Monday, August 12, 2013

Tales From the Orient: Boob Grab

On the streets of Shangri-la, you see many older Tibetan women wearing traditional Tibetan clothing. Many of them carry vegetables in baskets on their backs to cook on grills in the square and sell to people like me who do not expect them to be as spicy as they are. They carry their Buddhist prayer beads with them and run them through their hands. It reminds me of Catholics praying with a rosary. It's really cool to see the blending of the old and new right next to each other. You don't see that in Beijing, and I think that's one of the reasons I like Shangri-la better.

One day, I was walking home with Carrie and Tara and a group of about 5 or 6 Tibetan women were approaching us. They had their prayer beads in their hands and they although they were speaking, they didn't appear to be speaking to one another. Could they have been praying? Well how the heck should I know? I don't speak Chinese or Tibetan.

As the group of women walked past us, the first woman grabbed my wrist and said something. So, that was weird...but whatever. The next woman grabbed my boob and said something. Luckily, none of the other women grabbed anything. I'm not really sure what they would've grabbed next but based on how quickly things escalated from wrist to boob, I don't think I want to find out what would've been next.

I asked Andy if there was any possible cultural significance to that event. I was pretty sure of the answer, but hey you never know. He said there wasn't any significance to his knowledge. Some things transcend cultural boundaries. So an old lady grabbing your boob on the streets of Shangri-la is exactly the same as an old lady grabbing your boob on the streets of America: weird.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tales From the Orient: The Silk Market

How do I describe The Silk Market? If you're thinking it's a quaint little district where they sell silk, you're wrong. Have you ever been to China Town in a big city like New York? It's kind of like that. Except somebody took China Town, divided it into departments (purses, electronics, etc.) and put it into a mall that's about stories tall. So everything is still just as fake as a Playmate's boobs but it's in a nice building rather than a booth on the street. And you can haggle with people.

We took the subway to The Silk Market and spent about 2 hours there. The Silk Market combines my love of shopping with my love of being argumentative. When I was younger (because I'm so old now?) I hated haggling. The part of me that hates talking to people still hates haggling, but my love of arguing outweighs that. I didn't like haggling in Honduras last year and this is going to sound so weird, but I think it was because I spoke the language so I could actually get into a whole conversation with the merchant about something. I couldn't do that in China; I could just punch numbers into a calculator and respond to the few English phrases the person knew. As you can imagine, The Silk Market is the perfect stage for hilarity.

I floated around with different members of our group. First I was with the guys because they wanted to look at electronics and so did I. Blake and I walked into a store and right away the clerk started trying to sell something to Blake. Blake says, "What is it, a flashlight?" And then you hear this "TZZZZT!" noise and Blake says, "Oh, a taser!" And you probably had to be there but I started laughing because his tone was one of "yes of course, why wouldn't it be a flashlight/taser?" So this guy keeps trying to convince Blake that he needs a taser, "you know, when you drink too much you might need." And I'm in the background saying, "That's right Blake, how many times on this trip have you talked about wishing you had a flashlight/taser?" So that was awesome.

They also have these laser pointers that are super strong and illegal in the US. I won't lie, they're cool and I definitely wanted one but it probably would've gotten taken out of my suitcase. I was in another store with Andy and Dick and this store had lasers, pens, and others things like that. I was standing by Dick and he was looking at something and I wasn't sure what it was. Well, he finally got it open and a huge flame comes out of it! I yelled, "Oh shit!" Which, BTW, is always appropriate on a mission trip. But I did think my arm was going to catch on fire. Apparently this store had a large collection of lighters although this thing seemed more like a flame thrower to me. I mean, the flame was huge! And you didn't have to do anything to it, just open the lid and boom! Fire!

