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.