Monday, May 31, 2010

Stellar Achievement

The great thing about learning a language is the landmarks: The first time you successfully order dinner. The moment the subway intercom becomes intelligible. The first times you're speaking with a fluent-ish English speaker, but switch to Chinese for expediency. 

I haven't had one of those moments in awhile, until last week:

Coming back from Hong Kong, I disembarked at Pudong airport, made it through customs, grabbed my luggage and started dragging my knuckles toward the MagLev because my backpack was way too heavy. Half an hour later I was off the floating train, and about to get on the subway. But the ticketing machine wouldn't accept my 10 kuai note. This after five days in Hong Kong where the magical ticketing machines accept bills and have a mechanism to drop the change directly into your palm was exasperating.

I stomped over to the information desk, a middle-aged guy in khakis and a visor stopped me.

"I don't have any small change."

"You can use your money, just go over to the machine-


That sentence was no grammar feat. But the whininess, you see: It just rolled off my tongue, an authentic self-pity fest, no forethought required.

There should be an award for when language skillz get to where you subconsciously slip into your eight-year-old-in-need-of-a-nap voice in your second tongue.

Then I noticed the guy was an Expo volunteer, and totally undeserving of my caterwaul. He escorted me to the machine and he and his volunteer buddy did the right amount of straightening and snapping before feeding my note to the machine and handing me a ticket. 

I said thank you too many times, feeling sheepish, he told me I didn't need to be polite. And then I went home thinking Chinese...还可以

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Average Saturday in the PRC

I roll out of bed at 9:30 am to see Chef Mike is almost out the door.

"Where are you off to so early?"


"I thought you only worked brunch on Sundays."

"Yeah, but one of my guys had to go back home this weekend to stop China from taking his family land."

"Hmm, that sounds futile."


"Well, see you tonight."

"Yep, see you."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

'Hai...I'm Back

I thought I would have a craaaazy busy work day, but I didn't. Maybe I should have. Ah well. Mañana, mañana. 

I ate lunch with my BFF Jess who is leaving for Africa for three months. What a wench. Yes, she  allowed me to stay on her couch for a week when I first arrived. Yes, she gives  step-by-step foolproof directions over the phone from my apartment to wherever I need to go within a 2-kilometer radius.  And yes when I call and say things like "Jess, I went to Family Mart and didn't see any floss - DO THEY HAVE IT IN CHINA?" She answers patiently. Dude...Watsons. But she's still abandoning me for the summer to go on safari and shoot an elephant or some such. So she's a wench.

Speaking of floss, I received a whole box of it (unwaxed!) from my mom today. I only found the waxed stuff at the pharmacy here. And my hygienist recommends the non-slick variety. I kind of get a lot of cavities, so I try to do her bidding. I was feeling generous and gave Chef Mike a pack of unwaxed floss too so he too can avoid the "Shanghai gums" (mom's words).

I was trying to get some work done from home tonight but the Chef came home early, and it's impossible to get anything done with that guy around. We ordered tacos and hotdogs from the place downstairs (and made them bring it up to us, ohhh yeeeeah). And then we went to Family Mart on a beer run before watching Dawn of the Dead (the remake). 

Chef Mike walked out with a can of Asahi in each of his back pockets and a bag of Bugles in hand. On the way home we discussed how bothersome sharting is (I'm talking about the bodily function, not the Bollywood classic). I won't go into details, but this is definitely one of those 'you haven't lived in China until you've...' kind of things.

Tomorrow morning we have an editorial meeting at the bar ... in the morning. Everyone gets a hundred-kuai tab. The fun never stops: Sunday I'm taking my surrogate boyfriend, who is also named Mike, and who is Jess' roommate to yet another press lunch. He gets free food. I don't have to buy a real doll (Google that one yourself, I'm not linking it.). It's a beautiful relationship. 

I did get some bummer news this week: My brother Billy broke his ankle sliding into first base during a baseball game. Some dumb kid was standing in front of the plate. So no track-and-field junior olympics for my little bro this summer. No anything for three months, actually. Poor little guy. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bye Again

I'm sitting at the gate, about to head back to Shanghai, enjoying my last hour of unfettered internet access. I feel like I should pull up some dirty pictures, just because I can, but there are families around.

Today I picked up my z visa, a license to live and work in the PRC. Thankfully, it only took about 5 minutes this time. Then I went to Hong Kong park and sat by a manmade waterfall reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris for a couple hours - trying not to dread the return to work. Work isn't so bad, but Hong Kong is so nice and clean and easy. Really, it's the nicest city I've been in for quite awhile: When I was home in the States, I only passed through San Francisco, I spent three months on the Oregon Coast and never even made it up to Portland. Before that it was five months of traveling and before that Taiwan.

