Life Goes On

I’m getting on a plane today to go home, for good. Our amazing adventure is over.

One year ago, almost to the day, I was also getting on a plane heading back to the United States. I had been in China for two weeks starting my new job and finding a place to live. I was coming home for a two-week trip to say my good-byes and attend my brother’s wedding.

I vividly remember standing in the Shanghai airport with a heavy, terrified heart. I had spent two weeks learning about my new home and asking any American-looking teenager I came across, “Are you happy here? Do you like living here?” All of them, every one, looked at me as you might imagine a teenager would look at a strange woman and answered, “Yes. We love it here. We are happy.”

I couldn’t believe it. My three children back home were grieving that I was ruining their lives. My family was grieving. Jay and I were in absolute turmoil, swaying between a state of near debilitating stress from closing down your whole life in one country in two months to sheer panic that we had surely lost our minds.

There wasn’t much time for excitement or anticipation. Only anguish. I remember one of my prayers being, “Please God, please, don’t let any of our parents die while we are gone.”

So there I stood in line to get on a plane, surrounded by other expat families making their annual trips home, unable to imagine myself in their same shoes.

How a year can change things. Through a series of unplanned twists our assignment has ended one year sooner than planned. And now, I again have children with broken hearts. Only Zane is thrilled to be returning home. Jay and I have heavy hearts as well.

We are all five very much looking forward to being back with the people we love. (And clean air, water and food, but who’s counting those things?)

But now our hearts long for Asia, too, and the amazing opportunities and experiences we have had here. Our adventure was cut short, and we are sad.

We’ve walked the Great Wall and gazed across Tiananmen Square. We’ve hiked rice terraces in Indonesia. Colin even helped to build one for poor families in a remote part of China. We’ve been diving and snorkeling in some of the most beautiful water that must grace the planet in the Philippines. We’ve ridden elephants through the jungle in Thailand. We’ve laughed, cried and prayed together more than ever before. We’ve become closer as a family.

We’ve also become stronger. Because of this experience, my children now know they can go anywhere in the world and they will be OK. They are braver, wiser and have a much broader view of the world than they ever could have had by sitting in 50 geography classes.

Leaving home was different. That was merely putting a bookmark in my favorite novel, to return later. This time it’s closing a new favorite, with little hope for a sequel.

It took about six months before all of us could honestly say, “I’m glad we came.” I hope it won’t take as long this time to reach the point where we can all honestly say, “I’m glad we came home because….”

I hope I’m changed. It’s easy now to give a list of all the things I’ll do differently. I know when reality hits most of this will fade away, but here’s my list nonetheless.

I want to be more intentional about carving out time alone with just our family. We created a new family ritual here that we call Dinner and a Movie. (Creative, huh?) Every Sunday night we make dinner together as a family and take turns picking the movie we’ll watch together. I hope to at least keep this one.

I want to rest more. That’s pretty easy to do when you move to the opposite side of the planet with no friends and no family, have a driver who does your grocery shopping and runs your errands and an ayi who comes to your house twice a week to do your laundry and clean. I’m pretty sure this one will be a failure in about a week, but I’m going to try anyway.

I want to prioritize the people in my life more. This one is completely opposed to #1 and #2, so I’m pretty sure this one will be a failure, too. But maybe I can be better about picking up the phone or going to lunch or taking time to spend 5 minutes chatting with someone. One thing I promised myself months ago. When I miss my sister and get an urge to see her, I’m going to get in the car and go do it. Even if she is four hours away. Because I can. I don’t care if I have to spend the weekend doing nothing special. It will be special because I get to be with my sister.

I hope I also don’t forget the lessons I’ve learned about life. Three stand out as I reflect on the year.

I learned to wait on God. Maybe it’s better to say I practiced waiting on God, because I still haven’t mastered it. I’m a huge planner, but these last 15 months have been a full-time course in waiting and taking things day by day. I never want to waste a hard thing, and I hope I don’t waste this one.

