Sunday, April 27, 2008

Impassioned pleas

When I reiterate that I spent much of the weekend volunteering, it is not because I want a medal. The medals go to the underpaid people who devote their careers or at least day jobs to often difficult, unglamorous, and critical work. I'm bringing it up because I have some impassioned pleas:

-Please, please, please bring your own reusable mug the next time you buy prepared coffee. Yesterday, I helped pick up trash along the Anacostia. It was more than once pointed out that we could do that every day and still not get all the trash. The river banks are lined with Styrofoam. Now, I know my readers don't toss their disposable cups in the street, but still-- reuse!


-On that note, don't buy into this new "buy eco-chic" trend. Sure, organic, biodegradable soy blah-blah-blah is better than nonbiodegradable, but buying less is best.

-Don't be @$$hole parents. One co-volunteer shared the tale of a friend of hers, who teaches at a private school. She wrote a paragraph-long evaluation for one of her (five-year old) student's report card, saying he was a good kid but could play better with others-- apparently he had a spitball habit. The parents flipped out and provided her with a replacement paragraph, starting with "To say [John] is a pleasure to have in class is an understatement..." and demanded that she use it.

Today, I volunteered at the Carpenter's Cookoff. Carpenter's Shelter is an exceptionally well-managed and overall fantastic organization. I volunteer there regularly and can vouch that they do great work. Thanks to their transition programs, the vast majority of their families at any given time overcome homelessness. So...

-When you make your donations, please consider Carpenter's.

-When you go out to dinner, especially those of you in Alexandria, please give special consideration to the Cookoff's sponsors. I can only vouch for the places that served pescetarian fare, so I can tell you that:

-Asian Bistro's spicy tuna rolls were out of this world
-Hollin Hall Pastry Shop's desserts were beautiful and delicious
-Jackson 20 and The Warehouse/Wharf both had excellent seafood
-Stardust had great vegetarian soup and salad
-Vermillion's served a very tasty chilled soup with pine nuts

-Other sponsors were:

Union St. Public House
Del Merei Grille
A la Lucia
Restaurant Eve
The Majestic
Fire Flies
DC Central Kitchen
Evening Star Café
Rustico/Buzz
Southside 815
Landini Brothers
Generous George’s

Thursday, April 24, 2008

rambling and link

You can probably guess that I don't keep kosher, but I do observe Passover (at least in terms of diet). This is not unusual. Nonetheless, I had to laugh today when at a goodbye lunch for an intern at RFD today, the only pescetarian and "passover-friendly" (not I did not say Kosher for Passover) item on the menu that was not a salad, was mussels. So I ordered mussels because I couldn't have pizza or pasta or a sandwich, because it's Passover.

***
The Safeway in Rosslyn is the most on-the-way for me (although it is not on the way at all). I metroed over, shopped, went to metro back. A Greenpeace activist was trying to stop people, mostly unsuccessfully. I'm all about stopping Japanese whaling boats, but no one wants to be lectured after work during rush hour. And as I've said, self-righteousness and presumption are not formulas for success. So as she cried out to people, "please tell me you care about the environment! it's 30 seconds..." I thought that's 30 seconds too many to carry these groceries and I have a train to catch. Except the doors closed on me as soon as I got to the platform, and there was not another blue line for fifteen minutes (which during rush hour is particularly unacceptable), and then that blue line was too packed to board. And then the next one was too packed to board, and the next one was not listed. So I cut my losses and rode the other way to L'enfant so I could transfer from there. And there, it was complete baseball-game related madness, but I managed to board a yellow line and get home. The whole time I thought, as much as I do not love dealing with metro delays with groceries during an especially crazy rush hour, this worst commuting day so far is better than the commute I used to have.

***
I didn't mean to ramble. I only came here to post this link.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I am just rolling in free time

I interrupt the post I was working on to report a conversation with my mother.

Background: In Xi'an, Kathy's city, Kathy's nephew came and played piano for us in the bar of the hotel where we stayed. Mom, quite nobly, decided to connect this nephew with a good friend of hers that teaches piano in the States.

Mom: Will you talk to Kathy and let her know that we'll ask around and get back to her?
A.: Why don't you tell her?
Mom: And also, ask her what the best way to get in touch with her would be.
A.: I can confidently say that e-mail would be the best way.
Mom: What if she doesn't have e-mail access while she's tourguiding?
A.: Then she'll get it when she returns. You're not going to call China, given the twelve-hour time difference and difficulties of understanding one another over the phone?
Mom: Well, you talk to her...

So mom just called, having asked around. She's getting into a lot of detail about what an e-mail to Kathy would contain.

A.: Wait a minute, you want me to write this e-mail?
Mom: Yes. It would be so much faster for you to do...
A.: No, it wouldn't. You're giving me all these details over the phone-- can't you just type them up.
Mom: That would take longer and I don't have time right now. These things are so easy for you.
A.: It's easy for me to write things when I know what I want to say. It would be easier for me if you sent me an e-mail to edit.
Mom: I don't have time right now.
A.: And I do??
Mom: Sure. I've hardly unpacked.
A.: Mom, I don't have time right now.
Mom: But the contents of the letter are so simple.
A.: Then YOU write it!
Mom: Goodbye!

***
I admire my mom's efforts, but I'm not writing this letter for her. Now, you may think that if I have time to blog, I have time to write the letter, but you may think wrong. I blog quickly; having to make sense of mom's complex details is more time-intensive. Blogging is an escape; writing mom's letter is work... and if I'm going to do work, I may as well iron... and I don't feel like ironing.

***
I ended up drafting a quick note based on what I think mom wants to say. Yes, my mother should stop helping herself to other people's time and making assumptions about it; yes, I want to get her out of the habit. However, this is not one of my busiest weeks. If there are four unironed shirts hanging around my room, it's because I'm lazy/tired, not busy, and usually, when I say no to her about letters, I am really f*ing busy. More importantly, I gave it some thought, and while I do have stuff to do, it's stuff that I may have turned into a chore in my mind, but it's really leisure (getting through my magazines and Netflix, which restarted without my knowing it while I was away), and helping Kathy's nephew get to a good music school would actually be a better use of my time (writing to the Chinese government about their luggage-locking policy, on the other hand, would not). We do get so caught up in our self-imposed deadlines, but we have to prioritize what's important to us. I don't pretend that the things that take up my time off the clock--exercising, reading the news, reading in general, spending time with my friends, etc.--are comparable to working two jobs, raising kids, getting a degree, etc., but I've prioritized them and I'll decided when something else takes priority. Not everything I do is selfish; I'll spend over six hours over the course of the weekend volunteering. And while reading is something I enjoy, it's a responsibility to not get behind in New Yorkers. It comes down to the same thing I've written in response to mom's demands for Verizon letters: I would be so much more responsive if she would just ask.

I'd had a point

Allow me to begin with under-five-sentence movie reviews, beginning with in-flight entertainment.

Becoming Jane-- Very good.

Alvin and the Chipmunks-- Pretty lame, but a good choice for in-flight entertainment.

Mr. Magorium's Magic Emporium-- Okay.

The Golden Compass-- I bet the book(s) from which it was adapted was/were really good. It was a compelling in-flight film.

I am Legend-- Are you f*ing kidding me? Abysmal movie and very bad choice for in-flight (slow, boring, people kept jumping whenever a mutant thing jumped out on the screen). There's a bigger issue here, though: the Will-Smith-Saves-the-World movie market is saturated. I don't even seek out the genre, yet can't help but have seen a high number of its films (including two of the subgenre: Will-Smith-does-shirtless-pushups-so-he-can-save-the-world).

There are at least three films I'm forgetting--there would be more, but United decided to show several films going both ways, which is just wrong--but it's hard to keep track.

***
There's been an eerie thematic convergence in the reading materials I've come across over the last month or so: animals in general, and in particular the human-animal relationship-- and even more in particular, the dynamics of not-free animals. On the way to China, I read the excellent Water for Elephants, which I couldn't put down (nor could the person to whom I'd lent it on the cruise). One of it's key themes, the circus. On the way back I started Life of Pi, largely about animals, zoos, the ethics of zoos. Last week's issue of the New Yorker is themed Journeys, but many of the articles are about animals, and Jonathan Franzen's (which is mediocre; gets good toward the end) also gets into the ethics of zoos. I can't remember where I was going with this-- mom's phone call threw my train of thought. So there you have it, a pointless list of animal-related reading.

***
I still don't remember what I was getting at, but I finished Franzen's piece and it's worth reading (well, most of it is worth skimming) for China watchers. See abstract.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No pun intended, but go ahead and cringe anyway

You probably have not yet gotten to the point in my travel notes, or never will, about how my mom regularly made me feel like a wuss for being interested in a good night's sleep (or, for that matter, in more than one meal per couple of days). I added in my defense that it's not because I'm lazy (Bob), it's that I find that sleep boosts my immunity, mood, and productivity.

You'll not believe what has happened. At some point over the weekend, I transitioned from 'my body thinks day is night and I'm going to collapse at any moment' to 'I could use another hour or so of sleep but I'm okay,' and today I felt not-tired. Well, lo and behold, this report section that I've been struggling with at work has basically written itself. I mean, it's still a challenge, but in a good way. Funny how that works.

Something else happens after I've returned from a long trip-- I wake up and wonder where I am. Oddly, it doesn't happen while I'm traveling. The other day, I took a nap on the porch, and woke up thinking I was cruising on the Yangtze.

But back to the original point of this post. I know I've said in my FAQs that I blog, in spite of feelings slightly guilty about it, as a form of therapy. Well, it's not so much because I need to vent; it's more that I need a sanity check. Mom is SO certain of everything-- including my senses-- that sometimes I wonder whether I'm not the one who's wrong (even about how hungry and tired I am). Blogging helps me come to my senses (no pun intended, but go ahead and cringe anyway).

Monday, April 21, 2008

My proverbial Tivo Thinks I'm Gay

I came home today to a mostly Russian-language newspaper-- target audience Russian Jews-- in my mail basket. How on earth they identified me is a mystery-- it's not like I advertise my ethnicity (yes, smart@$$, as the writer of this blog, I technically do, but this blog does not reveal my name). So I'm intrigued (as well as annoyed at the waste of paper and space in my paper-recycling bin), but only partly so. After all, I am actually Russian-Jewish, so it's odd but not inaccurate that I've been identified as the target audience of this newspaper.

Which is more than I can say for another publication that found its way to my mail basket: US Weekly. Now, I've picked up copies of US Weekly donated to the gym from time to time-- in fact, it's perfect elliptical reading--but blech-- I certainly wouldn't buy a copy myself, much less subscribe. I'm ashamed that my name and address appear on an issue (four, actually, because that's apparently how many free sample issues they've sent)! Since they were already here (I was away, I couldn't cancel), I decided to flip through one. I felt dirty. I felt like I was getting dumber with each page (not sure why I don't get dumber when I read them on the elliptical... maybe because I'm spending already-committed time).

How did this happen? I subscribe to Elle, which, once you get past the $6,000 handbags, has excellent articles. Yes, it's the woman's Playboy in that way. Sure there's celebrity pandering, but it's incidental and pretends at least the appearance of sophistication. Maybe it's because of Lucky, to which I subscribed to get rid of expiring points, and in which I have yet to find anything useful in a single issue. That's it, and now my proverbial Tivo thinks I'm proverbially gay.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hong Kong and trip home

We didn’t get past baggage claim before people start saying, “we’re back to civilization!” While I wouldn’t have put it that way, the very distinct shift from still-developing China to Hong Kong was all around us. Randy, our guide, would have us guess how many 7-11s were in Hong Kong. I think he later told us it was something like 700, adding “but that was two weeks ago.” It’s also awash in 24-hour McDonalds. Just in the airport, there was a Burger King, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts.

