese and Western food. The staff, young and mostly helpful, was overworked, and sometimes it was easy to see. The area known as Sanlitun has a bit of a flashy, sordid past, but over the last few years it has grown into just a popular area for expats to shop, drink, and entertain themselves between sightseeing and whatever other business they have there.













The weather also seemed to be on our side, mostly. Sunny, blue skies greeted us each day, and at night I could even see a few stars. Summer in Beijing is hot. We walked the students to the company the first couple days, but even at 8:30 we were drenched by the time we got there. We let them take cabs after two days of that.

photo(57) That first day at the company, a water conservation non-profit called THIRST, we stayed with the students until after lunch, just to make sure everything ran smoothly. The six of them had been quiet since Xiao Ming and I met them at the train station a day before, and we still hadn’t heard them talk much. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was just…odd. The last two trips I took with students felt like I was a cat herder. This group almost made me feel like I wasted my time coming along for the trip. After the first day of this oddly self-sufficient behavior, I changed my approach. I gave them curfews, the hostel’s business card, and gave them perimeters they couldn’t pass. That did the trick. After that they were more talkative, friendlier, and always on time. The reason these six kids were chosen for the internship is because they were rock stars already. Mature, responsible, and focused. I did not need to babysit these guys like I did the 22 middle schoolers when we went to Beijing in May, or the 23 High Schoolers I went to Ningxia with.

Xiao Ming and I used our afternoons to turn the trip into a pre-summer vacation vacation. Once we dropped the kids off at the company, we would wander around the city. I finally got to see the Summer Palace, the one tourist sight I’d yet to see. It wasn’t as crowded as many other places because it wasn’t a holiday, and the complex sits pretty far away from the center of the city. Wandering around in the heat zapped us, and while sitting and resting on the bridge near the palace, both of us fell asleep for forty minutes. When we woke up old Chinese couples were smiling at us.



Or we would hang out at the very hip and modern, Korean-owned Café Groove across the street from the hostel. This place had a modern-artistic-industrial feel to it, and in the evenings they opened their glass walls so that it became an open-air café with free wifi and comfy seats. Even the students chilled there a few times in the evenings.

Maybe the "Customer" called this number. You can find these all over the streets. They're exactly what you think they are. The sidewalk equivalent of that bathroom stall, "For a good time, call..." note.
Maybe the “Customer” called this number. You can find these all over the streets. They’re exactly what you think they are. The sidewalk equivalent of that bathroom stall, “For a good time, call…” note.

Sitting in Café Groove also allowed Xiao Ming and me to play a game we dubbed, “Count the Prostitutes.”
While the area has been made relatively cleaner due to the police and local government shutting down some bars due to solicitation, people are crafty. As we sat there, people watching, I noticed two very tall, thin, dolled-up Chinese women walking along the back of the café, down an alley behind the hotel next door. These girls came by like five minutes a part, but both in the same direction. They also both checked their phone the same way, as if checking a time or number, and then tucked it away.

By the third, nearly identical girl, I told Xiao Ming, and we watched as three more girls walked by in a matter of minutes. Unable to fight my curiosity, I stood by the outside of the café and watched as another girl walked by.
This time, however, I saw where she went. Five tall Chinese guys, broader than the average Chinese man, stood guard at the back door of the hotel. All of them wore snazzy suits, and one sat at a computer set just inside the doorway. The girl (and all of the other ones probably) went to him, leaned down, looked at the screen, and then stood and entered the elevator and disappeared. I relayed this to Xiao Ming, and she also checked it out the next time we saw a girl walk by.

On her return to our table, she said that it was definitely prostitution because after the girl got in the elevator one of the guards radioed someone in the hotel and said the girl had arrived for the customer in a specific room number. Each evening, Xiao Ming and I hung out at Café Groove and played our game as the students worked on their computers. There were a few times that we lost count, too. If the cops are at your front door, use the back, I guess.

Because it was a school trip, and Xiao Ming and I were “On” the whole week, we didn’t get to partake of the nightlife in Sunlitun. Arguably, one of the best areas in Beijing to hang out and drink, the JiuBa Jie (Bar Street) was off limits to us. We found it, saw it, walked the perimeter, but did not dive in. Next time…
The week flew by, and before we knew it, Friday had arrived and a train ride back to Dalian was in order. The students had a good time and learned a lot during the week, Xiao Ming and I met some cool people at THIRST and had a nice mini-trip, and most importantly: no one lost any limbs. We boarded the train, and six and a half hours later we said goodbye to the kids as their parents picked them up at the Dalian North Station. Third Chaperoned Trip during my First Year. Done.

