Getting Toned

So lately I’ve been going to the gym a lot — crazy, I know.

But that’s not what this post is about at all.

For the past several days, our office’s copy machine has been out of toner. It might not sound like a big deal, but as someone who makes about six trips to the copier a day, trust me, it is a huge deal.

So anyway, the new toner finally came in the mail today, and I was just thrilled. I ecstatically skipped to the back room, toner in hand, and began fumbling around trying to get it into the copier. Realizing I had never changed a copy machine toner, I decided I should endeavor to follow the directions printed on the toner compartment door.

These directions were in picture form, but nonetheless they were easy to follow:

1. Shake toner

2. Insert toner into copier

3. Proceed with copying

So, my heart fluttering with anticipation, I vigorously shook the toner cartridge.

Big. Mistake.

Toner flew everywhere — I looked like Wiley Coyote just after he falls into the old road runner TNT trap. I mean, I had toner on my hands, my neck, my face, and all over my crisp, white sweater. Not to mention all over the copy machine and break room. I guess most people don’t get as excited about new toner as I do, because the seal on the toner definitely couldn’t withstand my level of enthusiasm.

Obviously this recalls the Great Ranch Dressing Disaster of 1993, when I accidentally shook a bottle of ranch too vigorously, covered half my plate in dressing, and cried inconsolably.

However, in the years following the Great Ranch Dressing Disaster, I have come to realize that I do embarrassing and clumsy things too often to cry about them, and spent the entire day today laughing at myself.

What a great day! What a great toner cartridge. My life is awesome.

Hide and Seek

This weekend I indulged finally in an activity I’ve been dreaming about for years — geocaching. Geocaching is basically a treasure hunt game played by geeks with GPS devices, the internet, and a healthy inner child. What you do is go onto a geocaching website and get the coordinates of a treasure someone else had previously hidden. Then, as inconspicuously as possible, you find the treasure using GPS, and log your find online.

Previously, I had dismissed my chances of playing this marvelous game because I don’t have a GPS device, and they are quite expensive. But it suddenly occurred to me that the newer iPhones have GPS, so I commandeered Jeff and his phone for a little trial run on Friday.

To tell the truth, we were quite terrible at finding the treasures, and failed miserably. I think perhaps it works better with a more accurate GPS device, and you also have to consider when the treasures were hidden. But despite my epic fail, I am still irreparably in love with geocaching.

If anyone wants to donate a GPS device/new iPhone to me, I’m totally open to it.

Literacy!

I think most people who know me would describe me as a fairly literary person, but it wasn’t always so. Up until about fourth grade, I couldn’t even read Green Eggs and Ham. I was literally the kid that got pulled out of class to do remedial exercises and learn ABCs, because I was eight and hardly read a word of English. If I was a kid today, I’m sure they would have given me like five learning disabilities.

At any rate, one day in fourth grade I was with my mom at Barnes and Nobles. I couldn’t read, so bookstores were mysterious temples for a faith I was excluded from. For some reason, that day the books arrayed on display incited my covetous desire to read. Left to my own devices, I picked up a book with a pretty cover, and decided that I was going to read it cover to cover. I was tired of not being able to read.

I don’t know how long it took me, but I read that book every day. I’m sure it’s not the best work of literature — it’s out of print and the lowest selling price on Amazon.com is 1 cent — but it opened the world of reading to me. By the next year I was devouring fantasy books by the dozen, in addition to Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and the rest of the Western literary cannon.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was thinking about this and realized maybe I could mount the same offensive against the Chinese language. After browsing a Chinese website that has lots of book commentaries, I chose a few hopefuls and went to the large bookstore in Xidan. Eventually I chose 《X 的悲剧》 (The Tragedy of X), an American novel of no reputation that was probably translated because: A. It was written a while ago and wouldn’t have too much naughtiness to censor, B. It was written a while ago and it’s out of print, so C. It was cheap to get the rights.

My first choice was to read a Chinese novel, but I couldn’t find the authors recommended to me — imagine browsing a bookstore when the language has no alphabet and you’ll know how frustrating trying to find a book is.