The drive from the airport was beautiful, even in the dark. We passed a sign to Disneyland, which we would later learn has been a disappointment. One theory is that it’s not big enough, doesn’t have enough attractions. Its tourists are mostly Chinese, so it will suffer even more once Shanghai follows through on its threat to build a Disneyland. On the bright side, admission is only $40/day, so if Disneyland is your thing, Hong Kong’s is relatively affordable.

Randy, warned us to be careful crossing the street and to look left. He also told us that subways weren’t subway stops (they’re pedestrian underpasses).

I was pleasantly surprised to discover after I washed my hair the following morning that it looked less like crap, perhaps because it's not cut to be straight, which was how it was trying to settle in the drier parts of China. After breakfast, I went in search of ATMs that would take our cards. My mother threatened to go with me, but even she realized that she was frittering away the half-hour we had by reshuffling through her stuff and wouldn’t be able to pull herself away in time, so I went alone. It was really nice to walk around on my own. I didn’t realize at the time that the Bank of China-Hong Kong had additional ATMs that would actually work for us, so I ignored the one across the street and decided to go around the block. Before I knew it, I had no idea where I was. I thought if I just followed the block, I’d be fine, but Hong Kong was confusing. I found a Kimberly Street, but our hotel was on Kimberly Road. I had to concentrate and really think to find the way back. With a few minutes to spare, I ran into the Bank of China vestibule and was relieved to find that it worked.

I can’t quite put into words what was so odd about Hong Kong. It wasn’t that street names were in English—the ones in China were written in pinyin too—but that they were English. It was just such a unique place.

We took Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, where we went up to Victoria Peak. With more time it would have been nice to walk around, but such is the downside of a tour (the upside is substantial, especially with so many domestic flights). We rode on to Aberdeen, and then to Repulse Bay, which was near a building with one very impressive dragon hole, as well as a smaller hole for the baby dragon. Both Victoria Peak and Aberdeen revived my somewhat-calmed allergies. Mom wanted to take a picture of me on a bench in front of some flowers at Aberdeen, but I couldn't keep my eyes open.

Mom: Open your eyes!
A.: I can't!
Mom: Just for a second!
A.: I can't!

With our free afternoon, we went for a walk in the stunning Kowloon Park. We came in not far from the amazing aviary, where mom said “hello” to the parrot, attempting to solicit a response. I said “ni hao” several times, to no avail. Then, I realized that I was trying to communicate with a Cantonese parrot in (mispronounced) Mandarin. I couldn’t remember “ni hello” in Cantonese, so we moved on to the lake where the swans and flamingos lived.

We walked through the sculpture garden and Japanese garden, and exited to the north to go on to the afternoon market. The Chinese knock-off market has always amazed me, but what amazes me more is that people actually buy the real thing. Joe had told us that in Guilin girls will spend months’ salaries on designer bags, and sure enough, our second day in Hong Kong there was such a line outside Louis Vuitton that the entrance was cordoned off. My mother didn’t understand this at all. I told her it was to preserve the luxury-shopping atmosphere. What atmosphere, she asked. I shrugged.

I had taken out too few HK dollars that morning; I hadn’t factored in that half of the amount would go to tips. As it turned out it was fine, but it was partly fine because we were cautious. My mother was looking for a pair of Crocs (I made my opinion known, but she insisted that they were so comfortable that she didn’t care) and I for a nice set of chopsticks. Neither of us found anything to our satisfaction. The market was definitely an experience.

I preferred the atmosphere of the market to that of LV (mind you, I’ve never ventured inside the latter and I don’t particularly care to). Many of the vendors had taken off their shirts to cool off. Others were fanning themselves with various wares.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about how mom had signed us up for an optional tour in Hong Kong even though we’d all decided against it. She spoke to Janet, who had gone on the same tour in the early 1970s and liked it. Do you have any idea how much Hong Kong has changed in the last 40 years??? Anyway, behind our backs, mom told Kathy to sign us up. I had wanted to walk around Hong Kong, but I break down in the heat and by the time we were there, was quite happy to be driven around (although I wouldn’t have minded spending the day at the beach at Deep Water Bay). Dad has stronger feelings against the tour, but ended up liking it more. It wasn’t bad. We visited a flower market and bird market, and then a Taoist temple, before going to the New Territories for lunch. The Taoist temple was the best part.

Before we went into the temple, Randy predicted that we would be handed Falun Gong propaganda. If we were heading back to China, he’d warn us not to take it, but since we were going back to the states, we were free to do as we wished. He said the same about photographing the “heaven will destroy the CCP” sign. Mom took the FG literature, tried to get me to read it. I suppose this would be a good time to say that while I hardly find the Chinese government beyond reproach, I don’t think it’s constructive to treat it as if it were evil incarnate. I don’t know a lot about Falun Gong, but I know they’re not doing themselves any favors (and on the other hand, that they shouldn’t be subject to torture). I’m certainly not going to learn more about the situation by reading the propaganda of one side or another.

The temple was impressive. It held five smaller temples, one for each Chinese element (water, fire…). Randy was a great guide in many ways, and we particularly appreciated his honesty. “I’m not going to tell you why people are circling that fountain. Books will speculate, make up reasons, but honestly, no one knows how that tradition started.” He did tell us that people would get their fortunes from the temples and then have them interpreted by fortune tellers at the booths just outside the temple. Since the fortune tellers were “leaking” the knowledge of the gods, it was only right that they not keep most of the money they made doing so, give it to charity.

The New Territories were so-so, or, as we’d learned to say, “mamahuhu.” I felt really bad for the live shellfish and other sea creatures outside the restaurants, and thought about giving up seafood, at least the more sentient kind. I’d written down somewhere the history of the inhabitants of the New Territories, who used to be much more clan-like but have opened up in the last generations as a result of the need to sell or at least rent out their land. Randy told us a lot about government housing and how it has evolved over the last 60 years—particularly that that had existed for refugees from China when his parents fled the revolution in 1949. I’ll include it here when I find my notes.

That afternoon, we passed through Kowloon park again on our way to the harbour. We lingered in the park—it’s just so beautiful—longer than planned, and rushed through the crazy Canton Road, relieved to reach the more peaceful walkways along the harbor.

We would visit the park the following morning, before our trip home. That morning was both wonderful and full of unnecessary drama. I had mentioned the night before that if we had time, we should go for a walk in Kowloon Park, say goodbye to the flamingos. Since mom woke me up at 4am to ask what time it was, and I couldn’t go back to sleep, we had plenty of time. Around 6am, she went to check on dad. Her side of the story was that he said he was exercising and left it at that. I couldn’t understand why he would opt to exercise in his room when he could walk around the park, but didn’t think too much about it. Mom and I had a lovely walk in the park and thought it was too bad that dad wasn’t there. We saw the usual tai chi, as well as other forms of exercise and imitation. We went up to the aviary, where the birds were squawking madly. To parrots—the same couple we’d seen two days earlier—would kiss every few seconds.

A few minutes after we returned to the hotel, dad asked why we didn’t wait for him. Apparently, he’d said he had another five minutes of exercises to go and then he’d join us. How my parents managed to misunderstand one another was only kind of beyond me. Mom neither provides context nor uses it to figure out what other people are saying; dad regularly blames other people for his predicament. Back in Shanghai, he had called to ask for moisturizer, after we’d already packed it in the luggage to be checked. I suggested he look for it in the hotel bathroom. I assumed he’d found some there, since he didn’t call back, but later, I asked him about what looked like a cold sore on his lip, and he said, “remember when I called to ask for moisturizer? You wouldn’t find it for me, and now I have this.” I just shook my head. Anyway, I don’t know what happened, but at least dad did go to the park on his own, even though he didn’t stay as long as he would have had we all been together. I asked him whether he’d already had breakfast, he said he had. Mom and I were about to go down to breakfast, but first a fight broke out for no reason at all over labeling suitcases. It’s so dumb I don’t even want to get into it—in fact, I didn’t even listen to it—but it made me understand how the morning misunderstanding could have happened. Later, at breakfast, mom was asking where dad was. She suggested perhaps he’d lost his breakfast coupon, maybe that’s what it was. She managed not only to miss that we’d established that he’d already had breakfast—when he said it and when I told her in the elevator—but to project onto dad her own inability (or rather, willingness) to keep track of things like breakfast coupons. Countless times throughout the trip, she would misplace her hotel key or lose track of her passport (thankfully only temporarily).

The road back to the airport was beautiful, even the parts dotted with lots of shipping containers. Hong Kong used to be first in container shipping but was recently displaced by Singapore. We went over the sixth-longest suspension bridge in the world and saw another massive one under construction. Apparently, a bridge to Macau is also in the plans. It’s been discussed for twenty years or so, but only recently has the government approved it.

***
The Hong Kong airport didn’t disappoint for walking distances. I thought three hours would be a bit much, but between checking in, going through immigration and security, and getting to the actual gate, we didn’t have a lot of time to spare.

Just before boarding, I said goodbye to some of the people from the tour. This would be unnecessary, since we would meet again in Chicago, but it seemed appropriate at the time. Janet and I told one another it had been a pleasure traveling together (which was true, at least on my end). She then told me she hoped I would meet someone with whom to share my future travels. I didn’t say, ‘I’m an only child. I find that sharing is overrated.’

The counterwoman at the airport did not seat mom in the Economy Plus between dad and me, the way the one in Boston had. We thought about buying it for her but she refused, said she was perfectly happy where she was. As it were, she was somehow moved from a window to a middle seat, so she wasn’t. We both offered to switch, but she said she was okay. When we went to check on her an hour or so into the flight, she was asleep, so it couldn’t have been that bad. I feel really bad saying this, but having almost 14 hours of peace and quiet was kind of nice. This hit home when it was ruptured by mom’s hissy fit toward the end of the flight.

Mom: Where’s the embroidery?

We’d bought an embroidered painting on the boat. I insisted that we hand-carry it throughout China, since we knew that checked luggage was subject to theft. At first, mom balked and blamed me for having to lug it around, even though she was never doing the lugging. It was too large to fit into the carry-on bags, so it was kind of its own thing.

A.: In the overhead. I placed it very carefully.
Mom: YOU DID WHAT? I KNEW I COULDN’T TRUST YOU WITH ANYTHING.
A.: Lower your voice, please. Can’t you see people are sleeping.
Mom: How could you put it up there, it will get creased!
A.: It’s fine, mom, I’ve checked on it several times. It’s carefully placed.
Mom: I have to do everything myself!
A.: Look, if you’re going to do this, just leave. Just leave.

She went back to her seat. The embroidery was fine.

I hardly slept at all. For one thing, the man across the aisle was so large that his seat belt wouldn’t buckle. The flight attendants made him wear it over his waist anyway, and it kept falling to the ground with a bang.

The screen showed where we were as we flew over the Bering Strait. Dad pointed out some places of significance.

Dad: See that bay just there?
A.: Yeah.
Dad: That’s where your mom’s dad died in a labor camp. It’s perpetually frozen there.
I didn’t have anything to say to that.

***
We retrieve our luggage in Chicago, go through customs. Mom is once again having a fit about something. Oh, she’s trying to convince dad that they need to go back and get boarding passes.