I roamed into a watch store next because it occurred to me that Jerry's watch had broken awhile back and what better place to get him a "nice" new watch than The Silk Market. As soon as I walked in I realized that I was way over my head. First of all, I know nothing about watches. Secondly, I have absolutely no idea what kind of watch he would want. However I was already in the store so it looked like this was happening. I ended up picking out a simple "Armani" watch and the girl told me that the regular price was 600¥. But of course she knew that was much too high for me, what with us being close personal friends and all. So she was going to charge me 300¥. Unfortunately I was thinking more like 100¥. She started lowering the price on account of I was her "first customer of the day". I ended up paying 150¥ ($26), which I think was pretty good. And I told Jerry, if that's not the best $26 timepiece he's ever owned then by God I will take that thing back to the store and give that girl a talking to! I did see one watch break as they were taking the plastic off of it (don't worry, they gave that person another watch). Luckily that didn't happen to my watch, because my watch is the real thing.

Then there was an incident at a bracelet store where some ladies were trying to screw Andy over on some bracelets and act like they didn't have change and give him some crap bracelets instead of a second nice bracelet. So I started backing him up on that and getting arbitrarily argumentative and aggressive with them until they caved. By that point I was clearly drunk on power and we ran into Tara and Carrie. They were looking at tea pots and mentioned how they'd tried to get some fans for 10¥ but the shop people refused. And I said, "Oh I'll get you those fans." So I went to look at spoons while they finished looking at tea pots and the lady wanted me to pay 350¥ for a spoon. I said, "Umm, I was thinking more like 5¥ or 10¥." She told me that my price was "impossible" so I peaced out on her. I did get one later for 10¥, so it must not have been that impossible.

We went up to the fan place and wouldn't you know it, got the fans for 10¥. I was looking around at some other stuff when I heard this lady start getting really loud. It was an American lady. She's hollering, "Give me back my money!" Naturally I started to stare at her, because that's what you do in these situations. Well, I didn't stare right at her because she kind of looked like maybe she could fight me and her voice sounded a little crazy so I tried to be sly about it.

She's over in one of the technology stores (next door to the flashlight/taser store) and she wants them to give her her money back. Apparently the day before she had bought a phone at that store and when she plugged it in at the hotel she heard it short out in the outlet and then she smelled it burning or whatever. So this was completely unacceptable because she has 3 kids at home and now they can't even play games on this phone and you do not want to see her angry.

Somehow, Carrie and Tara hadn't heard this lady and they were trying to leave so I had to call them back over to watch the drama unfold. Plus that way I had people to talk to. Before that it was just me and one of the Chinese salesladies. We were both watching the crazy lady and I kept looking at her like, "Hey that lady is crazy, right?" but she didn't reciprocate my glances because maybe she thinks I'm crazy, too. Eventually we had to leave and we didn't get to see a resolution, but my guess is she did not get her money back. I was really hoping to see her throw some boxes or something.

It didn't occur to me until that moment that some people think that because The Silk Market is set up like a mall that means that it's legit. If you're haggling over an iPhone with someone whose entire business operates out of a fanny pack and no receipts whatsoever, what makes you think they have a return policy? You think Apple and Rolex and all those other companies wouldn't be all over China in a heartbeat if those were actually the real products? Some people are pretty foolish.

"Armani" watch: 150¥. China spoon: 10¥. 3 China girl pens: 15¥. Joy that comes from arguing over prices: Priceless. The Silk Market.


Tales From the Orient: Cashew Thief/Great Wall Climber

At the end of our trip, we spent three days in Beijing so that we could do things like go to The Great Wall. Wouldn't it suck to go all the way to China and not see The Great Wall? We stayed in a hotel called The Park Plaza. It's in downtown Beijing and it's very nice. Right across from the hotel is a Starbucks. We had to wake up fairly early to go to the Great Wall because it takes about 90 minutes to drive there not to mention we wanted to try to beat the crowds and the heat. Before it was time to load up in the vans, several of us went over to Starbucks to get some drinks for the road.

I ordered a java chip frappuccino something or other and while I was waiting in line to pay I noticed a bag of cashews at the register. I decided I'd get those too since I'd only had some fruit for breakfast. so I grabbed the bag. I got up to the register and told the barista I'd ordered the grande frap and then I held up the bag of cashews and said, "And these, too." She looked at the bag and nodded. So I paid the bill (my Starbucks gold card does not work in China, just in case you were curious) and went over to wait with my friends.