I learned that there’s no such thing as the perfect place or circumstance. Things here or there are not necessarily better or worse. They are just different.

I learned that you can’t have everything. Of course I knew this before I left, but now I’ve lived it intensely. As long as we are living in a place constrained by time and space, you can’t make lots of new friends from around the world and have deep, decades-long friendships. You can’t have terrific international schools and grandparents who regularly pour into your children’s lives. And you can’t have really good queso and really good xiaolongbao all on the same day.

As the days have progressed since our decision to move home, we are remembering more and more of the things that made us say, “Are we crazy to leave this wonderful life we have here?” I know soon we’ll, too, be saying, “I’m so glad we came home.”

God Bless Texas and God Bless the Middle Kingdom.

(This edition is dedicated to Dave, Gloria, Ryan, Aimee, Brad, Esme, Kellar, Dee, Josh and Felicia. Thank you, and until the day all 12 of us are together again, I’ll miss you.)

Remembering Tiananmen Square

Holidays are a funny thing then you are living far away from home. They tend to come and go without you really noticing minus the trappings of holidays at home. It seems the family traditions and gatherings, TV ads and retail displays are what makes it feel like that particular holiday.

Take Memorial Day. It was upon us and practically over before we realized we were missing it. We, however, got Monday, June 2 to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival. This is a celebration to commemorate the death of a famous Chinese poet named Qu Yuan who died in 278 B.C. He spent the last years of his life in political exile and ultimately committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. I am fascinated and admire that the Chinese are still carrying on with this tradition after over 2,000 years.

Some political dissent is not remembered or celebrated so fondly.

June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the Western world over the age of 35 doesn’t remember this chilling image.

t_square

We watched a documentary on the protests recently, and one of the experts said it was this one brave man who gave courage to the citizens in the Eastern Bloc of Europe to rebel against the Soviet Union not long after.

The Chinese government does its best to pretend this never happened. If you ask a Chinese person about it, they will tell you that they know it happened and they know it was a protest, but they don’t know exactly what happened and they have never seen any pictures. Imagine, that iconic picture, they’ve never once seen. And it happened right under their noses.

The Wall Street Journal reported the following today, “Chinese authorities began broadly disrupting use of Google, from basic searches to Gmail, ahead of the anniversary, according to GreatFire.org, an organization that monitors Chinese censorship. Such disruptions of Google and other Internet services are common in China around sensitive anniversaries. A report on usage traffic that Google posted on its website shows a drop China’s use of services starting Sunday.”

All of this blockage caused me to have what foreigners call a BCD —  Bad China Day. In addition to blocking Google and other sites, our VPN that allows us to hop over the Chinese firewall also didn’t work for a good part of the day.

But my persecution was pretty mild.

The WSJ also reported that, “Authorities are also more readily using criminal charges to detain dissidents and activists, human-rights activists say, raising concerns they could face prison sentences rather than be released after the anniversary as has happened in the past.

“Beijing has intensified its control over information, with foreign media coming under greater scrutiny. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a journalism industry group based in Beijing, has criticized the government’s ‘increasing harassment and intimidation’ ahead of the anniversary after police discouraged some reporters from covering the anniversary, and warning about the consequences of disobeying the government.”

Just like it’s easy to forget our holidays at home, sometimes it’s easy for us to forget, living in our expat bubbles, where we really are. It feels just like home sometimes. But it’s not. Oh, friend. It’s not.

Chinese Calligraphy

I’m on a new tear to become a tourist now that the weather is getting warmer. Yesterday, Ty, Zane and I visited a popular restaurant called Fortune Cookie in Puxi. It targets the “laowai” (foreigner) population and is owned by people whose parents operate Chinese restaurants in America. Fortune Cookie’s niche is that it offers American-style Chinese food, including the fortune cookies we’ve all grown up expecting.

We also went to the popular Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which features a 3-D model of Shanghai.