It's a gated alley. No exit, no entrance. Someone had another thought.
It’s a gated alley. No exit, no entrance. Someone had another thought.



"Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our hearts."....Hmmm
“Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our hearts.”….Hmmm




Beijing and the Great Wall: Part 2 [better late than never]

The Great Wall at Mutianyu
In this part of the Wall there was foliage and brush growing all around. Made the scenery more breathtaking, and provided a few “artistic” shots.
Snapped a shot of us while we were in one of the observation towers along the Wall.
Off the beaten path. This section of the Wall was not open to the general public, but we ended up wandering passed the sign anyways. You can see how decrepit and overgrown this section has become.
Overgrown and untraveled for hundreds of years, but not forgotten.
We kept walking throught the trees and bushes until we came to what remains of an old observation tower.

Up ahead, still overgrown and unkept, the Wall stretches into and beyond the mountains.
This is the sign we ignored.

There are two ways to get down from the wall: Skii-lift or Toboggan ride. Guess what we chose…
The next day we wandered around Beijing. Tian’anmen Square and The Forbidden City.
We took this vacation during the National Day holiday, so we also saw a lot of military marches.

Just one of the many people who kept wanting pictures taken with us. I wish I could find out how many pictures we turn up in by the end of this year. People just randomly snap phtos of us all the time.
Jade is a huge piece of Chinese culture. All over the place there were Jade statues and carved trinkets that Dynasties have valued for hundreds of years.
The artistic carvings on the roofs and the edges of the buildings were quite impressive.
Standing inside the first courtyard of the Forbidden City

It’s goodluck to touch these red knobs. I have no idea why.

We explored the Forbidden City and snapped pictures all day, taking in the history and the beauty of the place. As they usually do in China, the hordes of people eventually got a bit bothersome, so we began walking back to the train station to make our way to the airport.

Along the way we were stopped by a man on a rickshaw (like a pedicab–a man riding a bike with a carriage on the back of it). Now, I should have known he was trouble, but alas, hindsight and all…Anyway, we bargain a price I perceive to be 30 rmb. He nods his head and reconfirms the price by showing me his fingers. All is good. Noelle and I climb in and off we go. After just a moment another rickshaw driver peddles over and makes some big commotion over the carriage being off-balance or whatnot. So Noelle is ushered into the seat of the second driver’s ride. We amble about the city, cruising along peacefully, taking in the sights–which include the rundown back neighborhoods and the darker street corners. We’re supposed to be going back to Tian’anmen Square.

My driver turns down one of those alleys that looks like it could be a stop on a murder tour of Beijing. Of course no one is around. Noelle’s ride shows up. I climb out of mine and walk over to her as she gets out. I open my wallet to pay the man. When I hand him the money he laughs. Laughs? He motions that it is not enough. The other driver, a man in his mid to late thirties, comes over. I remind both of them of our agreed upon price to no avail. Instead, as proof of their legitimacy and upstanding entrepreneurial prowess, they both rummage around in a pouch on the front of their bikes and produce a laminated card with names of destinations and prices listed on them in English. Both point to Tian’anmen Square. Next to the name is 300 rmb. Yeah, right, I tell the guy. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that at all. Both begin to get worked up as I explain to them that that is not going to happen. BUT then they manage to convey to us that since we technically took two bikes, the price is doubled. 600 rmb! It’s at this time that I’m considering seriously just knocking both of these thugs over their bikes and telling Noelle to sprint for the back of the alley where I see an open fence. All of us are getting riled up by then. Their voices are raised and they’re standing next to one another as if by doing so it makes them more intimidating. Being in a dark alley, no one around, and quite literally fenced in–they weren’t doing such a bad job. Still, I refused to pay that absurd price.

