Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Month Away

I've been on the Oregon Coast 11 days now, and I'm still not used to the good-smelling air, big, wet, green forest and beautiful Woahink Lake and the Siuslaw River. I love getting in the car just to look out the window, and I don't really mind it's been pissing rain since I arrived. Six months in Beijing lends a lot of perspective.

In about a month I leave for Bangkok. My plans are vague, I haven't thought too hard about where exactly I'm going because every time I sit down to contemplate where I want to go the list gets bigger.

I am nervous about being on my own for so long. It will undoubtedly be lonely in parts, but my friends who've traveled in SE Asia brush off my concerns, it's such a well-traveled route I can always meet people. Still, I don't romanticize the lone wolf aspect of it, I'm traveling alone because (surprise) most people can't take off for a four-month, mostly-unplanned walkabout.

On Monday I stumbled across the essay, Every Woman Should Travel Alone, and have decided I'm going to start thinking of the solo aspect as a challenge rather than something to be anxious about. I've been interested in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles alone when she was about my age) since it was released, but I think I'll make the effort to read it before I go. And my last source of courage, but by far the most relevant, is my good friend and freshman roommate Lily who has been traveling the world alone for over a year now. We'd hoped to travel together for part of her journey, but I couldn't get out of China fast enough, so she preceded me in many of the places I want to go. She blogs here.

What I'm reading:

Just finished
Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman

An excellent, incredible read. Some parts are so crazy, it seems like science fiction. I listened to a Longform podcast with Reitman. She talked about struggling as a hard news reporter and "surviving on kill fees" for magazine articles that never quite came together for years. She could be my cool big sister, alas, I'm stuck with two stinky brothers. Curses!

Currently reading
The Best American Travel Writing 2008

I've read many of the essays before, but thought I'd give it another gander before my travels. I'm in the middle of a piece about river travel in Congo.  My favorite so far has been a journalist who hung out with a bunch of pirates in the Strait of Malacca.

Madame Bovary

While I'm not working, I want to fill in as many gaps in my classic lit knowledge as possible. There are two great things about reading a bunch of classics: 1. They rarely disappoint and 2. I have a Kindle so a lot are free. So far, Gustave Flaubert is doing a pretty good job making me sympathize with his bored and despairing country housewife, Emma. And I love this description of the sinister rich folks she comes across:

...And through all their gentleness of manner pierced that peculiar brutality, the result of a command of half-easy things, in which force is exercised and vanity amused -- the management of thoroughbred horses and the society of loose women.

Timeless, no?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Old writing station (in Shanghai)

New writing station (in garage - garden view)

Last work day in Beijing. This is the dream team. They saved me on several occasions and made work (even when it was taking place at 2am) fun. I'm going to miss these ladies. 

But then this happened on my first full day at home. First tree I've helped put up in years. I'm so happy to be here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Closing a Chapter

I've passed the crown, relinquished the keys to the kingdom, I am no longer the chief editor of That's Beijing. I am appropriately sad, or I was last Friday. Now, I'm sitting in a French Concession cafe feeling supremely relaxed. I took the high-speed train to Shanghai sunday night. After six months away, it felt like coming home.

But for the times when being chief editor was exceedingly stressful, I had a comfortable life up north and I learned a lot. I was sent to Beijing to make major changes to the publication and I'm satisfied with what I accomplished. I had excellent roommates and I formed meaningful friendships with my work teammates. Last Tuesday evening I went for my final free massage. Alas, as I step away from the swaggy world of lifestyle magazines, I reckon I've had more spa treatments in China than I'll have for the rest of my life.

Even if it hadn't come with a generous helping of free facials and comped dinners, I couldn't have dreamed up a better way to have spent the last three years. I went to rural schools in the mountains of Anhui Province, to crab farms in Jiangsu and to China's richest village, Huaxi. I've been to Tibetan mastiff kennels and movie lots and inside plainclothes police vans. I went to Guangzhou and Hong Kong and all the way to the Kazakh border in Xinjiang where I scored a Saddam Hussein nesting doll.

Last week my mom sent me a note she found on her computer. She'd typed out a conversation we had early one morning my freshman year of high school. I had awakened her to write a letter for me to put in a time capsule to be opened my senior year, and I was waking her up because I'd forgotten about it and it was due. So far, this all sounds about right. I didn't usually forget homework, but I was always a bit contemptuous of any assignment I saw as sentimental. Not for any good reason, in retrospect it was a nice thing for our teacher to organize, I think my feeling at the time was if you weren't challenging me then you were wasting my time. Or in this case, my mom's!

I recall she wrote a longer letter later, but the one she sent so I wouldn't miss the deadline was as follows:

You are a great daughter, a good student, in wonderful shape from all of your JROTC drills and RECONDO training.  I appreciate your sense of humor, wit and ability to write, how you read books all the time, how you pay attention to current affairs and engage your father and I with questions about world events.  

I like looking back on this now because, thought it was something she wrote quickly, I think it shows that at 15 I was well on my way to becoming who I am today. Three years of JROTC was enough to learn that the military wasn't for me, but I still try to make fitness a part of my life, except when I get too busy, or when the temperature drops in Beijing (a cold apartment is deeply demotivating). Reading and writing are still the two most fulfilling things that I do. And I'm still insatiably curious about the world. I want to see the whole goddamn thing. This winter I plan to take a sizable chunk out of that goal. I'm going home for Christmas and then flying to Bangkok in January. 

I'm only in Shanghai for the week to finish up a bit of banking and say goodbye to friends. I've taken a lot of long walks. Last night I went to my second Shanghai Sinterklaas celebration (the Dutch version of Santa, only their Santa rides a boat manned by his black "helpers," and he stuffs naughty children in a sack and hauls them back to Spain - horrors!). I've fielded the "what are you doing next" question a dozen times now and still haven't perfected my answer. So far I'm responding with something along the lines of "uh, writing?" Question mark included, as if the person I'm speaking with will maybe have a better idea than I do.  

But actually, I'm very excited about what's coming next. I'm thrilled to be the sole master of my creative energy for this next season, to have time to read and write, and to keep filling up my passport.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

And now for a terrible gold Audi

An Audi is expensive. An Audi in China is considerably more expensive due to luxury tax. An imported Audi with a shiny-shiny paint job? I shudder to think.

I saw this car outside my office while returning from lunch. I think my exact words to my coworkers were, "Look at that terrible gold Audi, I better take a picture of it." Its driver roared off after I was done. I reckon he thought I was impressed instead of the opposite, though I couldn't stop laughing while I snapped it.

And thing is, it isn't even that unique. There's a Lambo that looks like a piece of macaroni that parks in our neighborhood. I heard that some time ago an orange matte BMW made a big splash at car shows and rich Chinese people have been investing in pee-colored coaches ever since.

Now if said Audi driver would've taken some of that make-my-Audi-look-like-fool's-gold money and passed it to me, I could've selected a nice classy color for him. At least, that's what I always think to myself when I see stuff like this.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


On Friday my final issue at That's Beijing went to print. I have one more week of work, but all that's left undone is clearing off my desk and training up the new guy. This final production cycle was fairly stressful and so Thanksgiving came and went and, with mind and emotions focused on work, I didn't have time to envy the stream of pumpkin pie photos and holiday updates that filled up my Facebook feed. I did notice several expat friends who recently repatriated posting things like "first Thanksgiving at home in three years!" That made me take stock and realize I haven't been in the US for a Thanksgiving since 2007. Here is a round up of my last six Thanksgivings:

2007: I don't remember much, but I must've gone home, since I always went home for holidays in college. It might have been a small Thanksgiving, because relatives came up for Christmas that year. I think we had Turducken.

2008: I was living in Taiwan, I'd been there about 1.5 months. James and I had McDonald's because we had yet to discover the more decent Western eateries of suburban Nankan. The highlight of my day was taking a photo of a Chinese guy with a Hitler haircut and an SS uniform. You can see the photo and read about it here.