Mom: How will we know which seats we have?
Dad: We got boarding passes in Hong Kong.
Mom: No, for this flight.
Dad: We got boarding passes in Hong Kong.
Mom: How will we know where to sit? We have to go check in…
A.: We got boarding passes for this flight in Hong Kong.

This seems to have satisfied her. She’s a frequent flier, I don’t understand the confusion. Maybe having to clear customs and recheck the luggage through her off, but it’s not like she’s never had to go through that before.

As we get to the security line, they debate whether they need their passport. I have to say four times that they need one form of ID or another.

Mom: But that person has a passport.
A.: That’s a form of ID. You can use your license if you prefer.
Mom: I see another passport.

Then she starts to complain about the line, which is actually moving pretty quickly. She continues to complain about the line, mutters something about how it’s government so of course it’s not done intelligently.

We get to our respective gates, which are nearby. It gets to be time to board and part ways, I already miss them.

Guilin

On the flight to Guilin, we were handed scratch tickets (this had happened on the way to Shanghai, too). Dad, who had been fighting a cold that he’d probably caught from mom, was sleeping. Mom woke him up over the scratch ticket.

A.: Are you out of your mind? Let him sleep!
Mom: What if he doesn’t know what to do with the ticket?
A.: He’ll figure it out!

Every domestic flight within China included some sort of snack. This one included a full meal, but since it was beef or chicken, I had two rolls and some cucumber. This was plenty, following the big dumpling lunch, but by morning I was quite hungry. We got into Guilin pretty late and got our luggage even later, only to discover that the lock was broken off (again). It’s a requirement in China that checked luggage be locked, but we knew better than to put valuables in it. Still, it was annoying. Mom was going to write a letter (which meant I was going to end up writing a letter). I tried to convince her that the Chinese government had more pressing issues at hand.

The palm trees (neon-lit, no less) outside the airport were the first sign that we’d arrived somewhere different. Guilin, not far from Vietnam, was subtropical and not majority Han. The landscape and streetscape would continue to remind me of Central America.
We were told that Elephant Trunk Hill was the landmark of the city and the sun and moon pagodas to our left were only six years new, compared to Xi’an’s, which are very old. We drove past karaoke bars, discos—neon was all around. Some of you will be interested to know that Orlando, FL is Guilin’s sister city.

On the bus ride from the airport, Kathy and Joe took orders for the Western-style dinner we would have the following evening. The choices were haddock, beef and chicken, which for me, meant haddock. How a simple pre-order for dinner turned into a situation that mom felt she had to micromanage was beyond me, but when they asked for a count of hands for haddock, my mother raised hers, i.e. to make sure that mine would be counted. Except that my hand was already up, and hers was counted, too, and she didn’t want haddock. This was easy to correct, especially since the guides were used to people changing their minds and didn’t want drama, so they had as write names next to our orders. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but marvel at what had happened.

The hotel in Guilin was the crappiest of the trip. Actually, in my experience it’s boasts the most extreme combination of fancy lobby and restaurant to crappy rooms. The worst part about it was excruciatingly slow elevators and no non-emergency stairs, but it was also just shabby all around. This didn’t bother me, apart from the air conditioning not working (which wouldn’t have bothered me if the window opened). We were at this point very tired. This had been our fourth domestic flight and we were wary, we had to wonder why we were here.

As in the past, by morning we were glad to be there. In this case, all we had to do was look out the hotel window and see the river and surrounding rock formations to see why Guilin was well worth the trip. We decided to go for a walk before we had to meet for the day’s tour.

Mom: You want to have breakfast first??
A.: Yes.
Mom: You’re hungry?
A.: Yes.
Mom rolls her eyes, sighs with disbelief.
A.: I had two rolls and a cucumber, over twelve hours ago.
Mom: Rolls are bad for you anyway.
A.: That doesn’t mean I’m not hungry.

Also at this point in the trip, mom’s shoes were smelling REALLY bad. I started to notice it on the boat, since our cabin was such a confined space. Mom’s response to my complaints was to tell me that I was too sensitive. At one point, I don’t remember whether it was in Guilin or Hong Kong, I opened the door and dad came in and said, “could I have my book? Oh and throw mom’s shoes out the window, will you?”

It was an interesting walk along the river. The street we were staying on was a combination of posh and decrepit. We came to a temple outside of which a group was practicing tai chi—this continued to inspire, even though it had become a familiar sight.

We boarded the bus for an optional tour of a (government-operated) tea plantation and research center. I can’t think of anyone on the trip who wasn’t weary at this point, and many opted to shop around Guilin on their own time, so the bus was unusually empty. On the way to the plantation we rode by a prison. Joe, our Guilin guide, pointed out a prison and told us not to be thrown by the sign out front saying it’s a factory. As prisons go, this one has a better view than most hotels. It’s for corrupt political leaders, he tells us; political dissidents are generally sent to prison in the Gobi desert. The corrupt politicians are often convicted to quite the term, and often end up serving just several years. It was prisoners that partly built the road we’re on, and only recently; it was built specifically for tourist buses dropping off for the Li River cruise.

In ancient China, scenic Guilin was actually a place of exile. Its climate, great for lush hills and the Sweet Osmanthus forests that inspire the city’s name, is, or at least was, disease-friendly. Now it’s one of the ten cleanest cities in China and boasts the lowest crime rate in the country. With “only” 700,000 residents (and 4.3 million farmers in the surroundings), it’s a village by Chinese standards. Only 10% of the city’s 12 million yearly tourists are “big-noses” like us. Joe assures us that the term is merely descriptive and not derogatory. Guilin now has 68 hotels, compared to the one that existed in the early 1970s, and now Chinese are actually permitted to stay in them (in the old days, they were not even allowed entry unless they could prove association with a foreigner). The increase in the number of Chinese who are not only allowed but can afford to stay in hotels was given as the reason that the smell of cigarette smoke permeates even in the non-smoking rooms. Some INSANE proportion of Chinese people smoke. It's cultural (Guanxi, etc.) and economic-- cigarettes are heavily taxed and are a significant source of income for the government.

***
The plantation was up in the mountains. Normally we’d have been given a chance to pick tea leaves, but it started to rain and we were ushered sort-of inside, where we saw a worker massaging tea leaves over a hot stove. It was fascinating and hard to watch—I don’t know how she didn’t burn her hands.

After the demonstration, we took part in a tea ceremony and tasting. We learned that it’s best to brew fermented teas in clay pots and unfermented in ceramic pots; that oolong is the longevity tea; and that brick tea is the best of all worlds. The guide told us something about how Chinese don’t say thank you when tea is poured but instead tap their fingers. The number of fingers and number of taps signifies whether the one doing the thanking is single, married, or anonymous with regard to marital status.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy anything from the shop, the prices were absurd. I had wondered this throughout China: what would happen now that Americans, still one of the most common categories of tourists, had less buying power in China? Sure we’d be more willing to turn away from the low quality stuff on the street, but what about the really artistic, beautifully made stuff that was once affordable? How would its vendors, who were in some cases the artists themselves, replace the lost income?

We had bought some artwork on the boat. We could only do it by credit card, which was the boat’s official policy, even though artists implored us and used discounts to try to get us to pay cash so that they could avoid the commission charged by banks and the boat. Kathy had told us that a year or so ago she was really surprised to see a merchant asking her group to hurry up out of his store. She inquired, and he told her that Americans were no longer the best customers—Chinese themselves had become better buyers. He added that Americans overbargained, demanded prices below the actual worth of the product.

We didn’t buy any tea or extortionately priced tea-making materials. Later, at Hong Kong airport, I bought my dad and roommate some nice tinned Oolong (I myself am cut off until I get through the tea I already have). Occasionally our compassion for the sellers would get the better of us and we would buy things we didn’t need, but this was not the case in government-operated factories, or in this case, plantations. Actually, it mostly happened to me on the boat, and it was a combination of compassion and a sense that the artwork was truly worth the price, even though it wasn’t a price I would think I’d be willing to pay. I was less willing to buy things from street vendors, but they managed to tug at mom’s heartstrings and sell her some seriously unnecessary stuff (this was limited largely by my being the one to carry most of the money). During the Li River tour in Guilin, a couple of vendors had attached their raft to the boat to hawk some powdered “jade” and painted “crystal”. I was very much against letting mom buy it, which had the unintended effect of persuading the vendors to lower their asking price to what ended up being $7 for two pieces (from $20 for one). I gave mom the money in the end just so that she would close the window and they would go away. It’s not that I lacked compassion for them, although it was less strong than for those who sold their own, meticulously-crafted art; it’s that you can’t just go buying things because you feel bad for people. The negotiations with these vendors had become such a spectacle—mom’s interest, my refusal, their price-lowering—that people were taking pictures. It was a rainy day, and the crystal bled paint within a few minutes of its purchase. She told me on the phone recently that fake or not, it looks great in her house.

After the plantation tour, we went for a tea lunch to a well-known restaurant where Hillary and Chelsea Clinton had dined while then-President Clinton visited the town. The table at which they sat remained cordoned off in the corner, untouched since their visit (well, probably dusted or something). For some reason, people took pictures. The lunch itself was amazing and beautifully presented, especially the yin-and-yang soup.

That afternoon we go for another demonstration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, hear once again about how the body is an integrated whole. We also witness cupping for the second time, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Dinner was amazing, although afterward my mother told me I talked to much and dad said I gesticulated too much, both comments in the interest of making me a better person. At lunch we had sat at separate tables; at my parents’, Janet had apparently told them that I was a wonderful person. Mom asked me how I managed to hoodwink everyone.

We took a brief stroll through Guilin at night. It was bustling and—I can’t help it—very Central American. I enjoyed the walk, in spite of nearly getting hit by a motorcycle and experiencing increasingly intense allergies. I’d also broken out in hives a few days before, and was itching like mad. Mom wanted to keep walking, rarely one to empathize with others’ conditions (at least on a practical level; she expressed empathy and offered me an array of herbal medicines, but didn’t respect my wishes to go back to the hotel and go to sleep). The other issue was that we had to catch up with Terry, who had the same video camera as mom and thus the same charging apparatus (which she had forgotten), and coincidentally, whose AA charger had broken, leaving him dependent on mine. It was getting late, and this was something mom needed, not I. Nonetheless, it was a fight to get her back to the hotel. As soon as we exchanged batteries, I got ready for bed.

Mom: Your stomach is enormous.

What can I say? When I eat, my stomach expands.

It was a beautiful cruise along the Li, even when it started to rain, and even as my nose ran and eyes teared for hours on end. An enormous lunch was served on board, and in what must have been the worst business strategy ever, vendors sold supplemental food. A plate of fried shrimp was taken around at first for $20, then $15, and so on. Someone at our table finally bought one at $3. I felt worse for the vendor of the shrimp than those of the fake goods, but like I said, you can’t go around buying everything out of sympathy.

We saw fishing cormorants with nets in their mouths. They’re fed only at midnight and made unable by the nets to swallow the fish that they catch.

We have twenty minutes in a Yangshou, now a market town but long a destination for all sorts of outdoor sports—the Chinese Queenstown, if you will. I would LOVE to cycle, kayak there. Since the town attracts foreigners, many Chinese students flock there to practice their English with them. It’s vendor madness. Dad sees a book he likes for the equivalent of $3.

Mom: Don’t! You don’t know that the DVD in there will work at home.
Dad: So, it still has good pictures.
Mom: We’re running out of Chinese money.
A.: We have less than three hours to use that Chinese money.
Mom: No! Don’t buy the book!
Dad: No one keeps you from buying all sorts of crap.

