More than a month ago a colleague of mine, the High School Science teacher, sent out an e-mail detailing a bunch of Wikipediaed (it’s a verb, too!) info about Tianjin. The last line quoted plane tickets to the place at around 90 RMB from Dalian, one way—pretty freaking cheap.
I read it, said, “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and honestly didn’t think about it again for an entire week, until one night on the bus ride back to KFQ, another HS teacher asked me if I was heading to Tianjin with some of the guys in a few weeks. We talked it over, and, even though I went to Tibet not long ago, just purchased my tickets back to America, and was already planning a trip to Cambodia for February, I decided to head down to Tianjin with them.
In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital. Tianjin also has an active night club and live music scene.
Air fare to Tianjin is as low as 90 RMB one way from Dalian. Contact M. Baldwin for more information about this thriving metropolis.
We all grabbed different flights, and they all got delayed…
It was passed midnight by the time we touched down in Tianjin, and almost one by the time the five of us regrouped and found a club.
By 4:30 most of the group had called it a night, but I stuck around a bit longer.
There were a ton of Russians, Ukrainians, Sri Lankens, Persians, and of course Europeans at the club. I have no clue why there were so many there, but on the second night Ryan and I caught a glimpse of some clashing of cultures.
That second day, morning came around one in the afternoon for some of us, but then the group caught up with each other and wandered for a bit until we found Hank’s Sport Bar and Grill. Hands down, best food I’ve had in a while. It’s an American-owned place, and Hank himself talked with us a while during our late lunch.
The consensus was that we’d go back to our respective hotels and nap away a few hours, and then regroup around nine to catch some live music at another club. Though I felt a bit like roadkill most of the day, I didn’t want to sleep. Instead, I wanted to go see Xiao Ming’s undergraduate university—Tianjin University.
I’d chosen my hotel because of its price and proximity to the school, and when I went off on my own I wandered around the campus a while. It’s a pretty campus, but in the evening, wind blowing like mad, there weren’t a lot of students just hanging around. Still, I managed to find myself—two times—engaged in conversation with curious Chinese kids. One girl and I talked a while about Tianjin and the school, and about Dalian. Another guy wanted to just follow me around for a bit. I’m pretty sure he wanted to follow me as I met up with the other four, but I indirectly told him to take a hike.
We found the Italian Style Street not long after nine, and then Club 13. The place had that local hang out vibe, the interior inspired by industrial warehouses and T.G.I. Fridays. Eventually I asked the owner why she chose the name, and she reminded me that 13, in the West, is considered a bad omen, so she wanted her patrons to think it a bit dangerous as they stepped into the place. She said this all with a smirk and thick sarcasm, so I have no way of knowing if it held any truth.
The band playing—a trio of young guys—turned out to be pretty good. The lead singer, a fast-talking local, seemed to constantly exaggerate the well-known Tianjin accent just to get a rise out of the audience. Another guy, the bongo drummer, wore a Jamaican-style shirt and Sesame Street pants. The guitar player drank a lot of water and told jokes between songs. They sang songs with lyrics more than mildly anti-government. It was great.
After a while it was pushing elevenish and there was a decision to call it an early night. The workers and I had been talking throughout the evening and one even bought me a drink, so before we left I asked if they knew of any other places where we could hang out. They gave me animated instructions and recommendations (and a handful of their customer-friends chimed in) and eventually we got a lead on two more clubs to check out. Before everyone left, though, we realized Ryan was missing.
The place was closing down, so there wasn’t much noise at all. What we did hear, however, was the sound of two hand-drums being played. Following the sound, we found Ryan cradling a drum between his knees and jamming right next to the drummer from the band. They sounded great. It was completely improvised, but they really had a rhythm.
On the way out Ryan and I chatted with the workers and basically secured the opportunity to come back and actually play for the club. He gave him one of his CDs and as we all walked out of the club Ryan’s one-man-band Cronkite Satelite blared out into the Tianjin city streets as the girl played it over their system.
Once the others left, Ryan and I followed the directions to a place called Helen’s, a restaurant by day and bar by night.
After taking an elevator to the third floor, we grabbed a table and ordered some food, taking in the crowd of dancers and diners. Once again, a large Sri Lankan presence could be seen, but this time things didn’t stay harmonious for long. About thirty minutes later, our conversation got interrupted as some of the sober Sri Lankans tried to help drunk ones to their tables. A Chinese guy got in the way, and then got decked, hard–twice. He sort of stood there a minute without doing much, but after his lady friend and his buddy checked on him he seemed to realize he needed to do something to exert his awesome manness. He went crazy.
Chinese and Sri Lankan alike duked it out in the restaurant while the staff and other hungry folks just ignored them—for like 15 minutes. Eventually, the Sri Lankans left, and the Chinese guy who got clocked settled. For a minute. At one point he tried to use a beer bottle as a club, but his group took it away. Somehow he managed to convince his table he had calmed enough to go out for a smoke.
About this time Ryan and I decided the show was over and also thought calling it a night sounded good. As we walked out of the building hollering and screaming reached our ears. Sure enough, the fight had migrated to the street. This time the swings were more furious and the rage a bit more entertaining. We watched a while, but when the cops showed we grabbed the nearest cab.
In China, the cops like to just collect anyone and everyone at a fight scene, even the gawkers. Often a fee exchanges hands before anyone can leave the police station. We avoided that.
The morning came quickly, and another teacher and I were on the same flight back, so we grabbed a cab and hung out till boarding time. Xiao Ming met us in Dalian, and drove us back, concluding our weekend away.