I’m proud to say that not half an hour ago I finished my first-ever Chinese book. It was a mystery, which I figured would ensure that I was motivated to finish it. I’m not sure how much I learned from it, but I’m still pretty happy with myself. I guess tomorrow I may have to go to the bookstore again to find another book, which is one of my favorite activities in the whole world. I actually have some Chinese classics already, but I hear they’re depressing, so ppfffffbbtbttttttt on that.

Spring [for earplugs and elastic waistbands] Festival

Spring Festival, also know as Chinese New Year, is the biggest holiday in Chinese culture. I can now safely say that nothing can prepare you for the living hyperbole that is Spring Festival in Beijing.

The festivities began around January 18, when I started hearing the odd firecracker in my neighborhood. Within a few days, I started hearing fireworks in the distance. January 25 was the big night for the festival so far. You can think of it as a sort of Thanksgiving-July 4th combination, then multiply that times about 20. On that night, everyone traditionally eats a ridiculously large amount of food, rests, gets drunk, eats more, and then at midnight, sets off a ridiculous amount of fireworks, firecrackers, and anything else loud/flammable.

Kieran and I were invited to the home of a wonderful family friend in Beijing for a real Spring Festival in a Chinese home. Grace, who is my “Beijing mom,” and her mother, made us a huge meal with an overwhelming number of courses. Of course, being Chinese, they hardly touched it, but kept urging us on “eat, eat, eat, EAT! You’re too thin!”

After dinner, we settled in to watch the yearly Spring Festival program on TV. It was a variety show, complete with comedy routines, skits about the Olympics, songs and magic performances. While we watched, Grace taught us how to make dumplings, Jiaozi. Jiaozi is to Spring Festival as Turkey is to Thanksgiving, so although we were already bursting with full bellies, we couldn’t turn them down. I know everyone will be shocked to hear this, but I actually stopped eating before all my dumplings were gone. I was stopped by the remembrance of a certain friend — who will remain nameless — who actually threw up once from eating way too much. Only that unpleasant memory could get between me and delicious, delicious jiaozi.

At midnight, every family sets off their entire arsenal of fireworks. Unlike Fourth of July, the city does not have a public display, and fireworks are set off willy-nilly in the streets and apartment courtyards — despite a law against setting them off within the city. Even on the fifteenth floor, fireworks were exploding flush with Grace’s windows and bits were pinging against the glass. Naturally, we brought our own small stash of firecrackers down to the street and joined in. Unlike the more daring, we lit our firecracker strand and promptly ran a safe distance to watch the mayhem. Fireworks were going off all around us, and we all were hit with little bits of falling debris. It was so loud you couldn’t hear any volume of shouting, and there was a great danger of being accidentally lit on fire by those setting off their arsenal. After about half an hour we retreated to the safety of Grace’s apartment and watched as fireworks continued exploding all over the city, literally unabated until at least 2 a.m.

I had been hearing complaints and warning from foreigners for a few weeks about the noise and nuisance of New Year’s, but when it came to the actual holiday, I felt completely different. Spending the holidays with Grace made me feel like it was my holiday too, and I loved the excitement and chaos of the impromptu fireworks shows around town. There were as many different kinds of fireworks as a professional display — reds, greens, purples, blues, dazzling whites, swirly ones that weave like dragons on the ascent, whistlers, star bursts, falling stars, weeping willows, bottle rockets, sparklers, poppers, Roman candles and even (rumored) smiley faces. It was an exhilarating and beautiful way to express the joy of a new beginning, and one I won’t soon forget.

Nothing can really convey the sheer size of the celebration, but video is on the way!

As I’m writing this about a week later, fireworks are still being set off at all hours of the day, and the courtyard of my apartment building is covered in red cardboard fireworks packaging — and I totally love it. It’s sort of like living in a constant, lawless symphony of percussion, color and light. Spring Festival will continue for the next week or so, and I’m excited to see what else will happen.

Kieran’s First Impressions

I’m visiting Caitlin in Beijing. It took 23 hours, door to door, in 9 separate vehicles. There were three trains each in New Jersey and China, two airplanes, and one people mover at Dulles International Airport. Luckily for me I don’t mind traveling.