I don’t remember grabbing it exactly, but somehow 150 rmb materialized in my hand and I angrily hand it to the man just to shut him up. I tell him, “That’s it! I’m not giving you anymore!” It falls on deaf ears. At some point Noelle begins to shuffle through her wallet and for some reason is clutching onto 250 rmb. Mind you, she’s not holding it out or anything. It’s very much still in her grip and half in her wallet. But that doesn’t stop one of the guys from plucking it out of her hands. The money disappears into the man’s pockets faster than I can follow it. Now they have 400 rmb of our funds, 250 of which has basically been stolen, and I cannot get it back from him. My only two options are knock this son of a gun out or just tuck my tail between my legs, take the licks, and get out of Dodge. I think very hard and long on the first option. After all, I probably outweigh my driver by 20 lbs and the other one doesn’t look like he’d be too difficult to flip over his bike. As the men both continue to posture and rant in Chinese about how we’re ripping them off the red I’m seeing dissipates enough for me to follow the consequences of my possible actions. Should I actually engage in a fight with these men police involvement is a likely occurrence. We’d only been in China a few weeks at this point, but I’d already heard horror stories about what THAT could be like. Granted, that was a far-fetched idea, but as a foreigner you never know. Then how would that call go? “Hi, Mom. Uh, can you send me bail money? I’m in Chinese prison.” Right.

In the end, after no small amount of yelling, I tell Noelle to start walking toward the fence. They try to stop us, but I swing around and make a sweeping, finalizing motion with my hand. “Enough, dang it!” the move says. Admitting defeat, or just realizing that they can’t shake us down for anything more, both men wave their hands at me dismissively. We leave the alley.

In a display of what I can only think of as Karmic balance or Cosmic Slap-stick, right after we make our way from that alley two strangers help us find the right train station, give us accurate directions, and wish us the best.

Later, as our plane is taking off, I think back to the Red Lantern Hostel. I think of Fiona, the Scottish lawyer we met. She had been caught in a scam just two days ago. Around Beijing it’s known as the Tea Scam. Without understanding the particulars, the scam seems to involve several people: a group of seemingly nice strangers that take a foreigner into a tea shop for a cultural treat, and the tea shop workers themselves. The foreigner will be given some boxes of tea–continually told how cheap they are–and then sat down to enjoy a traditional “tea show” (whatever the heck that is) that depicts ancient methods of tea things I guess. After it’s all said and done the foreigner is given the bill. Taxed wantonly, put together like it’s some sort of intercepted WWII code, and misdirected as if the whole ordeal was done by magician, the receipt leaves the foreigner flummoxed and close to tears. What was once of minimal cost has now nearly broke her.

As we climb higher into the air I think about how upbeat Fiona seemed as she retold that horror story. She lost more than a thousand rmb and she still remained in high spirits, and 400 was dampening mine. By the time the plane landed in Dalian I resolved to look at it as a learning experience. After all, in every movie the protagonists get swindled at some point, right?

Learn and move on.

I just didn’t think we’d get another opportunity to grow so quickly.

As we walked through the lobby of the terminal a man in a leather jacket catches our attention by asking if we need a ride in a cab. We’ll, yeah, we do, we tell him. This didn’t seem as odd then as it does now, ok. Keep in mind that the main mode of transportation is by cab. There’s a whole line of them out front and we thought, hey, it’s pretty lucky that we caught this guy instead of having to stand in line.

So we follow him through the lobby,  out through the back door and down a dark stairwell. The whole time Noelle and I are looking at each other with that look. At the bottom of the steps I stop the guy and haggle price. He wants 200. Out of the question. I explain to him that even though it is National Day holiday, our ride to the airport a few days ago was only 80. I don’t budge. He relents, but does so in a way I can’t quite feel good about. He points to each of us, himself included, in turn and then holds up his hands to indicate 80. Does that mean 80 all together or 80 each? I breathe this concern to Noelle as the man leads us out into the lightless parking lot. He motions for us to stay here while he goes and gets his car. Um, ok. If this guy is a cabbie why would he park out over here? Noelle and I quickly decide that we’ve been screwed around with enough for one day. As the guy stops in front of a black sedan we make our decision. That’s not a cab and he’s not a cabbie. We run toward the front of the airport, to where the crowds are gathering around the long line of actual cabs. We merge into the thick of it and watch as the would-be driver inches along behind us, slowly scanning the throng of people.

Eventually we get into a legitimate cab only to pay 100 rmb! BUT at least with an actual cabbie you get a receipt and that can be reimbursed by the school. When we get back to Kaifa Qu we both experience a sudden appreciation for the small town within a city. We get some cheap dinner and then head back to the apartment.

Vacation is about over and the start of our first real work week in China is about to begin.


Beijing and The Great Wall pt. 1: Checking In

It’s even more amazing when you’re standing on it.

