Monday, October 30, 2006

TP Attack


Those that have known us, are well aware of Heidi, our little bichon's, fetish with toilet paper and kleenex. In talking with the owners of one of her "cousins", it appears that one unique but not quite savory character flaw got overlooked and was inadvertently bred into this line, which in all other ways seems to have resulted in the perfect dog. What previously was exhibited as an occasional stealing of kleenex from trash cans has turned into viscious attacks on Charmin, and massive theft of mouthfuls of Puffs from kleenex boxes. Yesterday, I found a roll gouged and ripped, such that when unravelled looked like wispy sheets of lace. Partially our fault, I suppose, as we are too lazy to put the rolls onto the spools and generally leave them sitting temptingly out on top, making it relatively easy for crooks to escape with stolen goods. On the other hand though, when we do manage to properly hang the roll, we will hear the gentle rumblings of the spool going round and round in the bathroom, arousing us to action. On other days, we will find a very visible continuous strip of toilet paper coming out of the bathroom, down the hall and ending up under the dining room table, where said crook believes it is safe to indulge.

I often wonder what goes on inside that small head of hers. What prompts her to suddenly get up from her curled laziness on the soft armchair? Does she all of a sudden think, "I believe I need a little something?" or "It's time for a little excitement." "Hmm, haven't had any charmin yet today." And what makes her decide which of the 3 bathrooms she should attack today?

In my hours of jetlagged insomnia last night, my mind ran over many great ideas to thwart this crook. Today, I will wander the aisles of Safeway and look for the perfect sized plastic jar in which to insert my roll of toilet paper. Hanging it on the spool, the toilet paper will come out of a small hole, just large enough for slippage of paper, but too small for a bichon's nose to fit through. Once again, mom will have foiled the dog!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Companions

This trip was the first time that I really became aware that my parents are aging. At 85 and 80, they are in excellent shape both physically and mentally, but the signs of slowing down were more evident in Pa, and there were definite limitations in the amount of physical activity he could endure. It is a bit sad to sit next to him and wonder how much long he will be a part of our lives. I also gained insight into the value of companionship as one ages, and we don't really realize early in our marriages, how much those accumulated memories and shared experiences blend to make us a cohesive unit after 50 years of marriage-those personality quirks and annoying habits become things we adore about eachother and can laugh about. I am beginning to see how a life long companion is like one's right arm; how difficult it must be to lose that companion. It's funny how one's priorities change as we age. For Ma, seeing the sights in Yangzhou was of no real importance compared to staying back and watching over Pa. I am inspired by their ability to stay upbeat and to maintain a sense of humor despite being thousands of miles from home and not being able to take full advantage of travelling. To enjoy life, despite setbacks, and to make the most of things-I used to see this often in my elderly stroke patients, who adapted to their conditions much better than those who were younger. I have often wondered why this is true- is the previous generation better able to cope, because their lives have gone through the trials and tribulations of war, the Great Depression, immigration etc. , or if it is just that you gain perspective in accepting what life deals you and you make the best of it as you get older.

I suppose the conclusion I have drawn from all of this, is that I shouldn't take for granted that my parents will always be in the condition they are now, and that I need to spend quality time with them and learn about their lives while they are here. In other words, live to have no regrets.

Bugs in the Air

I know now that I should have heeded my coworkers advice and watched out for those nasty bugs in the air. About 6 hours into our 9 hour flight, I developed a sore throat and it was downhill from that point. Partway through the flight, the flight attendant came on the intercom and announced, "We are going to cool off the cabin." "Yikes!" A huge gush of air began to circulate and in my head I could see millions of germy bugs being blown all around the plane. What to do?? Dodge, hold my breath--- there was no hope now! Nasty bugs knocked me down for a week. Next time I will be more careful and remember to bring my bug repellent!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Good Laughs and Good Byes

I think we are all getting a bit punchy and silly. Tom is quite funny in making random generalizations about China. A truckload of pigs being transported to Shanghai on the highway prompted this comment, "Pigs in China are much bigger than the US." This led to a deep discussion between Ma and Tom about whether they were big pigs or medium sized pigs, and what size the pigs really are in the US, and whether this comment he made was true! Our laughing has brought stares from the locals. At breakfast this morning, we had a good laugh over husbands and wives, who really is boss, and pretty funny pet peeves.

