Eagleman

One of my most embarrassing moments teaching can be directly attributed to a local commercial from the 90s that every Chicagoan knows by heart. Go on, watch this cinematic masterpiece.

You’re welcome.

This commercial played throughout my childhood, and we all had the words memorized. It was mocked everywhere and it was dated the moment it came out. As a 90s kid who watched too much tv, this commercial was woven into the fiber of my being. And so it happened that that transgender bird-man hybrid who loved car insurance so deeply that he grew quotes in his womb alongside a terrifying hand-puppet was directly responsible for me embarrassing myself in front of 40 Chinese graduate students in my oral English class.

I decided to teach a unit on food, because it was one thing I knew my students could get enthusiastic about. To guarantee their enthusiasm, I asked each of them to bring a snack of their choice to class. Some students went for the local specialties (dry, slightly sweet biscuits with sesame seeds on top and dried fruit snacks), many went for packaged fried bread-type snacks, and a few actually prepared food and nervously asked me to eat it. Yvonne, a tiny, sweet woman who was desperate to please me, brought in a cup full of cut-up fruit in yogurt, and anxiously told me it was the first time she had ever cooked anything. I went around the room and asked my students to tell me the name of their snacks and to describe them for me.

I let my students choose their own names, and I was never sure if Boit actually meant his name to be Boit, or if he had been trying for Bolt. His main strategy for dealing with English class was to sit in the back, in the middle of a pack of boys, and should I ever address him directly, nod his head and agree with me. So when he picked his name, and I asked him, “Are you sure you want to be Boit?” He smiled and nodded. “Are you sure you don’t want to be Bolt? Like Hussein Bolt?” He smiled and nodded. I looked to his friends for help, but they were too busy laughing at him to clarify his actual wishes, so Boit he was. And this was the level of English Boit was working with when he brought an egg to class and proclaimed, “I produced it myself.”

SAU is an agricultural school, and I knew some of my students did research on chickens, so I thought it was possible that Boit had snagged an egg from a control group.

“Do you have chickens?”

Boit shifted nervously. He looked down at a piece of paper, on which he had scrawled, I produced it myself.

“I… produced it myself.”

I looked at his friends for help, but everyone was busy eating and throwing things at each other. I looked back at the egg.

Boit was now sweating in his seat, and thrust the paper at me. I produced it myself.

Normally, when my students were having trouble understanding me, I acted out whatever it was they couldn’t understand. And normally, my students really appreciated this, and found it funny and useful for comprehension. Normally, I didn’t act out laying an egg. But looking at Boit holding his egg helplessly in front of him, I pointed at him, “You,” I did a full Eagleman squat, “Produced it,” and I pointed at him again, “Yourself?”

It was during the squat that lasted far too long that I realized what I was doing— emulating the car insurance hero of my youth—and that the eyes of my class were on me, and that I should probably stop squatting.

I thanked Boit for his egg, which as it turned out he had made into pidan, and I got out of that class as fast as my wings could take me.

Thanks, Eagleman, for helping chip away just a little more of the dignity I lost in China.

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Green River

I frequently traveled alone while I was in Asia, and I really enjoyed it. At first I was nervous, and I was convinced I would hate spending so much time with myself. But I started to see the appeal of stopping only when I wanted, sleeping on my schedule, and never worrying about whether anyone else was enjoying the activities of the day. I spent a lot of time writing postcards, writing in my (now many) travel journals, and taking photographs.

When I would return to my house in Taigu, I almost equally enjoyed scrap-booking and methodically going through my photographs, editing them, picking my favorites, and eventually posting them to tumblr. I didn’t expect too many people to look at them, but one picture got popular. In fact, it got popular enough that someone reposted it without crediting me, and one of my friends eventually saw it and posted it without knowing it was my picture. I don’t mean to brag here*, but I took a picture worth stealing.

My most popular photo

My most popular photo

And though I am pleased with myself that people who have the need to post ~~tropical blog~~ to everything they see thought my picture is good enough to share with the world, that picture is a big fat lie. The idyllic river with its gentle curves, the algae floating along peacefully, all of those brilliantly green trees and shrubs… They didn’t just happen to be there and they aren’t nearly as pleasant as they would have you believe. And the day I took that picture was a miserable disappointment.

I was in Yunnan, a province on the Southern border of China. It was summer, and it rained almost every day I was there. Most of the time it was just a heavy afternoon rain, but this day it was more of a persistent gray mist that made it impossible for me to wear my glasses. I was still recovering from an illness I had picked up before leaving Taigu, and hadn’t eaten very much in the past week. Earlier that day I had tried to go elsewhere and gotten lost, returning to my hostel damp and irritated. When I was in a very bad mood while traveling, I tried to find the one thing I knew would cheer me up—flowers. It never failed while traveling that a nice garden, or street lined with flowering trees, or ancient scenic burial site full of plum blossoms would cheer me up instantly. So I looked up what the city of Kunming had to offer me and decided to head to the World Horticultural Expo Garden. It sounded promising, and boy, did it not deliver.

The entrance was sort of grand in that someone had sculpted a random assortment of objects out of flowers. Unfortunately, the entrance was seemingly the only part of the expo that anyone had cared for since it opened. The place was enormous, and I walked through all of it, determined to get my money’s worth**. There were little plots for each participating country, and in those plots they had built a representative structure and garden, but only the structures remained. Some of them used to have rides or restaurants or shops, but none of those were open. It was just country after country of no gardens.

