25 September 2014


We’re pretty adept at leaving.

We’ve left a lot over the past ten years and each time that we attempted a continental switch it worked out ok. Boxes of our stuff left one day. We left another. All were reunited someplace fresh and new.

The bit that refuses to be orderly is never the suitcases or the silverware.  It’s the intangibles.

How do we pack up the sight of our son sleeping all curled up and humid in the corner of his crib? The clicks of mah jhong with the clacks of conversation that snuck through our windows at night? The rabbits we ate in an Italian way after Shi-wen spent hours dancing with them in the kitchen? The new light that came through the windows after the trees were trimmed?

Where do we put all of that?

More troubling, I still haven’t found where I can keep my feelings about the woman who taught our infant son to be a toddler. I need to pack those memories somewhere or I’ll keep reliving how I’d come home from work and ask, in Chinese, how the day had gone. Listening to a day’s worth of details with hope and humor. Hearing about how our son was growing and learning and eating and sleeping. Hearing it from the person who was always at his side.

I want those moments close but not too close. The videos we have of her make me cry. In one she looks into the camera and talks to our son. Do you remember me, she says. Do you remember how we would play and read and dance? I wonder if you are more handsome? Are you taller now?

She trails off and the recording stops.

On our last day together she thanked us for the opportunity. We said we were the ones who were grateful. We may all have said thanks five times but then she said more. In a few gentle moments she told us more than we had ever known about who she was and what her life so far had been.

With those few sentences we understood why she was right for our tiny son. Why she’d insisted he drink every drop of milk. Napped in his room as he slept. Snuggled with him if he woke too soon.

It made me cry harder.

So where do the goodbyes go? 

13 August 2014

eye health

The vet’s office had an eye chart. We didn’t ask why it was there. We just went ahead with our dog's exam. And then, when he was done, we asked the vet if we could take his puppy for a walk. He had found the dog abandoned with a leg injury and had helped him to recover. Now the puppy was waiting in a small cage for a German woman to come back and adopt him. No one knew how long she would be. A month? Maybe. Some weeks? Perhaps. The puppy already had his shots so we took him for a walk down the block, past restaurants that were mashing their garlic and preparing the day’s oil. We went around the corner and then came back to the vet's office. We didn't use the eye chart during our visit but on the way home Shi-wen noticed that the puppy had nipped him so we called the vet to double-check about the shots. I think the vet said everything was fine. Then again my Chinese veterinary vocabulary is not particularly rich so he might really have said that we’d neglected to take our eye test. You never know.

06 August 2014

glass in the road

Chengdu’s streets are a loosely tied knot that stretches and pulls to accommodate anyone and everything. This swelling and shrinking is a communal choreography built on tolerance. Tolerance of the slow, the broken, the fast, and the rich. Tolerance of the poor, the new, the bicycle, and the Bentley. And tolerance of glass, which, like everything else here, gets strapped to the back of something with wheels and then rolled into the fray. These streets take all comers.

06 July 2014

the neighborhood by the cookies

There's a neighborhood that surrounds the bakery where we like to get mala cookies. The cookies are fantastic but the neighborhood is the real find. It's a place where naps are being taken and turtles are being fed. 

And if you want to talk to people, you can stick your nose into their lives and they will warmly accommodate the intrusion. To the lady feeding a turtle with chopsticks you can say, "I didn't know turtles like to eat rice," and she will say, "Yes, my turtle likes it very much," and continue on with the meal. 

If you ask the two women preparing bitter melons about how to cook the melons they've laid out across the incense sticks, one of the ladies will tell you that bitter melon should be cooked simply, with very little oil, and that you shouldn't eat the seeds. She will then use a large hooked knife to scrape seeds out of the melon she's holding in her hand, dropping them onto the pile next to her chair.

The lady selling mahjhong sets will eventually turn around and carefully observe the conversation you are having in the street with a different woman who stopped to chat about the age of your son. The mahjhong lady will smile and her dog will pant and then they will both turn back to watching the sidewalk when you're done.

And the man who is standing on a bench stirring a giant vat of oil will confirm, when you ask through the open window, that "yes" he is preparing the oil for the hot pot restaurant. And when you stick your head back inside to ask if it tastes good he'll again say "yes" as his colleagues laugh in the corner. 

After all of this it's easy to forget that you came here to buy cookies. You start thinking you've swung by to see old friends instead.

21 June 2014

the market I like best

I like to see a city through its markets. The people are all there - tapping the watermelons and picking the best eggplants they can find. I like the colors and the smells, the wet floors and the sleeping vendors. I like the shopkeepers playing chess in the corners and fishmongers slopping bits into buckets. 

Walking in markets is like reading short stories with quick vivid scenes that happen in a moment and then fall into calm. There is shouting and then quiet, arguing and then agreement. It has everything in a space where everyone comes to gather.

Chengdu's YuLin Market is a two floor cement structure with vendors inside and out. It's not glamorous and it's not otherworldly. The normalcy is the real beauty of the place.

