Packing for China

Published: June 13, 2011

So we’re leaving tomorrow, and somehow we have to manage to cram into our duffle bags everything we need for the next six weeks, but our luggage can’t exceed the 44 pound limit for domestic flights in China. Our dining room table is a chaos of stacked baggies filled with instant oatmeal and unscented laundry detergent, of clustered prescription bottles and containers of contact solution and boxes of bandaids and bags of cough drops. For weeks the dining room table has been off limits to anything that’s not going to China. Sophie sets her sweaty soft drink cup on the table, and I say, “Put that there, and it goes to China.” I heave a ten-pound bag of dog food onto the table and Sophie says, “Put that there, and it goes to China.”

Now it’s decision time, and I keep weeding stuff out, putting it back in, adding more, subtracting again. Do we really need all this stuff? Is this really enough for six weeks?

It’s not like we’re going to a remote jungle where nothing is available. Actually, our travel agent tells us that our apartment has a toaster and there’s a Wal-mart across the street, information that has bemused me for days—so does that mean that I can buy bread, not something you see a lot of in China?

And at Wal-mart, is there a passive-aggressive greeter who glares at anyone who doesn’t initiate friendly conversation while obtaining a shopping cart? Do college students entertain themselves by doing cartwheels in the aisles at midnight? Does a dazed elderly man migrate from department to department, muttering to himself and singing opera? If Youtube weren’t blocked in China, would its citizens post videos of the tacky t-shirt slogans and ill-fitting, unflattering clothing of Chinese customers? I know that much of what Wal-mart sells is actually made in China, but I’m curious about how an American phenomenon will translate. I’m also a bit distrustful about finding what we need with a label that I can read.

So I’m packing a baggie of powdered Gatorade, because Sophie once had symptoms of dehydration in Chengdu and I was afraid those symptoms would kick up into an asthma attack and I knew that a drink with electrolytes would probably make the difference. But our travel agency and guides and driver were insistent that we must take her to a hospital for an IV, and I kept saying, “No, I need a sports drink. Please help me find a sports drink.” And finally, after much determined pleading and arguing on my part, a guide and driver helped me scan the shelves of a grocery store until we found some Gatorade, labeled in Chinese but with the familiar lightning bolt logo, and sure enough, Sophie was soon on the mend.

And I’m taking a packet of Chapstick, which won’t take up that much room anyway, because of the Great Chapstick Search in Barcelona, where I couldn’t find lip balm at a grocery store, or at Happy Drugs, which turned out to be a candy store, or at the red cross pharmacies that sold only toiletries, or on the shelves of the green cross pharmacy, which carries actual drugs. The green cross pharmacy did have Chapstick in a top-secret location in a drawer behind the counter, as if lip balms were highly addictive popular street drugs. Or maybe just too big a temptation for shoplifters. Probably the latter, and I absorbed the cost: my long-sought tube of Chapstick was six dollars.

I also have lots of ibuprofen because in China three years ago I could only find the twelve-hour time release capsules, cough drops because I could only locate bitter herbal ones when I had bronchitis, Tylenol because Sophie is allergic to ibuprofen, and unscented laundry detergent because the scented kind gives Sophie hives. Our Kindles are loaded with books, which I bought all at once until my credit card was suspended, because, it turns out, buying multiple books at one time is considered “unusual activity.”

The list goes on and on: a laptop to do my work, pens and paper, chargers, adaptors, and converters, more fun stuff: a few actual books in case of mechanical failure, playing cards, cameras and memory cards, a beanbag panther named Tullah in an evening gown, one of six mascots from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford traveling around the world with faculty and staff this summer. Oh, and extra pants because I accidentally left all my pants at a hotel laundry in Xi’an and had to wear the same pair for the whole trip last time.

All this stuff: my hedges against inconvenience or expense or boredom or disaster, but more than that, against all the anxiety and uncertainty that goes with stepping into unknown territory. I know that there’s always something you forgot and always something you aren’t prepared for and communication barriers that make you feel like you might as well be an infant again without any language at all. There’s the additional stupidity of sleep deprivation and the weirdness of eating dinner when you usually eat breakfast and the woozy feeling that even gravity is operating differently after you’ve been on a plane for 24 hours.

Packing, I’ve gradually segued from denial and avoidance to manic accumulation to mild panic and self-questioning, to, finally, this zen mood where I’m ready to let go of my attachments to stuff and ditch it all and take my chances. I survey the dining room table calmly and take a deep breath. I doubt that I really need any of this.

Which is why it’s a good thing that I’ve planned so carefully in advance and have a notebook full of checklists and a dining room table covered with stuff. Now I can just mindlessly shovel everything into our duffel bags with reasonable confidence that we’ll mostly have what we need.

So that’s what we’re going to do: toss stuff in, zip up the bags, and go.

Noodles in Shanghai

Published: June 17, 2011

We arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday after a mostly sleepless night.  By the time we got through immigration and the baggage claim and took the shuttle to our hotel, it was 8:30, but mercifully, it was not 8:30 a.m. as it was at home, but 8:30 p.m., almost bedtime in China.

“Can we go to bed now?” Sophie asked.  Our airplane seats had been so cramped, it seemed to me that folding ourselves up and mailing ourselves in padded envelopes might be a more comfortable way to travel.  So now the narrow flat beds at the Shanghai Airlines Travel Hotel were especially appealing.  Except I knew that if we went to bed now, we’d wake up starved by midnight.

“We should eat something,” I said, turning through the room service menu.  There was a “prime beefburger” with “saseage bacon, fried egg and cheese,” a club sandwich with “smoked turkey lettuce, tomato, bacan and fried egg,” “Your own choiced pizza,” which did not involve a fried egg, and noodles with shredded meat, preserved vegetables, and a fried egg.