2009: James and I were on the tail end of our big China-Mongolia backpacking excursion. We were chugging down the Yangtze on a tour boat and had Thanksgiving gongbao jiding (or, kungpao chicken), bak choy with mushroom and tomato-egg soup. The next morning when we decamped from our room we discovered a rat had chewed through all the sausages we'd brought onboard.

2010: In Shanghai, we attended Thanksgiving at my British coworker's French Concession lanehouse. Expats love Thanksgiving, regardless of country of origin. The meal was prepared by a hotel and there was a lot of wine and we played the British version of Trivial Pursuit which was terribly unfair.

2011: Similar to this year, I was in the midst of a stressful magazine production week and I also had freelance work eating up all my free time. Our dear friend and roommate Sam said that even though we were all busy we should at least do dinner. After work, I swung by an American restaurant and tied a pumpkin pie to my bike rack and when I got home James and Sam were mashing potatoes and deviling eggs. Instead of turkey, we had fried chicken and we even said grace.

2012: I had Sichuan food with a couple friends after work and then the one friend - who I knew in Shanghai, we coincidentally moved up here the same time - came back to my apartment and split a bottle of wine with my roommates and we talked about Maximum Overdrive and science fiction and this story about a black jail at a Holiday Inn Express in Shanghai that he worked on. On Sunday, I'm going to a Thanksgiving dinner that a British-Hong Kongese friend is hosting and next weekend my roommates and our circle of Italian architects are having another Thanksgiving dinner before I take the train down to Shanghai.

So, not a bad run of Asia-based Thanksgivings. I'm excited to be returning to the US for the Christmas season. And I'm excited that, in all likelihood, I will spend Thanksgiving 2013 at home.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Observations on America

When I was on vacation, I didn't want to waste time at a computer so I didn't blog, but I did take some notes. I was away from the US for 15 months, the longest continuous period ever. My first three days were spent in Chicago at a wedding, every other trip home in the last four years has been spent almost exclusively on the Oregon Coast. This time around, here's what I noticed:

I felt like crying as the plane neared Chicago and they played this cheesy US customs video with all different kinds of Americans saying "Welcome" before the narrator tells passengers to fill out their customs form and don't sneak in any farm products or maybe you'll go to jail. I'm a sap!

People who work in malls are thrown off when you want to pay for something worth more than $20 in cash.

American service is really, really friendly. Almost imposingly so. "HOW CAN I HELP YOU" SMILE SMILE SMILE. I like it, but at times I felt like I might be being rude by not matching the level of chirpiness conveyed by the person helping me.

No one walks anywhere. I parked my car at a mall in Eugene and walked 10 minutes to a Barnes & Noble and regretted it. It was just after dark, but there were no lights on the sidewalk and it ended abruptly. I only passed two other walkers. They were both men who looked like they were walking because they didn't have another option. I didn't feel unsafe, just conspicuous. There were a lot of cars going by and I wondered if they wondered why I was walking. If had it to do over I would drive just to save myself the awkwardness. Take that, environment! My friend Jess had a similar realization when she moved back to the US and walked to a store that was 15 minutes from her parents' house. They told her it was too far, she went anyways but felt very weird on the way. I couldn't relate when she told me about it, but now I can.

Crappy economy or no, Americans have loads of stuff and very generous ideas about what is essential. This doesn't stem from any one thing I observed, it was more an all-encompassing feeling that permeated my journey. Airport bathrooms are really nice. So are sidewalks. Grocery stores are the best. I love American grocery stores. My Italian roommate was blown away when I told him it's possible to buy pre-sliced apples, and he still marvels at the whole instant food thing, like pancake mix. Our consumer culture is designed to make everything easy, easy, easy.

"It is so comfortable here. Wearing a dress, riding in a minivan. Things seem possible here and easy." That's verbatim from my notes. For a bit of context, it was nighttime and chilly out. If I'm in a car at night in China, it's always a cab and sometimes it smells bad and I'm usually on my guard to make sure I'm going in the right direction and doing so in an expedient manner. There's never seat belts. And the combination of Beijing traffic and heavy-footed cabbies means I usually end the trip slightly nauseous. In Chicago, the minivan driver was the groom's mother taking us to the rehearsal dinner, so I didn't even had to flag her down! And I had my own bucket seat and the vehicle carriage sat high off the ground. It was like we were riding above the road in this smooth, warm, spacious comfort bubble. Okay, I won't bang on any longer about this really nice minivan ride. Suffice it to say, it was a nicer car ride than I'm used to.

Everyone I graduated with who was at the wedding seemed to be doing something interesting or meaningful. Someone is producing for Good Morning America. Someone was getting his poetry MFA at Iowa. Someone was launching his freelance film directing career and he and I realized we'd both spoken with the same hip-hop artist on the phone (as I put it at the time: "We have an Akon connection."). Someone was finishing med school. The bride does PR for Lexus. My best friend is an account manager for a healthcare company and travels up and down the West Coast to see clients. There were a couple teachers and one domestic violence educator.  I didn't survey the entire room, and presumably people who don't have anything going on would be less forthcoming, but it was gratifying to see how much experience people gained in the last four years.

People are even more tuned into their phones than they were four years ago. Now that everyone has Internet on their phone, there seems to be full integration -- people checking sports scores, checking traffic, updating Instagram/Facebook/Twitter.

I was afraid I would have to explain why I'm leaving China, but everyone at the wedding took it at face value, because of course - to Americans in America - it's logical to rather live there. When I tell expats I'm leaving China, the reaction is often a kind of mystification - Why would you leave? Everything interesting and adventuresome is happening here! You have a job! Never mind that most expats leave. Most of us tap out before the five-year mark, and many before two.

I think there's something universal about the latter reaction. People who are staying in a place always wonder why anyone would leave. But there's something else too. Expats rarely talk about missing family. It's like part of the code. Admission that you miss being part of a community to which you truly belong is a sign of weakness. No! We are all the great, lone, intrepid traveler! You can, however, piss and moan a fair deal about missing a Western quality of life, but there's a line. We all do it to some degree but you don't want to come across as a downer or, on the extreme end, a racist.

When I left Taiwan I had a nagging fear that if I moved back to the US I would never leave again and life would be predictable and boring. I don't feel like that now. It's not like they're lifting the draw bridge and no one can ever escape again. Instead, I feel like I'm moving back for now, not necessarily for forever. But forever wouldn't be so bad. America is really, really nice.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Asset Protection

I spotted this bumper sticker on a Nissan on my way to lunch. Literally, it says "car is Japanese car, heart is Chinese heart."

I'm less sure on this one. The big letters are Diaoyu Dao (which is what we call the Senkaku Islands here). On bottom says something about protecting the homeland and... I don't know, because I'm updating my iPod and can't use my dictionary. 

I have no opinion on who should get the islands, although a cursory read of a couple history articles tells me China staked them out in ancient times. I almost wish I could side with Japan on the issue after the disgusting, mindless bout of nationalism that went off recently wherein Japanese folks were assaulted, their businesses attacked, their embassy egged and Japanese cars (many of which were made in China...) trashed. The most entertaining story out of it all was a man in Shanghai who torched his own Honda Civic. Would love to sit down for a beer with that guy.

Right now you see a lot of bumper stickers like these around town. Actually, they're about the only bumper sticker you see. I've seen a few commemorative Olympics ones, and some people put those cheesy devil horns on their car emblems. But mostly it's anti-Japan stuff of varying degree of racial offensiveness/war mongering. That's what you get when there's only one thing people are allowed to have an opinion on, as these guys - who unfurled a banner advocating human rights and constitutional rule at an anti-Japan rally in Shenzhen - found out the hard way.