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While meandering in my disappointment, I walked down a very short path into a small forested area. The path was probably 25 meters long in total, and there was a little bridge overlooking a little creek covered in algae. The algae was actually probably a mistake– it happens from over-fertilizing. But if I faced the creek just right, I couldn’t tell I was in a miserable, run down, fake garden, and for a minute felt like I was standing in actual nature. The massive quantities of mosquitoes bearing down on me helped with the illusion. I stayed just long enough to snap a picture, reflecting that Yunnan was one of the few places in China where malaria was a risk, and walked back into the open, barren horticultural expo.

The next day I hopped a bus to Lugu Lake, where I snapped another of my favorite pictures, this time of something absolutely real and completely worth visiting. I think that picture got a total of five notes on it, but I’m okay with that.

Lugu Lake

Lugu Lake

 

 

*Oh, I totally mean to brag here.

**Money’s worth of what? Frustration? Lack of flowers? Drizzle? Sometimes my own determination confuses me.

 

My Path to Emory

I was asked to write an introductory post for my graduate program’s online newsletter, and this is what was published =)

claire_headFor the past two years, I’ve lived in a small town in Northern China.  The area is known for coal production, pollution, and particularly delicious vinegar. I lived and worked at Shanxi Agricultural University, the only agricultural university in China actually located in a rural area.  My town, Taigu, was so small that most people had never heard of it before and assumed that I lived in and was mispronouncing Thailand.

I taught English classes to mostly graduate students and some undergrads, and had a lot of time on my hands for badminton and majiang.* During the holidays– we had four months off a year– I took overnight trains out of my province and traveled across China as well as other countries in Asia.

My house in Taigu

My house in Taigu

Taigu was isolated. It was so small and unimportant that sometimes people tried to prevent me from getting off the train at my stop because they couldn’t imagine I would want to go there. My town had six foreigners, all Oberlin graduates teaching English, and we were all neighbors located in the center of campus. We were actually part of the school tour, and our houses were constantly being photographed for both their traditional architecture as well as the foreign teachers they contained.

A view of Taigu from the drum tower

A view of Taigu from the drum tower

I was sent to Taigu on a fellowship from the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, which was founded in 1908 as a direct result of the Boxer Rebellion. My job was to increase understanding between Asia and the US through teaching English, studying Chinese, and blogging about the experience, with the long-term goal of avoiding more Boxer Rebellions. At the time of writing, we have had a complete success in this goal.

Hulling millet in the lab

Hulling millet in the lab

You may be wondering to yourself what kind of lab work I did during this time, or how this relates to my interest in neuroscience. It doesn’t, and I didn’t do any lab work, except for one day spent hulling genetically modified millet and another visiting the entomologist lab to ogle the horrific diversity of monstersinsects that had been captured by students (I feel it is important to mention here that students in China do not get to choose their majors, and if I had been saddled with “catching centipedes” as a major, I probably would not have made it through higher education). I also supplemented my $500 a month salary by correcting the grammar of scientific essays about mango peels and speciation of shrubberies.

Specimens from the entomology department

Specimens from the entomology department

Before moving to China, I majored in neuroscience at Oberlin College and did research involving estrogen, LH, Alzheimer’s Disease, and schizophrenia. My PI had me in the lab up until graduation day, and she probably would have asked me to come in that day had she been able to find me. Ten days after graduation I was in China, looking forward to seeing what life as a non-scientist was like. One month in and I was ready to be back in lab, and one year after that I was preparing to apply to graduate school.

Me with a class of graduate students

Me with a class of graduate students

After two years away from home, all I really wanted in a school was for it to be located next to my grandparents’ house. Emory did not fit that description. In fact, I think I went to the website at least five times before considering applying, immediately exiting out upon seeing the word ‘Atlanta.’ On the sixth time, irritated that my hopes and desires had once again led me to Emory, I idly clicked on the application link. There, at the top, was a little notice saying that the application was free if I submitted it before Halloween.

A community opera performance

A community opera performance

Did I mention that I was making $500 a month and traveling the world in my spare time? Did you know that taking the GRE abroad costs even more money than in the US? In my head I weighed the two factors, living in Atlanta versus no application fee. Eventually, deciding I had nothing to lose, especially becauseapplying didn’t mean attending and as the first application it was totally just a practice application anyway, I went all in.

Our two month winter break began in January, and I went home for the first time during my fellowship. During that time I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, met my new nephew, celebrated Spring Festival, hung out with my wonderful grandparents, and interviewed at Emory.

It was a beautiful day– perfectly sunny and in the high 40s– and everyone kept apologizing for the weather. The students were suspiciously laid-back and happy, and the faculty actually seemed to know some of their names. The word ‘collaboration’ was thrown around, and people actually meant it. The worst thing I could get people to complain about the program was Atlanta traffic. That’s it– that’s the only downside of being a neuroscientist at Emory. Even the outsides of the buildings were shiny (after living in a city that got regular dust-storms, I notice these things). As I was driven back to the airport, I remember looking at the houses we passed and wondering if I was going to live in one of them someday and how I was going to break the news to my grandparents.

I was accepted two days before returning to China. I didn’t have a phone that worked in the US, so I got the message by email. I decided to play it cool and wait an entire week before accepting my acceptance, during which I looked up the school colors and bought an Emory t-shirt.

