Archive for October, 2009

Fewer bus rides, more roaches

October 24, 2009 Leave a comment
Hey Everybody!
This week doesn’t feel particularly notable, but I realize that with my new much-anticipated location that it probably is.  I’ve been able now to stop worrying about unreliable shuttles, been able to stay in my office correcting largely plagiarized summaries from first year classes until after dark, and have visited mustachioed-tomato-clad Mr. Pizza without pleas for a ride home.

The room in Yan Hua Yuan is at the top of four flights of stairs (no elevator, but Chris and Zander helped me carry my bags). There’s a balcony for drying handwashed clothes, ample shelf-space for displaying “my” books (probably 1 of them isn’t borrowed), my Hong Kong chess set, and the hand-waving, good-fortune cat I procured in Gong Bei. There’s a pipe that carries the water out of my sink and into the plumbing rather than a tube draining onto the floor and down the shower drain like in the other girls’ rooms. There’s an air-conditioner that doesn’t sound like breaking glass every time I turn it on. There are also three beds bolted to the wall, three desks, and three wardrobes stuffed into the tiny room with me and the family of cockroaches that lives behind my cabinet (they get bigger and bigger every time I walk into my bathroom, but not yet as big as that one that died in the middle of my floor at Metro Agile). There’s a lights-out/curfew at 23:30 for the students and I can only imagine how unpleasant it must be when those rooms are at capacity. The unnaturally loud stomping sounds that come from the hallway at 23:15 are bad enough.

Now, however, I am close to work, I am close to the city, and I’m close to the rest of the crew. Now I don’t have to answer the question “have you moved yet?” every time I talk to a professor in the English Language Center.

I have acquired a pretty bad cold due to the relaxation accompanying my tremendous relief. I’m fighting it a Lipton tea called “Iron Buddha.”  I was also planning to fight it with sleep, skipping a Friday night out to curl up with a book–but the hopes of sleep were dashed when I foolishly chose “The Kite Runner” as my curl-up book of choice.  I finished it at about 1:30am and had to lie there listening to Michael Palin‘s “Full Circle” travel diary again until I had unwound from the read.

Still, however, I’m making the customary Saturday afternoon bus ride to San Xiang. Tammy, one of our Chinese former shuttle-mates, decided to choose the weekend after we’d all moved away to throw a housewarming party. She said there would be fried octopus. I have a really hard time turning down fried octopus. So rather than sit in my office typing away all of Saturday, or sitting in my musty room coughing, I’m going to go buy some roach killer and air freshener back in my old quaint little town and swing by my favorite Sichuan noodle place to get beautiful-sinus clearing soup!
Hope none of you are under the weather!  Take care of yourselves.  Keep in touch.
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Culture Shock and the Indian Michael Jackson Saturday, October 17, 2009 3:04 AM

October 18, 2009 Leave a comment

Hey friends and family!

I’m sitting in the Q1 internet cafe in San Xiang for the last time, most likely. We received an e-mail on Friday afternoon from Sabrina saying that the rest of us would—at last—be moving to Yan Hua Yuan staff dormitories near campus.
This week has been the most work-ridden so far. It’s also the first week that I’ve really felt the whole brunt of culture shock, despite the fact that I can communicate in small words now rather than cave-woman grunts. The shock particularly comes from the way people at work behave. Since there are no longer fifteen of us living out in San Xiang, our bus forgot to pick us up at all on Wednesday. We had to mime and guide-book ruffle a request for a cab into town and get reimbursed the 90 kuai in cash from HR (which was speedy compared to the rate at which they do things like give us mail keys or get a mattress approved to move into our rooms).

“Emily, if I’m having a horrible day, seeing you get angry about something just always puts me in a good mood,” Megan has said to me more than once. I know. How am I supposed to take that? She meant that my private outbursts against the HR department, whiny co-workers, or sexually creepshow expatriate white-men are humorous word-cocktails. A good steam-blowing explosion after work isn’t so bad, but it’s not really doing the trick anymore, and I, Tin-Hau-help-me, do NOT to cross that line from comedienne to ugly American. I only know how to manage my frustrations in Mandarin class, where I write down every ridiculous thing that the old Israeli professor who sits behind me says.

“Please translate: I do not have a boyfriend. I am very, very busy,” said Amanda, our Chinese teacher.

“Wo mei you nan peng you. Wo hen mang hen mang,” we said falteringly and with questionable tones.

“Is that a reason or an excuse?” The old Israeli man says.

Often he will make suggestions as to the way Chinese grammar should be. Most times Amanda just stares at him, mouth slightly agape. On Friday he suggested that if someone is addicted to coffee, they should use the same grammatical structure as if they were talking about a person who is close to them. Amanda paused for about five seconds and then said the word, “Ridiculous.”

He doesn’t bother me so much, mostly because he’s not threatening my life with a car or the like. Also, his antics are fully documented. It’s the other stuff that’s not so easy to laugh at.

