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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sketchy Much?

In China, you have to register your residence with the government. At all times. This is true if you are zhongguoren or foreign, here for a few days or a lifetime. Everyone has to say where they live. If you visit China, it's pretty easy -- your hotel registers you. If you live here, live here, it gets a bit more confusing.

At my first school, they registered us. Once a year, we took a walk down to the police station and stood there while my Handler filled in some paperwork. When I left that school, I learned that you are supposed to do this every time you leave and enter the country, even if you haven't changed visas or residences. It's just that my old neighborhood was backwater enough that the police knew where to go complain if a laowai was found doing something untoward.

In my new neighborhood, the university district, things got more complicated. The place is chock full of crazy foreigners getting drunk on Thursday nights (because they are at university after all), so you have to register. And the rumor is that the police station there is the most strict about the rules.

At my first apartment, the apartment management office would register me. I went down to the office with my old registration and my passport, and I'd get it all back in a day or two. Easy-peasy. My new apartment, not so much.

My real estate agent registered me the first time. When I got back to China, I talked to one of the Chinese admin staff about what I needed to do to register, and it got largely ignored. My friend who lives in the same complex somehow registers at the neighborhood police substation (that maybe isn't supposed to register us), but there names are on the list. Mine isn't. So we ignored that route. And then, and then... it just got too late. Once you haven't registered in time, it becomes easier to wait until the next time you leave the country. And then the next. And the next.

But, I just got my new visa for next year, and if there is a time you should really register, it's with your new visa. I texted my real estate agent, but he didn't get back to me. Then I went to the management office in my building, because there is some form you need from them. That woman sent me away, like I needed to talk to someone else. I have no idea what she said. I texted my landlady. Nothing.

This is supposed to be some super-important thing, and I can't get one person to help me out. It's ridiculous. I need to know what piece of paper to get so I can go check a box and sign another piece of paper. I can get a plumber to fix my sink on a Sunday for $3.20, but I can't do this legal bit of red tape.

Finally, my agent called me back. For 400 kuai, his friend can do it. Fine. Sure. I'll pay. It needs to be done before I end up in some red-tape-police-station-registration Hell where I need to give someone a "gift" to take care of it. He comes by my place to pick up my passport. He doesn't need my housing contract or my old registration. He tells me to meet a woman, about 30 years old, at the bank next to the police station. And I'm not to say anything.


I go down to the bank. I'm there on time. No one is there.

No one.



I wait 15 minutes. It is Beijing. There is traffic. Still. Nothing but hungover college kids buying fast-food breakfast from street vendors.

I call my real estate agent. (Realize, please, that I only know him by one English name. We'll say David. I have no Chinese name. No family name. Nothing other than a phone number and a hint that his office is near/in the Wenjun Hotel.)

I get a message explaining that "the subscriber can not be reached at this time."

Let me repeat that for you. The one person whose phone number I have can't be reached, the woman I'm supposed to meet isn't there, and I DON'T HAVE MY PASSPORT. I try him again. And again. And again.

I try not to panic (but let's be honest, I'm panicking). I've known David for two years. He registered me before. If this has been a con to get my passport, it's been a long con indeed. A really long con.

I consider calling a friend. I consider going to the police station. I. I. I.

My phone rings. It's a woman. She speaks no English, of course. She hands off the phone to someone who speaks English, but he doesn't know what's going on, either. She just hands him the phone. I try to say that I'm at the bank. We agree to meet at the Haagen Das at the mall across the street. I meet him.

He seems to think I'm a total neophyte despite my assurance that I've lived in China for four years. And to be fair, if I can't even register myself at the police station, what good am I? Breaking the rules, I say that I am a teacher at Tsinghua (which usually garners some respect), and that I do live in the apartment complex that I live in. He says it's OK, there are plenty of things in China that seem sketchy, but aren't. Like I didn't know that, having handed over my passport the previous evening. I wasn't even sketched out for the first eight minutes or so. It wasn't until a full 15 minutes had passed AND I couldn't get my agent on the phone that I thought something was up.

But nothing was up.