Oh, China. I'm looking forward to a nice long spell of separation from you. Two weeks wasn't enough.  Actually, I just noticed that I did something I've never done: I didn't blog for more than a month! Expect a huge uptick in original, Leslie-generated content when I am FUNemployed! 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Back in Beijing

Ugh, snow. Ugh, hour-long taxi line. Ugh, guy poking me in shins with bag trolley in said line. Ugh, cab driver complaining my apartment is too close to the airport thus affecting his fare.

At least USC beat UO, a fact I just learned getting online now. 

It's 2.30am. Time to try and get some sleep before work tomorrow.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sunrise at Tiananmen

 I celebrated National Day like a true patriot: Johan and I got up at 4am and went to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag raising (click on photos to make them bigger).

5am outside Tiananmen Square

Lots of soldiers

People were let into the square in groups at intervals. We opted to watch from outside rather than line up.

After the flag was up they must've let about 200 little birds fly out of the Forbidden City. That was pretty cool. What was not cool was slogging with the throngs back to the subway. The crowds were elbow to elbow for about three blocks leaving the square. It took us half an hour to reach the subway. And so I retreated to my apartment and spent most the rest of Golden Week tucked away reading and cooking. Can't believe it's already time to go back to work. Wah.

Friday, October 5, 2012


This morning my dad sent me this Chinese-language animation about the presidential debate with the subject line "You understand this?" 

I've been living in Mandarin-speaking society for almost exactly four years and have spent about three years actively studying the language, yet unhappily my answer is "not really." Barring subtitles (and obvious graphics), I would be able to tell you that the audio says Mitt Romney won the debate and Democrats are unhappy about it and not much else. Okay, that's probably a lie - I don't know how to say Democrats. 

At this point, I have a comfortable pragmatic vocabulary, but I don't know phrases like "public broadcasting" or "tax cuts" or "deficit." I guess even my American friends with Chinese parents would not get the full gist of the video because they didn't grow up hearing those kinds of words either (though my vocabulary is still smaller than theirs as well).

I haven't been studying since I moved to Beijing. I emailed a language school once about a tutor, but work has been so overwhelming I abandoned the idea.  When I move back the US, I plan on continuing some basic study -- maybe with an online course, maybe with a tutor -- not so that I can reach the kind of high-level understanding that would allow me to watch the news in Chinese, I would need an intensive immersion program for that, but rather so that I don't lose what I have. And as a hobby. I really like learning Chinese.

This afternoon I went to get my haircut and as soon as I told my stylist I was American we started talking about the greatest of global ice breakers: American movies. We talked about Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger. We talked about The Godfather and The Departed and the Hong Kong movie upon which the latter is based. We talked about Tsui Hark and Chow Yun-fat lighting his cigarette with Benjamins in A Better Tomorrow. I don't know the Chinese names for any of those movies but we were able to describe enough plot to each other to get the point across. He commented that I seemed to like a lot of gangster movies. I said yes, probably true. Then he said America was kind of like Japan's gangster since they wouldn't dare step to China over the Diaoyu Islands if we didn't have their back. I grinned and laughed, "Oh really?" Then he said my government likes to fight a lot of wars. To which the only appropriate response it seemed was, "Yeah, 差不多"

So I guess you could say I'm action-movie fluent. Don't ask me about current events. I'm only Diaoyu-island fluent because that's the event of the moment, but I can recount a Scorsese film plot pretty, pretty well.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Living next to the Russian Embassy

My apartment complex is adjacent to the Russian Embassy. It's a giant, barbwire-encircled compound and I can see an Orthodox steeple peeking above the fence directly across from my building. 


My street is extremely, blissfully quiet at night and is always guarded by at least half a dozen boyish-looking PLA troops.

The PLA troops live across from the embassy. I can see where they hang their laundry and some mornings I can hear them shouting in formation. It's not loud or often enough to be annoying and it's kind of a fun reminder that I'm in the capital.

Plenty of opportunity to gawk at Russian diplomats. Some of them like motorcycles and have skinny, beautiful blonde wives who look like models. Maybe because they are models. Or maybe because the Russian look is really popular right now and a lot of models look like Russians. That's one of those chicken or the egg things. 

There are enough Russians living near here to warrant not one but two small Russian groceries on the street. I never thought it was possible to live this close to a steady supply of sliced bread and salami and still be in China.


My local grocery lady is always telling me the price in Russian and then looking at me like I'm completely stupid when I'm all "什么?" I want to say "hey, not 100% of the white folks on this street is from up north." But cab drivers are always mistaking me for Russian too, so I don't say anything. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Meichang 3

Oopsies. So I have my blog set up so that I can write an email and it will automatically post to my blog. I also frequently email myself interview notes, and it appears I accidentally posted my interview notes to my blog. 

Nothing to see here folks, move along...

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Tuesday was my birthday, the third I've celebrated in China. I have fond memories of all three. Each exemplifies a different period of my expatriate journey: When I turned 24, I'd been in Shanghai six months, I'd just finished my first cover story and my chief editor (whom I now count as a dear friend) took me out for dinner and drinks in the French Concession. It was a little triumph, I was finally being welcomed into the fold after several lonely months in the vaguely-defined and poorly-funded world of "web editing" (I was promoted to the magazine soon after). When I turned 25, my roommates threw a house party, which was big and loud, I worried the neighbors would complain. After 18 months, I was in my element. Now, at 26, I've only been in Beijing three months but I slipped into a community easily this time. Partly because this isn't my first rodeo, partly because I got lucky with cool roommates. I hadn't planned on anything special, but Brando rallied a handful of people for dinner at a hutong restaurant. We ate Yunnan food, drank Belgian beer and a bunch of architects sang "Tanti auguri a Te," which was very sweet.

It was at about 13, half my life ago now, that I decided what kind of person I would be. When I was 11 and made my first trip to Asia, for Billy's adoption, I promised myself I would one day live in this part of the world, and over the next few years the idea cemented itself and I decided writing and traveling were the most important things. I never came up with goals like "win a Pulitzer by age XX," my thinking was more along the lines of "if I can make enough money and spend this much time writing and live in such-and-such a place that would be really, really cool." My 13-year-old self would be happy with how things turned out so far.

That said, I have so much to learn. Like expats my age across industries in China, I haven't had much mentorship. Responsibility comes quickly, and there's very little guidance to go with it. Four years out of college, I'm anxious and eager to keep learning. I don't know if or when that will happen in an academic setting, but my goal for the next year is to read widely and deeply. My work commitment ends in November. Then, I'll begin traveling and I plan on instituting some sort of organized approach to working my way through the Western canon. Or parts of it. I'll pick and choose and inject a bunch of modern lit too, it won't be all dead European men. I'm looking forward to having time off to experiment with my writing outside of a work setting. Basically, I'm going to slide into my late twenties with a massive downsizing in responsibility, I'll just coast on in...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

American Magic

We had a barbecue this weekend. There were about 20 people in attendance including myself, my roommates, a Greek-Chinese translator, a Spanish-Chinese translator and then mostly Italian architects. My contributions to the meal were two bottles of rum and a vanilla cake made from a box, so it was kind of embarrassing when all the Europeans started gushing about how delicious the cake was (don't thank me, thank Betty Crocker, guys!). 

As I explained this box-cake thing to my Italian roommate he said the other day he was quite surprised to find our other roommate (also American, not much of a cook) whipping up pancakes in the kitchen, but then he learned that you could buy this box from the import grocer and just add water. 

"If you'd been born in America, you too would also already know this magic," I explained. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Why I don't do "wellness"

Yesterday I went to a massage center. It's a potential client so I was offered a free massage, which is always great, but on my way out the marketing woman watched me walk down the hall and told me she could tell by the way I walked my spine wasn't straight. This is a fact I already know. Two years ago when I did my health check for my China work visa they told me I had "minor scoliosis," which sounds really scary until I realized it was just a small curve in the spine, and doesn't everyone have a messed up back? I get lower back pain when I stand in one place doing dishes too long, but - again - everybody has back pain. 