“Maybe we’ll stay awake better if we move around,” I suggested.  “Let’s go check out the restaurants.”  As if in a weird dream, we ended up at the first floor Dream Bar Coffee Shop staring, bewildered, at a menu of heavy-looking western meals like “Spragetti Bolognase” and a 20-page picture menu of Chinese dishes involving goat and oxen.  We decided to look for a Chinese restaurant upstairs, got lost on the way, had no will to retrace our steps, and found ourselves once again lying on our beds, Sophie with the room service menu propped in front of her.

The menu slipped to the floor.  We stared at it, making no move to pick it up.

“We have to order something and boil water,” I said.  Both tasks seemed insurmountable.  But finally I forced myself to my feet and in a sudden spurt of energy ordered two bowls of noodles and filled the water pot.  Then, overcome with exhaustion, I stared at the outlet on the wall behind the little table.  Crawling under it to plug in the pot seemed like too much effort.

A young man in a red jacket, white shirt, and black pants arrived bearing one enormous bowl of noodles with one ceramic spoon and one set of chopsticks.  I started to explain that we wanted two bowls, but then I changed my mind.  Instead, I asked if we could have another spoon.

He looked confused.

“Two spoons?” I said.

The young man’s confusion turned to alarm.  He rushed over to the phone and shouted rapidly into it as if our room had just caught fire.  Within seconds another young man in the same uniform arrived, looking worried.

“We just need two spoons,” I explained.  I held up two fingers and then the spoon.  Somehow I had gotten across that we didn’t want fried egg with our noodles, but I could not convey the concept of two.  I know the word for two in Chinese, er, but it seemed to be the spoon that was tripping everyone up, and I didn’t know the word for that.

And no wonder—no one who is Chinese eats a bowl of noodles with a ceramic spoon, but with chopsticks before finally dipping out the broth.  I was so exhausted that I was reverting to an irrational American reliance on silverware.  But finally both guys smiled and pointed to the spoon and each raised two fingers and we all said together, “Two spoons!” and then they hurried off and I never saw them again.

So Sophie and I set to work making a mess with chopsticks, a ceramic spoon, and a plastic fork, a supply of which she remembered me packing for just such occasions.  The noodles were very long and they were flying everywhere.  Long noodles are supposed to confer longevity, but after a while life seemed too short to keep wrestling with those noodles, delicious as they were. Sophie managed to roll hers around her chopsticks like spaghetti, but mine kept unraveling and collapsing onto the desk.  And my lap.  And the floor.

I was ready to give up when our doorbell rang and there stood a woman in a red jacket, white shirt, and black pants, bearing another huge bowl of noodles.

“Oh, no,” I said.  “I just needed another spoon. Two spoons.”  I held up two fingers and pointed to the spoon on her tray.  I didn’t really want it anymore, but what could I say?  Bewildered, she handed me the spoon, and I thanked her, closed the door, and went to bed, wondering how, if I couldn’t even explain that I wanted two spoons, I was ever going to be able to say anything more complicated. Things that, it would turn out, might have come in handy the next day, like, “I am lost. Please help me find this address” or “My electric converter seems to be on fire.” But for that moment, I couldn’t even remember how to speak English, so I went to sleep.

Getting Lost in Guilin

Published: June 19, 2011

Every few feet in the Guilin airport, along the corridor as we deplaned, along the walls as we passed gate after gate, on every post in the baggage claim, was an ad, the same ad over and over: a disembodied face of a Chinese man beaming down on a box of throat lozenges, looking beneficent toward cough drops and all humankind.

We found our luggage and our guide Simon, who led us to a waiting van.  As we headed down the highway, he told us that Guilin is a “small city” of 700,000, named after the short, leafy gui trees that line the road, known in English as osmanthus trees.  Ahead of us rose what appeared to be enormous tree-covered mountains, some low and curved, others jutting up to points. I’d read about these limestone mountains, the inspiration for much Chinese poetry and scroll painting, when I first booked our apartment. Now, we followed the Li River, so high that it lapped against the bank, spilling over into puddles on a picnic area and playground.

We arrived at Ming Garden, a high rise apartment building in the downtown area, down a long alley of tall buildings and lots crowded with motorbikes. The apartment has wood floors and wood lattice decorations on the walls, screens, arch, and doors separating the bedroom from the dining area and living room from a small alcove along the window. Out the window we can look across at the mountains or down on the roof gardens and flapping laundry of other high rises, a stretch of field beyond, part of it wild and scrubby, part of it cultivated into gardens.  We can also see a schoolyard with basketball courts and children jumping rope, and hear whistles and shouts and music during school hours.

But at first I was too preoccupied to appreciate the apartment and view. That morning in Shanghai, I’d plugged in a converter, which started smoking and emitting a foul odor, and my entire day had been overshadowed by anxiety about getting the computer hooked up so I could meet some impending deadlines. To my relief, we figured it out between us, Ms. Huang the housekeeper, Simon, Sophie, and me.

Then Simon led Sophie and me down a street of honking cars and barreling motorbikes, past noodle shops and fruit markets and China Mobile stores and banks and Wal-Mart, part of a five-story mall with a KFC downstairs.  We arrived at a restaurant with white tablecloths and yellow-covered chairs with skirts, vines of red and pink roses rising to the ceiling behind glass, beads dripping down.  We sat in the midst of a lively, loud party of young men in white shirts clanking bottles and glasses and smoking and eating and rushing back and forth between tables to toast each other.

Simon helped us order, then showed me from the window how to get back to our apartment: turn by the blue billboard, follow the street toward the radio tower.  It seemed simple enough.  We said goodbye to Simon.

But by the time we finished eating, the sun had set, and the blue sign was no longer visible, and the tower had been swallowed up by the darkness.  We emerged from the restaurant onto angled streets and had no idea which way to go.