We cross back over the street to the police station, and there is the woman. Not only does she have my passport, but she already has the registration. That's it.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Monday, June 17, 2013

I'm Moving on Up

(with apologies to The Jeffersons)
I'm moving on up
Moving on up
To the top
Moving on up
To a deluxe apartment (one floor up)
Yeah I'm moving on up
Moving on up
Across the street
Moving on up
I've finally got a bedroom do-oo-oo-oor

- Do you really care this was posted using BlogPress from my iPad?

Location:Qidaokou, Beijing, China

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Free (to Wear Anything)

While getting ready to go out to dinner with my friends last night, I took a moment to glance in the mirror. Oh my, I thought, was a disjointed bit of fashion. Nothing was horribly bad, but it didn't particularly hang together, either.

I was wearing a sapphire v-neck t-shirt from UNIQLO, black Old Navy capris, nude wedges (Clarks), and a 70s maroon leather jacket from the Bins. Oh, and what to do for a bag? Maybe my red and gold batik number from Bali. Ugh. I traded in the capris for jeans, added a cream zip hoodie (for warmth), and called it good. It was still not quite great, but maybe it was OK for an evening at The Restaurant Formerly Known As Outback with the Boys.

Of course, TRFKAO is a bus and three subways away from me. While in the midst of a transfer, I was standing behind a woman who suddenly made me feel downright good about my fashion choices.

She was sporting tan open-toed sandal-like city-boot shoes that zipped up the back, except one zipper was unzipped with black tights with a large polka-dot pattern and a rather large run at her knee, an ill-fitting pleather pencil skirt, some sort of horrible red-ish top with awful pleats at the waist and shoulders, and top it all off, a feathered mullet dyed the hideous shade of black-hair-dyed-blond-so-it's-actually-red so common among Chinese women of a certain age.

This town can be incredibly liberating. I can wear whatever I want and it still won't be the worst thing around.

- Do you really care this was posted using BlogPress from my iPad?

Location:Beijing, China

Friday, March 22, 2013

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

This thought was flitting around my mind as I sat, sick, uncomfortable, with a tinge of very real fear, on the boat back to Bali. My thoughts were as turbulent as the waves.

But this upset stomach (the sick part, not the seasick part), I thought, will at least build up my immunity. It will leave me better. Stronger. Depending on how sick, maybe faster, too.

And I started thinking about it: if it doesn't kill me, will it make me stronger? Last year, one of my students forced me to read a (badly written) sample SAT essay on that exact topic. The student, in a rather obvious way, felt forced to agree for lack of any real ideas.

It was definitely the subject of an essay by a writer suffering from terminal cancer. I wanted to read the end of the essay, but I got distracted by a student. Had to go teach. Needed to attend a meeting. Something, and soon the essay was off my Facebook newsfeed. Maybe I book-marked it, but that was a whole computer ago. I do recall that the author had issues with the phrase. He was living the slow process of getting killed quicker than the rest of us, after all.

So, do I agree?

Well, maybe. If you come from a cultural perspective where strength is valued, then yes. We certainly interpret all of our struggles as making us better, therefore stronger. More courageous. Better able to deal with a similar adversity in the future and overcome it. Beat it. Best it. We are a culture of winners.

But, it could just as easily be something else.

(No, I am not suffering from a terminal disease, at least not that I know of. I have survived my boat trip, and am now writing this weeks later. I am not dying of anything, unless you realize that Death will always be in the last place we look.)

Still, why does adversity make us tougher? Why can it not do something else? Why not... Make me kinder. More compassionate. A better listener. More thoughtful.

And does it really always make us stronger? Ask someone with an illness that leaves them weak or disabled. Ask a woman or a child who has been abused. Does the periodic, aching pain in my knee make me stronger? Or does it make me sad and grumpy? Angry, even, if I'm sometimes honest.

But it can make me kinder.

Earlier this month, I received some rather mean, hateful emails from a student. And I won't lie, they hurt my feelings. I wanted to find the child(ren) tormenting me, and kick them out of school. I wanted to cry. I was scared it would ruin the place I was making in my school, with my administrators, fellow teachers, and students.

And while I did talk to my circle of friends about it, I tried to keep it fairly close. I tried to not let if affect my classroom. I tried to smile more. To talk to more students. To be nicer.