Now this lady is telling me I walk leaning to one side, and here I was operating under the delusion I have pretty good posture. Actually quite often civilians - i.e. people who don't work at massage centers - tell me I have good posture.  Now I imagine myself listing to one side like a sinking ship. She recommended I come back to see the chiropractor and get treatment, which sounds like more time and money than I want to spend on what may or may not be the reason my lower back hurts when I do dishes. I prefer ignorance about my ailments. 

Pro Tip: They did tell me that one of my vertebrae sticks out because I have computer neck. So, if you're like me and spend all day staring at one, take time to tilt your head all the way back and stretch out your neck muscles. This is supposed to help.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A day in the lunch

Today I had a drippy caesar salad for lunch. I ate it with my headphones in, listening to a podcast where a few Beijing foreign correspondents analyzed the recent floods, but not before I got up from my chair to lust over the brownies behind the glass counter.

Since I didn't succumb to said brownies, I finished lunch and walked across the street to an import grocer where I pondered bars of dark chocolate (finally settling on the cheaper one), then briefly considered buying more instant coffee (decided against), picked up an apple, considered buying soy milk (decided against), picked up a pouch of pumpkin seeds and almonds and also bought a baking tray. After purchasing all of these things, I waited in line for my official receipt (gotta collect 'em for my taxes) and only after this a man approached me, "Do you speak English?"


I find that more frequently now when American strangers (and now a British one) approach me they ask this question, which is a bit silly because here I am, buying expensive groceries by myself, clearly to arrive at this juncture in the world, I probably had to learn English first, regardless of my country of origin. Still, I guess it's kind of nice in a politically correct, self-effacing way - as if we're far enough removed from British Imperialism and American super power that there might actually be unaccompanied white ladies shopping for fruit and nuts in central Beijing who don't speak English. Granted, while it might not be impossible to find said lady, it would be pretty, pretty hard.

Anyways, after an extremely long pause, this guy told me that he'd noticed me at lunch and only came over to the grocer to approach me, which could be kind of creepy, since he obviously waited until I decided on cheap chocolate, passed on instant coffee, picked up an apple, passed on soy milk, bought a baking tray, paid, got my fancy receipt AND THEN said hello. But I chose to feel flattered, he didn't seem like a bad sort, but then I've learned not to trust my first impressions.

It's strange to think about being watched in public and what people might surmise from one's shopping habits. I'm just glad he didn't catch me yesterday when I stopped at a convenience store on my way home and inhaled an entire sleeve of oreos.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Two Down

I have been in Beijing two months and completed two issues. A good friend from Shanghai was in town last week and we spent this weekend at the Shangri-La, thanks to a voucher I snagged at a media event. She left for Kunming this afternoon. I was sad to say goodbye because it was a little bit like saying bye to Shanghai and my life there again. But then, almost all of my closest friends there have moved on, they're traveling or headed back to grad school. Then there's me, up here in Beijing.

My move to Beijing was similar to my move to Shanghai in that both times I was transitioning to a place where I knew almost no one, but the similarities end there. 

Shanghai was much lonelier. I hit it off with my roommate, Chef Mike, right away, but he worked six days a week and was usually coming home as I was falling asleep. My roommates here keep regular business hours, plus there's two of them, and they have a group of friends who live in our compound, so I've walked into a little community. Of course it's not like Shanghai, where James and Sam and Jess really were like a little family, but I'm happy I decided not to live alone. In addition to the roommate situation, knowing people in Shanghai has opened doors here and fairly often people from Shanghai are up on business, so my social situation benefits from that.

Shanghai was also tougher because my loneliness was exacerbated by a lot of big questions - I didn't know how long I would be there, or if I would get used to my job, or when I would find a solid group of friends or when I would see James and if he was going to move there. 

I didn't know if I would succeed in Shanghai, but I did, and that's how I got moved up here. It's nice to have the confidence that instills. I'm happy to have graduated from the "no real work experience" phase of my life.

Here in Beijing, I know exactly how long I'll be here, I know what I want to do next and I have a pretty good idea of the next time I'll see James. That makes it easier to enjoy my solitude. I consume a lot of media. I'm reading a lot and listening to more new music than I have in recent years. I'm also plowing through podcasts, lots of NPR and China commentary. I'm cooking and exercising. I haven't done any creative writing, my job still doesn't grant me the excess brain energy for that, but it's good to have the concentrated time to engage my interests.

There are still plenty of times where being here falls short of fun. The less busy I am, the more I miss people. When I returned to Beijing from Taipei a few weeks ago, I got the exact same feeling as two years ago when I was returning to Shanghai from my Hong Kong visa run. 99% of the return legs I've taken in my life have been to go back to some place that is more or less home. Usually, even if it's been a great vacation or whatever, these flights at least offer the anticipation of being greeted by the creature comforts and people that lend life a sense of grounding. So there's this strange empty feeling about returning to a place that lacks that. 

When I think about the differences between these two transitions, I feel happy about how much I've grown in the last two years. And it's nice to remember that whenever things are hard here, they're never as hard as they were before.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Perfect Saturday

Woke up at 10. Watched a Coursera lecture (I'm taking an open class from Princeton, introduction to sociology, it's fascinating), then I got on my bike and found the best wet market. 

In Shanghai there's a tiny hole-in-the-wall grocer that expats all refer to as "the avocado lady" because she sells loads of imported produce and canned goods and massively undercuts the big import stores, this market was like that times 100. I bought avocados and basil and flat-leaf parsley, canned coconut milk, artichoke hearts... Shoppers at the avocado lady are mostly Europeans and Americans, but I guess since the Beijing market is near the embassy district I saw Africans, Indians, European folks - would've been fun to know how many countries were represented among shoppers. On my way home it started pouring. I was completely soaked by the time I got home and it didn't let up until, well, it's 10pm now and it still hasn't let up, so I had the perfect excuse to not go out again.  

I made tabbouleh and pesto and ginger-carrot juice. I read a bunch. Now I'm going to watch The Last Emperor in bed.

Being too busy at work is a bummer, but it certainly gives glory to the lazy Saturday. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fake food

I had a rough day at work. Not terrible, but I've been working non-stop with deadlines and then had some personnel/hr-y stuff piled on top of that today. I hate hr-y stuff. It stresses me out and bores me all at the same time. 

So to reward myself (and because I didn't leave work until late) I stopped by the grocery store and picked up some Kraft macaroni. I bought chicken breast too, so I'll be good tomorrow night.

When I got home I half-jokingly told my Italian roommate, showing him the box, I was embarrassed to cook it in front of him (okay, I actually was kind of embarrassed). His response: "Oh. What is this?"

That's right, kids: he didn't know what it was! Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. But American culture is so pervasive, I get a little kick whenever I discover something that's commonplace back home but unknown to my non-American friends. It doesn't happen that often.

When I explained that it was noodles with "cheese" powder, he followed up with "Oh, but I wont get mad about this. I love the taste of Velveeta." 

I like Italians. Or at least I like my roommate and my one close Italian girlfriend in Shanghai and the various others I've met here, of which I will base my Italian stereotyping off of: they know how to have a good time, they're exceptionally hospitable and even the ones who "don't really cook" can take pasta, olive oil, tomatoes and make something delicious.

Moving on to the other reason I titled this post fake food: for the first time in my life, I bought a box of instant coffee. Don't tell my mother. There's no coffee at work, I haven't been able to find a drip machine for home yet, so I broke down and did it. It's Nescafe which, interestingly, is much more popular in Europe than in the US. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little bit sad

This evening I jostled my way on to the airport express train and jostled my way off when it arrived at Dongzhimen. When I exited the station, I saw a man playfully blowing cigarette smoke into the face of a little girl laughing on his lap - I must be back in Beijing!