There is a plaza out front where locals drink tea and play cards and watch dogs sleep in the shade. There are snacks sold on the outer edges of the market and in the stores that crowd up to it along the streets nearby. There is a man who makes giant rice krispie treat-like snacks by pressing a sticky mixture into wooden molds and a woman selling meat patties next to a shop selling who knows what. There are always chicken feet and pig ears and rabbit heads at the ready.

I like this place because there is stuff to like. I like the strangenesses and the appreciations and the images you can't shake once you've seen. I like the spicy rabbits and the Sichuan dialect all swirling together.

  I like that this is normal and that this is Chengdu.

10 June 2014

Better late than never

It took us waaaay too long, but we finally went to Jiuzhai Gou (九寨沟) the otherworldly natural park in Sichuan’s Aba Prefecture where you can view exceptionally beautiful scenery along with busloads of Chinese tourists from all over the country.

Having this many people around at all times can be a little exhausting especially when they are enthralled with your son and keep trying to touch him. But it also increases the chances that someone will hand you an herbal remedy that immediately resolves the “I’m about to throw up” sensation that comes with riding a bus around mountain passes while seated backwards.

When I stood up in the bus aisle I must have looked ready to throw up because the guy sitting across the aisle, who was also riding backwards, handed me a small container of ointment and pantomimed, “Go like this” while rubbing his temples. I don't usually listen to strangers – and up until that point I would have insisted it sure wasn’t going to happen in China – but I gave the ointment a quick sniff and then did what he told me to do.

It smelled like eucalyptus or bay leaves or something that makes you feel better and I magically stopped wanting to throw up. Here’s to strangers!

After the bus made it’s way to the top of the mountain and everyone got out, we stood around for a bit trying to figure out what we should do next. It was raining and we had brought Xiao GuaiGuai’s stroller, mainly so we could use the waterproof  rain cover to keep him out of the rain while we roamed the park.

This was a good plan in theory except that what actually happened was we carried his stroller up and down the valley along wooden paths and staircases - often putting the little guy to sleep because he was being rocked around so much. We must have looked fairly crazy, Shiwen in the front, me in the back, carting a stroller down a mountain via a series of staircases. But that’s how Chinese parks help visitors experience their beauty – via staircase after staircase through the scenery.

Our plan was to get off the buses that go up and down the main roads and instead walk the paths that connect the various scenic stops. This plan would increase our intake of scenery and decrease our elbow-jostling with other park visitors. This decision was reinforced when two middle-aged women starting fighting at one of the bus stops and had to be pulled apart by the other members of their parties. So tranquil.

The aggressive nature of transport was a theme we’d been experiencing since we arrived at the airport. Jiuzhai Gou uses a really small airport up high in the mountains and after we landed we came out of the terminal into the parking lot to find a set of cabs waiting for riders. The driver who was next in line started to help us load into his car and the other drivers came to see who we were. They were especially interested in Xiao GuaiGuai and his car seat, neither of which form part of China's normal scenery. But this wasn’t the aggressive element of the ride.

That came immediately after we’d pulled out of the airport and the driver gave us the hard sell on changing our plans and diverting to a different park. We did not change our plans, but by the time we got to our hotel some 90 minutes later we had agreed to use this driver over the next two days, including for a long ride to another natural park that we wanted to see before heading back to Chengdu.

It made sense to make these plans but we learned that it didn't really matter with whom they were made since we never saw that driver again. Over the next two days we had two different men show up as our drivers, each with a different anecdote about why the original driver wasn’t available. My favorite excuse was that he’d had to travel to Chengdu to “do some stuff” at the last minute.

Jiuzhaigou is about 35 minutes from Chengdu by air (via fairly expensive tickets) but it feels like a distant planet. The air is clear, the sky is high and wide, and the colors are vivid and crisp. It’s everything that Chengdu is not and you get used to it quickly, daydreaming what life might be like if you could breathe air like this everyday and if people could go outside without having to worry about their health.

The water that flows through the valley is turquoise and has countless paths to the bottom of the mountains. It drifts and drops through moss and over rocky falls. There is always that water. It forms lakes and streams, waterfalls and pools, and it keeps moving and reflecting the sky and the mountains along its edges.

There is something about the water that keeps trees from dissolving and there are places where you see trunks through the clear depths. Branches that stayed above the water line now host greenery like little rafts tied to a pier.

The best places to see these waters are away from the throngs. The paths that keep you off the buses will guide you through the forests and along the rushing waters. Even if it’s raining (and it was) it’s worth it to follow the wooden planks into some of the only peace and quiet that can be found in this country.

There will still be other people, but some of them will be like you, looking for quiet moments and beauty away from the buses. Others will be fleeing from where you’re headed saying how they had to turn back, how it’s too far... "Whatever you do," they warn "don’t keep going!" We took their warnings as a hopeful sign that others may have turned back too, leaving the path empty for those who would truly appreciate the trudge. For how else can you describe hoisting a not-small child and his stroller up and down staircases out in the woods?  