SAU campus

SAU campus

Come spring in Taigu, when the dust storms were overtaking the campus and the students had run out of excuses for missing class and were telling me they couldn’t make it because they had “something to do,” I started searching craigslist for my perfect Atlanta apartment and my perfect Atlanta life. I looked up student groups and labs and waited breathlessly to be assigned a neurobuddy (Hi, James!).

I came back to the US on July 24th, and on August 15th I drove my entire life to Atlanta, and I have not looked back. It’s been really wonderful to meet you all.

*Incidentally, if anyone is interested in playing badminton or majiang, please give me a call.

 

Cultural Differences and a Humiliating Story

Warning: This blog post talks about diarrhea– not in any detail, but the word is used like 12 times. Laduzi means diarrhea in Chinese.

The other day I was getting Thai food with some friends in my graduate school program. I was at the end of the table with my new roommate, Ellie, and a student who just moved here from Taiwan, Jeffrey. While we were getting ready to order, Jeffrey mentioned that he couldn’t eat any spicy food that night because he had a stomach problem, but he couldn’t remember what it was called.

“Oh,” I said helpfully, “Do you get heartburn?”

“No… it is my small intestine.” He gestured to his lower abdomen, but still couldn’t think of the right English word.

That sounded more serious than heartburn, and Ellie gave me a worried look. Jeffrey pulled out his phone to look up his ailment, and the conversation at the table moved on. After a couple of minutes, Jeffrey looked up brightly at me and said, “Diarrhea!”

I had to suppress a laugh, and glanced around to see that nobody else had heard him. I told him quietly that in America, we don’t talk about diarrhea with our friends, and we especially don’t talk about it at dinner. He asked me why, and I just told him it was cultural differences. He thanked me for telling him, and he said he was glad that I had heard him because I understood the cultural differences regarding talking intestines at the table.

In China it’s socially totally fine to tell people that you have diarrhea. I got my first dose of that in Chinese class, when I wrote to my professor to tell him that I couldn’t attend because I was sick, and he assumed that diarrhea was the problem. I was mortified but didn’t bother to correct him because I would actually have to utter the Chinese word for ‘diarrhea’ to tell him I didn’t have it. After living in China, ‘laduzi’ became one of my most commonly used words, if only because English speakers have a tendency to prefer using the Chinese rather than saying ‘diarrhea.’

I have a theory about why it is more socially acceptable to talk about bowel movements in China than it is in the US. Basically, in the US, an adult can expect to get diarrhea about once a year*. While I was in China it sometimes felt like I was suffering from it one out of three days. It’s probably not as frequent for the average Chinese citizen, but the rate is certainly much higher than once a year. And when getting diarrhea is more common than getting a cold, why not mention it? Everyone deals with it– everyone can relate.

I’ve mentioned before that I come from a family that does not talk about bodies and whether or not they have functions, and certain members in my family reading this have probably internally cringed every time I’ve written the word ‘diarrhea’. Group showers certainly helped me accept that I have a body and sometimes it needs to be naked, but it was constant, humiliating and often ridiculous illness that helped destroy whatever vestiges of bodily privacy and shame I had left. It was impossible to avoid having my friends know that I was going to be spending an entire day on the toilet, and “I’m having a ‘laduzi-day'” became a constant refrain.

There were a few moments I regarded as “my lowest moment,” but I think the winner occurred during my last travels in China, when I went to Xinjiang** with two friends, Sophia and Amelea. Xinjiang is mostly deserts, and because of this, there are a number of ancient cities with houses and temples made out of earth and clay that have been abandoned but still stand. They were planned cities, with walls around them, and they are stunning. Our party arrived in Xinjiang just after yet another massacre of the Uighurs by the Han police, so tensions were particularly high. For us, this had the benefit of scaring Chinese tourists away, and many of the tourist sites we were visiting were almost completely empty, including these ancient cities.

At one such city, I began having intestinal distress. It came on very suddenly, and I had some choices to make. We were in the center of the city, alone, and it was probably a mile back to the entrance. I tried to recall whether or not I had seen a bathroom anywhere, but all I could remember was passing through the old city wall– no modern facilities. Inside the city was just ruins– nobody had put in any sort of restrooms for visitors. So I could run for the exit, making a spectacle of myself and finding that I was now surrounded by men trying to sell me things that were not bathrooms (not to mention risking starting to sprint and not making it), or I could find a sheltered spot in this abandoned city and relieve myself.

Well, I handed my stuff to Amelea and Sophia, told them to never tell anyone of this event, and I went ahead and… well… I defiled an ancient city. I soiled a popular tourist site. I shat on a cultural relic.

Go ahead. Reflect on the places you’ve visited in your lifetime and imagine squatting down and letting it out on one of them. And go ahead and imagine the two years it took for me to get to that place where my stomach suddenly lurched and without batting an eye I handed my bags over and hunkered down in the shelter of an ancient wall. My insides were turbulent but my mind was calm– this was reality, and there was no use agonizing over it. I stared out at the desert as my stomach settled, and I knew that while part of me was completely ashamed, a newer part of me just didn’t care at all. A low point. 

Later during dinner, Jeffrey picked up a flower on his plate and said he thought it was edible. He started to put it in his mouth, and I looked at him and said in Chinese, “If you eat that, you will definitely laduzi.” He put the flower down.