It's nice to return to my big comfy room with all my stuff in it, that's much better than where I was a month ago - living out of second-rate hotels with most of my earthly possessions packed away at the office. When I got home, the architects were busy drilling away in their rooms, both are installing custom shelving at the moment. It's good to come home to activity.

Edit: While I'm counting my blessings - my room was all clean when I arrived today. I've been slowly putting things in order, but left it rather messy when I went to Taiwan. However, our cleaning guy started last week and everything was put away and tidy when I got home. While my life is occasionally lonely here, it helps to remember that it's most definitely charmed too. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Last Night in Taiwan

So the big disappointment of the trip was they turned my favorite pub into a ladies' underwear store. I dragged James all the way out to our old neighborhood for an afternoon of three-cup tofu, stir-fried lamb, shrimp cakes and Taiwan Beer, but it wasn't to be. It also served to remind that our old neighborhood was seriously out in the boonies: half an hour into Taipei proper, plus another bus or subway ride to wherever you're headed. Sheesh, things were different back then.

Other than that the trip has been awesome and the shock and disbelief I'm registering above also illustrates how I'm feeling now that it's almost over.

We spent four nights in Taipei with James' grandma and two nights in Kenting at the Howard Beach Resort, which was decked out in 1950s-style decor and replete with haunted house, bowling alley and creepy spa outfitted with heaps of fake flowers in the basement.

One day we rented a scooter and drove all along the coast and also inland a ways through some sleepy little towns. That was a fantastic day.

This trip was such a wonderful respite after a hectic first month in Beijing. It's tough too though, because a month ago I knew I'd see James this week and now he's about to go back to the States and I wont see him until the fall or later.

I've enjoyed beijing here and reflecting on how different our expat life was in Taiwan versus Shanghai (and now Beijing, for me). In Taiwan, our main support network was James' family, so we quickly adapted to some parts of life here (James' uncle loaned us a car and we were treated to lots of great family outings and were introduced to lots of people who wanted to help us), but there were other things we went about totally backwards because we didn't have an expat community to guide us. If I could time travel to us in Fall 2008, I would have all kinds of advice on how to do the English teacher thing differently. I also would advise us to move into Taipei. Cheap rent in Nankan was great, but we started having a lot more fun once we had a friend group in Taipei.

I really do love it here. I hope I'll be returning many more times.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

In Taiwan

I left Beijing Thursday night. My flight was majorly delayed, first because of problems on the ground in Hong Kong (with the airport, not the airline) and then due to a thunder storm in Beijing. Because of the timing, we wound up sitting on the tarmac without air conditioning for more than an hour. That was unpleasant, but what was more unpleasant was rowdy passengers who started to feed off of each other, incessantly punching their call buttons and angrily declaring than Hong Kong airlines should compensate us ... for a thunder storm. Some American guy behind me did that very American thing where he loudly declared the flight his "first and last time riding Hong Kong Airlines." Never mind the service was impeccable and very apologetic. 

I figured I wouldn't see James until Friday morning, but when I finally got into Hong Kong he surprised me by having the same (also super delayed) connecting flight to Taipei. Yay!

Now we're at his grandma's house and on Monday we're going down south for a couple days at a beach resort.

It's so nice to be back here. Everything is a little bit nicer than China. Less trash on the ground, the street food is cleaner, the convenience stores have better layouts, the cars are less likely to cut you off and the service is much, much friendlier. When we stepped off the airport shuttle in Taipei I noticed how much clearer the air was - the colors of buildings appeared sharper than they do in Beijing. I knew Beijing has dirty air, but the contrast surprised me. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Closed and unpacked

My first issue went to print. And I didn't shed any tears in the process. I think that's my great triumph of the month, and I take heart that no issue will be as tough as the one that's behind me. Still, I think I'm too close to it to feel any real sense of accomplishment.

I'm in my new place! This is the nicest place I've ever lived (parents' house excluded). I live on this leafy, little two-lane street and my compound is neighbors with the Russian Embassy. My room faces an interior courtyard, so get this: when I wake up in the morning ... all I can hear is birds. I've never lived anywhere in China without street noise. This is truly incredible.

The architects are great. Both the two I'm living with and also their group of friends that just moved across the courtyard. I'm a little bit in awe of them. We're all about the same age, we're all working really hard and for not that much money, but they're working on these landmark projects that will one day define the places where they'll be built. 
I also like listening to them at dinner because they're always talking about space in terms of how people use it, which reminds me of my mom (also an architect). She sometimes talks like that.

I unpacked the last of my bags last night. I packed quinoa in the same box as my sheets, a bunch of pans and a load of other stuff. The quinoa burst so I had to pour delicious whole grains out of several pair of shoes and scrape it out of the pages of my Madame Chiang Kai-shek biography. I brought way too many books to Beijing. But I always bring too many books everywhere. I brought a lot of random things that probably aren't necessary, but it was nice to uncover a photo cube with pictures of my brothers (I was going to leave it in Shanghai - too heavy - but Jess convinced me to take it). I also found a couple of drawings from my English students in Taiwan - they'd been forgotten in a side pocket of my big backpack. So now I have a bit of art for my room. 

A week from today I fly to Taipei! I bought my ticket yesterday. I'll be there one week. It was almost four years ago that I moved there and it's been almost three years since I left. I can't wait.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Week Two Down

I finished week two ... like a boss. I wish all I had to do was "talk to corporate" and check email. Having my own bathroom would be pretty sweet too, but then they don't even give me toilet paper, so really my job is nothing like that song. Except for checking email. That mess takes up half my day, I'm hoping the deluge will recede once I have, uh, staff. Staff will be nice.

I have social plans this weekend! I don't really know any of the people I'll be socializing with, but for my soon-to-be roomie whom I've met once. The big thing everyone is doing today and tomorrow is watching the European Cup. Soccer-watching is just the cross we expatriated Americans have to bear time to time in order to integrate. At least there's always beer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

I think I found a place!

Master bedroom in a sweet pad that faces an interior courtyard off of a two-lane street (i.e. quiet!!). The bathroom is huge and has a glassed-in shower. There's a nice big living room with new white floors and a kitchen with modern fixtures. Hollah!

The other two guys are twenty-something architects, one American, one Italian. I'm still looking at one-bedrooms in case it doesn't work out, but I'm hopeful. It ain't cheap, but the same amount of money for a single only gets me an old building, possibly with a five-story walk up, shabby furniture and a bathroom without a shower, i.e. when you wanna wash yourself the whole bathroom gets wet. 

The people who are about to move out are also a bunch of architects (apparently there are a lot of those in Beijing). The girl who is currently in the master bedroom painted one wall lime green with a white stencil of a buck. It's funky cool. That bunch of architects is actually just moving to a different unit in the same complex and my prospective roommates are already talking about big summer BBQs in the courtyard, which sounds awesome to little old friendless me: Architects! Accept me as one of your own!

Cross your fingers for me!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Beijing, Day 6

It's Saturday. I moved on Monday morning and this is the first time I've had to catch my breath. All week it was get up, work, go to sleep. Today I ran around looking at apartments, which is also stressful, but not quite as rapid-fire as the office. For every single lunch and dinner this week our sales manager paraded me around to meet all her big clients, which means I think I've eaten in just about every luxury hotel in town. Every meal was huge. The other night I had a 118-kuai burger, the patty was wagyu beef ground shortrib. Good Lord. Afterward I came home and looked at myself naked in the mirror (big mistake), looked like the alien life form was ready to burst forth.

Work is really busy but I don't feel overwhelmed, or perhaps each day I feel a little bit less overwhelmed. I used to really bitch in Shanghai because our office wouldn't buy paper towels for the bathroom. In my new office we have to bring our own coffee and toilet paper. No joke. Everyone keeps their own role at their desk. Whatever.  A couple years ago I would've been shocked (shocked!), now I just kind of roll my eyes and carry on grumbling.

