Most kids have chores around the house. I grew up needing to clean my room, empty all the trash bins, and wash the dishes every other day. My brother took care of his room, vacuumed, and did the dishes on the days I didn’t. As I got older, cutting the front, side, and back yard got added to my routine. Pretty standard stuff, and I’m sure many other kids grew up doing work like this.
But my step-dad is also a carpenter, and we managed and maintained the duplexes we rented out to tenants ourselves. So instead of hiring someone to repaint the apartments, spackle cracks in the drywall, pull up and relay carpeting, retile bathrooms, fix water heaters, stop leaking pipes, pour and set new cement steps, build a back porch, and re-shingle the roof, we did it. My brother often helped, and so did my best friend. The more hands involved, the quicker we’d finish and go ride our bikes and eat ice cream at the Twisty Treat a block away. The running joke was that my step-dad had no ability to estimate time. If he said something would take an hour, that usually meant at least three. A few hours? My afternoon was shot. Understanding this was important and helped focus my attention. I had incentive to pay attention and be efficient so the job could be completed and my weekend wasn’t lost.
Now, years later, with the gift of hindsight, I can see the value in all that time I spent working. Don’t tell my step-dad I said that! It’s shaped me into a confident, competent man who isn’t afraid to work hard and try to fix something on my own before resorting to the Yellow Pages (Or whichever APP has currently replaced the unwieldy tome).
Who would have thought that moving to China would make me feel as helpless as an infant trying to use a Milwaukee 2705-22 M18 cordless drill?
Moving to a new country so vastly different than America kicked me in the gut those first few weeks. Even now, after more than five years, it likes to take cheap shots that remind me I’m still little more than a toddler here.
It’s so frustrating when you don’t know where to buy the right tools for a household upkeep job. Go to the New Mart where everything is up for haggling and the quality isn’t guaranteed? Everyone but you using WeChat Pay or ZhiFu Bao to pay for everything? The shower drain tube old and clogged? What store is that in? The place where you pay utility bills look like a madhouse and you’re not sure where to stand? Not sure how to use DiDi Che (Uber in China)? Trying to send money home at the bank, but the answers to your questions aren’t making sense? Cell phone getting weird messages and you need to check it out at the China Mobile location? Not even Lonely Planet can help with all these issues.
All of these tasks and more pop up when you’re an expat, and if you’re used to troubleshooting life on your own, having to rely on others to do it abroad can be a stressful, humbling experience. Picking up the language helps in some of the cases, but not all. In some situations it’s just about knowing how things are done or where to find what you’re looking for. This just takes time and effort.
Some people don’t mind this. They view it as a release from responsibility, a vacation in some ways. Like going to a hotel where you don’t have to worry about cleaning or making your bed. So many expat communities develop around companies with packages and housing support – even drivers – that take care of these parts of life. I heard about a woman here, a trailing spouse for one of the Intel guys, who relied so much on her driver that she couldn’t even manage walking on her own down the same few streets she was chauffeured through every day without getting lost. Paying for an Ayi – a woman to do house work and cook – is really cheap, and so there are those who don’t even do laundry or sweep their own floors anymore. Some people even refuse to shop anywhere that’s not an import store, spending tons of cash on products that can be found three times cheaper at local joints. Like tigers in big, foreign cages, they pace back and forth, wearing out the same old paths.
Despite the above paragraph, I’ve got no judgement here. To each their own and all that. That life, the one free of those daily hassles that are just unavoidable “back home,” is a peaceful one. Transplanting yourself and maybe even your family to a place with an ocean between what you knew and what is new is not easy, and anything that makes it a softer landing is helpful.
That being said, after more than two or three years somewhere the excuses sort of begin to run out. Decide to stay for an extended period and life has a way of creeping up on you in padded Ninja slippers and chopping you right in a pressure point that drops you back to reality. You’ve got to start reaching back into that arsenal of life experience to find that handyman you know you can be, that self-reliant, resourceful degree-holder that blazes his own trail, or at least can read the signs pointing him down the right trail needed to get things done.
Where am I?
Sometimes I wander down the right trail feeling self-sufficient and other times I’m left looking for the APP that will make life easier.
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
Being married to a Chinese woman isn’t exactly like those melodramatic TV shows or the ridiculously formulaic Korean dramas that people can’t seem to get enough of here.
Ever watch one?
