If I were a penguin…

February 4, 2010

I’d say to hell with the Arctic, and move to a beach in Cape Town, South Africa:

Beach Penguins

Photo by M. Oyen, December 2006

(What’s black and white and red all over?)

Oh happy day!

December 3, 2009

Ooooh, WordPress is unblocked again.  I wonder for how long?

Since one of my last posts was about Thanksgiving 2008, I’ll take the opportunity to say a few words about Thanksgiving 2009, my fourth in Asia and third (ever) in Nanjing.

I remain as thankful as ever for black sesame glutinous rice balls.

But this year I had an unusual pleasure: my mom was visiting, and together we cooked up a massive meat-free, dairy-free Thankgiving feast.  Pumpkin soup for lunch, followed by a dinner of garlic mashed potatoes, pumpkin and cornbread dressing, red pepper and green bean stir-fry, and broccoli with garlic.  Followed, of course, with an excellent apple crisp, the leftovers of which I’m still enjoying.

But Thanksgiving is not about the food.  I mean, it can be about the fact that we’re thankful to have food, but there’s so much more to it.  I’d argue it’s not even about the people, though that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the holiday.  But the most thankful I ever felt for everything I had was the year I was all by myself in a crappy apartment in Nanjing with some potatoes and beer and no heat and a paper to write, because I realized how lucky I was not to have every year be like that.  That’s a rarity, not the rule in my life.

This year I was thankful to have family that’s not only willing to fly half-way around the world to see me when I’m living abroad all alone, but in my mom’s case, to do it for the third time.  I was thankful for good friends, like my friend in Korea I’ve known for nine years and who cheerfully hosted me when I went to meet my mom in Seoul a day early.  I was thankful for the rest of my family, scattered in various locations, all celebrating in their own way.

I was also thankful for heat, which had only been turned on in my apartment a few days before.  Oh, and my oven.  I’m thankful for my oven almost daily.

Now, however, Thanksgiving is over, my mom is back in the US, and I’m decorating for Christmas.  In the “obviously some things are universal” category: half my Christmas lights didn’t work when I took them out of the closet.  I guess it’s time for the traditional holiday run to Walmart for new ones.

So very China

February 5, 2009

This is the sort of thing that could happen anywhere, I imagine, but seems to increase rapidly in likeliness once you are within Chinese boarders.

I arrived in Shanghai this afternoon, secure in the knowledge that I had a room booked at the local airport hotel, the “Jinjiang Inn,” that the hotel was very close to the airport, and that this hotel ran a shuttle bus to the airport.  The shuttle bus is key here, as no driver is going to want to queue in the taxi line for ages to get someone traveling a mile away for a pittance.

When arriving, I called the phone number the hotel had given me to find out the timing of the next schedule.  They directed me to a certain place in the airport and gave me an ETA for the next shuttle.  No problem, I thought, and hurried over to the location.  Like clockwork, a van with “Jinjiang Inn” painted on the side pulled up precisely at the designated time, loaded me in with the other passengers, and off we went.  I knew the hotel was quite close to the airport from the website, so I was not at all surprised when five minutes later we were pulling into a parking lot.  I looked up at the building’s fascade, noted the large lettering of “Jinjiang Inn” on the side, and hopped off the van.

After a short wait in line at the reception desk, it was my turn to check in.  Here’s where I started to sense a problem: there was no record on my reservation, under my name or my friend’s name.  Hmm.  I showed her my printout confirming the reservation, and she puzzled at it for a minute before finally her face cleared.  “Oh!”  she exclaimed.  “You’re at the wrong hotel!”

I was unclear as to where exactly I had gone wrong.  Hadn’t I called the Jinjiang Inn for a van, gotten into a Jinjiang Inn van, and had the van drop me off at the Jinjiang Inn?

Well, yes.  But it was still the wrong hotel: the same company owns two hotels, both near the airport, both named “Jinjiang Inn,” and – this part is key – both serviced by the same  shuttle.  If I had stayed on the van for an extra five minutes, it would have dropped me off at the right place.  I have gently suggested that they might consider mentioning this on their website, but that’s a different issue.  Today, the receptionist finally noticed that the phone number on my reservation confirmation was the other branch, and when she called over, sure enough: they were expecting me.

