Letters From China (First Month 2007)

As September 2007 continued I began to find my feet in China, getting the swing of things in the classroom and learning to navigate Beijing on my own. These letters include my trips into town, my adventures in coffee, my first bout of homesickness (maybe ever), and some glimpses into the lives of my Chinese students.


Sep 13, 2007 at 10:08pm

Sooo, today was kinda interesting. It started off with early morning downpours, and me having no umbrella. By the time I got to class I was totally soaked. Not too bad tho, it cleaned out the air a bit and cooled down a lot.

The power went out this afternoon.

And… drumroll please… I found a place that serves COFFEE here in Yanjiao! It took me a while to get across that I just wanted black coffee, since it was like a dessert shop and they did mochas and cappuccinos and the like, but in the end, I did get a real cup of coffee… not great, but real. I still intend to try to get some beans in the city so I can make my own, but it is nice to know there’s somewhere I can go nearby.

Sep 14, 2007 at 7:34pm

I’m sitting here grading homework, and I want to share what one of my students wrote. The assignment was to describe a person.

“When I am happy, I like a person who is of medium build, a little chubby. I think she is very optimistic, stoic and conservative. She likes reading, listening to music and so on. Sometimes she would write a very good passage.

But when I am sad, very sad, I begin to hate her. I think she is very pessimistic, stingy and grumpy. She always does something wrong which made a lot of person even her friends misunderstood her and dislike her.

I eagerly hope she can do everything carefully and become excellent. Because that person is me.”

The English is a little rough, but I think the message is amazing, so I had to share.

Sep 15, 2007 at 11:25pm

Today I finally felt well enough to do some exploring. We decided to go into Beijing. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes, but its reasonably comfortable, and really cheap, about 5 yuan¹ as opposed to say a taxi which would cost over 100. This lets us out at Dawanglu. There we discovered a Super Walmart center and a guy in a penguin suit.

After Walmart, where I was able to find actual coffee, though its very finely ground and a little acidic for my tastes (I may however have over-brewed it, due to its completely wrong grind for a french press, and since I have a whole bunch, I’ll keep trying to get the timing right), we got on the subway (3 yuan) http://www.urbanrail.net/as/beij/beijing.htm and went on the red line (see the link for a map²) from Dawanglu to Xidan where we found a huge mall and some interesting architecture.

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This mall looks a little like an American mall, but of course there’s lots of room for bargaining. We also found a Starbucks where I was able to purchase the aforementioned french press. We didn’t stay long because one of the guys was looking for a winter coat and we didn’t see many clothing stores there, but I want to go back and explore more… one of the nicest things about it was that no one was trying to sell me stuff actively, and later I’ll explain why that’s so nice³.

We then took the subway back to Yong’anli and the infamous Silk Market. The silk market is a huge multistory shopping complex made up of hundreds of stalls selling goods.

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Its a heavy bargaining experience. Erwin found a jacket he liked and argued the price from 2300 to 450 (300usd to 60). While this market has plenty of nice stuff for cheap if you argue well, the sales girls are really grabby, literally, they kept grabbing my arm to stop me and try to drag me to look at their stuff. Not all were like this, but enough that it got on my nerves. I’m sure I’ll go shopping there myself when I need winter things, but its really a high impact shopping experience.

We stopped at a cafe to refresh ourselves before the long trek home. Kevin had a sort of duh experience today. His water supply† at home ran out like 2 days ago and for whatever reason a new jug never arrived, so he basically stopped drinking water, and of course today, he got pretty sick… he’s fine now, and its probably just as well we had to come home early, cause I am totally wiped out. In the end, we took the subway back to Dawanglu, then the bus back home. So I shall leave this post with the final picture from the window of our bus.

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¹ Chinese currency has a lot of names… I was not consistent in how I called it because the Chinese themselves are not. RMB, Yuan, and Kuai (remember back then it was 7.5 RMB to 1USD)

² That link doesn’t work. Try this one. TheBeijing subway has gotten SO much bigger since then. There were 4 active lines and they were building the 5th for the Olympics… today there are 15. But you can still see the red line on the map.

³ I did not ever explain that. In China (and oh so many places in the developing world) visiting (white) people are assumed to be richy richersons and someone always has a hand out or is trying to sell you something useless and overpriced. Often a simple “no thanks” in the local language is enough, but I’ve had people on the street grab my bags or even my arm before trying to get me to buy. It was very overwhelming before I learned how to deal with it.

†Do not drink the tap water. 

Sep 16, 2007 at 10:56pm

To paraphrase Rob, I finally hit the wall. It really hit me where I am and how long I’m going to be here, and the fact that I sat in my apartment today and couldn’t talk to any of you because you were all gone, just made it that much harder. Don’t get me wrong, I know it was Saturday night and all, but I went out to Beijing yesterday instead of chatting with ppl, and I’ve been kind of scarce on contact this last week anyway, and I keep looking at this board hoping someone will have put up something while I was asleep or away, and its happening less and less…

I realise you’re all going on with your lives and that I’m not as much a part of them as I was 3 weeks ago, and there’s a definite tendency for “out of sight out of mind” but when I was talking to you all, at least someone, every day, I wasn’t lonely, and I felt like I could DO this. But today, for the first time, I began to wonder if I really can.

So, I guess I’m just asking that you try not to let me be out of mind, just because I’m out of sight. I don’t think I can do this without your help, all of you. I’m gonna try to shift the Beijing outings to Sundays (your Saturdays), to make it easier. Google Talk has a free voice talk function that all you need is a cheap mic to use, and I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear your voices.

I’ve never really been “homesick” before, because having moved so much as a kid, I never really felt like I had a home, and when I left Memphis, I was only leaving a few people behind, and I could always just call them if I missed them. But I’m homesick now, for Seattle, and while I can’t be there, and you can’t be here, if we can meet out in Cyberspace its not as bad.

P.S. Its not really the city I’m homesick for, but the people who made it a home, the ability to walk down the street to hang out at Belinda’s or drive over the water to Toni’s or just hang out and shoot the breeze after game. The closest I can get to that here is talking online, and that I need more than coffee or pine scent or home-cooking. I think its important for me to be ok with the accommodations, food and entertainment that China has to offer, because trying to make my life here like Seattle not only defeats the purpose of being here, but just highlights the differences and reminds me how hard it is to bring that here. Things are just things, but people are irreplaceable.

Post by Ross on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:09am

Weeeeee’re off to see the Chairman, the most respectable Chairman of OZ!

We hear he has some wonderful Chi, if ever some Chi there waaaas!

If ever oh ever a respectable worker there was, the Chairman of OZ is one because. Because, because, because, because, becaaaaause!

Because of the glorious wealth and respect in common effort to the workers he does!(doo da da da dum da doom, da!)¹

¹Nearly everything here is something I wrote, but I just couldn’t leave this creative comment out.

Sep 19, 2007 at 6:11pm

As part of teaching conversational English, I give the kids¹ little activities to do. Today was a talk show, the topic of which was “teens and their parents”. While several of the skits were standard fare: “dad won’t let me date”, “mom treats me like a child” etc. One group had a fantastically Jerry Springer-like show.

It started out with the “mother” bursting into tears (real ham acting sobs) and relating the deep tragedy of her husband disappearing from their life when her daughter was only 6 and their mother/daughter relationship is now suffering.

The “daughter” then breaks in to tell her side, the relationship isn’t bad because the father left, its bad because she is a lesbian and her mother refuses to let her marry the woman she loves!

