Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - Goodbye

Well, I finally wrote my last diary. I really did mean to keep up with it more, but I simply didn't. I think I shall tell some of those stories in various ways. This will be my last post to this blog. So goodbye.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - A Trip to Earthquake torn Sichuan

The little girl, all of ten years old, fidgets in her bed like all little girls her age made to sit still for too long. She smiles shyly as her mother proudly tells her story — of how she was trapped in a collapsed building, unable to move, for days until the army finally was able to dig her out. As they are speaking Chinese I understand nothing, but stand politely and try give a look of concern, and hope. The girl smiles at me and laughs like all little girls should laugh. It is a good ten minutes we are standing there before I notice a bandage on her left leg, just below the knee. Below the bandage is nothing, for her leg was amputated but days before.

On May 12, 2008 an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan Province in western China. It was felt as far away as Beijing and Tokyo. It killed over 69,000 people, injured as many as 370,000 and left approximately 5 million homeless. The effects were devastating and it will be lifetimes before China recovers. Recently I was able to visit some of the affected areas and meet with some of the people there. I will never be the same.

I traveled with my newfound friend, and instigator of the trip, Vivian. She is native Chinese and had the entire trip planned. There were three goals of the trip: to meet people affected by the earthquake and help them in any way we could, to act as reporters and deliver first hand accounts to various groups in the US who would like to help, and to meet with Chinese government officials about building an orphanage.

We arrived in Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan Province, and our base of operations on Monday afternoon. After dropping off our bags we met with one of Vivian's friends and headed straight towards the local hospital where many survivors were receiving treatment.

Zhi is probably in her early 50s, about medium height and plump from happier times. Her knees and hands are scarred and scabbed over. She is sleeping when we first come in but her husband quickly wakes her up and immediately she smiles at us, not knowing who we are but seeing we come as friends. She sits up tall, fusses with her hair and tries to look her best while her husband tells her story.

Like so many others her home was destroyed by the earthquake. She got out relatively unscathed, just a bump on her head and the fear that gripped them all. The army was quick to mobilize and sent out scores of convoys to pick up the survivors and take them to hospital. As she walked towards one such convoy, her head swam with dizziness from her wound and she fell, knocking herself unconscious. By the time she awoke, the convoy was long gone. So she walked.

For over twenty days and nights she walked – and crawled – her way to the city and help. She ate what she could find, a few wild berries, and some animals left dead in the grass. For nearly three weeks she teetered on the edge of death hoping for someone, anyone, to find her. No one did. With unfailing persistence she helped herself – eventually crawling her way to the city where there was a hospital and doctors. She can no longer walk as her legs are almost assuredly permanently damaged, and she will remain in hospital for quite some time. But she is alive, and thankful for that.

We met her, and so many others, at the hospital in Chengdu where many of survivors with urgent needs were taken along with hundreds in need of amputation. We talked with several, and observed many more trying to get a feel for what the people had experienced. I was struck by the strength of character seen in almost all of the patients. These people have come to know what suffering really means. They have lost family and friends and nearly their lives and yet are still grateful for what they do have. Everywhere we went people were smiling and laughing, happy to tell their stories. Happy to have survived.

We chatted with them, took pictures with them, and obtained their addresses and phone numbers. Later we brought them the developed pictures – now the only pictures they have of themselves since all others were lost in the quake. We chatted some more, or I should say the people and Vivian chatted as all I could do was smile and (hopefully) look encouraging.

A week later, when we returned home I gave the contact information to some of my Chinese friends. They have all promised to call those whom we visited and help them in any way they can. The government has done a good job of ensuring the people have shelter and food, but with so many affected it is impossible for them to hear every need. Though we may not be able to help with all of their problems, we hope we can at least be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry upon.

We had hoped to visit some of the worst hit areas but unfortunately this proved impossible. The government would not allow me to go anywhere near the epicenter and surrounding places. It seems they found out many of the Americans who had come to help were also secretly preaching religion (cults they called them) and as such foreigners were now banned. Vivian did get to go farther and reported back that alongside the rubble were rows and rows of temporary housing (mostly tents stuffed deep with people) and plenty of food.

Later in the week we traveled to Leshan to meet with the local government. Vivian is well connected and works as a volunteer for the Agape organization, which wants to build an orphanage in the area. Surprising, as Agape is openly a Christian organization, the government has agreed to give them some land upon which to build this orphanage. It is easily assumed that with so many orphans in the area after the earthquake and with not a single orphanage in the city, the government has decided to overlook this religious affiliation.

We first had a meeting with the local officials and it was my first chance to see the Chinese people in a more formal setting. We were served steaming hot tea in little glasses while a few young men waited in the wings ready to serve us more tea, or ashtrays as there was need.

The big boss (who I learned later was basically the governor of the entire area and a very big deal) introduced his coworkers who all stood up and bowed to us. Then Vivian made a show of thankfulness and introduced me and a young man from Agape. I wasn't really sure when she introduced me, so whenever everyone looked my way I sort of half way stood up and nodded.

An hour of formal and stilted conversation ensued. Once again I understood approximately nothing, but sat quietly with my now permanent smile. Eventually the meeting was concluded with another round of appreciation and we were escorted to lunch. I quickly realized that the meeting had nothing on lunch in terms of formality. It was held in a private dining room of a four star hotel. We were served all sorts of delicacies from the region (including, I am told, frog legs, squid tentacles, and whale fin soup).

On formal dining occasions it is apparently appropriate to spend a lot of time making toasts, and that's just what everyone did. The boss stood up first, making a big show and we all clinked our champagne glasses. A few moments later someone rose and toasted a single individual in my group. Then one from my group made a toast to someone else. And so on. Throughout the entire meal people were constantly getting up and down to toast someone else, including me.

Every meal we had with them was like that. Eat a little, toast a lot. I finally decided that you made a toast whenever you wanted a sip of your wine. We always had water as well and everyone drank heartily from those glasses, but when it was time to sip (or gulp) from something stronger it became toast time.

Throughout the meal everyone kept staring at me – to see what the silly foreigner thought of the outlandish Chinese food. For my part I smiled and ate graciously even if I didn't always know what I was eating. I clinked my glass whenever it was needed and drank and hoped it would all end soon.

Besides the champagne and the wine we were also served some very strong vodka. For some reason it was assumed that I wasn't much of a drinker (and in truth I am not) so all eyes were upon me when I took my sip of the hot stuff. I made a show of it with a big “whoa daddy” and watery eyes after my sip. After being made fun of, the rest of the meal I made sure to prove my manhood in the end by toasting one of the bigger men and swigging my shot down in one gulp.

Formal meals and meetings aside, we visited several potential sites and the government seemed very excited to be giving us some land in which to build the orphanage. Each site had its pros and cons and we all discussed their merits. Afterward we went to a swanky tea house and drank lots of Chinese tea — for three long, excruciating hours. At this point I had sat through the formal meeting, through a two hour lunch where I was the amusement, trucking about town looking at properties, all while feeling the outsider and understanding very, very little. I was ready to go home. Yet there we sat in the heat, drinking the tea — and if you have never had Chinese tea it is a very different thing than Southern style sweet tea. They throw the rather bitter tea leaves right into the glass then fill it up with steaming hot water. I spent my time sipping slowly, trying to look like I actually enjoyed the taste and looking around to see how you were supposed to drink without gulping down a mouthful of leaves.

The day finally ended and proved to be very productive as we were on our way to securing the property for the orphans. The next two days were filled with excursions to local tourist sites (including the world's largest Buddha). We were accompanied by some of the local officials and I inwardly smiled at being a capitalist American being wined and dined by hard-core Chinese communists. The times, as the poet says, are a-changing.

Before we left we visited an already existing orphanage just outside Chengdu. It is small (housing at most about 30 orphans) and not exactly swank, but it had a lot of heart. We brought the kids some books and toys and I got to play with them a long time while Vivian talked to the workers about conditions. Most of the children have one disability or another. Many are blind or deaf and most have mental health issues. Yet they were all very kind and sweet. I've left pieces of my heart in many places in China, and that little orphanage got a big chunk.

There are thousands of stories about the earthquake and many more that I was able to see and could tell. I have spent almost a year to the day in China and while it has all fascinated and captivated me nothing has meant more to me than those few days in Sichuan. It truly captured the beauty and heart of the Chinese people. To see so many who had suffered so much and yet still retained their dignity and their spirit – to see that when times are at their worst, the people are at their best is something I will always treasure. There simply isn't enough time or pages on the Internet to tell all of their stories, so I will leave you with this one, my favorite.

I do not know her name, so we will simply call her Ping. She is about eight years old and like so many children she was in school when the earthquake hit. As the first tremors shook, Ping's teacher told all of the children to leave the building and to walk across a small field so they would be safe in case of collapse.

All of the children minded except for little Ping. Her teacher had always told her to tuck her chair up under her desk before she left the classroom, and she had always minded her teacher. She minded again on this day, though she was nearly shaken to the ground.