This was enough tourism for Ty. He took a cab home to do homework. Zane was not so lucky. The two of us then went to “Painter Street,” so that I could complete my diabolical plan to “blow up his day.” I even pulled off a complete coup de grace by not purchasing either of the paintings he wanted – one of an old ship on the ocean and one of a beach sunset – that were both beautiful in a way that only a seven-year-old boy can appreciate.

There are a number of themed streets in Shanghai. Book street. Painter Street. Music Street.

Painter Street is a short alley lined with artist shops featuring copies of famous works of art, paintings of portrait photographs, and perhaps originals as well.

I was on the hunt for a Chinese calligraphy wall scroll, complete with the ubiquitous red stamps.

I finally found just the one I wanted in the top floor of one of the shops. I’m pretty sure I paid too much, based on how quickly the vendor came down on the second painting I was more inclined to leave behind.

Oh, well. It seems we both got what we wanted, and the law of supply and demand was working in both directions.

It was raining outside, and he had few customers. Hence my winning on picture #2.

My calligraphy skills look like a preschooler in art class. Hence his winning on picture #1.

Max tried to teach us calligraphy when he and his family had us over to his house a few months ago. Here are a few pictures and videos of our lesson.

Max demonstrating how to create Chinese calligraphy. His daughter, Ling Ling, is to his right.

Max demonstrating how to create Chinese calligraphy. His daughter, Ying Ying, is to his left.

Max is writing some characters for Zane to copy.

Max is writing some characters for Zane to copy.

It is very difficult to hold the brushes properly.

It is very difficult to hold the brushes properly.

Here is one sample. The calligraphy on the bottom shows how it is supposed to look.

Here is one sample. The calligraphy on the bottom shows how it is supposed to look.

This is another of our samples.

This is another of our samples.

I think this one was mine, and I think it is the Chinese name Ling Ling gave me. I'm not sure that's very accurate. If I had to chose a Chinese name myself, I would pick Grace. That might sound silly to a Chinese person, but I don't care. I'd pick it anyway. Some of the names people pick are funny to my ears, too. I work with ladies named Coffee, Vanilla and Clover, just to name a few.

I think this one was mine, and I think it is the Chinese name Ying Ying gave me. I’m not sure that’s a very accurate description of me. If I had to chose a Chinese name myself, I would pick Grace. That might sound silly to a Chinese person, but I don’t care. I’d pick it anyway. Some of the names people pick are funny to my ears, too. I work with ladies named Coffee, Vanilla and Clover, just to name a few.

Creative Transportation

Anyone who has lived in China will understand why even now after collecting material for this entry since I’ve arrived I’m still posting with hesitation. That’s because this collection of photos still comes no where near adequately capturing the expanse of creativity seen here when it comes to transporting people and goods. Many of these photos were captured on the move from our car or the street as they whizzed past.

With regret, here is my attempt at displaying transportation, Chinese style.

 

This belongs to one of the many vendors lining the sidewalk outside of the shopping center with Starbucks.

This belongs to one of the many vendors lining the sidewalk outside of the shopping center with Starbucks.

 

This rig belonged to a worker maintaining the road outside of Carrefour. I was so excited to get this picture that I turned around on my bike and chased him down, leaving the rest of my family wondering where I had gone.

This rig belonged to a worker maintaining the road outside of Carrefour. I was so excited to get this picture that I turned around on my bike and chased him down, leaving the rest of my family wondering where I had gone.

 

 

I had to get this on the move while riding to church one Saturday night. Our school is on the left in this picture.

I had to get this on the move while riding to church one Saturday night. Our school is on the left in this picture.

 

There are many people gathering all kinds of recycling materials in Shanghai.

There are many people gathering all kinds of recycling materials in Shanghai.

 

I found this while we were at one of Colin's baseball practices at a school in another part of Shanghai.

I found this while we were at one of Colin’s baseball practices at a school in another part of Shanghai.