This is true. Mom’s fake jade and crystal were purchased with my postcard-mailing money (I managed to buy a handful of postcards on the boat in Guilin, hours before leaving for Hong Kong. I had to buy two of each so my mom would let me send some. I would ask Kathy to send them when she returned to China, and now I would have to give her Hong Kong dollars to do it). Anyway, at the market, mom bought some jewelry in dollars, of which we were also running out, and I used all but the last of our Chinese money on two fake pasminas. I had charged a real one at a shop in Xi’an, and the difference in feel was obvious, but I felt more free to wear a fake one without worrying about it getting dirty or scuffed. My fleece was disgusting and I wasn’t about to wash it again, and I needed a lightweight extra layer. Besides, I thought, as we took rickshaw-like carriages from the ferry terminal to the buses and the beautiful fragrance of jasmine in the air made my nose and eyes run furiously: at $5 each, the way my allergies were going, the pasminas would make good snot rags of last resort.

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. We’d learned to bring our own toilet paper, and over the last few days I was especially efficient at finding clean napkins. Restaurants with cloth napkins were a bane. It was actually on the bus ride back to Guilin that I either ran out or couldn’t find them. I knew Mom had some.

A.: Could I have a tissue, please?
Mom: What tissue?
A.: Any [m-f] tissue!

She does this all the time. It goes hand-in-hand with asking for directions without thinking about it herself—she asks for clarification when the answer is obvious. Toward the end of the trip, especially, I increasingly found myself getting frustrated at mom’s “who”s, “which one”s, etc.

As we head back to the city we hear more about the process of rice cultivation, harvesting. You can’t blame farmers for switching to less labor- and water-intensive crops. You can blame restaurants for serving enormous amounts of rice that will never be finished, and then discarding it.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Chongqing and Xi'an

We only spent an afternoon in Chongqing, which was more than enough—it was disgustingly hot. It is often known as oven city, with temperatures in the summer reaching 110 degrees. Other names are mountain city, fog city and artist city. As Chongqing was the WWII capital of China, it was heavily bombed by the Japanese and otherwise damaged; artists flocked there to document the events, and stayed. The bicycles ubiquitous throughout every other part of China are not to be seen in Chongqing, largely because of the hills, temperature and pollution.

Our local guide, Irene, told us that she has failed three times to pass her driving test. She’s been allowed to buy a car, but can’t get a license. Our guide in Guilin told us that it varies a lot from city to city, but that nationwide, people over 60 can no longer drive. It used to be 55, was recently changed. The people in our tour group were horrified.

Our itinerary included a visit with a relocated family, but the lost day on the cruise meant that something had to go, and that something would not be the panda, so off we went to the zoo. Irene told us that decades ago, local zookeepers were slow to catch on to pandas’ vegetarianism. When pandas refused pork, they were fed pork fried with Szechuan ingredients. A couple of them starved to death. We were told not to be alarmed by their dirty-looking fur: they have a skin disease activated by the heat. If some are not outside, they may be inside—I $hit you not—watching panda porn. Apparently they’re not very interested in mating and have to be encouraged.

We walked passed the lesser pandas (which are really glorified raccoons, but very cute) to the giant pandas (which are also very cute, even though they’re the #1 threat). We had a few minutes, so I walked around to the amphibians cage and saw the cutest hippopotami ever. One swam up to chat, cuddle. I extended my arm and took a picture.

From the zoo, onto the Stillwell and Flying Tiger Museums, where we barely had time to look around because the lecture (of information we already heard on the way over) took up most of the time. On the way to the airport, we passed a bunch of converted air raid shelters, which apparently dot the whole city. They’re now shops, other things that work well in urban caves.

***
You’ll never believe what was behind me on the flight to Xi’an: a screaming, kicking toddler. I zenned out and told myself it was a short flight, and she stopped kicking and screaming after about twenty minutes.

Our dinner was at the airport restaurant, which was pretty bad, but not bad enough to merit the endless complaining it sparked. The majority of us willing to let it go were more annoyed over the complaining than the bad food. I was just happy to be somewhere clear and dry. Even my allergies were milder.

Xi’an’s population in the 1950s was 200,000 people; it has since expanded to 8.2 million. Mao had moved factories there—away from the sea—for security reasons, and people followed. The evening ride from the airport revealed almost as much neon as in Wuhan. The odd thing about all this neon in Chinese cities is that it illuminates not strip clubs but banks and other such buildings. Couldn’t all this electricity be preserved for better use?

Since we would spend a couple of nights there, I decided to once again do laundry, and mom decided once again to not shut up about it. "Idiocy, idiocy!" and "Do you wash your coat every day?" My coat is wool and doesn't take to smelling the way this polyester fleece does, and who's washing anything every day? Other people on the trip have been handwashing their stuff regularly and don't have to hear about it every two minutes.

The hotel in Xi’an is the best of the trip, and I think the city is my favorite as well. I love the city wall, love the parks. If I understood correctly, Xi'an, in addition to having been the ancient capital, was sort of the crossroads between northern and southern China, which were separated by the Qingling mountain range and less formally by the Yangtze. The first silk road had opened from Xi'an, originally for military purposes and only later for business.

The first stop would be the terracotta warriors. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was in awe—the size, the detail, the organization in units—it was just amazing. Then again, I suppose if you're an emperor and you'll have built an army to guide your grave, you may as well go all-out. Even having to watch the cheesy history-channelesque battle reenactment and play defense against the school kids run amok couldn't detract from the overall experience. In the pits, flash was not allowed, but this stopped no one from using it. The guards certainly didn’t say anything to anyone.

After seeing the soldiers, we had a noodle lunch nearby, complete with noodle-making demonstration. It was impressive—I thought the chef must have had some sort of cutting device in his hands, but it was all manual. After that, we visited a local elementary school and then a farmer’s house. The farmer talked about how much his family’s life has improved over the last few years.

The guide, Mark, told us he was a Confucionist and told us a bit about his philosophy. Confucius says, do not give to others what you do not want for yourself.
He also told us that although his family was persecuted by the Red Guard, he still loved Mao.

That evening, we skipped the optional Tang Dynasty Dinner Show and walked around the city. I wanted to get going earlier, but mom ignored my pleas as she spent almost an hour reshuffling her suitcase. If I was ever on a corner looking at the map, within seconds people offered help. We walked the city’s wide boulevards, past all sorts of shops and eateries. At one intersection, we found a large mall-like complex where mom said she would look for a washroom. She emerged less than a minute later to tell me to look at the underwear for sale inside (and to help her find the washroom). Mostly to move us along, I bought some underwear. The vendor examined the 50Y note carefully, and I likewise examined the 40Y in change, as if I could tell the difference. I spotted the WC sign and led the way. On the way out, we passed a few restaurants where we couples and families could be found sharing hotpots.

We reached the city wall and walked a few blocks along the river. It was already dark, but lots of people were doing their tai chi and other exercises.

Our last day in any city was characterized by putting our checked luggage out the door first thing in the morning and grabbing our carry-ons, which we would leave on the bus. This meant packing the night before. Mom couldn’t stand to see anything left out.

A.: Don’t toss that wrapper please, I’m going to put the soap in it.
Mom: There will be soap at the next hotel.
A.: It’s just wasteful, I can’t stand opening new bars of soap all the time.

The next morning, she had tossed the wrapper. I took it out of the (clean) trash, asked her to leave it. The next time I went to wash my hands, the wrapper was gone again.

A.: Mom!
Mom: What? So you told me, I forgot.
A.: I told you twice now. Why not just leave things alone?

We passed a gauntlet of vendors as we boarded the bus. There used to be a law against it, or rather, one permitting authorities to arrest aggressive vendors and take them to a shelter. A few years ago it changed and only those requesting shelter could be taken away. I couldn’t tell you whether or not ‘shelter’ was euphemism.

I bought a pack of postcards, muttered something along the lines of many being too low-quality to send.

Mom: Send the low-quality ones. Keep the good ones.
A.: What did Confucius say??
Mom: You can’t send those, look how nice they are.
A.: [Sigh].
I was again without postcards to send.

The factory visits were getting old, but this one- lacquerware- was okay because we didn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time in the showroom and we got a helpful furniture-cleaning tip out of it (make a doughball of oil and refined flower, massage furniture with it, rub with flour to remove excess).

Off to the idyllic Wild Goose Pagoda park, where we were given ample time to explore before heading to the city center. We were given about an hour before lunch to walk around, which we took to see the bustling market. We made a few turns, but I had a good sense of where we were in relation to where we’d started. It was getting close to lunch, and Mom wanted to go the wrong way. She must have not counted a turn. I asked a vendor to point us to the drum tower, she pointed the way I wanted to go. Mom threw her hands up and stomped the other way.

A.: Mom, drum tower is that way.

A chorus of vendors said, “drum tower!” “drum tower!” and pointed the way dad and I had turned. She cautiously turned around and followed us.

Dad: This isn’t the time for your antics.

Which I was thinking, but didn’t think it was helpful. Thankfully, she didn’t escalate. We got to our dumpling lunch just in time. Kathy had even called ahead to arrange vegetarian dumplings for me. The walnut dessert dumpling was the best. After lunch, we had a little bit of time to walk the city wall before heading to the airport. I could have spent days there.

Yangtze River

Recall the disproportionate amount of flight attendants on domestic Chinese flights. Think about them in context of the similarly disproportionate number of street-sweepers that fill China’s cities, which signal something other than a national case of chronic OCD. It becomes clear—and is later explicitly stated by a local guide—that the Chinese government is very serious about creating employment, or, for the more cynical, keeping down its official unemployment rate (to 4%).

I didn’t catch the details, but the Bank of China got stuck with Regal China Cruises after international investors pulled out… something about having made a loan with no collateral. There were just over 100 passengers, with 20-40 more to board the next day, on this boat with a capacity for 270. Even at maximum capacity, a crew of 140 would appear excessive; at 1-to-1, it was stifling, and the desperation was barely veiled. The situation on the Yangtze was magnified compared to most of the rest of the country, as millions of farmers were displaced as a result of the Three-Gorges Dam. Can you really blame the aggressive vendors onshore? You know they’d rather be farming than pushing stuff in your face. We were told over and over again that a third of the $25 billion cost of the dam project would go to relocating people, that the government cared, etc., but this was little consolation to the people that would have to move. It was commonly said that the younger generations were happy to move on—they saw little future in agriculture, anyway, and saw it as too much work for too little reward. The older generations, meanwhile, had a much harder time. One crew member told an inquiring passenger that his mother cried herself to sleep every night wondering what would become of her family. As an increasingly open Chinese press covers the human costs of the relocation, the government’s PR efforts have been compromised by reports of farmer suicides and other tragedies. You can’t compensate people for their life’s work—many of the destroyed homes were built by the farmers themselves, were their source of pride.

So, that explains the trumpets, and the sheet of paper in the cabins that explicitly request tips of $10/person/day. This created an odd paradox—the crew was quite solicitous, and I almost wanted to tip them to leave me alone. All I want is a clean, aboveground cabin, not a personal ball washer (apologies to Lewis Black). And it doesn’t have to be that clean—i.e. cleaned twice a day as it was on the cruise. We actually ended up tipping some of the waitstaff individually, on top of the required tip, because we did not believe the latter would be evenly pooled. Later, we had the opportunity to ask questions of two crew members that caught a ride to Chongqing on our bus (we had to get off beforehand due to low water levels), who would tell us that they hadn’t been paid in months. One of them had performed during one of the shows on the boat, played the arhu. It sounded beautiful.