This was the longest trip I've ever taken completely by myself. I'm not ready to make a habit of it, but I had a good time.

Clarification per my last post: I told the med student I had a lazy eye. He didn't notice. My aunt asked, because she never notices. My brother sure does, and lets me know every time.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Last Full Day

I don't want to leave.

This morning I woke up and started trying to figure out how I'm going to get 'home'. I opted out of the train, because the travel agent said there would be big delays because one derailed Sunday.So tomorrow I'm flying back to Shanghai. Oh, but I don't want to...

After I booked my flight, I took myself to City Hall for a dim sum lunch. I was a bit gleeful, not having to share for once. But then I felt sick afterward. That'll teach me.

Then I took the bus to Stanley, a small-town tourist trap on the southeast side of the island. There's a market, a beach, a waterfront promenade. I bought a summer dress, waded on the shore for a bit, sat in the shade for a good long while. But the best part of going to Stanley is the drive over, the rode is narrow and steep so if you sit on the top level of the double-decker bus (which I did) it seems like you're in real danger of going over the edge. It's also fun to drive past all the swanky houses.

Back in Hong Kong, I took the star ferry to Kowloon because no HK trip is complete without a ride on the old green-and-white ferry. Once in Kowloon, I decided to wait for the sun to set and watch the lights all come on across the water. Then I wound up staying for the light show - a bunch of neon lights on Hong-Kong side skyscrapers and lasers twinkle to a recorded soundtrack.

I got hit on twice today. Once by an Afghani second-hand electronics dealer, and the second time by a med. school graduate taking a break before he starts his ophthalmology residency. He offered to correct my lazy eye ... in four years.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day 3 Recap

It's Tuesday morning, I want to get out and enjoy my day (and figure out how I'm going to get back to Shanghai, ugh) so I'll make this quick:

Yesterday I met a friend's father's friend (networking skills: I have them) for breakfast at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, which is this colonial-style building with a swanky dining and bar area decorated with framed magazine covers and newspapers clippings. It's members only, so I was lucky to go.

The lady I ate with is American and works in government relations (sort of like lobbying, I believe) for finance companies in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. She graduated college, came to Hong Kong, worked four different part-time jobs, ran out of money, hung on by threads for nine months until she was hired by the American Chamber of Commerce, and she's been working in communication here ever since.

After that, I rode the Mid-levels escalators - the longest series of outdoor covered escalators in the world, woo hoo! Doing so is a good little exercise in voyeurism - the escalators go up past all these high rises and you can gaze at people's laundry hanging outside windows, almost close enough to touch, as you glide by.

In the afternoon I spent 2.5 hours in visa-office hell, just waiting, waiting, waiting so I could walk up to a window, hand over my papers and have the girl say "three o'clock, tomorrow." It literally took less than a minute once I was up there. While I waited, I chatted with an American FedEx pilot. Before he moved to Hong Kong, he was in Alaska for two years, so we had plenty to chat about.

After that I took the tram up to The Peak. I was there in time for the sun to set and watch all the lights come on. Sigh. It's really gorgeous up there. Enough to make a girl want to move...

Then last night I met a group of Couch Surfers (online travel forum/traveler hosting network) for a drink - there were three students - from Belgium, Ecuador and Spain - plus a lady on sabbatical from Spain and a long-haired Texan who makes a living testing pharmaceuticals on himself (i.e. they put him up for a week, feed him medication, observe him, he goes home with $5,000).

Everyone wanted to know how Shanghai compares to Hong Kong. I told them I like Shanghai but Hong Kong is way better. Why? They asked.

I could've gone through a gigantic arsenal of reasons, but instead opted for the brief composite: "Because this was never a Communist country."

The Ecuadorean and the human guinea pig looked at me sideways - like I'd said something unfitting for a group of multi-national, friendly, non-judgemental globetrotters. Oh well. Truth hurts.

Alright, I'm off! Hope I can find a reasonably priced plane/train/coolie to hump me back to Shanghai.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

HK: Day No. 2

Got up. Talked to the fam. Watched a bit of TV (Breaking Bad, season 3, baby...). Put on my sun dress and my Nikes and ventured out for solo tourist day no. 2.