You know what I noticed? My students still talk to me. Wave to me from across campus, too. One of them asked me explicitly to come to her soccer game (I couldn't because I was already going to the MUN conference, but I made her promise to tell me when the next home game is). My classes seem to be going smoother, too.

Maybe compassion is better than strength.

- Do you really care this was posted using BlogPress from my iPad?

Location:Indonesia, China, and Life in General


I'm spending much of my weekend chaperoning my students at a Model United Nations conference. It's here in Beijing, so it's not really all that stressful, but it does mean spending some time in the meeting spaces of a hotel on the other side of town.

And *that* means being that much closer to some of my favorite restaurants. This evening, my co-chaperone agreed to hang with the kiddoes while I went off on a self-imposed burrito mission. Yes, Gentle Reader, about as close to a real, American burrito as big as your head as you can get (because the kind of burrito I'm talking about is American, not Mexican — those are good, too, but different).

However, I was heading out right at rush hour, so taxis were not to be found. A nice Asian woman started talking to me, and suddenly we were talking about U.S. cities and sky-diving and we agreed that we were going to a close-enough place to share a cab. (Actually, the Doorman suggested It, and I figured out what he was saying and agreed before she could decline on my account.)

When, 20 minutes later, a cab was finally found, we sped off into the traffic and continued to talk about food and travel. She admitted she was a flight attendant for Qatar Airlines (hence all the traveling). We talked about the size of steak in Texas, and American-style barbecues, and the giant "party size" bags of chips that are as big as her t-shirt.

She and her companion (who obviously didn't have much English because he was not joining in the talk) got out first and left the driver with more than enough money. She refused to take anything from me. "Nope," she said. "Americans are always so nice to me when I am in the United States, and now I have the chance to do something nice for you."

What can you say to that but, "Thank you."

- Do you really care this was posted using BlogPress from my iPad?

Location:Beijing, China

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Supermarket

Years ago, a lifetime it seems sometimes, I worked for a public television station. As anyone who works in public broadcasting knows, this means involvement in pledge drives. One day, as a not-my-station pledge drive came on the air, I turned up the volume and listened intently, shouting out directions any time anyone made a pledge drive faux pas.

Later on, I groaned to my Saintly Sister about how my life was ruined. I was now addicted to pledge drives! No, she countered. You are getting some measure of pleasure from something the rest of us find odious. How wonderful.

Wonderful, indeed. I now happily turn up the volume on any pledge drive, and happily yell out directions to no one who can hear me. (Incidentally, radio drives are better than TV these days. Too many TV stations rely on pre-taped breaks. They are no where near as much fun.)

So last year, I stood in the Western grocery store in Beijing, (having spent an hour on the busiest subway followed by a fifteen minute walk) and found myself staring in awe and amazement at the cans of vegetables and beans and pickles. And I don't eat a lot of canned vegetables. But to see them arrayed there in all their colorful simplicity, with easily read labels, well, I was in heaven. And once again, one of those pesky tasks that cause anger, consternation, and impatience fell away. I could feel the weight of grocery shopping lifting off my shoulders (even though I would actually be carrying home all my groceries on my shoulders that afternoon). But for the rest of my life, I will be grateful for the ease of buying Western food in a Western shop. It was just so ... easy.

The same is not true for Chinese grocery stores. One of the things about the Chinese language is that is always sounds like people are yelling at me. I know it's all those fourth-tone karate-chops, but it just sounds angry to my untrained ear. Of course, sometimes they are yelling at me.

I haven't figured it out yet (not that I've bothered asking), but either each fruit, vegetable, and meat clerk works on commission or they are just deeply attached to their jobs. Each section of the store is like a mini-fiefdom, and each lord and lady is constantly barraging shoppers with extortions to buy his or her apples, celery, or beef. Buy my pork! No, buy mine! Mine is better, fresher, cheaper. Look, look, lamb. Do you want lamb? Maybe chicken. This is chicken!

It gets old. Forget for a moment that I'm a foodie, and I can recognize lamb, beef, pork, chicken, and duck on sight and do not need them to tell me what they are. It's just exhausting. Three greens for five kuai! Sometimes, they even have microphones. As if the fourth tones weren't loud enough.

