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.