Now came the tricky part – the other branch was close by, but given the highway ramps and lack of sidewalks, not walkable even without my mounds of luggage (I have waaaay too much with me for what I am about to do – i.e. make these pleasant little tourist excursions around Harbin and Beijing – but I failed to build time into the schedule to go back home to Nanjing to dump my excess baggage).  But the next shuttle wouldn’t be coming back around for another hour.  They might be able to get a cab, but that might take as long as the shuttle.  Here I was pleasant but insistent: surely they could find a way to get me over there, seeing as how through all of my communications (in English and Chinese) with the hotel and shuttle driver via email and phone, no one had ever thought to mention that there were two Jinjiang Inns and to be careful to alight at the proper one.  I’m almost positive this is not simply common knowledge to weary arriving travelers.

Well, after a series of hurried consultations, they decided to get the shuttle driver back to bring me over to the other hotel.  I’m not sure why this wasn’t the first option suggested, as it took minutes to do and the driver himself was quite pleasant about it, but I no longer cared about anything but a shower and a nap.  Now, finding dinner in the barren wasteland of airport hotels and highways could prove to be a different challenge altogether….

Being Thankful

November 27, 2008

This is the second Thanksgiving I’ve spent in Nanjing in my life, and my third (non-consecutive) in Asia. In 2002, I celebrated the holiday with a large group of American missionaries in Taichung, Taiwan (I was not a missionary myself, I was just invited in by kind souls who thought I might get homesick for turkey and gravy. They could not have realized that I was a vegetarian…). Then in 2004, I found myself passing the holiday solo in Nanjing, taking time away from writing a conference paper for some mashed potatoes and beer. I find I am no less thankful for black sesame filled glutinous rice balls now than I was back then.

This year, some of the other Americans at work are planning a big Thanksgiving meal, which will include all of us around this week (we have the week off), be they American or Chinese. I’m looking forward to it, though in the meantime I find myself once again taking advantage of the quiet day to write a conference paper. I’m not sure how authentic they’ll manage to make the food, but the traditional Thanksgiving meal does not hold a lot of appeal for me anymore since I don’t really like meat and I’ve discovered I’m allergic to dairy. The Charlie Brown version with popcorn and toast (skip the butter) is probably a bit more up my alley; a vegan version of all the holiday classics would be ideal, though on the surface it sounds sort of grim.

But of course, Thanksgiving has never been about food. We talk a lot about the food, we organize our day around the food, we worry over the food, we might even take pictures of all the food, but that’s not what the day is all about. Originally, it was a chance to celebrate survival; that by the grace of God, the settlers in America had made it through the long, cold winter. It was, to steal an apt phrase from the Beatles, an acknowledgement that “we get by with a little help from our friends.” In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, most of us gather with family and friends to observe it; it’s easy to be thankful for your loved ones when you are staring them down opposite a large bowl of buttery mashed potatoes. But it’s even easier to be thankful for them when they are 6,000 miles away, because that’s when you feel their absence the most. Being far away from your family on a day like Thanksgiving makes you realize how much you need them, depend on them, and love them… and how unlivable life would be without them.

I am thankful for many things this year. I’m thankful that I managed to graduate finally (I spent last Thanksgiving in front of my computer, preparing the final draft of my dissertation), that I have a great job that I enjoy, that I have this opportunity to live in China again, and that I have this groovy apartment with all the Western amenities I could possibly want. I’m very thankful that even though I won’t be home, I won’t be alone this year. But most of all, I’m thankful for the big, noisy family gathering that I’m going to miss: for all the people there, for the spirit of thanksgiving that gathers them together, and for the fact that there will be another one again next year, and the year after that, with or without me. I’m hoping for more “withs” than “withouts” in the future, though.

For want of a proxy, a blog was lost

November 15, 2008

… but only temporarily. Honestly, though, there are all these great ways of getting around firewalls, but I needed to set up some of them before I got here and others require more time to figure out than I really have available to me at the moment. Poor me…


So, what have I been doing for the last month? Well, I’ve been learning all kinds of new things. For example:

1. It really is easy to run off to Shanghai for Mandopop concerts. Maybe a little *too* easy.

2. Getting back into your apartment when you’ve locked yourself out is also reasonably simple, though it does involve a long trek through the stairwell, since your door key also controls the elevators.

3. My high school era enthusiasm for badminton has not abated. My high school era skill for the game has, however. Fortunately, I have two full classes of students I can coerce into practicing with me…

4. Amazon China is just as dangerous as Amazon in America for the compulsive book/cd buyer. Maybe more so, because everything starts out so much cheaper.