Turn on the tube and chances are you’ll catch one of five types of show:
Dynastic China with subtle, watered-down undertones of political commentary, a World War II series that usually makes the Kuomintang out to be insufferable fools and the Japanese as subhuman monsters while the Communists are righteously wielding inferior weapons and still coming out on top, a medical drama with absurdly handsome and young people staring very sternly at one another, a game show where people just straight up do stupid shit for really nothing but the audience’s applause, or the Korean family drama.
Korean dramas usually follow the boy meets girl story, and then they throw a wammy of boy meets girl’s family and must win over the overbearing parents. Follow that up with boy marries girl. Then girl must win over the overbearing mother of the boy. Once they all like each other there is usually an issue with the pregnancy or stress put on the girl for a boy (the more desired). And in the midst of it all someone gets themselves tossed into the hospital because of a sickness or some stupid behavior that in the end brings to light that they all just love each other and want good things for the family. Yay – happily ever after.
I may have sidetracked myself.
My point is that being married to a Chinese woman isn’t always like that, but dealing with parents in this culture does require some flexibility. Xiao Ming’s mom and dad have always welcomed me, but man can they push my buttons, too.
I come home one day a few weeks back and ol’ mom and pop are there hanging out with Xiao Ming. Her dad motions for me to follow him into my office, so I do. We stand in front of the dresser and he points to it, saying that he fixed it. I open the drawers and sure enough they slide open and shut seamlessly. The flimsy bottoms had begun to bow and made those motions difficult. Great! Fixed. Thanks, Dad.
Except the second thing I noticed was that everything in the drawers were now somehow reorganized. I don’t just have a dresser of clothes. I use three drawers for other things like nik-naks, notebooks, etc. Nothing too crazy personal, but still, personal. To fix the dresser he had to take everything out and then to put it back the way he did, he had to carefully think about how to put items where. So he just went through all my stuff.
If you’re thinking to yourself, Jordan, he fixed the dresser. You’re right. Absolutely. If I were a better person, I’d see that and stop there. I’m not, and I didn’t.
I pulled Xiao Ming to the side, told her I appreciated the help. I didn’t ask for it, but, sure, thanks.
Side note – I grew up working on most weekends helping my stepdad maintain our rentals. I know how to do home maintenance. And, yes, it does bother me to have someone in my home doing things I can do myself. That make me a small man? Fine. I own that.
So I tell Xiao Ming that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all went down. They pop over all the time unannounced, and even come in and fiddle around when we’re not home from time to time. Whatever. No issues. But going through my dresser, even to fix it, was something I’m not okay with.
Xiao Ming gets it. She even admits that she told her father not to do it because I wouldn’t like it. Love her. She knows me. But I’m still seeing red. I have to say something, I tell her. To him. Right now. No, no, she says, but I don’t give in.
I greet him in the living room – damn he’s a small guy – and I very politely thank him for helping with the dresser. But, I add, next time – oh no, he senses my tone and is bowing his head with that uncomfortable smile – I’d like to fix something like that myself. He nods and I walk back to my office like a horrible troll that’s collected a tax for walking over his bridge. Immediately I feel crappy. He does, too, and I can hear him talking to Xiao Ming about it.
What should I have done? That was my line.
In the end, it blows over. After all, we’re family!
And today I come home to a house with a few lights on that I know I turned off. Strange. I go into the bathroom to wash my face and get a shower since I’m sweaty from the gym. Can’t do that. The handle for the bathroom sink is missing.
And the drawers under the sink are sitting oddly. I pull on one and it falls out. The tracks it’s supposed to be on are sticking out of the trash, all rusted and old looking. Obviously Xiao Ming’s father has been here.
So apparently he plans to fix the bathroom sink and the drawers. True, both are due for an upgrade, but they were manageable. A call to Xiao Ming to see if she knows anything. Nope. Her dad has just pulled one of his ninja moves. So now instead of having a sink that works and one that I can fix on the weekend, I have no sink and I have to wait until he feels like finishing what he’s started in case I upset him like I did last time when I asked him to stop fixing things.
As I typed this he sent a message to Xiao Ming –
Tell Jordan, the bathroom’s sink head is broken.
I’ll buy a new one and put it on tomorrow.
Yup, I’m a rotten person.
Xiao Ming has her own battles with her mother, though. She gets on Xiao Ming for everything from our habit of getting delivery most nights to driving habits. She’s always giving Xiao Ming grief about not cooking a lot, about how the apartment could be cleaner (It’s pretty damn clean!), and making Xiao Ming call her everyday just so her mother knows she made it home from work. We eat with them usually once every two weeks, sometimes less. I don’t know, but for me that seems like a good amount for most adult children. Of course her mother makes her feel bad that we don’t eat over there most nights like her cousins eat with their parents. The fact that the cousins still live with their parents and don’t work the same hours as we do doesn’t seem to affect this sentiment at all.