We made it to Beijing during the National Day holiday, and we even got to the Great Wall.

Noelle and I left the Dalian airport on the 5th for the capital of China. The flight  is only about an hour long, and less than that if you’ve got the wind on your side. We made it into Beijing International at around 4 pm. It was later than we had anticipated, but the plane showed up late to Dalian in the first place.

The Hostel one of our Chinese staff members helped us book told us we could get a ride to pick us up from the airport, but when I called them I realized that we must have missed the cut off time because the girl on the other end told me to just take a cab. Cabs are all well ‘n good if you can speak Chinese, even if you can just motion in the direction you want to go, but if you don’t know where you’re going, know Chinese, or even have the address of your destination written in Chinese characters you’re pretty much up that proverbial creek, my friend. UNLESS, you have a phone. We jumped in the cab and I got a hold of the girl from the hostel. She gave the cabbie her coordinates and we were off.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been in a cab here in China, but when you’re going more than a few blocks the experience is always an endurance test for your nerves. Technically, there are traffic laws. In practice, they’re more like suggestions. The white lines indicating the lanes are just nice road decorations and red lights are the equivalent of saying, “I double-dog dare ya,” to the driver. They never back down. We take turns at break-neck speeds and swerve in and out of the pedestrian hordes that constantly flock the streets of Beijing. On more than one occasion we were close enough to on-coming buses that I could, if I wanted to, flick the rusty metal shell of the public transportation vehicle.

BUT, we arrive at the hostel. The Red Lantern Hostel.

It’s tucked away down a side street of Beijing, away from the hype of the city.
The inside. I swear, I could have stayed here forever.

Since we arrived late in the day that first night we just wandered around. We walked a mile or so down and up some streets until we found a pond. The sun was setting so we just enjoyed walking around it for a while. In China, just about every public area you go to has the max capacity of human bodies. Eventually the pond/park place became a bit crowded. Noelle and I ditched it for some grub. We found a nice restaurant that served some Western style food. The Little Yard.

It was set up like no restaurant I’ve ever been to. We literally had the place to ourselves. So we found the stairs and went to the top. This is a shot looking down.

The food hit the spot, and for a moment, it felt like we were eating back home. We ate and then walked around for a bit longer, stopping at one of the hundreds of “convenience” stores they have littered around every block in China. After almost an hour of trying to find our hostel, two failed attempts by strangers to help us, and one confusing phone call with the receptionist we had to admit that we were lost. In the back streets of Beijing. Even finding one of the main roads was a chore. Once we did, we utilized the survival skill every 21st century person has developed for times just like these and called for help. As we did with the first cab ride, the girl at the hostel gave directions and we held on for dear life as the driver executed what I’m sure he felt was standard operating procedure for driving a fare to their destination. We didn’t recognize the street he dropped us off at. Our only source of comfort came in the form of the Dairy Queen on the corner. We stopped in, had a blizzard, and then began walking down the dark alley the cabbie had pointed down. Luckily, the girl at the front desk had rightly doubted our navigational skills and came sauntering out of the shadows of the alley at that exact moment. Apparently she’d been looking for us. She laughed at us until we made it to the front door of the hostel.

That evening, in the hostel, a handful of the travelers hung out around the few large tables in the center of the main room. We talked with people from Sweden, France, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and even an elderly couple from Akron, Ohio. I kid you not. As we were making plans for our Great Wall trip a man asks Noelle if her hoodie is a picture of Zippy (Akron’s mascot). It sure is, we said. They were from Akron, born and raised. It goes without saying, but, seriously, “What a small world.” Ok, maybe it needed said.

The coincidences didn’t stop there. The Canadian couple we talked to, Andrew and Kristin, they’re teachers right here in Kaifa Qu, too. Basically, we’re almost neighbors. The live  about a ten minute’s walk down the street and teach at another private school in the area.

The conversations that night were great. I can’t express how amazing it is to just meet so many new people and talk for hours about everything. For me, the two best parts of our trip were the people we met and standing on the Great Wall early enough in the day that I didn’t have to dodge toddlers and the gaggle of tourists that come everyday.

But morning came quickly at 6:00 am.

We got up, got dressed, got some grub and then got on the rickety VW van with two Irish guys named Olin and Liam, and Olin’s Chinese girlfriend, Sandy. We were heading for the Great Wall of China.