28 January 2014

winter semester

This winter season has instigated a distinct cultural clash between our little family and the citizens of Chengdu.  According to large swaths of the general public over the age of 40 – and frankly, most people of any age at all – we have no clue how to dress a baby for winter. The city’s roving peanut gallery, upon seeing our son in his winter coat, hat and mittens, tends to respond with audible gasps, collective tsk-tsking, and impassioned rebukes.

Concerned members of the public also like to feel our son’s pants to confirm their worst fears. It’s then that the real cry of alarm goes up: 一条裤子?? 一条裤子! ! ! One pair of pants?? ONE PAIR OF PANTS! It’s a trial and conviction in rapid-fire Chinese. Plus, the sheer insanity of discovering a baby who’s wearing only one pair of pants usually attracts a crowd of rubberneckers who can’t miss seeing the aberration for themselves.

It happened in the grocery store a couple of weekends ago when a grandmotherly older woman conducted a quick survey of the baby’s pants and announced that we needed to dress him in more clothes because he was not warm enough. I politely told her we felt he was wearing enough clothes and she shouldn’t be concerned. Then I mentioned that we have heat in our home and leave our windows closed so he is really quite fine.

This is an important clarification. In Chengdu, in a recklessly optimistic embrace of the concept of “fresh air” people keep their windows open throughout the winter. This is true for homes, offices, schools…  It is such a common practice that most of Chengdu’s citizens spend the day in one consistent temperature and that is whatever temperature it is outside. This helps explain why no one ever takes their coats off (even in meetings) and why children waddle around in several layers of thick quilts shaped like clothes.

This is also why people panic when they see our son without the standard five inches of winter padding. For example, we went to our Chinese teacher’s home for dinner and her in-laws were extremely concerned about letting him crawl around on the cold granite floor. But as he got more and more agitated and more interested in crawling around on the floor we had two options: 1.) put him on the cold floor, or 2.) close the windows and put him on the cold floor. We went with the former and left it to our hosts to decide if further action was needed. The windows remained open.

The good news is that Chengdu has fairly mild winters with temperatures in the high forties most of the time. It’s warm enough that palm trees make it through the season and there are flowers in bloom. For people from Chicago, it’s downright balmy and even a little confusing.

For example, there’s a tree here that I’d never seen before and it seems to flower only at this time of year. The blooms are small and yellow and dot barren branches with no leaves. These trees look lonely and still but they announce their presence with an intense fragrance that finds you even before you find the tree. It is clear and wonderful and sweet and hovers in the air like a cloud.

I didn’t know the name of this tree even though it’s all over our neighborhood so I asked a lady we know. She said it was a la mei tree. Well, actually she said it was a “na mei” tree because she’s from Sichuan and people here tend to use n’s for l’s and vice versa which is even more fun when you’re trying to learn the word for cheese which is pronounced nai lao by everyone except for the millions of people we happen to live with here in Sichuan, but I digress.

We looked up the name and it seems to be Japanese allspice, also known as wintersweet which is as close to a perfect tree name as you’re going to get. And easy to remember. You learn something new every day.

And don't underestimate the educational opportunities available to you at your local hair salon. I learned a ton while getting my hair cut over the weekend. The first thing I learned was that the salon doesn’t take appointments during the Lunar New Year season because this is the busiest time of year and there are too many customers. [Based on the drastically unsuccessful discussions I’ve had here in the past on such topics as improving efficiency and my-fond-memories-of-the-customer-service-experience-in-the-United-States, I opted not to comment on their decision.]

When I finally managed to get a haircut I asked my hairdresser why so many people get their hair cut for the holiday and he told me that not so long ago China was a very different place. He said that New Years was extremely special because you would eat meat and buy new clothes – two things that didn’t happen often otherwise. He said he clearly remembers being excited for New Year as a kid because you got to go shopping and you would get a hair cut to make a good start of the year ahead.

He said things are different in China now; people eat meat all the time, go shopping, and regularly get their hair cut at salons. But as recently as fifteen years ago, he said, it was completely different.

On a lighter note he also told me that it was ok for me not to dye my hair here because he’s sure that Chinese people won’t notice the white hair on my head. He very earnestly explained that Chinese people think all of my hair looks the same. But, he went on to clarify that if I go back to America I might need to consider it.  

For us Chengdu is like a giant hazy classroom. There are the older ladies who want to teach you how to dress your child; the locals who teach you the names of good-smelling trees; and the hairstylist who teaches you modern Chinese history and cross-cultural views on grey hair in a single sitting. Who knows what we’ll learn next.

