When a friend says, “I’m coming to China.” You say, “Let’s meet in Shanghai.” Let the fun begin. For me, a last jaunt on this side of the world.
We checked off a wonderful tourist to do list. We rode the Maglev Train from the aiport. We visited the Bund, Yu Garden, the gorgeous and quiet Longhua Temple, the ornate and busy Jing’an Temple, and the Tianzifang neighborhood. We strolled through parks, watched dancers and taiqi groups, talked to people, took pictures with them, received welcomes, recommendations and good wishes for our stay. We sat in a small room and had our feet massaged by perfect little hands while watching “China’s Got Talent”. We ventured over to Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, two of the gorgeous water towns west of the big city. We ate noodles, dumplings, and street food, and even a little Mexican food just for a change. My friends visited the financial district for a journey up in the bottle opener and views of the second tallest building in the world (Shanghai Tower, 2073 feet, 120+ stories). We walked in the rain, and then some more rain. It is Shanghai, after all. Enjoy.
For five years, we have used and heard so many similar phrases. Two of those especially – “I’m going to miss that.” and “I’m not going to miss that.” Months ago, we started compiling a list of both of these. It is not meant to be all-encompassing, and in some ways, merely gives my sarcasm another outlet. There are simple things, obvious things, things that have grated on every last fiber of my being. They have all left an impression. Enjoy.
What We Will Not Miss
Last Minuteness. Very soon after moving to Shenyang, I knew the cultural differences would either drive me crazy or change me. I will admit that the last minuteness has changed me for the better. I can handle last minute changes in a much more accommodating and less WTF manner now. But the lack of planning in most cases… The reality that you can announce on Monday that you’re moving to a new school and you actually move on Thursday … Not reserving the location for a 200-person event until days before… And on and on. Take a deep breath, you can do this.
The Internet Service. My theory is that they have to keep the internet speed slow so as to better control the information shared.
Anxiety over health care. This anxiety stems from the Great Broken Leg Incident of 2012. What if something goes wrong? What if my RA medicine stops working for me? Can SOS land a helicopter in our parking lot for the airlift? Is my husband annoyed that I still say to him, “Don’t fall down.”? Would this drug pass a quality inspection from the FDA? What if I slip on this frozen spit wad and crack my head open?
Five Months of Winter. Oh, South Carolina, you beautiful place, thank you for your days of winter, not your months of winter. Thank you for your long sleeve tshirt weather in February and your early spring. Thank you for your outside BBQ weather at Thanksgiving and your hiking possibilities in January. For all these things and more, I will forgive your 102 heat index in July and the random ice storms in March. I will relish wearing my Merrell boots two or three days a year, knowing they were broken in very well in the Chinese tundra.
The Giant Panda. That’s me, the giant panda on the street. As a foreigner in China, do you get used to being stared at? Having people talk about you while you’re standing right next to them? Having them tell you you’re fat and beautiful in the same breath? Asking you how old you are, how much money you make, and why you don’t have any children? Every single time I go outside. Every single day. Maybe I have gotten used to it. Maybe I stare back with my mean foreigner face a little more often now, muttering unmentionables under my breath. Maybe I just say yes and thank you now when they tell me I’m fat and beautiful. Maybe I would chuckle if a scooter driver’s rubbernecking caused him to have a small crash. I won’t miss being the center of attention and being the giant panda on the street. I won’t miss it at all.
Being Driven. Talk about grinding on every last nerve, this first world problem in a second world nation leads to a most explicit and detailed inner monologue on my part. I’m not even talking about the traffic. Read at your own risk. “Pothole. Pothole. Pothole. (swerve, bump) Don’t get in that lane. (brake, swerve, change lanes) Bus stop. Bus stop. (brake, swerve, honk) Crosswalk. Yellow light. Crosswalk. (speed up, honk, no braking) Downshift. Downshift. (grind) Turn here. Turn here. (oops. Yeah, sure, now let’s go around our ass to get to our elbow, or just turn around in the middle of six fucking lanes) …” And their dickweed on-off use of the gas and brake pedals is enough to have driven my motion sickness into previously unknown front seat territory. must stop writing Sometimes, the available curse words are insufficient to meet my demands.