 

*DuPont HL, Practice Parameters Committee of the American College of Gastroenterology. Guidelines on acute infectious diarrhea in adults. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. 1997;92(11):1962–1975

**You should all go here. The scenery is other-worldly. The food is delicious. I would actually consider going back to China if Xinjiang was my destination. 

Leaving My Mark

I wrote this as my final narrative for my job. Part of it is taken from another blog post I wrote much earlier, She Doesn’t Understand You, but it continues from there.

It can be difficult to see whether I’ve left any sort of mark here in Taigu. I’d like at the very least for my students to appreciate the diversity of the American experience, that freedom in the classroom actually means freedom of expression rather than freedom to show up late holding a milk tea, and to feel a little less nervous about speaking English at the end of the year. I would also like for them to appreciate that foreigners like me are more similar to them than different and probably shouldn’t be treated like aliens or zoo animals. These goals are pretty much impossible for me to measure without spying on them and hoping to catch them talking to a foreigner that isn’t me– exceedingly unlikely—and so I simply hope that I’ve had an effect on them.

This is perhaps the reason why after two years here, the person who made me feel the most successful was not one of my students, but instead a shop girl.

Day 29

At least once a day I take the six minute walk to the bustling commercial center of campus, Beiyuan. The vendors I frequent all know me and what I want. The jianbing man knows I want extra lettuce, the sour spicy soup woman knows I don’t want it spicy, and the iced tea girls know I’ll be buying an extra for Johnny. In addition to the food and drink vendors, Beiyuan is home to many almost identical convenience shops, three of which I go to regularly. Despite each of them being about the size of an Oberlin single, they carry everything from toilet paper to school supplies to mittens to Oreos, all jammed onto shelves and spilling out the door.

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One day during my first year in Taigu, I found myself with a dire need for some tacks, and I headed to my favorite shop. The owner spends most of his day listening to the government-controlled news on the radio and often springs questions on me like, “Do Americans believe Obama when he says that the unemployment rate is 8% or do they think he is lying? And if the unemployment rate is going down, do the people really feel it or is it just a statistic?”

His questions often eventually drive me into a corner where I can no longer understand him due to all the advanced vocabulary, but it’s an interesting exchange for both of us. One evening I showed up late enough that he was eating dinner and drinking baijiu (Chinese liquor) with the milkman who tries to teach me the local dialect. Because I was with Johnny, the men invited us to sit down, eat their dinner, drink some moonshine, and tell them all about our backgrounds and understandings of American politics. These interactions had garnered a deep loyalty in me for this particular shop, despite the fact that they had recently raised the price of Coke Zero.

Not long into the year, the boss hired a new girl to help with the store, and she never asked me any questions at all, choosing instead to ogle me like I was a fish who had learned to tap dance.

The day I found myself requiring tacks, both the boss and the new girl were in the store, the one smoking a cigarette on a camp stool and the other puttering around with inventory. I looked around for tacks in the tiny school supply section but couldn’t find any. The new girl had started following me when I walked into the store, but I had been successfully ignoring her. I hadn’t brought my dictionary or had the foresight to look up the Chinese word for ‘tack’ earlier, so it was time to play a guessing game with the boss.

I approached him and said, “I’m looking for something to help me stick one thing to another thing.”

He sprung into action, jumping off his stool and grabbing different sticking devices, holding them up for my approval.

“No, not glue. I want…” I scrounged for something a tack could do that glue or staples could not. “I want to stick a piece of paper to the wall.”

“What? What do you want it for?”

At this point the new girl started talking from behind my back. “Why are you talking to her? She doesn’t understand you. She doesn’t understand you!”

I raised my voice. “I want to stick a piece of paper to the wall.”

She raised her voice. “She doesn’t speak Chinese!”

The boss seemed to understand what I wanted. “Oh, a tack. Here’s a box of metal ones.” He showed me a box of very tiny nails.

“She doesn’t understand you!!”

“Oh, do you have any plastic ones instead?”

At this point, the new girl decided she needed a new tactic, and in English started yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”

“No, we only have metal ones.”

The barrage of greetings continued into my back. “Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”

“Oh, forget it then.” Without turning around to acknowledge the idiocy behind me, I left the store, tackless, frustrated, and deciding that I had just made a new enemy.

To my dismay, the owner of the store spent his time there less and less frequently, and the shop girl was often the only worker there. Correspondingly, I took my business elsewhere for a while.

Eventually I felt bad for denying the shop my business simply because of one silly girl, so I forgave the shop girl for her antics and returned to purchase some sunflower seeds. Normally the only people I see in these stores are students, but that day there were a few people who looked like farmers. While I was grabbing the seeds, the shop girl looked knowingly at one of them, nodded at me and coolly said, “foreigner.”

I decided to play stupid. I put on a blank face and said, “Foreigner? Where?”

She avoided my gaze and said, as if disinterested, “Aren’t you a foreigner?”

I looked myself over in shock. “I never imagined it!”

She wasn’t buying it. “You told me you’re American.”

I wasn’t getting a smile out of her, so I broke character then and said lamely, “Oh, yeah.”

At this point things deviated from the norm. One of the farmers, an older man standing next to me, turned and said, “She isn’t one of ours?”

I repeated to him that I’m American, and he studied my face hard, still not believing me. “Really? But you speak Chinese, you must be Chinese! Are you really American?”

