Typhoons striking the eastern coast of China forced Delta to cancel our flight to Shanghai yesterday, and because Mother Nature still hasn’t complied with the airline’s schedule, we’re sitting in the Detroit airport delayed for more than two hours. Aside from being generally frustrating, the delay has given me a moment to write about this trip to America.
“Americans are so nice,” Xiao Ming says when thinking about her time here. “And there is so much space everywhere. America will never have the same problems China has with overcrowding. The food is so good, too. Much better than French cuisine.” Apparently we Yanks aren’t all a bunch of gun-totting, murderous nuts after all.
Well, at least not the murder part, anyway.
Twenty-four hours of traveling deposited us at the Akron Canton Terminal around eleven pm where my mom and brother’s partner met us three weeks ago. Tears in her eyes, wild platinum blonde hair sticking out like an anime character, my mother squeezed me and welcomed Xiao Ming and I back to the US.
We stayed with my Mother and Brother at their apartment for a few days before the five of us drove to NYC. Two days of walking, sight-seeing, and subway riding left us all exhausted. Though it’s the most famous city in the world, it’s still just a big city. Xiao Ming and I have traveled enough to see plenty of them. Hanging out with family while navigating the Big Apple was the best part. The drive back to Ohio felt a lot longer on the return journey. I drove the bulk of the way back since mom drove it on the way up. Even after grabbing an hour’s shut-eye in a southern Ohio McD’s parking lot, it was a struggle to keep my eyes open the entire way back into Canton. We finally made it back around 4:30 am, and collapsed on our respective beds.
She’s never seen me get excited about food. Sure, I love Chinese food. I eat it everyday. Street food from vendors using pots and pans that haven’t been properly washed since Mao kicked the bucket are just fine most days. But in America there be El Campasinos. The first meal we shared together in my hometown was dinner at the Mexican restaurant with crack-laced cheese dip, and Chicken quesadillas from El Heaveno. I actually moaned as I ate.
I wanted to share the food I grew up with, so we tackled Denny’s, Bob Evans, IHOP, Papa Johns, Friday’s, KFC, and some home-cooked food. Now I realize that this list makes me seem like a hillbilly, but I. Don’t. Care. When you live in China for long periods of time you begin to lose perspective. Suddenly everything greasy is special because it’s American grease. Next time we come to the States I’d like to hit Fazzoli’s, Olive Garden, BW3s, and Pizza Hut.
Something I learned from my last trip back home: YOU NEED A VEHICLE. I’d almost forgotten how far away everything was in the suburbs. You can’t walk it, I don’t care what you say. So this time I spent a ridiculous amount on renting cars. After a while the workers start to throw out discounts, so I saved a little. Not enough, but a little. We had wheels, though.
On one outing we went to my university and wandered around until getting caught in a downpour. Racing through almost the entire length of campus, we got soaked. We stripped and dried off in the car, listening to the radio warn the county that two tornado clouds had been spotted. Fun times.
We hung out at the library (not as lame as it sounds) one afternoon. It sits on a lake with trails through woods, so after getting set up with another library card, we walked around. “No wonder you don’t mind living in China,” XM said as the peace of the area enveloped us. The sounds of traffic and the city did not penetrate the tree line, and ours were the only human voices. “It’s so quiet here that when you grew up you wanted to be in a place with more noise, didn’t you?” Honestly, I hadn’t thought it like that before. Maybe she was right.
We caught a movie at Tinseltown—Ted 2—just so I could show XM what an American theatrical experience is like. Chinese theaters don’t normally show trailers, have no A/C, and people tend to think that it’s in the best interest of every moviegoer in attendance to hear the details of their private phone calls. So it was a nice change of pace to sit through 20 minutes of movie previews while being air-conditioned, and then an hour and a half-long movie without seeing a cellphone screen in the audience. The movie was okay, too.
After visiting family and friends in Ohio for two weeks, we drove down to South Carolina to visit even more family. Despite the weather not being so great the entire trip, we had a good time seeing everyone, especially a little sister that is just too freakin’ cute. After being in the North for a while, the South struck XM like a big plate o’ grits. Right off, she noticed, “there is so much land, and the people are so enthusiastic, so hospitable.”
Goodbyes were hard, but promises of future visits—both to China and back to the US—made everyone feel better. Driving through SC, NC, WV, VA, and OH made for a pleasant route back to my mom and brother’s. The mountains, forests, the Statey who gave me a speeding ticket. Yup. I swear it was a speed trap. My being polite and courteous prompted him to help me a bit, and I escaped needing to appear in court. Good thing, too. We were going to be in China during the court date.
The last few days passed quickly, and the closer our departure came, the more thoughtful I became. I pondered what it must be like for Xiao Ming to have made this first trip to America with her American Husband. I wondered what she truly thought, how it compared with her expectations, and what she’d remember when we left. As usual, her answer wasn’t even on my radar.
“The best thing about America,” XM says with unrestrained enthusiasm, “is your bathrooms. They ALL have paper! And they’re clean. Every sink has cold and hot water, too. There is soap to wash your hands, and AUTOMATIC PAPER TOWEL DISPENSERS!” A bit manic, she adds, “The best restroom in China doesn’t compare with a rest stop’s restroom off the highway in America. And they’re all free! In China and France you have to pay to use them! America is really a developed country.”
There might be a metaphor in there somewhere, but right now something’s happening at the check in desk. Maybe it’s time to go.