Although not a traditional tourist city, Tianjin proved a good place just to visit and get to know some of my coworkers. I’m sure we’ll go back again at some point, or maybe to another nearby city.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world of high-speed downloads and uploads, of text speak and netizen culture that sometimes bleeds into the actual 3D world of reality. Here are some of those tidbits that I’ve noticed while here in China…
Ten Internet Memes or Phrases that I’ve been hearing a lot in Dalian.
Gei (3) Li (4)—This expression is a relatively new one that got its start right online in Chinese forums and chats. Its two characters translate to “give” and “power,” and it basically has the same meaning: to give power, to make something interesting or impressive, awesome…”
I used this once, and my friend just laughed and wondered how I knew it. Last year I heard it more than this year, but I’m told it’s still out there. You can also hear “Jia You,” which basically means, “Good Luck,” or “You can do it.”
Gao (1) fu (4) Shuai (4)—This phrase means tall, rich, handsome, and is the pseudo-standard Chinese women use when searching for that special someone. They want a tall, handsome guy with access to cash. I hear this phrase all the time, and even in television shows. While it may not be the exact blueprint for what is desired by all, it certainly has a lot of traction, and everyone knows of it.
Every time this sort of topic comes up in conversation and I say it, the girl usually acts surprised that I know of it, and then enthusiastically nods her head in agreement.
Da ge r, piaoliang, bai OR Bai, Fu, Mei—Tall, pretty, white is the phrase that is the male equivalent to “gao, fu, shuai.” The whole of Chinese culture values white, pearly skin, as a lot of the world knows, but it’s one thing to think, “Oh, Chinese like pale girls,” and it’s another thing entirely to go to the beach and see people hiding out in tents, wearing full-body suits, or wearing heaving clothing in 90 degree weather, and carrying sun-brellas around during the day.
Even if a girl has gotten the tiniest bit of sun—say an hour or two—someone close to her will notice and say, “ni zen me zhe me hei?!” How are you so black?!
The numbers: 2, 250, and 38—er, er bai wu, san ba. The number two has taken on the meaning of “stupid, dumb,” whereas 250 describes a foolish person. 38 is actually a bit worse because if you call a man a “san ba” you’re basically calling him a bad woman or an annoying gossip, or even a “biaatch.” Not at all nice.
Merchants will go out of their way to make prices anything else but 250, just to avoid the implied meaning of calling their customer an idiot. And lately young people have added some math into the mix: 2 + 250 + 38= 290. If you hear someone calling you er bai jiu shi they’re not saying anything nice, trust me.
Hen (3) huang (2) hen (3) bao (4) li (4)—This phrase means, “very yellow, very violent.” A woman who was interviewed on a Chinese news channel used the phrase to discuss violence and pornography, and people just kept it going.
In Chinese something that is “yellow” has the stigma of being explicitly sexual or dirty. You have yellow jokes, yellow movies, yellow man, yellow woman, etc. You wanna be careful because this one is used often, and everyone knows the connotative meaning of yellow here. “Bao li” means violent, which sort of goes hand-in-hand with some of the topics.
囧 jiong (3) is a character or pictogram that means embarrassed. The strokes look like a face making the embarrassed look. This is used a lot online because people can see the face, although I’ve heard a few middle schoolers say this at Starbucks.
Another similar one is “Orz” because it looks like a human bowing.
Diao (4) si (1)—loser or even “douchebag.” This word got its start on a Baidu discussion forum, and describes someone who is poor, ugly, short, good for nothing, a failure in life, and even prone to excessive masturbation. It has become a popular term similar to the Japanese term “otaku” and can be used to refer to both males and females.
I have only heard this one once or twice, but I think it’s used online more than in actual conversations.
Dan (4) teng (2)—Ball Pain is a phrase that, well, men use, to describe uncomfortable situations, pain, irritations, or just annoyance. In Chinese the testicles are often referred to as “Dan” or “egg” for some reason.
This is a new one for me as I have yet to hear it, but Xiao Ming jokingly told me about it a few days ago. She’s heard locals say it a few times.
Shen (3) Ma (3) Dou (1) Shi (4) Fu (2) Yun (2)—God’s Horses Are All Passing Clouds. This phrase can be translated into “nothing is permanent” and the implied meaning is that we should all just chill. This has become a popular catchphrase for the youth or the “fen qing” emotional youth.
Cao (3) ni (2) ma (3) –Grass Mud Horse. The Grass Mud Horse is a Chinese “netizen” symbol of resistance against the government’s control and online surveillance. It got insanely popular in 2009, and just kept going. It’s a homophone that sounds almost exactly like the Chinese “Fuck your mother.” The phrase is ultra-negative, of course, but my friends tell me it has even more feeling than the English phrase of the same wording.
Everyone knows that the Chinese net is policed by the govt., but most in the international scene don’t know just how much. For years now young people, artists, activists, and bloggers have led a campaign to take back their right of expression (in all forms), and the Grass Mud Horse just happened to be a mascot they could rally behind.
The GMH is a species of Alpaca, apparently. There were stuffed animals made, people paraded actual alpacas around in the streets, and a song was even made.
Ai Wei Wei, an artist, made big waves because of his dissent and artwork, but he’s just one name among many.
I can’t even look up certain Yahoo! News articles here (I know, why would I even go to Yahoo for the news, right?). Simple things like air quality measurements to sensitive things like ANYTHING WITH POLITICS and some historical facts are all banned. I’m only on here now thanks to my VPN.
Yes, you can say that Chinese culture is still very conservative regarding a wide range of topics, but more and more, today’s young adults are pushing back and, in some cases, breaking those perceptions. Many of the people I’ve gotten to know during my time here are between the ages of 19-30, and most of them can’t stand the censorship or hypocritical nature of the government’s policy’s and officials’ behaviors.