China is a place of contradiction. After 12 hours in Beijing, most of them spent sleeping, I feel at home here but out of place at the same time. It is both cheap and expensive, Crowded and spacious. I was offered my first glimpses of the country as we came in for landing at Beijing International Airport. The flight path took us over vast empty white territory of Siberia and Mongolia before we turned into our final descent, made from the west of the city. We passed over dry plains, followed by huge and pointy mountains, and finally the outskirts of the city where I caught a glimpse of the Great Wall. The buildings I saw were in clusters — densly packed but widely spaced. The airport is huge. We taxied up to the new Terminal 3 building and were one of only about 5 planes docked at what must be close to 50 gates. The inside is so large that photos do not give any sense of its scale. In a country so large and populous it felt strange to be inside a building that was so immensly over-adequate. The terminal felt extremely empty. This was my impression of the contradictions of China.

It required three trains to get to my sister’s house: exactly the same number of trains that I took to get from my house to the airport. Her neighborhood could be Long Island City in New York or Korea Town in Los Angeles. It is not as dense as I thought it might be, but there are lots of people and shops. There is a convenient metro station. I arrived at dinner time and so eating was one of the first things we did. A meal of fried naan and Xianjang vegetables plus two lamb skewers cost us 20 RMB for two people. That is $3. Even in Egypt food was not quite that cheap. I was extremely impressed. Beijing is considered expensive, and Caitlin regaled me with tales of eating 5 course meals with four people at restaurants in the countryside for 40 RMB. If all I do in Beijing is eat, I will be completely happy unless it makes me sick. On my suggestion we went to a bar after dinner for a quick drink and for my second lesson in contradictions. My beer cost RMB 35. Almost twice the price of our dinner for two. We spent close to 15 dollars for four drinks. China is both cheap and expensive, according to your habits and living standards.

Xinjiang Vegetables, Fried Naan, Lamb Skewers (Meat Sticks)

Xinjiang Vegetables, Fried Naan, Lamb Skewers (Meat Sticks)

Today I need to get house slippers, register at the police station, buy an extension cord for my computer and get a SIM chip for my cell phone. Obama will be inaugurated a little after midnight tonight and we are trying to find out the best place to watch. Right now it is breakfast time and I am hoping for some yummy yummy street food.

More photos.

There and Back Again

I left for San Francisco on December 20, and just got back to Beijing after what felt like a very short break. Although there was lots to write about while I was away, I wasn’t too motivated to do so, so I’ll just summarize some of my thoughts now that I’m back.

I flew in to San Francisco on an amazingly beautiful, sunny day. As we flew over the California coast I was stunned at the unspoiled beauty of my home — where were all the factories? The towering apartments? The ugly, squat warehouses? We flew in from the north of the city, passing over a magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, and as we passed over the city I was overcome with emotion. I could see all the places I had been missing — schools, parks, Twin Peaks, and finally, I saw the little yellow building that is my home.

As we landed, I was still in shock at how many trees there were near the airport. It’s not just that there are a lot of trees in San Francisco, but they are often taller than the buildings surrounding them. I found myself on many of the first few days home sitting the windows overlooking the city just appreciating the trees.

It’s hard to sum up all of my culture shock at being home. I arrived right before Christmas, when people are frothing over material gifts, so that was a bit weird. I have been going through a mild inclination for asceticism, and it was difficult to not get exasperated with people worrying about Christmas gifts. In the end, it really doesn’t matter how many gifts you give, I think. You could even give nothing at all, and it would be OK.

Even more unsettling was coming back to a place of such economic security. I had been reading so much about the economic meltdown, but in downtown San Francisco I couldn’t see any signs. It felt like there was a storm looming, but nobody saw the thunder clouds. Especially after seeing so much poverty in other parts of the world, I couldn’t help wanting to shake people who were going about their daily routines, worrying about their own isolated struggles, and yell “Don’t you know? Don’t you know something bad is coming?” The rest of the world is in serious trouble, but most of us are still burying our heads in the sand. It seems like only a matter of time before the world comes knocking on America’s door, and it may not be a pretty situation when we have to face the same problems everyone else on the planet faces. It took quite a while to quell my feelings of discomfort and mild paranoia around San Francisco’s seemingly blithe population.