After the cab dropped us in front of UIC I headed to the staff cafe, sweating and shaking, and asked two female English professors what they did to relieve the shock and stress of being perpetually confused and lost. “Massages,” they both said (both before listing other less-specific things). Since I’ve spent the last two months living opposite a spa/massage parlor without taking advantage of it, I figure maybe tomorrow is the day. I take issue a bit with being touched by strangers, but especially as I allegedly train for this alleged half-marathon, as I get knocked around in the seatbeltless backseats of taxis, as I fruitlessly stand in counter intuitive bank lines to try to send money home, I’m starting to knot up in more than just my body.

Whole person education and voluntary service started officially on Wednesday. Sadie, Megan and I went with Ryan and a busload of second years to a government run school for physically and mentally handicapped students. We weren’t allowed to see the school because apparently we would’ve needed special permission to do so, but we were allowed to give attention to the students who came in that afternoon with their parents for physical therapy. Ryan had seen me with my guitar after working on “Surfer Girl” with my a Capella club (I only used the guitar to teach the parts!) and insisted I bring it along. It was a really good idea—the director’s eyes lit up when I came in with it and he told me that it was the perfect thing to relax the children. I parked myself on a blue mat and played the guitar for the entire two hours we were there. It really hurt after awhile.

One little girl who I’m pretty sure was autistic was running from room to room with two students laughing and chasing after her. When she heard the guitar, she stopped, and put her face inches from the strings. “Jie!” She said, looking up at me.

“Mei mei!” I said back to her, smiling and continuing to play. We’d learned “big sister” and “little sister” the first week of Chinese class. The girl continued to stare at my guitar before shouting “ai” the word for love and jumping up and down, then tearing another lap around the room and down the hallway. When she returned, she took the pick that I’d left beside me on the floor and slid it through my strings and into the guitar. I haven’t been able to get it out yet.

Last night really helped me recover from the intense week, as we had a birthday party for Jessica’s boyfriend, Joel. We started at an Indian restaurant called the Indian Kitchen, which was right down the street from The Jewel of India, which lit up incompletely at night so it was actually called The Jew of India. The food was excellent, and Joel kept wondering aloud when Michael Jackson would get there. We thought that he meant one of the hosts kind of looked like MJ—maybe wore a single glove or something. What really happened was that one of the cooks came out of the kitchen dressed in high waters, white socks, loafers, a black hat, and a homemade sequined jacket and glove. They replaced the Bollywood DVDs that had been playing on a TV in the corner with a recording of Michael Jackson singing “Billy Jean” live in concert, and as strobe lights flashed, the cook replicated his dance move for move.

Between the group of us, stories of last night have been unfolding like a dumped out linen closet—all hilarious (except for one possible staff-student not-G-rated breach of ethics, which is undoubtedly going to scandalize next week). Among the best of the stories, in my opinion, was when Sadie’s boyfriend in the US was trying to find her and called Rose, who also has a boyfriend in the US. Rose couldn’t hear Sadies’s boyfriend, John, ask for Sadie as we were in a club called “UFO” with very very loud music (I gave the toilet attendants there a very nice tip). So Rose just started crying, “Oh Aaron! You’re so far away! I wish I could just hear your voice! I love you so much!” and then hung up. Also at one point during the night I got to pet a puppy with enormous bat ears.

I guess I’ll go make the most of my last weekend in San Xiang—by reading Kitchen Confidential and eating matcha Pejoys.

Love to all of you,
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Hong Kong! Internet cafes! Busses! New friends! Ahoy Friday 10/09/09

October 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Hey friends!

Ok, so it’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote to everyone or posted on wordpress and a lot has happened!  For one thing, for those of you who aren’t into watching the news (I’ve been really bad about it lately), some really gnarly typhoons ripped around this area last week and going to Vietnam seemed like a horrible idea.  So I canceled the tickets and hopped on a ferry to Hong Kong–alone!

I acknowledge how not-hard core I am by saying that it was an enormous thrill to see signs in English, to hear a guy behind me say, “Lady! Lady!  You dropped this!” and hand me my UV repellent umbrella, to not get stared and shouted at on every corner. I crowded onto the metro with the waves of rain-soaked businessmen and women onto clean and well marked metros and walked past both Starbucks and street markets to my hostel in Causeway Bay.

My hostel was on the 16th floor of a building full of apartments that emanated cooking smells into the linoleum tiled hallways.  I walked into my room where two British girls had just met–Mimi and Lu.  Mimi offered me a Hoegaarden white Belgian ale.  I about fell over.  We went out almost every night, revisiting Western favorites like lattes, pastrami sandwiches and Sierra Nevada, and weaving our way through the shopping district and rocketing to the top of a 30 story building to have a Kowloon Park cocktail at the sleek but unpretentious “Aqua Spirit” bar.  The two of them proved able to get us into any of the 10-deep Lan Kwai Fong dance clubs for free, where we danced with three boys in homemade “I ❤ Cuba!” shirts.