It further develops that, although she has become a lesbian because of her deep distrust and hatred for men (causing the male “host” to back up a bit), she truly loves the woman she is with.

The only un-Springer-like action is that after the psychologist has told the mother that her daughter’s sexual preference is a result of a combination of genetics and environment, and she must support her daughter (nice and liberal), the mother and daughter make up in another flood of hamitup tears.

The skit was funny and socially relevant and very creative. It really is amazing to watch these young people grow and change.

¹ “kids” = university students, ages 18-22

Sep 21, 2007 at 1:27pm

With my cold finally gone (well mostly) and the beautiful weather, I finally got off my butt and took some pictures of the campus. Be warned, there are a lot of them¹.

We begin our virtual tour today with an aerial view of campus in order to give you a big picture from which to put the details in perspective. I went to the ninth floor of a teaching building in the middle of campus and took pics starting from the south, moving west, north,  and east.

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Now you have the 180 aerial tour, lets move onto the ground. From the south view, you can see the zigzag looking bushes, the red potted flowers and the cactus garden.

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Next, we’ll take a look inside the class building from which I took the pics. First is the view of the building from the south, standing on the same road bordered by the zigzag bushes, then some classrooms and the stairwell.

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…a public toilet and some chalkboard art.

Next we shall move to the north, and see the basketball courts, the fantastic concrete pingpong tables and some more chalkboard art.

Now to the east, a sight not easily visible in the tall view because of trees, but nice nonetheless: A fountain (not currently flowing) and some student dorms.

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And as we move to the southeast, we find a lovey garden path and gazeebo.

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Interesting architecture, well sort of, I have no idea what this smokestack thing is for, but hey, its a feature.

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The main south gate into campus (the one I come in thru every day).

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this garden is near my apt. on south campus

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Now for the entertaining bits. I’ve mentioned to a few people the amazingly big and architecturally inclined spiders here, and while I can’t get a web to show up on my camera, I thought these pics might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The spiders themselves are about 2 inches (including legs) and the webs are usually 3-4 feet in diameter. The webs are not as patterned as say an orb spider, but they tend to be three dimensional, being a few inches deep in addition to the many feet wide. Thankfully, there are enough regular cleaning staff that no webs ever wind up on the paths, but they can be seen from the road. The pictures below are of a spider perched in his web (not one dangling in midair). You can just see the edges of the trees he has built his web between, and these are TREES not bushes, the whole thing was about 8 feet in the air. The thumbnails do not do it justice, since the spider is a little black dot, so I suggest to those who really want the full effect to go get the full size pics.

73 freaky spider 3.jpgAnd last but not least, the army kids. Some of you may be aware that military participation is mandatory in China. So all the freshmen, rather than starting their classes, are participating in military training, which seems to consist mostly of learning how to march in formation. They have been shouting outside the classrooms all week, and I often have to yell to be heard over them in class. I took some pictures of their drilling practices, and tonight I’m going to some kind of show which is being held in the football field (apparently that they’ve been preparing for, hence the yelling), that thing that looks like a bunch of colored squared on the north west corner of campus is actually a football field that they’ve covered with a plastic tarp and chairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the People’s Army…

Peace out!

¹ So many more pictures. If you want to see more, check out the album on Facebook (where picture storage is free).

Sep 28, 2007 at 2:40pm

I’m a little behind in posts this week, but I finally got the pics off my camera, so here we go. I moved my weekly exploration outing to Sunday (rather than Sat) to better coincide with chatting and game times in Seattle.

After my last trip into Beijing being so hectic, I was planning a nice relaxing day of browsing through one of the quieter shopping centers, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Adam, the anime fanboy foreign teacher here, heard of my planned outing and asked to come along. I agreed and expressed my desires for a quiet shopping trip, alas, it was not to be. After only a few minutes at the shopping center I scouted out last time (the one under the big glass cone in the previous pics), Adam wanted to show me a nearby center he’d been to before… OK… so we hit the streets. Where I saw some interesting signs, and a few examples of native wildlife.

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When we finally found his shopping center, he decided he was hungry, and asked if I’d rather go to MacDonald’s or KFC. Grrr. After waiting for him to get American junk food, I finally found a street vendor and got some REALLY tasty squid in a sauce that tasted a bit like bbq and cocktail sauce mixed together, and some grilled mutton with what tasted like cumin and cinnamon for spices.

We went into the shopping center. I found a nice Tiffany knock off chain for the pendant Miriam gave me (BTW I get compliments on that pendant, and one of the other teachers wants to know if that company has a website). I captured an interesting example of Chinese fashion, and spent a lot of time waiting around the geek area of the mall while Adam perused the entire anime toys/keepsakes collection.

Finally nearing the end of my energy and my patience, we sojourned to Starbucks and had a short break before getting back on the subway to head to a bar where one of Adam’s “friends” was DJing. The bar is called Club Obiwan, and I didn’t get any pics of the interior, cause I was tired and grumpy when we showed up, in no small part because the directions were vague and we got a little lost looking for it. But it turned out to be a really neat place, most of the clientele were ex-pats, westerners living in Beijing. I had a Mojito which was very refreshing and had a basil undertone to it, and there was free BBQ. The theme of the evening being reggae; it was not Chinese bbq. I think it was supposed to be Jamaican, but it was very mild, and oh so tasty. The music was also very nice, being that breed of reggae that is more chill out than rock out. Here is the view from the rooftop dining area.

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We totally cheated and took a taxi back to the bus stop, but it was worth it not to have to face the subway at the end of such a long day.

On Tuesday, all the teachers had to go back into Beijing to file for our residence permits, which ordinarily would not bear a place in a post, but on the way home we passed a mule drawn cart, and I had to share.

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Reflections?

I can see how much my approach to photos and descriptions has changed in 10 years. Clearly, I used to rely on the photos to tell the story, only explaining enough for context. These days I find I really enjoy describing what I see, as so often my experiences simply can’t be captured on camera, but are a blend of all the senses and of my feelings. Subsequently, I write much longer posts, but then the photos can support my story rather than the other way around.

I can also see how what I look for first in a new country hasn’t changed too much: coffee, a good place to shop for the necessities, and the best places to get local food. I haven’t focused as much on my school here in Korea, but I think that has more to do with the fact that it’s not ok to put other people’s children online without permission and I’m teaching actual kids instead of young adult “kids”. But, if it’s something you’d like to hear about, I could certainly work on a school/work post for Korea, too.

Finally, I’ve become much more self conscious about taking photos of people, no matter what age. I suspect that living in Saudi and travelling in the Middle East made me this way, since there is is at best rude and at worst illegal to take or post pictures with faces in them without permission. I don’t know if that’s something I want to change or not, yet, but it’s interesting to think about. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Letters from China (Getting Settled 2007)

I arrived in China about a week before the job started because I wanted time to get settled into my apartment and do things like find the grocery store. Barring a summer camp gig 2 years previous, this was my first real job abroad and although I didn’t pack quite as many unnecessary things in my luggage, I was still far from being the veteran hit the ground running traveler that I am today. After discovering my LiveJournal account was blocked by the Great Firewall of China, my friends help me set up a message board where I could write home with the harrowing tales of my life in China. The footnotes are a recent addition for the republication.


Aug 29, 2007 at 11:40am

I braved the streets. Well, the alleys anyway. I thought I was going to be on my own, but I ran into the only other teacher who’s arrived. He’s totally American, but is of Taiwanese descent, so he gets treated pretty bad here. Everyone expects him to speak Chinese fluently, and he can’t. But we wandered down to the local supermarket, which is situated in a “walk street” where no cars are allowed, nestled among the shops and vendors, including the Famous California Noodle King. Don’t ask, cause I have no idea.