It was the most beautiful place we have seen in southwestern China and we were glad to be there. We also had decided very early in the day that we’d be returning to the Tibetan restaurant where we ate the night before so we could re-order the Tibetan version of Shepard’s pie (with yak) that we had loved and try the sizzling mutton that had fragrantly passed our table on its way to other diners. This was a powerful motivator as we traversed the wet and cold park where, per usual practice, we were chided by various Chinese passers-by for not dressing our child warmly enough.

They didn’t seem to care that we were toting him up and down slick wooden staircases at a precarious angle. Nope, the problem was that he was not wearing mittens. (Neither was anyone else in the park but who are we to point out the obvious.) We tried to ignore the wardrobe commentary and instead focused on not dropping the stroller down a long flight of wet stairs astride a Chinese mountain.

The next day the rain stopped and we left our hotel for an adventure with the second of our two new drivers. His main goal seemed to be convincing us that the natural park where we wanted to go was too far away and at too high an altitude for us to visit in the time we had.

His case about it being too high did gain a bit of traction when at 4100 meters our mountain road entered the clouds and visibility dropped to about 30 feet in front of the car. When I asked if these were dangerous conditions he’d assured us that this was all right because sometimes you could barely see at all. Ah, yes, barely seeing at all – that would indeed be worse than seeing only 30 feet in front of you on a high mountain road. But not by much.

Before that point we had seen a fresh covering of snow as well as copious amounts of yaks and goats, in addition to several wandering horses. When we had stopped at a tiny restroom on top of a mountain we’d each felt woozy getting out of the car. The man staffing the rest stop had asked our driver if he was the driver coming with the supplies. He was not and when we left him there, at the top of the mountain, in the snow and cold and low-oxygen air, we thought we had an idea of how desolate it was as the man and his rest stop faded into the distant cold as we drove higher into the sky.

When we finally got out of the clouds and arrived at Huanglong () Scenic Area we bought tickets that allowed us to take a cable car up the mountain to a great path that cut through a beautiful forest edged with moss and flowers, the tranquility of which was only occasionally disturbed by workers lugging 20 foot I-beams to an unseen construction project in the distance. Not quite what you expect on the mountain but it definitely makes you feel better about the sleeping toddler you’d mistakenly thought was a heavy burden. Hard to complain when a guy passes you with a metal beam hoisted on his shoulder.

This path was even more beautiful than the Jiuzhaigou paths, perhaps because it was open to the mountains and there were snowy ranges in the distance under a sunny blue sky. The lack of rain was also a plus. Overall it reminded us of vistas we had seen during hikes in Europe, absent the rifugios and Europeans you would encounter along those trips.

The pools that are the highlight of this park were suffering from what seemed like low water levels but they were stunning regardless. Their coloring was a contrast in yellow and bright blue and again showcased water in a way we had never seen before. We walked the loop at the top but then hiked back to the cable car rather than taking the path downhill.

Once we’d returned to the road at the foot of the cable car we reunited with our driver and headed to the airport with time to spare. We were in line at departures in less than an hour and headed back to Chengdu nearly on time.

After we'd arrived in Chengdu and piled into a cab to head home we waited for the driver to insist that we change our plans. Or compel us to make an adjustment of some kind. But that conversation never came.

Instead, we just sat back and drove into the grey urbanscape, wondering how two very different places can be so close together in the scheme of the world but so far apart in every other way.

(Aside from the noodles. Seems you can always find a decent bowl of noodles in Sichuan.)

21 May 2014

somewhere else entirely

I’d been told that Guizhou Province was different. That I would notice something special about it.

Colleagues said wait until you get out in the countryside. Once you leave Guiyang you’ll see what we mean.

Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China as well as one of its most ethnically diverse but no one explained it this way. Instead they took pains to say that you would only understand once you were there.

It might be that when you arrive at a primary school the welcome committee is a group of schoolchildren cradling communal cups filled with liquor that should be sipped by all guests before entering the grounds.

It could be that the cook who is making your breakfast noodles takes a big swig of the broth in your bowl before slopping in more noodles and handing the steaming meal over to you.

And it might be that the various penalties for letting undocumented visitors into the village are fines that must be paid in foodstuffs rather than in RMB.

Yes, these might be ways you notice something’s different. 

But none of them bests coming to a dead stop on a mountain road because a man dragging a very long rope of live firecrackers is coming your way.

As the fire crackers bounce into the fields and smoke rises up around the car, waves of people in various aspects of traditional dress come forward and pass. There are children and adults and headscarves and rope lines and eventually a hulking wooden casket carried by the crowd.

There’s a body in there, my colleague says from the front seat. This is very special.

Yes, I nod from the back. Very special.

And the villagers continue down the side of the road. 

Slower-movers pull up the rear and we start to crawl forward again, our car tracing the path from where they’ve come. The pop-pop-pop of firecrackers quiets with the growing distance. Paper shreds mark where they have been and where the body has passed.

And this group, along with their deceased, continues down the side of the road making good use of an auspicious day for a burial.

I think I know what they mean when they say things are different here.