I was trying to open the tiny bag of cashews, which had apparently been child-proofed for my safety when I saw the baristas looking at me, pointing and whispering. I assumed they were making fun of me for not being able to open the bag. "Oh crap, there's probably some ancient Chinese secret to opening the freaking cashew bag and I'm going to spill them all over the place or something," I thought. I turned away from them so they wouldn't see me struggling. That's when one of them came up to me and told me that I had not paid for the cashews.

"Oh, I showed them to her and said that I wanted them. I guess she didn't hear me." It was no big deal, I went and paid for them (and was eventually able to open and eat them). It was certainly a curious event. I know that she saw me hold up the cashews because we made eye contact. What did she think I was doing?

  • "Hey, look at this bag. I can pick it up. Now I shall set it back down."
  • "These are called cashews, barista. That's your English word of the day. You're welcome. Love, American girl.
  • "Hmm, what an interesting counter display you have here. I like it. I also like that it is about 95 degrees in your store. Well done, Beijing Starbucks."

And that's how the entire staff of a Beijing Starbucks thought I was some sort of criminal mastermind who specialized in cashew theft. Let's face it, it would be the perfect crime. Except for the whole struggling to open the stolen merchandise and attempting to eat it in the store in front of the victims.

On to the Wall. I tell you what, they weren't joking when they named that thing The Great Wall. It is pretty great. It's breathtakingly beautiful. I can't believe that it was built hundreds of years ago without any sort of technology and it's still standing today. It's a real testament to human ingenuity and strength. I took well over 100 pictures; and I put them all on Facebook rather than decide which to put up and which to leave out. In my opinion they're all amazing so I just stuck all of them up there!

You take a chair lift to get up to The Wall and then you can walk wherever you want. Actually hike would be a more appropriate word. I'm pretty sure I climbed at least a million miles. And it was (no joke) 100 degrees outside. I don't even know how much water I drank! I drank all of the water I bought and then I bought some more when I was up there. It wasn't marked up as much as it would be in America, which was nice. I was so thirsty I would've paid whatever they wanted though. "What's that? You'll give me a bottle of water if I let you punch me in the face? Bring it on." Carrie and I walked back to the meeting place together and we were both exhausted! We took the walk so slow because our legs were shaking and we were dizzy; it was unreal. I don't think I've ever done anything that physically taxing.

To get down from The Great Wall you can either take the chair lift or you can take the toboggan. We opted for the toboggan. You sit on this little scooter/sled type thing and you're on a metal slide that makes me think of a bobsled track. You have a little handle to control your scooter. Although it sounds like a deathtrap it's actually not scary at all and it's a lot of fun! The one crappy part was that we had a few people in front of us who were scared and/or taking pictures and video so they were going slow which made us run into them several times. If people in front of you are going slow then it keeps you from going really fast. Those jerks! We were yelling at them, too!

We were so hungry when we got off The Wall. Luckily, the ancient Chinese had enough sense to put a Subway and Baskin Robbins there at the bottom so we were able to get some food.

Later that evening (after we relaxed and regained feeling in our legs), Andy called my room and said that no one could decide what they wanted for dinner. I said that I have a need to eat at McDonald's in every country that I visit. So, we went to McDonald's in the mall! Let that be a lesson to all of you: if you don't speak up, you'll end up doing whatever someone else wants to do and you'll have no one to blame but yourself. In education we call that a "teachable moment". And then we stumbled upon a Coldstone Creamery so we ate there, too. I've never been much of a Coldstone fan, but it was OK. So yes, for those of you keeping track I had ice cream twice that day; but remember, I walked a million miles so I earned it.


Tales From the Orient: Chinese Fire Drill

There were a lot of hilarious things that happened to me in China, but this was the first truly hilarious thing. This was also the first completely stupid thing I did, and how can I deprive you of that story?

Date: July 16, 2013 Time: 9:00 or 9:30 p.m.