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I found a vendor selling some kind of melon¹ on a stick which turned out to taste like cantaloupe while looking nothing like it. So I had a tasty fresh fruit breakfast. (for about 13 cents)

The supermarket is 3 stories tall, but the third story was a separate store, a bit more like a department store, with shoes and clothes and stuff.

I picked up a variety of goods, some trash bags and cleaning stuff, some dried and frozen food, some really fascinating chocolate (Dove orange and hazelnut), but as of yet no Icy Mint Sprite²… tho I have not given up hope. This fantastic trip cost about 10$.

I’m sure I’ll be going back soonish, as I figure out what I need, but its not far away, about 2 blocks, and its a good excuse to get out. I got to see the other teacher’s schedule (tho I haven’t gotten mine yet) and it looks like we really do have fairly light loads. I’ll let you all know when I have a schedule what it is.

TTFN

¹It’s the Asian Melon. No really, that’s it’s name. They have it in Korea, too.

²Icy Mint Sprite was a beverage I discovered on my first visit to China in 2005 that tasted like non-alcoholic mojitos. I have never found it again.

Aug 29, 2007 at 8:11pm

We went into actual Beijing today. I live in a subcity (like a suburb, but more urban) called Yanjiao (pronounced yen-jaow). We took the bus to the main terminal, a 5 kuai trip (less than 1$)¹ and about 30-40 minutes. Then we took the subway a little further. The subway is actually fairly nice, and it goes both in a line through and a circle around the heart of Beijing. (A 3 kuai trip, less than 50c). We came out under a shopping mall, and when we went out onto the street it was apparently a main shopping drag, and full of shops for everything. I took some notes on how to get there, and I should be able to get back on my own. Even if I don’t want to go back to the same shopping center, there is a stop for Tienanmen, that might be nice to explore, and of course, once downtown, I can also take taxis around if I really need to. I won’t get paid till mid September, so I probably won’t do much shopping beyond basic needs till then, but its still nice to know how to get around.

The only other teacher here yet is rather nice, but totally out of place. I mentioned before that he’s Chinese descent, but American raised. He’s also an I.T. guy and apparently doesn’t really like exploring. He said he’s going to look at this year like a year in prison, and use it to keep a perspective on how great life in America really is. I find this a little depressing, since I look at this whole thing as a great adventure, but it does really put some perspective on this for me to know that so few ppl really want adventure.

Still, he’s a sci-fi geek and a Joss Whedon fan, and he wants to work for the feds too², so at least we have stuff to talk about. I hope some of the other teachers will want to explore more, since I prefer to explore in company… not that I won’t go off on my own if there’s none available, but its nice not to have to.

Finding ppl online at all hours has also been really nice. It means I have a little piece of home whenever I need it, and it makes me feel like i’m not so far away. I hope you all won’t get tired of talking, IMing, posting etc.

loves, Me

¹The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB), also called the Yuan, and colloquially called “kuai”. At the time I was living there, 1USD was about 7.5RMB (kuai). 

²I had this strange notion that I would take my degree in International Studies and work for the US government to uphold democracy, international security, and diplomatic relations. Still, dodged a bullet there, eh?

Aug 30, 2007 at 12:54pm

I met my TA this morning, who had the dubious task of explaining my schedule and responsibilites to me. At least she spoke pretty good English.

The schedule is bizarre all by itself. To start, it is a 20 week semester. Simple enough. The 5th week is a holiday week. OK. All the class times AFTER the holiday move half an hour earlier….uh huh. SOME of my classes don’t start until after the holiday; some end on the 15, 17 or 19th weeks. I have a paper schedule, but I’m thinking of redoing it all so I can understand it.

Monday I’m teaching 2 classes until after the holiday, then 3. one from 1005-1150, another from 230-415 and the third, although written from 430-615 is presumably from 4-545 since that will not start until after the holiday, when the other classes change to 925-1120 and 2-345…I think.

Tuesday its just 2 classes back to back in the morning, from 8am-1150, with the same loverly time shift.

Wed is only one class from 230-415

Thurs theres one at 8 and another at 430, 2 hrs each

Fri just one at 8am

Now, the fun starts:

I have 5 CLASSES, and only 3 COURSES

Course 1 has classes a, b, and c, each of which meet only once a week, and while they will all have different students, they all use the same book and lesson plan.

Courses 2 and 3 have only one class but they meet 2x a week.

There’s also the late starting class, but I’m not sure what that is yet, since I’ve been told they’ll explain it later.

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Then there is the PAPERWORK:

For each class meeting I have an attendance sheet, which the class monitor will write each students name in Chinese and English according to a numerical assignment, and I will track attendance and homework (a combined 30% of the grade I might add)

There is also the course schedule which has a sort of overview of the entire semester’s lesson plan for each class, meaning I have to fill out 5, and they need 4 copies of each.

Then there are the “preface to the lesson” forms which must be filled out for every single class meeting and stapled to my lesson notes.

There are also forms for the final assessment (70% of the grade) but my TA took mercy on me and said we could go over them later in the semester.

I’ll be getting some electric copies of these forms which I shall endeavor to transmit to you all so you can share my pain.

Oh!, and I have to give a lecture in the 9th week, 2 hrs, and i’m thinking of giving it on RPing and the Sci-fi fantasy community, since I can’t think of anything else I can talk about for 2 hrs without getting in trouble here.

Note: I am so jealous of past me’s schedule…12-15 hours a week of teaching time? To put it in perspective, in KSA I taught 27.5 hours of class a week, in Japan I taught 35 hours of class a week, and in Korea I teach 22 hours of class a week. In case you’re curious, never take a job with more than 25, aim for less than 20.

Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01pm

By request, I shall talk about all the interesting food I have experienced so far.

My first meal here was Tuesday’s lunch in the restaurant adjoining the hotel here on campus, where we were taken by the coordinator. It was a buffet and I could not begin to name the dishes, but they were all tasty. My favorite appeared to be eggplant and some kind of root vegetable (I won’t swear to potato). I think I could have eaten a mountain of it.

The next day I went to the store and got the melon onna stick spoken about in earlier posts. From the store, food-wise, I got some chocolate (of course) but of an unusual flavor: orange and hazelnut, which turned out to be bits of candied orange and bits of hazelnuts in Dove milk chocolate (its the most popular chocolate brand here, and comes in MANY more flavors than Dove makes in America). I bought some black rice crackers that I became fond of the last time I was here. They are light and crispy with a little bit of sugar frosting on top. I also got some oatmeal, because, as boring as it is, its good for upset tummies. I experimented a little by picking out a bag from the frozen food section. It had a picture of (raw) meat on skewers on the front, as well as of cows in a meadow, though I’m reasonably sure from the characters that its actually sheep, I keep meaning to look it up but haven’t¹. (more on this later, as I didn’t actually eat it on Wed). I discovered that there was a fresh soy product center in the store and bought some marinated tofu and fresh soy milk, which tastes nothing like the soy milk in the states, but it nonetheless tasty. The marinated tofu was ok, but a little bland, marinated tofu usually has more taste. And lastly I bought some apples, which were reminiscent of fuji or braeburns, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet.