The teacher hurried her along but by the time they had left the building the rest of the children were already across the field. As Ping and her teacher crossed over to meet with the rest of the class the ground shook mightily and brought a landslide down from the nearby mountains. The world came tumbling and with it the rocks, trees, and whatever else was in its path. As Ping and her teacher watched, the earth swallowed all of her classmates, killing every one. The teacher, seeing the landslide heading their way, pulled her arms around Ping sheltering her from the oncoming onslaught. The ground quickly buried them several feet deep, killing the teacher, but thanks to her quick thinking little Ping was saved.

Her teacher's hands were pressed so firmly into her cheeks that nearly a month later they were still bruised. Her shoes dug deep into Ping's calves causing immense pain. There was no room to move, and precious little air to breath.

Like this she lay – buried in her earthen tomb, beneath the rocks, the dirt and the corpse of her teacher/savior. For two days she lay there with no food nor water, not knowing if she would ever see the light again.

In time rescue workers did come and began to search for survivors and find the dead. Little Ping heard the workers come and she sang them a song.

She sang.

Later, when asked why she had sung she replied that she knew they must be tired and weary from working so hard and so she sang them a song to lift their spirits.

This little girl who had suffered more than I can begin to imagine used what precious little breath she had to sing, because others might be a little tired.

Such is the spirit of the Chinese people.

Such are the people who need your help.

If you would like to help in our effort to build the orphanage or with our campaign to help those I visited on this trip please send me an e-mail.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I've Packed My Bags, I'm Ready to Go

We fly to Vancouver tomorrow at 3:30 in the afternoon. Interestingly enough we will arrive in Vancouver at about 11:00 in the AM. For those keep score that's 4 and a half hours before we left. Gotta love the international date line. To try to keep jet lag down my goal is to stay up until 9 PM that day. That is an insane amount of hours to stay up for a person my age, but I'm gonna try. What it really means is I'm gonna try to sleep on the plane. I've never slept on a plane, and I'm not sure if I'm going to this time, but I will try.

This week has been very hectic, what with the packing, the shipping, the cleaning and the stress. We came to China with four suitcases and two carry-ons. Plus we shipped one box full of winter clothes. Leaving China we have the same bags, but they are more full and we have now shipped three boxes. One box was souvenirs, but the others are mainly clothes. Man, clothes were cheap here so we bought lots.

The suitcases are now packed except for a few things I just washed. Once they dry we'll pack them and then do the weighing again. We weighed yesterday and got everything to the right amount, but we'll do it again today just to double check. What stinks is that if we wind up paying for extra weight here, we'll have to do the same in Vancouver.

Oh well, it is only money, I guess.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries: Beijing and the Great Wall

I finally got around to writing another Shanghai Diaries. This time it is about our trip to Beijing. The Internet has been acting screwy so I'm just gonna link to it over at blogcritics. I hope you like it.

We're leaving for Bangkok in a few hours and we will be traveling in Cambodia and Thailand for about two weeks. I'm fairly certain some of the places will have Internet access, but I can't say that I'll be doing any writing.

Until then...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A General Itenerary

I wanted to give everyone our general plans for the next few weeks.

Tomorrow (Friday) we will be flying to Bangkok where we will stay the night. Saturday we will fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We will stay there about two days to look at the Angkor Watt ruins. These are supposed to be absolutely phenomenal and we are very excited about it. Then we are taking a boat trip to Phenom Phen where we will stay a couple of more days. While there we will visit one of the "Killing Fields" where so many Cambodians were massacred during Pol Pot's reign. After that we are flying to Thailand for some relaxing on the beach. We will stay there until the 17th.

We might travel Thailand a bit besides the beach, but we're playing that by ear. We fly to Vancouver on the 24th and we will celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary there. On the 27th we will be flying to Tulsa.

A busy last few weeks, but they should be fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

In Exactly One Month, I Will Be In Oklahoma

How crazy is that? We'll actually be leaving Shanghai a few days before then to stay in Vancouver, but it is one month to the day that we'll be home. I'm excited, and sad, and a little nervous.

Anybody got a job for me?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm Too Young for this...

We went to Beijing this weekend and while there are many stories to tell and pictures to share, I wanted to say this now, as I am terribly busy this week and those other things won't see light for a while.

Not once, not twice, but three times I was asked if Sara, our friend and companion on the trip who is in her mid-twenties, was my daughter! I would have had to have her when I was like 6!

And she doesn't look that young either. I mean she looks like she's in her twenties, not in her early teens like some girls. Twice these horrid, terrible things happenned in taxi cabs. Normally cab drivers don't speak english, but for whatever reason this weekend we found two who spoke fairly well and both times they pointed to my wife and Sara asking if they were family. Then the specifically pointed out Sara and asked if she was my daughter.

I know I'm balding. I know my beard has lots of gray. I know I am not young anymore. But that....that accusation...that was just painful.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Beijing Bound, Plus our Future Plans

We're headed to Beijing on Thursday and then will return home on Monday night. I'd say please excuse my absence to this blog, but as I write so rarely, I doubt anyone will notice.

We also bought our tickets home. We will be flying out of Shanghai on July 24. We'll actually be staying in Vancouver a couple of days for our anniversary and will be back in Oklahoma on July 28. Yeah.

We still aren't sure where we're going for our last trip. I really wanted to go to Cambodia/Vietnam but I think it will be too hot for us. Right now things are looking like Mongolia and maybe South Korea. But we'll see.

Gross...Just Groww

The other day I walk out of my apartment and into the stairwell. Immediately I can hear a mother and daughter-child talking. That's the thing about our stairwell it is like a giant beacon and that amplified every sound...very obnoxious when you are in the living room, though thank goodness it gets drowned out by the time you reach our bedroom.

Anyway, I slow my walk down as I hate to run into people in the stairwell, especially people with kids as it makes for an awkward movement as I try to pass. I slow down enough that they are outside when I make it to the door. I then open the door and realize I should have hurried up.

The kid, who is maybe 5 years old is just below the stairs, right in the middle of the sidewalk where I'll have to walk, taking a squat...literally.

I don't know how much I've mentioned the Chinese love of the squat, but it is how they tend to use the rest room, and most assuredly how the kids are trained. So there the girl is squatting where I need to walk with a big puddle below her and a stream still flowing.

Dang it.

I know I've been in China for too long because my first thought it not why this little girl didn't go to her apartment where I know she has a real toilet, but why she couldn't just take a squat a few feet over where their is grass and no walking path.

The mom paid no mind, just got her keys out for the car.

This is why I always take my shoes off when I come into my house.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Shanghai Diaries - Olympic Fever

I have written another diaries. This time it is all about the olympics.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

When my wife and I moved to Shanghai some nine months ago, we knew we would eventually move back to the States. The plan was to stay for one, maybe two years with the possibility of extending that for another year or two. After that we knew we would have to come home.

As anyone who has spent an extended time in a foreign land can tell you, there are good days and bad. The good days are clear and beautiful. They make like home. The bad days roll up on you like rain and make me wish I was anywhere but this strange land where everything is different and nobody understands.

Having lived on foreign soil before, I knew all about both types of days before we left and as such promised myself not to make any final decisions on how long we would stay for at least six months. Even so there days when I was sure I wanted to live in China, and days when I wanted nothing more than to catch the next plane out.

We have been thinking it over these last couple of months and we have now decided to head back home and start fresh. It was a hard decision, but this seems like the best option for now.

There are a great many things I love about China and those things make me want to stay. Shanghai is an interesting and incredible city. We have seen and visited many fascinating places and it will be hard to go back to what will surely feel like the terribly mundane back in the States.

Money is a great pull as well. We now make far less money than we did in the States, and yet it goes a lot farther. Half of my wife’s check (and she is assuredly the breadwinner in China) goes to an account in Hong Kong which we do not touch. Yet we still live quite large.

We dine out nearly every night, we travel primarily by taxi everywhere, and we continue to buy all sorts of crap from DVDs to fabric to footwear without giving it a second thought. We travel all the time and we are still saving thousands of dollars.

That’s a hard thing to walk away from.

I also really love the people here. I’ve mentioned before that we live in something of an ex-pat compound, and it is something like summer camp, if not paradise. Culture shock is eased by the familiarity of western faces. Friends abound. I can’t leave my home and walk to the corner store without seeing someone I know and having a friendly chat. I have made many friends among the Chinese as well and everyone is always exceedingly friendly.

Like I said, it was a hard decision to make.

I am not a man of great ambitions, but I do hold a few small dreams. For as long as I can remember I have longed to own a modest house on a small piece of land. I want to grow flowers and potatoes. I want to sit on my front porch, sipping freshly made iced tea, while I watch my kids grow old. I want to sit there with my wife, whom I love more than life and watch the sun set over the horizon. It isn’t much of a dream, but it is mine.

Truth is I continue to get older, but the dream seems to get farther away. I simply can’t see how China gets me any closer to it. So, we’re going home on July 28. We’re not sure what we’ll do once we get there, I can only hope. And dream.
Fear not, gentle readers. I still have just over two months left in Shanghai and there are still many stories to tell. The diaries will continue on for that time and I hope you will continue to read.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Night of the Living Mosquitoes

We live on the third floor and are generally pretty bug free. Alas, last night was not ours. I hit the sack about 11:30 and within a few minutes my wife was groaning and yelling about mosquitoes. A moment later I could hear one.