 

 

 

I cannot remember where I got this, but I think it was when Max and his family took our family to Forest Park.

I cannot remember where I got this, but I think it was when Max and his family took our family to Forest Park.

 

It looks like she's got food she's going to sell somewhere.

It looks like she’s got food she’s going to sell somewhere.

 

The workers in our apartment deliver our water in a grocery cart they stole from Carrefour.

The workers in our apartment deliver our water in a grocery cart they stole from Carrefour.

 

This is one of many flower vendors near our apartment.

This is one of many flower vendors near our apartment.

 

I have no idea what this is she is hauling, but if you look close you'll see that she is not using the pedals. It must be motorized.

I have no idea what this is she is hauling, but if you look close you’ll see that she is not using the pedals. It must be motorized.

 

This is outside our apartment, across the street from the expert grocery store we use, Times. Don't miss the upgraded seat. This is quite common.

This is outside our apartment, across the street from the expat grocery store we use, Times. Don’t miss the upgraded seat. This is quite common.

 

I caught this from our apartment window.

I caught this from our apartment window.

 

Bicyclers carrying styrofoam to recycle are very common.

Bicyclers carrying styrofoam to recycle are very common.

 

This is an attempt at a side view. I read recently that the recycling industry is large here, because there are so many people who will work at low wages to support it. It took a while to get into the habit of not having to sort our trash. You throw it all into the same bag and somewhere down the line someone sorts it. Now I've become quite spoiled.

This is an attempt at a side view. I read recently that the recycling industry is large here, because there are so many people who will work at low wages to support it. It took a while to get into the habit of not having to sort our trash. You throw it all into the same bag and somewhere down the line someone sorts it. Now I’ve become quite spoiled.

 

This looks like another recycler.

This looks like another recycler.

 

This is another recycler.

This is another recycler.

 

I'm not sure what is in this load.

I’m not sure what is in this load.

 

I took this outside of the store where we bought Colin's scooter in September.

I took this outside of the store where we bought Colin’s scooter in September.

 

This is across the street from Carrefour.

This is across the street from Carrefour.

 

I nearly got myself run over in the middle of the street to capture this picture. That is one trailer loaded with chairs for sale.

I nearly got myself run over in the middle of the street to capture this picture. That is one trailer loaded with chairs for sale.

 

Here is a close-up of the chairs.

Here is a close-up of the chairs.

 

We found this couple on book street. There are many streets like this in Shanghai. Book street. Painting street. Music street.

We found this couple on book street. There are many streets like this in Shanghai. Book street. Painting street. Music street.

 

The left of this picture shows the bike path near the restaurants by our house and the our DVD guy, Joe. The bike path is regularly used as a parking lot, and sometimes it's necessary to use one lane of the street, too. Bikes and scooters then use the walking sidewalk.

The left of this picture shows the bike path near the restaurants by our house and the our DVD guy, Joe. The bike path is regularly used as a parking lot, and sometimes it’s necessary to use one lane of the street, too. Bikes and scooters then use the walking sidewalk.

 

This is the sidewalk in front of the boys' school. Every day after school drivers bounce their cars up on the sidewalk like this to wait for the students in the Chinese school next door to our school.

This is the sidewalk in front of the boys’ school. Every day after school drivers bounce their cars up on the sidewalk like this to wait for the students in the Chinese school next door to our school.

 

This shows more cars waiting for school to end.

This shows more cars waiting for school to end.

 

I captured this one morning when we were living in a hotel in Puxi before our apartment was ready. When the subway doors open, the pushing starts from both directions. When I got on, it continued until I could feel the air being squeezed out of my lungs as if I were being cinched into a corset.

I captured this one morning when we were living in a hotel in Puxi before our apartment was ready. When the subway doors open, the pushing starts from both directions. When I got on, it continued until I could feel the air being squeezed out of my lungs as if I were being cinched into a corset.