But…so far, the fight is largely relegated to the virtual world where “50 Cent armies” commissioned by the govt. to perpetuate propaganda scour the web to shoot down dissenting voices, sites are shut down by agencies, keywords are monitored for sensitive topics, and the citizens are forced to use internationally-based servers just to get the news about their own nation.
Taxi drivers in KaiFaQu, the development zone just outside of Dalian city can run the gamut. They can be complete turds so vile that they require special instructions for disposal or you could end up singing duets with them (see previous entry). I’ve had my fair share of experiences with taxis, and in September I will have been here for two years, so I can at least offer my insights with a tiny bit of credibility on the subject.
As you travel, though, you run across many more turds in the taxi biz than you do possible singing partners.
First night in China: an 8 RMB ride becomes a 10RMB ride just because. I remember being suspicious of the price right off the bat, but powerless to tell the driver I thought he was being a bit turdlike, so I paid the fare.
Not a specific because it happens every times, but holiday hikes in prices. If it’s two days before Tombsweeping Festival chances are you’ll be charged a flat rate of 10 RMB no matter what time of day, and the price will continue until a day after the holiday. And if you know holidays here you know it’s not even a big deal! I can see Spring Festival or National Day Holiday (Which is like a week long despite the name), but there are times when I swear these buggers are making this stuff up. And these prices are non-negotiable. I’ve tried, going as far as even opening the door while still moving and just telling him to let me out.
The other near-constant is when it’s raining, has been raining, or has just stopped raining. They will charge you 10 RMB because they’ve spilled water on their windshield and called it rain. Okay, not that bad, but just about. They will also try this crap when it’s snowing, but you can wiggle with them during the winter. Is it because it’s more dangerous to drive in the rain? Does the two extra yuan really justify the risk they’re taking driving me three minutes? And isn’t it their job to drive? In all weather? If I don’t pay the extra two yuan will they become more reckless? What exactly is the extra charge covering? Oh, and did I mention, it can be considered rude to put on your seat belt with drivers because they can take it as a judgment on their driving prowess?
Let’s see, we have simple cheats, holidays, rain and snow…what else?
If you’re traveling a distance that’s not a part of their immediate territory there’s gonna be a little battle, too. For example, if I were to get a cab from Kaifaqu to either Dalian or JinShitan (Golden Pebble Beach) both about 20-30 minutes away they won’t even turn on their meter. Instead, you must wheel and deal before he starts driving. Of course, this is only a need if it’s at a time when the Light Rail Train is closed.
Remember that one time when I helped that couple find their boat and we had to drive around for a while, looking at the docks and ports? Well the meter said something like 63.40RMB, but he charged the couple 100RMB. When I asked why, he just said it was because he had to drive around a lot and it was so far from he next passenger. Hogwash, considering I was his next fare and I was right in front of him. On the way back I got him to agree to 50, and the couple paid it for me, so that wasn’t one that directly cheated me.
The most common answer to the long-distance taxi ride is to call a sharecab. It’s what it sounds like. Multiple folks sharing the cost. They actually have that specific service, and I do have the number for the local one.
However, if you are out for the night, hanging with your friends at a restaurant or a bar, the share cab isn’t always an easy thing to secure. Then it’s just you and the driver going back and forth until he beats you into submission. Because they almost always win. I’ve seen gorgeous women try to bat their eyelashes and flirt with them in perfect Chinese, just to get like five RMB off the original price. And if you’re inebriated in the least, and they can see it, you’ll need to be able to negotiate or have someone who can do it for you.
I saw what should have been a 10RMB ride become a 50RMB because someone was visibly drunk.
Some easy solutions I’ve found for a few of these situations include simply asking the driver to turn on the meter (a phrase you can say like, “Ni neng da kai biao ma?” or “Biao, da kai.”), asking for a receipt (I usually say my boss wants it. “Wo xuyao fapiao. Wo de jingli xuyao.”), or just talk a lot about how much you like China (The goal here being that you’ll persuade him not to cheat you too much just because you’re a foreigner).
I’ve traveled a little bit lately. Not too much, but enough to see different types of drivers in different cities. When you travel in China and want to avoid being cheated the best thing to do is be Chinese. If you’re not, you’ll probably get ripped off in some way, somehow. That’s not just a Chinese thing. I’ve seen it happen in America and heard about it everywhere. Travelers just need to resign themselves to having targets painted on them. Your goal is to make that a smaller target anyway you can. Good luck.
But being an American in China, it doesn’t matter. I have a target. And what’s more, it’s not only because I’m white. Some Chinese drivers will just cheat EVERYONE.
A few tales from the road, if you’ll indulge me.
Almost two years ago Noelle and I were in Beijing during the October National Day holiday I mentioned a second ago. It was the last day of our trip and we were trying to get to some of the must-see places. We were somewhere on the street and we wanted to be at Tienanmen Square. We declined a few crazy looking fellows, but then got won over by an unassuming old dude on a rickshaw. We went back and forth for just a moment about price, but then agreed on something like 30RMB. The price was already outrageous, but, you know, whatever.
We both climb into the seat and off the guys goes, not even peddling because his was a hybrid peddle/engine rickshaw, I guess. A minute or so goes by and another rickshaw driver, a bit younger, rides up pointing at one of the back tires frantically and basically just being a very concerned rickshaw driver. Turns out the back tire was too flat and one of us needed to get in the rickshaw with him. This is sounding funny to me, yeah, but I really have no way to convey my thoughts, so I just repeat the price we agreed on and the old driver nods passionately.