Apartment hunting in Beijing is depressing. You get way less bang for your buck than in Shanghai. I'm determined to live within biking distance from work and work is really central which means I'll pay fatty stacks just to get something shoebox-sized that doesn't have a totally grotty kitchen or a bathroom that looks like a set piece from one of the Saw movies.

Since today is my first free time, it's also been my first time to feel homesick. Change is tough. Everything was such a whirlwind before leaving I never really thought about missing Shanghai. I have such great friends down there. Goodbyes were relatively easy because almost everyone said "oh I'll definitely be up to Beijing in the next six months," but for the few who - bless them - told me I'd have to pay them to visit Beijing, and maybe not even then (one of my self-employed consultant friends simply refuses to take work up here). I'll miss my life in Shanghai. I'll miss my neighborhood, and my friends and my Chinese teacher and my ayi and Sundays in the French Concession and TV nights at my wonderful, cozy, spacious apartment where I lived with my best friends. I walked past a movie theater today and felt like crying because I never go to movies without James. He's in Halong Bay right now with my BFF Jess. It was supposed to be the three of us this summer. Oh well. I'm not too cut up about that. I try not to be.

But don't worry about me, loyal readers! (Read: Dad and Aunt Sue). I've already met a lot of nice people, friends of friends, and everyone is kind and helpful. I've already found things I like about Beijing. The people are friendlier than in Shanghai, there's a different energy up here, a lot of art going on and it'll be an adventure getting to know it all. Now I'm off to dinner with my favorite monied Chinese nationalist. She always has great stories.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Goodbye Shanghai

My company didn't want to pay to have my belongings shipped to Beijing so instead we agreed that the four of us flying up (I'm the only permanent post) would just check all of my earthly possessions and everyone else would go carry on. Today I broke down and bought an extra box to ship. In it I've packed a juicer, hiking boots, a massive pink cosplay wig, two bags of Yunnan-roasted coffee, my copy of North Korean monster film Pulgasari and my Chinese homework, plus some clothes and books. Necessities, all. 

Packing is exhausting. I came to Shanghai with two huge bags. Two months ago, I sent my little brother back to the States with two even huger bags and I've already packed three sizable bags for Beijing. Now my apartment is fairly empty and if someone asked me to make an itemized list of what's in these bags, I wonder if I could remember even a quarter of it. I don't think I'd be that sad if one or two didn't make it to their final destination. I guess I don't care that much about most of my stuff, but it's comforting most of it is coming north with me. I'm still probably going to have to buy a new comforter and some dishes and a coffee pot. On a somewhat related note, I sent these shoes home with my brother. By my count, they've crossed the Pacific Ocean at least four times. I will also be hand carrying a tube of Mao-Era propaganda posters I bought at the Shanghai Propaganda Museum to Beijing, then I will hand carry them to Taiwan in July when I visit James and he will hand carry them back to the good old USA. Those are definitely some of my most precious possessions. Just a moment ago James walked over and put my ceramic sunflower seed (from Ai Weiwei's project) on the coffee table and reminded me not to forget it. To celebrate the demolition of his Shanghai studio, Ai Weiwei (who was barred from coming down from Beijing for the event) had folks feed everyone who showed up river crabs and gave away art books and seeds, Jess went and brought me back a seed.

Last night my editorial team here had a big night at our favorite wine bar. Right as we sat down, my photographer nudged me and pointed out that one of my subjects from my very first cover story was also in the bar. I said hi to the guy, turns out he too is moving up to Beijing this week, to launch a startup. People are always leaving Shanghai. It's just that kind of city. 

I managed not to get too emotional saying goodbye to everyone, because I knew if I did I'd probably be a big blubbery mess. Our photographer put together a compilation of photos he's amassed over the last two years of all of us on the job. They're wonderful. It was the best send off gift. If I muster the patience, I may try to post some of the photos here later.

I've had a great two years. I had a job that I loved and I got to work with a team of fun people that I genuinely liked. Other people in our company have mentioned how often they hear laughing from the editorial department. I'm sure we have the loudest office, and also the most fun one. I feel like my adult life really got started in Shanghai. I will remember this as a happy stretch where I grew a lot and wrote a lot and saw a lot and did it all in very fine company.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Big News

I got called up north. I've dashed my carefree summer non-plans to go become the chief editor of That's Beijing. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) how many Anna Wintour jokes I've received since the news became public, which was only very, very recently. I've also heard Beijing traffic horror stories that make Los Angeles sound down right suburban.

I haven't blogged any in the past couple weeks as all of this was finalized. It's been my preoccupation of late, but I couldn't say anything until all was decided so I haven't said anything at all.

This time next week I'll be waking up my first morning in Beijing. I've given away most the things I'm not taking. My flight is purchased. I've said a lot of goodbyes. It's a bit easier since a lot of people are in Beijing now and again so we don't have to act like it's quite so final. I've also been in the awkward situation of telling people in my outer circle of friends that I don't have time to grab a drink after work this week since I'd rather spend time with the people who matter before we're separated (obviously I didn't add the last part). 

Last night I had a dream I found an extra large duffle bag (something I need in real life) and that as I cleaned my room I kept pulling old food from out beneath my bed. I pulled out two old roast turkeys coated in moldy white film and as I took them out to the dumpster in the hall I kept passing people who'd already left Shanghai.

Up until early this month the idea of living in Beijing never seriously crossed my mind. Strange times. Although I think my friends in America are less surprised this time around as every time I say "Oh I'll probably/definitely be back in America by _____" I wind up pushing it back. They're used to it now.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Happy Birthday, Richard Adams

Every day I get the Writer's Almanac in my inbox. Honestly, usually I can't be bothered to finish reading the poems they send and I hurriedly skim the newsletter that follows, but I'm glad I didn't miss this item: 

Today is the birthday of the novelist Richard Adams, born in Wash Common, England (1920). He was working as a civil servant, and he had two young daughters, for whom he often made up stories. They were preparing for a long car trip when one of the girls told him he had to make up a new story, a long one that would last the whole journey. He began to spin a yarn about a band of rabbits escaping the destruction of their warren. There was Fiver, a weakling and a prophet; along with Hazel and Bigwig, inspired by two soldiers Adams had known during the war.
The story lasted the trip and more, and when it was done, Adams' daughter Juliet said, "You ought to write it down, Daddy. It's too good to waste." He did, taking nearly two years, and it was rejected by many publishers as too grown-up for kids and too simple for adults. A small publisher finally accepted it, but only printed a small initial run and couldn't afford to pay Adams any advance. After notable positive reviews, sales took off and within a couple of years, Watership Down (1972) had sold more than a million copies.

On my dad's recommendation, I read Watership Down in 1997, on the two-week trip my family took to adopt my oldest little brother, Billy. I'm overdue to reread it. I remember being very emotionally invested in those poor little rabbits. I'd never heard the story behind the book, so what an interesting little surprise.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's good to be good to people

We have a great cleaning lady at work. She always says good morning, she's mindful of whose coffee cups belong to whom, she tells me what fruits to avoid in the afternoon for the sake of my Qi, and she loves to tell me and my co-worker that we're beautiful. Who wouldn't love that?

The other day, while I was out of the office, she teared up while showing a letter she'd written to one of my fellow editors. It was addressed to our company's previous landlord, who was apparently very kind to our cleaning lady. Then, still feeling emotional, she told my co-worker that people always ask why she spends so much time chatting with the editorial department. She told her it's because we always look her in the eye when we speak to her and she can tell by that how we feel about her. She said she knows her job isn't regarded as important, but she appreciates the respect we give her.

My co-worker gave her a pat on the back, feeling awkward and embarrassed, because it's not as if this is something intentional on our parts. If I had to guess, there are probably two reasons our department stands out in the eyes of our cleaning lady. (We're the only department that's majority Western.) Culturally, eye contact is more important to us when addressing people. And we have different feelings about relationships and power distance. We have much less of a problem telling the boss when we think he's wrong, and we also probably are more inclined to chat with the cleaning lady. 