In my sleepy state my mind imagined it way over by my wife (even though of course my ears would never be able to pick up their sound from feet away.) Then I imagine that it must have flown in front of me and I swat above my mid-section. Why I think this I don't know but as soon as I swat I realize how dumb my swat was.

Nothing. Quiet. I try to sleep. The wife groans again and swats.


This time thinking clearly I swat against my face. It must be near my ear for I can hear it and I'm not in the position to clap so I must squish him against my face.

Gross. Maybe I'm not thinking so clearly.

More trying to sleep. More buzzing. More swatting.

Nothing works. After a good swat they stay quiet for a bit. Just long enough to get comfortable really then it starts up again.

Eventually I turn on the light and find the sucker on the wall. Swat. Squish. Dead.

At last, now we can sleep.


Dang, another one. I turn on the light, find two on the wall and they go squish.

Lights out. Almost sleep. Buzz, lights, squish.

On this goes for an hour. I search the house looking for an entry point. The windows have been open all day but we have screens. I check them searching for small openings and find none. The bathroom screen had been up but Amy shut it yesterday afternoon.

I turn on a light in the kitchen hoping to move them in there. Then I shut the door. Then I shut out window and turn on the air.

We had been in sheets, but with the air conditioning we need a cover. Turn on the air and have to cover up. How's that for efficiency?

More buzzing. This last one is sneaky. He buzzes but when I get the light on he's not on the wall like the rest. I don't believe I ever got him, but about 1:30 I found sleep.

I woke up with several bug bits on my arm.

Dancing the Night Away

The other night we went to a little Korean place down the way for supper. As we rode down the road in the taxi, a couple of blocks before we hit the restaurant we noticed a large group of Chinese folks doing something that looked like Tai Chi in a large square. Curious we decided to take a better look after supper.

If you go to any large open spaces in the mornings just about anywhere in China you will see people out doing some variation of yoga. When I spent the night at the aquarium we found scores of people doing these little exercises all over the grounds when we awoke. It is just something you do.

Well, apparently they do something a little different of an evening. What appeared from a distance to be more of the same sort of morning stretches, turned out to be more like a Chinese version of a country line dance. They were located in what appeared to be some sort of outdoor community space. There was a large concrete slab in the middle where one could hold a variety of events from concerts to a small fair. There were a smattering of small stands located at the edges for people to sit, and to one side was a gazebo, with a smaller slab of concrete next to it.

Inside both slabs were gobs of people. At the gazebo they were playing fast-ish music with a slinky sort of swing beat. Couples were gathered and while not exactly swinging they were twirling and two-stepping with all their might. Interestingly most of the couples were women with their men gathered about the floor watching curiously.

In the main square a different sort of music was being played. It was slower, and more rhythmic. The people were all lined up in a grid and doing these fancy step moves. It really was very line dance-esque and completely fascinating to me. The wife, my friend, and I moved to the edges and tried a few moves. Most of the steps weren't too complicated so we picked up some of it pretty quick.

The problem was that each song only lasted a couple of minutes and with each new song there was a new dance. Just as I would learn one step, a new one would appear. A kindly older man eventually came over to us and began teaching us the steps.

It was so much fun I gathered up more friends a few nights later and we tried it again.

I've mentioned before how we live sort of a sheltered life. Shanghai is a very westernized city and our little compound feels like a little expat oasis. It has been such a joy to go out these few times and experience a little real China.

I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Drip, Drip

Since living here we have had at least three different leaks. The pipes leading to the water heater leaked, the pipes under the sink leaked, and the pipes behind the toilet leaked. Now we have another one. This time it is the big PVC pipe in the ceiling above our bathroom.

The good news: the drip falls directly into our toilet, leaving no mess.

The bad news: the drip falls directly into our toilet, and thus my ownself when I'm using said toilet. I don't even want to think about where this water is coming from, like where it has been or what it contains.

I talked to maintenance yesterday. This morning they sent one guy up who looked confused. Normally maintenance puts little plastic booties on over their shoes when they enter. This guy seemed to have none and looked at me sheepishly when he knocked like he wasn't gonna come in. I told him to anyways and showed him the problem. He had a bag full of metal pipes which were worthless on the PVC. Then he showed me two work orders. One was for the floor above me, and one was us. He showed me both and said something I couldn't understand then split.

Later two men came in and took a look. They stayed a minute then motioned upstairs. I assume they went up to the floor above to investigate the leak. Moments later they came back down and said something or other. I assume the people weren't home.

They don't seem to be willing to go into others apartments when the owners aren't there, here. I guess we'll wait until tomorrow. Or something.

Until then if you see me with a wet back, don't ask.

Monday, May 12, 2008


I've already gotten some questions about it, so I wanted to update my readers. We are fine. I didn't know there even was an earthquake until well after it happened.

I tutor a couple of kids every afternoon and as I was leaving I ran into their mom as she was coming home for work. She speaks a little English, but not a lot and so our conversations are always a little funny. Today was no different.

"Hello, are you ok from the RQ?"

"The what?"


"I'm sorry, what is that?"

She yells at her boy and he says that yes, RQ is right. I still haven't the slightest idea what she is talking about, but her girl finally comes down and explains it was an earthquake. She then tells me her office all went to the streets where everyone was out walking about looking scared. It was an odd feeling to hear of a quake like that. Like I wasn't sure if I was understanding correctly, and wondering if everyone was OK.

Turns out it was a big quake, but way south of here. Though they say some people felt it here, and the big skyscrapers were evacuated. I didn't feel a darn thing. the death toll keeps rising so keep everyone in your thoughts.


This has been a weird week for disasters. Mom tells me over the weekend the little town where I used to work was wiped out by a tornado. There wasn't much left of the town anyways as it was mostly cleared out after the mining left, but man its weird to see pictures of places I used to hang out at everyday destroyed.

Keep all that in your thoughts, too.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Massages are all the rage here in Shanghai. There are parlors just about everywhere. You can get a massage in your motels, theres a place here in our compound and you can even get a masseuse delivered to your home. Everybody loves them, or so it seems.

Amy is a long time massage fan so she often goes and gets them. I've never really had a desire for one and have up until last night declined all offers for them. Last night our friends Laura and Thomas called wanting to get one. Amy agreed immediately, but I said no. Then Thomas brow-beated me and I reluctantly said "yes."

We went to a little shop down the road and contemplated which kind to get. They had full body massages, full body with oil, foot massages, head massages and all sorts of other things. I decided I would go all out and get a full body with oil.

It was a little weird at first stripping down to some little shorts they gave me and getting rubbed by a stranger, but it was ultimately nice. Very relaxing and invigorating even if the ladies thumbs were a little harsh.

Today though my back aches, and there are big bruises running up and down my shoulders.


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Things You See On the Road

Most mornings I take a walk around our big apartment complex. It isn't a marathon, but it is a nice little walk. Along the way I often see some odd little things, and I thought I'd do a little writing about it.

Parking, must like the general traffic is a bit of a mess around here. I'm sure somewhere there are like big parking lots, and suchlike, but I've ever seen them. Mostly you just see cars parked about everywhere. Shanghai actually does a great job of making bike lanes for the legions of two-wheeled people, but of course lots of the cars wind up parking there. Sidewalks too for that matter.

Anyways, the other day I am out on my walk and as usual there is a bit van parked on the sidewalk and I do the walk-around away from the street. On the sidewalk, next to the van is a big puddle of liquid. I look for a second to see what it, it's not that...yep it is.


Gross. You can tell by where it is that they van guy parked it, then stood next to the van to hide himself from traffic and let it flow. Now on my walks I often see public urinators. It isn't all that uncommon to see a taxi driver pull of the side of the road and go in the bushes. Their cab drivers so they spend their days in a car not near a bathroom, so I figure 'whatever' and never pay them much mind. But they go in the bushes. Not on the sidewalk.

Everyday I see the same group of workers messing with the sidewalks. The sidewalks are not straight concrete, but made up of these little 10 inch x 10 inch bricks. Next to the sidewalk, away from the road and in between the walls to our complex are various shrubs and flowers and grasses. Periodically around the sidewalk are trees too.

These workers are always doing something around there. Sometimes they are pulling weeds. Once they dug a little trench around the shrubs. Most often they are taking a little puddy knives and cleaning out the gunk between the individual bricks.

I have the most manicured sidewalks I have ever seen. None of the work they do really needs to be done, but there they are ever single day. That's actually slightly common in China. Whenever you go to a market or a restaurant or any store really it will always be over staffed. I've seen small kiosks in the mall filled with half a dozen workers.

At the corner market there are always 6 or more people working even though there really isn't much to do. Half of them sit around yacking to each other. I always assume it is some sort of government thing to make companies over hire. Like the population is so enormous that companies are asked to hire more people than they need so the unemployment rates won't be so high. Sometimes it is annoying because there are too many workers and they get in the way, but I think I'll take that over having the stores under staffed like you see so often in the States.

A few weeks ago on my walk I nearly saw an accident. I was next to a two lane highway that is quite heavily trafficked. The road has a very large shoulder where the buses pull off to make their pick ups, and on this road where bikers ride.