On the whole, it was wonderful to be home. Both my brothers were around over the holidays, and Jeff was at our home for Christmas due to a long layover on his way to see his own family. We had a quiet and nice Christmas with surprisingly little turmoil or hilarity to relate, sad to say.

At any rate, I didn’t have much time to ponder my culture shock, as my break was pretty busy. I went to the dentist a few days after getting back and discovered that my wisdom teeth were in a bad way. I also had some cavities that needed filling, so I was looking at a break riddled with dentist appointments threatening to ruin all my plans.

I had my wisdom teeth removed on New Year’s Eve, because there were openings due the obvious undesirability of that day. I was awake for the operation, since the dentist said that’s “what most people do.” Since then I’ve heard from almost everyone that that is a lie. It was one of the most terrifying and disgusting experiences of my life, which concurrently says something about how awful it is to be conscious during a dental operation and how pampered my life is. I was mildly hysterical by the time the operation was over, so I went home, loaded up on antibiotics and vicodin, and watched animated movies with Kieran.

By the next day I was pretty much fine, and a few days later I drove down to Santa Barbara to spend time with Jeff’s family. Since Jeff’s dad is a dentist, I was able to kill two birds with one stone and have my cavities fixed up while I was there. Unfortunately this meant that Jeff had ample opportunity to laugh as I pathetically tried to drink liquids and smile symmetrically with a numb mouth. Other than that, we did all the usual Santa Barbara things and had a nice visit filled with wonderful food and pleasant relaxation.

Since I have never been to Disneyland, Jeff gave me a trip there as my Christmas present. I can honestly say without embellishment — but with a little embarrassment — that it was one of the happiest days of my life. The weather was sunny but not too hot, and since it was a Tuesday lines were short. Everything there was new and exciting, and Jeff was super awesome the whole day too. I’ve never ridden on roller coasters since I’m afraid of them, and so the Disneyland roller coasters were plenty scary and fun for me.

We rode Indiana Jones, which was my favorite because it wasn’t too scary. Then Jeff forced me to ride Splash Mountain, which was really scary. Fortunately, Jeff had to sit in the front of the ride and got completely soaked, which made up for it being scary because he had to pretend he wasn’t annoyed at being wet since the ride was his idea. We also rode Big Thunder Mountain railroad which Jeff said wasn’t scary (it was). We rode a Buzz Lightyear ride where you shoot targets from your car. Jeff got a score of about 300,000 while I got a score of about 3,000, which was hilarious. I watched “Honey, I Shrank the Audience,” which was my first 3-D film experience. We ate lunch and saw a performance/workshop where Disney actors taught kids how to become Jedi knights. It was super cute and you could tell the kids were really into it. We also went to the Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise, which were awesome in their tackiness and a nice way to relax after the sensory overload of the other rides and attractions. At the end of the day we rode The Matterhorn since it was Jeff’s favorite ride, even though I was totally afraid of it. Pluses: the seats are arranged for snuggling. Minuses: I felt myself lift off the seat at every drop and sudden curve.

All in all, it was a highly successful trip. I’ve decided two things though. One, I won’t take my kids there when they’re young, because all the kids there were crying and the parents were screaming. Two, I’m never going back, because it was the perfect Disneyland experience and I don’t think I could top it.

At then end of the week, Jeff and I packed our things and headed to Davis. I stayed with friends and had a generally great time seeing people I’d been missing for a long time. It’s always great to see friends you haven’t seen in a long time, and to feel like your friendship is just how it always was. We went to the essential Davis bars that I had been hearing so much about throughout college, which seemed quaint after living in the hustle and bustle of Beijing, but I guess it’s the people that matter, not the scene. I also got to visit professors and stress about academic matters.

