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.