5. It is possible, though not recommended, to open a can of diced tomatoes with a corkscrew. But, you know, if you’re in a pinch or suddenly channeling MacGyver, it can be done. Word to the wise, though: take the simmering eggplant off the stove before you start, because this could take a while. (You might be wondering one of two things here: why open a can of tomatoes with a corkscrew and not a can opener, or how exactly does this work. Well, I’ll tell you: you might want to use this method if, like me, you have purchased canned tomatoes from the import grocery and have forgotten that you do not own a can opener. As for how, well, I used the lever action to poke a ring of little holes around a circle in the lid, which I then punched through so I could dig out the pieces of tomato with chopsticks. Yes, I actually did have better things to do at the time; why do you ask?)


(In case you were wondering, my pasta was definitely worth the trouble….)

6. Dressing as abstract renditions of inanimate objects for Halloween is always a little problematic. And yet I keep doing it. Sure there were two people who looked at my blue clothes, attached paper orange fish, and “belt” made to resemble a path of stones and instantly knew that I was the local koi pond, complete with mid-pond pathway. There were also two people who focused on the belt and asked if I was a suicide bomber. “With all these fish?!?” I asked, incredulously. “Ohhhh, um…. a suicide fish bomber?” Yikes.

7. For as much as I love my bicycle, I still don’t actually know what it looks like. Every time I visit a store with a long row of packed bicycles, I come out and wander up and down the aisles wondering which one is mine. And you don’t just want to start trying your key on them; that might lead to an Unfortunate Misunderstanding. I need to attach a ribbon or something.

Anyway, I think I have a solution to the blogging problem now (famous last words…), so I hope to share some of the other adventures – and there have been several – very soon.

Ah, George, we barely knew ye…

October 2, 2008

I went to dinner the other night with a colleague, itself a rather unremarkable occurrence. We decided to just walk out on one of the narrow roads adjacent to the university and try to find something interesting for dinner before heading back to work on whatever each of us was busy with that particular day. Along the way, we noticed a little restaurant advertising “Xuzhou hot pot” (I’d describe it as a “hole-in-the-wall,” but along this particular street that’s what all the restaurants are – none hold more than about four small tables). Never having had Xuzhou-style hot pot before (and, to be perfectly honest, not being entirely sure where Xuzhou was other than somewhere in Jiangsu Province), we decided to venture in.

Now, I can read a Chinese newspaper without difficulty or much need of a dictionary, but Chinese menus forever give me trouble. Part of the reason for this is that there is just a lot of food vocabulary I haven’t encountered yet – not to mention a lot of things to eat in China that I’ve never dreamed of – but the other part of it is that the names of dishes don’t always translate directly to what’s in them. (Or at least, I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten dragon or phoenix despite the prevalence of both terms of regular menus.) My general custom, then, is to ask a lot of questions and get recommendations from the staff. Usually they are more than happy to help, and often extraordinarily patient with my Chinese accent (which, I believe I have already mentioned, is a bit dodgy).

Looking over the range of Xuzhou hot pot options, my friend and I discussed going with one of the fish items. The only problem was that although I could recognize the word “fish,” I didn’t know what kind of fish it was, and therefore just what we were getting ourselves into. What if it wasn’t a fish at all, like the dragon dishes, but something else altogether? Just to be sure, I asked the helpful restaurant owner what a 鲶鱼 (nianyu) was. She didn’t even try to explain it; she just told me I could come with her back to the kitchen to see for myself.

Now, I never pass up an opportunity to look into a restaurant kitchen. Especially in a restaurant that’s smaller than my own apartment. She brought me back down a narrow passage, and then into the kitchen. On one wall there was a large stove filled with burners and woks; lining the other walls were tables and cabinets filled with vegetables, spices, and oils, scattered along with knives and spatulas. Under the tables there were all kinds of plastic bins of different shapes and sizes with pieces of what looked like scrap plywood covering them. She brought me to one of the bins, lifted the plywood, and there swimming in the water was a large dark fish. It was about a a foot and a half long, and bigger than both my fists put together around the middle. “See?” She asked, “Delicious!”

And this is how I became George’s executioner. I returned to the table and informed my colleague that I had met our dinner, named him “George” (in honor of our first President, who featured heavily in my American History lectures this week), and ordered his death. It was not long thereafter that George appeared before us, cut in pieces and cooked in a spicy broth filled with tofu and mung bean noodles.