 

This is what it looks like when you go to the grocery store without your driver on a Sunday.

This is what it looks like when you go to the grocery store without your driver on a Sunday.

 

I took this picture in the early days before Jay and Zane had their bikes. I'm not sure why Ty didn't have his bike in this picture. This should have gone in the "you might be turning Chinese" blog.

I took this picture in the early days before Jay and Zane had their bikes. I’m not sure why Ty didn’t have his bike in this picture. This should have gone in the “you might be turning Chinese” blog.

 

After several painful trips sitting on the wire attachment over the tire, I realized that locals have these padded seats. We never bothered to upgrade, because our local store doesn't carry them. We didn't feel like searching all over Shanghai to find one.

After several painful trips sitting on the wire attachment over the tire, I realized that locals have these padded seats. We never bothered to upgrade, because our local store doesn’t carry them. We didn’t feel like searching all over Shanghai to find one.

 

Zane is not fond of riding this way.

Zane is not fond of riding this way.

 

 

Pay to Play

May 1 was Thursday, and for the first time in nine months we were ready for payday.

I’m talking about our cell phones.

The scheme for paying for cell phone service here is different from the U.S., and figuring it out proved to be mind-bending problem for us.

I’m sure it was 90% language barrier and 10% habit, because I can explain it to you right here in a couple of paragraphs.

The way cell phones work is that you have a monthly fee much like in the U.S., where you pay for the monthly service and a pro-rated amount for your SIM card. It does not cost as much here, because you have to buy your phone outright at the beginning – at least that was the case for iPhones from China Unicom back in August. At the beginning of each month, the monthly fee is charged to your account. Once you exceed your allotted data or phone usage for that month, you have to pay extra.

All simple, right?

Except that it’s all done via phone cards that you buy around town to fill up your phone with credit.

You get a bill, but you never pay it, per se. It just tells you how much you used and paid last month. When your phone stops working, such as in the middle of a conference call, you know it’s time to go get a card and put more credit on your account. I do get periodic texts from China Unicom, I’m sure telling me my account is getting low, but seeing as how they are in Mandarin, I just delete them.

On the first of every month, the amount of your monthly bill is deducted from whatever credit you have on your phone.

This caused no end of confusion for us. For the first month or two I kept making Max drive me to the China Unicom store down by my office to have them explain why our phones had stopped working, again, and to “pay” our bills and add credit to our accounts. I would make them explain how much I used, and I was very concerned about getting there on the first of the month. Nine months later I can’t even remember what generated all of the confused, but I do remember Max telling me in a very exasperated voice several times, “It’s very simple. You just buy the card and put the money on your phone!”

Honestly, I think it was six months before it all finally clicked into place for me. Then it still took several months of us all scratching our heads because all of our phones suddenly ran out of credit on the same days.

Finally, finally this month we were ready for the 1st and loaded up without missing a beat.

Now that we’ve figured it out, it seems really simple. But it’s just this sort of mind-numbing hurdle that you encounter too frequently when you are living in a new place and don’t speak the language.

I have a friend who wrote in her Christmas letter that it’s one thing to go to China on a vacation and think you know the place. It’s a whole other thing to live here and try to pay your electric bill. So true.

There is a positive side. We spend about $30 or $40 dollars just for my phone per month. (I have no idea the rate a which the rest of the family goes through their cards. I think I’m the power user of the group.) I use very little data on my plan, because I don’t have much included. This $30 – $40 covers all of my local cell phone usage, plus 20 – 40 minute calls home to the U.S. about six days out of every week. Of course, I’ve already paid for my entire iPhone, but I’d still say that’s a pretty good deal for that volume of international calls.

There’s more to pay to play. Frequent user cards are very popular here. For example, businesses such as spas have loyalty cards where you pay a fixed amount up front to the business, between $100 – $1000 typically, and then get a graded discount on your services based on how much credit you purchased. The discounts can be quite good. I think I’ve even seen up to 40% at the spa near my house.