I've seen (not regularly, but sometimes) Chinese people treat service staff in a manner that to me seems appalling and dehumanizing, behavior like snapping one's fingers at a waiter in a restaurant and not looking at them or saying "please" or "thank you." And it took me awhile to adjust to the fact it's acceptable and expected to address your cleaning lady as "ayi" (aunty) and your cab driver as "shifu" (skilled worker). Here on the mainland, we're supposed to address waiters as "fuwuyuan" (service person) because "xiaojie" (miss) is a euphemism for prostitute in the south. I still slip up and call a waitress "xiaojie" sometimes (which is acceptable in Taiwan). It just feels strange reducing someone to their labor. I had an equally hard time in Taiwan where everyone addressed the school managers as "zhuren" (manager). I wasn't expected to do this since I was a foreigner. What's more disconcerting to me is when the Chinese editors who have to deal with our censors address them as "laoshi" (teacher), which is a form of respect for older, educated folks. 

Of course I prefer my own culture because it's mine. But that's not to say everyone else is wrong, or that the other departments in our company are wrong for not taking more time out of the day for our cleaning lady - she doesn't expect it, but she appreciates it. 

It's easy to lose your manners in Shanghai. There are low expectations for showing consideration to strangers. Sometimes it drives me nuts. There's a checker at the corner grocery who seems to make a point of ringing up the items and then chucking them away from your open plastic bag, just to make the point that she isn't going to bag your groceries for you. Fine. But just because there's a low bar where social expectations are concerned, doesn't mean my personal bar has to sink too. Since my co-worker told me about her conversation with our cleaning lady, I've tried to be more intentional about looking people in the eye and smiling and almost always that friendliness is reciprocated. It's so much better to concentrate on conveying good feelings to others than to dwell on frustration. I'll try to remember that.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Dining by Madame Chiang's old haunt

Last night James and I had dinner at a Mexican place that shares a patio with this place.

Now it's an upscale eatery, but it used to be home to the mighty Soong family, big-time power brokers during China's brief and tumultuous Nationalist era. Soong Ching-Ling married Sun Yat-sen and later Soong May-Ling married Chiang Kai-shek. I'm presently reading this biography of Madame Chiang.

I started reading it about a year ago and put it down because the part about her formative years is slow. I'm glad I wasn't born into a richy-rich Chinese family around the end of the 19th century. After returning to Shanghai from studying in America, prior to her marriage, May-Ling spent a lot of time writing to American friends about how bored she was because her family wouldn't allow her to take a proper job. Without anything to occupy her time, whenever she got sick she thought she was REALLY sick and was very dramatic about it.

I've just got to the part where she marries Chiang. I never knew much about their marriage. In Taiwan sometimes you'll see postcards on sale venerating their great love story. I've also heard people remark that Madame Chiang was the most power-hungry of the Soong sissies.

Turns out, the wedding was a very calculated move on the part of the Soongs and Chiang. He also had to cast off his village wife, Jennie, before he could marry May-Ling. He sent Jennie to America, promising that it was only a political move of short duration and that he'd come get her in 5 years or so. But then he was quoted in the New York Times explaining that Jennie was just a concubine he'd set free. 

Hannah Pakula made a Freedom of Information Act request and dug up documents indicating the US government did its best to make sure Jennie didn't publish her memoir because it would reflect poorly on Chiang's government (our allies). Threatened with lawsuits, Jennie destroyed all but one of the copie. She died in 1971. The book finally made it out in the 1990s, Chiang Kai-sheks' Secret Past: The Memoir of his Second Wife.

I learned all this in a lengthy footnote in Pakula's book (after all, the book is about May-Ling, but it must be disappointing to drop that kind of lengthily-researched bombshell in a footer). I'm adding Jennie's book to my to-read list. There are actually 84 books on my to-read list. I just got a Goodreads account. Oh man, it's a great way to track and fuel a reading addiction.

Anyways, as we walked past Sasha's last night, I got really excited, "That's where the Soong family used to live! I'm reading about May-Ling now and this makes it all the more REAL!"

James: "The who?"

Me: "The Soong sisters! You know, the ones that married Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek."

James: So, Madame Chiang used to live in Sasha's...

It's common knowledge that Sasha's is the old Soong house, it's even printed in the front of their menus, but somehow it escaped me until recently that Sasha's was known for more than anything than overpriced cocktails and a great patio. Last night we had Mexican food in a second-floor dining room. I  got to eat fajitas and watch the Soong house, wondering if May-Ling ever sat by one of the windows I could see, writing about how bored she was, waiting for her life to start - unaware that she would shortly become one of the most important women in modern Chinese history.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Here since June 4, 1989

I had an interview last week at a hole-in-the-wall hair salon. The subject was a middle-aged guy with a giant mole on his cheek and a yellow t-shirt with the silhouette of a lawn gnome and the words "take it outside." Born in a seaside village in Guangdong Province, he had a southern accent so thick my Chinese co-worker had to constantly ask him to repeat himself. I could barely follow him.

We started with the customary Shanghai interview questions. In this transient city, the first or second is most always "how long have you been here?"

"I've been here since before the June 4 riots." He said. This was shocking not only because I rarely hear Chinese people speak of it, but also because we'd only been chatting about a minute. Some introduction.

"But we can't put this in the magazine, can we?" my co-worker asked, wondering if we should redirect the conversation. In truth, we can't go anywhere near June 4, 1989. Once I wrote that an interviewee who'd had "problems with authority" was fired in 1989, our censors told me I couldn't write the year or the part about authority. Still, I was interested in what this guy had to say so I told her to continue asking him about it.

I was happy to have this particular co-worker along. She's young and sharp. At one point the Tiananmen Incident came up in the office and her comment was, "well nobody really knows what happened," to which another (Western) co-worker responded, "actually, I think it's well documented in publications outside of China." She responded with, "but those journalists could be lying to promote Western interests."

This wasn't a reactionary, nationalistic conclusion on her part, it was a natural one: Chinese media is the mouthpiece of the state, it's their job to promote the government's interests. Sure, she was off base, but not as off base as a knee-jerk Western reaction might conclude: in recent years evidence surfaced that no lives were lost in Tiananmen Square (to be sure, plenty were killed in Beijing streets after the square was cleared), but it appears the US government and Western journalists let the depiction stand. This is one of the world's most iconic protest photos - why sully the emotional pull of "Tiananmen Tank Man" with the caveat no one died at Tiananmen?

So we continued our chat with the hair salon guy. He'd only been in Shanghai a week when protests broke out here. He'd come for work with a few other young guys. He was living near some of the students protesting. He said some in his group were scared. As I've heard it told by another man who was in Shanghai at the time, local government was much savvier and less heavy-handed than in Beijing. There was only maybe one day where the protests prevented goods from getting into the city.Still, people panicked and the cost of food and supplies shot up. The hairdresser told me some people wanted to go home, but he chose to stay. He said he liked Shanghai and thought that life and opportunity here were worth fighting for. He didn't mention democracy, he seemed to be more taken with the emotional appeal of the movement and the students' passion.

True story.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why I follow my brothers on Facebook

Okay, actually there are lots of reasons, but the main one is that teenage Facebook melodrama is fascinating and infuriating. It's like reading tabloids. And there's ample opportunity for tut-tutting, kids these days just put so much out there! (Imagine me clutching my pearls).

Ricky, my littlest brother, just took first in all his track meet events and jumped an incredible 20 feet and 1.5 inches (He's 13!!). In a thread where his friends were discussing how he did it, this exchange (or teaching moment, perhaps) much amused me:

Kid: well u r black

Ricky: Cambodian*

Kid: Isn't it the same thing

Ricky: Sir, Cambodia is in Asia

Yeah Ricky, drop that knowledge.

