You Never Know Where Life Will Take You

Welcome! This is a blog about a girl, who got a job, and moved halfway across the world to teach English. Read and enjoy!

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Chinese Thanksgiving

[November 24, 2011] Thanksgiving! I woke up feeling horrible – which is why I haven’t written in a while. Most of my free time in the last week has been spent sitting in my bed feeling miserable as my chameleon of a cold goes from terrorizing my swollen throat, to wracking my chest with bone rattling coughs, straight up to my head to strangle my sinuses and turn my nose into a faucet. It’s been an unpleasant week for my immune system…

Despite my state, I was not going to let a bug derail my Thanksgiving plans in which I was somehow going to try and concoct a festive meal. Now, I’m not a stellar cook to begin with nor can I really follow a recipe…but I have this uncanny ability to whip up things from scratch using basic ingredients.

Not Possible: I'm no miracle worker or Martha Stewart

I mapped out the most basic holiday meal I could think of:
1.       -Chicken – a good substitute for Turkey (they don’t have this bird in China) which I knew how to cook
2.       -Mashed Potatoes – decided to flavor with garlic instead of gravy because I could not find flour
3.       -Corn – I had seen some at the store, sounded easy enough
4.        -Fruit – self explanatory
5.       -Pumpkin Pie – easier said than done, the Chinese don’t make this dish

Also known as 'China's 3-Story Walmart'

I had grabbed potatoes, onion, milk, salt, fruit, and garlic on earlier trips. I was just going to go to TESCO after work on that Thursday to grab the remaining things: chicken, corn, and pumpkin pie. I mentioned this to Tina, a coworker, and she said she would go with me to help me pick out a chicken.
This was good, because fruits, veggies, meat, and bakery bread is organized differently here and has to be packaged by an individual at the store. Also, the places is so freakishly huge and most things are in Chinese, what takes a native 5 minutes to find can take me up to 30 minutes sometimes.

Meat-a-polooza: It's like this x1000.
Tina, once we started our grocery shopping, tried to convince me to get a whole black chicken…head, legs, everything. I told her no. It’s not that I didn’t want to try it, it’s that I didn’t know how to cook it nor did I think it would fit into my pan. We ended up finding some chicken breast! Success. Then we found some corn…that was shrink-wrapped and microwavable. I figured since I didn’t try the black chicken, I should at least humor Tina and get the corn-in-a-bag. Corn, check. She talked me into getting some 5rmb (~$1) white wine and some garlic to cook with. Which inspired her to add some sugar to that, since a glass of warm wine with sugar and garlic is said to be good for health. Didn’t take long to convince me! Onto the pumpkin, which pie made of that squash is not available here, so I went with these little pumpkin croquettes.

As I was leaving, I decided to take a detour to Starbucks and got myself a congratulatory Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha and a piece of cherry cheesecake (just in case the pumpkin croquettes didn’t work out).

I can't read any of the labels...

Cooking went off without too many mishaps. The garlic mashed potatoes turned out great. The chicken with a wine/garlic/onion/ginger sauce was a pleasant surprise! I sliced up some kiwi for my fruit portion. The only fail was that after microwaving the corn…when I began to cut it, I noticed a weird texture anomaly. It was hard, so I tasted one of the kernels. IT TASTED LIKE WAX.

This belongs at Madame Tussauds under 'bad idea'

 It was disgusting. Awesome, I had bought mutant corn. Oh well, the dinner portion was a success nonetheless and I was too full by the end of it to really miss the corn.

Garlic mashed potatoes, chicken in a hodge-podge sauce, kiwi, and coffee

Now, onto dessert! My first attempt to fry the pumpkin things was a failure

The top one looks like a hockey puck. Probably tastes about as appetizing as one.

…but failure is the mother of success (and it also helped that I had a lot more for some more tries) and eventually produced to lightly fried pumpkin croquettes with a drizzle of honey for good measure. I also boiled the wine with some sugar and ginger in it…and voila!

Fork courtesy of Starbucks!

 The wine ended up a bit too booze-y for my tastes, but all in all the whole debacle was a success! Go me! This evening I'm thankful that I didn’t burn my apartment down. Also, I was ridiculously happy to be able to Skype with my family and friends later that evening as well – a really special treat to see everyone I miss!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Travel and First Day in China, Part I

[10-21-2011] Packing Monday and Tuesday morning of this week was ridiculous. I don’t think people realize how many things they accumulate that define their life until they have to move their entire life elsewhere. Trying to fold, arrange and re-arrange, and smash all of my clothing and toiletries into three suitcases proved nearly impossible except for the wonderful creation of space bags that you vacuum or roll the air out of.  Finally, after much finagling, Emily, Natalie, Mom, and I fit everything into the three containers that my life was reduced to.