And then, of course, you have to have your items weighed before you get to the check-out counter. There are various fruit and vegetable fiefdoms, and woe be unto you if you bring the wrong vegetable to the wrong scale. Of course, they hoard the plastic bags there, too, so first you need to fight for a bag, then elbow a little old lady out of the way to have your bag weighed, all the while avoiding standing directly in front of the loud speaker. It gets exhausting.

Last night I went to the store to get the ingredients for chili. (I had the spices and the tomatoes, but pretty much everything else can be sourced locally. Actually, some tomato products can be, as well.) Anyway, I needed garlic. And I don't buy garlic in the 12-head packs it comes sole in, so it meant bulk garlic.

I took my two heads, expecting a sigh and an incredulous look that I would purchase such a tiny amount (this ain't my first time buying garlic, mind you). I handed over my garlic to the man. He weighed, wrapped, and stickered it. And as he handed it back, he raised his head and looked me in the eye. And there was no impatience or incredulity. Just a simple look: Here you go.

It was calm. Dignified, even.

And it renewed my faith in the grocery store. Maybe I can even make it the point where I want to go to the Chinese grocery store? Well... I guess pigs might fly.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Flying Solo

Three years ago, I embarked on this grand adventure. Bla bla bla, you've heard it all before. Also, three years ago, for my Spring Festival break, I decided I was going to Thailand. I don't know why: because it sounded good? I had no one to go with, but I was unstoppable. This was not the first time I had done something because I didn't like what the alternative would say about me.

While I had made good friends in Beijing, I hadn't really made the the type of friends you go on a four-week holiday with. Drinking is one thing. A weekend camping is another. But girlfriends sometimes tend to look askance when a four week beach holiday is mentioned — often because they think they (rightly) deserve that holiday time.

But I refused to just go home for four weeks. Where was the adventure in that? That is not what I had signed up for. Chutzpah is not generally something I am accused of lacking.

That is when my Traveling Companion stepped up. He admitted to being in awe of my determination to do something exciting, and perhaps a bit ashamed that his first inclination was to go back home for lack of anything better to do. And perhaps (like all the good Boys in my life), wanting to help make sure I didn't come to harm along the way. So he invited himself along.

And while I recall being relieved at the time that I wasn't actually going to have to figure the whole thing out by myself, I'm not sure I was quite as grateful as I should have been.

Why was I not ready? Why did I think I was? I didn't know what to pack. I didn't know where to go. I didn't know the hotel reservation websites. Idiot know how to best used a guidebook. I didn't know how to bargain — well, I did in theory, but I wasn't any good at it. I didn't know about booking tours. About train tickets and bus tickets. I barely knew how to make it through Border Control. Visas? Holy crap! I didn't know who to ask for information. I didn't know how to keep myself amused for that long.

Don't misunderstand me. I traveled in the United States, and most of it alone. I can make a mix-cd and sing along with the radio and find the best road-side diners in all of the US to eat at. I can chat-up a bartender and ask a waiter for advice. I can find a bathroom that's clean and navigate a route (although my iPhone made that even easier). But all of that was in English. In my own country. I knew how to read the road signs (does the sign facing you mean the street parallel to it, or perpendicular?). It was easy.

But traveling alone in a foreign country is not always easy. There is no one to bounce ideas with or share transportation costs. It's harder to keep up a front against various touts and agents trying to to scam you into something. It's better to know Asia, at least a little bit, before you head off into the wilds of it alone.

Well, I've known some people who have done it, but they are braver than I.

Two years ago, when I went home for the summer (going home in the summer is OK; there is kickball in the summer), my brother-in-law asked me if I felt any different. It was a question I had asked myself, and the honest answer was no, I didn't feel any different.

But I'm not so sure that is the case anymore. I do feel different. I do feel braver, bolder somehow. I feel more assured maybe, is the word. I feel comfortable enough to bargain with a merchant, to laugh off a scam, to take a motorbike taxi, to cross the street.

Now, if only I could learn how to say "I'm not American, I'm Asian."

- Do you really care this was posted using BlogPress from my iPad?