Year of the Horse here we come!

30 December 2013

christmas without christmas

Celebrating Christmas in China is a bit of a self-made operation. Santa and other decorative elements are seeping into popular culture here, propelled mainly by stores that want shoppers to do more shopping, but in general you’re on your own. 

Admittedly, some joy can be found in the local interpretations of Christmas decor. For example, I might prefer not to position my Santa so that he spends the holiday season oogling the lingerie models, but the lingerie store had other ideas. 

Despite this growing number of Christmas signs and songs, the real issue for those of us that actually celebrate the holiday is that there's no Christmas Day follow-through. For all the visual hype you’d expect at least a little December 25th hullabaloo. But there’s nothing.

We didn’t even get the gift we wanted … a day with air we could breathe. This gift was meant for the little guy celebrating his first Christmas and for his grandparents who were stuck in our house breathing filtered air and watching the Chinese world go by. 

Instead, Chengdu Santa gave us the coal that keeps on giving – a thick chunk of pollution sitting on top of the city.

Regardless, on Christmas morning Shi-wen and I donned our winter caps (aka PM 2.5 filtering face masks) and walked the dog just to pretend our lives are like they used to be. This Christmas walk was perfect for Chengdu. There was everything you’d expect: pollution, several unmarked open manholes with varying levels of fall-in ability, and a maintenance man who perched on an air conditioning unit two stories up because there wasn't enough room on the bamboo ladder for two.

[Extra special holiday tie-in: The man standing on the AC unit was also the man that walked into our house unannounced one morning. He opened our front door and leaned in to say that our stove hood had arrived. I told him, in Chinese, that he was not allowed to walk into our house without knocking. He repeated his news about the stove hood. I repeated my complaint. He then turned to our ayi and said, “Tell her that her stove hood is here.” Either he was super excited about the stove hood or he mistook my Chinese for English. Either way it took us a long while to convince him that we were more concerned about his entry than the stove hood’s arrival.]

Our Christmas walk included a bicycle pass by a neighbor who is still living around here somewhere although not in his apartment which is under construction and has no walls. Then later, as if to remind us that his apartment is really under construction, several stacks of twenty foot-long metal strips strapped to a bicycle cart arrived for use in the space.

There was also a parked motorbike whose rear basket was piled high with plastic sacks of upside-down plucked chickens, some of which were unceremoniously dropped on the ground as the delivery man wrestled with the load. 

There was a street cone with a sad panda and an ad in which a newly svelte woman marveled about the loss of her "belly butter." 

The watchman resting in the convenience store didn’t seem to know it was Christmas and I wouldn’t have known either if I hadn’t come home to a warm house with a lighted tree and pumpkin waffles for breakfast.

There was also a first Christmas baby, his grandparents, Christmas pajamas, a tiny rocking pony, and a fleet of wooden cars made by Grandpa. We had Christmas music and candy canes and cookies baked from my Grandmother’s 100 year-old recipe. We ate pan d’oro made from scratch and pecan pie with a wonky crust.

We even had a ham that was brined and glazed and ready to be baked as soon as the gas came back on. 

Because, of course, the gas was turned off. This was our special stocking stuffer from Chengdu and it hammered home the fact that December 25 was special to no one but us. In fact, it was so un-special that you didn’t need to cook anything at all, let alone a large glazed ham.

In the end, I suppose being in China for Christmas was like being anywhere. You made your own day with your love and your tree baubles and the large box of Trader Joe’s holiday sweets that your parents put in the mail for you several weeks before boarding an around-the-world flight so they could celebrate with you in a city where you can’t go outside.

Tis the season! 

08 December 2013

so many shades of green

We almost didn’t go to the Chinese farm.

You’d think with the way we complain about food safety and fresh air that we’d have run for this organic farm at a sprint. But, alas… organic farms in China have the same problem as normal farms in China: they’re outside. And going outside here tends to be bad for your health.

But this time we got lucky. The night before the farm visit, well after we’d decided the air quality was too bad to go, the winds took a swerve for the better and we woke up to discover that going outside wouldn’t kill us.  It wouldn’t be good for us either, but we’ll take what we can get.

So to the farm it was. It was drizzling and grey out but we were so thrilled to be leaving the house that we had no complaints.

The farm was a small one that raised wonderful organic vegetables and had real broccoli growing right out of the ground. It also smelled a lot less like livestock than I'd expected despite raising cows, goats, and chickens on the grounds.