Sophie has a possessive attitude toward China and considers it incumbent on her to know things or to figure them out, to lead the way rather than to panic or melt down at being hopelessly lost on the busy streets of a city where we can’t ask even the most basic question.  It’s like as soon as we land in China, she becomes the host and I’m the guest, and while she can be a little bossy, this quality of taking charge will someday serve her well. “I think it’s this way,” Sophie said, so we headed down a street, gradually realizing that we didn’t recognize a thing.

Simon had told us that if we got lost, we should just hail a taxi and show the driver the apartment address. But the only taxis we saw were plowing forward at high speeds.  “Where is Wal-Mart?” I asked a man.  I was clinging to a thin thread of hope that he knew a little bit of English, but he responded in Chinese, and we shook our heads.

The man kept following us and talking and gesturing.  It occurred to me that in the U.S., this would not be a good thing, a strange man insistently following two lost females in the dark. I turned on the next street to shake him off, then realized that this street was far less populated. Sophie sent me a nervous glance as the man continued to follow. “Thank you,” I said to the man. “Xie xie.”  But he wouldn’t go away.

It turned out that this stranger had shouldered the responsibility of making sure we got to where we needed to go, and he was not giving up.  “Wal-Mart,” he said, gesturing in the other direction.  “Wal-Mart.” He seemed relieved when we went back the other way, and sure enough, a block later, there was the blue sign Simon had pointed out.  Maybe. Or maybe it was a different bluish sign.  But the man seemed happy, so we headed hopefully down that street, and soon we stumbled across the big Wal-Mart sign.

Mesmerized by the sight of something vaguely familiar, we entered the stiflingly hot, humid mall, took an escalator up to the first floor of Wal-mart, found the crowds and packages labeled in Chinese overwhelming, had no idea where to find groceries or bottled water, and, on sensory overload combined with jet lag combined with stress over knowing that we were still lost, left rapidly.

But then we managed.  Somehow we crossed an eight-lane street, which is a major feat in China where the traffic never comes to a standstill, and somehow we found our way back to our gate and our building and our apartment.  I forgot all about the smoking converter and the freaky feeling of being totally lost, and started to feel like a competent world traveler who might figure everything out after all.

Note to readers: Thank you for reading my blog and for comments and messages on Facebook.  I appreciate them very much but cannot access Facebook, which is blocked by the Chinese government, to send a reply.  I do welcome (and can read and reply to) e-mail at ngm4@pitt.edu.

The Ancient Art of Chinese Street-Crossing

Published: 21, 2011

Three years ago, when we were in Beijing and then Xi’an, I flat-out refused to cross any streets unless we were with a guide.  If there was no restaurant on our side of the street, we ate at the hotel. If Sophie wanted to go exploring, we walked up and down the same block, getting to know the five or six shops on it very well.  While we sometimes gazed yearningly at the opposite side of the street, I didn’t feel that as a responsible parent I could allow my child to walk in front of chaotic Chinese traffic any more than I could allow her to sky dive or leap canyons on a motorcycle.

The conventional wisdom is that in China, foreigners should adopt a herd mentality and insert themselves into the middle of packs of experienced Chinese street crossers. Those people know what they’re doing, so do what they do.  And besides, if anyone gets hit and you’re in the middle, those surrounding you will take the most impact. Great advice, but I decided that I’d sooner use my airplane seat cushion as a flotation device than risk crossing a Chinese intersection.

But we’re in Guilin for a month, and it will be a very long month if we confine ourselves to one block on one side of the street.  So I’m trying to overcome my fears.

In Guilin, as in most Chinese cities, even if there’s a crosswalk with a green light, traffic never really comes to a stop.  If you wait for the street to be clear, you might as well pitch a tent on the curb and plan to live there for the rest of your life. Street-crossing involves altogether different techniques than in the U.S.

To begin, you must step off the curb and check the first lane of traffic, often a separate motorbike lane. Is anyone coming?  If so, you must judge their distance and speed and decide whether they will hit you if you walk right out in front of them.  This is just the warm-up leg. If you manage to make it across the lane, you can take refuge on the curb and gather your courage for the extreme sport part of the process: now you have to get across three lanes of honking vans, speeding taxis, barreling compact cars, and double-decker buses bearing down on you.

It’s best to take it a step at a time.  Consider carefully but quickly:  can you make it across the first lane?  Once you get to the second lane, can you keep going within a reasonable amount of time?  Can you then cross the third lane without dying instantly?  If so, you go, and then you land on another curb and repeat the entire process for three lanes of vehicles coming from the other direction.

Once you make it safely across the second three-lane set, it’s tempting to breathe a huge sigh of relief and rest on your laurels, in which case you will be sideswiped instantly by a motorbike coming from the other direction.  It’s easy to forget that yes, there’s an eighth lane of traffic.  Get across it safely to the sidewalk but don’t get too cocky; motorbikes sometimes travel on the sidewalks as well.

It’s one thing to master techniques for crossing the street, but then there’s form to worry about.  Sophie has perfect form.  Her timing and judgment allow her to stroll across the street with the utmost casualness, just like your typical Chinese citizen, not looking the least bit fearful that her life is about to end, even if she claims that she’s really thinking, “Oh my god oh my god I’m going to die I’m going to die.” She likes to make fun of me, at my tendencies to suddenly think “oh my god I’m going to die” and break into a scurry, a jog, or an outright run.