We were warned that the rooms would be very cramped, but they weren’t that bad. I didn’t plan to spend a lot of time in mine. This will come as a surprise to few of you, but it wasn’t long before my mom started to drive me up the wall. At the airport, she had once again launched into a lecture about the virtues of wheeled luggage. I translated for dad’s roommate, as I thought it would be rude not to, but mom took it as evidence that I was trying to make her look bad and chalked it up to my complexes.

I hadn’t slept through the night since we arrived; I would only get a few full nights of sleep throughout the entire trip, toward the end when I’d learned to go to sleep with earplugs in rather than wait until being woken up by mom’s snoring. Mom hasn’t always snored, and I think it’s due to remnants of a cold she’s had, and I don’t hold it against her. What I do hold against her is waking me up for whatever reason, often to ask what time it is. She actually did this at 4am on the last night (morning) of the trip. On the boat, she would wake me whenever she thought there was something interesting out she thought I should see, which could have been somewhat justifiable if it hadn’t been too foggy to see anything at all. The fog itself at night was beautiful, she argued.

If I like to sleep, it’s only partly because I’m lazy. I find that sleep provides some tangible practical benefits, such as increased immunity and productivity. I also find that I’m in a better mood and care more about what I’m seeing when I’ve had a good night’s sleep. With the entire tour group coming down with something or other, I was especially careful to get my rest. Mom felt I was taking myself too seriously.

We would sail for an entire day and night before docking at Yichang, so there was never less reason to worry where dad was all the time. This didn’t stop her from constantly asking, in a panicked, annoyed tone, where he was. Somehow, he always managed to show up for meals and shore excursions without her prompting. Why this shocked her shocked me, since she wasn’t the one keeping track of times and places. During the cruise she full-out admitted for the first time (and she would continue to repeat) that when I was there to guide her, she completely let herself go. I’m type-A enough that I don’t mind—actually I thrive on having a detailed itinerary to keep up with. I didn’t have a problem with keeping track of the next few days’ schedule or the day’s meal and event times. The issue was that mom made no effort whatsoever to remember a place or time that would be immediately relevant, even minutes after I told her.

The letting go would get ridiculous. In Guilin, she had left her video camera in our room and gone back to get it. She realized this only when I said, “you left the camera out in the middle of the room, I put it in the safe.” She had meant to bring it, went back to get it. I realized she didn’t know the combination of the safe and went back to get it. I saw her again downstairs in the lobby. She hadn’t gotten to the safe—she hadn’t noted our room number. This happened again in Hong Kong. Actually, she called me the other day to ask me the password of her e-mail account (I told her I had no idea).

***
The River Guide meant well (and his daily tip was supplemental to the one to be pooled for everyone else), but half the time I really did want him to stop talking. I would have liked to take in some of the scenery in peace and quiet. Luckily, I learned to find parts of the boat without amplification equipment. I thought it was just me, but I said to a fellow tour member that maybe it’s because I’m not an engineer, but I couldn’t care less about how many miles/meters/etc. things were—after a while, numbers lose their meaning, I understand that it’s all very impressive. He said he was an engineer and still couldn’t care less.

He did give us some information I could appreciate. Did you know that the Chinese do not actually call it the Yangtze? The full name of it is actually Chang Jiang, or Long River), with different names for each segment. Yangtze only refers to the segment closest to Shanghai, at its estuary to the East China Sea. I will continue to refer to the entire river as Yangtze.

Along with the Yellow River, it originates from the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau. I suppose I should also tell you that it’s the third longest river in the world, that a third of China’s population lives in the Yantze River Valley, and that it provides 40% of the nation’s power, half it’s agricultural output, 70% of its grain, 40% of its cotton, etc. It boasts 700 tributaries, not smaller offshoots too small to qualify as tributaries. I learned that “szechuan” actually means four rivers (I did know that “sze” was four), from the four tributaries in that province (this is the kind of stuff I care about; that crap about tons of concrete goes in one ear and out the other). At Ebing the river becomes unnavigable, offers a 16-foot drop.

We were all in a bad mood. One day of heavy fog and dull, flat scenery—made exciting by the odd water buffalo onshore—was actually a good chance to relax, give the camera a break, read a bit. As it turned out, the second morning was too foggy for us to move, so we had to sit there for a second day, seeing nothing. Three (albeit excellent) New Yorkers later, I was starting to wonder why we were on this cruise at all.

Mom wasn’t helping. She was clinging and nit-picky. Now as I’ve pointed out before, I actually like spending time with my parents and the blog is a bit skewed, because the normal isn’t interesting or funny, but during the first have of the trip especially, I thought I might never travel with my parents again. I was happy to spend time with my mom, dad, but mom didn’t seem to be able to conceive of not spending every minute together, so she would follow me around and say, “let’s go over there,” “let’s go do this,” to which my frequent response was, “you do that, I’m happy doing this.” Of course, there was also, from both parents, the odd reminder that my hair looked like crap and that I had a double chin.

If there was a time when CNN International sucked less than its US counterpart, that time has past. Same stories, over and over, with little depth and lots of inept punditry. The funny thing was watching CNN cover the torch relay controversy. They actually reported that China had banned CNN’s coverage thereof… except that I was watching that very coverage, in China.

The first morning, and again the second day—because they had to schedule something to keep us from going stir-crazy—they offered a fifteen-minute Tai Chi class. I really enjoyed it, and I had only struggled with Tai Chi in the past. The first one especially was a challenge, not helped by a woman next to me who kept asking me what foot the instructor meant now, etc. Just when I thought, “oh, mom’s on the other side of the deck,
I’ll be able to concentrate on what the instructor is saying.” I moved.

There was a demonstration of acupuncture and a lecture about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). My mother signed up for a session, but it actually made her knee worse (and they double-charged her for applying a heating pad after the acupuncture). The insult to injury was the absurd, but promised, “medical report” slipped under the door before we disembarked.

Zhen Jun had actually been a pharmacist. He specialized in TCM, as did his mother. Asked why he was working instead as a tour guide, he said he was a people person.

Thankfully, the sun came out and we were allowed to move. We still couldn’t see much but I was excited about the prospect of getting off the boat. We would arrive the next morning at San Do Ping, where we would come ashore to tour the Dam project. Knowing my parents weren’t reading/listening to instructions or helpful hints (dad’s better about it than mom), I emphasized that we would be without washrooms for a while and recommended that everyone back off the coffee and watermelon at breakfast the next morning.

I woke up for Gezhou Ba but didn’t see much. I was woken up in the early morning by my mother, who was blaming me for closing the shades and thus letting her sleep past what she thought was the most beautiful part of the trip. It was still beautiful outside. We went in for breakfast, where I deliberately turned my coffee cup upside down so that it wouldn’t be filled. Dad thought I was saving the seat that way and said he didn’t think it would work, so I told him that it was to signal that I didn’t want coffee (I’d seen the waitstaff do it themselves if someone refused coffee). Imagine my confusion when I returned to my seat to find coffee in the cup.

A.: Why is there coffee in my cup?
Dad: I told them to pour you coffee.
A.: But I told you that I didn’t want coffee. Whatever, it’s fine.

It wasn’t a big deal—I mean, whatever, coffee I didn’t mind wasting—but I have to include it because this is just the kind of thing that my dad so often does.

The Dam was enormously impressive, but it was an impressiveness of diminishing returns in terms of statistics thrown at us. Dam puns abounded. Back on the boat, we actually went through five locks of the dam. It was neat to watch the gates open and the water rise.

We approached first Gorge. The way there, and the Gorge itself, was amazing, I couldn’t turn away. The next morning, we took a small ferry up the river and then small, man-powered boats up the narrower part of the river. In the past, the men who pulled the boats were without clothing and women who caught a glimpse of them apparently had to marry them. Thankfully, these guys were fully clothed.

All three gorges were beautiful beyond words. Xiling is the one on the 10-Yuan note and the inspiration of much artwork.
On the ferry on the Shennong, we passed a temple that will be underwater in six months, when they raise the water level to test the Dam.

A woman with the German group overheard mom and me and came to speak to us in Russian. She was very pleasant.

Mom: What was her name?
A.: Marina.
Mom: I’m glad you remembered it, it slipped my mind completely.
A.: This is an issue with Russian names, too?
Mom: You know, it’s that I just don’t pay attention.

Yes, I do know. Sometimes I would worry about mom—worry that the egregious lack of attention to detail, lack of recall of recently conveyed information, was a sign of aging—but then I remember that she’s been this way as long as I can remember.

***
We disembarked and rode for three and a half hours to Chongqing, the world’s most populous city. I question that title, as its count of 33 million people includes those that inhabit the surrounding country side, including where our ride started. It was a beautiful ride, replete with views of rice paddies and water buffalo. Not everyone feels bad for the farmers—their lot has improved with the abolition of the agricultural tax a few years ago, and some—particularly those in Canton—made a killing when China first opened. I don’t think the younger people—those whose parents aren’t farmers, anyway—have any idea of how much work goes into growing, harvesting rice. Of course, even now it’s not the farmers that are benefiting from the skyrocketing price of rice. It pains me to see how much rice is thrown away after our meals, most of it untouched.

The New Yorker had a very interesting dispatch from China. I lent it to Kathy, who found it quite accurate, especially for a foreign observer. Her other comment was that it was “opinionless,” i.e. the journalist wrote without editorializing, which she hadn’t expected.

On the boat, she had told me that the tour company is very strict about ratings—if it’s not across-the-board excellents, the program director is disposable. Younger guides feel free to solicit excellent ratings, but she won’t do that (except she more or less is). She asked me not to tell anyone that we’d had the conversation. I wondered if she meant that, or if she was doing that thing that two of you have written about, i.e. trying to get something worked out through other people. It was the latter: as the trip went on, the entire tour group was spreading the word about the excellent ratings. Which she absolutely, unquestionably deserves—she was our guide, nurse, friend. Later she would tell us the story of her reeducation, her experiences through the Cultural Revolution, etc.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Shanghai

I should probably say a word about domestic flights within China. First of all, the airports are absolutely massive—our gates were usually over a mile from the security checkpoint. Dad insisted on carrying the bigger bags. None of our carry-ons were particularly heavy, but since I hadn't checked anything, mine was the heaviest. Several times I offered to take it myself.

Mom: You could carry your own bag, you know. He did have a hernia.
A., to dad: Would you like me to take that bag?
Dad: Not at all.
Mom: Your dad is like the Pere Goriot.
A.: Will he make me fresh pasta?
Mom: What?
Pause
Mom: Have you read the Pere Goriot? He worked himself crazy so that his daughters would have a comfortable life.

Mom, incidentally, never ended up carrying anything. If she did bring a bag, one of us would end up taking it. This wasn't an issue, until one day in Hong Kong when she balked when I wanted to bring my water bottle (and didn't want to bring my jacket, in the pocket of which I usually carried the water bottle).

Mom: I'm not carrying that!
A.: That's fine, I'll carry it.
Mom: You won't need water.
A.: Maybe I will.

Anyway, near the gate in the Beijing airport was a Subway. We would go straight from the airport to the acrobatics show, and were offered the opportunity to pre-order Big Macs that the local guide in Shanghai would pick up for us ahead of time. This didn’t interest me, for obvious reasons, or my mother, because admitting she would be hungry was beneath her. She decided dad wouldn’t be interested, either, before he had a chance to realize what he being asked. He and I both felt like we would want food at some point, so we went to Subway and got some subs for the road. My mother chewed us out for “wasting” the cash ($3.50 total) and just couldn’t understand how we would be hungry. Which we were by the time we arrived, and they really hit the spot.