Here I was with the shop girl who had believed couldn’t speak Chinese based on my looks despite hearing me have a conversation, and now for the first time in my life someone assumed I was Chinese based on my language ability despite my looks. I had never been so pleased in the last year as when I told him, “Some Americans can speak Chinese, too!”

After that happy episode, I resumed visiting her store. She would occasionally tell me that she had seen me elsewhere doing other things, and I would nod because I do go elsewhere and do other things. She would also sometimes ask me how to say things in English, and when I would oblige, she would shake her head at the impossibility of it all.

One day I decided to ask her her name. She told me her name was BaiYing, and when I told her my name was GeLan, she protested that she wanted my English name. I made her practice saying “Claire” until it was less than three syllables, and I went on my way.

About a week later, I popped back into the store, and I quizzed BaiYing on my name. She sheepishly mumbled something that sounded tolerably like my name, and I gave her a big smile. She then said, “Your Chinese name is GeLan, right?” I nodded. “That’s not a very good name.” I don’t understand much about Chinese names, so this sounded plausible. “My teacher gave it to me. What should my name be?”

She smiled. “BaiYing.”

“That’s your name! What should my name be?”

She repeated, “BaiYing.”

“You want us to have the same name?”

She nodded vigorously. I told her I would think about it.

Now that we were friends, I visited her shop more frequently. Once the weather became tolerable, she spent most of the day outside manning the ice cream freezer. I wasn’t planning on a conversation with her that day, but she stopped me.

“I noticed that students look at you.”

After two years here, that was an understatement that didn’t warrant a response. I grunted an affirmative.

“They often say things about you.”

Another grunt.

“I think they shouldn’t say things about you. I think that you are a person and people shouldn’t say things about you.”

This was a thought I’ve had pretty much any time I was not holed up in my room, and BaiYing was the last person I expected to hear this from.

“I don’t like it when they say things about me,” I responded, “Especially when they laugh.”

BaiYing nodded. “If I hear them talk about you, I’m going to tell them to stop. They shouldn’t do that.”

I was at a loss. Every time I had mentioned to a person here that I didn’t like how people looked at me, pointed at me, took pictures of me, laughed at me, or talked about me like I couldn’t hear, the response had been defensiveness, telling me how they were just curious, or uneducated, or maybe I misunderstood them. And while I understand that embarrassment of being called out on inappropriate behavior, repeatedly being told that my feelings were uncalled for on the matter had exhausted me. I had accepted that this was something I could not change no matter what I said or did.

But I had been wrong. BaiYing had changed. Eventually I nodded to BaiYing, said thank you, and left.

I hadn’t set out to teach BaiYing anything. In fact, when I failed to buy tacks that first day, I had written her off as someone not worth talking to. But after two years of simple interactions with me, watching me buy things and talk to friends and teach, she stopped seeing me as a curiosity, an other, and started seeing me as a person who, like other people, doesn’t like it when people talk about her. BaiYing, more than anyone else in China, let me know that I have had an effect on the people I live with, teach, and learn from.

Now that I’m leaving Taigu, BaiYing asked me for my address and a picture of myself. I have no idea what she’s planning on mailing me, but I snapped a photo of her as well.

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Farewell, China

My last travels in China did not go as planned.

After my amazing trip in Xinjiang with Amelea and Sophia, I flew to Xining in Qinghai. Going to Tibet costs a lot of money, but the Tibetan plateau extends pretty far outside of Tibet, and my plan was to bus south across it, eventually ending my journey in Chengdu in Sichuan. Since I first arrived in China, the one place I wanted to see was Sichuan, home of pandas, bamboo, and lush forests. Time, complications, and other excuses meant that I had saved it for my very last destination.

I found an itinerary online of a trip taking the exact number of days I had to spend. I happily scheduled it out, made some hostel arrangements, and booked a flight from Chengdu back to Taiyuan in time for my final trip home.

Tongren

Tongren

I made my first mistake in the first town after Xining– Tongren. I was staying in a traditional home, and the second night there I asked if there was hot water for the shower. Assured there was, I gathered my shower kit and headed to the shower room. I was unsurprised to find no hot water, but the host came in and told me he’d fix it. He shooed me out, promising hot water soon. I went back to my room and tried not to fall asleep while waiting for him. It was again unsurprising when he came back and told me that there would be no hot water, and in the morning when I left his house, my towel and toiletries were still waiting patiently in the shower room for the hot water that wasn’t to be.

That was my first time losing something while traveling. I was incredibly embarrassed when I realized my mistake in the next town, Xiahe, but those things were easily replaced.

I have no idea when I lost my face moisturizer.

I do know that I got a killer sunburn in Xiahe and it was there that my plans were dashed. Another traveler told me he had just been south, and all the roads were washed away. Extensive flooding and landslides made the path to Chengdu impassable, and my only option was to turn around and head back to Xining and hope that there were still train tickets left that could get me back to Taiyuan. I wasn’t going to make it to Sichuan after all, and rather than seeing pandas and traipsing through the wilderness, I had to scramble to get train tickets during the high tourist season and hope I didn’t end up standing for 24 hours. After a day of negotiation and begging strangers for help, I managed to secure tickets with a layover in Xi’an and canceled my flight out of Chengdu.