The two loyalty cards we have are at Starbucks (big surprise) and at a local restaurant called Element Fresh, which has yet to pay any kind of dividend. I came to have the Starbucks card via a typically circuitous route.

When we first arrived we had trouble getting our money over to our China bank account, as I shared in a previous blog. One afternoon I was sharing the story of our limbo state with a new friend at work, telling him how we had been living off of getting cash at ATMs from our bank at home.

Later that day he walked up to my desk and handed me an envelope containing 10,000 RMB. That’s about $1,600 in cash to a virtual stranger. He told me to keep it until we got our money sorted out and then we could pay him back. This wonderful illustration of the camaraderie among expats obviously left me feeling extremely grateful. It still took weeks to get our money sorted out, and I’d periodically go by his desk to report our state and reassure him that I was going to return the money as soon as possible. He was so sweet and patient, telling me, “I’m not worried about it. I know where you work. You aren’t going anywhere, and neither am I.”

When I was finally able to repay him, I wanted to give him some gift to show my appreciation. What to get a man you barely know? Starbucks! I took myself to the nearest location and attempted to buy one of the gift cards they had displayed. I told them how much I wanted and they refused. I held it up. Pointed. Tried to give them my money. They would only allow me to buy one for 88 RMB. ($14.50). Fine. 88 RMB it is. I put it into the envelope with the cash and returned it to my friend. Later that day he came over to tell me that I had accidentally left my card in the envelope. I explained that it was a gift, but he refused to take it. He said he was just being a friend and would not feel comfortable taking the gift. I could not convince him otherwise. A few days later I was getting some tea and decided I might as well use the gift card myself. Only it wasn’t a gift card at all! I had spent $14.50 on a loyalty card, with no credit on it. It was just the fee to join their loyalty program. (And my friend probably knew that all along!) I was so frustrated that I had wasted my money on this ridiculous card. Only it turns out that card has saved us far more than $14.50 in free drinks. We’re now up to gold status. I’m practically making money at this point! (Ahem!) And while in the U.S. when you have a “get one free” they always give you the cheapest item free, that’s not the case here. Today we got the most expensive drink in our order for free.

There are some things I really like about China.

Turning Chinese

This blog is for the Jeff Foxworthy fans. Here is a quick test to see if you are turning Chinese.

1. If you ride your bike with your thumb always on your bell and give a few pre-emptive rings at every intersection just in case someone in a car, bike or scooter might be about to do something that will hurt you…you might be turning Chinese.

2. If your definition of personal space shrinks to one inch…you might be turning Chinese.

3. If you are driving down a 5-lane road and can’t get into your turn lane because there is a car coming towards you in your lane, and neither you or your driver flinch or even find it worth noting…you might be turning Chinese.

4. On that note, if you are crossing an intersection with cars coming toward you making a left turn and you don’t flinch…you might be turning Chinese.

5. If you regularly stand on the street while traffic is driving past you…you might be turning Chinese.

6. If you are walking home at 11 p.m. from a massage, come across a dead sheep carcase lying on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, step over it and keep on walking…you might be turning Chinese. (This happened to a friend of mine who lives in the older part of town.)

7. If you regularly ride side-saddle on the rack over your bike’s back tire while your husband pedals…you might be turning Chinese. (It took us forever to finally buy Jay a bike, but this is quite common here.)

8. If you ride your bike with a skirt cut above the knee, your best coat and your best shoes…you might be turning Chinese. (I always have leggings or tights, personally. The same can’t be said for everyone.)

9. If you pull over the car downtown, blocking one lane of traffic, to let your child go to the bathroom on the side of the road…you might be turning Chinese.

10. If your 7-year-old son fake spits as you are walking down the sidewalk…you might be turning Chinese.

11. If you allow your child to ride his scooter inside a retail center…you might be turning Chinese.

12. If your haggling skills improve dramatically…you might be turning Chinese.

13. If you regularly carry toilet paper in your bag and can squat with the best of them…you might be turning Chinese.

14. If your 7-year-old innocently thinks that all movies just happen to come out on DVD in China before they make it to theaters…you might be turning Chinese.