We ate a lot of street food in Sanya. Aside from the barbecued tarantulas and crickets in Thailand, I generally enjoy a place’s local street food. For the first few months after I got to China more than three years ago I hesitated before the karts and kiosks that the locals gathered around for their lunch and dinners-on-the-go, afraid to accidentally ingest something that’d anchor me to the toilet hours later. I passed them up until the weather turned cold. For some reason, my strange logic theorized that the meat would remain edible longer in the winters. Forget for the moment that the meat eaten in the chilly evening hours was the same meat getting insufficiently baked by the sun during the afternoons–I sure did.
Regardless, once I began eating I only rarely had occasion to hover around the toilet.
Being right next to the water, Dalian has a ton of aquatically inspired street food, and so did Sanya. I personally don’t like it, but I’ve eaten it enough, I suppose. I’ve always liked shrimp and fish, but if you’ve had either the Chinese way, you’d understand why I don’t often get it here. Eyes, head, skin, legs…all still there. I get the need for balance with nature, existing in it without messing with it–fengshui, and all–but I don’t need to stare my meal in the eyes to feel that I’ve communed with Mother Earth in a meaningful way, thanks.
It was in Sanya, though, that I nearly had a panic attack watching a shrimp fight for it’s freedom. And not only one shrimp, but also a crab that crawled off the kart and tried to scuttle away, and a fish that leapt from the holding box and onto the cement ground in an effort to escape. It was that shrimp, frantically flicking itself across the kart top, popping from one tray to the next, skipping over the clams, black-eyed fish, and others of its own kind, that bothered me the most.
I stood there, next to this round Russian guy with a thick beard, and stared at the shrimp while I waited for my barbecued chicken, lamb, bread and veggies to finish cooking. Watching the thing curl it’s body up and, with a lightning fast jolt of its tail, shoot across the tray, I couldn’t help feel a strange sort of empathy.
That sounded absurd to me in that moment, too, but then again, as it continued to struggle against the confines of those tin trays, I kept feeling that I could empathize with it. I began to imagine what it would feel like to physically fight to free myself from a cell, to use every ounce of energy to escape, just to find I’d landed in another cell full of others like me, all dead, to see my immediate future all around me and to see the edge of the cells, the boundary that would grant me freedom, but to find out, upon finally reaching and surpassing that border that I thought separated life and death, that a sharp fall launching me into darkness and, eventually, my own tragic end was the only future I had, that scared the shit out of me.
Then the woman handed me the plastic bag with our food in it, and I left the shrimp to its fate.
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.
Fenghuang, the Phoenix, from ashes is it reborn. In Western mythology this amazing creature is a symbol of life after hardships. In Chinese tradition it’s used to symbolize high virtue and grace, but it’s also seen during new beginnings, eras of rebirth. Along with the dragon (long), the koi carp (li yu), the Phoenix holds special significance here in the Middle Kingdom. There’s even a tongue twister that talks about gold and silver phoenixes being born in Phoenix mountain (fenghuang shan li sheng fenghuang jin fenghuang yin fenghuang…)
The dragon is power and strength. How can it not be? Flying, freaky, fiery breath to incinerate obstacles and adversaries–this mammoth beast is viewed not only as a powerful entity, but one of benevolence and wisdom in China. The Dragon was actually used as a symbol for the Emperor for a long time, and even today there are idioms such as, “Hoping your son will be a dragon.” The creature is not the miserly hoarder of English legend by any stretch of the imagination.
The koi carp–the only one of these three animals to actually exist outside of legend–represents fortune and good luck. If I had to pick an animal to embody my prosperity I think I’d select something a bit more aggressive or intimidating, maybe an animal known for its intelligence–the fox or a bird of prey, a wolf even. The owl is out since in China it’s viewed as a bad omen by many people. And perhaps the wolf is out, too. There’s a term “se lang” (color wolf) that basically translates into English as “pervert.” The fox, on the other hand, already has a special place in Chinese legends. When an animal lives long enough, gains enough wisdom, or is given enough power (all depending on the telling of it) the animal can turn into a human. In some stories they’re immortal and in others they’re sort of like spirits or demons, but the most famous of these unique animals is the Fox Lady. She shows up in stories, pop culture, and even in a recently released Chinese movie I saw at the theater. The other lucky animal to have been granted a human form is the snake–again, viewed by many in Asia as a wise and noble creature. Anyway, at least the animal some credit for their good fortune each year ( there’s a phrase that goes “nian nian you yu,” every year there is some, that refers to the harvest and the fish–Yu–at the same time) is a real one. You can see the multi-colored fish hanging in store windows, neighbors’ doors, inside buses, and even in taxis. Maybe that fact, that it’s real, gives the superstition some girth, something for belief to get behind. Or maybe it’s the koi carp because it’s a prosperous sea creature that’s been fished and bred in this country for thousands of years and people just decided on it by a majority vote. Who knows?
But the phoenix, like in Western tales, is life renewed. Chinese legends say it is the balancing force of yang, the dragon. As yin, it evens out the field and acts as a counter weight. Life and death, good and evil. Seen in times of new beginnings, this animal has to be positive. No matter the path before or even how the path ended, rebirth symbolizes hope, a future forged from ashes left when a fire wore itself out. All fires run their course, some longer then others, and some have enough force to alter the landscape irrevocably. But all fires fall to cinders and ashes, and I’ve heard that ash has a way of revitalizing the soil by bringing nutrients back that were scorched away. Whether it be flowers or a phoenix, life does return, reborn from the very elemental power that wanted so much to wipe it from the face of the earth.
My first year in China is nearly at its end, but the thought or returning home is still far away. Fires have indeed burned and charred some of the terrain, and recent blazes still rage, but along the edges where the ash has settled life is already being renewed.