Take the chicken coop that didn’t smell like chickens – you’d hardly know it was there. This was especially impressive since it wasn’t a coop so much as a chicken-filled building.

No matter what you called it, the most entertaining part of the trip was standing next to this nearly odorless chicken-filled building and watching peoples’ reactions to what they saw inside.

It usually started with “Holy” and ended with language a little less pure. You couldn’t help yourself. There were just so many chickens and no reason to suspect they were there.

But if we’re making a list of farm shockers, let’s skip ahead to the giant spiders. 

These are not the spiders you find in your house and leave in the corner/blinds/whatever to eat other bugs. No, farm spiders are the spiders that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you calculate how fast something with eight legs, each several inches long, can run in your direction.

And have I mentioned they’re toxic?

I was admiring the farm’s reconstituted wetland, which looked a lot like a grove of apple trees, when I noticed webbed sheets of spiders stretched between the trees. Giant green- and black-striped bodies hung in midair and repeated row upon row into the distance. The scale of spider domination was fairly horrifying and made me wonder if I would run through the field to escape a murderer in chase. I was thinking this question through when the farmhand next to me asked, “Did you know they’re toxic?”

He went on, “They’re worse in the summer. In the summer they’re much fatter than now. And if you’re riding your bike,” he continued, “they’ll definitely jump on your face and bite you. The bites will hurt at first, but the poison will make it numb and you’ll be okay.”

The look of disbelief on my face asked the question that he answered. “Yes, it happened to me. But I got used to it.”

And this was pretty much when I decided that not only wasn’t I ever going to run through that field, I also wasn’t going to live on a farm. Bad air is a problem but when your skies are filled with spiders and you think it’s normal, that’s a nightmare even organic broccoli can’t solve.

27 November 2013

no big deal

We could hear the neighbor's apartment being ripped apart. Lots of clunking and crashing and metallic booming. And each time the noise stopped there would be a brief period where plaster dust-covered workmen would come down carrying materials they'd ripped out of the space and pile them on a small squadron of scooters and three-wheeled bikes. The group found it pretty entertaining when I came outside to take this picture. I couldn't tell exactly what they were saying because it was in the local dialect but I'm pretty sure they were flummoxed by my finding this to be so interesting. The one comment I could make out was when the man who would eventually pedal away on this bike joked, "Don't put me on the news!"

17 November 2013

Not the city

If you’re feeling frustrated with Chengdu you can leave it for an afternoon and come back feeling much better. Mainly because venturing outside of the city will remind you that things can be much worse. But also much better.

In the much worse category we can go ahead and list all of the ways that driving on mountain roads can take days off your life. What with the toddlers toddling into traffic or being fed their meals at the side of the road; the elder generations walking three abreast in the road – balancing oversized baskets, muddy hoes, or small children somewhere on their bodies; the barely-moving tractors dragging saggy lengths of rebar up the mountain; and a lone cyclist hogging the road back down – it’s not easy to get where you’re going.

There’s a lot of “Oh crap, did you see that?,” followed by “Oh hell, get your eyes back on the road.” In fact, leave the city for half a minute and you’ll realize that the outlying roads are marvelously un-conducive to driving. They take the surreal inconveniences of city driving and run them over. Twice. With a tractor driven by a five year old.

And while these roads may lead to where you’re going – in our case a mountain town called Shangli 上里 – you start to notice what they’re missing along the way. We couldn’t find a bank. Didn’t see a grocery store. Witnessed neither gas stations nor libraries.

We did see children scuttling in the dust with chickens, enormous tree trunks resting on their sides, and a family that happily fished a vegetable out of the gutter.

The farther you get from the cities, the harder life gets. It’s the unfortunate combination of more challenges met with fewer opportunities. And if you asked people what holds them back most in these places, I doubt they’d say the lack of a Starbucks. The most basic of services still haven’t reached these areas. A sidewalk would be a shock.

But you will also find things that the city lacks. There are streams and waterfalls and bamboo trees. There are mountain passes and rice fields and flowers drying in the sun. And parking lot attendants who step over to the field to explain to you that this is the countryside and that people who live here are farmers, all before guessing you are way younger than you are. “You’re just a little off,” I responded, “just a little off.”

I wonder if he would have guessed the correct age of the cat laying next to the flowers in the main square. The lady tending the drying blooms lay her rake down to pet him, pulling his ears back and explaining he was twenty years old.