Xiahe

Xiahe

I had a couple of days to kill before my trains, so I decided to go to the famous saltwater lake in Qinghai. I caught a bus, got off at the right spot (a challenge given that others on the bus tried to forcibly stop me, not believing that it was my destination), and secured a bed in a hostel. The first day was rainy, and still having nothing to do until my trains, I decided to stay a second night. The weather was lovely the second day, and I spent the afternoon walking around and admiring the scenery. The hostel had a high turn-around rate, so I was the only person staying in my room from the night before. When I returned to my room, however, things seemed a little different than how I’d left them in the morning. My bed was made very neatly, and I had purposefully left it unmade so new newcomers would not mistake it for a free bed (that is totally the reason I’m sticking with). There were no other bags in the room, and no evidence of any newcomers. The bed was not the only change, however; as I looked around, I realized that my things had all been moved around to weird places, and then it dawned on me that my clothes were gone.

Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake

I looked around the room– the other beds, in the bedding, under the beds– but the room was pretty bare and hiding places were sparse. I went up to the front desk and told them my clothes were missing. The two women seemed totally unimpressed with this problem, and one told me that 1. I should take better care of my things and 2. her underwear had been stolen just this morning, so what was she supposed to do about my clothes? I told her about someone moving my things and making my bed, but she was completely unconcerned. My clothes were gone, and nobody was going to help me get them back.

I angrily slept in my jeans and cursed China with everything I had.

The next morning I hitchhiked back to Xining, and the following day was my train ride. I left at 7:20 am, arriving in Xi’an at 11:30 pm. I had a three hour layover in the station, and my main challenge was to stay awake and get on the correct train.

During my layover, I headed to the bathroom. Chinese bathrooms aren’t known for cleanliness, and this particular bathroom was trough style– basically everyone squats in a line (with partitions dividing them) over the same trough.  This trough was very, very full. I stood next to it, looking through my bag for some toilet paper when I heard a clatter. That’s funny, I thought, that sounded like my iPhone hitting the floor but here it is in my… pocket... I patted my pocket and to my horror, it was suddenly completely empty. I looked at the floor, but there was nothing. I glanced at the trough, but I couldn’t see anything in the murky water. I kicked over the trashcan, but only toilet paper came out. And then, from the depths of human excrement, in the throes of its pathetic and disgusting death, my phone started to glow.

I briefly considered finding something to help me get it out– if I could hold the mops like enormous chopsticks, maybe I could lever it out and then I could… I could… Even if I had been carrying a bag of rice around with me, nothing could tempt me to ever touch that phone again without promptly chopping off my arm. No amount of scrubbing could clean it, and what would be the point of cleaning it anyway? In the time it took me to locate it, it had already died. It was never coming back from this.

So, thinking about my lost toiletries and my stolen clothes and my plans for Sichuan and the last two years of my life in China, I squatted over my phone and I peed on it, too. Then I picked up what was left of my things, hopped on a train, got on a plane, then another, and landed in America.

My phone is probably still in that trough.

Karakul Lake

I recently had one of the best travel experiences of my life here in China, so I thought I’d brag about here for you.

Our travels began in Kashgar. We were unable to purchase a bus ticket the previous night because, according to the woman at the ticket desk, they had not yet scheduled the buses. They told us to come back the next morning to buy tickets, so at 8:30 am, right when the ticket counter opened, we were there to buy three tickets to Karakul Lake. She told us they were sold out. I was preparing to yell at her when she suddenly realized the 11 o’clock bus had space and gave us three tickets.

We hadn’t eaten breakfast yet (nothing in Kashgar opens before 10), so we wandered outside looking for anywhere to eat. We eventually settled on some underwhelming baozi and headed back to the bus station. Sophia didn’t want to sit in a bus station for over an hour, so she went to wander while Amelea and I sat in a sleepy stupor.

At 9:45 a bus driver approached us and asked us if we were headed to Tashkurgan. That was the final destination of our bus, so we said yes, and he told us that the bus was leaving and we had to get on. Sophia was nowhere to be found, and we started panicking. The driver told us to call her, which I did, repeatedly, but she didn’t answer. The bus driver left and came back and checked on us, telling us the bus was only waiting for us and then it was leaving. After about fifteen minutes of panic that our bus,the last bus for the day, the bus we had tried to buy tickets for repeatedly but had failed to until just this morning, the bus taking us to scenic Karakul, would leave without us, Sophia strolled on up and we rushed through the gate. That was at 10. At 10:40, our bus finally left the station.

The drive was five hours or so, and I was sitting at the very back with a very smelly man determinedly sleeping on my shoulder and kneeing away my already limited legroom. The bus was stuffy and slow, and we stopped only for check points. At one check point I asked about a bathroom, and was told to go wherever. I eyed the tower where a Chinese soldier was watching us so closely he could tell who was taking pictures of things they were not supposed to, and I decided I would hold it.

We arrived at Lake Karakul around 4 in the afternoon. After the heat in Kashgar reaching almost 100 degrees each day, it was shocking to be standing in a frigid rain. I knew right away the clothes I had packed for the desert would be insufficient for the weather we were facing here!  I was thankful I had impulsively bought a scarf from a vendor in Kashgar. By the time I got myself off the bus, Amelea had already struck a deal with a local man that we would sleep in one of his yurts, and he was waving us toward the owner’s so that we could sit down for tea. I skeptically asked how much we would be charged for it, but a smiling woman told us it was free. The yurt operation was actually run by her,a 22 year old Kyrgyz woman, and she told us the rates for the yurt while serving hot tea and stale bread.