Twice a week, we had something in the evenings called English Corner. It was from 7-9 p.m. and students were not obligated to come. English Corner was a time for them to hang out with us and practice their English. We had board games, cards, arts & crafts, sports, music, etc. There was pretty much anything they wanted to do with us for two hours. Tonight was our very first English Corner. I think that the majority of the students came back to participate! Carrie and I ended up doing macrame with some of the girls and it was really fun! We also decided that the next English corner I'd bring my iPod and speaker and we'd be having a dance party.

OK, the stupidity started after English Corner. English Corner ended at 9:00 so by the time we got everything cleaned up it was probably 9:15 or 9:30. We all started walking to the nearby bus stop because it was dark out, we were tired, and nobody felt like walking all the way back to Old Town. Just as we get to the bus stop, Kozo drives up in his SUV with Andy in the front seat. Andy has the window rolled down and asks if we want a ride back to Old Town. "YEA!" I yell. As if you even had to ask! Carrie was right behind me and Tara was behind her. We were standing behind the billboard thing that they have at bus-stops, whatever it's called.

So we run from behind that and I'm leading the way. I throw open the door and hop in. Tara yells, "How much room is there?" And I yell back that there are 3 open seats so she should come on. I slide all the way over and Carrie slides in after me. Tara is on her way towards the car when I hear a lady say something in Chinese. She was in the front seat. Hmm. I don't remember Andy being a Chinese lady. And I don't remember Kozo being a Chinese man. I had gotten into the wrong car. And Carrie had followed me. So there we were just sitting in the back of some random Chinese couple's car. "Oops! Wrong car!" I said, as I hopped out and shut the door behind me. Carrie quickly did the same thing from the other side and we rushed over to the correct vehicle dying with laughter.

In my defense, I will say that Kozo has a very popular SUV and it was dark. And also, that Chinese couple was pulled up closer to the curb than Kozo was. Plus we'd been behind the billboard thingy so we were somewhat disoriented. I'm really impressed with how chill that couple was about the whole thing. I mean, for all they knew, they were being carjacked by a couple of little blonde girls. Granted, I don't speak Chinese so maybe the wife was completely flipping out and cussing up a storm in Chinese. But they seemed calm. And hey, what a fun story I've given them to tell all their friends and family. "We invited John and Sue to the party tonight, make sure they tell you about the time the Americans jumped in their car--it's hysterical!" You're welcome, John and Sue.

Anyway, we still got our ride back to Old Town. And the whole time we're cracking up about getting into the wrong car and how crazy the whole thing was. Meanwhile Andy was talking to Kozo about how it seemed as though there were more police out in Shangri-la lately and he was asking why. I responded, "Well, they heard there's some crazy white lady jumping into people's cars so they're on the lookout for her."

And that, my friends, is how you do a real Chinese Fire Drill.


Tales From the Orient: Teacher!

Hey, Teacher! Teacher! That's what the students call us. In America I'm "Miss Señorita Black" and in China I'm "Teacher". The kids at the camp are great. We had about 36 students, which was a smaller group. In past years they've had groups as big as 50 and 60 students. I'm kind of glad the group was smaller; it was easier to get to know all of the kids this way. There were more girls than boys (isn't that always the way?).

We had a few students who were middle school age, but most were in high school. It was very interesting for me to compare teaching high schoolers in America with teaching high schoolers in China. As you can imagine, the two are like night and day. Chinese students are so eager to learn it's almost unbelievable. High school isn't free in China like it is in the States. Some [poor] families aren't able to send all of their children to high school, let alone university. If I still taught high school that would make me even angrier with my slacker students who refused to work and failed all their classes and eventually dropped out. So many kids over here take things like education for granted while there are millions of children around the world who would give anything for that same privilege.

The competition to get into university is so fierce in China that students don't have time to screw around when it comes to academics and they know it. They take their educations seriously. Look at the fact that with what little summer vacation they have, these students opted to spend 2 weeks in an English camp. Some students who attended the camp last year stopped by to say hi to people and they said they didn't come to camp because they were too busy preparing for the upcoming school year. The don't play games in China when it comes to school. They take notes, they practice, they ask questions--it's really refreshing.