Today I took a ferry to Lantau Island, something we didn't do last time. At the pier, I saw this poor Filipina maid carrying a three-year-old, i.e. a kid that's way too old to be carried. He kept arching his back and screaming, occasionally swatting her in the face. His mom stood by occasionally threatening to no avail. He probably felt emasculated. Scarred for life from all that carrying. I'm joking, but seriously what's with carrying kids that are way too big? I saw this Chinese family come into church a few weeks ago and the dad was carrying a kid who looked like he was at least seven. Maybe the kid was tired, but church is at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. So wrong.

I took a bus up to see world's tallest, outdoor seated Buddha. I've seen quite a few superlative Buddhas now. The one in Ulan Bator. The one in Leshan. This was just one more. I know that sounds terrible, but I've seriously seen a lot. Then I ate lunch in the monastery vegetarian restaurant - mushrooms, bok choy, roots. Tasty, but not satisfying like a slice of beef or even a chicken breast would've been.

I took another bus to Tai O - "the Venice of Hong Kong" - this ramshackle fishing village where the houses are made of sheet metal and they stand on barnacle-covered stilts. Stray cats. Old people shuffling mah jong tiles. A market full of dried fish snacks. Piles of empty Blue Girl cans. Just the way a fishing village ought to be.

I bought a colorful handmade bag in the local market. The saleslady was about to scurry off to find someone to speak English when I asked her if she spoke putonghua, the common language. Then I asked her questions about her wares in Mandarin and she answered in Cantonese. Things like colors are similar enough between the dialects I could figure it out. I got a kick out of that. Kind of like last week I got a kick out of interviewing a Japanese textile manufacturer with a Japanese-Chinese translator, plus my friend translating the bits I didn't catch into English. The conversation kept going Japanese-Chinese-English, Japanese-Chinese-English. We probably all knew enough English we could've cut out the middle language, but then somebody wouldn't have a job!

For dinner I took myself to Lan Kwai Fong for a lame slice of pizza. To make up for the blah pizza, I had a drink in a bar afterward where a Filipino cover band was playing. Another losery first - going to the bar by myself! "This one is for you, lady" the lead singer said when they started playing Just the Two of Us. Embarrassing.

Tomorrow I'm having breakfast at the Foreign Correspondents Club with a PR lady, then I'm going to go sort my visa. After that I'm going to go ride the mid-level escalator and eat dim sum at city hall. Ta ta!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Take Lift to Exit Country

That's what the sign said when I got off the train in Shenzhen. A ten-minute walk and a stop at customs and then I was in Hong Kong.

Today I drank tap water, saw the new Nightmare on Elm Street in a theater, walked by a public anti-Communist/pro Falun Dafa exhibit and now I'm blogging in a guesthouse walk-in closet room without my special internets. I didn't go out of my way to do those things, but in retrospect that's quite a list of things I wouldn't and couldn't do in Shanghai.

I'm here in Hong Kong for the first time in 11.5 years. My parents and I came here the week preceding Billy's adoption. I spent the last days of my life as an only child here, and now I'm back on my own. Being a kid from Alaska - nothing seemed more glamorous than living in a high rise. I remember staring up at them, wondering who lived inside, and hoping someday I'd live in a place like that. And now I do. But, alas, Shanghai can't beat Hong Kong for glamour points.

The way this city smells, walking through the crowded streets on the Kowloon side - both of those things jogged my memory. Isn't it amazing how your body can remember a smell from more than ten years ago?

One thing I didn't remember is how jaw-drop amazing the Hong-Kong skyline is. My first stop today was Avenue of the Stars to stick my hand in Jackie Chan's print and look at the cityscape. Wow. This city is something else. Now if only I'd brought my camera cable I could upload photos as I write too. UGH!

I made today my Kowloon day - I walked through the bird market, looked at all the pretty cages, pretty birds and icky grasshoppers. Then on to the flower market, and after that the fish market. By the time I got halfway through the rows and rows of colorful fish swimming in plastic bags, my hundred-kuai fake Clarks were killing me. But I pressed on through the ladies fashion market where an old Cantonese lady almost pulled some Bruce Lee moves on me for photographing a male thong made to look like a parrot she was selling. Be ye warned: They're serious about no pictures of the tasteless underwear in the ladies fashion market.

This is also my first time taking a trip alone where I wasn't part of some sort of organized group. The day time was fine. And I've found it's true that you do meet more people and experience different things when you travel alone. All the same, dinner time rolled around and I got lonely. Being in Hong Kong makes me think about my family. And being in this shoebox-turned-guesthouse makes me think about James. The only other time I've stayed in places this rinky-dink was with him. The hose attached to a water heater in the bathroom kind of reminds me of the shower in the place we stayed in Ulan Bator...