Before I knew it we were back in San Francisco, shopping for a few items before I hopped on a flight and found myself back in Beijing, feeling a little disoriented. I was feeling melancholy having to say goodbye to my family and home, and more than a little hesitant to come back to Beijing. Being in America was like living in a wonderful, real Disneyland, and now I had to come back to real life. But after stepping off the plane and riding the subway home, I felt like I was also coming home in a strange way. I still don’t feel too settled in, and I spent most of my time here so far in my apartment napping and reading, but I’m curious to see what will unfold in the coming months. It will likely determine where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing in the next few years. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities, and daunting to think of the great unknown. I’ll try to keep you posted…

Beijing Christmas

As Western things have continued to grow in popularity and prestige, Chinese elite have increasingly adopted our fashions, mannerisms, buzz words and yes, even our holidays. While the Christmas blitz starts later in Beijing than in the US, it’s definitely here, albeit a little bit altered.

You can buy traditional looking plastic Christmas trees in Beijing at large chain grocery stores, although they’re pretty expensive. Instead, I bought this little metal tree at Ikea and decorated it with some on-sale decorations from WuMart.

My tree looks even more pathetic next to some of the decorations up around town. In typical China fashion, they do our holiday bigger and flashier than even we do.

Several weeks before Christmas, large parts of the Joy City shopping mall were walled off for work on giant Christmas displays.

I sort of wonder what the migrant workers make of giant purple Christmas trees and irridescent glitter paper.

Eventually, it all came out like this:

As we affectionately call it, the “expresscalator” goes up six stories, so you can imagine the scale of the display. It’s pretty incredible that it was all handmade. We got to watch workers gluing fabric, painting, assembling, and even sleeping inside the display.

Trying to act like real locals, we took pictures in front of the displays. I personally love that they had cleaning ladies dusting them during busy mall hours. Oh, China.

This display also goes up six stories, and is in the same mall.

Here is the outside display at Joy City:

I don’t know what Swan Lake has to do with Christmas. I think somewhere along the way The Nutcracker got lost in translation and they decided any ballet name would do.

The swans are over ten feet tall and have glowing butts. I’m not sure why they glow, but they also change colors. Neat!

And of course, Chinese Santa!

I love the perfect metaphor within this picture for the way Chinese see Christmas. Everyone is just gawking, nobody really gets what it’s about, yet everyone wants in the action.

Officially SARS-free

Those in my inner posse already know that I’ve been sick for the past few days, but I thought I’d give everyone the 411.

Since Sunday I’ve had a fever ranging from 99.7 to 102.5, and I’ve been sniffling and coughing up all kinds of gross-colored loogies.

Monday I opted to stay home from school, thinking that I’d get better. When my fever had dropped to around 99 or a little higher on Tuesday, I grudgingly packed my things and went to school. It was then that I discovered that I had the voice of a gremlin, as Jeff put it, and really couldn’t talk much. I went home after class, halfheartedly ate some dumplings and took a nap.

Tuesday night I went to bed at around 10:30 p.m. and slept very soundly until a friend called me at five minutes to midnight. Having been rudely awakened, I could barely sleep the rest of the night. This morning when I woke up I had a fever of 101. 5, which quickly shot up to 102.4 as I was discussing my health issues with Kieran. My dad was mysteriously incommunicado, so I told my teachers I was sick and went back to sleep.

Dad was all worried that I had pneumonia, and Devin insisted I had SARS, so today I finally forced myself to venture out to the student health clinic. I had been avoiding it all week since I felt silly going to the doctor for a cold, which I’ve never done before in my life. Usually when this happens, I just ride it out and have my dad check me for anything serious, but since he’s a few thousand miles away this time, he was uncharacteristically worried about my health and insisting I get checked out. I also strangely enough don’t really like going to the doctor. Probably the biggest factor in my procrastination was that even inside my apartment it’s bitter cold, and I was pretty dang sure outside was going to be worse.

Finally I dragged myself out of bed and went out, feeling quite tired and weak. I haven’t really been eating since I’ve been sick, so that wasn’t helping matters. I walked down to the campus and found the clinic. There, I discovered a few things that are pretty different about Chinese hospitals:

Waiting your turn

At the registration window, I paid 1 kuai for a waiting number and a patient history booklet, and then took a seat outside the doctor’s office.