Leaving sucked. I cried. A lot. I don’t think I realized, amidst the feverish need to leave, to just get out, that a part of me desperately wanted to stay. I guess I didn’t realize how much I love what I had, until I left it behind. Familiarity is a safe and wonderfully reassuring thing.

I drove to St. Louis with my mom and dad. I was on the phone mostly with the credit card and phone companies concerning my departure – I really wish I would have talked to them more. I didn’t realize how much, with the lack of communication that I am experiencing now, I would miss their voices. We finally get to the St. Louis airport and try to check my bags at the wrong airline at my urging; finally, we find my way over the right place and are 7lbs. over weight on one of my suitcases. So we start taking things out to re-weigh it and find that the vacuum bag containing my pillow, towels, bedding, etc. is a perfect candidate at 8lbs. My poor mom was trying to do the motherly thing, despite my earlier protests that those things would be provided for me. So out those went (which was a big mistake I realized later on), my bags were checked, we met up with my cousin for some farewell airport pasta, and after some waterworks, I was through security and on the plane to LAX. It was an uneventful flight, got lucky that the seat next to me was open.

Once I arrived, walked halfway across LAX, got my boarding pass, passed through security again, and found my terminal, I was eye-bleedingly tired. When I booked my flight I didn’t really take into account time zones. So what I thought to be a 1AM flight, was actually a 1AM flight California time – a 4AM flight EST, which is what I’m used to. I made some more tearful calls and then grabbed some food and coffee and prepared myself to stay awake. My methodology consisted of much walking in circles. It was the only thing that really kept me awake. I must have looked ridiculous doing it, but it was the most effective. Finally, we boarded, just when I was about to pass out/shoot myself from boredom. I was unfortuitously seated in the middle row in a middle seat (something I had no control over), but I was tired enough that I could have slept anywhere.

I got out my travel pillow and earplug/eyemask combo, ready to sleep, when the Asian lady next to me decided to be my friend. It was like a hippie exploded. Good lord. She talked on and on and on and on about being vegetarian, living a clean life, recycling, the methane gas bubble in the Caribbean, plate tectonics, her yogi-guru person (whose picture she wore around her neck)…I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at first, I thought I was just going to be polite and respond accordingly to a few phases and then ignore her for the rest of the flight, while I hopefully slept like a baby. Maybe even get a few tips on Chinese language and culture. Nope, what I got was a series of environmentally-charged college lectures. I eventually cut her off before I started twitching and drooling on my seat, saying that I needed to sleep. Which I did well enough through the din of the plane’s engine roar; when I woke up, I immediately started reading to prevent anymore discussion.  I evaded the well-meaning chatterbox for a few hours, until we got our food and then it was off to the races again with diet, pesticides, the unnecessary abuse of livestock, etc. I was familiar with most of these topics, but I didn’t want to dig myself a deeper hole of conversation to fall into. Thankfully, we soon deplaned – me a sweaty, tired mess. I know she was just trying to be nice, but I was tired and just wanted to get to my next plane in time. I had to go through customs and security again and did not want to have a scheduling mishap this early in my journey. I evaded her at customs, changed clothes, grabbed my bags, went through airport security for the millionth time and got to my gate. Beijing’s International Airport is frickin’ impressive, it seemed to span forever it was so huge! So many shops for everything you could have wanted! I ran by all those though in an effort to get to my gate on time.

I made it, took a deep breath, powered up my phone, and realized I could get FB on it! YAY!

At the cost of data charges though. BOO!

One weird thing was that I thought I heard the soundtrack from the first Narnia movie everywhere. It was so surreal. I’ve listened to that CD so many times that when I heard familiar parts or something that sounded like it, I couldn’t help but stop and wonder why the heck were they playing it here?! I definitely heard it at my gate in Beijing – the track ‘Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus’ or ‘Evacuating London’. I guess China is like my Narnia though, a completely new world full of wonder, discovery, and complete governmental control…new friends, danger, adventure, talking animals (this one I have yet to verify), etc. Though I doubt I will be a Queen of China anytime soon. So weird! Music and movie references aside, 

I finally found myself on the plane to Hangzhou, tired, but still in one piece. At the airport, after grabbing my bags, I met Maggie and Richard – I thought Davs was supposed to be picking me up, but I just went with the flow. We drove about 30 minutes to my apartment and that is where all the fun began….