Sophia asked if there was good hiking in the area, and one of the men in the yurt asked us if we wanted to go to a glacier. This sounded promising. He told us that we could ride his motorcycle to the glacier, drink some milk tea, and check out the area. He started out asking for 200 yuan a person, but we knocked it down by half. We dumped our stuff in our yurt, changed into the warmest clothing we had brought with us (in my case, just layering everything I had brought with me), and each of us hopped on the back of a motorcycle.

Almost as soon as we started the drive, I knew this excursion would be worth every penny. My driver was named Mai Naiki (I really have no idea how that should be spelled), and his motorcycle was definitely the sorriest of the bunch. When the road got steep,I had to get off and walk while he powered it up the slope. We started down the road, scarves covering our faces to protect from the dirt and wind. Eventually we reached a gravel path, passed a small town, and were in the mountains.

The views were breathtaking. Every turn gave us something new to look at. I was so enthralled by the scenery I hardly noticed how cold my arms were or that my legs were cramping on the back of a bike meant for a person half my size. The mountains were tall and covered in snow, surrounded by smaller mountains that were either barren gravel or covered in short grass. Wild camels wandered around and red marmots lazed on the rocks, chirping when an eagle soared overhead. There were waxy yellow and purple flowers covered in dew. The motorbikes needed to stop frequently for reasons unknown to me, and every time we stopped, the three of us wandered off to admire the mountains until our guides yelled at us to come back.

Eventually we got high enough that the grass had little clumps of snow all over it. We kept climbing until we reached the glacier. At the border between mountain and glacier was a village of about fifteen houses. All the houses kept yaks and sheep and goats, penned in by walls constructed of stacked rocks. Rocks seemed to be the only natural resource available, and the houses were made of them as well. As soon as we arrived, we were invited in to one of the houses, Mai Naiki’s sister’s house and given yak butter tea, which is thick and salty– more like a soup than a tea. As we dipped our naan into it, our guides told us that we were 4700 meters above sea level.

When we were done drinking, we wandered about the village, admiring the animals but mostly the view. The glacier quickly disappeared into clouds, but across from the glacier was a stunning range of snow capped mountains. We didn’t get too far because of how thin the air was, but it didn’t matter.

Eventually it was time to leave the village, and we made our way down the mountain. Back at the yurts, we ate a rice pilaf dinner and then headed to our own yurt. Our host prepared a fire in the stove, brought us some hot water and candles, and bid us good night. We spread blankets across the already blanketed floor, snuggled up, and went to sleep.

The next morning we were greeted by the bright sunlight and one of the best views of our lives. What a perfect trip!

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Making Friends in Japan Part II

Yuki was not the only friend I made in the Kansai region. Upon arriving in Osaka, I immediately got lost in a sketchy part of town. I had a few sets of directions to my hotel from various train stations all written in poor English, so I figured the best option I had would be to start from a different (theoretically nearby) train station and see if those directions were easier to follow.

I was fairly confident in my ability to ask where a train station was, and I hoped the response would be pointing. However, when I approached a grandfatherly man, the station name got stuck in my throat and I completely mangled it, denying me the chance to use my carefully prepared grammar. 

Dobuststsuuuuuu…” I coughed at him.

Eh?”

D-d-dobuuu…”

He magically understood me. Or possibly he didn’t, I really have no way of knowing, but his face lit up with (a possibly mistaken) recognition. He started talking to me, and other than him telling me that my Japanese was very good, I understood none of it. I thought I would help him out by looking extremely lost and then pointing in random directions. He kept happily talking away, and pointed first to the right of me, then to the left, and then behind me.

I thanked him and started walking in one of those directions, and was surprised to see him come with me. I mistakenly thought that perhaps I was so close that he was just going to walk the ten steps to make sure I saw it. While he led me around Osaka, we had a very animated, one-sided conversation. I imagine our exchange went something like this:

Him: “We don’t often see foreigners around here! Don’t worry, we’ll get to the train station in no time!”

Me: “…”

Him: “Actually I was just heading to the train station myself. What luck you happened to catch me just then.”

Me: “…”

Him: “Let me tell you this very funny joke! Hahaha! Perhaps if I laugh and nod enough you will suddenly get my very funny joke!”

Me: “Ehehehehe…”

Him: “But now I have something very serious to tell you. Given how most of your recent conversations with old people have gone, it’s probably racist. Or maybe I am scolding you for the actions of other foreigners, or possibly for your own ineptitude in learning the language of the place your are visiting. Or maybe I am telling you to be careful and not trust strange men who don’t speak your language and are leading you around in an unfamiliar city to destinations that, for all you know, could be slaughterhouses for unsuspecting tourists and you really should have Google-mapped directions to your hotel rather than relying on the directions they gave you that were clearly written by a translation website because now we’ve been walking for over ten minutes and you are certainly going to die.”

Me: Serious expression to show how seriously I was taking him.

Him: “Ha ha! Just kidding! Lots more words including a couple you recognize like ‘friend’ and ‘wife’!”

Me: extremely nervous laughter

I was despairing that once again I was facing the possibility of sleeping on the street in an unknown city when I saw the train station. I pointed at the entrance. “There!”

Him: “There? No, no, you don’t want to go there. Continue walking with me so I can chop you up and eat you for supper.”

Me: “Thank you so much! I go here!”

Him: “Well, suit yourself! Good luck, foreign girl! Ha ha ha.”

