Archive | October, 2010

Trip in Beijing

21 Oct

“Taylor is the love of my life,” I overheard one of the boys whispering to his friends at a restaurant on my most recent trip around Beijing. Giggles and stares ensued. “Trey loves you, Taylor!” One of the giggling cohorts shouted at me. My admirer was a good-looking boy, blond hair, blue eyes. Too bad he was eleven.

I always iron my shirts before trips, and I like to wear a little mascara, but I didn’t know I was looking that good. What can I say, these sixth graders loved me, which was probably not at all related to my appearance, but more so to the fact that I handled snack distribution. “Taylor, Taylor, can we have more Oreos? Thanks! You’re my best friend.”

The teachers liked me too. One teacher, James, a very smart, fifty-something year-old man with incredibly fluent Chinese and a long grey beard, made more than a few inappropriate comments towards me.

I liked him anyway. He recommended various iPhone Chinese dictionary applications and some good Chinese reading material. On the first day he overheard me asking one of the Chinese tour guides to speak to the hotel desk clerk for me in Chinese. “It’ll be faster that way,” I’d said.

“Taylor,” James said to me, “Jump into the fray. Don’t be afraid. Just jump in!”

The teachers and kids wore bright red zip up hoodies that with the name of their school on the front and back. The teachers gave me and the two tour guides their sweatshirts at the end of the trip. “We get new ones every year,” they explained. “You guys should have them as souvenirs to remember us!”

Though my trip around Beijing had no “Edwards,” from Shandong Province, and therefore no hilarious cultural miscommunications, there were almost no problems either. (I consider this trip a reimbursement from the last one). Activities ran smoothly, teachers were responsible, and our dining opportunities were excellent. We ate at some coveted elite Western restaurants, Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays. (It was luxury all the way). I was actually sad when we dropped the kids off at the airport this afternoon.

So, I’m currently curled up in my new sweatshirt, stuffed with Pizza hut and Oreos, and without any witty or hilarious trip stories for my blog. But even though very little went wrong, I regained some confidence that was lost during my last trip, and have made forty three eleven-year-old friends from Hong Kong.

I received a thank you card from the teachers with notes from each student. Like I predicted, they were mostly related to snacks. Here are examples:

Thanks for the snacks and other thingymajiggies. Also for the grape fruit gum, that was cool. Thanks! I gots guummm! ☺

Thanks for the Oreos and organizing everything! WildChina is going bankrupt! (U no Ha)

Sup Taylor! We had so much fun!!! You’re my best friend!!! *wink* Thanks X100000000000000 (until infinity + google plex)

What talented young writers they are.

As the teachers and students were checking their passports and walking through the airport security to their gate, James came over, hugged me and shook my hand. “Jump into the fray, Taylor.”

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Jenny Lou’s

8 Oct

Jenny Lou’s

Jenny Lou’s is a Beijing grocery store for expats. It sells everything foreign, from cold cuts to capers, “Lucky Charms” to weird Japanese “digestive cookies.” The fruits and vegetables are imported, so nervous expat mothers can rest easy when serving their children green peas and carrots. The last time I visited Jenny Lou’s, I found English muffins, manufactured in Beijing specifically to sell at the store. They were square shaped and I had to cut them in half myself, but they were so American!

Jenny Lou’s is mesmerizing. As soon as you push past the big plastic flaps on the entrance and smell the hot baguettes, you forget that most of what’s sold at Jenny Lou’s can also be found at a typical Beijing grocery store (mine is called Lotte Mart). For half the price.

Foreigners wander in and suddenly feel at home, although if Jenny Lou’s were transported to a Western country, it would be considered small and under-stocked. In Beijing, it feels like a foreigner-friendly food haven. Surrounded by English nutritional information and “Orbits” gum, I find myself wanting to buy things I never even eat in America.

“Check out that bowtie pasta. Oh hey, are those canned cocktail olives? Look! ‘Meat Lover’s hot pockets!’ “

Before I know it, my cart is full and I’m about to buy a 10-pack of “Bon Bell Cheese” and three frozen pizzas. Why? So I can feel just a little more at home in a foreign city.

But the fact is, though Beijing can feel lonely at times, it’s a booming metropolis, becoming less and less “foreign” every day. One of my friends calls Beijing as a “city for wimps.” With the exception of some genuinely rare products (cooking spray and Yellow Tail wine), most of the items at Jenny Lou’s can also be found in Chinese grocery stores. Oreos, sliced cheese, even “Activia” yogurt are common sights on the shelves at the local “Lotte Mart.”

At Lotte Mart recently, I was putting imported 50% fat-free sliced cheese (20 kuai) in my basket when one of the shop girls pulled me over and pointed to some Chinese cheese next to the imported stuff. It was only 9 kuai.

“Is it 50% fat free too?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “The Chinese brand is exactly the same.” I thanked
her, thrilled to save 11 kuai.