One of the buses pulled over to make a stop and then jammed itself back into traffic. Like I said it is a busy road and there were a couple of taxis speeding down the road just behind the bus. This bus, full of people and assuredly not a fast vehicle pulls right out in front of the taxis nearly taking them out. The first taxi instead of jamming his breaks, pulls to the left into oncoming traffic. Cars coming that way have to fling to the side of the road to not get hit.

Taxi #1 realizes the oncoming traffic is going to hit him so he then jams his breaks and slings behind the bus. Taxi #2 takes this moment to pass the first taxi and the bus, caring not that the oncoming traffic is there because they had moved out of the way of taxi #1.

The bus, taxis and oncoming traffic then all kept moving like nothing happened. All of this happened in about 5 seconds. It is such a typical thing that I don't think anyone else noticed. That's the way it is around here. People do crazy/stupid things so often that it is common place. Cab drivers are freaking race car drivers. They speed, they move in and out of traffic like mad, they jam the break and rev the engine simultaneously.

They make it work because everyone is used to it. I think if a Shanghai taxi driver moved to the States he'd either rule the world or immediately die from an accident. We just wouldn't know what to do with them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - The Madness of Crowds

My wife and I have decided to move back to the States for good in July. There are many reasons for this decision ranging from my lack of real career options to my wife's need to be somewhere where she'll actually finish her dissertation. It was a hard decision in some ways, but I must admit I'm really rather thrilled to be headed back. As we've now made the decision, I find myself looking forward to many of the conveniences that we'll have in the US, and being more irritated with things here in Shanghai.

One of these annoyances is with the people. No, not the individual people. I've found most of the Chinese to be pleasant, friendly, and kind. I've made many Chinese friends and I will miss them dearly. The people themselves are as interesting and varied as any people you'll find. It is not the individual people that bother me, but the collective – the en masse that proves bothersome. There are just so darn many of them.

I grew up in rural Oklahoma, in a town with fewer than 20,00 people. Since moving out I have lived in larger cities such as Joplin, Missouri; Montgomery, Alabama; and the whopping metropolis of Strasbourg, France (population 500,000.) That's a far cry from the 18 million odd people who live in Shanghai. Maybe those who live in places like New York or Chicago can grasp just how many people that is, but for this poor boy from Oklahoma it has been nothing less than eye-opening.

The masses are a bit like ants in a colony just after some kid has blown it to bits with an M-60. People are constantly moving in every direction. There might be some order buried in the chaos, but to an outsider it looks like crazed madness.

I live in the relative peace and quiet of the suburbs. The outer limits of the suburbs actually, and it is still overwhelming. There is never a time when there aren't hoards of people about. Shopping is the worst. We frequent Carefour a French-owned grocery store not too far from here and it is always "busting at the seams" crowded. Think about Wal-Mart on a Saturday or your favorite mall around the holidays, then triple it, and you have some idea - and that's during the off hours.

Shopping is a nightmare to me in the best of scenarios, and here it is always just shy of completely awful. Carefour has two main aisles running perpendicular to each other through the middle of the store. There is plenty of room in these aisles for loads of people. Still I always find myself behind some lolly-gaggers doing the Chinese stroll. They have a particular knack for slow, meandering walks that never fail to get in my way.

In the big aisles I'll get behind one of these strollers walking so slow grass is growing up under the feet. I try to pass but am thwarted on both sides – to the left, cart after cart of people going the other way rush by cutting off my every movie. To the right, people behind me rush to make a pass and zip in ahead of me. When I finally get a free space and make my move, the mad stroller inevitably performs a wobbly turn in that same direction and keeps me from moving. Eventually I get serious and butt my cart in and pass only to be quickly blocked by some other meanderer.

In small aisles there is always someone with a cart parked right in the middle blocking the other side with their bodies as they look over whatever consumer goods are on display. While there, some friend or acquaintance or talkative stranger stops by to chat, completely blocking the entire aisle, oblivious to the forming line behind them.

Speaking of lines, the Chinese don't seem to believe or at least understand them. In the States if there is a counter, or some need for people to be serviced a queue will almost assuredly be formed. They may not always be neat, but there is always some semblance of order. Here, unless forced to by an authority or by structure, the Chinese form what can only be called a chaotic crowd for the same need

There is no queue, only a mass of people trying to edge their way to the front. Recently we took a mini vacation and in the airport for our flight back we stood in a long line for the security check point. I call it a “line” but really it was more like a gelatinous goo of people slowly merging into one, with various other folks standing about. Even under the tightest of securities, we were all still pushing about trying to get closer. As we moved forward , the elbows came out and the strategic positioning began as we all tried to get slightly closer to the end.

Everywhere it is the same. At KFC there is the same mass of people trying to get their order in edgewise. Don't move fast enough, or allow an inch of space between you and the person in front of you, and someone will squeeze in front. Even at the front of the line, my order being taken, I have been edged out, by someone behind me shouting out their order while I'm looking at the English menu making my decision.

The subway is probably the best example of the craziness. As a juxtaposition, I'll first speak about my experience on the Tokyo subway. Tokyo has an enormous population and a gargantuan subway system. As you wait for the subway there are marks on the floor detailing exactly where the doors of the train will be once it stops. The people all line up in two queues on each side of each door in an orderly fashion. There are security guards directing people where to go and ensuring no one gets to close to the edge.

When the train stops, all the people politely wait until every passenger getting off steps off the train before they proceed to get on in an orderly fashion. Sometimes the trains do get crowded and I've seen the security guards give a great big push to the masses to get everyone on board (giving a bow before they push) but everything is done is a polite and courteous manner.

In Shanghai they have similar marks on the floor and there are always congregations of people standing about those marks, but there are also legions of others standing about everywhere. When the train does stop, those not near the marks all try to push their way into the groups standing near the doors. You have to position yourself decisively in a sports stance with elbows out if you are to keep your place. Once the doors open, there is no polite waiting for passengers to get off, but a mass push to get on and possibly find a seat. If you happen to be on board trying to get off at a busy station it is best to wear some football pads and get a running start if you expect to get off.

It isn't that the Chinese don't have any courtesy. In fact I have seen guys punch their way on board so they could get a seat, only to give up that seat when an elderly person, or someone with a small child gets on at the next stop. Fighting crowds seems to be in their genes. While I face the madness with a grimace and a curse, the Chinese seem to consider fighting for some small place in the chaos business as usual and take it all in course.

I'm sure when I go home I'll find all sorts of frustrating situations where I'm behind some slow person, or I'll find myself in some long line that seems to never end. I do love the Chinese and have enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Yet I can't say I'm not looking forward to moving back to rural Oklahoma where I can sit gazing on a long stretch of green, and not see a single person for miles around.

The Shanghai Diaries - Field Trips

It has been five weeks since my last diary. Five. Freaking. Weeks. When I started this column my intentions were to write a post every week. That rarely ever happened but I was knocking out about 3 a month. Yet here I am with more than a month between now and my last word on my experiences in China. What happened? As usual, it was several things. A lot of it is what I'll call the French equation.

My wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France for about 10 months in 2003-4. Blogging came into existence for me in the form of journaling my daily life there. For many months I was writing everyday about the differences in culture, food, and lifestyles between the French and the United States, as well as chronicling my every day experiences. As with all things, though, what was once interesting became mundane. What was exciting was then boring. In France I then turned to movie reviews and my life as something of a “real” writer began.

We're now in the boring stage of my Shanghai adventure. I've written about most of the things that effect my life at this point, and the day to day just isn't exciting enough to merit articles. Thus a lull.

That and I'm lazy. Seriously, there are things I have to write. There are stories to tell, and everyday I tell myself to write them, but first I have to check my e-mail and wash the dishes and do a little reading and watch another movie. Then the wife comes home and the night washes on, and no words have been written.

I'd like to say I'll do better. I'd like to say I'll write more and the diaries will shine on. I'd like to say those things, but I won't. I know better than that.


As my life as a tutor and substitute don't keep me exactly full-scheduled and busy, and as my wife is a teacher, and my sister is a teacher, and everyone I know is a teacher, I am often called upon to help out with school activities. Sometimes this entails chaperoning field trips.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my sister's 10th grade history class to the Shanghai Museum. As with pretty much everything in Shanghai, the museum was a good ride away. The school my sister works for does not own their own school buses - there are no big yellow behemoths around these parts. Instead they rent buses from a local company. These look a bit like run-down Greyhounds, but they do the job. More or less.

We loaded into two of these buses and headed off for our destination. The streets of Shanghai are a terrifying experience in the best of vehicles, but in a large, dilapidated bus it quickly becomes close your eyes and pray time. The big beasts lunged to and fro through traffic, horns a-blazing, weaving between taxis and scooters all the while narrowly missing pedestrians.

After about 4 kilometers the bus pulled over to the side of the road, stopped and cut its engine. We were no where near the museum. There was no explanation of what we were doing. The bus driver exited and went to talk to the driver of the second bus. Phone calls were made and still no explanation. After several long minutes we were finally told that the bus we were on had broken down.