Our small flight had seven attendants. They kowtowed upon arrival. All of the flights served some type of food—in some cases, a whole meal. I kept looking out for orange soda, but times have apparently changed and nary a cup of it was to be seen. My favorite souvenir is a packaged towelette labeled “Wet Turban Needless Wash.” I LOVE it.

Even the road to Shanghai from the airport was pleasant. I don’t mean to dump on Beijing, and in all honesty, some of the things that made the trip easier were incidental to the city itself. The guide, Tom, spoke better English, and while he may have had a few pro-Mao and/or pro-CCP things to say, he wasn’t as out-there with them; the weather was better—actually, it was beautiful; and the city was smaller, so less time was spent on the bus (although just as much was spent getting on and off the bus). Perhaps people were more used to foreigners, and there was less gawking (perhaps there were just fewer tourists from rural China, since I’m sure Beijing natives see their fair share of Westerners).

Tom told us about the "dragon holes," i.e. the open spaces built into buildings to allow dragons a clear way back to the mountains. The Chinese are very superstitious-- you don't want to anger the dragon.

The acrobatics show was an auspicious start to our visit, and we were in a good mood. Until my mother threw a fit over my decision to hand-wash some clothes in the sink.

Mom: What possessed you? These will never dry! Where will you hang them? It’s indecent- what will you do when the cleaning people come?
A.: The cleaning people don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It will all dry.
Mom: No, it won’t dry. You can’t just leave this stuff here!

For at least the next hour, we had various versions of the following conversation:

Mom: Idiocy! It’s idiocy!
A.: Could you just let it go?
Mom: No, no I can’t. What were you thinking?

A couple of times she even woke me up to make sure I understood that it was idiocy. She wouldn’t let me hang the clothes anywhere near the window, even though we were on a high floor (and nobody cared), insisting instead that we hang them in the closet with the door shut, where they would never dry but would be sure to grow some mildew. She only calmed down when, riding through the city in the daylight, she saw laundry hanging from just about every balcony. There was actually a certain year after which buildings were built without a laundry-hanging apparatus—apparently a government official had traveled to a part of Europe where he saw no laundry hanging and wanted Shanghai to keep up.

Oh- before going to the acrobatics show, Tom said that there would be an announcement forbidding picture-taking, but we should go ahead and take them anyway. Sure enough, there was an announcement saying, "out of respect for intellectual property rights, please do not take any pictures," and flashes went off throughout the show. Someone even had a tripod out.

Our visit to Shanghai corresponded to a long-weekend holiday that honored ancestors and deceased relatives. Don’t ask me what it’s called, I don’t recall anyone ever naming it. Largely because of this holiday, the Jade Buddha temple was abuzz with worshippers and smoky with burning incense and origami.

A.: Do you have a small screwdriver?
Dad: No, why?
A.: I think some ash from the incense has landed on the inside of my camera lens.
Dad: Just wipe it off.

Thank you, that’s helpful. Why didn’t I think of that myself instead of asking for a screwdriver?

Mark told us that the Temple survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to good Feng Shui, and an abbot that had his wits about him—he covered the doors of the temple with pictures of Mao, knowing that the Red Guard wouldn’t dare destroy them. Later, Mark told us a little bit about Buddhism. Mom decided to correct him about something, but luckily it was after we’d started moving to the next room, so nobody really heard (except dad and I, who shook our heads but weren’t all that surprised). Later she would argue with an investment banker that in our tour group over the wisdom of investing in wind power.

That afternoon we visited the Bund and were given entirely too little time to walk around. I really wanted ice cream.

Dad: No street food!
A.: It’s ice cream!
Dad: It’s still street food.
A.: I don’t think it counts.

But we’d passed the ice cream I wanted and were herded back on the bus for a trip to the museum. About ten minutes before we’d been told to meet in the lobby, mom started having a fit because dad wasn’t around.

A.: He’s an adult.
Mom: What if he got lost?
A.: ??
Mom: This worries me.
A.: He still has time.

Repeat above conversation several times.

Dad’s roommate (randomly assigned—he could have gotten his own room for another $500, but both he and the roommate opted to share) came by, didn’t really understand why she was panicking, said he’d keep an eye out. A few minutes later we decided to check on the bus, as some people had already gone back. We saw dad walking toward us—he had been on the bus (had thought we were already there) but was sent back by his roommate, who had reported mom’s state of mind.

That evening we went for a walk and looked around for a place to eat, ending up at a supermarket. You may wonder why we didn’t go to any restaurants—partly because the included meals were so large that we generally weren’t hungry enough for a big meal; partly because we were very tired at the end of each day; and on top of all that, we weren’t all that interested in guessing at menus in Chinese. If I weren’t a vegetarian, I would have been bolder, but I didn’t want to deal with it. Our walk to the restaurant was prolonged by mom’s lunging at every ATM (and there were many). She accepted the theory of the symbols about as much as the theory of evolution. I was getting tired. Finally, we found Carrefour (think French Walmart), which pleasantly surprised us with an HSBC in its lobby. We got what we thought would be enough cash for the rest of the trip.

Carrefour’s prepared food section was not as impressive as Walmart’s but much more mysterious. I had a hard time figuring out what was vegetarian (and one of the things I eventually bought had meat in it, so I turned it over to mom, who ate it in spite of her previous objections of not being the least bit hungry).

Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I still don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.

We took our food back to the hotel and had a nice meal. Dad broke into one of his more annoying recurring behaviors—arguing with me over whether there was meat in the food.

A.: This has meat in it—does anyone else want it?
Dad: There’s no meat in that.
A.: Yes, there is.
Dad: I don’t think there is.

I’ve been a vegetarian for over sixteen years. I have figured out how to determine whether meat is present. Now, I’m not an especially anal vegetarian—I won’t order meat or otherwise eat it if I know it’s there, but I feel no need to stick my finger down my throat if I’ve consumed some unintentionally. Still, I won’t keep eating it, and trying to convince me it’s not there is about as constructive as trying to convince me that I’m not cold. Nonetheless, dad and I would have this conversation every few days or so, often after a waiter would set a plate down on the ubiquitous lazy susan and announce that it was pork.

Dad: This is good, you should try it.
A.: It’s pork.
Dad: No, there’s no meat in this, I can tell.
A.: He said it was pork.
Dad: Oh, he did?
***

Much of the group had left for an optional tour to Sozhou and I couldn’t wait to explore the city without a tour bus. One of the other things I would come to appreciate about our guide in Hong Kong—in addition to the absence of a political agenda or requirement to push a political agenda—was that he treated us like adults. He actually encouraged us to take public transportation and figure out the city for ourselves. Now, it’s true that taxis in the rest of China are so ridiculously cheap that it’s hard to see how public transportation would be worth it, but I wanted to try Shanghai’s metro. I asked Mark and later the concierge, and they had a hard time providing directions to the metro without adding that we should really just take a cab. I’m glad we didn’t, because it was an interesting walk, at the end of which was an interesting temple. I’m not sure why the Jing’An temple was empty of other tourists, but it was especially amazing to see the worshippers and the architecture without more people like us getting in our way.

From there, mom insisted that we stop in the tourist information office. We did, but the people in it didn’t speak English. My mom likes asking questions. I’m more of a figure-it-out-yourself-first kind of person. The walk to the metro was characterized by an extended version of the following conversation:

Mom: Ask that person.
A.: I know where we are.
Mom: Do you know where we’re going?
A.: Yes.
Mom: You keep looking at the map.
A.: I want to check the street we’re on.

A few minutes later:

Mom: Ask that person…
A.: I don’t have a question!

[this would continue throughout the day.]

We passed a railway ticket office.

Mom: Ask in there—maybe we have to buy tickets in there.
A.: There is no way we have to stand in that kind of line to by metro tickets. That’s for trains.
Mom: How do you know?
A.: I just know. Besides, we’re not there yet… we still have a few minutes to the metro.
Mom: You just know. You just know. Remember when we were driving to Lyon when we should have been driving to Paris?
A.: No… but that must have been… twelve years ago. That’s your point of reference?

I’m not saying I have the best sense of direction in the world, but there’s a difference between walking according to a map and driving according to a map, and walking along a street and driving on a highway. I mean, if she wanted to make a point, I could have offered her plenty of incidents, fewer than twelve years in the past, of getting on the wrong highway.

The thing is, I realized on this trip that my sense of direction isn’t bad at all, and I don’t think it’s just gotten better. I think it’s that I’m easily disoriented when I’m following someone else, but when I’m following a path can see, I’m actually fine.

Anyway, outside the tourist office there was a sculpture. Mom wanted me to take a picture of it.

A.: I’ve already put my camera away. Dad just took a picture of it. Can we go, please?
Mom: Why can’t you take a picture of it?
A.: This is not what I would choose to spend memory and naming/editing time on.
Mom: Just take a picture.
A.: No.
Dad: I just took a picture.
Mom: I want her to take a picture.
A.: No.

It was getting hot. I wanted to get moving. A temper tantrum later, we were on the metro, where an attendant helped us buy the right tickets. A few minutes later, we were near the waterfront.

It’s not that we got lost on the way to the old city—it’s that mom kept walking the wrong way and I had to keep checking the map… and she kept telling me to ask for directions. On our path to the old city, we ended up in a really interesting, for lack of a better word, slum. I have a strong sense of danger—I remember visiting the old city of Panama City and at a certain point, my ghetto meter unmistakably went off. I just got this feeling that we had to get out of there, at that moment. I felt no danger whatsoever in Istanbul, and in China it only went off very slightly in a part of Xian and then in Guilin. In this slum, I felt completely safe.

It was a fascinating walk. I’ll direct you to the pictures.

From there we came to the old city, which was enjoyable until the crowds and artifice of Yuyuan. I can’t definitively say where one ended and the other began, but there was a point where it went from interesting to absurd. Yuyuan struck me as Shanghai’s Chinatown. Later I read in a Chinese English-language magazine—I can’t remember what movie they were talking about but it was adapted from a book by a Chinese-Australian—that Chinatown was a very foreign concept in China, that it was very difficult to convey to the Chinese director and producers the concept of an area of concentrated Chinese diaspora with architecture, shopping, etc.

Shanghai’s subway was sparkling, well organized, user-friendly. The drivers and cyclists were still nuts.

It was around noon. We’d had breakfast at 7:30. I asked if anyone else was hungry at all.

Mom: When I was your age I was hungry all the time, too.
A.: Dad?
Dad: I could have a snack.
Mom: Snacking is the worst thing for you.
A.: It’s not, actually.


Later:
A.: I’m so glad we’re here and not on that bus. I just need a day off from being chaperoned. The city’s not hard to figure out.
Mom: Why do you need to feel superior? I’ve always taught you that you were capable of anything, unlike my mother, who always put me down no matter what I did. But I always encouraged you. Why do you have this complex?

***
We walked on both sides of the river, but made the mistake of thinking that during rush hour the subway would get us to the Martyrs’ Memorial Park faster than a taxi. We arrived there only after it closed, getting only a glimpse of the park from the outside. From there we cabbed it back to the hotel and called it a day. We were thrilled with what we had seen and shocked that the tour didn’t show any of it. The next morning, the tour took us to a senior center, followed by a walk through a local market and lunch with a local family. The senior center was vaguely interesting—it was very glitzy, and very much an orchestrated attempt to show how good China’s seniors have it (and to sell their arts and crafts to help them keep up their lifestyle). This was the third such visit (after the CloisonnĂ© and the Jade factories). The former had been the most interesting—we got a chance to paint small enamelware dishes.