Well, off we go again, this time in two rickshaws, careening through dirty alleys, neighborhoods that are definitely not on the must-see list, and then we pull up in a dark, empty alley the man says is right next to the square. We hop off and then things get loopy.
They pull out a laminated chart with prices—all much more than 30 RMB. What ensues is a flurry of frantic gestures and raised voices in Chinese and English, and more and more furious pointing at the prices on the oh-so-official laminated sign. The gist: he wants us to pay 600RMB. Three for each cart. My first thought is, I can take these two little shits. And I give it more than just a cursory look before passing on the option of knocking them both over their rickshaws and just taking off. After all, it’s National Day, as in, Chinese patriotism out the butt, and we’re in the capitol—an alley in the capitol. We open our wallets to pay something, not the whole thing, but something, and what does one of them do? He literally snatches the money out of Noelle’s hand. Seriously. It was tantamount to being mugged, the way it wall went down. In the end he got around 300 or something from us, maybe 400RMB. And as we walked away he still huffed and puffed.
Things we could have done differently: be Chinese, not ride a rickshaw, jump off the rickshaw, push the man over the rickshaw, give him the agreed upon amount and walk away from the man and his rickshaw…
Sometimes, even now, when I think about the whole situation, I get royally irritated and want to go find a rickshaw driver, pretend I know nothing of Chinese, get him to agree to a price, and then wait for him to cheat me…just so I can curse him and yell at him in Chinese, or, maybe just knock him over his rickshaw. But not in Beijing and not during the National Day week.
And then when we got back into Dalian from that very trip we almost let ourselves get picked up by a black taxi.
We had just gotten off the plane and were walking around the terminal looking like lost laowai (informal name for foreigners) when a dude with the Chinese version of swagger just casually approaches us and offers us a ride back to Kaifaqu. I ask him if he’s a taxi driver and he assures us that he is. We ask how much, but he busies himself with looking official and leads us deeper into the terminal and away from people. We descend two flights of stairs with not a human in sight, and finally agreed on a price—something like 80-90 RMB.
At the ground level, we walked out to a dark part of the parking lot and he motioned for us to stay put while he goes to get his car. Noelle and I are exchanging worrisome glances, but it’s when I see him reach his black car that I make the call. We pick up our bags and speedwalk to the front of the terminal, about two hundred feet away. We make it there just as he comes up behind us and tries to motion us in. We stand firm and step in line with the other people waiting for actual taxis.
In the end, the ride home was 100 RMB, so chances are we might have saved money with the black taxi, but probably not. And if he had tried any funny crap we’d have had no way to combat him. The whole thing with him just had a strange vibe, so I’m still pretty certain we made the right decision by ditching him.
Two more recent ones…
On our way to the airport in Zhengzhou on our last day of vacation, Xiao Ming and I fell into a pretty elaborate trap.
We got off the train, and then walked to the bus stop. Tons of people everywhere, some standing in line, others gawking at nothin’ in particular, a few mothers holding their babies out in front of them so the kid can pee right on the street, and of course taxi drivers trying to catch fares.
As we approach the bus a taxi driver intercepts us and offers to take us anywhere, but we push past him and ask the bus worker about bus ticket prices. They’re not expensive at all. Then we ask him how long it takes to get to the airport. At this point the taxi driver we pushed through is right next to us. The bus worker looks from him to us and says, with a straight face, that it takes four hours. Four hours! That’s absurd. We ask why and he says because the bus must drive around the city first, collecting others from different stops.
Well, that is unacceptable. Our plane takes off in less than three.
The taxi driver then says, no problem, he can get us there in less than an hour. We reluctantly play the negotiating game with the man and eventually settle on 80 RMB. It’s a bit more than we’d normally pay, but whatever.
We get into his cab and find to others—a young Chinese man with big round eyes, and a man who looks old enough to set some sort of record—already waiting to go. We quickly ascertain that we’re all going to the airport, so that’s good. I feared that he’d do something shady if we all had different destinations. Yes, I’m that jaded.
So we push off. At first it’s all good, but then the situation deteriorates quickly. He begins to talk in rapid-fire dialect that I can’t follow. Turns out that he now want 20RMB more. Xiao Ming says that he will kick us out if we don’t pay now.
The two of them go back and forth for a while, both yelling. She tells him that he already agreed upon a price and that business is carried out that way everywhere. He counters that, no, it’s not.
She then assails his manhood. She tells him that a real business man, but specifically, she adds, a man, would not lie like this.
While they’re going at it the other two in the car are just silent. I’m adding in my own commentary on how much of a moron this guy is, but I’m not making much of a dent. And the driver is just meandering through back streets, threatening to leave us.
Finally Xiao Ming calls him out. She tells him that he purposely cheated us. He doesn’t want to admit it. Instead, he claims that, of course he had to agree to our price or we wouldn’t have gotten in his cab. We tell him, no shit. He somehow doesn’t see this as a cheat or a lie…
And then Xiao Ming hit him with mianzi. Mianzi, or Face, is a big deal in China, especially among men. It is respect, influence, peer admiration, clout—all rolled up into one. At this point Xiao Ming has gotten the guy to admit that, yes, he deceived us on purpose. He actually says it, “Wo pian ni le.” I cheated you.
He still wants his money, though, so Xiao Ming asks him one final question: Will 20 RMB buy your face?
Oh, that was great. The old man is staring at Xiao Ming like he’s witnessing a crazed animal spirit strike. The driver is resolutely staring straight ahead, avoiding my gaze in the rear view mirror.
She asks him again.
And he says, yes.