Thursday I went back to the store in quest of more supplies (not wanting to carry too much all at once, I’m taking my time), but found that the store was not yet open, so I partook of some rice dumplings from a nearby vendor. These are sticky rice squished around a filling of some kind and wrapped in bamboo leaves then boiled or steamed. Not knowing the difference between the two types she offered, I got one of each (at a kuai a pop). One was definitely filled with red bean paste, a kind of sweet mush of a distinctive yet mild flavor, and the other I could not identify… it was fruit of some kind, reminiscent of dates², but very strong in flavor with an almost caramelized (almost burnt sugar) aftertaste. I think it would have been better if there were less of it, but I found it too strong.

For lunch I decided to cook up some of those mystery meats, and it turned out they were cooked and spiced and only needed heating up. Once warm, they revealed a mostly tender meat with a few bits of stringiness, but in small chunks so not unpleasant, very moist and spiced predominantly with garlic and cumin (again lending credence to the sheep theory as cumin and mutton are a common combination). They were quite surprisingly tasty.

Later in the evening, past the midday HOT, I returned to the store, got more chocolate (surprise) and experimented more. I found a packet of cookie/cake things with English ingredients which revealed it to be made of mung bean and pea flours with floral essences and a bit of sugar. They are very dry, but not crispy, they’re soft, almost powdery, and go very well with tea (hot or iced) and I’d bet coffee as well. I found some rice cookies with chocolate filling, and I am a bit underwhelmed. They are crispy, but a little oily and the chocolate is barely tasteable. I will not be buying those again. I broke down and got some Nescafe, at least until I get back into Beijing downtown to a Starbucks for some ground coffee and a machine of some kind. I will not discuss Nescafe.

I got some more mystery meat skewers (same kind as before, its good to have something at home I know I can eat³), some fried tofu puffs which were nice, but need a sauce of some kind, which I will look for next time. I also got a coffee cola (not Coke Black but something else) but I haven’t opened it yet, so I don’t know how it tastes. And finally, fantastic peaches (omg). The fruit here is so fresh and so good. They were that perfect peach texture, not too hard, but not mushy, lightly sweet with a thin skin that was only lightly tart and not at all bitter. Juicy enough to make you slurp, but not so juicy you need a napkin. Perfect.

On the way out, I stopped to buy a roasted chicken from another street vendor and I think he teased me about not going to KFC next door, but I couldn’t really tell… regardless, the chicken was fantastic! A light sweet and spicy sauce had been used in the roasting and coated the chicken with its baked on goodness. It was a little small by American standards, but soooo much better and not injected or anything, just chicken. The meat, even the white, was quite moist and tender, and lead me to think I will risk more KFC jokes to get more†.

Today (Friday) I quested out to a restaurant on my own for dinner. (Currently all my ventures have told me that I have forgotten a lot about Chinese language, and really need practice, so I’ve been reticent to dine alone). Not being cognizant enough to try to decipher the menu, I ordered xi hong shi chao ji dan (that egg and tomato dish‡). It was a little saltier in the egg than I would have liked, and used green onions instead of cilantro, changing rather seriously the overall taste of the dish. I don’t know as of yet if this is regional or merely restaurant specific, but I’m sure i’ll find out eventually. There was easily 2 servings on my plate (no rice) and the meal was still less than 1$….ah I love the economy of food here.

So I think that’s it on food for now, hope you food fans enjoyed the descriptions, I’m sure there will be more to follow.

¹ I studied Mandarin Chinese in university for two years and a bit, but hadn’t had any classes during my final year, so I was a bit rusty.

² These are jujubes, also known as Asian dates, or Chinese dates. Hence the date flavor.

³ I was gluten and dairy free when I moved to China and didn’t discover my ability to tolerate the wheat and milk there for several months.

† The best chicken, the Chicken of Tasty. It is still spoken about with awe and reverence. I went there once a week at least the entire time I lived there, and it became a point of pride for the owner that the American girl liked his food better than KFC.

‡ Probably still my favorite Chinese food. It’s made of eggs and tomatoes stir-fried in garlic, ginger, cilantro and probably some soy sauce. I ate it as often as possible and miss it like crazy.

Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been sick, as many of you know. I think (knock on wood) its getting better.

In any case, my first week of school was ok. My students are reasonably bright, but pretty shy. The textbooks are fairly easy to use. The schedule is not to stressful, as most days I only have one class and never more than 2 in a a day¹.

The three classes I’m teaching are:

1) a basic Sophomore required English conversation class, we start out by discussing vocabulary and new concepts and move into listening and speaking exercises. I think they’re having fun.

2) a Junior level advanced conversation class, that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how to teach because the book is strangely organized. Last week I tried to teach blind, having not gotten the book in advance and borrowing one of the student’s books to teach from. I hope it gets better.

3) a reading comprehension class, which was a little tough last week because I don’t think the students really prepared, but I told them they had to read ahead and look up new words on their own if they didn’t know them in order to be prepared to discuss the readings in class. We’ll see.

As for the rest of my life last week, well, sickness ate a lot of it. I’ve been a couch potato. Watched “Heroes” and started “Lost”, omg what a messed up island… there’s a pretty reliable source of cheap but bad dvds around here.

I met more of the other teachers.

70b kevin and a guard

Kevin (right) is from Wisconsin. He arrived last Sat. with no Chinese money or language skills, and not even an ATM card to get Chinese money. Poor guy. So I bought him dinner, and we’ve been hanging out, usually having at least one meal a day together, cause its nice to have company, and he has at least a passing chance of knowing what he’s about to eat if I order. He’s a bit of a frat boy type, beer, pizza, ultimate Frisbee, but he was never in a frat, and was also a drama nerd occasionally. He’s super excited to be here and he’s pretty good company.

Adam (not pictured) is also from Wisconsin, tho they didn’t know each other. He’s an anime geek and brought like 400 dvds with him, cause he’s afraid he won’t be able to get anime here… or at least not in English. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met (including me), even I had trouble getting a word in edgeways. He says he studied Chinese, but I’ve never heard him speak it, he either points to what he wants on the menu or lets me order. He’s also a really picky eater, but I guess that’s his loss. He seems like he means well tho, I mean, he’s not an asshole, he just lacks some social polish, but hey, we all know how gamer/anime geeks can be about that. I’m hoping some of its nervousness about being here and meeting new ppl and will wear off soon.

Erwin (not pictured) came out of his hole to have diner with us yesterday and was actually smiling. (this was the guy who was all depressed about being here, and said he was comparing this year to a year in prison, so yay for smiling). I think maybe his initial yicks are wearing off.

Not much excitement, mostly resting, teaching and going to dinner with the other teachers. I hope that my cold will be gone soon, I really want to go exploring more, and I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

We’re going into Beijing on Wed. I have to get a medical exam, and I’m going to try to open a bank account², but I won’t have time to explore, cause I’ve got class Wed afternoon. I suppose that the upside is that if I’m late that day it won’t be my fault since the department scheduled the Dr. appt. Oh, and don’t panic, its a routine exam required by the gov’t to make sure i’m not going to infect the country. I’m not THAT sick…

my love and hugs, k

¹ So. Jealous.

² I never did open a bank account in China. It turned out to be nearly impossible for a foreigner to do so, since we had to undergo a waiting period and keep the equivalent of 500 USD in the account at all times. That was nearly a whole month’s salary, and I sent half my salary back to the US every month to pay bills, so I could never save enough to open the account.


It’s almost painful for me to leave these letters minimally edited (some punctuation and spelling got fixed). I know I was writing causally to friends but it’s not unlike reading high school poetry… really? I wrote that? I took a lot of pictures in the early days, but didn’t actually post them until later. Sorry for the wall of text.