15. If you buy your cooking oil by the gallon…you might be turning Chinese.

16. If you wear an overcoat and long johns for the duration of your church service…you might be turning Chinese. (Sidenote: I always have Max warm up the car and my seat for me before I come down, and then I crank up the heater all the way when I get in. He told me one day that if I would wear more clothes I wouldn’t be so cold. We have decided that the Chinese are very tough and well insulated when it comes to the cold.)

17. If you wear two pairs of tights to work and your winter coat zipped to your chin in the grocery store…you might be turning Chinese.

18. If the strangers sharing your table in a Chinese restaurant leave and you take something off of their plates to eat…you might be turning Chinese. (Or just gross.) (Note: In China dishes are served family style. So it’s not exactly like you are eating off of their plates. And they had already shared with us while they were still at the table.)

19. If you don’t see anything wrong with shoving past a person in a crowded grocery store to get where you are going…you might be turning Chinese. Likewise, if you realize with horror that you almost pushed your way past an older man getting his things out of the overhead on a plane…you also might be turning Chinese.

20. If discussing the current AQI is a regular part of your daily conversation…you might be turning Chinese.

21. If you forget your fork at home and are totally fine grabbing the extra set of chop sticks in your desk to eat your chicken nuggets and carrot sticks…you might be turning Chinese.

22. If you walk into a store or restaurant and pull a mildly cool canned or bottled drink out of the cooler and smile because you’ve managed to get a “cold one”…you might be turning Chinese.

23. If you start to pepper your sentences with “it seems” and “maybe”…you might be turning Chinese. (Note: Proper usage of the phrase “it seems” includes, but is not limited to: It seems our repairman has gone home and can’t fix your air conditioner until tomorrow. OR It seems we have lost your electric bill, which is why you have no lights. OR It seems we put the wrong word on your bank form, so your transfer did not go through. Proper usage of the word “maybe” includes, but is not limited to: Can you help me with this task? Maybe later. (Translation…I really don’t want to do this.) OR When will my water dispenser be fixed? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next month. OR Do they have red bell peppers here? Maybe these green peppers taste good. OR Can I exchange these two GAP shirts I bought in the U.S. for the exact same shirts you have hanging in your store here in the correct size? Maybe you can find them on the Internet.)

24. If fireworks at any time of day or night, any day of the week, seem like a regular day…you might be turning Chinese.

25. If you regularly take naps with your head on your desk at work…you might be turning Chinese. Okay, technically I do not do this, but there is an admin in our office who does on a regular basis. She’s even brought her own pillow from home and will be out cold for a good half hour in the middle of the day.

The Smells of China

I heard an IT researcher last year talk about how the future of computing will feature advancements in the areas of our five human senses. Our phones will be able to emit vibrations simulating the physical sensation of touching something. There will also be advancements in the areas of seeing, hearing and tasting. The one that  I’m looking forward to today is that of smell. Here’s what I found on one company’s Internet site, “When you call a friend to say how you’re doing, your phone will know the full story. Soon, sensors will detect and distinguish odors: a chemical, a biomarker, even molecules in the breath that affect personal health. The same smell technology, combined with deep learning systems, could troubleshoot operating-room hygiene, crops’ soil conditions or a city’s sanitation system before the human nose knows there’s a problem.”

I frankly don’t care much about operating room hygiene or soil conditions today. What appeals to me is the possibility of adequately communicating some of the unique smells of China.

These include the likes of my mint scented shampoo, my ginger scented dishwashing liquid, and my trips to the bottom level of the basement (B3) in the building where I work. It is truly otherworldly. 