For the first few bites, we were too busy spitting out bones to think much about how good George was. But after we paused and confirmed that each of us was fully prepared to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on the other, we dug in with great enthusiasm. After those first few mouthfuls, we started to learn which parts of George had the fewest bones. Avoid the fins, I advised my dinner companion, nodding wisely. You see how I’ve learned? We looked in vain for George’s head, but although we think we found part of the skull, we never located the eyes, though that was probably for the best. We ate George alongside a very nice stirfry of greens and mushrooms. It was a marvelous dinner, and I will certainly go back. Of course, I came straight home afterward to Google George and learn that he was actually a catfish, and that Xuzhou is in the very northwest part of the province. Tasty AND educational, that’s our George!

And the kid breaks even

October 1, 2008

First and foremost, are you Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China? I think you know I am… and if I momentarily forget to Enthusiastically Celebrate the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, there are all kinds of red banners hung up about town to remind me that this is the week for Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China. Some of the other professors and I even went to a dinner reception last week Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, though we didn’t realize it before we got there, having been told it was a reception for foreign faculty at Jiangsu Province universities. (Well, actually, I suppose it was; it was an opportunity to honor foreign faculty as they Enthusiastically Celebrated the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.) Boy, imagine what next year will be like…

Given the fact that I am, as noted, Enthusiastically Celebrating the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, which I am doing by enjoying the week off from work (well, Monday through Sunday – they made us make up the Monday and Tuesday holidays by working all last weekend), I thought I’d take a little time this afternoon to tell the ending of a story that began three years ago.

So the first half of this story is here, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that three and a half years ago, I opened a bank account at the Bank of China that I could access via an ATM card. Then, a few months later, my wallet was stolen in Guangzhou, and I learned that the only way to get a new ATM card and reestablish access to the roughly US$200 still in the account was to physically return to Nanjing and request a new card. There was no time to do this before I left China, and although I have been back in China before now, this is my first return to Nanjing since before the ATM card went missing in 2005. Naturally, I figured I’d head over to my old bank and ask if a) the bank account was still open, b) there was still money in the account (i.e. the thief didn’t find a way to get it), and c) if both a & b proved true, if I could get a new ATM card to access it.

I had a free afternoon soon after I arrived, so I hopped on my bike (I *love* my bike) and off I went. This particular Bank of China branch is not one of the big ones; it’s got five teller windows and a small row of chairs for waiting customers. When you go in, you pick a number based on the kind of business you need to do: personal cash-based transactions, personal non-cash transactions, and business transactions. Because China is still largely a cash-based society, the first set of numbers gets the most action and the lines at those windows advance the quickest. I grabbed a number for the second category and sat down to wait. After a little while, the lobby manager (a worker assigned to manage problems and questions between when people come into the bank and when their number is called to go up to the counter) turned her attention from a man complaining loudly about how long he’d been waiting to me and clearly figured she’d better see what the foreigner was up to and if she’d selected the right kind of number. (Incidentally, the man had every right to complain, as he had been waiting a very long time without any advancement in the numbers – being the number just after him, I am very clear on just how long it was.)

Anyway, I told the friendly manager my story, probably in far more detail than she really needed or wanted given how dodgy my Mandarin accent is these days, and she asked for my passport, and then went to check if there was still an account at the bank under my name. After a few minutes, she reappeared with the news that there was, in fact, an account. This was not instantly good news for me, though, because I had once had several different accounts at this particular bank (and an additional one at the Bank of China in Guangzhou), but she clarified that it appeared to be an ATM account with some amount of money still in it. She then produced a form for me to fill out detailing my personal information and information about the account.

I filled out the form, guessing at what I did not know (how much in renminbi was still in the account, what was my address and cell phone number when I opened the account, what was my address and phone number now – neither of which I had actually memorized yet), and then I returned to wait. When my number finally came up, I approached the window. What followed felt like I had stepped into some sort of comedy show skit. First there was a mistake on my form, so I had to fill it out again. Then, over the course of the next twenty minutes, she processed my claim. This involved filling out another form, in triplicate, then stamping each page twice with two different stamps. Then she called over her supervisor, who stamped each page with a different set of stamps. After that, she unlocked a cabinet, took out two books, and painstakingly entered all of my information on one line of one, then one line of the other. Then, of course, there was the stamping in the book. (I should explain the stamping – these are red stamps with the name and position of the individual on them; others have the branch of the bank. They substitute for signatures, because signed Chinese names are too easy to forge. But the appearance of so many stamps over such a short period of time feels more like a Monty Python skit than a routine bank visit.) Then the printing started: she had to print a huge number of receipts, each on a special printer. For each receipt, the supervisor had to come over and swipe a card on her computer, then she’d print the receipt, stamp it, pass it to me to sign, take it back and tear it in half. Half went back to me, and the other half was folded in half and clipped to a stack of papers that went in an envelope with the books in the locked cabinet. We did this at least a half dozen times; it might have been more. The receipts just kept on coming and coming. In the end there was a final frenzy of stamping and printing and signing, which ended with me leaving with a stack of paper and instructions to come back in ten days.