Four kilometers from home, after 10 minutes of driving, the bus was dead. You would think they might do a little maintenance checking before they started lugging a large group of kids through the streets of one of the worlds biggest cities, but no. You would be wrong for thinking such things. Another, much smaller bus was nearby and it quickly came to pick up our kids. All but about ten kids were loaded and the two working busses took off, leaving me, my sister and those ten kids standing on the side of the road.

The road was a major city highway with massive amounts of speeding traffic zooming by at every moment. We had no idea where we were and we had no other instructions but to wait there and try not to get run over.. Visions of one of my kids running away, or being picked up, or being smashed into little bits ran through my head. None of those terrible things did happen and a new bus did indeed pick us up.

The museum was of the historical and not the art variety. It was big, interesting and very educational for the kids. They of course hated it and spent most of the day trying to sit in corners where they could play their PSPs and their Nintendo DSs.

For lunch it was decided we would go to a mall but a few blocks away. We again took our kids out into the streets of Shanghai. It was the lunch rush and thousands of people were out, moving about. Fear like I've never had rose up through my skin as I imagined myself losing one of my kids. Good grief there was no way to keep track of them. It is hard enough just to manage the streets alone, much less keep up with half a dozen tenth graders. We crossed a couple of major intersections, went down through a tunnel and finally came to the mall. Downstairs was the food court and the kids were essentially told to do what they want but to meet us back in an hour.

I questioned my sister about the madness of all of this, but she shrugged and said that's the way it is always done here. I took a deep breath and tried not to imagine the terrible things that could happen. Lunch was good and the kids all came back on time. The ride home went without a hitch and I learned that Chinese field trips are certainly different than their American counterparts, but the results seem to be about the same.


On another occasion my friend Sara asked me to accompany her fourth grade class to the Shanghai Aquarium – overnight. I again said yes and it was away we went. Fourth graders naturally behave differently then those in the tenth grade and this time our bus trip was filled not with broken down busses but a little game of “who should the teacher marry?”

This time there was no letting the kids loose on the streets either. The aquarium, though located on some sizable acreage, including a nice large lake was totally enclosed from the rest of the city, and thus much more safe, relatively speaking.

The day was filled with dolphin shows, a Chinese version of an American meal (fried chicken wings, french fries, sticky rice, and stir fried vegetables all eaten with chop sticks of course) and a virtual-reality ride through Antarctica and a race-course. The night found us in the aquarium proper with tanks full of every kind of fish imaginable along with turtles, eels, sting rays and the shark tank.

The shark tank was huge and contained a couple of those glass tunnels where you could see the sharks from every sort of angle. This is where we would be sleeping and it is fair to say I was just as excited as the kids. I've never been to an aquarium. I've never seen a shark in the flesh. I'm a little boy glued to the Nature Channel at heart and I was mesmerized.

We played chase and tag and turned out the lights and silently wandered through the fake jungle scene like explorers. We fed the sharks cut up fish and squid. We fed the sharks! With my bare hands I threw in some fresh meat and watched the killers of the deep tear it to pieces. Awesome is the word.

Eventually we bunked down for the night. Like I said we slept in the glass tunnels underneath the tank. There were no beds, save for our own blankets and small mats provided by the aquarium which weren't much more than cardboard. This is where my own age crept back in. Sleeping on what amounts to concrete and a thin sheet of cardboard isn't exactly something I can do well anymore. Sleeping with a bunch of fourth graders at a glorified slumber party when they are full of sugar and adrenaline underneath hundreds of pounds of water full of swimming death machines is near impossible.

The night was full of laughter, shouting, shhh-ing and a lecture on why it isn't appropriate to shine your flashlight on and discuss the merits of various shark butt-holes. I actually did manage to get a little sleep and despite it all it was quite an amazing experience to lie on my back in my make-shift bed watching sharks swim past sting rays and giant turtles. With a few nights rest in a soft warm bed, I can't wait for my next adventure as a field trip chaperon.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Crooked Rain

Here's a run down of what I've been doing since my last post.

The weekend before last we went to Hangzhou with our friends Laura and Thomas. Hangzhou is something of a sister city to Suzhou which is the city we went to a couple of months back. Both cities are highly recommended and are supposedly some of the most beautiful country in this country. Both were a bit of a let down.

For Suzhou we arrived to early, like in the winter, and none of the fine scenery had blossomed or bloomed. In Hangzhou the flowers had somewhat bloomed, but it rained the entire time.

We went to Hangzhou kind of spur of the moment as Thomas had to be there during the week for work, and Laura asked if we wanted to make a weekend of it. We did and we went. The focus of the city is a large man-made lake and several islands that float about in it. It was very beautiful, though quite soggy.

We took a boat tour of the island and the trees had blossomed and it was nice. Raining pretty solidly on Sunday we went to KTV (karaoke) and made an afternoon of it. Karaoke is much different in Asia than in the States to say the least. It is quite the ordeal here. An entire building was decked out for our pleasure. I consisted of dozens of small private rooms for which to sing and a large central room full of buffet style food. They had plenty of American songs and we had lots of fun.

This past weekend we went to Yangshuo. This is a little village that my sister has been to many times and absolutely adores. It is basically a tourist trap, but the views are so spectacular it is worth it. It is located right on a river, and the mountains look like some crazy prehistoric animals back. Again it was rainy and overcast and thus our views were less spectacular than I had hoped, but this place is so amazing that it didn't matter so much.

One of the rainy days we decided to go caving to get out of the wetness. We were the only white people there and we got many a stare from the Chinese. To get into the cave we had to take a small boat into a cavern. The entrance was so small we had to duck down into the boat and pray that we didn't get knocked over.

I've been to a few caves in the US and am generally underwhelmed. For safety reasons they have to be made so sanitary and generic that they usually aren't a lot of fun. China seems a little more lax with that and thus the cave was much more interesting. Besides nearly getting knocked over coming into the cave there were several moment where we had to nearly crawl through passages, step on slippery rocks to get across creeks and generally access areas a bit more dangerous than would ever be allowed into the states.

It wasn't terribly risky mind you, it was just so much more so than you'd ever see in the States.

The highlight was the mud pool which me and Amy and our friend Sara climbed into. Basically it is a small reservoir of water which is very muddy at the bottom. Tourists love to jump in and get covered in filthy cave mud. We were one of those and we got nasty. The water was actually freezing cold so it took a moment to warm up to, but after that we slung and wrestled and had a blast. Again we were the only ones in the pool and all the Chinese stared at the crazy Americans. They actually had a photo set up going on so that one of the tour guides took pictures of us, then uploaded it onto his computer. They had everything set up there so that we could look at our pictures right there in the cave and have it printed out for us as we toured the rest of the cave.

Farther down was a big pool of water and we took a good swim in it. It also was freezing cold but kind of refreshing. At the end was a massive waterfall that we relaxed under for a bit.

Also during the weekend we took a couple of boat rides and climbed a mountain. The boat was restful and the mountain intense. Lots of stairs followed by an off road trail filled with slippery mud and danger. The view was worth it though.

I'll try to have pictures up in a few days, and I suspect I will write in detail about Yangshuo later.

Due to weather we wound up having our return flight delayed nearly 12 hours and we didn't get home until about noon on Monday. I was in bed by 7 that night and the puking my guts out by 9. I remained sick all that evening and then feeling completely weak from it Tuesday. I'm feeling better now, but am coughing like there is no tomorrow.

And that's what we've been up to.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I'm Back, For Good (Maybe)

It has been almost a month since I last posted. I want to blame our lack of decent internet service, but that's just a lame excuse as I kept my other blog up to date.

We were without decent internet for nearly three weeks. One day it just went down. On the Dell, where we are connected to a cable, we couldn't get it at all, on the Mac, where we have wireless it was incredibly slow and often would go down without warning.

A little disclaimer here: We have a wireless network, and several others in our little complex do as well. Truth be told, I'm not really sure which one is ours and which ones are theirs. Most of the networks are password protected but there are a couple that aren't and I get confused as to whether or not I am on my own network, or stealing someone elses.

After waiting and hoping it would fix itself we finally had one of our Chinese friends call the company to complain. Turns out we were behind on our bill. Two months late in fact. Now before you roll your eyes and call me a deadbeat, let me explain.

The bill is in Chinese. I can't tell what the heck it is saying for the most part. There are a variety of number on the bill, all of which look like amounts of money and none of which say anything in English telling me how much to pay. The one bit of English on the bill says "prepay" and I always assumed that meant we had paid ahead. I thought this because prepay generally means that you have paid ahead, and because each time we have paid our bill we've had to pay at least a month in advance.

The only way we know how to pay the bill is to the person from the internet company comes to our living quarters. She comes every Sunday in the afternoon. Every Sunday in the afternoon we also have a meeting. Remembering to go to internet lady before the meeting is difficult.

We also got no warning that we were behind. We had heard that if you don't pay a bill then you get items in the mail reminding you to pay. We got none.

Time slipped by and we didn't pay and we got shut off. So we paid and now we're cooking.


My birthday was yesterday. It was a pretty good day. We actually celebrated last Friday by having some friends over and playing games. I made a great big batch of nachos which were delicious.