I think we are all ready to leave China-we've had our fill of food, gotten enough bargains, and are
looking forward to go back to quiet streets and wide open spaces. I am treasuring the time we have spent with good friends and realizing that it is hard to find good friends where you can say just about anything to eachother, can sit and laugh about virtually nothing, and have common interests and tastes that you can spend days and weeks together. I will be sorry to say good bye.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Wild and Crazy Parents


You know you have stayed in too many hotels when you get off on the wrong floor and try to open someone else’s door, then are angry because it won’t open.

The four of us had a wild and crazy evening dancing and singing karaoke for 3 hours in our own private little room and stopping only when we had exhausted all the English songs we could recognize. It was a spur of the moment, “let’s check it out” action that took us down the hall of a nondescript entry, up to the fifth floor of a Chinese KTV (karaoke) place with probably 50 little rooms. I think we blasted them out with our American singing as we kept seeing the Chinese guard looking in the window of our door. Obviously Chinese parents do not frequent karaoke places, or at least not this one, as all the other customers were in their 20’s.

This was a perfect ending to a day that started in Yangzhou and ended in Shanghai.
The breakfast buffet at the HG Metropole Hotel offered a delicious blend of Chinese and Western selections, the pastries especially were the best. Leaving Yangzhou, we headed on the highway toward Shanghai, but detouring through Suzhou. Known as the “Venice of Asia”, its canals wind through the city with homes along its edges. We were surprised at how much this city has changed since we last visited 10 years ago. Gone are the quaint old houses along the canals, replaced by new multistory apartments. Huge clusters of high rise apartments house thousands of factory workers in community like settings. Many such clusters can be found both within and on the outskirts of Suzhou. So much growth and change in such a short period of time made it completely unrecognizable to us. Where are the narrowing winding alleys and traditional courtyard homes? Where is the old Suzhou city with its unique character and flavor? Erased forever, they exist only in our memories and in the videos and photographs that we had taken.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Gardens and Bargains

It was a cloudy and cool day in Yangzhou, comfortable for walking but not so ideal for photography.
We started with a breakfast of pork and vegetable buns, at a local place, virtually impossible to find unless you are a local! We wandered the alleys for quite a while looking for this restaurant, walking past tiny family run stalls selling basic household items and knicknacks such as little tweezers for removing hair from pig skin, little scissors for cutting nose hairs, backscratchers, etc. Surprisingly, it turned out to be fairly large, hidden in the middle of several tiny alleys. After lunch, we walked the side street which was packed with bicycles and rickshaws-no cars allowed. The street was lined with stores selling sweaters, jackets, and embroidered blue jeans, which we bargained for at $5 US each. This country has an abundance of clothing stores, all selling the same inventory. Is all this an oversupply from manufacturing? Salesgirls are willing to sell for 25% of their marked and stated prices-how can their costs be so low?? Are they making these jeans for $1 a pair? If so, Americans are totally getting ripped off!! I am amazed that the mark up in the US could be so high, there must be too many middlemen, or the overhead in US stores must be way too high!!

The gardens of Yangzhou are beautiful and we had a wonderful few hours walking among willows, pavilions, ponds and rock gardens. It was a photographer's paradise! We also managed to attract a bit of attention from several giggling schoolgirls who were curious about Ray and Tom's heritage. They were puzzled by these gray haired Chinese men who spoke no Chinese. First, no men have gray hair in China and secondly, it was odd that Chinese wouldn't speak Chinese. We have seen only a handful of Caucasians in Yangzhou; obviously it is not on the tour group path.