This week I made my return trip. During this visit, the friendly teller examined my forms, and started adding her own stamp to each of them. Then she pulled out the books from the locked cabinet again and confirmed that having made the request, I came back for my card. This involved more signing and stamping. Then to the receipts portion of the entertainment; after printing and signing another small stack of forms, she finally handed me my new ATM card. Success!! I excitedly asked what the pin number was so I could go ahead and use it. “Wait,” she said, “You mean you don’t remember?!?”

Okay, in my defense, let me say this: I had this account for four months, three and a half years ago. I probably used it seven or eight times total. I didn’t remember my full address or phone number from then, and I used both a lot more frequently. But here’s where the whole “applying for a replacement ATM card system” breaks down a little. No one asked me when I applied for the original card if I still knew the pin number, in spite of me telling the whole story of lawless Guangzhou pickpockets and the aftermath. But it turns out there is a completely different set of forms and procedure to apply for a new card with a new pin number. Of course there is. They could, however, use a simpler process to change the number if I had both my passport and my work unit ID. Erm, work unit ID? I’d never heard of such a thing, so of course I had nothing to give them.

The poor teller went off to call what appeared to be a bank-wide staff meeting to discuss what to do with the forgetful foreigner, when all of the sudden I started to think. She said that my pin code was six digits long, and that I would have picked the original code when I signed up for the account. All of the sudden I had a number in my head, which, I’m not going to lie to you, was and remains a pretty insecure secret number, being based off a number I use practically daily in the US. But it was easy to remember, and in this case, that proved to be the key. When the huddle broke and they prepared to run whatever play they had decided upon, I broke in and asked if I could try my number. Fortunately for all of us (not to mention the environment, given all the paper the last application took), the number was the right one – I got it on the first try. And all the way home I was thinking, “damn, I’m good. Three plus years later and I’ve still got the pin number.” Of course, then I went to take care of something else and *still* didn’t have my phone number memorized, at which point I felt decidedly less smart.

Now, here’s the fun part: all the money that was there before – around 1600RMB – was still in the account. But whereas you could buy 1600 RMB for about US$200 in 2005, China has revalued its currency a few times, and I don’t think I need to explain to anyone that the dollar is not that strong at the moment. So actually, getting that same amount of money would cost me about US$240 now. If you go back to my original post about the theft, you’ll note that I also lost about US$40 in cash. It might have taken me three years, but I broke even on the deal. Not bad, eh?

Oh, and my work unit ID came yesterday. Who knew?

Eau de chow mein

September 26, 2008

Okay, I had two problems last week. (Actually, I had more than two problems, but these two combined in an interesting way.)

The first problem was that my hair was getting sticky. I’m still not sure how this happened, but the shampoo I was using when I first arrived in China was leaving some sort of buildup in my hair, and no matter how many times I washed it and rinsed it thoroughly, I would get out of the shower and find it very, very sticky. It was getting hard to manage, so I looked online for solutions. The best answer I found was that some shampoos can react with very hard water, so I needed to switch brands. Beyond that, one way to get rid of the residual stickiness was to put a wash of equal parts vinegar and water on my hair and let it soak in, then rinse it out. I was determined to reclaim my hair, so I did this without hesitation.

The same day, however, I was a little clumsy getting together a cup of tea, and I dumped boiling hot water on my lap. Fortunately, I was wearing sort of thick pants; otherwise, I would have been racing to the hospital. As it was, I iced my thighs for about four hours. In the end, there was only one section of my left leg that was left with a large burn (not too large – only about two square inches). I then ran out to the local pharmacy to see if I could find some sort of burn ointment to stop the stinging.