I couldn’t imagine life here without the whole Liu Clan. Everyone from the quiet, meddling father and nagging but caring mother to the fussy aunts and noisy uncles makes life here richer and more meaningful.
More than anything, when I travel, it’s the people who catch my attention. I’m not talking walking-in-Wal-mart-after-hours kind of people, but still, characters nonetheless.
After eating breakfast in the Han Tang Inn while American country music played on the house stereo, we boarded a long van with other travelers—Canadians, Brazilians, French, Scottish, Italian, English, Australian, Singaporean, Chinese, and yes, me as the one American. We were on our way to see the Terra Cotta Warriors (Bing Ma Yong), the first emperor’s army that was to protect him in the afterlife.
As we sat down behind a group of four girls, all with different accents, we listened as the tour guide introduced herself. Jia Jia, or Lady Jia Jia, as she liked to be called, spoke good-enough English, smiled a lot, and liked to emphasis points by repeating words and nodding her head.
She gave us the intro info about the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Considered a great leader because he was the first to unit China in an empire, built roads, added, unified, and improved on parts of the Great Wall, had his big-ass mausoleum that’s protected by his terra cotta army built, and made some big waves with his policies….oh, and to stifle free thought—er, I mean to maintain stability—he burned a lot of books and even some scholars alive.
Great leader, Lady Jia Jia said, adding, “but ruthless, ruthless.”
After the intro she decided to quiz us, and for some reason the person she happened to ask was me. She asked me how many different kinds of statues were made in the army. I told her (four: soldiers, archers, cavalry, generals). People were surprised I rattled the answer off so quickly, but it wasn’t difficult: she had just given us the info a few minutes earlier. Anyway, she followed her question up with a smile and another question: “What’s my name?” I answered again and got another big smile and a nod.
That pretty much sealed it. From that moment on I was her # 1. After she spoke a little bit with me she turned her attention elsewhere, for a time. My friend and I got talking with some of the other travelers and enjoyed the 40 minute ride to the site.
Once there Jia Jia came up to me and handed me someone else’s license. She said that using my passport as my only photo ID was not wise since sometimes they misplace them. Ever since my wallet was stolen months ago I’ve been using my passport as my sole photo ID and it has never failed. She said to just hold the ID and the ticket together at the three gates and it would be fine. Uh, ok.
So I did, but at all three gates the guards barely even peaked at either the ticket or the ID. I wondered if this was Jia Jia’s way of making it seem like she was going above and beyond and all that, when really, it was no biggie. Whatever.
Then when we were all through the gates we hopped onto another small van, but not before Jia Jia handed me her tour guide flag/wand-thing. You know, that flag or banner they all have for the group to easily see them? Hers was this red bear-dragon stuffed animal attached to a retractable wand. Yeah, she called me out of the group, handed it off to me, and then told people to follow me onto the van. Once on a few others and I dubbed it “Bragon.” Then she took it, leaving me to wonder again why she’d even given it to me in the first place since we only walked about ten yards.
Our first stop was Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, a large hill with a lot of manicured land and pretty flowers, but not much on the tombiness. Turns out that the tomb is buried beneath the hill, and scientists and archeologists want to do things right for a change. They are waiting an estimated 20 more years before they dig into the hill in order to preserve the integrity of the artifacts inside. Legend says that the tomb is surrounded by a mercury mote, and science has recently picked up readings that suggest it’s not just a legend. Why 20 years? I don’t know. They’re banking on better technology then. I’m happy to hear they want to go about it the right way, but it was a bit of a bummer only walking around a glorified hill.
Also, once there Jia Jia insisted on taking some pictures for my friend and me.
Then we hit the three pits backwards, working our way up to Pit one, the best one.
In three not much of the soldiers are visible since the archeologists are still working on them, but there are broken remains scattered about in the places that have been excavated. The majority of pit three is comprised of ancient earth and stone that have been packed and compressed by time into a wavy terrain that looks a bit like a mud pool was frozen with brown waves at the surface.
Jia Jia asked us if we knew why the terrain looked that way—wavy. No one did. The group crowded around her, but I was hanging around in the back, kinda checking out the area and looking over the railing. So I almost missed her calling for me.