I can’t believe it, but then again, by this point it was obvious that he only worshipped at the altar of the dollar, or Ren Minbi, and wasn’t a man of any value himself. Even so, I couldn’t help add something to the moment.
As I passed him the 20 RMB note I said, “Hen pianyi mianzi.” Very Cheap Face.
About ten minutes later we’re on the highway and the driver pipes up again. He says we’re all getting off. I’m like, what the heck now?
He pulls up next to another taxi and they exchange a few words. We get out and the drivers help us haul our crap into the second taxi. After a parting glance, the first driver is gone like a fart in the wind.
Once in the second cab we get the story. Turns out, the first driver had called the second one an hour ago and told him to meet him there, on the highway. The second driver was always the one who was going to take us the rest of the way, apparently. We asked him if he did this often and how much he got paid. He said, yes, this was a common thing for him, and that he got paid 70RMB each time.
For a twenty minute ride, that’s not bad, but the first driver had collected 100 from us, 160 from the old man, and 120 from the other young Chinese guy. We then learned that the taxi driver is friends with a bus driver back at the bus stop, and that the bus actually got to the airport in one hour, not four. In fact, taxi drivers aren’t even legally allowed to be at the bus stop where we were picked up.
The Taxi Relay Scam, ladies and gents.
And the one thing that happened on our last trip to Guilin also happened on our way out of the city. Though it wasn’t as bad, and much less elaborate, it still annoyed me.
Before hailing a cab we were assured of a certain price, or at least what a ride should cost, to our destination. The driver we got, however, only saw me as a white face with zeros attached somewhere. He wants a ridiculous amount, and when we counter he basically just says, foreigners are all rich, that what he’s asking is nothing. This is, sadly, a way of thinking here. It gets a lot of foreigners in tight spots. People just think we all have money. When you claim you don’t most won’t believe you.
At first, the driver only talks to Xiao Ming and I stay silent, just listen. They go on a bit, but then I finally interrupt. I ask him why he’s giving us trouble. He is surprised I’m speaking Chinese, but not for long. He asks me, “What trouble?” I tell him that he knows, “what trouble.” I add that if he doesn’t want to take us then he can just stop and we’ll get out. I tell him we’re not in a hurry and that we don’t need him. Wo men bu zhaoji. Bu xu yao ni song wo men.
He then changes his tune a bit. He offers to take us to a bus stop nearby. At a normal price, we get there. Then, as we’re getting out, he says something I don’t catch. I ask Xiao Ming what it is, but she doesn’t tell me until we’re on the bus. Chinese girl with a foreigner—what does she thing? His tone, she said, had a lot of venom in it. When she told me all I kept thinking was, “I want to break his face”—the one with a nose and eyes on it, not mianzi.” I wanted to chase the narrow-minded buttnugget down and…But she calmed me down, and soon we were driving away from Guilin and to the airport.
These have been a few of my experiences with the Chinese Taxi Driver, a species of worker who sometimes sees every fare as an opportunity to practice their own special style of kung-fu: the art of the grubby paws.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some pleasant ones (singing with a cabbie, a driver who gave great local descriptions, and even one who saved me money), but the bad ones are just more plentiful, and they have the potential to ruin your trip to some degree.
Some of the foreign teachers I met when I first got here had a phrase that helped them see their way through the hard, inconvenient, and downright strange times: T.I.C-This is China.
We traveled to Guilin, Yangshuo, and Chongqing two weeks ago…
But a few days before I traveled to Guilin I was in a taxi talking with the driver about music. On my way to my business English class the topic of what kind of music I liked somehow came up.
Taxi drivers are a strange breed; you can have very annoying experiences with them or pretty entertaining ones. You just never know.
After I told him where I wanted to go he made a comment about my Chinese. That turned into a conversation about me not liking Lady Gaga. I really am not sure how that happened.
When I asked about his music tastes he said he liked Eminem. He asked if I liked “Mei Guo Hip Hop.” I told him I liked some, but not a lot. My brother used to listen to it a lot. I prefer 80s rock, I said. He smiled and said, “Hotel California!” I humored him and agreed, that yes, The Eagles were great.
This carried on for a few more moments until he asked about Chinese music I liked. In truth, I don’t like much (any). I mentioned that I had recently begun learning some of the lyrics to an old Chinese song—“Wo Xiang Qu Guilin” (I want to go to Guilin)—since I was going to be visiting the place at the end of the week. He perked up and laughed when I quoted a few lines from the song.
After a few laughs, and him coaching me on the melody, he and I did a duet. Seriously. We sang the song’s chorus and a few lines after…
Of course he asked me what other songs I knew. I mentioned the, “Yin Wei Ai Qing,” (Because of Love) song and the other one, “Wo zui qinaide,” (My greatest love). These two songs are EVERYWHERE here. Along with Adele, Michael Jackson, and a strange Western boy band called West Life, these are two Chinese songs I hear constantly. I was at a bar one night and the Chinese business men who were hanging out there requested the two Chinese songs to be played—on loop. Really. Anyway…
As soon as I said the Greatest Love song the taxi driver busted out with several lines from the song. “Qin ai de, ni guo de zen me yang?” And he kept going. He serenaded me until we came to a stop at my destination. And what’s really funny—he had a great voice.
As I climbed out of the cab he shook my hand and said, “Zai Jian, Pengyou.” Goodbye, friend.
A few days later, I boarded another plane; this time to beautiful Guilin. I’ll tell you about it soon.
Wo Zui Qin Ai De (My Dearest Love. By Zhuang Hui Mei (Ah-Mei) (This version is not sung by A-Mei. For some reason I CANNOT find a video of her singing it on American internet. Go figure. Usually I use the VPN to access stuff I can’t get on Chinese net. Never thought it’d go the other way.) The original is more beautiful, but this is a good cover….