Coming soon: Pictures and Part II

Monday, November 7, 2011

I'm baaaaaaaack! Also, buses.

Okay, I'm back. I knew blogging for me was going to be a challenge in the beginning, because throughout my life I've always found 'better' things to do with my time than write. And by 'better' I mean I make up excuses so I don't have to write. I don't know why I put it off...well, I have an idea - writing reminds me of all the times in school I was made to compose lengthy papers on subjects that I didn't give two 'poops' about. Also, I somehow have a bevvy of friends that are far superior writers, which makes me view my own compositions as menial and uninspiring. Therefore, writing for me sometimes is like pulling teeth. For this, I apologize. Hopefully, one thing China will do for me is instill in me a greater dedication and commitment to chronicling my time abroad!

Also, it wouldn't hurt to remember to carry my camera everywhere...well, as soon as I find where I misplaced it. That is why there are no pics in this text heavy post. Thankfully, I have a back up - it's a bit older, but it works.

I have been keeping a diary of sorts from the day I arrived til now, but I will start posting those entries with dates tomorrow. What you are going to get now is what I like to call CLAIRE'S GREAT HANGZHOU BUS ADVENTURE! Our story begins....

I realized within the first 24 hours of arriving in China that learning Chinese would make my life about a 100% easier. After talking with my coworker Ania, she suggested one of her friends to me: a student, called Effy, who is studying to be a Chinese teacher. After a few exchanged calls and texts we decided on 1pm Monday (today) at a centrally located Starbucks.

She sent me directions. I was to take the No. 212 bus from North Qingchun Square Station and get off at the Kaiyuan Lu stop. Okay, no problem. I arrive at what I thought was the station (it had a 212 schedule) and wait for 30 minutes...I call Effy to tell her that I think there might be a problem, because my bus hasn't shown up yet. She says she'll look up the schedule on the internet in broken, but vaguely understandable English. During that time I'm waiting for the call, I realize I might be at the wrong station - the characters aren't the same as to what she texted me the day before (turns out I was waiting at East Qingchun Rd. Station). Thankfully, my work was located right behind me...I walk back there and talk to a few of my coworkers. The receptionist tries to send me back to the same bus stop. Eventually, someone goes with me and uses the GPS on her phone to find the bus stop and we STILL end up at the wrong one. Finally, after about 10 minutes of walking we find the right place. I wait some more...then Effy calls. Apparently, the NO. 212 bus only runs at NIGHT!

English only gets you so far...

She gives me new directions: take bus No. 45, get off at the 7th stop (Zheyi Yiyuan), then take No. 68, get off at the 4th stop (Kaiyuan Rd.). Now that I have information for buses that are actually running, I have no problem getting to Kaiyuan Rd. hour and a half late. Oh well - the entire thing was just a bunch of miscommunication and misinformation. I meet Effy there and we have an awesome session. I feel like I have a minute grasp on pronunciation and tones now. I depart an hour and a half later, 200RMB poorer (50RMB was for a course book), but richer in knowledge!

Bus Stop!

I figured that I'd just retrace my steps and ride the buses back in an opposite fashion to get back home. No problem, right?! WRONG! I take the No. 45 back to Zheyi Yiyuan and end up in a weird side street. That should have been my first clue things weren't going to go as I planned. I walk back to the road and try walking east up Qingchun Rd., more towards where I live, hoping to stumble across a bus station. And I do, only one that doesn't have any of the buses I know. So I cross back over and just decide to take either No. 186 or No. 45 for the fully loop, because I figure I'll eventually end up back where I started.

This was a bad idea to go the wrong way during rush hour. I sit there for at least an hour on the bus in crazy traffic til we there are only two others on the bus at the end of the line. The last stop comes up and we are no where near anyplace I recognize and the bus driver is saying something in Chinese and motioning me to get off. So I do, I really don't have a choice.

As I get off the bus, I look around and am not too happy with what I see. Very few lights, very dirty, very 'in the middle of who-knows-where' and then some guys starts talking to me in broken English. Uh-uh, this is how bad things in movies begin. I make a split second decision, run across the road and start back tracking, trying to see if there is a bus station that is running the same bus I just took, only in the correct direction. As I approach the second bus station I came across, a No. 186 bus pulls up! AND THE ANGELS SANG! I was very lucky. A half an hour later I got off at my stop. No harm, no foul, no lost limbs, just tired and supremely more educated on a fraction of the bus lines that transit Hangzhou.

Also, I will post pictures of the bus stops and signs, etc. once I find my camera.