Right now, as I write, she is doing re-enactments of Mom Crossing the Street around the living room.  She says, “You look like a flying bird trying to get away from a. . . “ and then she finishes lamely, “bigger flying bird.”  Then she glares at me.  “I’m too tired to come up with a metaphor,” she says. She hurdles the coffee table and doubles over with laughter at her memory of me crossing streets, but I don’t mind.  I’ve now crossed several streets and am still alive, and now feel confident about crossing the street to explore the five-story Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart in Translation

Published: June 25, 2011

For Cindy and Janet

From a distance, on first glance, Wal-Mart in Guilin looks pretty much like any Wal-Mart in the U.S.  But then there’s the Chinese characters underneath the familiar logo.  And, instead of a parking lot in front of the building, there’s a square where people gather and music plays and vendors sell dumplings and meats and slices of watermelon and packaged ice cream treats. Since the parking lot is an underground garage, I doubt that people camp in RVs there.  Actually, I’ve never seen an RV (or, for that matter, an SUV) in China.  Alongside the square is another lot with row upon row of motorbikes, in Guilin apparently the most popular form of transportation, edging out bicycles by at least twenty to one.

Right inside next to the KFC is a sloping electric walkway that takes you to the second floor and the entrance to Wal-Mart.  Like in the U.S., greeters stationed at the door come running to slap stickers on any item you bring in with you, but they don’t otherwise proffer greetings.

From a distance, the Wal-Mart shelves look pretty much the same as in the U.S., though shorter, so that you can look from one aisle into the next. While all the labels are in Chinese, color-coded products like Herbal Essences shampoo were easy for Sophie to identify.  She picked out some Hello Hydration and None of Your Frizziness, or at least we assumed that’s what the bottles contained. I’m still a little suspicious about whether you can really buy None of Your Frizziness in China, since I appear to be the only person in China with frizziness, particularly in this tropical region where the humidity turns my hair three times its normal size by the end of every day.

The clothing displays with white mannequins and models in the ads painted on the wall, the appliance section that carries many varieties of rice cookers, the toy and toiletry aisles all tend to be relatively deserted.  One night, though, there must have been a great deal on hideous rubber punching bag-like toys in the shape of some unfamiliar blobby cartoon character, because everyone was snapping them up. There are always crowds in the entertainment section, people playing with computers and reading books, leaving small children planted in front of TVS that show cartoons.  In front of the big screen TVs along the edge, a small theater has been created with rows of benches where sagging husbands and boyfriends watch sports and nap.

Alongside yet another slanted electric walkway, piles of boxes and packages allow shoppers to grab bargain items on the run: candy, batteries, and condoms. At the top of the escalator is the grocery section, with giant-sized bottles of corn oil and labels that we recognized: Great Value, Pringles, Oreos, Cheetos. Then we looked closer.

Great Value products include huge quantities of dried mushrooms and preserved plums, cans of congee, Xinjiang Hetian Jujube, which Sophie described as like big wrinkled sausage balls, Hawthorn Sweetmeat Coil, another snack that looked a little like American dog treats, and preserved fish, four entire fish dangling upside down in each package, watching us.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the snack aisles reading labels: Great Value Microwave Popcorn—creamy sweet flavor. Pringles in cucumber, seaweed, and Hong Kong Fish Ball flavors. Among the shrimp flakes and pea snacks, Cheetos—chicken, steak, and milk-flavored.  Near the osmanthus, coconut, and corn-flavored candy, near the coffee, blackberry, and blueberry gum, Oreos, with grape, raspberry, and banana filling.

The meat and deli sections carry mostly dumplings and fried bread, though once we paused before some elegant looking cooked ducks, their necks twisted gracefully to gaze back at us. We’re not used to even acknowledging that our food was once alive, much less celebrating it as these artistically arranged ducks seemed designed to do.

Walking down the street the other day, Sophie said, “That chicken is making me nervous.”

“What chicken?” I asked.

“You seriously do not see the chicken?” Sophie asked.

I’d been studying the packages and purses at the feet of motorbike drivers, and now looked up to see a woman ahead of us carrying a chicken upside down, holding its feet.  It hung there limply, then suddenly raised its wings and swung up into the air in a desperate frenzy of activity.  The woman tightened her grip and, defeated, the bird dropped down to dangle helplessly again, doomed, presumably, to become the woman’s dinner.

So far we haven’t seen any live chickens in Wal-Mart, though in her book Dreaming in Chinese Deborah Fallows reports duck carcasses hanging from hooks at the Beijing Wal-Mart and tanks in the meat section full of live turtles and carp.

We’re not that disappointed that so little is familiar, since our trips to Wal-Mart are largely anthropological expeditions.  There’s not a lot of American stuff that we miss so far.  A cook shows up at our apartment at noon and six each day to whip up fabulous dishes involving meat and fish and eggs and fresh vegetables.  She also often brings us fruit to snack on: lychee, mangoes, watermelon.  Once she cooked a whole fish, head and all, and although Sophie was a little freaked out at food that seemed to be watching her, we turned the eye so it stared at the wall instead of at us and ate every bite.

Scaling the Dragon’s Backbone: Our Visit to Longji’s Rice Terraces

Published: June 27, 2011

Last week, we arranged a trip to the Longji Terraced Fields, a favorite tourist destination two and a half hours from Guilin. A new guide named Bing picked us up for the long drive to the minority villages where the Zhuang and the Yao peoples have lived for more than thirteen generations and seven hundred years. We drove out of the city through villages that more closely matched my picture of rural China: dogs running into the road, bikes toting platforms piled with construction materials or watermelons, an old man in a coolie hat pushing a wheelbarrow. Along the road grew osmanthus trees and orange groves and rice, and tiny ducks floated on ponds.

Soon we turned up and up a narrow, winding mountain road, cliffs dropping abruptly alongside, a clear stream rushing by in the valley below, getting further and further away as we climbed.  Our driver honked his way through every hairpin turn on the one-lane road. When we met another car or van or bus, somehow we squeezed by each other without slowing down. Waterfalls fell from the sides of the mountains and swinging bridges swayed high above the valley.

