Saturday, August 20, 2011

Just walk. They get the death penalty if they hit you.


Today went, for the most part, surprisingly well.  I’m becoming more and more used to the idea that this is my life.  I live in China. (For the next year, anyway).

I’m continually surprising myself by my good-natured reaction to things that go wrong here.  I tend to be relatively easy going when traveling, just because I’ve prepared myself to expect things to go wrong. (Mom and dad, if you’re reading this, yes, I know this is in stark contrast to how I am at home).

I did get my hair dryer and straightener to work this morning, but my dryer was barely blowing any air, even on high. I have yet to buy a hairdryer here, but it’s on the top of my shopping list. I’ve been okay with that – and anyone who knows me knows how particular I am about haircare.

Problems aside, we experienced our first taste of the “real China” today. And by that, I mean we took the public bus. Yep. It actually wasn’t too bad. It was crowded, but not Paris metro crowded, and it was relatively clean. (I did have a spoiled brat moment where I tried to board the bus using the middle door. One of the Drake guys look at me and said, “Uh, it’s like any other bus in the US. You have to board up front where you pay. You have ridden a bus before, right?”) Actually, no. Just metros. It was embarrassing.

Anyway, the bus wasn’t bad. The walking across the streets to get to the bus takes a little getting used to, though. I’m still abiding by the “cross when the people who look like they know what they’re doing cross” rule, and it’s working out pretty well.

The very first time we tried to cross as a whole group of 25+ was pretty stressful. About halfway through our group, we got nervous and paused to let a car through, prompting Kirk to give us these thoughtful words of wisdom: “Just keep walking! They get the death penalty if they hit you.”

So we made it off the bus in one go, without losing anyone, and made it to the bank and then the mall. The “Future Mall” was pretty legit.  They had everything! We’re talking Gucci and Ferragamo stores as soon as you walk in. It was about seven floors, and as you got further up, the stores got more affordable. I almost instantly felt better about being able to find shopping in the Shiz. It sounds really materialistic, but I’m okay with that. I don’t know what I was expecting the shopping to be like here, but I wasn’t expecting Gucci in Shijiazhuang. Beijing, yes. Shijiazhuang, no.

The mall had an electronics section, too, so I got a memory card! Kirk was thankfully there to help me, otherwise I don’t know what I would have done. Again, I was expecting that a few more people would speak English, given that we’re coming here to teach English and all.  Yes, it’s a very ethno-centric way of thinking, but it’s really upsetting to me that there are only going to be about ten or so people with whom I can hold a conversation until next summer.
I also saw my first unauthorized Apple store. I found it interesting that the same mall that had Gucci and Dior could have a knock-off Apple store. I guess that’s a uniquely Chinese state of being.

After we got back from the mall, after another bus ride, we had about fifteen minutes of down time before we met for lunch. I’m starting to realize that a lot of down time right now isn’t good for me. When I’m with the group, I’m really excited and I have fun taking everything in. This morning, out and about, I really felt like I’m supposed to be here, in China. The problem comes when I’m alone and I get inside my own head and start overthinking things. I start to miss people and second-guess why I came. I think it would help a lot if I could get internet access at the hotel. I have a cell phone number on my iPad, but it’s freaking useless if I can’t access a wifi network. I just feel so cut off from everyone, knowing that I can’ talk to who I want, when I want.

Internet issues aside, lunch was GREAT. We had just about everything you could imagine. We had duck, and rabbit stomach, and donkey, and shrimp, and wonderfully delicious rolls. There was fried rice, and egg drop soup, and good cabbage, and about ten more other things. They really do just sit a bunch of people at a table, and then bring out tons and tons of dished that everyone just grabs food from and puts on their own plate. The middle of the tables have this rotating dish thing so you don’t have to worry about passing food around constantly and people’s arms getting in the way. You just have to time your turns so you don’t take a plate away while someone is trying to catch stuff with their chopsticks. And yes, at this point, most of us are still learning and floundering a bit with the chopsticks. I’ll get to our lovely dinner story later!
After lunch, we took a bus to our training site at Hebei University of Science and Technology. We’re taking a few Chinese language classes. I learned a LOT today and I’m starting to feel a little bit more comfortable. I’ve always loved learning languages, and I feel like now that I have an instructor instead of trying to teach myself with a CD and textbook, I’m catching on relatively quickly. It definitely took my mind off my homesickness and I got to dive right in to learning some new words. I hope I can figure out how to type in pinyin on here so I can put the tones in my blog.. I want to show people what I’m learning!