Reflections? I really miss university teaching, and am glad I’ve decided to go back to that next school year! I miss having English speaking co-workers. EPIK teachers in Korea are fairly isolated. We can make friends and attend group events outside of work, but it’s hit or miss if we have anyone in the same neighborhood, and we’ll never have someone at the same school. I miss real Chinese food so much. The Korean idea of Chinese food is limited to sweet and sour pork and a noodle dish I’ve actually only encountered in Korea called Jajangmyeon (they insist it is Chinese food). Taiwan is seriously looking good for the next country.

 

Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from. Although I didn’t write anything about them at the time, I threw in some memories this time around.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Second Semester 2008: After returning from the long break in Seattle, my life became about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style. I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And then there were cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my Instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

A Weekend in Riyadh: Overview

Over Halloween weekend I flew down to Riyadh to attend an amazing event: an all girl gamer convention! #GCON2014. Sadly, events being Saudi in nature meant that my plans went all awry and I had to invent some other adventure instead (or maybe in addition, since I did get to see a couple hours of the Con).

I’ve been trying to write about it all week since I got back, but it has just been crazy here. Everyone got sick, including me. We had a teacher out for surgery, myself sick for several days and missing work for one day, another teacher out for a day, the admin assistant and a bunch of the students… not to mention for the first three days of the week all the students were fasting for Muslim New Year. Not a good week for all of us at Tabuk University.

So, I’ve got one and a half blog posts written out of 4 (5 counting this one), and one photo album up on the facebook page. I was trying to get them all written and post in chronological order of my weekend, but I’ve given up on this dream in favor of simply getting something out there for you all to read.

Impressions of Riyadh:

img_0546It’s really hot there. Really hot. The city reminded me a lot of Beijing. There were many strangely shaped tall buildings under construction. I even saw one that reminded me of the EMP in Seattle, which may be the strangest building I’ve seen. This picture is the Kingdom Tower, which I still think looks like Barad-Dur.

It was pretty clean in the parts that I saw driving around. And the taxis were actually much much better than in Jeddah. I ended up having a better and less expensive experience with the taxis than either Uber or Careem, but the need for a smart phone with gps and Google Maps is still very much present, since none of the drivers know how to get anywhere.

It’s a very strange blend of conservative Saudi culture and ultra modern big city luxury. The women are dressed all in black and mostly veiled, unlike Jeddah with its colorful abayas and women showing faces and even hair! But there are taxis for women to take alone, and many places that allow women to enter and dine alone not in a separate section (not something I can do readily here in Tabuk). I admit, I didn’t get to see much in only one day, but much like Jeddah, nice place to visit, kinda glad I don’t live there.

It’s continuously amazing to me how little the Westerners who live in these cities think there is for them to do other than go to shopping malls. So far I’ve managed to avoid the malls in both Jeddah and Riyadh and still found plenty to do. The National Museum park and compound alone could keep me busy for several weekends exploring everything there. I guess it’s different if you live there a long time, but I’d think they could still remember that newcomers will find these things interesting when asked for ideas. *Shrug, oh well.

Synopsis:

The convention was scheduled for Wed-Fri (remember weekends are Fri-Sat here). I couldn’t get any days off work because one teacher was already out (surgery), so I packed my bags Wednesday night and brought them to school with me so I could go straight to the airport after school. Upon arrival I battled the evil taxi army to get to my hotel and check in, then summoned an Uber to take me to the convention.

You can read all the details of the convention in another post, but for now, just know what I saw of it was pretty awesome, and the third day (Friday) was cancelled, so I only got about 2 hours on Thursday night.

I wasn’t flying back until Saturday, so I had to find something to do Friday. I ended up going to see the National Museum, getting a first class spa treatment, and a gourmet meal atop the famous Al Faisaliah Tower.  So it was still a pretty amazing weekend, despite my plans being totally derailed.

I’m working on a post for each of the adventures, but I am not going to be able to publish them in chronological order. I do hope you’re able to enjoy them vicariously nonetheless.

🙂

Links to the other posts:

#GCON2014

King Abdulaziz Historical Center

Al Faisaliah Spa

The Globe Restaurant

The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

Taxis. Taxis are a government monitored car service that can get non driving folks from one place to another. They operate differently in every country, and most cities on earth. There’s a huge controversy in many countries as “private” services like Lyft and Uber edge in on the taxi market, and while the argument is supposed to be about how expensive it is to maintain ‘high’ standards of safety and insurance for the taxi companies, the fact is, I don’t know anyone who takes Uber because its cheaper. They prefer these private car services because they are faster, cleaner and more pleasant experiences. So if the taxis wanna get back in the market, they need to stop being dirty, late, scamming skeezers and start providing a service people want to pay for. OMG market competition.

So far in life, my favorite place to take a taxi is Beijing. This might be changing, because the last time I was there it was much harder to flag down a taxi without a phone app. But the reasons I liked them: the meter was very clearly visible and used for all short in city trips; it was common to sit in the front seat with the driver so you could see where you were going clearly; the drivers were consistently friendly, curious people who never made me feel uncomfortable or in danger; if you ever wanted to negotiate for a longer drip or a driver to wait for you, you could go off meter and negotiate.

I don’t like taxis in the US for the most part. Outside of New York and DC, you pretty much have to call one and wait around for it to show up, so I don’t use them much.

There are no taxis in Tabuk to speak of. I’m told there might be some at the airport, and the internet says there are taxi companies here, but I never see them on the road. If I want to go anywhere here, I rely on the school driver or I walk to the mall two blocks away.

I thought it would be refreshing to have access to taxi transportation in Jeddah, that it would make it easier for me to play tourist and see all the fun things. To that extent, I’m sure it is true. If I’d had to find a private driver for the week it would have complicated things. My schedule would have had to have been more rigid, and I might have ended up missing out on things or sitting around waiting a lot. So, in this respect, access to taxis in a country where I’m not allowed to drive because of my ovaries is pretty neat.

But holy howling monkies, Batman! They are complete jerks!

Understand that Saudis don’t drive their own taxis, so every one of these men is a foreigner who came to this country because he can make more money than at home. They don’t much like the Saudis and all of them are looking for a way up the next rung on the ladder. In addition, for reasons I’m still not clear on, the taxis in Jeddah have no meters. Supposedly, last fall there was supposed to be mandated meter legislation, but I guess it didn’t happen. This means that you have to negotiate a price for your trip with the driver.

jeddah-taxi-300x224

On to the stories.

The Marriage Proposal

I got picked up from the airport by someone else from our company that I had met a couple weeks earlier, so my first taxi experience was actually on my second day in Jeddah when I wanted to go to the beach. Several issues here, not the least of which was that I didn’t really know where this beach resort was. I told the driver I wanted to go to La Plage, and he said ok, so I got in. He started driving and called a friend of his who spoke English, however, as it turns out, neither of them had heard of the place. So we went back to the hotel so I could try to find it online with the wifi.

I found a place called La Fontaine La Plage, and thought that was it, so we set out again. I thought the drive was going ok, but when we finally got there, it was the wrong place. I called my buddy who lived in Jeddah and had given me the tickets to the beach and we spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to track where I was by landmark to where we needed to be. The beach, being a private resort, had no name sign or address. I thought the driver was being very helpful and patient, driving up and down the road, stopping occasionally to ask other folks for directions.