After a few minutes, a man came out, but nobody came to call my number, so I stayed put. Then, I little old lady walked up to the doctor’s door, knocked briefly and then barged right in. At first I was a little shocked at this lack of respect for other patients’ privacy, and then I remembered that I’m in China, where privacy doesn’t exist. Knowing this, I fended off other patients who wanted to jump to the front of the line and went in a few seconds after the little old lady went out.

Patient history taking and assessment

Once in with the doctor, she had me sit on a little stool. Perhaps a little thrown that I was white, she just stared at me and didn’t say anything. So, I launched into a short history of my illness. After asking a few questions, she wrote up a little doctor’s order and told me to go draw blood.

Ok, that was weird, right? Usually doctors try other things like listening to patients’ lungs and such before ordering costly tests. But I took the order after making sure she really did want my blood, and left.

Payment

Like most Chinese department stores, hospitals require you to take an order for a good or service to a payment counter, pay, get a few receipts and tickets nicely stamped in red and then go to another area to get said service.

Chinese medical care is incredibly cheap. Including two lab tests (15 RMB, 5 RMB), an arsenal of cold medicines (38 RMB) and consultation (1 RMB), I paid 59 kuai — under $10 USD.

Taking tests

So I went to get my blood drawn, sat down and took my coat off, expecting a vial or two to come from my arm. Instead, the nurse pricked my finger, wiped the blood on a tiny glass tube and viola, I was done. I sat outside waiting for my results.

Smoking

As I waited, a doctor passed through the hall, smoking a freshly lit cigarette. In a hospital.

Illness assessment

After looking over my blood test, the doctor said that I was free of significant bugs and I could go home and rest. Nervous at the overall unfamiliarity of the experience, I hesitantly ventured that my dad was worried I had a lung problem. Without skipping a beat, she sent me to go get an x-ray. I had really been hoping just to have her listen to my breathing, but no dice.

X-ray safety

When I got to the x-ray building, nobody was there, so I waited a few minutes until a surly woman showed up who demanded roughly “what do you want” or another possible translation “what’s wrong with you?” I gave her my x-ray order and she took me into the x-ray room. I asked if I should take off my coat, and she said no. She also didn’t give me a lead apron, so I might not have babies. Or maybe I’ll have superhero babies!

Anyway, she didn’t have a lead apron either, so I figured they just don’t use that here.

After looking at my lungs on the screen, she barked at me to get down, wrote my name and school department in a book, and told me I was fine.

Final thoughts…

Glad I had gotten the whole pneumonia thing out of the way, I went back to the doctor, collected the records of my tests and received a few prescriptions for fever reducers and cold medicines. Not a huge fan of Chinese product safety, I considered forgoing the medicines and just going home, but finally I got them out of curiosity.

Overall, I was a little surprised by the things I saw at the hospital. After all, this isn’t some back-alley unlicensed place, it’s a university hospital. Even though most of the population smokes, I was really surprised a doctor would smoke inside the hospital, which I consider rude and obviously detrimental to patients’ health. I was also really shocked they didn’t spring for x-ray aprons — after all, they obviously have money to spare if they’re building three new monolithic buildings on campus as we speak. I guess I’d be a surly doctor too if my x-ray unit didn’t have lead aprons and I was being exposed every day to harmful radiation. For a country that emphasizes learning so much, I was surprised that medical care on campus was a little lacking.

At least I got what I came for — peace of mind that I don’t have SARS.

Doctors out there — what do you think?

Old folks need not read on

I recently changed the language on my Facebook page to English-Pirate. It’s fun, but I’m not always certain when I click buttons what they mean. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll defriend someone or accidentally change my gender to male. It took me several days to realize that “abandon ship” meant “log out.” It also changed “in a relationship” to “hooked w’ ye loverrr,” which I have mixed feelings about. For one thing, I’m not sure I like the sound of being hooked by anyone; it sounds quite painful. For another, it kind of makes me sounds like some kind of gallymaid or deck wench, neither of which I’m entirely sure I know the meaning. Oh well, it’ll really get my Pirate up to par for next year’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day.