Smells. I won’t miss asking out loud to no one on a regular basis, Why does my bathroom smell like cabbage? Why does our neighbor have to cook fish five days a week (including the morning I started writing this)? How is the ventilation in our building set up when my eyes water if a certain neighbor is cooking hot peppers? Why does that stinky tofu have to live up to its name so damn well?
Length of time for certain things. A friend often used to vent about the length of time it takes a Chinese person at the ATM. We learned later that they complete any number of transactions at the same time – get cash, pay the electric bill, move money, add to the mobile phone account, who knows what else. I’m still trying to figure out why it takes some of them so damn long to order at Starbucks though.
Barbie brooms. For some reason, the only brooms and dustpans available for the home are these tiny, bright-colored plastic pieces of crap made for people no taller than 5’4″.
Certain Public Noises. Examples of public noises I will not miss – spit loogie preparation and launch, cutting of finger and toe nails, sunflower seed crunching. I will also not miss seeing the remnants of these three activities.
Flight Times. I would bet money on the fact that no flight, ever, has taken off on time in China. Ever. Or only ours?
Foreigners who come here thinking China should change for them. AND
Foreigners who come here thinking they need to save China. You will not change China. You are not right just because some things are different, just because you don’t do it that way. A different logic doesn’t mean it is not logical. You should not expect that everyone speak English. Sit your arrogant ass down and stop.
What We Will Miss
My fresh market in the Hunnan District. They know me. They tell me if something is fresh, or pull a box out from the back to give me the best cucumbers or onions. The beef lady knows I want a little fat in my mince, but not too much. The pork lady says she misses me when it has been a few weeks. The chicken man won’t let anyone cut in front of me despite the cultural tendency, and he knows I don’t want the head, feet or insides when I buy the whole chicken, or that, sometimes, I just want to buy the carcass if I have a plan for broth. And my vegetable lady, who was Claire’s vegetable lady before me, loves it when she sees me coming, loves to recommend things, loves to ask me what I will make for dinner. I pick out the biggest eggs from a huge pile on the egg lady’s wooden table, carefully placing them in a plastic bag and calling them my babies, hoping I can get home without a crack. The fruit lady loves it when I buy the throw-away brownish bananas for baking, and those little bananas that taste so perfectly sweet. There are piles of oranges in winter, peaches for one-a-day in summer, leeks for the best potato soup, and so much more. When we move, my goal will be to find a pork tenderloin as perfect as the ones from this market. My goal will be to eat fresh, real food as this market allowed me to do in Shenyang. I will love farmer’s markets and Publix too, no doubt about that, but I will remember my somewhat hidden, somewhat smelly, somewhat perfect market on that small street with the donkeys.
The cost of many things. Since I reference the market, I will also say that we’re going to miss the cost of many things in China. Pork and beef cost about the same, but I typically spend about $5 for a full bag of vegetables. Beautiful, hardback, notebooks for a dollar. Vegetables for pennies. Printing my own picture books and artwork for school in full color with a discount. Staying at a cozy, clean small hostel for $20/night. A $30 full body massage. Of course, there are expensive things too. Anything imported has an added “tax” of at least 50%. I’ve never bought the large box of Cheerios because I can’t get passed the $13 sticker shock. T still buys Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke at more than a dollar a can. I suppose there is balance.
My print shop. I don’t know how many times I have visited this little shop over the years. They know me. The staff members have pictures taken with me. They know I volunteer for the school so they give me a discount no matter what I’m printing. And they do a beautiful job. I create photo booth props for the kindergarten or a friend’s wedding, the yearbooks for school, decorations for holidays, photos and memory books, a special writing workbook we designed for ESL immersion learners, calendars … I’ve loved everything that came to life in that little shop.
The Apartment. Though we sometimes think fondly of a certain item sitting in a box in Blythewood, South Carolina, or the idea of watching our own garden grow, or wishing for no noise from an upstairs neighbor, we do appreciate these relatively no-hassle, furnished apartments we have lived in.