We stopped to buy tickets and a woman with elaborately knotted hair approached us, offering postcards for sale.

“She is Yao, married with children,” Bing murmured.  He knew this, he explained later, because Yao women only cut their hair once in their lives, when they are sixteen.  Then they wear their hair in styles that signify whether they are single, married, or married with children.

“What if they’re unmarried with children?” I asked.

He laughed and said, “There is no hairstyle for that.”

Oh, well, I thought.  What single mother has time to do her hair?

Sophie was disappointed that there were only three categories. Why no hairstyle, she asked, for widows, or women who have lost children?  “And what about widows with dead children?” she asked indignantly that night, right before dropping off to sleep.

Soon we began to ascend the mountain on foot.  Zhuang women lounged at the entrance to the walkway, wearing turban-like head coverings made of colorful terry cloth that looked like soft absorbent cushions.  All along the walk were stalls with embroidered pillow coverings and dresses and handcrafted earrings and toys, bags and jars of chili peppers, spreads of colorful fruits. Sedan chairs rested by the roadside, waiting for customers to pay to be carried to the top of the mountain by two strong men. In front of us, girls lugged large bamboo baskets on their backs.

After about 200 uneven, steep, sometimes slippery steps made of rock, the passages usually narrow with ravines dropping off sharply below and no guardrails, the sun glaring, the temperature somewhere in the neighborhood of 105, I was hot and thirsty and tired and a little dizzy. Bing, a young man who regularly leads tour groups on hikes here, and Sophie, who if she were home would have been right then on her way to the National YMCA Gymnastics Competition, mounted the steps briskly. I was starting to see why the brochure that had come with our tickets said, “Hiking should according to physical condition.”

Since I couldn’t keep up, I paced myself by stopping periodically to take pictures of the rice paddies cultivated by the Yao and Zhuang, according to our brochure, in “every corner of the valley, forest and cliffs.” They were amazing, like slices of bread staggered one on top of the next, or a bowl of scalloped potatoes.

Just when I thought I couldn’t go on, Bing said, “Halfway there!”

Halfway? Seriously? That was all? If there had been a bench I might have sat on it, but instead I had no choice but to push on up the steep steps, past precarious looking wooden platforms built out over the valley, past a hotel with a barn for animals on the ground floor, past a youth hostel and vendors with fruit and bracelets and Yao women who offered to unwind their hair for tourists for 10 RMB, about $1.50.

Finally, finally we reached a platform overlooking the layers upon layers of rice paddies.  Feeling triumphant, we joined all of the tourists taking pictures and exclaiming over the view.

Then Bing said, “Just a little further.” That’s when I saw the 50 or so more steep steps continuing up the mountain.

Up we went, Sophie and Bing at what appeared to be a jog, me at a trudge.

When we reached the top platform, everything became very, very quiet. For a few minutes, we were the lone climbers up there, surveying the panorama of rice terraces against the backdrop of mountains. Sophie thought they looked like steps going up and down everywhere.  These terraces combined with the mountains above are known as the “Dragon’s Backbone,” the terraces like scales, the mountaintops zigzagging against the sky.

“When you lead tours, does everyone get to the top?” I asked Bing.

“Yes,” he said. “But usually we go much more slowly.  And some people ride up in the chairs.”

Sophie and I shared a bottle of water and looked out at the mountains while our sweat dried.  Locals often came here, Bing said, to walk off stress.  I could see why. After 550 steps and the view spreading out before you, nothing else can really matter.

Sophie declared that she was starved, so we headed down again.  We stopped at an open-air café, where we had a local specialty, sticky rice with bacon and corn that had been stuffed into hollowed-out bamboo and roasted over an open flame, then broken open and brought to our table. We sat there for a long time, surrounded by nature and tradition, looming mountains and sculpted rice paddies and the Yao and Zhuang in traditional costumes and rugged rock steps and bamboo chairs and a man surfing the Internet in a corner.

Back in the van, headed down the mountain back to Guilin, we rounded a curve and came upon a man right at the moment that he raised a stick and brought it down hard, over and over. “Oh, my,” I said, when I realized that he was beating a snake to death. I imagined that he’d spotted the black coil on the path ahead and thought fast to save his companions from danger. But Bing pointed out the bus parked by the side of the road.  “He is a bus driver who saw a chance to take home some snake wine,” Bing said.

On we went, down, down, down, and I once again skimmed the brochure.  “Here, you may hear a sound of purely love song, you may see a group of Yao girls, who are carrying things with their bamboo basket on the way home among the mountain,” it said. “They are all treasures in the world.” I thought of that line as we passed a school letting out, children flooding out of a drive and hopping onto waiting motorbikes and bicycles, riding off with fathers and mothers while others started running, running, their backpacks flying, down the side of the road.

Learning Chinese: The Importance of Interpretive Dance

Published: June 30, 2011

After two weeks in China, what I’m most homesick for, besides our friends and our dog, is the ease of communication in my own language, the ability to make offhand remarks and casual observations.

Our housekeeper, cook, and Chinese tutor Ms. H. speaks a little English.  Combine that with my sparse and fairly useless Chinese phrases, and we know just enough of each other’s language to generate a lot of confusion. Add in some good will and a genuine desire to communicate, and we can spend two hours on one simple sentence.

For instance, I might say, “My, what a beautiful tree.” Ms. H. nods and repeats back to me, in Chinese, what she thought I just said.  If I don’t smile and nod enthusiastically, despite the fact that I don’t understand Chinese, the conversation is bound to continue.

She’ll do a pantomime of a tree, and then I’ll do a pantomime of a tree, and pretty soon this will evolve into a full-scale interpretive dance where we’ll both re-enact the beauty of the tree, and if I don’t smile and nod and put on my shoes to go out, she’ll whip out her electronic translator, and then I’ll open the translator on my computer, and I’ll type away while she traces characters on her screen. Our devices take our words, filter them through the others’ idioms, and spit back total nonsense.