The stuff the pharmacist sold me was this blood red liquid that you spray on your burn, and which then runs down your leg like you’re an extra in a horror movie. Well, no matter – it helped with the pain. Recognizing that it would be messy, though, the pharmacist also sold me some gauze. I was picturing neat little gauze pads that I could tape to my leg, but when I opened the package at home, I found a giant piece of woven cloth the size of a bath towel. Lacking a scissors, I used a kitchen knife to hack off a strip which I could then fold down and tape to my leg with medical tape – also sold to me by the pharmacist, and also far, far too narrow to do the job efficiently. In the end, my leg sort of resembled an abstract rendition of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.

The next afternoon I went to meet a student in my office. I noticed my student punctuating her sentences with odd little sniffs, like she was trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. Well, once in that reasonably small, confined space, I noticed that my hair was still radiating vinegar and the smell of the lemon shampoo I used to try to get the vinegar out. Meanwhile the ointment on my leg was giving off a very strong smell – which closely resembled sesame oil. All you needed to do was add some soy sauce and I’d have been ready to stir-fry.

I got ready to pretend I had my lunch in a desk drawer, but she didn’t ask. Though now I wonder what kind of a reputation I might be developing among the students. My office still smells from that afternoon, even if my leg and hair have returned, more or less, to normal. (Though in the words of Tommy Boy, my burn will definitely leave a mark.)

Luxury Life

September 26, 2008

My pretty apartment does not just have the groovy oven; it has all the amenities you would expect to live the high life in China. There are potable water faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, thermostats to control the air and heat in every room, there actually *is* air and heat, maid service twice a week, there’s a laundry room with washers AND dryers in the building… it even has underground bicycle parking with controlled entry.

Like any “well-to-do” Nanjinger, my apartment also sports a big television and, of course, satellite tv. Now, I’ve never even had so much as cable before, but suddenly I have the wonders of the satellite opening up the world to me. There’s never nothing on, either. I get all the Nanjing channels: Nanjing News channel, Nanjing film channel, Nanjing Life, Nanjing Amusement, Nanjing Information, and Nanjing Education. Then there are the provincial channels: Jiangsu Satellite Television, of course – I’m in Jiangsu Province – but also the Jiangsu Children’s Channel, Jiangsu Education Channel, Jiangsu Arts, Jiangsu Films, Jiangsu Public, and the Jiangsu News Channel. But there’s more! I also get Hubei Satellite Television, Dongnan Satellite Television, Shandong Satellite Television, Jiangxi Satellite Television, Sichuan Satellite Television, Qinghai Satellite Television, Shanxi Satellite Television, Heilongjiang Satellite Television, Guizhou Satellite Television, and Hunan Satellite Television (my favorite). We even get the Military Satellite Television feed. Then there’s CCTV 1, CCTV 2, CCTV 3, CCTV 4, CCTV 5, CCTV 6, CCTV 7, CCTV 8, CCTV 9, CCTV 10, CCTV 11, and CCTV 12, CCTV music (this is not Mandopop, though, which is sort of a bummer), CCTV children and CCTV news. (In other places, CCTV means “closed-circuit television” – here it’s “China Central Television.”) It’s a cornucopia of entertainment options. Of course, every night around 6:30 all of these channels simultaneously broadcast the same newscast. It’s sort of surreal; no matter how much you flip, it’s the same people, speaking the same sentence.

Well, actually, in addition to all this we also get CNN International and Star World Asia, the latter of which is the only channel to come in in black and white. I have no idea why, but I am somehow unsurprised by this. Star World Asia is mostly reruns of Jimmy Kimmel Live, old episodes of Friends, and assorted reality tv programs from the US – nothing that makes color necessary, at least. It would be sort of a bummer if they decided to show The Wizard of Oz one night, but other than that, I don’t spend much time on Star World Asia.

But of all these options, Hunan Satellite Television is far and away my favorite. It’s not just that I have a history with this channel, though I do – I attended their Chinese New Year Extravaganza in Las Vegas in 2007. (Yes, on purpose: I liked the bands playing.) They also broadcast Taiwanese soap operas on weekends, and have an impressive lineup of Korean soapers during the week. But what’s got me hooked is this one program on Hunan Satellite Television every night at 9:00.

For an hour, we watch people attempt to run an obstacle course. It’s a big, fancy course built up with a moat of water around each obstacle; runners get one chance to go through it, and if they fall off any part into the water they’re out. It starts out with contestants running a treadmill with hurdles on it. If they clear that, they swing over water to a platform, where they run across three circular platforms turning in opposite directions. From there they have to cross a rocking balance beam, grab a bar and glide down to another platform, where they jump on spinning logs across the water. If they make it that far, all they have to do is make a basket with a basketball and hoop to win a new cell phone… but almost nobody makes it that far. For an hour every night, however, I watch people try.