My brother-in-laws birthday was Sunday and we celebrated by going to the Naked Cow on Saturday night. This is a big western style restaurant. Us men folk had meat. Lots of meat. We had lamb shanks and a pork shoulder and a full chicken and several other dishes. It was delicious and it tore me up most of Sunday.

Tuesday night we met with some more friends and had dinner at a place that gives teachers half on on Tuesdays.

I'm glad I've stayed alive another year.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - Japanese Edition, Part 3: Kyoto, Osaka, and Home

From Osaka we trained to Nara, an old city that was also the capital of Japan at one time. We visited more temples there, but having rested from them in Osaka, I was once again fascinated by them.

Like Miyajima, there were tame deer roaming through parts of the city. There were many schoolchildren feeding the deer only to realize that once one deer sees food, the whole lot of them sense it and quickly surround the food bearer. In the park side, two bucks began fighting over something. I, like many others, rushed in to take photographs. The battle raged for a few minutes until the two bucks separated a bit.

Still filled with anger, one buck made a mighty sneer at my brother-in-law and then proceeded to headbutt an older lady who had bent down to tie her shoes. He got her right in the back with a thunderous bang. The women fell and the crowd gasped. To both my brother-in-law's and my own credit, we both rushed in and stood between the deer and the woman. It was then I realized the buck's head was about the same height of my midsection. I cringed at the thought of losing my reproductive powers by a deer in the middle of Japan.

Luckily, no more bucking occurred and we all got the crap out of there.

Nearby was the largest wooden structure in Japan (another temple like structure), which was awesome, but lost a little bit of its lure with me still being hyped up from the attack of the deer.

It was then towards Tokyo that we once again headed. On our way we hoped to make a pit stop to see Mt. Fuji in the distance, but it had begun to snow again and those plans were abandoned.

We saw a bit more of the city this time, including some crazy cheap electronic markets, the atrociously ugly Tokyo Tower, a gaggle of Cosplay kids dressed like sleazy nurses, Goth rockers, and a variety of other anime characters.

Japan was amazing, but we were all quite ready for home and its comforts. Due to some communication errors (and a national holiday), we were unable to pick up our new tickets until the day we were to leave. We awoke quite early and headed to one side of Tokyo to pick up the tickets so we would have time to make it to the other side of the city and the airport. We made it to the ticket office just as it opened, only to find out they had sent a messenger to take the tickets to the airport.

A couple of hours later we were in the airport standing in line behind a group of sumo wrestlers. It was quite a hoot to watch all of the various people walk in through the door to be surprised and excited over the sumos. I would have expected the wrestlers to be old hat to most of the Japanese, but even they went crazy for them.

Eventually we made it to the front counter and asked for our tickets. We paid our money and then were surprised to see only one ticket for my wife, but none for me. We asked about this and were assured they would find mine. A few calls later and we were told there was no ticket, nor any record that I had applied for a lost ticket. They apologized, but told me I would have to buy a new ticket to the tune of $900.

For the record, that's more than we paid for two tickets in the first place. They did upgrade us to Business class, but I took note that I was still sitting next to the wife, which, of course, means I paid for my seat twice.

I paid my way, and took it from behind like a good little boy. I'd like to say we got to China and the airline treated me right with some sort of refund, but three weeks later, about a dozen phone calls, and two more trips to the agency has only gained me more anger and confusion.

Japan was absolutely wonderful, and though it is now tainted with that ticket fiasco, I'd still highly recommend it to all travelers.

Monday, March 3, 2008

slow connect

My internet connection in Shanghai has always been a bit peculiar. Technically we get DSL speeds, but that's only on paper. When all the planets are aligned properly we do get high speeds and everything is good under the sun. Periodically, and seemingly quite randomly things go off and then my connection is anywhere from pretty OK to crap, actually.

Sometimes it is easy to figure out. During the early evening it is easy to understand why things slow down - 18 million people get home and log on. Other times though, it just happens. Sometimes it will go completely down for a few hours or even a day. This week, it has just stunk.

I am averaging about 1 bar on my wi-fi, but it fluctuates. Sometimes it goes up to a two or a three, and often it will go out completely. There is no rhyme nor reason, nor even a bit of prose for the whys. It just is. It is just driving me crazy.

My first internet was connected on a 8 bit modem. When we finally moved up to 11.1 speed we thought it couldn't get any better. Now I don't know how anyone could use a dial-up modem, and while even at a 1 bar I can still surf everything, download and upload at a reasonable rate, I'm ready to throw my computer across the room.

I would say this is why I have not been posting much lately, but well I hate to lie to my readership (today, at least.) Truth is I've been in a funk for the last week. I'm working on getting it un-funked, but with this lousy connection even an un-funked writer is not one that can post very often.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Stuck Inside of Memphis, with the Mobile Phone Blues Again

"I hate cell phones."

That has been my mantra against mobiles for many a year now. It has always been true too. Until recently at least. Until we moved to China, I had never owned a mobile phone. Truth is I never needed one. I'm not exactly a big telephone guy. I don't make many calls. Don't receive many calls. I try to stay off the phone as much as possible.

I had never seen a need to get a mobile. I've always had a house phone, and I normally have a direct line at work. I spend pretty much the majority of my time at either of those places, and those who need me have those numbers. When I am out and about, I have voice mail where I can receive messages. Do I really need to talk to anybody so badly that I have to take the call while I'm driving? Shopping? At church? No on all accounts.

I'm sure they come in useful for emergencies, or automobile problems. People survived for many years without mobile phones during emergencies and auto problems, I used to say to myself, and thus I can survive without them now.

And so, without a phone, I often found myself high and mighty. Abuses abound with cellular phones, for sure. You can constantly see people talking on their phones while driving. These same people will be swerving across lanes, driving entirely too slow, they are slow on the take off from stop lights, and often are seen cutting others off.

So many times I see cell phone users, rudely take a call while they are chatting with someone in person, or gathered at a meal. Even worse I see them constantly taking calls while they are ordering food, or at the cash register while shopping. 'How rude' I think to treat the cashier so poorly as to not acknowledge them.

In Shanghai, mobile phones are just about necessary. Traveling about the city, it is very easy to get lost, or separated from the group. Cell phones come in very handy. Often, when I am out, I have had to call someone for directions. Plentys the time I have called someone when getting into a cab so that they could tell the cab driver where to go. Shopping is an adventure all its own. The stores are often very large, and always crowded with huge amounts of people. Amy and I often call each other in the stores just to figure out where we are.


I am sure we could manage without cell phones whilst living here, but the convenience factor finally made us succumb. And now I have fallen prey to all the things I hate. The other day I was shopping for some warm clothes for Japan and just as I was coming up to the counter I got a text message. Amy got one too, at the same time. Both of us immediately got out our phones and began texting a reply.

I threw my items for purchase up on the counter. Paid no attention at all to the cashier, and tried to fish out the cash whilst still texting.

Then it dawned on me on what I was doing and I was so ashamed.

I understand now why so many people become so rude with these devices. It is so hard not to answer when the phone rings. It is crazy difficult not to read and reply to a text when I receive them. There is something so primal about the need to answer the call. In my pre-cell phone days I would often not answer my land line. Certain times of the day I knew the call was not going to be for me, or would be annoying and I'd simply ignore the ringing. I can't do that with my cell phone.

Maybe it is because I can tell who is calling now. Knowing that it is my friend Sara, or my sister makes me need to answer. Even not knowing the number makes me interested in who it could be.

And thus I have become what I have hated.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Metrics

When I was in junior high school I remember studying the metric system over a couple of years. The teachers all agreed that the people of the United States would abandon the American system and adopting the metric system within a few years. They used the fact that may road signs posted distance in both miles and kilometers, and the fact that you could find centiliters being used in soft drinks as examples of this change that was a-coming. We were taught about how much better the metric system was to use and how the old crotchety Americans who would refuse to change would soon learn to take it the hard way.

That was ten years ago, and we're still not anywhere near close to making the change.

This is completely understandable. For those who have known the American system all their lives there seems little reason to learn something knew. Feet and pounds and gallons work perfectly well, so why change? Most people aren't scientists nor do they travel around the world and thus their need to know the metric system is nil.

I suspect many kids were just like me and were taught the metric system, yet outside the realms of classrooms and tests, they found no need for the entire system. I've spent most of my life wondering why we learned it in the first place.

It is true that the metric system is easier to use. It is a ten base system which means that all you need to know about conversion is which way to move the decimal point. You can learn that pretty easy by memorizing a few pre-fixes - centi=100, milli=1000 an and so forth. There is no need to remember arbitrary things like how many feet are in a yard, or how many pints equal a gallon. The math is simple and that's more than alright.

I mention this because twice now I have lived in foreign countries and both have used the metric system. It hasn't always been easy as my memory of all things metric has long since faded, but the computer does conversions for me and I am slowly learning that 10 degrees Celsius is still cold, but 30 degrees is nice and warm.

I like the idea of teaching my future children (or more likely - child) the metric system. If the school system is still like what I experienced, some old math teacher will probably teach them metrics, but I want my kid to actually use it. I'm thinking it would be cool to have twenty-four hour clocks, centigrade thermometers and kilogram scales.