The days were spent wandering markets and taking the metro out to Lantau island, climbing a series of staircases up to the 110 foot high Tian Tan Buddha and visiting the temples at the monastery below.  It was my first time in a Buddhist temple, and with all of the flashing cameras and gray-robed monks with cell phones and Starbucks I can’t say it was the most religious of experiences.  However, it did clarify another link between peoples for me.  Coming from gilded-cathedral-lousy Europe, I was starting to worry that the tendency to  excess was a Western phenomenon.  Seeing the solid gold statues, the crystal lamps, ivory, vases, and jade soaking up the incense smoke made me realize that every culture shares that desire to spend money impressing, if not god, than at least each other.  And foreign visitors who take the elevated cable car over the mountain just to take pictures of wet markets and buy jade necklaces.

Which I did a lot of, incidentally.  Mimi and I snaked around the low slung Stanley Market shops after a zig-zag around Victoria peak to the opposite side of Hong Kong island where the water was jewel toned between rock walls, in and around fishing boats and yachts.  We bought presents, for her family to whom she would be returning in London after 2 months of medical internships in South America and Australia, and of course for ourselves.  We checked our fortunes from Joss-sticks, drawing a number from a wooden jar and then searching the paper booklet for our fate.  My number told me that I would have a lot of struggle and strife in my life but would come out victorious, that I would not get to be with my first love but “that will be for the best” and–in italics–“you will get your wish”. If I knew what my wish was I think that would be really good news!  Although I think the best part of that was that I’m not going to get to be with my first love!

The Tin Hau temples in Kowloon were crouched between high rises, surrounded by public patios where old men played Chinese chess.  People left all manner of food in front of pictures of their ancestors and statues of gods–the most popular were pieces of fruit with stickers still on, turreted mooncakes filled with eggs or almonds to celebrate the autumn moon festival, even half drunk bottles of rice liquor and fried chicken in Styrofoam boxes.  One goddess holding a mirror was surrounded by cakes of L’oreal eyeshadow.  I got some mooncake of my own after visiting the jade market, asking for a “special price” for gifts for friends and myself (enter an amazingly gaudy watch depicting Chairman Mao waving his hand withe every tick of the second hand–incidentally it hasn’t worked all week until I looked down at it right now.  I’m a little creeped out).

There’s plenty to be said about Hong Kong, especially about the fortuitousness of making new friends, and the potential to have two really fantastic reasons to go to UK, but also for the confidence it gave me to get out of my comfort zone and travel without my entourage.  Taking the ferry, running into Welsch Sue from work and getting to share a cab halfway home, taking the busses back through the dirty and anarchic Zhuhai and San Xiang streets, I felt prepared.  I’ve bussed around Zhuhai several times this week.  When I get lost I know who to call and always seem to find new friends to help me at most points of struggle stops (which I think warrants the occasional photo-op).

Megan and I were coming back from Zhuhai the night before starting back to work, sitting at the bus stop in Jinding surrounded by honking motorcyclists who kept yelling “hello! Hello!” at us.  It was late, and after twenty minutes, someone communicated to us that the bus that would take us through the village to San Xiang wasn’t running anymore.  Megan was upset and hungry, and I took her across the street to a restaurant that last years’ TA’s had recommended to us called “Mr. Pizza”.  I asked the girl behind the counter to write our address in characters so we could show a cab driver.  She happily did so and we sat down to really–really— good margherita pizza and coke.  As we asked for the bill, the hostess approached us and said, “You know we have the Mr. Pizza car, and he will drive you home for 40 kuai.”  Given that’s half the price I’m used to paying for such a ride, we were overjoyed.  The pizza car was Lakers purple with a mustachioed tomato painted on the side.  I’m pretty sure the week couldn’t have had a better ending.

All but five people (me and my roommates, Chris, and Zander) have now moved to the dorms at UIC.  In the meantime I’m going to have to embrace this isolation as I learn little pieces of Mandarin.  I can now say most numbers under 1000, properly greet people, talk about colors and food, also I can say that my older brother is very fat very fat.  Sometimes I wonder what kind of joker organizes our curriculum.  It’s a little lonelier now that the stolen internet network at my place has disappeared, but we’re busy working for most of the day with our paper-grading, tutorial groups and clubs (in mine, we had a beat-boxing clinic this week!), empty tracks and crowded swimming pools, and the beginning of the volunteer services program this upcoming week.  When we get home we still have our Sichuan noodle restaurant friends (who busted out with “See you later!” last time we were there), the orange-plastic paneled Q1 internet cafe, and The Wire.

All my love to all of you.  Let me know how you are.  I picked up a couple of your addresses off of facebook while I was in Hong Kong so if you want to check out some of the “back issues” you can find them at  If you want to see the Hong Kong pics, you can check them out at:  Also, e-mail from you would be amazing.  A visit would be even better.

Also, my Mao watch has stopped again.


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