Factory guide: You all are good at this! I’ll see if I can get you hired here.
Terry: Could I bring my dog to work? Or would you eat my dog?

I have to admit, the senior center visit was pretty interesting. It included a dance performance, a fashion show, and a grandma chorus. When the grandma chorus was announced, my mother didn’t quite hear it. I translated it into Russian for her.

Mom: Grandma what?
A.: khor.
Dad: khor.
Mom: What?
A.: khor.
Dad: khor.
Mom: Khor?
A.: khor.
Dad: khor.
Mom: What?
A.: khor.
Dad: khor. They sing.
Mom: khors? You mean, prostitutes?
Dad: Prostitutes that sing.
Mom finally got it, laughed. Not one of us could stop laughing, even though we tried so as not to be rude to the singing grandmas. I don’t think any of them noticed.

After that, a woman from our tour group led the grandma chorus in a song, and another taught them a line dance. It was a good time.

On to the market, where mom yelled at me for spending eighty cents on some cherry tomatoes and felt bad for the chained-down poultry. I did too, and that’s why I don’t eat them. This trip has actually made me question my seafood consumption—it really isn’t justifiable (but it is so much healthier than pretty much every other source of protein). We bought some flowers for the family we would have lunch with, but the guide confiscated them—apparently they were the kind of flowers designated for the memorial holiday. We were upset—they were nice, we would have taken them onto the cruise with us or given them to someone else—but we had no choice but to get over it.

The vegetables at the market were mouth-wateringly fresh. I wished I could buy and cook the eggplant and asparagus. Later another local guide would tell us that more and more Chinese are turning to supermarkets over traditional markets, with less time to shop and cook due to more work outside the home. They were even buying frozen foods.

The home-cooked lunch was the best food I had in China—it was amazing. The hostess had invited a young family friend to translate and practice his English. There were about ten of us per family that took turns asking questions. Someone asked whether the apartment had any sort of courtyard, to which the response was, “no, too many Chinese.” This was the second time but not last time we heard this self-deprecating auto-response (I no longer remember the question that Zhen Jun answered with “too many Chinese”). I wondered whether it was something frequently said or just offered to tourists.

Outside the apartment was a jungle-gym-like complex with an elliptical. I tried it, it worked. I want one of those—who needs electricity? It just adds noise.

***
I’d mentioned in my dispatch from Beijing that my dad can be slow on the uptake. An alternative manifestation of this pains me even more, because I’m not sure how to deal with it: he’s always trying to help, but he doesn’t always realize what’s going on and often ends up making things worse. Sometimes it’s even more aggravating because it’s something we’ve gone over.

This really is tricky, because you don’t want to smack down someone who’s trying to help. After a while, though, being nice about it gets increasingly difficult.

Mom and I intentionally left the water bottles at the hotel this morning, as we knew we wouldn’t be able to carry them on the plane and we didn’t want to consume too much liquid before the flight. Neither of us would want to pour out bottled water (well, unless it’s to recycle the bottle, I suppose). The day before, my nalgene bottle had ended up in dad’s messenger bag. I requested it as we arrived at the airport so I could stick it in my backpack. To my surprise, it was full.

A.: You filled my water bottle?
Dad: Why not?
A.: Because I can’t bring a full bottle on the plane.
Dad: We had water in the room.

We’d had this discussion before, we’d learned our lesson in Beijing. I drank the water.

***
The ride from the airport to Wuhan was actually beautiful—lush, colorful, which I wasn’t expecting. It was dark by the time we got to Wuhan. That’s not really accurate—it was night and it would have been dark if it hadn’t been for all that neon, of which I’d never seen so much in my life. Wuhan was large and bustling. On the way, Kathy told us about Chinese drinking games. Eventually, we arrived at an incredibly tacky building that looked like a theme park. This was, apparently, the cruise ship terminal. We boarded, passing a line of uniformed trumpet players/greeters. So began our cruise on the Yangtze.

Beijing, continued

I enjoyed the second and third days in Beijing much more than the first, largely because (almost) everything looks and feels better with a little sun. I can’t say I like Beijing as a whole, but distinct parts therein were worth the visit.

First stop: the Temple of Heaven. Actually, don’t think you get to hear about China without having to read about family drama. Very first stop: the elevator.

Dad: Why not brush your hair?
A.: Otstan(b)

This is a very important word in Russian, and quite difficult to explain since its connotation is much less rude than any close translation. It means something between “stop” and “f* off.” It’s very common; it merits a detailed lesson—one that touches on Russian prefix and suffix usage. Remind me to write one up later.

A., continued: You can tell me about bringing my hair under control when you have enough of it to understand.

Mom, Dad both jump on me. I stand by what I said; don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, and don’t nag me about something of which you have no concept. Of course, my dad continued to point out throughout the trip that my hair did not look brushed. I retaliated by pointing out that his eyebrows were safety hazard on account of attracting birds looking to nest (as much out of concern for his safety as retaliation).

***
Our cash flow challenges began almost upon arrival; I didn’t write about them in that first dispatch, as I hadn’t realized then that they would become a recurring theme. We didn’t bring enough cash, having read that there would be ATMS on every block. There were, indeed, numerous ATMS on every block: Bank of China, Commercial Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, Industrial Bank of China—you name it. It’s just that our cards were NYCE, Pulse, etc., and the plentiful Chinese banks took Cirrus and Plus. The international banks that would take our cards were much fewer and farther between and even on our rare encounters with them, we were limited several hundred dollars per withdrawal per day…

…which may not have been an issue, if it weren’t for the tour’s significant tipping “suggestions.” Over half of the money that we managed to take out ended up going to tips, which added about 10% to the base cost of the trip. These suggestions had been sent ahead of time in our booklet with itinerary and other details; dad and I had read them, mom of course did not, and our jaws had dropped. Please understand that I think tipping is great—when it’s tipping, i.e. a reward for service, rather than a transfer of cost to the consumer. Indeed, many years ago tipping was not allowed in China. When that changed, much of the travel industry there lowered salaries to “account for” tips. Every day entailed a tip to the program director, local guide*, driver, and hotel housekeeping adding up to $14 per person per day. On the Yangtze River Cruise, this about doubled, but more on that later. The point is, I had spent less on food in Canada, Turkey and Greece than I would on tipping in China, so I had not appreciated how much cash I would need there.

*Half the time I just wanted the local guide to shut up. By the time we got to Hong Kong, Mom said, quite appropriately, “Finally, a guide that doesn’t sing the praises of Mao.” More informative than the statistics that they spewed out with great ease (however many millions of people, square feet, etc. or more importantly this is the biggest/oldest/what have you or second biggest/seventh biggest/you get the point) were their offhand remarks or answers to questions:

Question: So what will parking be like during the Olympics?
Zhen Jun: I believe there will be some sort of lottery system for permits. I and other Party members will have priority.

Question: What does your wife do for work?
Zhen Jun: She’s a Japanese language tour guide, which I do not like.
Question: You don’t like the Japanese language?
Zhen Jun: I don’t like that she works for the Japanese.

Zhen Jun: Mao, the father of our country…[choose your own adventures; many a sentence was started with this, and I couldn’t be bothered to take note of the rest].

Weeks later, in Xian

Mark: People often ask about the situation in Tibet. In my opinion, Tibet is part of China. Even Dalai Lama is a title historically bestowed by the government in Beijing. People say, ‘but China invaded Tibet…’ but we don’t use the word, “invaded;” we use the word , “liberated.” Liberated from whom? China liberated 90% of the population from the wealthy 10%; that 90% is happy.

[Click here for more on this perspective, which has a quite bit of truth to it.

Much more later. Now I return to our hotel in Beijing.

***
We visited a Bank of China ATM the night we arrived. It didn’t take my card or my parents’. This had never happened to me before, in any country (even in Nicaragua, where entire regions lacked ATMs, ATMs in the capital took all sorts of cards), so it didn’t immediately occur to me to check the symbols. It did occur to me after about five minutes of trying different machines within the lobby. I checked the cards against the machines and told my parents why we were having trouble.

Mom: Let me try again.
A.: No! The machine will just eat your card.
Mom: Let me try the other one.
A.: It’s the same issue.

Mom is agitated, paces. I worry that her nervousness will provoke the guard.

A.: We have enough cash to get us through Beijing. I know Shanghai has international banks. We don’t need to deal with this right now—we’ll change cash at the hotel and play it by ear.
Mom: Let’s try the bank across the street.
A.: We can try the bank across the street tomorrow when it’s light and possibly not raining. We don’t need more money now than we can change at the hotel.
Mom: Okay, you’re right.

Except that she continues to obsess about this throughout the rest of the evening and much of the morning. On the way to breakfast, she goes to redeem some traveler’s cheques. Except she can’t because she filled them in wrong (signed the bottom part), even though dad and I emphatically told her not to. The hotel cashier tells her that Bank of China will still be able to change them for her, but they can’t. As we walk across the lobby to the restaurant for breakfast, she starts to panic. I ask her to let it go, tell her it’s not a crisis. She starts threatening to complain to the cashier’s manager, says he’s incompetent, says he’s not doing his job, they’re perfectly good traveler’s cheques. She repeats this line of reasoning a few times before I can’t take it and tell her that she’s the one that made a mistake. No! If the Bank of China can process the cheques, why can’t the hotel? I tell her we have enough money for Beijing, that she would do well to stop obsessing.

The breakfast buffet is massive and exotic. The interesting vegetarian food can mostly be found on the Indian buffet table. The following conversation occurs as we’re passing, stopping at various tables:

Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.
Mom: What’s that?
A.: I don’t know.

It was like watching a movie with her. There’s a point where most other people would think, “she doesn’t know more about this than I do. We have the same amount of information, so I’ll stop asking questions.” Not mom.

At the breakfast table, mom was raving about the cereal she had found:
Mom: Try this, it’s amazing. It looks and tastes healthy, too. I wonder what it is.
A.: I don’t want cereal right now.
Mom: Try it.

A., in disgust: These are Cocoa Crispies!
Mom: What?
A.: It’s a sugary, artificially flavored cereal widely available in the US.
Mom: Well it’s good, and it tastes healthy.
A.: It’s not.
Mom: Chocolate is good for you.
A.: Not the chocolate in cocoa crispies.

Flash-forward to the farewell dinner in Hong Kong:

A.: Would you pass the rolls, please?
Mom: You know, bread is the worst thing for you.
A.: Would you pass the rolls, please?
Mom: I don’t eat bread anymore.

I just look at her until she passes the rolls. I take a whole-wheat one. She looks at me in disapproval.
***

On our way out of the restaurant, we pass a case of fancy cakes.

Mom: How can you say we have enough money? Just one of those cakes is almost $20.
A.: How many cakes will you be buying? Besides, an establishment that charges that much for a cake will take credit cards.

We’re early risers, especially in the first days after arriving. As such we usually have at least an hour after finishing breakfast before we have to meet the tour group for the day. I picked up a magazine, got into it, but when mom is agitated, she doesn’t like for others to be at peace. She walks across the room, accidentally steps on my feet.

A.: OWW!
Mom: Sorry. You should be ready by now, anyway!
A.: Actually, I shouldn’t.

