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.