What is That? I wonder how many times this will happen in daily life back in the US. We’ll be walking along at the grocery store, flea market, on the street or wherever, and we’ll see something, tilt our heads and squint our eyes, then ask, “What the hell is that?” Many times in Shenyang, there is no real answer, just a laughable, made-up version of our own truth.
The death-defying window washers. They are a symbol of life in the big city in China. Suspending how many floors up, sitting on a rope with their bucket hanging next to them, they do a job I could not/would not/should not do.
Seeing the neighborhood Rolls Royce or Maybach. It’s pretentious, I know, but Mercedes, Bentley, Maserati, Jaguar – these are old hat now. A Porsche Panamera still warrants my loving glance, but I see one almost every day now. The Rolls Royce, on the other hand, is a beautiful sight worth a slow walk by just hoping the door is open for a glance inside. I’m talking about the classic black RR with chrome details and the driver wearing a hat. The powder blue one with the crystal spirit of ecstasy gets a second look but for other reasons. Why would you paint your Rolls the color of a 1977 prom tuxedo? And let’s not leave out the neighborhood Maybach! That’s worth a stop-and-stare for so many reasons.
Our People. Our Friends. Our Loved Ones. I’ve tried three times to write this section and can’t bring myself to do it justic. Winnie the Pooh said it well. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” There are people who changed me; the ones who helped lead me back from someone I didn’t like very much, someone I didn’t want to be. Azar Nasifi wrote, “You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” Pieces of me will stay behind, and so many pieces of China will stay in my heart and mind forever.
My friend, Iris, has given me three incredibly memorable Shenyang experiences. First and foremost, in 2010, she introduced me to a new school full of amazing Chinese people. Five years later, I am still volunteering there. Second, she invited me to visit her friend’s tea shop where I learned more about tea in two hours than at any other point in my life. Most recently, Iris told me about a photo contest going on at what is affectionately called the Diamond building. For one afternoon, they opened up the Shengjing Grand Theatre for photos inside. The promotion for the contest was exclusively in Chinese. Being an educated illiterate in this country, I would have never known about it if Iris didn’t encourage me to go.
Many times, I’d seen the sun and skyline reflected in the mirrored facade. I had never thought about what it would be like, feel like, inside. It took my breath away how the light and shadow came alive, like we were breathing them in. Oh, and the design, the architecture, the consistency of it all … there were facets and angles everywhere.
Yes, it had some odd design elements, as one might expect in China, but many diamonds have flaws. They remain beautiful and unique. Shenyang’s diamond is just that. Enjoy.
It isn’t a beginning, just a bonne continuation! After more than five years in Shenyang, we will soon be packing it up and in, and moving on to the next part of our simple adventure. In August, we will be making our lives in South Carolina again.
In honor of the sorting, saving, tossing and packing that will happen over the next couple of months, we present some images, and their informative, somewhat sarcastic descriptions, of the Shenyang moving methods. Enjoy these not so random photos that we’ve seen over the years in this big city. Not to worry – I’m sure Asian Tigers will take our move in a slightly different direction.
There will be other posts/diatribes about the move and our experiences, perhaps to include a short synopsis of ordering rabies vaccine on Taobao because the government vet office wouldn’t give us the vial label for the health certificates, and a list of possible reasons why T insists on keeping said rabies in our refrigerator long after their labels have been put to use. I think you can also expect to read a list of what we will miss (i.e., so many beautiful people) and will not miss (i.e., why does my bathroom always smell like cabbage?).
Change is not a bad thing, just difficult sometimes. I am comforted knowing there are smiling faces and beautiful places all over the world. We are lucky to know so many. See you on the flip side.
View from the Bus
Get Your Brooms Here
Take a Look
Big White Bags
Sit Up Straight
Selling the Sea
That is Shenyang
In the Country
You’re a Winner
Guys Delivering Fruit
Blurry Side View
I Don’t Know What All
Get Your Cabbage Here
You Can’t Take Just One
For our original 2011 post on the incredible ways they move stuff in Shenyang, check out Push, Pedal, Pull.