So I took myself to the movies to pass the time. The 11-year-old me would be horrified to learn I went to a movie by myself. The ultimate admission of loserdom, I used to think. But old Freddy was pretty good company. And now I'm ready to go to sleep and wake up for another big day out in the best Chinese city, bar none.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hong Kong Here I Come

Dear sad, sad, neglected, blog,

Every time I look at you I feel bad. But what can I do? Sometimes I spent ten hours a day blogging, uploading, editing for my job. It's hard to come home and tend to you too. 

But in a couple hours I'm getting on a train to Hong Kong! Where you can drink the tap water and look at Facebook without a proxy server! I've even heard people actually stand in line there. Gives me shivers of excitement just thinking about it.

I've been to Hong Kong before. Actually, it was the first place I ever traveled outside the United States - just before we adopted Billy. That was 12 years ago though.

But first I've got to take a 17-hour train ride. I bought oodles of groceries yesterday, I'm packing a few books - should be a grand old time so long as my bunkmates are tenable. 

So see you then, blog!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I ain't never coming back

Friday afternoon the editorial staff had a going away lunch for one of our assistants  who was offered an editor position at another magazine in town. We all taxied down to the Bund and ate at Table One - a new haute cuisine place with a chef who's the protege of somebody important. A couple bottles of wine, 25-day aged beef, cod, ceviche in a martini glass, caprese salad, lamb and duck followed by cheese, chocolate bubbles, basil ice cream and some other desserts I've now forgotten. Basically, it was hard to get anything done that afternoon.

On Saturday I went to my first pole dancing class at a studio my Italian friend Dani introduced me to. There I learned I don't have near the upper-body strength to be a stripper. I was lucky to spin around that pole once. The class was taught by a Russian lady who mostly ignored me, which was merciful. I don't think any amount of push ups will get me in good enough shape for that business. The studio offers other slutty exercise classes (sexy dance, chair dance, etc.) for us pole incompetents, but I think I'll stick to salsa.

Saturday night I went out to a bar with a silly name (Mesa&Manifesto...pppptttbbb!) and mingled with Chef Mike's industry friends (somebody's birthday party). This British catering business guy told me about how he'd never eaten a corn dog until he was asked to provide them for the USA Pavilion at Expo. 

Today I woke up and could barely lift my cell phone to check the time - that's how sore I was from stupid pole class. I beat it down to the French Concession for a historical society walking tour. I got to see the complex where Yao Ming grew up, Madame Chiang Kai-shek's old digs and quite a few other one-time estates that have been snatched up by the Communist Party and now serve as local party headquarters. 

After that I grabbed a kebab in the Turkish restaurant across from my Church. American girl eats kebab seated next to Indian family in the French Concession. I'd call it a world-is-flat moment, but Thomas Friedman is such a pissant.

Then after church I went home for a quick change and went down to the Bund for a literary open mic at Glamour Bar - a very cool place with gorgeous views of the river and Pudong. 

AND THEN I went to an Italian restaurant for a party for an Italian luxury brand entering the Shanghai market. There was a mini fashion show and a couple of hand bags on display that each cost more than I make in a month.

Last weekend I scored a free trip to Suzhou from the Marriott. This week I'm going to Hong Kong to sort out my visa.

Right now - Sunday night - I'm exhausted. 

But Shanghai is glamorous.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


After work today my girl Jess and I went to the fake market - which is exactly what it sounds like, a place to buy all things fake. Fake shoes. Fake sunglasses. Watches, hats, bags, overcoats, Uggs, Crocs, makeup, perfume and on and on and on. 

Everywhere we went I'd say, "ooh I like this" and ask Jess how much I ought to pay (she's been here almost a year) to which she'd respond "whatever you feel like it's worth" and then I'd buy it and she'd go "oh that was way too much." Basically a year of China-living as turned Jess into an old Chinese lady - "OHYOUPAYTOOMUCH!"

Okay, it wasn't every store. But I have to give her a little bit of shit (or "take the piss out of her" as my limey co-workers would say) because we were standing in one store and I was asking the clerk, in very slow English, "Okay, but do you have it in another color-

And Jess goes, "Do you always talk in English?"

It caught me off guard. And then made me feel guilty. It's the fake market, it's tourist-central, all the clerks speak very good English. But still.  