This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).
The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.
It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.
On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.
After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.
Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.
I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.
It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.
As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.
On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.
On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.
I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.
Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.
Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.
Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.
During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.
I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.
A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.
We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.
Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.
Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.
On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.
Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.
Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.
No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.
I wanted to put a few more pictures up with a few of my students. This group of shots is from this weekend. Three classes: SK1, SK4 a, and SK4 b. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but every teacher knows that’s just not practical. These kids are definitely some of my favorites!
(Due to my aforementioned inability to commit, I am once again behind schedule. This entry is not about what we did last night–New Year’s Eve–but about Christmas. Still, hope everyone had a great time!)
There is a right number five bus and there is a wrong number five bus. In a post-Christmas effort to expand our slim selection of fine dining establishments here in Dalian we ended up boarding the latter.
The Monday after Christmas the two of us basically spent the day relaxing. I went for a short hike through the park, did some reading and studying. Noelle Skyped with family and friends. Then we hung out at Starbucks for about three hours, reading, writing, and people watching. A buddy of mine seemed intent on getting a glimpse of what a Chinese Starbucks looks like. He Skyped with Noelle despite the fact that it had to have been pushing something like 3 or 4 am in the States.
And to answer his inquiries: It looks exactly the same except there are more interesting groups of people. Germans, Swedish, Russian, French, English, American, and yes, Chinese are all easily found in there any day of the week.
Around, oh, five-ish we decided that it was time for some dinner. Dalian has great public transportation, and as I’ve said before, we’re getting used to taking the buses and cabs. So when we saw a bus with the same number as the one we were waiting for we didn’t think twice. We hopped on and found two seats.
Three stops later we realized that this was not the bus we wanted to be on, and when he stopped again we also realized that we had no idea where we were. We decided to stay on until he began to loop back to where we had gotten on. Seemed like the best plan—a little time-consuming but still the best plan to get us back to familiarity.
That didn’t happen because the driver kicked us off the bus. The route he drove took us out along the coast, much farther down than we’d ever been. When the last of the other riders walked off it was just the two of us. He looked back, said an angry-sounding sentence in Chinese and motioned for us to get off the bus. I tried to say that I wanted to stay, but he wasn’t having any of that. We hopped off and looked around at our surroundings.
Tall, dark, and vacant business buildings loomed over us like giant buzzards eyeing up their next meal as it slowly succumbs to heat exhaustion and thirst. But it wasn’t hot at all that night and we weren’t that thirsty. So near the coast, wind whipped at us in chilling bursts and the icy water sloshing around in my Wahaha brand plastic bottle kept time with our steps out of the skeevy alley we’d been deposited in by the friendly bus driver.
The daylight was gone, but we could still make out the ocean on the horizon. We walked toward it and then turned right, following the main road we both thought we vaguely recognized. After about five minutes of trekking what I can only assume is south—the wrong direction—we did an about-face and backtracked. Another ten minutes went by before we saw, off in the distance, high above the city, the neon blue rings that have become so familiar to us. The UFO. We live right next to UFO Mountain, and suddenly we had our extraterrestrial North Star to guide us home. It shone through the haze and the night, giving us a heading to set our steps to.
And as we walked on it became apparent how far away from that home we really were. And also, we didn’t want to go home. We wanted dinner. We tightened our jackets around our bodies and plugged along for another twenty minutes before we found a bus stop that sat on the number five route. It showed up; we boarded it.
Even that was funny. The stop was actually on a curve of a busy road, so the bus driver didn’t seem to want to fully stop to let us on. He slowed to an idle and I stepped on, but then he must have lifted his foot from the brake because the bus crept forward before Noelle could get up that first step. I looked at her just as the bus began to move and her eyes widened in shock and a bit of fear. I don’t know if the fear came from the idea that she may be left behind or because she was calculating the odds of successfully jumping on a moving bus, but in the end she did get on easily enough. We laughed, and I let my imagination paint a picture where she was chasing a bus like a Western bandit riding down a train on horseback.
We finally made it to the street we’d originally set out for almost an hour before. Had things gone smoother the bus trip would have only taken five minutes from Starbucks. We also made it to the new restaurant we wanted to try with the help of another teacher’s directions. Finally, we could eat dinner.
That was on the day after Christmas. For Christmas Eve and Day we worked. While many people in China know about Christmas and a lot can even give you details, the day itself was nothing more than a Sunday for them. The Western staff definitely didn’t want to work both days, but everyone was in good spirits anyway. The school had been decorated earlier in the month, so there were some lights, a few trees, some tinsel hanging around, and holiday music playing from the speakers. It was much more festive than I thought it would be, and that helped.
After classes were over on both nights, the school put on a Cookie Making Activity. Saturday night Noelle helped and I helped on Sunday. In the morning on Sunday I was “volun-told” (Told in a way that seems like you have an option to say no, but not really) that I would be “in charge” of one of the crafts and that I would be giving the opening ceremony speech to the students and their parents.
It’s not that I’m a shy person or even that I get nervous in front of folks, but getting told just hours before was a bit annoying. Whether it’s a “China Thing”—which I’ve been told it is—or poor communication skills on the part of some of the staff, last minute news is a daily staple of the interactions here. Most times they’re nothing too irritating, but they can become larger annoyances easily. Either way, I didn’t mind the responsibility, and I enjoyed speaking that evening. A few days later one of our supervisors complimented my introduction and said she felt moved. As flattering as that sounds, I think the praise was exaggerated quite a bit. I did nothing more than welcome them and let them know what we had planned for the evening as another staff member translated what I said into Chinese for the parents.