The instant the elevator doors open it crashes over you. Normally I turn left out of the elevator to go to the convenient store called Lawson. As you round each corner getting closer to Lawson and the food court places beyond it, the smell grows stronger. Inside Lawson, you’ll find normal convenient store products including packaged cookies, Cokes (what draws me there), and assorted hygiene items (including the lovely ankle hose which I have written about previously).

The new and improved Lawson.

Inside the Lawson convenience store.

 

Lawson also includes the requisite convenient store food on a spit. 7-11 has hot dogs. Lawson has…. Well, I’m not sure what they have to be honest, but here are a couple of pictures.

Snack or lunch items at Lawson.

Snack or lunch items at Lawson.

 

A close-up shot of one choice at Lawson.

A close-up shot of one choice at Lawson.

 

I thought there couldn’t be a worse smell, until a few months ago when I turned right out of the elevators and encountered Family Mart. You see, Lawson was closed for remodeling for a few weeks. Earlier I had ventured beyond the store and encountered the B3 food court. It features 5 or 6 small rooms like the one pictured below and a few other small dining rooms.

The food court in B3.

The food court in B3.

 

I know the food quality must not be great, because I even saw some locals poking at something on the conveyor trying to figure out what it was. 

I found one place that had plastic bottled Cokes, but I don’t like the plastic kind. On this particular day it happened that my admin, Danielle, was with me in the elevator and turned right to get her lunch. I followed to see what I would find. 

This Family Mart features the Cokes in the cans I like, despite having one-third  the square footage and twice the pungency of the original Lawson.

 

Outside Family Mart on B3.

Outside Family Mart on B3.

 

Inside the Family Mart on B3.

Inside the Family Mart on B3.

 

I’m talking about a smell that leaves you shuddering and blowing air out of your nose for the next 30 minutes to try to get rid of it. Unfortunately, the smell formula is burned in your brain, and it keeps sending those same signals to itself, bouncing back and forth in your head. Smell memory. Shudder. Blow. Smell memory. Shudder. Blow. You’d think your brain would give itself a break, but I don’t think it ever does. I ate a cricket in Thailand back in 2008. Even today when I think about it my tongue goes immediately to the spot in my teeth where the cricket was ground into the crevices.

I apologize for the quality of some of these pictures. I had to move fast to get out of this hazmat zone quickly. 

I was happy when the original Lawson was back open for business a few weeks later. I bought the water I went for and tacked on a Coke and some cookies as compensation for the suffering I endured in making the full circle to get all of these pictures. 

Remodeled Lawson, with new uniforms, too.

Remodeled Lawson, with new uniforms, too.

 

I went back upstairs to warm my left-overs in the kitchen and intersected one of the cleaning men. He and one other cleaning lady have their lunch there every day. They, too, eat something that smells like it came straight up from the depths. I can’t put words to it, but the idea of wet dog food comes to mind every time I walk in there and they are eating. It looks like an innocuous bowl of rice, but there is something vile within it. This day the cleaning man was wrapping up and rinsing his bowl as I was microwaving. When he finished rinsing he gulped some water out of the Tupperware like a horse at a trough. Then he spit the water back into the community sink. Then a second time he spit something else straight into the sink. Twelve inches off my elbow. 

In fairness, I sometimes laugh to Jay that if I saw a Chinese person at work warming up something that looked like some of the food I bring….like the delicious tortilla soup filled with peppers, rice and onions from last week….I’d probably gag at that sight of that, too. I guess it’s all about what is familiar to you. Although I do hope that the smells of my lunch don’t leave others cross-eyed. 

Thinking about B3 does give me an idea… I typically go down for the Coke because I’m tired in the afternoons. The smell gives such a jolt to my system that I’m naturally roused. I wonder if I could get the same effect by walking a few laps around B3 and avoiding the caffeine and sugar altogether. I might try that one day if I can stand it. Or better yet, maybe I’ll just loiter outside Family Mart, inhaling deeply. 

Nah… I’d rather gain the extra weight.