The 4 Yangzhou specialties of pigs head, bean curd threads, meatballs and fried rice appear to be the main selections in every restaurant, with not much else offered. We ended up at the same restaurant as last night but seemed to have a bit of a problem communicating with the young boys waiting on us and it took a bit of effort to get a fork for Tom, to elicit some coherent descriptions of their dishes, and to find something other than soup! We were a bit saturated with bean curd threads! My suggestion for Yangzhou is to develop a few other local specialities before the Olympics in 2008.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Fried Rice and Meatballs






If anyone should ask, Yangzhou has 4 famous dishes - Yangzhou fried rice, lions head meatballs, stewed pig's head and bean curd threads. We tried all but the pig's head, twice in one day. It appears that these are just about all the dishes that most people go to Yangzhou for, and there is not much else on the menus. The meatballs are a combination of pork and crab meat, tender beyond belief and served in a clear soup broth. Bean curd threads are dried bean curd cut into threads that look like thin noodles, also cooked in a chicken broth. They are soft, very flavorful and I imagine, quite healthy!

We took a 2 hour walk through Yangzhou's famous long lake, lined with billowy willow trees and rock gardens. Unfortunately, Pa's foot was swollen from walking too much in shoes that didn't fit too well. He had spent the last few days in the hotel room, but today, we were delighted to find that the park had a wheelchair available for loan. So pushing him on the paths, we discovered that China is making strides to be friendly to seniors. I can't say that the paths are accessible, but it is a start. Yangzhou is a lovely city with a tourist-like flavor to it. The lack of manufacturing that is so common in most chinese cities, makes it a very clean and peaceful place to spend a few days. There are more bikes and mopeds than cars here and we had fun pointing out entire families, parents with babies strapped to their front, young couples and friends, all riding on single mopeds. There is not much that can't be carried or transported by bicycle-men pushing carts of lumber 10 feet long in front of their bicycles, sacks of rice on the back of the bike seat etc.
It is a colorful sight that I will be sorry to see change. Yangzhou's 5 year plan includes a thoroughly modern city with high rises and automobiles. China today will definitely not be the China of tomorrow.

All the Fabric in the World

A new adventure into the world of fabrics and custom made clothing. This journey started as a discussion with Jen a year ago about the cost of ballroom dance attire. It had occurred to me that it was probably possible to have a dress made at a very reasonable price. Armed with the name of a tailor recommended by a friend, Tom, May, and I went in search of her shop. We ended up in the "tailor" district, streets of small storefronts with mannequins of jackets, cheongsams, wedding gowns and suits. Not realizing that this women had moved from her previous location, her apartment, we found ourselves in a somewhat seedy looking hallway peering through the metal grating of her door. We were directed back out to the street. She studied Jen's Nordstrom printout quite carefully, quoted me a price of $37 in labor and sent me out to the fabric mart. This turned out to be a 6 story building with stall after stall, bolts of every imaginable fabric. Bargaining at 25% of quoted price, Tom, May and I had a blast matching combinations of fabrics for this dress design. Cost of fabric $10 for 6 total yards of silk and crepe, one of which was a beautiful blue sequined lacy blue fabric. Back to the tailor, who approved of our purchases. We are excitedly awaiting the results of this production-dress will be ready for pick-up on sunday afternoon. Stay tuned.....

We wandered onto the Bund at night-the lights of the foreign concession always beautiful. Later walking along Nanjing Road, we chuckled at the street vendors with their wares spread on the ground. All of a sudden, in about 3 seconds flat, everyone picked up their goods and walked off. Sure enough, the cause of all this action-a policman on a moped coming slowly up the road. In about 5 min. all the goods were back on the ground! This charade was repeated numerous times within the next half hour. No one was arrested, no one got fined, no one made any noise or got yelled at. Over and over again throughout the evening, police rode by, vendors casually went for a short stroll and pedestrians seem to take this all in stride.