Unlike American reality programs, there are no extended behind the scenes sob stories about the contestants’ personal lives. We barely get to know them at all – depending on how quickly they fall into the water, there could be 20 different people running on a given night, all of whom we see for about two minutes. I also love the fact that it is the same obstacle course every night, over and over again. The fact that you’ve seen people attempt and fail at this course dozens of times before somehow in no way negates the fact that you want to see what this next person does on this run. It’s almost hypnotic. And then, every once in a blue moon, someone makes it to the end. I’ve seen the show about a half dozen times now, and I’ve seen someone succeed twice. And yet, I keep watching.

And of course, now I sorta want to run the course, too. I wonder if I’ll be able to make a trip to Hunan this year…

Return to Nanjing: the travel saga begins

September 12, 2008

Ahhhh, here I am again, sitting in an apartment in Nanjing, drinking a glass of “Great Wall Dry Red Wine”… it’s like the last three and a half years never happened. Well, except for the part where my apartment is a lot nicer this time (ask me about the potable water!!), and the daily schedule is a lot less flexible. But, you know, in a good way.

In my determined effort to avoid the evil overlords at Northwest, I came out on Asiana Airlines. A thousand apologies to the surprisingly large number of friends and relations of mine who work there; it’s just that on my last trip to China on Northwest (flying from DC to Guangzhou via Detroit and Tokyo), I reached the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually, there were a few tossed on at once, so I’m not exactly sure which of the three was responsible: the fact that they no longer serve free alcohol on those flights (I don’t even always drink it, but there’s a principle at stake here: trans-Pacific flights are long and expensive – if you’re going to give out the free booze at any point, this should be it); that my vegetarian dinner, snack and breakfast on my Detroit-Tokyo flight consisted almost entirely of grapes, grapes and more grapes; that three of my four international flights on the trip were showing the same movie; or that the movie was The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. If you think I’m being unfair, let me just add that on my most recent domestic Northwest flight, my seat cushion was wet – something I didn’t realize until the dampness started to seep through my pants (ugh) – and the flight attendant was stumped about getting me something to sit on, suggesting that I try the in-flight magazine before bringing me a blanket. No apology, of course. No, I may be flying in and out of Minneapolis (i.e. a Northwest hub), but there is no reason to suffer like that.

So I decided to look elsewhere. As my dad notes, the benefit of flying international airlines is that they still seem to want customers, something reflected in their policies. Like my two free checked bags, each up to 50 lbs. Like free wine (yeah, didn’t drink it, but I could if I wanted to, and that was the key), or a nice shiny new 747-400 equipped with groovy entertainment consoles in coach. And free toothbrush/toothpaste packets laid out in the bathroom.

But, you’re thinking, who or what is an Asiana? Their call-sign abbreviation is “OZ,” which conjures up images of yellow brick roads and, perhaps, flying monkeys (depending on who you are), but in reality, they are the second flag carrier of South Korea (second to Korean Air; my plane, at least, was monkey-free). I actually flew them the last time I went to Korea, which is how I happened to think of them. The beauty of flying Asiana – beyond not flying Northwest, of course – is that although I still had to make two stops, I could do it in such a way as to get some real joy out of it. First I was on a United flight down to Chicago (because it was booked as an Asiana codeshare, they could not charge me for my checked luggage; because it was still United, the flight attendant spilled orange juice all over my lap). Then I had a six and a half hour layover in Chicago, where my friends Abby and Cam very kindly came out to the airport to get me so we could go have a nice dinner elsewhere (and I could spend less time languishing at O’Hare). From there, it was on to Seoul, Korea. Here I have to be totally honest: for as lovely as the in-flight service and amenities were, leaving at 1:00 am and arriving at 4:00am (the next day – you lose 14 hours) is brutal. Really, really brutal. On the bright side, there’s no line at the immigration desk at Incheon International Airport at 4:15 am.

This brings us to another perk: Asiana allows you to take a stopover in Seoul for a few days for pretty much the same price you pay for an immediate connection. My friend Lancelot, of whom I have written much in the past of our various meet-ups in Taiwan, China and Korea – still lives in Seoul and was kind enough to invite me to stay for a few days. Ah, a glorious 48 hours in Seoul.