Part of it is my Chinese is far enough along those kinds of conversations aren't a challenge anymore, so I don't care much what language is used. But I do need a bit of a kick in the ass: Shop talk isn't any difficulty, but I haven't been seeking out opportunities for other conversation either. Well, there was one night in a cab after a couple beers, me and cabbie had a chitty chat about why exactly the line at this one gas station was all the way around the block ("Because their gas is really cheap and there aren't very many places with gas that cheap" "Why is it so cheap?" "It's just their business.."). But beyond that ... nothing else.

The good news is my first Chinese lesson is tomorrow morning! Onward and upward.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday, Friday

Today I woke up early to work. Then I went to work. I ate a yogurt and a Snickers at some point. Now it's 11 p.m. and I have work I need to do tomorrow.

Boo - give me back the English teacher schedule! I miss my babies!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Never in Taiwan...

I can't help it. I've become a Taiwan snob. Every day there's something - I try to catch myself but often enough the words, "Well in Taiwan you'd never see ______" spill forth.

I had a big UGH! moment today in the subway. For the Expo - there are now PLA soldiers at all the subway entrances. They're really young-looking. They just have batons. They stand at attention. Fine. It doesn't seem very friendly to me, but whatever.

But the city has also put security bag checks at every station. Not only is this unnecessary, it's so obviously a sham - they never open bags, stop the machine to have a closer look - it's totally perfunctory. And it's totally maddening at rush hour when you have to wait 5 minutes in a huge line to let someone pretend to check your bag for dangerous items.

I blogged about it on my work blog here: 

An embarrassment to a city that wants to be seen as world-class.

Actually, I just need to relax and learn patience. Otherwise this country is going to drive me nuts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Leslie Video Game

I helped my friend Jared make this before I had a blog. I just remembered it and highly encourage all of you to go enjoy it:

Background: Jared was entering a contest to make a video game that teaches about dating violence.

My screaming won Jared a runner-up, he won last year with this game:

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Expo Visit

Quit carping, Dad. Here's a link:

(where I wrote about my visit to the first day of Expo 2010)

Sunday, May 2, 2010


I called my apartment-facilitator-lady last week. That in itself warrants an explanation: She's a realtor, so when we found our apartment, Chef Mike and I gave her 30% of one month's rent as finder's fee, but our landlord did likewise and this fee includes her serving as go-between since our landlord doesn't speak English and doesn't want to be bothered.

So I called apartment-facilitator-lady and told her our fridge isn't working and the A/C unit in Chef Mike's room is broken. Broken in the sense that when he turns it on all of the lights in our apartment go out. It's been like that since we moved in, but I think he didn't call Leaf (apartment-facilitator-lady's "English" name) because he likes the excuse to fall asleep on the couch watching Nightmare on Elm Street. Sometimes he falls asleep to other movies, like Alien, but pretty much Freddy is Chef Mike's glass of warm milk. Actually Freddy is more like Chef Mike's boyfriend arm.

I tell Leaf these things are broken. She says she needs to come look at them. I say no she doesn't need to look at them she needs to call someone to fix them. She laughs nervously and fakes cell phone interference (translation: she's going to come look at them and then call someone). Then she asks if we've registered at the police station. Of course, I say.

In China you're technically supposed to register with the police within 24 hours of arriving anywhere. Most hotels do it for you. The rule is somewhat lenient, but it's not a good idea to delay if you're trying to score a permanent visa. And if you delay long enough, the police will come looking for you.

So I tell Leaf, duh, we've registered. It took me all morning after we moved in to find the right police station - it wasn't the one directly across the street from my building, those fools sent me to the second wrong police station and from there I made it to the third one. YES I HAVE DONE THAT. Thank you.

Well, Leaf, says, someone called the landlord and said there are people who aren't registered living in her unit.


Chef Mike! I call the Chef. He's been too busy flipping burgers and dodging old leather face in the dream world to pay the po po a visit (to be fair, dude works 6 days a week ... at least).

It's not a big deal - he just has to go do it, but what grinds my gears is - who does that? Who is watching us? I've posed this question to a couple friends who've been living here several years and they smile knowingly and offer up who's-watching-you stories that far trump mine. 

I heard one where people were googling something politically sensitive from their office and they were told to quit otherwise they and their company would be punished.

I talked to a German lady who was planning a trip to Tibet once and had already bought her tickets when the government shut down foreign entry. She called her boyfriend and they had an angry conversation "Damn! We can't go to Tibet!" and she said it was disconnected three times. Once she even heard a voice on the line.

The common wisdom is there's someone in every foreign company and in most residential complexes keeping tabs...