Fashion and Nightlife


The rate that Shanghai has joined the fashion world is amazing to me. The department stores in China look like the inside of Macy's but each section (Elle, Givenchy,etc.) rents space and operates as separate businesses. 3 years ago I would wander the department stores and find wonderful prices on Chinese brand labels-jackets, pants, blouses and cashmere sweaters. 2 years ago, there was an even mix of high end expensive American and Europen labels, with reasonably priced chinese labels. Last year, I found my favorite shopping spots disappearing and the prices of clothing higher than the US. In May of this year, I only bought inexpensive and wonderfully cut slacks. This week, all are gone, replaced by high end labels at incredibly high prices. The fashion scene resembles that of Europe and has far surpassed that of the US. What I find very puzzling though is, "Who is wearing and buying these clothes?" I rarely see anyone purchasing in these stores, and the city appears to be Madison Avenue times 100! My one "fashion girl" sighting was a young lady in boots, skirt and lovely layered top, talking on a cell phone, long hair blowing behind her, and riding a moped! She looked like a Barbie doll among the masses of people on bicycles, and men pushing carts of chickens and lumber.

Our night on the town found us in the newly developed Xintiandi, a yuppy outdoor pedestrian area with modern nightclubs, European-like sidewalk cafes and restaurants, shops and condominiums.
Quite unlike the hustle and bustle of the traffic and noise on the streets surrounding it, it is frequented by tourists, expats and the nouveau riche of Shanghai.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Shenyang




Shenyang is located north of Beijing and in the area that people refer to it as “dongbei or northeast”. Northeasterners have a reputation for being honest and down to earth. We found this to be absolutely true as people were much friendlier, helpful and kind and we felt a sense of security in knowing you probably won’t get cheated here. The skies are blue and the clouds wispy in Shenyang. This is the city where Ma's childhood was spent. I am trying to match the images of stories she has told me, with what I see, and it is difficult. The city is quite developed and other than the concrete wall and eastern gate, not much remains from 60 years ago. We encouraged her to question a group of elderly gentlemen about the street that her home was on. There is a gate to the area, but upscale condominiums have replaced the single story compounds. She sees the resemblance of her relatives in the faces of these northerners, and delights in our cabdriver, whose ancestors were from the same village outside of Shenyang. "You look just like my brother!" she says. The sterotype of honest and kind personalities of northerners is reinforced more and more as she asks for directions from strangers on streetcorners. These people are definitely a kinder bunch than those in Beijing and Shanghai.

It was such a thrill for her to actually be there and to remember what it looked like during her childhood. It is actually quite amazing that now 60 years later, she can come back and experience this, knowing that at 20, when she left her home, she never imagined she would have spent her entire adult life in America. She was the third daughter in a family of 4 children, her younger brother was the only son-it goes without saying that her life was not highly valued in a Chinese family. As a young adult, she told her older sister that she wanted to go to America-they laughed at her and said, “How are YOU going to go to America?” At 25, when the Communists took over and the US government took their passports and refused to let them leave, she never imagined she would be able to return. Her life has been so different from the sisters that she left behind, and the person she has become is so much more than what she would have been. Amazing, isn’t it, how our lives take turns that dictate who we become.

Upon the recommendation of locals, we feast on the best potstickers I have ever had in my life. Shrimp, pork and fresh chives wrapped in a delicate yet slightly chewy wrapper, burst with a pocket of juice when we bite into them. 8rmb a plate of 20 - amounts to 5cents a piece!

We spent the following day visiting the Imperial palace, the only other palace in China other than the Forbidden City in Beijing. Ma made arrangements with the cab driver who drove us from the airport, coincidentally from her home village, to take us to the town where she was born. The following morning, we rode for an hour on a beautiful highway past fields of cabbage, corn and green onions to a small city named Ximin. She had vivid memories of the train station where as a little girl they would arrive from Shenyang, ride on a wagon cart with big wooden wheels, and go to visit her grandparents. Unfortunately, the train station was rebuilt 5 years ago, but the station master took us upstairs and showed us old photos of the station. The town is still fairly undeveloped and we did not linger.

Ma had a delightful time chatting with the cab driver about the “good old days”. We learned that it is difficult for children of the working class to attend college, which costs $3,000, much more than a parent is able to save in a decade. It is a tough life for middle aged Chinese, where being only children, some couples have 4-6 elderly parents and grandparents to care for. It makes us appreciate the standard and quality of life that we take for granted.