In our lessons I had planned a lot of activities like the ones that I did/do with my students. Lots of hands on activities that involve drawing, art, creativity, etc. as well as games and things where they can get up and move around the room. On the first day we played a game where they had to go around and find out what everyone did in their free time and get signatures on a sheet of paper. We also did things like a fashion designer activity where they designed their own outfit and create your perfect room. I taught them the "flyswatter game" that I used to play with my high schoolers to practice vocabulary and I think they really enjoyed that.

A lot of the students were very artistic and creative. I think that they enjoyed being able to showcase those abilities because they don't get the opportunity to do that in a typical school day. I think that the Chinese classroom is run very old school compared to an American classroom. I'd actually be very interested to observe a Chinese classroom and see how they do things. We played more games than I would typically play in my actual classroom, but it was camp so I wanted it to be fun. I think that the Chinese would be surprised to see that when you incorporate some fun activities it actually helps students learn. Speaking of helping them learn, I wasn't crazy about the book that we used at camp. It wasn't created by a teacher and I think it could be so much better. I really feel like I'm supposed to make a better version of the book for them to use next year. I'm going to attempt to do that this year, hopefully I'll be able to do it!

Anyway, back to all the students. They were so sweet! They complimented us all the time. Team members who'd been to China before were able to word it very well: the Chinese don't take friendship lightly. They were all so nice. Many of them gave us gifts on the last day of camp and they loved taking pictures of us and/or with us. I think I know what it feels like to be a low level celebrity with paparazzi following me around!

The students also wore the same clothes all week. It wasn't an issue of being poor. We actually had quite a few students who were rather well off. It's just what they do there. And it's not like the clothes smelled bad or anything. I think in general they live more simply than we do and have less possessions. I wonder what they think of us showing up in different clothes every day? I'm not sure if this is what it's like in Beijing, but it was the case in Shangri-La.

I'm going to miss those kids a lot! They don't have Facebook in China, but they do have something called QQ. We all set up QQ accounts so that the students could send us messages. The tricky thing about QQ is that on the iPhone app, everything is in Chinese! You can see the message they send you where they've written in English but you have no clue what any of the buttons mean! One cool thing about it is that they can record voice messages and send them. I really hope I'm able to go back next summer.


Tales From the Orient: China Bound

I had every intention of posting a few blogs while I was in China, but China's Internet restrictions had other plans. I suppose that the Chinese government has realized how influential and powerful I am and has wisely blocked my blog. I can't say as I blame them, my words wield great power. Well, whatever the real reason was I couldn't update my blog over there. Because of that I'm retroactively blogging about the entire experience in a series I'm calling Tales From the Orient.

It was not easy getting to China. We sat on the runway in Louisville for 4 hours! By the time we made it to Atlanta we had already missed our flight to Seattle, which meant we missed our flight to Beijing. So we stayed in Atlanta for the night and then woke up bright and early to fly to Detroit. Well, actually we woke up bright and early to wait on the plane and then fly to Detroit. Then we flew to Beijing. We stayed overnight in Beijing at a Holiday Inn Express (I just think that's funny).

I should take this opportunity to tell you about the flight from Detroit to Beijing. Now, some people might think that I'm being racist or something but I assure you I am not. I've now been on six flights with mostly Chinese people and I can without a doubt say that they are some of the worst travelers I've ever seen (and I've travelled quite a bit). They're not big on following any of the flight attendant instructions whatsoever. The flight attendant could say, "If you don't sit down you will spontaneously combust," and there would be at least one Chinese dude who would get up. And it wasn't a language issue because announcements were made in both English and Chinese. But back to my first flight with the Chinese.

As you might imagine, the flight from Detroit to Beijing is rather lengthy. It's about 13 hours. Nobody can sit for that long, and I understand that. It was a bit easier for me because I was in the emergency exit row (ready to selflessly sacrifice myself for the safety of the rest of the passengers should the situation arise. Not really) so I had extra leg room for my lengthy 5 foot frame. Are you jealous of me being in the exit row? Don't be. I hate the flipping exit row, or at least I do now. And here's why:

  1. I watched all of these people get up and fumble with the bathroom door. It's like they'd never encountered an airplane bathroom door in their lives. Many would look at me for assistance, as though I were the bathroom attendant. I guess no one had to use the bathroom on their flight from China to America because they had no clue what was going on.
  2. The stretching. Dear God in Heaven the stretching. As previously stated, I understand that your legs get cramped and sore on lengthy flights. So you do what anyone does: Get up periodically to go to the bathroom (where you know how to operate the door, BTW), maybe shake your legs a little bit, raise up on your toes a couple times, stand by your seat for 2 or 3 minutes. And that's it. Then you sit the eff back down. Let me tell you how Chinese people stretch on a plane. It is full blown calisthenics. You probably think I'm joking, but I'm not. Apparently there is some rumor in China that if you're on a long plane flight and you don't jog up to the galley area (aka right in front of me) and do some major leg lifts, squats, etc. for a good 20 minutes you'll probably die. And hey, since you're all up there getting your workout in why not just chit-chat while you're at it? So I'm trying to be patient, which as you know is not one of my skills. I managed to distract myself with Argo and Doctor Who for awhile but then something happened and I just couldn't take it anymore. This woman has been jazzercising or whatever in front of me when she discovered the jump seat for the flight attendant to sit in. She pulled down the seat, put her hands on it and began doing some sort of squat type of thing on the seat. "OK. That's it. Y'all have got to go! This ain't the gym. Go on. Get out." I literally yelled that at the hoard of Chinese people hanging out in front of my seat. Chinese Jane Fonda looked at me and said, "This is a long flight and people need to stretch their legs." And I said, "I know, but this is insane and I've been watching it for 6 hours. Take it somewhere else." And that's how I got all those people out of my face. Yea, that happened. And given the opportunity, I'd do it again.
  3. Some people were jealous of my exit row seat. A little while later I decided to get up and use the bathroom. I opened the door (flawlessly I might add) and went inside. I few moments later I emerged and discovered that there was a random Chinese man now occupying the once empty seat in between me and another member of our team. Apparently this man decided he'd hop up to our row for a little nap. I looked at my team member like, "What the heck?" and he shrugged back. So I sat back down in a very confused manner. I mean, I'd already yelled at about a dozen Chinese people...on the one hand you'd think my reputation would've preceded me throughout the plane and this dude would've stayed in his own seat. On the other hand, I didn't exactly want to be that psycho white lady on the plane who yells at all the Chinese people. Luckily a flight attendant came by in about 20 minutes and woke the man up and told him to go back to his seat because you have to speak English to be able to sit in the exit row on a Delta flight. I'd like to tell you that this was the only time that happened. Nope. Towards the end of the flight stuff starts flying over the seat from the row behind us. Some lady decided to upgrade herself by one row. She quickly got the same instructions to move back to her own seat.

So the flight was insane, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express that night. The continental breakfast at the Beijing Holiday Inn Express was quite an experience. First of all, they put out quite a spread. It was impressive! I took a breakfast bar with me because I wasn't sure what I'd be able to eat, here's what I found: eggs (scrambled and hard boiled), "chicken nuggets" (pork and chicken sausage), mini corn on the cob, some sort of green vegetable, porridge, spaghetti, toast, beans, rice, watermelon, juice. I did get to watch a man eat toast with a chopstick...apparently you just stab it. I'm not sure why that works better than your hand, but I guess it does.

Our next flight was from Beijing to Kunming. That flight was about 3 hours long and it did not have personal air vents. Apparently the Chinese people get cold very easily, so the flight was miserably hot. So there I am, sweating like a whore in church and out comes the hot meal. The smell of the meal was overwhelmingly terrible. I'm not sure what shade of white/green my face was but it was probably disturbing. I felt like I was about to vomit. I got up to go to the bathroom and splash water on my face, and guess what came out of the faucet? Freaking hot water. Thankfully I fell asleep for the duration of the flight.

Our final flight was from Kunming to Shangrila and it was only an hour long (and the plane had air vents!). Kozo and Toshiko picked us up at the airport and drove us to The Olive Inn which would be our home for the next two weeks. And that's when we completely passed out!


Space Race

Was there some rich white guy meeting that we didn't know about where they all secretly decided to get super interested in space all of ...