We finally got there, and he asked what time he should come back to pick me up. So far, I’d been pleased with the ride. He seemed nice, was helpful in getting me to a hard to find place, and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a driver to come all the way back out to the beach, so we agreed on 7pm (also known in Saudi time as ‘after Maghrib’) and exchanged numbers in case I needed to change plans.

He called me at about quarter to 7 to say he was there, and we headed back into town. On the trip back he was much chattier. Despite the fact that he did not speak much English. He started talking about America and how great it was and something about a visa. Then came the akward part.

This is like a 50 minute drive, by the way, so I’m stuck in the car with this guy. He says some combination of English and Arabic that I’m reasonably sure means he’s asking me to marry him, but I decide to not understand. The one and only time in my life I have ever been upset about the existence of Google happens here, because on its own, the conversation might have just stopped there. However, he whips out his smart phone and opens Google Translate to try again.

This time I cannot pretend not to understand, so I laugh because my only other option is to get angry miles from another taxi. I say no, and pull out my own Google Translate to make that clear. The next 20 minutes or so is a really good example of why Google Translate won’t replace human translators. First because a lot of people aren’t actually literate in Arabic even when they speak it with native proficiency so Google doesn’t recognize the words, and second because there are just too many nuances to adequately translate all but the simplest phrases from non-related language groups.

So he tries to hit on me some more, I don’t know how you change a girl’s mind about marriage in a taxi ride, but he tried. Most of the Google translate stuff game up as complete garbldy gook in Roman letters, not even English words, just a mess, so I was at least able to go back to not understanding. I’d stare at the phone and say, “no English”.

Finally we got back to my hotel, and he tried to vastly over-charge me for the ride. I thought it was pretty darn foolish of him, after all, he’d already done the driving and hadn’t gotten me to agree on a price. Moreover, he’d been very socially inappropriate which could have gotten him in big trouble if I’d reported him. Lucky for him, I guess, I wasn’t jaded enough to be so mean yet. So I paid him less than he wanted, but more than he deserved and got out.

The touchy-feeley guy

Another night, coming back to the hotel, I got an even more outrageously skeezy guy. I had at this point decided to make sure I got the fare agreed on in advance, but I’ve only been in Saudi a month, and I’m still not in the habbit of refusing handshakes. I’m working on it, but its a lifetime reflex that I have to overcome here. Plus, in Beijing, I really enjoyed chatting with the taxi drivers, so the social reprogramming needed to cope with Saudi taxis was simply not in place.

It was a very short trip and he tried to as for way too much money, we haggled for a bit then came to 13. I know Arabic speakers have trouble with 13 and 30 from teaching them, so I checked, I repeated it, 13 and said one-three. He said ok, I got in.

The guy went through a similar chat about America, are you married, you’re so pretty, etc. At some point he either realized he made a number mistake or just changed his mind and said the fare was 30, three-zero, to which I said no. No changing the fare once I’m in the cab.

Once we reached the hotel, I gave him 20 SAR, because I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing. He took the opportunity of reaching back for the money to brush my leg, and I did get upset at that point, pushing his hand away and raising my voice. He tried to ask for more money again and I refused, holding out the 20 which was still more than the 13 we’d agreed on. Then he puckered up his lips and leaned more into the back seat, trying to get a kiss. Fortunately he didn’t do anything as stupid as try to touch me again, but it made me feel absolutely gross. I pushed the money at him and got out with what I am sure was the purest look of disgust I’ve ever had on my face, then went to my room and spent like an hour talking to friends in the US to calm down before walking out to diner.

The Lazy Liar

Much shorter story, but as I began learning more about negotiating fares and how to act (or not act) in a taxi, my behavior started to change accordingly. I wanted to go to Al Balad souq for the evening and talked a taxi into a 15 SAR fare. In the most passive aggressive way possible, he took me to the very edge of what could be considered Al Balad and claimed he couldn’t get in because the roads were blocked. While the road he stopped at was indeed blocked, there were plenty of cars driving in and out of Balad, so this was a clear lie and a way for him to get more fare for less driving. Not a happy camper, me.

The Wandering Driver

So, at this point I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood and nearest landmarks to my hotel, so I can say them to the drivers. I also can pull up Google maps and show them where I want to go, because the map works pretty well even without any wifi, you just can’t get a route or directions, but you can still see the map. So I tell the driver, show the driver and negotiate a price, then get in the taxi.

After a while, I can see he’s going the wrong way, so I tell him so and show him again on the map. He starts arguing with me (I can’t understand most of the words, but the tone is pretty clear) along the lines of what the hell. I point again to the map, but I’m pretty angry by now and am only yelling in English like a dumb American that this is what I showed him before, and if he didn’t know where it was, why the hell did he tell me to get in the taxi?

When he looks more closely at the map, he then demands more money than we agreed on, which I also refuse, since I’d showed him the map before we agreed on a price and its not my fault if he didn’t understand it or try to ask any questions.

The yelling goes on for a while before he finally tells me in broken English to change taxis. Fine, I say, and open the door. He tried to get me to pay him for the ride so far, and you know, on my first day in Jeddah I might have given him something, believing it was an honest mistake or trying to be nice, but after several days of jerk drivers I’ve completely had it. On top of which, we aren’t even near any place where I’ll be able to catch another taxi at this point, so I refuse to give him any money, pointing at my map again, and get out.

I walked for several blocks of dark empty city before coming to a little strip mall area where I could catch another taxi back to my hotel. Not fun.

The Nice Guy

Lest you think every single taxi driver in Jeddah is a scamming, skeezy douchbag, there were a couple neutral rides and there was one nice guy.

I’d decided after the above experiences that I needed to wear my Hijab when taking a taxi to avoid the impression of being ‘loose’, and to lie about the fact that that I’m not married (which I hate and may talk more about another time). This did get me a couple of less unpleasant taxi rides which do not bear remarking on in any detail except that one of them commented on my hijab saying that too many American women showed their hair and he was pleased to see me covering.

I don’t know if the nice guy was responding to my behavior or if he was just nice, but it was a short ride, and I’d given in at 30 SAR even though I knew it was too much because I was tired and hot. He talked to me, but respectfully, and when we arrived at my hotel and I handed him the 30, he gave me 10 back, saying it was too much and wishing me a good evening with a pleasant smile which I was happy to return.

The Lost on a Straight Road Guy

Finally, on my last day in Jeddah, I wanted to go back to La Plage. Now I knew where it was, could point to it on a map and had a basic understanding of how much it should cost to get there. So armed, I donned my hijab, pulled up my map and flagged a taxi.

I showed him the map, pointing to an empty stretch of coastline where the private beach lay. He questioned me about its name, and I told him, knowing it would do no good, then pointed to the spot on the map again. He took some time to look at the map. Its a straight shot up a single road. The road changes names a few times, from Al Andalus to King Abdul Aziz to Prince Abdullah Al Fiasal, but its really one big highway that follows the coast around a little inlet and into Obhur. No weird turns, no complicated switchbacks. I think I could have followed it without GPS and I get lost in the city I’ve lived in 10 years.

We agree on 70 SAR which is kinda pricey, but not bad for white-person rates. He argues for higher saying that its over 40km, but we settle in the end. This is important later, that he knows its about 40 km away. Don’t forget.

He chats me up, I’m very distant without being directly rude. Talk about my “husband” repeatedly. He tells me he’s Egyptian, and women in his country don’t have to wear abaya and hijab. He asks if we can be friends, and by now I know that’s a bad sign so I politely say  no, we cannot be friends because men and women in Saudi can’t be friends. He tells me its no problem because he is not Saudi he is Egyptian. I tell him no a few more times before the message really sticks. Remember this is a long drive.