Our stay in Shenyang came to an end and it was a productive and enjoyable trip!

Seatbelts and other thoughts

As Americans, we are certainly a good example of rule followers, aren't we? Not so in China...
It is the ritual of the seat belt that we have observed in every taxi cab we've ridden in thus far. Pa, always seated in the front seat, is as diligent about buckling his seatbelt, as he is about flossing and brushing his teeth after every meal. Yesterday, Ma looked at the cabdriver and asked why he was putting his life at risk by draping his belt over his lap unbuckled. "99% of drivers don't belt them, but we can get ticketed, so as long as we make it look ok, we are safe." "You can even buy jackets with safety belts sewn across the front to make it look like you are buckled!"

This morning at breakfast, a women was eagerly trying to use her newly learned Chinese on the waitress. Unfortunately, the poor girl could not understand her and soon had enlisted a group of 4 waitresses around her to help. The girls were trying to talk to this women, who at this point was trying to understand what they were trying to tell her. Turns out all this women was trying to say was, "the food is very delicious!" I ended up talking to this women and discovered that she and her husband live by El Camino Hospital. She offered me her unused Russian language cd's and we exchanged phone numbers. At this point, a Chinese guy walked by and casually told us he was from Foster City!

We had Peking duck last night, a feast that delighted the Mays. I am convinced one can never tire of Peking duck.

Blue Jeans and Gym Shoes

I can feel an electricity in the air, a sense of anticipation, readiness, and excitement-the entire city focused on one goal, Beijing 2008. It has given the city momentum and purpose, a driving force that is behind every crane and bulldozer. From the everyday cab driver learning to speak English, the shiny new cabs on the road, to the English signs that finally make sense. Practicing, getting ready, cleaning house, polishing manners etc, all for their big debut. Will they be ready? I am convinced that yes, they will. Strangely,watching this process, I am proud to be Chinese, if only to be associated slimly by blood, facial features or my black hair. I hope for their success and the proud emergence of this debutante into a world that still has images of mao jackets and little red books.

As I walk the streets of Beijing, the smells and sounds of the city stir up memories from 2 decades ago. I see the bright neon lights and remember the darkness of the city as we flew in at night time. I see the panorama of skyscrapers and remember the newly built 2 story concrete structures with crooked doorframes. I see women with perms and delicate skin and remember the boxy hair cuts and black penetrating eyes. I see blue jeans and gym shoes and remember blue jackets and cloth shoes. I see Samsung Lcd screens on street corners and remember busts of Mao in the friendship store. How far this nation has come! The gap between me and the millions that look like me has narrowed to a mere crack. More and more, it has become a place where I am comfortable.

It is interesting to see this place from the perspective of someone like Tom, raised in Chicago Chinatown, his first visit to China. Tom notices every last detail, and his observations have been amusing. "Isn't it amazing how many blacks are in China?" he announces, to which May and I look at each other with puzzled looks. Oddly enough, on the next 2 street corners, we see 2 Black men dressed in suits. "May, you are one of the tallest women and I am one of the shortest men around." What totally amazes them both, in the end, is the $17 North Face Jacket we negotiate at Silk Alley.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Launching

Today is for launching into new adventures. I'm just learning this new mode of communicating and can't believe I am putting my life out for everyone to read. Creating a blog took a bit of decision making - my name for one- how do I want myself to be viewed, and what will attract readers to my site. How about the title of my blog? This was as hard as naming a book you are about to write. Don't they always say that the title should come last? Then the address-well, do I want my name on it, or is that too personal? But do I want to remain anonymous? But then, I want my friends to find it easily and remember it.

Tomorrow we leave for China. Funny how people at work react to such distant travel. I was told to use Purel alot and wash my hands often! Have a good time, but be careful! Don't bring back any foreign germs! My goodness, you would think I was going to the moon. I suppose we are a bit matter of fact about traveling to China; it feels as commonplace as driving to Yosemite and maybe simpler because I don't have to load up the car and plan all the food I have to take for backpacking!

Look for further news in the coming week.....