It’s not hard to explain why Korea has so captured my imagination: it’s the food. Well, that and the soap operas. Basically, I’m still riding the Korean Wave, though so is much of China, so I have a lot of company. In the end, though, I really went to Seoul to see my friend and to eat, but I had some time outside of those two things (like when Lancelot went to class and after I had just eaten), so I felt duty bound to try to be a tourist. Not too duty-bound, though; I made it to exactly one museum this time, and that was the Kimchi Museum. This is a three room exhibit on the history, variety, and health benefits of the Korean staple, complete with a tasting room. Although the last display featured a variety of nontraditional ideas for how to eat kimchi – on hamburgers, in scrambled eggs, cooked into spaghetti sauce – it failed to mention my favorite way, which is on crackers. Yup, kimchi on crackers (usually soda crackers, which here in China, at least, tend to be a little thicker and come in flavors like green onion) – it is the ultimate snack. The sight of it horrifies most Koreans, of course, but nothing is ever truly perfect.

One thing I did do in Seoul that I am sort of proud of is climb Namsan. Okay, normally this is not much of a feat – yeah, there are some steep inclines and lots of stairs, though the greatest challenge is probably still the fact that little old ladies in jogging suits go marching past you, so feeling chagrined you try to pick up your pace in spite of your panting. But we set out up the hill around 7:30 of the night I got in. Yes, this was after being pretty much awake all night and all day, jetlagged, and landing at 4:00 am. I took some slightly blurry night photos of the marvelous view from the top of Namsan before we started down the other side, muscles shaking (mine, that is – Lancelot had not broken a sweat), and wandered into the heart of Seoul to admire the night markets. This is not something I remember remarking upon on my last visit, but Seoul feels more like Taipei than any city in China (well, Seoul came first, so maybe Taipei feels more like Seoul…). Yes, it is a completely different culture and language, but the free-market chaos of it, the way the modernity and glossiness collides with streetside vendors, just pushes the two cities together in my mind. Chinese cities – even big, modern, expensive cities like Shanghai – just feel different. They feel, somehow, a little less free, a little more polluted, a bit more like they are still catching up. Of course, they are still resplendent in their neon (or, as I like to say, their “psychedelic neon funness,” which is a hallmark of China. If something will hold still long enough, someone in China will hang some neon on it and charge a few kuai for admission to see it).

My layover in Seoul was all too short, and then I was on a plane bound for Nanjing. It’s a bit of a homecoming for me; I was last here in March of 2005. Three and a half years would be enough time to see changes anywhere; you’d expect some new buildings up, some old ones torn down, maybe an increase in traffic. But this is China: three and a half years is practically a lifetime. Add that to the fact that the human memory is very fallible, and yes, it took me a few extended detours to find some of my old haunts scattered among the new landmarks. There’s a new subway in Nanjing, which opened right after I left and has that marvelous “new subway” smell, and there are now underground highway tunnels making the trip from the airport a breeze. My old CE Mart is now under Taiwanese management and renamed JT Mart, and the only Starbucks in this part of the city has closed.

One of the more instantly visible changes is that there are a lot more foreigners in the city. And, of course, with a growing expat population comes Nanjing’s pretty new Ikea store and lots of small import groceries. While bragging about my pretty new apartment to friends, I’ve talked about the fact that I have an oven, which is very, very rare in a Chinese kitchen (think about all the Chinese food you know, then think of how much of it is baked). I joked all summer about how I might have an oven, but it’s not like I can run to the corner store to buy a frozen pizza to bake in it… well, it turns out, I actually can. The neighborhood import store has pizzas. Sigh. I’m one of the 0.001% of people in China with both an oven and easy access to frozen pizza, and I’m allergic to dairy? Life is really not fair.

One game that is particularly fun to play when you first arrive back in China is the “what websites are blocked today” game. Much to my surprise, the BBC, Wikipedia, Blogspot and YouTube are all unblocked; I’d say about 80% of the sites I try to raise prove to be easiy available, and the rest just never load. WordPress, and all of its blogs, is currently blocked, for example. Why block WordPress and Typepad, but not Blogger? Honestly, I think the whole thing is no longer about controlling information; now they’re just messing with us. And, of course, you’ll note that I’m posting on a WordPress blog blocked in China from China. Yeah, the system has some obvious flaws in it. Anyway, I’ve been here a week, and there are already stories, so here we go.