***
While I came to appreciate several places in Beijing, the city as a whole didn’t grow on me. The sights out the window of the bus were not generally interesting or pleasing to the eye, so I took to trying to recognize commonly recurring characters. The one for “middle” was simple (like the Russian letter “f”) and everywhere. I’d meant to ask someone how to write “finger.” Those first few days, perhaps as a result of the coffee I drank to hasten my adjustment to a twelve-hour time difference, I entertained wild delusions about wanting to learn Mandarin. I practiced forming characters and made an effort to learn words. Then I remembered that I was tone deaf and already struggling with the more advanced stages of a much easier language, and came to my senses.

Every morning, once we were all onboard the bus, Kathy (yes, I’ve caved; it’s just shorter) greeted us with an enthusiastic, “Ni hao!” We answered back, some with pronunciation so lacking that Kathy’s greetings were met with shouts of “I need to pee!”

Zhen Jun narrates our ride to the Temple of Heaven, tells us that Dr. Kissinger has visited it fifteen times. I wonder whether Mao or Dr. Kissinger had caused greater loss of life. The interesting thing about Mao deference in China is that I heard no one deny the catastrophic consequences of his campaigns (well, at least the Cultural Revolution), but people write them off as the excesses of the Red Guard rather than considering them in any systematic light.

Beijing’s ancient city walls were largely destroyed in the 1970s to make room for the ring roads. I wondered later why Beijing got to be the capital, especially since I liked Xian, a previous capital, so much more. I could spend weeks there, including a few days just cycling on the city walls. Mark, our guide in Xian, told us that the placement of the capital was put to a vote, which Xian lost to Beijing by one vote, to which Kathy replied, “yes, that one vote was Mao’s.”

Anyway, Dr. Kissinger, who was apparently an architect, was particularly interested in the Temple of Prayer for Good Harvest. Like many marvels of architecture in China, it was destroyed by fire and later rebuilt. Originally, it had been built without beams or rails. Zhen Jun tells us about the symbolism of the colors, numbers. In the Forbidden City, yellow was the dominant color—if I remember correctly, it symbolized royalty. Anyone, other than the emperor, found wearing yellow would be killed, even if it were just yellow underwear (Zhen Jun didn’t talk about enforcement; we can only hope they didn’t do random underwear checks, but it wouldn’t surprise me). The Temple of Heaven’s pagodas are more blue, the color of Heaven.

We arrive at the park, walk by morning exercisers practicing their Tai Chi, ribbon dancing, ballroom dancing. Others are playing music or Mah Jong or dominos. Zhen Jun tells us the Chinese take their exercise very seriously, especially after the SARS scare.

Before we’re herded back on the bus, we’re given a few minutes to use the happy room. The one in the park is less disgusting than the one in the restaurant where we had lunch yesterday. Many of the older ladies in our group are horrified at the prevalence of Turkish toilets. I don’t mind them except that the floors around them tend to be dirtier, stickier; I don’t mind the ones with the spray guards at all. The men are a bit put off by the two-in-one stalls. The only thing I’m put off by is the cultural differences pertaining to standing in line, which is up there with spitting in public on the Chinese government’s pre-Olympics politeness campaign. As we stand in line, a woman walks directly in front of us into the stall that just opened. Before we’ve fully understood what just happened, another local woman chews her out and restrains her to let one of us claim the stall. This scenario would repeat itself regularly. Actually, a few minutes after that, I came out of a stall and saw another woman in our group about to walk in, when she was cut off by a stampeding local. Once again, another local intervened. Just the other day at the airport in Hong Kong, where I was least expecting it, a woman bee-lined right in front of me to a stall. At that point I needed no time to process; I just walked right in front of her, too close to the stalls for my liking but when in Rome.

Off to the Summer Palace, where we took a cheesy Pagodaesque gondola to lunch, and spent too much time at lunch and too little walking around. Zhen Jun offered some impressive stories about the thousands of everything—seven thousand different paintings graced the walkway the emperor had had built for his mother. “The Chinese are very superstitious,” we would hear again and again (my favorite aspect of this is the dragon holes, I think they’re awesome). Most even numbers are unlucky, eight being the very lucky exception. The Olympics will begin at 8:08 on August 8th of this year.

We returned from the Summer Palace with about an hour to get to a bank before it closed. Mom spent most of that time rearranging her suitcase. I finally got her out the door with half an hour to spare. She spent most of that time wanting to try ATMs that I could have told her wouldn’t take our cards—she just wouldn’t accept the symbol explanation. She spent even more time explaining our situation to bank clerks that just couldn’t help her (they told us that they couldn’t conduct the required transaction on a Sunday but that the Bank of China might be able to). Instead of moving on to find the next Bank of China, she told them she couldn’t come back the next morning because she had an excursion scheduled that would leave before the bank opened. I had forgotten the extent to which my mother indulged in unnecessary explanations, but this wouldn’t be the only time she would remind me. The clerks were remarkably helpful—one even drew us a makeshift map of the nearest Bank. After she continued to try a few banks, we got to a Bank of China ten minutes before it closed. They, too, could only salvage the traveler’s cheques on a weekday. Don’t reason with them, JUST MOVE ON.

Dinner wasn’t included that night. Mom proudly announced that she was not hungry (this was an at least-daily occurrence). Later I realized that this is partly because she ate about twice to three times as much as I did at the included meals. She wasn’t hungry at those, either, but like me, eats when food is placed in front of her. Dad’s the only one of us with self-control when it comes to food, which is ironic, since he’s the Blockade survivor (mom was evacuated to the Urals during the war—not exactly abundant by most standards but a cornucopia compared to St. Petersburg in those years). I was naturally limited by vege/pescetarianism and while I would overeat just a little bit, mom would eat A LOT. And then express shock at the next mealtime at the idea that I could even think about food.

We wandered around in the neighborhood of the hotel, where there wasn’t much but street food, and the two universally accepted and emphasized rules of travel in China are, NEVER drink the water; and NEVER buy street food (lesser rules include, if you must buy a Fauxlex, use small change). We wandered a bit farther and came upon… a Walmart. Now, if you’d asked me before the trip if I’d go to Walmart for dinner, I’d have thought you were nuts, but it was there and it took credit cards (mind you, the cashier had to take my card and run it at another location). And it was quite an experience. It was massive and its downstairs section was a giant Chinese supermarket. I got some prepared tofu and an Asian pear, and mom got some bananas (dad was resting back at the hotel). And that was dinner.

As for water, hotels provide a bottle per person per day—yes, I’m horrified at the environmental implications, and yes, I took it anyway. That day I had taken my bottle but mom had left hers and drank out of mine. The next day, since we were going to climb part of the Great Wall, I reminded her to bring her own. Bad idea. I boarded the bus, sat next to her as I had the day before. For the second time in three days, my butt is wet.

A.: Mom!
Mom: What?
A.: Why is there an open water bottle on your seat [dripping onto mine]?
Mom: How was I supposed to know you were going to sit there? Why are you blaming me? You have a complex- everything is my fault.

Great. Now I would see one of the original seven wonders with a wet butt.

So, did mom take her water bottle out of the bus when we went to climb the great wall? Of course not, she just drank out of mine.

Later, when we got to the Ming Tombs, I reminded her to take her water bottle, since mine had run out. In the parking lot, an elderly woman collecting empty water bottles. Mom spills out the rest of our drinking water so she can give her the bottle.

A.: Mom!
Mom: Look at how painfully that woman was walking!
A.: We could have drunk the water!
Mom: I wasn’t going to force it down my throat.

You could have offered it to someone else. You could have brought it with you and given it to her on the way out. You could have brought it to the Great Wall so we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You could have given her the change she would make on that empty bottle. But whatever.

As it were, I had a chance to dry off before we got to the Great Wall, because we stopped at a Cloisonne factory. This was the first of many factory visits and perhaps the most impressive and informative, but it was also the one that made me angriest. I understand this kind of thing is great for running a travel business—not only is it free admission, but you probably get kickbacks from the factory (all the ones we would visit—carpet-making in Shanghai, jewelry in Hong Kong, Jade in Beijing, lacquerware in Xian, etc.—were government owned)—but is it really necessary to have us spend as much time in the shop than at the Great Wall? Only after forty minutes of shopping time later, we set off.

The ride out to the Great Wall offered some gorgeous scenery. Zhen Jun said he’d climbed most of the mountains in the area, but not Jade Springs Pagoda (Mountain?), because many senior government leaders lived there and it was very heavily guarded. The Wall was powerfully impressive as it appeared and kept going and reappeared. Climbing the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling was more a lesson in modern than ancient China. I tried to imagine what it was like in the old days, without a vendor sticking a kite or pasmina or dvd or just about anything else in your face every minute or so and saying “TEN DOLLARS! EXCUSE ME! TEN DOLLARS!” Ba Da Ling, however, was good for a Citibank ATM, which set us at relative ease for a week or so (until our serendipitous encounter with an HSBC ATM in Shanghai). The ride from Ba Da Ling to the Ming Tombs once again offered a peaceful opportunity to take in the Great Wall.

The Ming Tombs and the Secret Road near them were okay. I’m not just jaded—they’re really not that impressive. Some of the statues were pretty cool… but as my mother’s video camera battery had died, she demanded that I photograph every one of them. I balked. This, too, would happen often: she would want pictures of things I wouldn’t want to deal with. Once in a while was okay, but it could be very demanding. I now have over 1,500 photos to deal with as it—I knew then that I didn’t want to take pictures of everything in my path. Arguments ensued, pictures were taken, some pictures were not taken.

***
Our last morning in Beijing, I was getting very nervous as mom hovered over my stuff.

Mom: What about those?
A.: I plan to use them.
Mom: What about that bag?
A.: I still have something to put in it.
Mom: You need liquids? Between now and tomorrow morning?
A.: Yes, I am going to brush my teeth.
Mom: Toothpaste doesn’t count.
A.: Yes, it does.
Mom: What can you do with toothpaste on a plane??
A.: I don’t make the rules.
Mom: What about that? You’re going to forget it.
A.: No, no I won’t.
Mom reaches…
A.: DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!
Mom: What’s wrong??

I’m not saying that I never forget anything, but I don’t forget things like that, things in plain sight that are set out for last-minute use. I still shudder when I remember that train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg, before which mom stashed away my toothbrush and toothpaste- so I couldn’t brush my teeth, and my earplugs- so I couldn’t sleep for a minute through the sound of dad’s snoring—all because she saw it neatly sitting on top of my backpack and “just knew” that I would forget it if she didn’t stash it away. Still scarred, I frequently snap when I see her coming near any loose ends that I have arranged but not packed. Much later in the trip, when I thought I was coming down with a cold (not a huge stretch of the imagination, since everyone else was, including the people with whom I’d been sharing bottles of water), mom had stashed the vitamins I had put out to take after breakfast but before we left. I was livid.

Mom: How was I supposed to know?
A.: Why can’t you just leave my stuff alone? I have it under control.
Mom: Well, you didn’t want any of the stuff I was offering you.
A.: Yes but I did want my vitamins!

So, because I say no to her herbal medicines because who knows what’s in them and how long they’ve been around, I’m not entitled to my multivitamins?

As it turned out, spring in Southern China was reviving my long-dormant allergies. Still, I wanted my vitamins. She found them later and everyone was happy.

***
We concluded our morning in Beijing with a visit to a Kung Fu school and then a jade factory. We arrived in Shanghai that evening and saw an amazing acrobatic show—like Cirque de Soleil but not over the top. I loved Shanghai and will tell you more about it tomorrow.

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