She reads my words converted to characters on her device and then writes what she thought I said, and it comes out, “Upside down your pleasing roots?” She looks understandably confused.

I try again on my computer: “My, what a beautiful tree.” The words are converted to pinyin.  She reads them and types something: “Belonging to you the lovely vegetation?” her screen says.

I type, “Oh, my, that tree is beautiful” and she types something else: “Branches and leaves oh glorious possessions?”

Finally I realize that the word “My” is getting in the way, and so I type, “That tree is beautiful” and she looks puzzled, because apparently now the pinyin words say, “You like botanic study in the everywhere?”

Finally, exhausted, we both smile and nod and repeat our beautiful tree interpretive dance and end things on a friendly note, still feeling a bit puzzled.

Some afternoons, Sophie and I take Chinese lessons.  Slowly we are learning to say things like, “I want to go shopping,” “He is my big brother,” and “I like to watch TV,” which we don’t, actually, because it’s all in Chinese. And anyway, you can learn all the words and sentence constructions in the world, and if you get the tones wrong, no one will understand what you’re saying.  Deborah Fallows writes about a story by a writer named Chao Yuan Ren that demonstrates the difficulty of the Chinese language.  The story is made up of 92 characters, each, she says, “pronounced the same way, shi—the story of a poet (shi) named Shi who loves to eat lions (shi shi), goes to the market (shi) to buy ten (shi) of them, takes them home to eat (shi) and discovers they are made (shi) of stone (shi).”

So even though I can now say, “Today is Friday, yesterday was Thursday, tomorrow is Saturday, the day after tomorrow is Sunday,” this was no help whatsoever the first time we went to a Bank of China, the branch near our apartment, to exchange money.

At Chinese banks, each teller has a little machine that displays his or her customer satisfaction rating.  But customers can’t choose the teller with the highest rating.  It’s the luck of the draw, the first teller who posts your number. This is how we got stuck with the teller who had two stars out of five. She said something to me, and I said, “I don’t speak Chinese.”  So she said something to Sophie.  Sophie also shook her head and said, “I don’t speak Chinese.”  The woman looked irritated and went on, faster and louder, staring forcefully at Sophie, who kept shaking her head.

With a disgusted grunt, the woman started fingering my twenty dollar bills with evident displeasure. They were relatively crisp and clean, but she examined a slightly bent corner and flipped the money over to trace a fold in the middle of one bill.  She said something else to Sophie.

Sophie shook her head.  She still didn’t speak Chinese.

Finally, the woman called to a supervisor who spoke some English. “We cannot exchange this money,” he said.  “It is dirty.”

The problem was not, after all, slight bends or folds, but something no American would have ever noticed, a tiny bit of red dye that had bled onto the edge of the bills, probably from a thin strip of paper that some business or bank had once used to secure them together.

On our way out of the bank, I pushed the “dissatisfied” button.

Two days later at a Bank of China branch in Yangshuo, where Western tourists are much more common, a cheerful teller with three stars barely glanced at the “dirt” on my bills, and I successfully exchanged them.

At first I thought maybe if we’d spoken fluent Mandarin at the first bank, I would have had the language to marshal some great argument for why they should accept my money.  But later I understood that if we’d spoken fluent Mandarin at the first bank, the two-star teller probably never would have gotten irritated with us in the first place.

Nevertheless, we’re making progress, if somewhat slow. After Sophie practiced reading a pinyin book with Ms. H. one day, Ms. H. wrote on her translator, “You are very strong.”  She meant that Sophie had done a good job, and we knew that, even if her device’s interpretation sounded slightly sinister:  “Your blood is worth bottling,” it said.

Cooking Ice: Yangshuo Adventures with Cloud 9 Cooking School

Published: July 3, 2011

At Cloud 9 cooking school in Yangshuo, the first thing we do is meet our classmates, who come from Nevada, Great Britain, Germany, and New Zealand.  They all speak English.  This is our first encounter with English speakers in days, and I’m so overjoyed I don’t care what we cook. We choose dishes, then troop off to the market to buy the ingredients.

This is a real market, very different from the Wal-Mart where Chinese people go to hang out in the entertainment section. This is where natives do their real day-to-day shopping. Right inside the door, the floor is crowded with bowls of live creatures.  Eels swimming in water, frogs hopping up and down inside their net bags. Across the warehouse-sized room are table after table of squash and cucumbers and tomatoes and carrots and eggplants.  Our instructor leads us up and down aisles, giving little lectures about selected vegetables. I’m talking to one of the women from Nevada instead of paying attention. Sophie frowns at me.

The instructor warns us that in the meat section, there will be dogs.  “They are one kind of dog,” she says.  “We do not eat pets.” Sophie and a couple of the women decline to go.  I have this weird disability that keeps me from recognizing and processing unfamiliar visual stimuli, which means that in the seventh grade when we watched “Wheels of Tragedy,” a gruesome cautionary film about reckless driving, I had no idea what was going on. My classmates were horrified and grossed out by the blood and guts splattered on the highway.  I dozed through what seemed to me abstract patterns. So I feel safe entering the butcher shop.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an olfactory disability, and the smell of blood is overwhelming.  We pass tables of animals in various stages of slaughter as well as cages of flapping chickens and quacking ducks.  There are no cages of whimpering puppies, although later everyone else says they saw a dog being butchered. Slabs of meat hang from hooks.  A trip through a Chinese butcher shop could drive many Americans to vegetarianism, but most shoppers whisk through matter-of-factly.  There are no hidden realities about what they are having for dinner.