The night did go well, though. We made chocolate chip cookies from scratch, something none of the students had ever done, and then made a strange little Santa head out of an upside-down paper cup and some construction paper. That first night, after the activity was finished and the kids had gone home, some of the teachers snacked on the extra cookies. I must have eaten about 5 or 6. I love chocolate chip. For a few reasons, on that second night I didn’t eat a single one.
As can be guessed, many of the staff had also never made chocolate chip cookies from scratch either. The preparation that went into the activity consisted of, among other things, the Eastern staff acting out the making of the cookies, step by step. This was a good idea for many, many reason, but for two specifically. First: no, you do not individually press the chocolate chips into the dough. Second (and more importantly): the students MUST wash their hands efficiently. It’s for reasons pertaining to this second note that I declined the cookies Sunday.
The students were having a hard time mixing the ingredients and softening the dough, so one staff member told them to squeeze the dough. And they did. Honestly, not the worst idea. But when you add in the sheer number of people handing the food…eh…Each student took turns thrusting their hands into the bowl, squishing and squeezing the dough, ripping and mashing it until it was soft. Twelve different sets of hands pummeled the dough, and even though they had washed them, those hands were not THAT clean.
So when they offered me a cookie or two I kindly said, “Get outta here, Germ Machines!” Or just, “No thanks,” but I was definitely thinking the former.
My craft went smoothly, but I felt like the kids taught me how to do it instead of the other way around. You give a group of kids some glue, crayons, scissors, and paper cups and you’ve got yourself little Picassos…and a mess to clean afterwards.
When we finally left work Noelle and I ate a Christmas dinner at a western style restaurant called The Real Eddies. The staff there is fantastic and the food is pretty darn close to “authentic Western” food. At home, we exchanged gifts and relaxed as we watched National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. And thus we ended Christmas day.
How did you spend yours?
Out beneath the lit street lights.
Yes, I wore the hat all day.
(NOTES: I’m going to add more pictures to this entry as soon as I get them. Should be very soon. If you’re interested in seeing the Christmas Cookie Activity check back here. I’m also trying to get a video of those annoying fireworks that are always going on at all hours of the day and night loaded on here. Also, Next entry—Nesburg and New Years)
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.
I’d like to be able to tell you that the last, oh, almost month or so I’ve been held hostage by radical fundamentalists that prey on English teachers abroad, or that I’ve been traipsing around the globe in search of the meaning of life, but I cannot. No, the simple truth of the matter is I’m horrible at commitment.
I belong to about half a dozen forums ranging in topics from writing to natural sciences, and I’ve lost touch with all of them because I can’t seem to just adhere to a routine. I’m sure I could say that I’m just a serial non-joiner, but that’s not really true, either…I mean, I suppose it’s almost true. I like taking a look at the perks membership brings, but when anything more than a cursory glance every now and then is expected of me I get the shakes. I’ve even joined a few gyms over the years and then consequently rediscovered the great outdoors. I just got no follow-through.
Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to have a pen pal, but then I realize that I’d probably end up writing the greeting letter and then fake my own death after a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry on the correspondence. My “pal” would feel obligated to return a heart-felt—handwritten—missive expressing his condolences to whatever fabricated family member’s name I scribbled in the preceding epistle’s signature line and I’d feel like a royal pain. All because I can’t commit.
Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic? Never!
If you’ve established a routine of checking this blog each week over the course of the last month, hoping for some tell-tale sign that we are in fact alive, I’m sorry. If you’ve stumbled upon this blog in hopes of learning something new…goodluck!
When we last saw our heroes they were just settling into their new jobs as English teachers on the east coast of China in a city by a bay called Dalian…The city not the bay is called Dalian…Ok, I’m done referring to myself in the third person. Creeps me out.
It’s perplexingly odd how normal and commonplace living in a different country can become. Our schedule has solidified into something that is steady and even our daily habits are becoming truly habitual. Nope, pretty sure that wasn’t redundant. Even having to mop the bathroom floor following every shower isn’t as annoying as it was those first few weeks. We’ve managed to pin down a bus schedule that saves us from having to walk the mile and a half to and from work every day, which is nice since winter decidedly kicked fall in the back of the head and told him to get outta here this past week.
Anymore, our on-going battle seems to be with procuring food enough for our snacking proclivities and balancing that with mildly nutritious meals. There are a bunch of restaurants around to choose from, but when you’re attempting to cut back on the monthly expenses frugality is a must. We’ve stumbled upon a few cheap places that definitely offer authentic Chinese cuisine, but, honestly, there’s only so much you can do with rice before you’re just refusing to call it rice. I’m not too keen on sea food, and Noelle is beginning to draw lines in the sand with those mom and pop shops that all look and taste the same. Luckily, when our dedication to authenticity is running thin and the old taste buds want something familiar we have a local import store called Sunny’s. Although their prices are comparable to American stores Sunny’s is significantly more expensive than many other places around us, so we try to “tough” it out until we just don’t care about price anymore. We’re learning to branch out and try different things in other places, but one thing I won’t budge on is milk. Even though it’s from France, the 1% half gallon I pay 17 rmb for is so much better tasting than the tepid stuff they sell in boxes at the markets in town.