Partway there, on the long stretch of highway where there are no turn offs at all, he pulls off on the side of the road, acting like he’s lost. I show him the map again, indicating the little blue dot that is us, and the stretch of beach I want to go to that is further on the road we are on. He continues to act confused. Which is the lamest act I’ve seen in a while. Eventually a cop pulls up beside us. So he explains that he’s got this American in the car who doesn’t speak Arabic and he’s trying to figure out where I want to go.

Seriously, are maps that hard to read? Is this some magical skill my father passed on to me on our family summer road trips? Its not even a paper map, there’s this blue dot that represents where we are! He takes my tablet over to the cop car to show him the map and they talk for a while but I can’t hear them.

Finally he comes back and heads out again. He indicates that I should tell him to stop when we get there, as though that were not my plan already.

When we finally arrive, he doesn’t even pull around to get me to the gate, and he tries to demand more money, acting like he had to drive so much farther than we’d originally agreed on. The fact that our little blue dot is exactly where I pointed to before I got in the taxi, and that his original argument for a higher fare included the distance he now tried to claim ignorance of made the attempt astonishingly pathetic.

There is of course no way I’m asking him to come back to pick me up in the evening. Which leads me to…

UBER

I don’t know what my resistance to using Uber was. I think they were along the lines of I don’t have a smart phone or bank account in Saudi yet. The lack of smart phone makes using the Uber app a little harder because I would be limited to being able to use it only where there was wi-fi which is unreliable in Saudi. The lack of a Saudi bank account means that I have to give Uber my US credit card, which I don’t like because its a pain to get my Saudi salary to my US bank account until I get the bank account here set up. Not impossible, just a pain. I really wanted to use my Saudi salary to take this vacation, and I think I got a little irrationally attached to the idea.

If it hadn’t been a mere three weeks since my arrival in Saudi, these obstacles would not have existed, and I might have been spared all these fantastic taxi experiences. As it was, I finally gave up on my last day and signed up for Uber from the restaurant at La Plage because I really couldn’t handle one more crappy taxi ride.

Once I was all done enjoying my day, I logged into the app and ordered my Uber car. I got a text immediately saying my driver had been dispatched and giving me an ETA. The app itself also showed me a picture of my driver, his name and they type of car he would be driving.

Only complaint was that the Uber estimation of the driver’s eta was off by quite a bit, it took almost 20 minutes longer than expected, but I was kind of way off the beaten track, so I was surprised at the original eta anyway, and I was in a resort while waiting, so not a hardship.

I got another text when the driver was a couple minutes away so I began to wrap up in my abaya and hijab and collect my things. The driver called and I told him to look for the green door and that I would be right out.

The gate guard also wouldn’t leave me until he saw that I had a car, which was nice since its a pretty empty stretch of road.

The car was cleaner and newer than the taxis. The driver had provided cold bottled water in the back seat for his passengers, and he didn’t try to talk to me at all. Its a little sad, because I like meeting people and exchanging ideas, but the reality is, this simply isn’t possible between men and women outside very structured work or school environments in Saudi. So in this case it was a relief to be able to relax on the drive and not have to worry about where the conversation was going or what consequences I would have to deal with for rebuffing advances.

He pulled right up to the door of my hotel, and we never once had to talk about price or exchange money since Uber simply calculates the rate based on GPS, charges my card and emails me a receipt. I actually tipped this driver because I was so relieved by the entire experience.

The Uber charge was 110 SAR. I’d paid 150 SAR for the same ride on my first day, and 70SAR for the ride to the beach that morning, so while its possible I could have saved a few dollars haggling with a taxi, I feel that the security and comfort of the ride, the courtesy of the driver and the simple fact that I didn’t have to argue or haggle or anything was definitely worth a little extra cash.

I took Uber to the airport the next morning as well, and had an equally pleasant ride, similarly paying only slightly more than most people said was normal for an airport taxi.

Live and learn.

What I Learned

Women travelling alone are more vulnerable in Saudi, even in places where its not completely abnormal. I found that when I was in public spaces like the Corniche or a restaurant that I could doff my hijab with no trouble and no change in the way people around me acted toward me. However, when I was in a taxi, wearing the hijab seemed to make a measurable difference in the amount of harassment I received, even if it did not eliminate it altogether.

If you must take a taxi, make sure they really know where they are going and agree on a price before you get in the car. The drivers would say ok and gesture me to get in even when they had no idea where we were going, and then start driving and try to change prices while we were on the road. Any wiggle room that they have to say they didn’t know what you meant will be exploited, so make sure that you’re as clear as possible before you get in.

If you have a smart phone/wi fi use Uber or another car service with set fares and more accountability. Since the drivers are assigned and recorded electronically, its much easier to lodge complaints if they are problematic, so they have more reason to offer good professional service. It might cost a little more, but its worth it, and you’ll never be ripped off, since again, the route is recorded and if they try to drive in circles to get you someplace, you can show the discrepancy in the route they took and the optimum route on the map.

Never let adversity stop you from having an awesome adventure. Live life for the great stories you’ll tell later on. Don’t stay angry, but don’t let being kind make you a doormat. Be excellent to each other and party on.   🙂

The Glorious 35th of May

No that’s not a typo in the title. I’m talking about June 4th using the oblique reference some Chinese satirically use to avoid drawing unwanted government attention to their discussion of the pro-democracy protests on that day 25 years ago. Also with a little nod to Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch thrown in for good measure. Also, yes I know I’m a few days late, but the last several days have been so full of thoughts and news and reflections that it took me some time to get my own in order.

The iconic image of the young man standing in front of the oncoming tanks is known to many, but the details of what happened that day are not often focused on. This post is just my own musings on the situation, and not really meant to be a history lesson. Fortunately, there are a ton of retrospectives out there right now, so google to your hearts content for the official history or just click here for a short sweet version with videos.

My Impressions of the Square

06-entry to Forbidden CityThe first time I went to China,  I visited the square on my last week there in the summer of 2005. The square was very open, ringed by government buildings, the tomb of Mao, and the Forbidden City, the giant expanse of red brick was scarcely broken up at all. The streets around the square are major roads, and there were only a few places where one could cross them, but the important thing here is, one could cross the roads and enter the square at pretty much any point.05 - Olympic countdown There were underground passages into the square. I actually thought at the time that these were kind of cool, because it seemed safer for the huge mass of pedestrian traffic to not have to deal with street lights and cross walks.Oh, I can’t forget to mention the Olympic countdown clocks, which were counting down the subsequent three years until the Beijing Olympics.

My last visit was in 2012, after the Olympic updates and security increases, and now the square is entirely enclosed by a permanent fence and can only be entered via the underground tunnels which now include security guards and x-ray machines that make TSA look wimpy. Additionally, food trucks, extra architecture and gardening, and huge giant massive televisions screens have been installed in the square, breaking up the previously wide open space, and pretty much destroying the awesome impact of standing in the world’s largest public square. Here’s the same statue in 2005 and 2012, you can see the added fences and hedges, and the two television screens that break the whole square up.

All of this increased security and breaking up of the landscape is designed specifically to prevent the use of the square as a platform for public protest, while keeping it a bustling tourist attraction.

So What About the Massacre?

This is a little trickier. I don’t actually remember when I learned about it first. I think we talked about it in school when it happened, but Chinese culture and history is not widely taught in America, so it was never more than mentioned.  I did spend some time studying in grad school while I was researching the Falun Gong, because the 10th anniversary played a role in the 1999 crackdown on that group. What I do remember, is that I never for a moment doubted that this was a stunning act of violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests of those who wanted to bring democracy to their country.