By the time we get back to the restaurant, we are all slick with sweat; it’s at least 100 degrees, and it feels like we could wring buckets of sweat out of our hair. We proceed up to our classroom where somehow all of our ingredients have been prepared and placed on shelves beneath our cooking stations.

First, we chop eggplant into strings and put it in a bowl of salty water to get rid of the bitter flavor. We cut the seeds out of red and green peppers and cucumbers and shred them into strips. We squish some garlic and ginger under our knives and then mince it, cut carrots and chicken breasts into cubes, and hack spring onions into half-inch pieces. Whenever we have handled meat, we line up outside and wash our hands. Then we wipe down our cutting boards with the tissue under the sink—so this is where all the toilet paper in China has disappeared to.

The instructor proceeds at lightning speed, making few allowances for the thirteen-year-old in the room, much less for those of us who are cooking dunces.  She does occasionally reach over to help out Sophie, who is keeping up pretty well. I hasten to follow along, since sometimes I can barely hear the instructor over the kitchen noise.

We open our baggies of dumpling dough, trace water around the edges, fill them, and seal them.  Everyone else twists theirs into fancy shapes. Mine are awkward little pillows.  We place them in bamboo steamers and send them to the kitchen to be steamed.  Then, in the sweltering heat, we turn on our woks and put in oil, stir fry the eggplant, take it out, fry the garlic, add corn starch, spring onion, pepper and sesame oil. One plate down, one to go.

We switch to clean woks to stir fry our chicken, but Sophie is shorter than the rest of us, right in the line of fire of spitting oil, and she gets hit below the eye.  It burns so painfully that she leaves to splash water on it.  By the time I enlist the instructor to cover our stations so I can follow her, the guy from Stuttgart, who turns out to be a medical student, has things under control. He asks for a clean cloth.  The women who work in the kitchen offer some aloe from a plant on the sill, but the medical student says we’ll start with ice.

Someone brings up some ice.  Once we’ve established that Sophie’s eye is OK, I find myself eyeing that ice with envy. It’s the first time I’ve seen ice in China.  We can’t have it in restaurants because there’s no way to ensure that it was made with boiled water.

By the time Sophie’s eye feels better, our classmates are marching out, bearing plates of Gung Bao Chicken and Braised Eggplant.  Our dumplings meet us downstairs. I’m too tired and hot to be hungry, too drained to properly enjoy a table full of English speakers from all over the world. I drink my lukewarm water and dream of ice cubes, and when we get back

to our apartment, it occurs to me to check the miniature freezer compartment in our tiny refrigerator, where I find a dollhouse-sized ice cube tray.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever remember how to make Gung Bao Chicken, braised eggplant, or dumplings again, but we make some mean ice cubes.

Blue Silk Ribbons: Entwining the Richness of Luck


Published: July 7, 2011

Each time we prepare to go to China, a few well-meaning people say, “Your trip will be good for Sophie.  It will show her how lucky she is.”  I thought of this as we boarded the Li River cruise.  Our brochure compared the river to a “jade ribbon winding among thousands of grotesque peaks.” Or, as the Tang Dynasty poet Hah Yu put it,

The river winds like a blue silk ribbon

While the hills erect like green jade hairpins.

For three and a half hours, we cruised along, watching the “spectacular landscapism and elegant hills, the towering peaks, the variegated cliffs and odd-shaped crags” shaped like a cat’s face with little ears, like an apple, like a snail. We passed the Hill of Nine Horses.  I could only make out two of the horses and a piggybank.  We passed the scene depicted on the back of a 20 yuan note and bamboo growing along the water that looked like peacocks’ tails.  We passed water buffalo and cormorants and bamboo rafts that are no longer made of bamboo but of PVC pipe and farmland that is now rented out for cell phone towers.

And I wondered, as I often do, at the idea that travel’s primary purpose is to instill appreciation for our own lives, which always seems to me a bit smug, a way of holding ourselves apart from other cultures. There are many reasons to take a child back to the land of her birth: to expose her to the beauty of another place and the variety of human possibility, to open up her imagination, to help her understand the complexity of her own roots.  Maybe, somewhere along the way, she will also learn to appreciate her own privileges and opportunities.

But this focus on how lucky our children are makes me nervous. In my research for my forthcoming book, I ran across a lot of frustration from adult adoptees about constantly being told that they were “lucky.” This emphasis ignores the sadness of having been born into situations that made it impossible for their birth parents to raise them. Though most feel great gratitude about some aspects of their lives, many do not regard it as lucky to have been separated forever by language and customs from their original homes. No one loves their impoverished family less than others love their wealthy ones.

So I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this notion of “luck” and how it relates to our trip. Last weekend, Sophie rode a double decker bus to Ms. H’s apartment for a visit.  There, Sophie and Ms. H.’s daughter spent the afternoon reading books, watching a Barbie movie, and eating a fruit that tastes like a cantaloupe but looks like a gourd.  Ms. H’s apartment was smaller than our western Pennsylvania house, but their TV was bigger than ours, Sophie said, not much of a revelation since everyone’s TV is bigger than ours.  “I don’t even consider it a TV, really,” one of our friends likes to say.  Sophie came home with the distinct impression that American pre-teens are more sophisticated (“It was a Barbie movie,” she said, still reeling) but that their lives are not that much different from their Chinese counterparts.

Later we went to visit a school in Guilin right when it let out for the three-hour lunch break. Some children ate at school rather than going home for hot meals cooked by grandparents, then jumped rope and played basketball in the courtyard or disappeared to nap in a special room in one of the three five-story buildings. The walls were colorful, covered with maps, charts, pictures, posters, and framed drawings by students.  In the courtyard, Chinese children’s music played, then a saxophone solo by Ray Charles. Everywhere we went, we were mobbed by kids who said, “Hello!” and shrank away giggling when we answered.  A bunch of kids in red kerchiefs greeted us with the Young Pioneers of the Communist Party salute.