He gave me an incredibly warm smile, shook my hand, and bowed.  As he happily walked away, I reflected that he was possibly the nicest ax-murderer in all of Osaka. I then proceeded to remain lost for the next half hour or so while searching for a hotel that was about a two-minute walk from my original starting-point. 

Making Friends in Japan

Seven years ago, I took two quarters of Japanese during my short stint at Northwestern. It was my favorite class there– challenging and taught by Sato-sensei, a woman I truly feared. Our quizzes were graded with circles for correct answers, triangles for effort, and crosses for complete failure. Perfection was denoted with a flower that grew in size depending on how much perfection there was to praise. Once the quiz was graded, one of a variety of stamps was applied depending on the results. Most of them involved penguins and whales. The best stamp was a penguin riding a whale with a speech bubble saying “yatta!” while the worst (which I received only once) was a penguin holding his belly and saying “Unnnn.”

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One of my actual quizzes from those days.

I fondly remember those stamps, but almost all of the Japanese language had slipped away during the last six years of studying Chinese, so it was with trepidation that I arrived in Japan. Despite being able to read signs and place names due to the two languages sharing characters, I had no idea how to pronounce any of them. In Tokyo, I was saved from having to do much translating by my friends there (and the English on the trains, on signs, and pretty much everywhere), but once I left Tokyo, I was on my own.

When I arrived at a small hostel in Nara, one of the workers there greeted me with a cup of green tea and a friendly “Konnichiwa.” I felt pretty confident about my ability to say hello, so I replied with my own “konnichiwa.”

His eyes widened. “Your Japanese is so good!” he said to me in his own perfect Japanese. Pleased by my success at greeting him, I pulled out one of the few sentences I remember from Japanese class: “I don’t speak Japanese.” I even boldly tacked on at the end, “but I can speak Chinese.”

This declaration had the wrong effect on my new friend Yuki. Having heard my mastery over one sentence, he was completely certain that I was a secret, modest expert at Japanese, and henceforth treated me thus. I dropped my stuff off in my room at the hostel, and he invited me to drink tea with him in the common room. We then had a conversation that generally consisted of him saying things and me smiling and saying “I don’t understand.” At one point he asked me if I loved my father, and I confidently responded “yes.” Through his persistent (and patient) chatting, I eventually figured out how to say “I am an English teacher” and “tomorrow I am going to Osaka.”

Once we had exhausted the usual hostel small talk, he asked me if I was hungry, and I responded with the sentence I had learned especially for this trip– “I am allergic to shellfish.” He asked me how serious the allergy was, and I pointedly drew a line across my neck with my finger. He made a decision right there that we would have dinner together and it would be his sacred task to keep me from dying.

I wanted to try Kansai food, so we headed to a local restaurant. We had to wait in line outside of the restaurant before we could be seated. Yuki, finally bored with my limited conversation, began asking the people around us if the food there was any good. The people in front of us weren’t at all interested in a conversation, but two women behind us were amused by his overly outgoing nature. They were incredibly impressed that we had only met each other an hour ago and yet were having dinner together– so impressed, in fact, that they decided to have dinner with us, too.

The four of us had a pleasant dinner and the three of them had a pleasant conversation in which I interjected with such witticisms as “soudesuka?” and “oishii desu!” We ate egg pancakes covered in barbeque sauce and fish flakes, and once the bill was paid, Yuki and I happily said our goodbyes to the women.

Back at the hostel, I found that my roommate was from China, and I was finally able to have a real conversation with someone. Yuki, convinced that we were talking about him, stood around outside our door for a while, ducking his head in every once in a while to ask my roommate what we were chatting about. After some thought, I looked up a word and shouted it into the hallway. “Yuki-san, o yasumi nasai!” Yuki took the hint and wished me a good night as well before disappearing into his own room.

The next morning, Yuki and I had a silent tea together, both of us having found the amusement of mutual misunderstanding to have diminished. Occasionally he would start to say something, but then think better of it and give up. Soon it was time for me to continue on my journey to Osaka, and I bid Yuki an enthusiastic farewell, but he had no enthusiasm to give me. Someone once told me that travelers tend to have intense relationships while they are on the road. In one day, my relationship with Yuki had progressed from awkward hellos to enthusiastic chatting to comfortable companionship. It then peaked with the boredom that attends couples when they’ve heard all the stories in their respective repetoirs, and was followed by suspicion, and now here it ended with apathy.

I will always remember you fondly, my sweet Yuki.

 

 

A Short Story

A student told me this story as part of a midterm last year, and I thought it was so cute I would share it with you.

For her fifth birthday, Helen’s* mother wanted to make her a special dinner. She lived in the country, and at that time everyone was very poor, so meat was hard to come by. Her mother had to take the day off to travel to a different town to buy some pork, and in the end was only able to afford enough meat for Helen– the rest of the family would have to make due with the usual vegetables and noodles.

That night, Helen was so excited to eat her fancy dinner. But when her mother handed her the bowl, her older brother pointed at it and said, “Look out! There is a spider on the bottom of the bowl!”

Helen tipped the bowl over to look for the spider, and poured her whole dinner onto the dirty floor. Her mother scolded her brother, but she couldn’t salvage the dinner. Poor Helen cried and cried, and she never forgot that birthday. 

 

*Her real name isn’t Helen– that’s just the name she chose for class.