After class, we were on our own for dinner and our “assignment” was to go off in small groups and find a t-shirt for 3 kuai, which is roughly the equivalent of 50 cents. I went with Isaiah, Rebecca, and Lauren to find a t-shirt and some dinner. We wandered around the hotel a bit, but it became pretty clear to us that there wasn’t a market very close to us where we could find vendors just selling stuff under tents, etc. We decided we needed to try to ask for directions. Asking for directions is extremely difficult, as the chances that you’ll find someone on the street who speaks English is about 1%. We got out our phrasebook, found the word for “market”, and grabbed two girls to help us. They started pointing around for directions and giggling. They were so nervous to help us, and they tried out the only English they knew – “What is your name?” When we actually answered them, I thought they were going to collapse they were giggling so hard. By extreme luck, there happened to be a man walking by who spoke a little English, and he was able to direct us to a market that was only a few blocks away from our hotel.

We took off for the market, and headed down this alley way in search of a t-shirt. It was a pretty terrifying experience, because there were bicyclists and mopeds and vans and trucks full of lumber all trying to fit down this same alleyway that had children and dogs running through it, along with the shops that were set up. We were completely and totally unsuccessful in our search for a cheap t-shirt, and one vendor laughed in Isaiah’s face when he tried to bargain down for this really hilarious “Brooklyn loves sassy girls” t-shirt.

After giving up, we walked back down the alley, where I was extremely excited to find two seemingly abandoned pool tables. After some careful negotiation (and by I mean negotiation, I mean pointing and gestures that were supposed to look like shooting pool), we got the owner of the shop nearby and her son to give us four pool cues to use to play pool in the middle of this alley. After the first couple shots, we realized that the pool was extremely uneven. Apparently one of the legs had broken off and was being propped up by a cement block. Sweet. We still played until the end, and had quite a bit of fun. Who else can really say they’ve played pool in a back alley in China? I’m sure we provided quite a bit of entertainment for everyone around us. Haha.

Next, we took off for dinner and found a pretty nice looking restaurant. We went in and they put us at a table right up front, directly across from the front desk. It was one of those restaurants where they boil your sauce in front of you and you cook your meat, noodles, etc. by yourself.

Let me tell you, ordering our food was an ordeal.  Thankfully, the menu had pictures of everything.. but they only had the characters of the words next to it, not the pinyin. With lots of pointing, we managed to order a chili sauce with some sort of dipping sauce with it. Then came the time to pick our side (tofu) and our meat. We had no freaking clue what meats those pictures were. We attempted to show her in our phrasebook the word for chicken, and she showed us some marble-y looking meat that was most definitely anything but chicken. Again, thankfully, there was a younger guy working there who spoke a little English, and he came over to help us. He managed to help us order beef, noodles, and some cabbage to go along with what we already had. Then we had to order beer, soda, and water, which took another 5 minutes. All in all, they probably spent a half hour just attempting to take our order. (On a fun note, I’ve noticed that a lot of restaurants use these white cell phones to place orders and send them back to the kitchen. It kind of reminds me of the Apple store).

Eating this meal was also quite entertaining for everyone in the restaurant. At one point, the entire wait staff was gathered around to watch us eat. One girl couldn’t contain her laughter so much that she was crying… and then proceeded to take a picture and/or video of us attempting to eat with our chopsticks.

OH! I can’t believe I left out a description of breakfast. The milk was ridiculous. There was one that was so thick, it tasted like half and half. The other was almost sweet, and I think it might be soy. They serve it warm, though, which is kind of gross. I also have yet to find coffee in this city.

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