It is true that China is a developing country, and this and government oppression has had occasional direct impact on our own lives.  We have to boil all the water we drink.  The government blocks Internet sites like Facebook, keeping us from easy communication with many friends. Most significantly, of course, we most likely owe our relationship with each other to a government policy limiting the number of children that people can have. The realities are mixed ones.

We feel very lucky that we can travel in China for six weeks, but such “luck” always involves trade-offs.  We would not be here if not for the death of my mother—and for the fact that she left behind money for the education of her grandchildren.  I am my daughter’s mother because of another mother’s loss.

“One hundred miles Lijiang River, one hundred miles art gallery,” our cruise brochure said, referring to the landscapes along that now-polluted river that have inspired writers and painters since ancient times. The tour itself was like a microcosm of the beauty and variety and contrasts and contradictions of China. I realized that what I want is for my daughter to have a sense of this complexity, to imagine, without fear, what it would have been like to have grown up here, to gain the tools to someday continue to follow her passion for travel. And, as the grotesque peaks erected before us, I hoped that she would end up feeling lucky—to be the product of not one, but two, rich heritages, of two cultures and families and sets of traditions, and that neither of them would end up feeling entirely foreign to her.

Destination Mall: Transportation Mission Complete!

Published: July 11, 2011

When Sophie decided that we should take a bus to a mall somewhere on the edge of Guilin, she didn’t think her request was that big of a deal. Her past travel experience has been in American cities where we can ask for directions and understand the answers, in China with English-speaking guides, and in Spain and on Prince Edward Island with our intrepid friend Kellie, who has a great sense of direction and a fearless spirit of adventure. It is therefore not remarkable to Sophie to imagine an adult ushering her from point A to point B without incident.

I, on the other hand, possess an unparalleled genius for getting lost just about anywhere. When Sophie made her request, I was still basking in my success at mastering the bus journey to the  City Center.  On each trip I was on high alert, counting the stops, six altogether, and noting the landmarks: the big rock, the colored flags in the intersection, and the Niko Niko Do Plaza, our cue to start down the aisle of the top deck of the lurching bus, the ceiling so low I kept bumping my head, then down the steps to get off by the Guilin City Bookshop.

But now Sophie was ready to move on to challenges that struck me as Herculean: taking the bus to a mall somewhere an indeterminate number of stops away where I didn’t know what landmarks to watch for, to wade through acres and acres of shoes.  Even if by some unimaginable miracle we found the mall, how would we ever find the shoes she’d seen there a few days before, when we’d been on an excursion with a driver and guide?

I really hate shopping, but I could see the appeal of Chinese malls for a petite Chinese-American girl who has sometimes bought too-big shoes in the U.S. just so that she can wear age-appropriate ones rather than the sparkly ones with Disney princesses that actually fit. She’s too small to fit into the smallest pants sold at her favorite stores.  Dresses and tops are not so much a problem, but who wouldn’t be giddy in a city full of clothing made specifically for her figure  and coloring?

So I asked a guide for directions to the mall, and they seemed pretty simple. Just take bus number one to the end of the line, he said, and there it’ll be.

The buses in Guilin cost the equivalent of 15 cents (30 cents if you want air conditioning).  On bus number one, we rode and rode and rode. I couldn’t read a single street sign or business name.  I couldn’t understand the periodic announcements. We just kept going, and then we got to the end of the line and there it was, the noodle shop, the theater, the ubiquitous McDonalds and KFC, and the mall.

Sophie was mesmerized by the clothes, all the clothes made for hipless and buttless women, as she put it. Or she would have been mesmerized, except that we both quickly became confused by the sizing and distracted by our gathering audience. The crowd pressing in made the browsing experience so nervewracking that Sophie kept darting in front of me like a skittering bat and I kept almost tripping over her.  Later, whenever I opened the dressing room curtain so that she could look in the mirror, the crowd had grown.  Heads cocked as everyone admired Sophie in each new outfit. When we left the dressing room and stopped to calculate aloud how much the shirt she wanted would cost in American dollars, the crowd stole closer, listening. We were perspiring heavily by the time we left, when the other customers drifted over to the door and watched. I pretended that we were movie stars rather than zoo animals.

Although Sophie found the shoes that had prompted the excursion, she didn’t buy them. The store didn’t have a big enough size. Later we got on bus number one and rode it back.  We were almost home free when two policemen boarded and stood right in front of us, occasionally glancing our way. Or at least we thought they were policemen, since they were wearing official-looking uniforms, and my heart started to race again.  Foreigners are required by law to carry their passports at all times, but as far as I know, no one ever does because the risk of having a passport stolen is greater than the risk of being asked to present one. Sophie and I avoided looking at each other.  We focused on appearing casual and innocent of crime.

Then a paunchy policeman turned toward us. His uniform shirt was unbuttoned.  The belly that suddenly appeared right in front of our faces made it hard to take his authority seriously.

When we compared notes later, Sophie told me she thought, That policeman is naked. “What did you think?” she asked.

“I thought, ‘whew, he’s off duty, what a relief!” I said.

“Me too!” she said. “I thought, whew!”  And then, at the same time, we both said, “And then I thought, ‘ewwww!’”

We arrived at our stop and got off.  I was feeling pretty triumphant, but Sophie dodged my high five, turning it into a low five, well, actually, a tiny tap on the wrist. But then the next day, when I used my first Chinese ATM and did a little dance, despite how embarrassing that had to be for a thirteen-year-old, I got another wrist tap, this time unsolicited.  Not quite a high five, not even a low five, but still, a clear acknowledgement that yep, we’re figuring stuff out, and it’s really cool.