Maybe cool isn't the right word, cause nobody really thinks the metric system is cool. And I'm sure if my kid actually uses the metric system he'll probably get beaten up. Still, I dig the whole international flavor of it. And if Amy can teach the kid French, then I can teach him meters.

Oh lawd, my poor kid is gonna have no friends.

The Shanghai Diaries - Japanese Edition, Part II: From Tokyo to Miyajima

The new diaries is up. In this edition we finally make it to Tokyo and get devastated in Hiroshima. Plus we visit a castle in Himeji, visit some deer on an island and find the toilets all warm and fare.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Things That Need To Be Discussed

I have been so lazy with this blog, and in so many ways all of my thoughts have moved to the Midnight Cafe, but there are things I want to say here, and I'm making this notes to urge me to do just that.

There is, of course, the Tokyo Story which has been slow to write. With Amy still on break, and us just coming back, there has been much to do (grocery buying, house cleaning)and a great deal of procrastinating (that's where Amy on break comes in, it is a wonder to behold how little I do when she's around save for playing, and watching movies.) This afternoon I started writing and am ashamed to say it just isn't in me. The words are still stunted inside, not yet ready to come out. Give them a couple of more days and I promise something shall be written.

Beyond Tokyo there is the story of me giving blood that I've been meaning to tell, and keep forgetting. Plus I want to talk about mobile phones (and me actually using them much to my own aggrivation.) There is also my new found belief in the metric system and my desire to teach it to my kids in a manner which will make them no only understand it, but prefer its usage (and still not get their faces beat in.)

See, that's lots of stuff right there to talk about. Now if I could only get to the writing of it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

We're Back

In case you don't read my regular blog, belong to Facebook, or get personal e-mails from me, we made it back from Japan a couple of days ago. It was a great trip, with a bit of trouble for me to get back. More words will be written about it shortly.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries: Japanese Edition, Part One - The Long Journey Nowhere

For Chinese New Year (or what some refer to as the Spring Festival, even though it occurs in late January/early February) my wife and I get three weeks of vacation time. Initially we had planned to spend some time with my sister and her husband on the beaches of Thailand. As we had been unable to make it to Hong Kong over the Christmas break, we planned a two-day layover there on the way. Then, after tanning for a few days, the wife and I were hoping to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.

All of this was very tentative, you understand. In fact several weeks ago we completely trashed those plans because of a message my mother sent. She told us that she and the father wanted to take all of us kids and spouses to Hawaii this summer. As that made two beaches in less than a year, we decided to scrap Thailand.

The brother-in-law and I beat the Japan drum pretty quickly, as it is a place we have both wanted to see forever. The wife and sister were less impressed with this notion, but in time came on board. This time plans were not so tentative as we booked the plane, the trains, and the hotels.

The excitement brewed, the bags were packed, and the day finally came. Snow had come to China over the weekend. Lots of it. More snow than the country had seen in 50 years. Shanghai, though, wasn't so bad - cold and miserable, but just a little snow. I, for one, was not worried.

The taxi ride over was a bit sloshy, but without incident. We exchanged our tickets for boarding passes, sent the bags through the x-ray machine, and headed over to customs. Forms filled out, I handed my information to the customs lady and received a stamp and got my passport and boarding pass back.

That moment hung in the air like sparrows in the wind. It is a moment I expect I will regret for months to come.

For a split second I thought to myself that something was amiss. I felt like I had not received all I needed. I almost asked my wife if we were good, but then I told myself that the customs official certainly knew which papers to keep and which papers to give back and so I went on my way.

We walked to our terminal, we bussed to the plane, we found our seat. We waited for the second bus to arrive. We waited for everyone to take their seats. We waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

About 30 minutes past the time we were supposed to take off, the captain's voice over the loudspeaker explained to us that there was ice on the wing and that we needed to taxi over to where the de-icing trucks were. He also noted that this might take a little while, as we were third in the queue.

Waiting is the word for what we did next. After about an hour the captain spoke again. This time he told us about how he had made a walk down the plank to check on the ice. He said that the wings looked good, but that the tail was still in trouble. Here he made a point to say that we would have to wait and see whether the tail melting or the de-icing came first to know when we would leave. We were still third in the queue and there was no way of knowing when we'd be ready.

This time we were given lunch while we waited. Then, after about four hours of being on the plane and going nowhere, the captain came on again to state that the tail was still full of ice but that we would shortly be heading towards the trucks with the de-ice spray. All we needed to do was wait a bit more and things would be a go.

After a bit we did indeed taxi, and we did indeed get de-iced, but things were not, indeed, a go.

It seems that after and only after we were sprayed by the trucks, the captain decided to run through his wing heater tests, and they failed. We went back to our original spot and waited for the engineer to come aboard and fix the problem.

After a bit we were informed that the engineer was moving swiftly for a fix, but (and the captain here informed us about how terribly sorry he was) the airport had now canceled the flight.

Six hours we had sat on the plane, and we'd gotten only as far the de-icing trucks. Eventually the bus came back for half of the passengers (including myself and my wife, but not the sister or her husband). We went back to the original terminal, where we were blocked in around the desks where six hours before the lady had taken our boarding passes. A hundred people or so all pushed and prodded their way closer. Closer to what, we weren't sure, but closer we were getting. I did my best not to be pushed into small children, while several others began shouting at those poor people in airline uniforms. They yelled back. It was all in Chinese so I had no idea what was going on at any point.

In time those in uniform opened the line and handed each of us a blank boarding pass. The masses moved to a corner of the terminal and stood looking bewildered. A nice-looking man came and walked us back to the customs counter. There we got an additional stamp and they tore half of the pass off for their own selves.

More arguing ensued, but no nice men directed us anywhere. I followed the crowd towards the ticket counters, and after asking around we made our way to the supervisor counter. Madness came next. The half of the passengers who had taken the bus with us were now standing at the supervisor counter, and they were mad. Screaming, red-faced, spittle-at-the-mouth mad. Others, in the back, were taking photographs of the whole mad scene. We were all crowding in trying to get answers. The front line was shouting at high volume. Several ladies climbed on the counter and were standing, shouting at the conveyor belt that usually takes the checked luggage to wherever the checked luggage usually goes.

My sister and her husband had joined us by the time we got to the front of the counter. We told the supervisor that we were in no hurry and could reschedule the flight to this Saturday. It was at this point that my day got even worse.

As we were arranging to push our flight to Tokyo back by several days, we wanted to delay our return flight too. This was fine, said the supervisor, except I could not find my return ticket. Anywhere. After much thinking I realized that when I first went through customs I had given the lady the entire envelope with both my ticket to Tokyo and my return ticket. She had not given me the return ticket back.

We told this to the supervisor, who indicated this was not a problem and we would simply need to talk to the lady behind another counter, just over there. He also noted that he had changed all of the dates and we were all set. Though I just wrote that in about a minute, the conversation with the supervisor actually took about twenty minutes. We would ask him a question, he would make a concerned face, and then several other people would shout and he would answer their questions first.

Finished with him, we moved to the counter where we had been told it would be no problem to fix our lost ticket problem. The lady there said it was very much a problem and in fact the only thing that could be done was for us to buy a brand new ticket. Much arguing ensued. We then went back to the supervisor and argued with him. He admitted that he knew full well we wouldn't be able to get a new ticket, and told us we could contact the agency that had sold us the tickets.

The following day, I did just that. It took several phone calls, and the conversations were difficult, as I speak very little Chinese and they, while speaking very decent English, were having difficulties understanding how I could no longer be in possession of my return ticket.

They also said that they could not retrieve my lost ticket, but were willing to sell me a new one. I reluctantly agreed and was told to pick it up the next day. It took nearly two hours to get to their office the next day, and there I was once again disappointed. They could not find the quoted price in their computer, though the lady the day before had assured me I had a reservation. After some searching and telephoning the Beijing office, they discovered that the price they had given me was not from Tokyo to Shanghai, but from some other city to Shanghai.

The price, they said, would now be higher. Much higher in fact. More than double. More arguing, this time sprinkled with pleading. Somewhere there was discussion of canceling everything, but refunds were not available since I didn't have the ticket. A number was produced for me to call about actually recovering a lost ticket. Of course I called. Of course they said nothing could be done.

I went home with no ticket and no idea what to do. We still don't know what we're doing. We are going to leave for Tokyo on Friday, and we hope we'll find some way home.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

The misses and I are leaving for Tokyo tomorrow morning. We will be visiting Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka and a few other cities on the main island. We will be gone for about two weeks. As such, the Midnight Cafe will be closed. I'm sure there will be plenty of stories and pictures to share when we return. Until then, amuse yourselves elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Odd Day

On your average day I set my alarm clock to about 7:45 and usually snooze until a little past 8 o'clock. When my door bell rang at ten till 8 this morning I knew it was not going to be an average day.

The door bell was actually somebody outside my apartment complex buzzing me to be let in the main door. I knew who it was, but it takes a story to get you there. And that begins last night.

As I've mentioned many times before, we have a big water bottle dispenser set up in the kitchen and we must call someone when it needs a refill. Normally I am the man to make the call, but last night I made the missus do it. This was because my mobile was out of minutes. This actually takes a slight side story to it and that begins with...well it just begins.