Lotte Mart is fine, but once in a while, you need something that you really can’t get in a Chinese grocery store. And the only thing more disappointing than not finding your favorite ketchup or cereal at your local Lotte Mart is not finding it at Jenny Lou’s. The last time I went to Jenny’s I was looking for honey. Honey is sold all over Beijing, but I wanted the honey bear kind, the one in bottle shaped like a little bear with a plastic hat for a spout. I’d convinced myself that the spout was less messy than the jar kind and easier to pour.

They didn’t have it. I left with a lollipop from the checkout counter. It was the kind sold at every checkout counter at every Chinese grocery store.

It’s not a magnificent grocery store and the imported foods are outrageously overpriced. Every expat I know would agree that Chinese food is awesome. So, why do we feel such a strong need to shop for imported food? Even the owners of Jenny Lou’s know it’s ridiculous. They stock the Chinese brands right next to their imported foreign brand counterparts. At Jenny Lou’s, the “Quaker Instant Oatmeal” (35 kuai) is right next to the Chinese oatmeal (19.90 kuai). They’re the same size and the same product, but  satisfy very different needs.

I still haven’t bought any honey. I see Chinese brands every time I go grocery shopping, but I never spend the $2 to buy a bottle. I guess it’s not the honey I’m looking for.

Trip to Shandong Province

6 Oct

“Cultural Differences”

Of course the whole point of doing a fellowship in China is cultural differences. Understanding them. Bridging them. It’s what everybody talks about on his or her applications. It sounds grand and noble. Until you run into some actual cultural differences.

My first trip as a tour leader was to Mount Tai in Shandong Province, 6 hours by train, with 75 8th graders from a private school in Beijing. It was five days long. By day four, I felt as if I had been there for five months.

The cultural difference here was British teachers versus a Chinese tour guide, with me in the middle. I looked like the teachers, but I could talk like the tour guide.

The guide’s name was Edward. He was around fifty years old, had a large mole on his upper lip and his khakis were constantly pulled up just a little too high.

During our first night, after climbing five strenuous hours up Mount Tai, one of the students went missing. After realizing that he was merely asleep in his room, we knocked for over 20 minutes before breaking down the hotel room door. The teachers, and the doctor’s at a Beijing international hospital, decided the kid had had a seizure and sending him back to Beijing was the only option.

“Very very expensive,” said Edward, disapprovingly.

“We don’t give a shit how ‘expensive’ it is,” said a teacher, glaring. “it’s about the boy’s safety!”

“If he were my son, I wouldn’t pay so much money!” Edward said.

“He’s about to get a punch in the face,” a small female British teacher whispered. To me.

“I don’t understand these teachers!” Edgar yelled in Chinese. At me.

I understood Edward. During the Cultural Revolution, the government condemned doctors and academics. No wonder he had no respect for medicine. But the teachers won. We sent the kid home.

“These teachers! they don’t get it!” Edward told me. “But you understand Chinese culture.”

Damn, I knew I liked him.

Despite his awkward clothing choices and his ability to inject anxiety into every possible situation, Edward had redeeming qualities. He was always trying to do the “right thing.”

The problem was, the right thing according to Edward, often pissed off everyone else.

The next day while we descended Mount Tai, I got stuck walking with the slowest kid. And Edward.

“Keep going, dude,” I reassured her. “It’s not much farther.

She glared at me. “Don’t ever call me dude,” she said.

I looked toward Edward for help. But he was off on another rant.

“The lead teacher, he reminds me of a Jewish!”

What the hell?

“I had a group once, and there was a horrible couple. Always complaining. They were the Jewish! So ignorant!”

Make it stop! Make it stop!

“Edward!” I hissed. “What are you saying? You are the one who sounds ignorant!”

“Miss Taylor!” the glaring girl was hissing at me now. “I think I have a nosebleed!”
I reached in my backpack for the roll of toilet paper I keep there. (It’s China. You need to have toilet paper at all times, because the toilets certainly don’t.)

“Here you go.” I handed her the roll and continued down the mountain, while simultaneously dodging the toilet paper she was dropping along the path, and trying to explain to Edward why what he was saying was so wrong, wrong, wrong.

Suddenly, there was a loud “squaaaakkkk.” All three of us looked up, Edward from his racist musings, the girl from her bleeding nose, and me from playing “nurse Taylor.” A huge rooster had popped out of the bushes on the side of the mountain path and clucked his way across the stairs in front of us. Edward watched, entranced, then spoke slowly in English.

“What a beautiful cock, such a beautiful, beautiful cock.” He put his hands in his pockets and looked on admiringly.

I couldn’t react just then. Not while I was holding a tissue to a 12 year-olds nose, and only feet away from the cock itself.

“Don’t you think it’s a beautiful cock?” Edward asked. He sighed in satisfaction and kept walking down the stairs, happy for the first time all day.

I couldn’t disagree there. It was big and feathery and colorful, indeed, a beautiful cock. I held my laughter, took a swig of my water bottle and the three of us continued down the mountain.