To revisit the Irish heritage in rap music’s 1992 hit, “Jump Around” by House of Pain, click here.
Last month, I was back in the U.S. for about a week. I spent time with my independent eighty-six year old Mom. I saw friends I’ve loved for more than twenty years. I lit piles of stuff on fire with my brother. I enjoyed blue skies and a warm afternoon stop at the local dairy bar. And I had the privilege to travel to the fabulous city of Chicago with three teenagers (two nieces and a nephew).
We made a museum tour, tried some excellent pizza (at my favorite, Gino’s East), ate plenty of other great food, enjoyed that gorgeous skyline and the bluest skies, and learned a little more about each other. Such a lovely trip. Enjoy some pictures.
This time of year, I usually write a post about the changes on our familiar skyline. The beautiful diamond building showing progress year to year. That diamond now plays host to concerts and shows, a far cry from the hole in the ground it was a few years ago.
Last May, we moved from that south & east facing apartment with the diamond view. We got a new outlook on life and on Shenyang. My favorite daily view is the Ke Pu Science Park. It is a wonder, a living thing that moves and changes every hour of every day. Tai qi, basketball, ping pong, balloons, pond life, walkers and exercisers, kite flyers, dancing clubs and walking clubs, bird statues that light up at night … Public parks all over China are a wonder.
Here are some recent shots of our views in Shenyang, plus one more recent sunrise in the Instagram feed to the left. Enjoy.
There was a trip to Beijing in March. In addition to our spectacular morning at Panjiayuan, we also ventured to 798 Art District, Lama Temple, and the Drum Tower. Wow! I love an exhausting day of walking and discovering in a big city.
Panjiayuan is a fantastic spot in Beijing. I love it. I love looking and talking and not understanding half the conversation. I love it when they courteously compliment my negotiating skills when they still have made money off this foreigner. I love not knowing what everything is, like a lot of places I go in China. This visit to Panjiayuan, I thoroughly enjoyed with a fellow pottery/porcelain/curiosity lover. We looked – we asked – we wondered – we loved – we bought – we love. Thank you, S, for a morning memory I will carry with me a very long time. Enjoy.
I’ve written about Luyuan Market before. It is always such an interesting experience, with so many things to see. I love asking, “what is that?” and not knowing the answer. I love thinking of those people long ago who belonged to those shoes, that jacket, that bowl. We think of who wrote that scroll and who read it. Who will read it still? We think of who will buy that tiny wooden cage for a cricket. I don’t suppose I shall ever know.
I sit beside the fire and think Of all that I have seen Of meadow flowers and butterflies In summers that have been
Of yellow leaves and gossamer In autumns that there were With morning mist and silver sun And wind upon my hair
I sit beside the fire and think Of how the world will be When winter comes without a spring That I shall ever see
For still there are so many things That I have never seen In every wood in every spring There is a different green
I sit beside the fire and think Of people long ago And people that will see a world That I shall never know
But all the while I sit and think Of times there were before I listen for returning feet And voices at the door
We had avoided many destinations in China during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). We had heard and seen the throngs of people who travel during that time. This year, being perhaps our last in this big country, we have quite a few cities left on our list. So we took a chance and got lucky.
Suzhou is a city in Jiangsu Province, just west of Shanghai. It is in the Yangtze River Delta, which lends itself to beautiful views on many canals and ponds. It has more than two thousand years of history and is sometimes called the Venice of China or Venice of the East. The meticulous gardens are, together, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with those in the other water towns along the canals.
It was a quick trip down to Shanghai, then a full day along the canals, and a trip back to the tundra the next day. On our water town excursion, we spent a rainy morning and midday in Suzhou, then went on to an overcast Tongli and, finally, some sunshine in Zhouzhuang. It is a touristy area, yes, but lovely, just like all the pictures I’ve admired for so long. And, because it was the weekend before the Chinese New Year, perhaps many other travelers were with their families. I hope they had a lovely time because we certainly did.