Phones in China aren't run off the same sort of plans you typically get in the US. Actually France didn't either and seemingly the US is the only place where you have to buy long term plans for your mobile phones, but I am already digressing a great deal. Mobiles in China take Sim Cards. That's a little card you can buy from a dealer which gives you your phone number. These cards need to be refilled every so often. Basically the Sim locks you into a deal - so many cents a minute and what-not - and then you buy a 100 RMB refill whenever you need it.

Mine, last night, was out of money. Thus the wife made the call to the water guy. This was maybe 9 in the PM. She said the things she was supposed to say, then repeated it and asked if this was OK. This is what you have to do because we don't speak Chinese and they don't speak English. Everything seemed normal and so we sat down and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I think we made it through three episodes of the West Wing before giving up and going to bed. It was close to 11 at this point and we were sure nobody would come so late.

Did I mention this was water we were waiting on? We use that water to drink. As in it is the only water to drink as the tap is non potable. Thirsty is the word for what we were. Quite thirsty. We had long since drank the tea I had made earlier in the day. I have given up on Coke products. The only thing we did have to drink was apple juice. I had already had a couple of glasses of that, but you know how when you get really thirsty and only water will do?

Consider us there.

I had pains in my belly I wanted water so bad. My throat screamed for relief. The clock ticked by and still no water.

Did I mention we didn't have any money? Yep we had spent it all 'cepting the cash we needed for paying the water guy who wasn't coming. The local market only takes cash, and both ATMs near here were out of money.

Yes, the local ATMs often run out of cash. It isn't unusual, in fact it is expected at certain times of the month. It would likely be refilled the next day, but we were thirsty now.

We had some change that would have bought a bottle of water, but by the time we realized the water guy wasn't coming the market was closed. In the end I boiled a pot full of water. They say boiling for ten minutes or more will cleanse the tap and make it drinkable. This is what I did. Ever try drinking water that has been boiled for ten minutes straight? I don't recommend it. Since our apartment generally stays at a temperate -35 degrees anymore, the glass did cool more quickly than it might have in a normal home, but it still took a long while.

There we were dying of thirst with no water but some that was not fit for consumption, and some other that was too hot to taste. We managed to brush our teeth with the hot water and decided to go to bed thirsty.

Ah, but this story isn't about what happened last night, it is about this morning and being woken up early. At ten till 8 the guy buzzing my apartment was none other than the water guy. Being wakened by the buzz, I immediately knew who it was, threw on a shirt and dashed towards the door.

I said hello in Chinese as this is a word I know, and I got a reply in English. Still half asleep this confused me and I wondered if I wasn't about to be accosted by some official while I was still in my pajamas. No such luck and I finally had my water.


The company Amy works for had planned a blood drive for today and I had agreed to give. I agreed to this rather hastily actually and when I actually started to think about it I was nervous. I'm not opposed to needles you understand, and I am definitely pro-blood giving. I've done it in the States with no problem. But this is China and not everything is easy.

They like IVs here, it seems, and it isn't always a pleasant thing for a Westerner. My sister tells a story of having an IV for some thing or another and that while sitting there with the needle she spotted an air bubble. Air bubbles aren't good for IVs and she cried out for help. Help was given but it was a little bit too Hee-Hawish for my tastes.

I sucked it up and told myself that they would be taking stuff out of me, not putting it in and thus I should be fine.

Tons of e-mails were flung this morning as everybody on board was making preparations to go to the company for the drive. We needed IDs and passports and to be on time! The time came and I left for the front gate. I had no idea who was coming and worried if I'd know anybody. I saw a group of Chinese women and wondered if they were part of the crew. I stood by them and tried to act cool all the while wondering if this was the right gate. There are two you see and I was pretty casual when I read all those e-mails.

Eventually a friend showed up and then the leader and we were off. The company is not far from the school and we were quickly there. We had to use our IDs to get in and then put on little booties over our shoes. My shoes are big and I always rip the booties.

We enter into the room for the drive and are seated at a table. The forms are all in Chinese so the 8 or so of us have one translator. If you have ever given blood before you know the forms get really personal really fast.

There are questions concerning whether or not you have HIV, Hepatitis, have taken any Aspirin lately, are on your period, have ever done intravenous drugs or had homosexual sex. That's a lot to ask while being surrounded by your coworkers. Actually the translator skipped over all the sex questions and just told us to answer "no" without translating them.

There was some commotion when I answered that I had taken aspirin within the last five days. I had to explain that it was actually Ibuprofen and that it was only one pill and that was three days ago. Proving that it was for a headache and not for something else - I don't now what - seemed important. Eventually the doctors agreed I was good for giving.

I was then asked about my height. That's a simple enough question and I know the answer, but only in feet and inches. Know who doesn't measure height in feet and inches? Everyone that's who. Everyone but Americans. I'm a little rusty in my feet to meters conversion and I was at a lost as to what to tell them. I told them in feet and inches, but they were perplexed as to what I was talking about.

Somewhere my eighth grade teacher is laughing hysterically.

Luckily a Chinese friend heard the troubles and translated and I guess converted it to metric. Then there was a weight question and I am proud to say I know how fat I am in kilometers.

From there the process was pretty basic. At one table my finger was pricked and the blood tested. Then I was given my bag that would contain my blood and another bag. I was told to sit and to open the second bag. Or I guess that's what I was told as it was all in Chinese and pantomimed. The bag had lots of bread and a jug of milk.

It seemed I was supposed to eat. Usually blood folks give you a snack for after, but before seems to be the way here. I wasn't hungry though, as I had just eaten an egg and ham breakfast (protein is good for the giving, don't ya know?) I ate a bit of bread and though they weren't happy with my not gulping it all down they took me back anyways. No beds for the giving here, it was just a cold chair and a desk.

We had a choice in giving 200 ml and 400 ml and as a man I gave the big amount.

No bubbles, only life saving goo.

For our troubles we were given an umbrella and 20 RMB to spend at the cafeteria. Not bad but I was hoping for a t-shirt saying 'I gave blood in China.'


Back on the home front I spent the afternoon trying to transfer funds from our Hong Kong account to our American one. I've mentioned before that Amy's checks are split in two and half of it goes to Hong Kong in USD. We have a pretty good chunk of it and I have been wanting to transfer it to the US and pay off some bills. Unfortunately doing that is trouble. We signed up for an internet transfer deal but it was proving difficult.

After spending way too much time I realized that they had the wrong account number for my American bank and we were screwed. There's more to that story, but I'm tired of typing and I'm sure your tired of reading.

Tonight we went to refill my phone and instead accidentally bought a refill for Amy's phone. I have a different company than she does and we wern't paying attention.

And that was my day.

The Shanghai Diaries - Miscellaneous

The new diaries is up. This week it is a collection of small topics that don't fit anywhere else.

See I told you I would start writing again soon :)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Who Cares If I'm In China?

The other day while listening to a radio show a friend of mine hosts he made the following statement, "shut up Brewster, nobody gives a @!?# about what time it is in Shanghai." At the time it is true that I was heckling him and it is also true that our friendship is born from hassling each other, but the thing is, this time, it kind of hurt.

When Amy and I lived in Strasbourg I swore to myself that I when we returned I would not spend my days talking about living in France. When we finally did return to the States I found this promise was entirely difficult to not break.

Think about it a moment, how often do you talk about the events of the last year? Over the next couple of days when you are talking to friends or coworkers notice how often you mention something you did or experience over the last year, or any time in your past. We are nothing if we have no past. We are made up of nothing but our memories.

And we like to talk about them.

So it was with France. I constantly said stuff like "When we were in France," or "the French do this..." etc. I wasn't trying to be pompous or cool or anything. I had lived in an exotic (at least to me) place for nearly a year and it had a great effect on my life. In conversations these things naturally came out.

And so it is in China. I am sure that when I go back home I'll talk about Shanghai. I already do talk about it in this blog, in e-mails, on the phone and chatting with my friends elsewhere. Again it is not to say that I am better than anyone, but simply a part of my circumstance. I mean I cannot pretend I am not in China and in general conversation weird tidbits of my time here are going to come out.

Like the difference in time zones. Honestly I think it is really kind of cool that I am 13-14 hours ahead of most of my friends. It is completely fascinating to me. When my friend made his jibe it stung because I know that I have brought up the difference in time several times.

At first this was true because of my fascination with the science behind it, but now I am simply stating facts. The radio show my friend hosts is on blogtalkradio which is an internet radio dealie, and each show has its own chat room. When I listen to his show I hang out in the chat room.

The show runs from 11-noon my time and somewhere in the middle my wife calls me about lunch. We usually do lunch together and I always have to leave the show early. When I leave I generally send a message stating that I'm going to lunch. This isn't because I'm trying to be cool because I'm lunching while everyone else is preparing for bed. It is because I'm going to lunch, period. It seems rude to just disappear, and it is natural form me to let everyone know I'm leaving, and the reason behind my departure.

Wow! That's a pretty big whine in a pretty small box. Sorry if that's nothing but a self pat-on-the-back or something. The comment was harmless enough really, but it kind of got to me and I have only this to explain myself.