I say “he” but I have no clue whether it was a him or a her. In Chinese there may be different written words for him 他 and her  and it 它 but they are said exactly the same. So he is twenty and she is twenty and it is twenty.

And twenty may be the number of times Xiao GuaiGuai was held, photographed, or complimented by strangers... often with a single individual doing all three. Such a popular exhibit was this “big eyed” “precious” “doll” (all their own words) that it was hard to eat our noodle lunch without someone stopping by for a viewing. It happens in Chengdu too, but the smaller the place and the farther afield you are, the more akin to a rockstar a non-Chinese baby becomes.

I didn’t take any photos of foreign babies but I did get a shot of a babied dog. Whose owner in turn got a shot of Xiao GuaiGuai.

We were very happy with the noodles we happened to get for lunch. We ordered them because the people sitting at the table next to us had ordered them too. These noodles were the house specialty and they’d been thrown and swung before being deposited into a steaming cauldron of boiling liquid. They were then raised en masse and coiled into a bowl with leafy greens and fatty hunks of meat and la jiao 辣椒, the spicy pepper found in so many of Sichuan's dishes. Did we want la jiao? they’d asked while taking our order. As if we would say no.

There were some other questions posed to our table but they remained unintelligible on account of being asked in the local dialect. A few sentences the chef rattled at us in quick succession made no sense until he turned to the people at the other table and said, in perfect Mandarin Chinese, “they don’t understand.”  听不懂. We understood that.

And when the chef concentrated on speaking to us in Mandarin it seemed he was most eager to learn one thing: Why do we speak Chinese?

It was the first time I’d ever been asked that question. Usually people ask how we learned Chinese, or where we learned, or when. But never why.

I suppose the why is that we live in China. The why is that without Chinese we wouldn’t be traveling to small towns to see this country outside of its cities. The why is that when you can talk to people you can start to understand.

But it’s only a start.

(Next time I’ll remember to ask the gender of the cat.)

03 November 2013


Obviously, China was not going to bend to my will and start acting the way I wanted it to. What with thousands of years of history, a billion+ people, and a hunk of geography on the other side of the world, it has a habit of doing its own thing. My frustrations don’t even register.

And my newest frustration with China? The realization that I’ve started to act the way it wants me to.

I’m not sure when it started, but I do have an illustrative fact. This fact makes me seem irresponsible. Or crazy. But at the time it seemed normal and it still does. And for that I blame this country.

Here's the thing: I handed my car over to a total stranger. And then I let that stranger leave my car keys with another stranger.

See, the first stranger, a neighbor whose true apartment location is still unbeknownst to us, is the guy who hit our car and then reported it to the second stranger, our doorman. The neighbor’s car didn't even have plates. He's driving around in a Porsche with no license plates and he comes forward to admit that he did something wrong. Seemed like an upstanding guy.

When he offered to take Shi-wen and our car to the mechanic to get it fixed we let him. But then the car wasn’t ready in time and Shi-wen had to travel halfway across China for a week. I was left to take care of Xiao Guaiguai and the house and the car. With all of this going on I couldn’t pick up the car when it was ready.

(We had also realized somewhere along the way that we had nothing to show for our car being at the mechanic's – recommended by said stranger – other than the stranger's cell number.)

In all honesty, the biggest inconvenience, even taking the denting of the car into consideration, was when the doorman insisted he didn't have my keys after the stranger brought them back.

After a moment of initial panic when I tried to pick them up, “What car keys?,” we realized that the keys were in the doorman's desk. They had the neighbor’s name written on them instead of mine because I can just roll up as a foreigner and they know who I am immediately whereas the other guy has to write down something identifying him as the neighbor with the grey Porsche and no plates.

So when did I start letting strangers drive my car and leave my keys with other strangers?

When I moved to China.

26 October 2013

where two (or three) wheels can take you

These commuters drove past me just a few minutes apart on the same Chengdu morning. A local wouldn't even give them a second glance.

Have a large piece of foam core that needs to get somewhere?
Just make sure you can still reach the handlebars.

Need to go where where cute shoes and tights are appreciated?
One of you can just stand on the running board.

What about a family of three?
Hop on. You can even fit a bag of groceries between the driver's legs.

Have some cardboard that needs to get recycled?
Just tie it on and don't get hit by the truck with the tree trunks while lighting your cigarette.

And this stuff with a lady's face on it. Can you get it where it needs to go?
Of course. I can even cross my legs along the way.