Even though I was literally the farthest away from her she asked if I could assist her with her explanation. I pushed my way through the group and she asked to see my left hand. She directed me with her fingers to open my palm. She explained that the soldiers had all been lined up in rows that looked similar to the way your fingers do when your palm is opened flat. After the emperor kicked the bucket other armies broke into the tomb and ransacked the place. They stole the real bronze weapons the clay soldiers held and then burned down the wooden roof that covered the tomb, sealing the army beneath the ashen remains. Over time they were buried deeper and deeper, but because of the way they were lined up, the waves were formed.
Cool story, but why couldn’t she have used her own hand?
We carried on, taking pics and soaking up the sights. The Terra Cotta Soldiers were only discovered in 1973 when a man digging for a well stumbled upon this guy, the kneeling archer. He’s the one who started it all. He also still has some of the original painting on his butt.
In the second pit I noticed my friend’s expression. She didn’t seem impressed one bit, so I asked about it. “I don’t think they’re real,” she said.
“What are you talking about? Of course they’re real.”
“No. There are no guards. Look at the floor there.” She pointed out that the floor beneath the spots excavated seemed too even, too precise. “And how do they know where to dig? If there are still people working on these where are the tools and equipment?”
I countered her as best I could, but she was unconvinced even through to the number one pit. In fact, we kept going back and forth, gradually getting more heated. She believed that they were once real, but that all the stuff we were seeing were replicas. The government had hidden away the real ones to protect them.
Finally, once inside the first pit we did get a glimpse of tools being used to unearth the army, and we saw evidence (or well-placed decoys) of on-going archeological pursuits. She seemed a bit more convinced once we were staring at rows and rows of the world-famous clay statues, but still not wholly sold on their authenticity. And by the end of it, I was starting to see that she might not have been so crazy. For a Chinese person to say that about a famous historical Chinese sight shows a level of cynicism I was unprepared for, but her stubborn conviction began to wear on me.
I’d like to think that the soldiers we saw were the real McCoy, that China isn’t puling a fast one, but who rightly knows…
After the pits the group voted on a place to eat. We got there and the food was already prepared, Chinese style. Chinese style includes setting a dozen communal dishes on a spinning table and turning it around and plucking what you want from them. A few of the group members who’d been in China a bit were comfortable with this method of eating, but some weren’t. Either way, the food was great.
As we ate we all talked. Everyone there had a different story. Traveling on business, holiday, passing through on to somewhere else, living and working in China…We shared travel experiences and made recommendations, compared info and even exchanged some contact numbers. After a good meal and good conversation Jia Jia stood up and asked everyone if they’d had had a good time. Greeted by an affirmative answer, Lady Jia Jia smiled and told us how happy she was to have been with us that day and that she hoped we had a great rest of our travels. Then she asked, “Where’s Jordan?”
Hesitantly, I raised my hand and said, “Here,” as though checking in for roll call. In front of everyone she pulled out a three inch tall Terra Cotta Soldier and handed it to me, saying simply, “This is a gift for you.” I accepted the little soldier gladly, but could feel the eyes (and maybe judgment?) of the other group members as I held it. The thing looked much older than the few I had bought in Xi’an for souvenirs and I instantly liked it, even though the condition under which I came to possess it seemed a bit strange.
The ride back to the hostel was one filled with speculation over Jia Jia’s motives, and me trying to defuse my friend’s annoyance. In the end, I just had to laugh it all off. People climbed out of the van when we arrived, and my friend and I grabbed some grub, cleaned up, and then headed back out to see Da Yan Ta, The Wild Goose Pagoda (I spent the majority of the night referring to it as “Da Ya Jia” Big Duck House. I even made a song to go along with it and sang it in Chinese. Yup.).
We hopped on a bus and got there in the early evening. It’s positioned about 20 minutes away from the hostel, so we thought it wouldn’t be too late. We were wrong. Once we got there and strolled along the park that’s sprung up around the pagoda the place was already closed. We didn’t let that bum us out, though. Instead, we just found a place to chill out and people watch, the pagoda always in the background with lights illuminating it. People from all over China were walkin’ along the sidewalks and through the park. We tried to guess which provinces some were from, but it isn’t easy, even for a Chinese person. A common physiological trait I’ve come to notice is the proportionally correct torso and slightly shorter legs. This can be seen on both men and women, but it’s more noticeable on the women…at least for me.
I sort of lost myself in the peoplegazing until it was completely dark out, and we both realized we were exhausted. We made our way back to where we thought the bus stop was, but with no luck. We ended up walking around for about twenty-five minutes before we managed to find a bus. By the time we did make it back to the hostel I could barely hold a conversation. Maybe it was the excitement of travel, lack of sleep, air, whatever—I needed sleep.
Because tomorrow we were going to climb Mount Hua Shan.