We’ve been taking Chinese lessons twice a week for a few weeks now, and every once in a while I can understand one word out of a hundred when some of our Eastern staff chat in Mandarin. Rumor has it that our pronunciation is actually pretty good, but I dunno about that. I’ve managed to pick up some polite phrases and even some bargaining skills, but I still doubt I’m ready to carry on a conversation with even a two year old. I’m loving everything involved with learning the language, but it’s a bit disconcerting when the students laugh uncontrollably when they hear you say even the simplest word in Chinese. I kid you not, to make a point I said the Chinese word for apple and the class burst into fits of riotous laughter. Apparently I said it right and had the tone correct. They just thought it was hilarious that their English teacher said a word in Chinese.
Our staff has been amazing this whole time. The other Western teachers and the Eastern teachers have been unconditionally helpful with everything from the mundane to the particular. Even ordering water is taken out of our hands. We just ask a staff member if she can call the water place and have a jug delivered and she does it right away. What’s more interesting is the fact that, for more than two months now, the water guy has never been a minute late. He says 9 am, by God it’s 8:58-8:59 exactly. Not a minute after. Pretty impressive actually, considering he has to carry the heavy jug up four flights of stairs to get it to us.
Sending money home is just one of the many other details of our emerging life we have needed assistance with. On his day off, the curriculum director—our immediate supervisor—went with us to the bank to set up our accounts and go through the process of getting money sent across the pond back to the good old U S of A. It was a two plus hour ordeal that he didn’t balk at or complain about. Like I said, the staff is great.
Getting into the swing of lesson planning here has taken some effort, though. Because it’s not a public school, our school is run much like a high-standards after school program, complete with a competitive curriculum based on a very good series of EFL books and many different courses. Each week I write eleven lesson plans for nine 90 minute classes. Noelle’s course load is about the same. The classes have up to six students in them that have been pre-tested to gauge their English levels. Our curriculum is supplemented with an EFL reading and phonics website that helps complement the weekly classes with added context and cultural elements. Meshing the two resources so that it seems fluid and natural has been a challenge as well. As a teacher, I feel that my growth is going to come in the form of making lesson plans that are more student-centered and geared toward activities that focus on kinesthetic and experiential learning. That may sound exactly the same as an American teacher’s growth opportunities—and to a large extent it is—but when it comes to EFL it’s all about those foundational skills, which are the ones most American HS teachers never have to worry about at their grade level. In a big way, I’m learning the skills needed to teach students the foundation of what they will need when they get to my actual area of concentration. When we get back to the states and begin teaching again I will hopefully have a better understanding of the smaller building blocks my students are bringing to the HS classroom. In that way I can direct lessons that stem from and build on what they’ve learned over the years more easily than I have in the past.
Beyond the classroom, the last month or so has had some ups and downs. A huge up was our Halloween party at the school and after. The whole staff set the school up with fun activities on the top floors and a haunted house and apple bobbing station in the basement. Yes, I was one of the people wearing a mask and scaring the children as they walked through the haunted house. THAT made my night. Demented, I know. Everyone had a blast and when it was all done the staff hung out for a bit and took a bunch of pictures. Then, still in our garb, the Western staff took two cabs to Five Color City.
In this region of China there is a serious drinking culture that doesn’t just include alcoholics and bums but white collar business men and professionals having meetings. It’s not uncommon for a business meeting in the afternoon to include several beers for each participant. It’s more than a social lubricant, too. It acts as a buffer for serious occasions and creates an atmosphere where everyone is open and “honest” with one another. Great way to do business, eh? Anyway, I digress. Five Color City is Kaifa Qu’s resident “area” for that cultural gem.
We all went out to FCC and it’s safe to say that most of us got some curious glances. The theme for the Western staff’s outfits was Willy Wonka. We had a Willy, Mike Teevee, Varuca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Agustus Gloop, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and even an Oompa Loompa. Noelle and I were late to the preparations since we got to Dalian so late, but we managed to find some matching candy-oriented shirts and some bright colors to deck ourselves out in. The consensus was that we were Ever-lasting Gobstoppers. It worked.
The night went late into the evening and the following morning was more like early afternoon. We had a recouping day at the apartment of two other staff members where we watched Halloween movies all day and ate pizza. Good times.
And then November showed up and along with it my month-long cold. Since November first I’ve basically been sick. Low energy, cough, sneezes, runny nose, headaches! Blah. Despite that inconvenience, I’ve managed to make it out to hike through the trails twice and I haven’t missed a day of work. This week we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner as a staff at a restaurant in town. I love that we’re doing something for the holiday, but by this time back home all the stores and even some of the streets are already decorated and ready for Christmas. Here there’s nothing but the chilled wind to remind you that the winter holidays are around the corner. Makes me a bit nostalgic for things I always thought I didn’t care for. Soon December will be here and Christmas and New Years will come and go. This time of the year is difficult for traveler’s abroad, but it’s that shared feeling of the winter blues that brings us closer. We make the holidays special ourselves by keeping up with some of our traditions from home and even by playing Christmas music throughout the apartments (Noelle is currently playing Trans Siberian Orchestra). Hopefully Skype works on Christmas, because I’m sure that there will be many people testing out the limits of the service.
I can’t really mope, though. We still count ourselves supremely lucky to be doing something so extreme. We wanted to go abroad and now we’re here. We wanted to get jobs right out of school and now we have them. We wanted to see the world and now we are. We wanted stories to tell and now we most definitely have some. Everyday we’re adjusting to life here more and more. Some days China kicks our faces into the dirt and other days we outsmart her enough to secure the Win. With the help of our curriculum director, I’ve begun writing again and even have someone to talk to about my passion, and Noelle has joined a gym that she feels comfortable with. We’re walking a tightrope, but I think there’s a net down there now…
One of my adult students sent me this flash video about China. If it works for those back in the states it’s worth a look. Pretty interesting and accurate.
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.
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.
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.