On the 4th, one of my former professors from the UW who is still on my FB posted some of his own pictures and journal entries from the event. You see, he had been there. Seeing someone I know in the midst of all that was really quite surreal. And his journal entries gave an extremely personal view of the violence, speaking of the rusted skeletons of army trucks on fire, the bullet holes in the glass of the subway station, and bicycles pancake-flattened like cartoons after having been run over by the tanks.

This made me think about my own experience with the youth of China while I was teaching at a college near Beijing in 2007. I have no idea how the topic came up, maybe we were discussing rights and freedoms. The Chinese students were very proud of all the rights they have as Chinese citizens, but the right to assembly and peaceful protest still don’t exist there. Then all of a sudden, we’re talking about the pro-democracy protests in 1989. I’m curious what the students think of it, do they even know it happened? Because of the internet, it is difficult to keep certain things from the tech-savvy Chinese youth, and they had all seen the iconic tank-man photo. However, they argued, since the tanks had stopped and not run the man over, it was a peaceful protest and no one died.

Relying on the notion that few Chinese would take the time and energy to go through proxy websites (circumventing the Great Firewall of China) to read English language historical accounts, the government acknowledged the photo, but changed the narrative around it. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t formulate a response to this argument, which was probably just as well, because trying to convince my class of the real history could have gotten me fired or even deported. Yeah, free speech is totally a thing there.

The 25th Anniversary

All over the news, all over the net, trending in social media in Hong Kong, Taiwan and all over the world except in China. Back to the Great Firewall of China, the government actually banned the use of certain words for the day, including the word “today”. The internet police (yeah that’s a thing) managed to get each offensive reference to the date off the net in about ten minutes.  However, according to the BBC China Trending Editor (how do you get this job title?) the Chinese who wanted to commemorate the event did so by referencing the musical Les Miserables, specifically the Finale.

That’s right, the modern Chinese pro-democracy movement is looking to the French struggle for democracy as a means of discussing their own plight. And while I am sad that my students didn’t seem to know what had happened in their country less than two decades before, I am heartened by the number of people in China and around the world that have taken the time to remember what happens when people stand up for a government that they want, instead of one that is forced on them. We are seeing this every day in the Arab Spring, in Thailand, and other places where the quest for self-governance becomes violent, and now we know we’re seeing it on a quieter scale through the global community on the internet.

This afternoon, while listening to NPR, I heard the story of Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. They were pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (nee Burma) who started protesting in 1988, and were arrested and spent many years in prison. The military dictatorship they were fighting against finally ended in 2011, and they (along with hundreds of other political prisoners) were freed in 2012. Ko and Nilar were greeted as heroes. Maybe one day, the thousands who lost their lives and freedom at Tiananmen 25 years ago will be remembered by everyone as fondly.

Three Faces of the Great Wall

There are dozens of places you can visit the Great Wall if you are in China. Many of the most convenient are within a day trip of Beijing. Each time I have traveled to Beijing, I’ve taken one of these day trips to a different spot: Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Jiankou. Each of them has something different and interesting to offer, and are all a great way to spend a day. These aren’t the complete stories of each adventure, but rather a side by side view of all three.

Brief Words of Advice

Hire a “private taxi”. Many websites tell you how you can take a bus out to the sites, and you can, but  its hard to explore properly when you have to be worried about catching the bus back. Also, the buses are way overcrowded and you might wait a long time to board, which is just less time for exploring. Private taxis are basically those who own their own car and are willing to be your driver for the day for a set price. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead of time, and don’t pay them until you’re all done. To give you some basic idea of a fair price, in 2005 we paid 500RMB, in 2012 we paid 600RMB. The drivers take you out, wait for you in the parking lot all day, and return you to your evening destination.

Don’t bother going to Badaling. Every tour group in China goes there. It is like the Disney of the Great Wall, and is only good for snapping a pic and buying a t-shirt. It was renovated for Nixon’s visit, and again for the Olympics in 2008. It is crowded, inauthentic, crowded, and full of people trying to sell you overpriced junk. No matter what your personal goals are, I guarantee there is a better section of the Great Wall for you to experience than this one.

Mutianyu & the Ming Tombs

My very first trip to China in 2005, after my contract in Jinan was over, I went up to spend a week with a friend from school in Beijing. Of course, I wanted to go to the Great Wall, so my friend arranged a private taxi to take us to Mutianyu. Despite the fact that it was summer, there were very few tourists at this location, we basically had the wall to ourselves aside from the occasional vendor. We chose to go up the side without the slide, but I have to admit, this is the first part of the Wall I want to take my niece and nephew to, because what kid doesn’t want to slide down the Great Wall of China?

The far side was less developed. It felt almost surreal to be in such a huge space with so few people in it after the last two months that I had spent being constantly crowded by the Chinese. When we reached the end of the open path, we could see beyond the fence that trees had grown up in the wall beyond, and what had once been a symbol of Imperial power, was being reclaimed by the mountain.

One of the great things about Mutianyu (aside from the slide) is its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Many Chinese Imperial families had elaborate tombs, and the Ming are no exception. This is a neat underground tour of the actual tomb, and some above ground museums and gardens. It is definitely worth the stop over if you’re heading to Mutianyu.

Huangyaguan & Guancheng

In 2007, I was working for a state run school, and they decided to take all us expat teachers out to the Great Wall for a day in the early fall. This was the only trip I took as part of such a large group, but it was ok because it was just teachers from my school. The school got us a little charter bus, and off we went.

At the base of the Wall there is a little town where we ate lunch, and there was also a series of beautiful gardens and a museum. This kind of thing is really the proof that not all sections of the Great Wall are the same. While the Wall itself can be slightly repetitive, especially in the well restored areas, these little gems are well worth making multiple Wall excursions, or at very least, carefully choosing which experience you want to have.

The gardens included a stele garden, a maze based on the Bagua (eight diagrams), and a miniature replica of the Great Wall.

The Wall is steep, and the views are lovely. Like many areas of the Wall, the further you get from the entry point, the less well restored it is. If you have the patience and stamina to keep walking you will get to some very different stone work that is the work of dynasties long past, and be rewarded with a view of miles of wall in either direction.

Jiankou

In 2012, I took some friends to China for the first time. Like all first time visitors, the Great Wall was a priority, but they were polite enough to want to make sure I got to see something new. We decided on Jiankou because it was described as being the wildest and least restored part of the Great Wall within a day trip of Beijing. Words like “dangerous” and “experienced hikers” appealed to us. And boy is it worth it.

This is just one more reason to hire private taxis. The driver we hired knew a “secret spot” basically where he and some other drivers were (presumably) bribing local officials to bring tourists into this closed off section of the wall. There are publicly open sections of Jiankou, but our driver asked if we wanted a more restored or more wild experience. Wild, of course, we replied! And so we had a wonderful, private  expanse of Wall that had been unrestored for at least 100 years, if not more.

Huge swathes of the Wall had simply collapsed down the side of the mountain. Stairs were no more than a shamble of blocks. Trees had grown up in the pathways, leaving us with thin, single file paths through the foliage. It was breathtaking. Not a single restaurant or vendor to be found, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks.

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Each one of these journeys was amazing and offered a completely different view of China’s history and achievements. So, if the Great Wall is on your bucket list, I hope this helps you make the most of it.