Friday, April 13, 2012


May 29. One-way tickets to Nanning in Guangxi Province, from where we will hop a bus to Hanoi.

Vietnam here we come!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cab Driver Inquisition

I had an interview at the end of the day in the French Concession and got stuck in traffic heading back to Jing'an, allowing plenty of time for my old lady taxi driver to give me the third degree on just about everything. Before we'd even passed the elevated highway she'd gleaned enough to express shock and consternation that my sixty-something-year-old mother could still be raising two teenage boys and she also let me know that if I'm dating a guy he should really already own a house. I got a special kick out of this part:

Driver: What does your boyfriend do?

Me: He's a ... [I botch "designer"]

Driver: What?

Me: He paints advertisements.

Driver: Ah, I understand. How's his salary?

Me: Yeah, okay.

Drive: How much does he make in a month?

Me: Ah! I won't say.

Driver: Does he give you money?

Me: No, I make my own money!

Driver: But if he lives with you he should really give you money.

Me: Hmm, I like how you think.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

It's official

My work visa will expire at the end of May and I am not renewing my contract. I've had a wonderful two years at the magazine, but I'm ready to look for a new way to challenge myself as a writer. My only immediate plans are to jack around in Vietnam and Laos this summer and then ... well, I've got a wedding to attend in Chicago in October.

The sum total of my life plans. That's all I got. Stay tuned!

Coppin' a feel: Titanic 3-D

So Titanic 3-D is coming to town. Yay - pause for golf clap - personally I'm more excited for BATTLESHIP. Don't fault me for it, Hunger Games definitely ain't coming. Something about post-apocalyptic authoritarian dictatorships just doesn't go over here. Ah, well.

Fifteen years ago, Titanic made a big impression in China back when there were even fewer foreign movies screening (horrors! I can't imagine). At the time, Jack and Rose's steamy car scene ran in its entirety, nudie painting and all. I mean, after all, it was pg-13 and everything, right?

We wont be so lucky the first time around. The nude scene has been cut, says Ministry of Tofu. And some people are pretty steamed about it. This satirical phony official government explanation for striking the scene made me laugh out loud [translation also from MoT]:

"The State Administration of Radio, Film and Broadcast finally gave an explanation of its decision to remove the nude scene it OK'd 15 years ago: 'In light of the specialness of 3D movies, we are concerned that viewers may extend their hands for a touch during the scene and hit heads of viewers sitting in their front, which may result in disputes. In consideration for building a society with spiritual civilization, we decide to remove the scene.'"

Sunday, April 8, 2012


I yell at drivers a lot. If I were in the States, most people would allow that the offenses for which I raise my voice warrant it. But I'm not in the States and while the rules of the road are supposed to be basically the same - i.e. don't threaten to run over pedestrians - they aren't enforced. I can't decide if my semi-regular outrage should be classified as "teaching moments" or just loud, bitchy behavior. 

Either way, I'm probably not going to quit. I get a little satisfaction getting my blood up. The other day a group of us were walking in a crosswalk (we had the green man) and an old lady was walking in the opposite direction when a black Audi aggressively rolled into the zebra stripes honking, not far from this old lady's path.

Me in English: What's wrong with you? Why would you do that? 

The man in the Audi stares  as I cross his car. I yell at him until we get to the curb. He continues to stare. I switch to Chinese:

"You did it because you don't have any manners!"

He immediately looks away. All the mouthing off I do has been like a mini cultural case study: Invariably, the drivers I yell at look confused, or laugh or pretend not to notice. Chinese culture dictates that it's never cool to lose your cool, and so when some crazy white lady yells at you, you just let it go. There was this one time James and I had been waiting for a cab a long time. Several minutes after us, a couple men show up on the sidewalk. Finally, a cab rolls up and James and I turn toward it. The guys turn toward it as well and start walking quickly, so we shamelessly break into a run and beat them to the doors, after which I turn and cackle ... followed by expletive. They shuffle off, no reaction whatsoever. 

Not once has someone dished it back to me. I'll admit this emboldens me. I wouldn't be so easily wound up if I were in the States and knew someone might pull a gun on me. I have to enjoy it while it lasts.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Moved out and mixed up

Our office moved to a new lanehouse. It's bigger but cheaper than the old one and located north of my apartment, so less central than our old place. It's a three-story outfit tricked out in gold trim and gaudy wallpaper (think brass-colored dragons and phoenixes surrounded by ornately drawn Chinese characters). It's awful but I imagine somebody was really happy at one point putting it in. They probably thought it was incredibly cool.

I'm sitting at my new desk covered in my old stuff and feeling out of sorts, which I think has to do with the cold I seem to be catching and the all-nighter I pulled Friday night on my little brother's last night in town (more on that later!). Oy. I slept 10 hours last night but I still feel tired. Oh and did I mention I'm working on a Sunday? The Chinese govt decided everyone should work Saturday and Sunday in order to have a three-day Monday-Wednesday holiday. Such strange scheduling only really benefits people who take the following Thursday and Friday off (and thus get a whole 7 days off in a row). For everyone else it's just annoying.

I've spent several minutes now sitting at my desk trying to remember if I like to use my mouse with my left hand or right hand. I write left handed but like most left handed people do a bunch of other stuff with my right hand. As taxing as this task proved, I can't imagine I'll get a whole lot of work done today. Sigh.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Take me hoooome, country roads...

It's Thursday evening, we've just wrapped the April issue and I am sitting at my desk appreciating this New York Times op-ed about homesickness. It starts by citing a Gallup poll: 25 percent of earthlings wish they could move abroad, maybe permanently.

Hold your horses, earthlings! The grass isn't all green out here in expat-ville: studies show that foreigners living in foreign lands experience anxiety and depression at a much higher rate than their folks back home.

The hard data ends there and isn't exactly shocking, but I liked this part: 

"Today, explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity. This silence makes mobility appear deceptively easy."

and this part:

"The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society. The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn't square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring."

I'm not exactly a "solitary, mobile individual" but I was for six months, until my main man James moved to town. It was tough! Actually, I might even call it one of my prouder achievements in life so far: moving abroad by myself to a city where I knew no one. It's empowering, but Lord it's not easy. James likes to joke that I put in all the leg work and he got to arrive on the ground with a group of friends; that's basically true. 

Everyone wants to hear the wacky tales of international tomfoolery. No one wants to hear about the nights you come home and have absolutely no one to keep you company. You don't want to call home and burden them with your blues. I read a lot of books in the bath those first months. 

And about that 'cosmopolitan philosophy,' I love my life here in Shanghai, but the prospect of making it permanent - away from the mountains and the ocean I grew up with - is not something I entertain. It's impossible to quantify this feeling, but the best way I can describe it is I wake up a lot of Saturday mornings and think: it would be nice to go walk on the beach or take a hike ... in America.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Sun!

Today I woke up and, for the first time in just about forever, sunlight was streaming through the curtains that separate our living room from the enclosed balcony. Hurray!

Before I went to work, I moved my vegetable into the kitchen. For months now we've been using the balcony as a surplus fridge. We have the lamest, smallest "full-size" fridge known to man. But the balcony stays so cold in winter that it keeps beers the perfect temperature and keeps veggies fresh. But judging by the morning sun, our surplus fridge is no longer.

I also sneezed all the way through my Chinese class and joked to my teacher "with the sun, also comes allergies." She laughed and taught me an ancient Chinese proverb that basically translates: "Fish and bear. You can't have both."

Right. An English-language equivalent doesn't readily come to mind, but basically the idea is if you catch a bear you probably don't have time to catch a fish. Or maybe your bear will eat your fish. And similarly, when the sun comes out you will be happy but you will also sneeze a lot and your beers wont be cold.

Happy Monday, y'all!