It’s Getting Dark…

It's Getting Dark...

Close all your eyes?…

I’ve seen this game, and its sister “You Dare to Play?!” in several locations in Wenjiang and Chengdu. I poke the box around a little, straighten it on the shelf, and contemplate. I am a gamer, board and video. Don’t I have an obligation to find out what is so deadly about “Kill Game?” The cynic in me says that it’s just going to be a lame figurine inside holding a knife, or some sort of collectable toy game meant for boys with money. Or is this a black-humored stocking stuffer type thing? You wrap it in foil with the M&M candy cane and bridge your fingers in sadistic glee…

The superstitious part of me says it can’t be good luck to buy such an…abruptly titled game. I stare at those emotionless white dots and feel a little uneasy. The goal of most games is to win at the expense of other players. This box suggests that the person buying the game is in for a spring loaded mustard gas trap when they get home.

Wouldn’t that be awful? You open the box and it does try to murder you? Gotta say, that would -kill- the replay value….

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Feeling Literary

I was standing in a sort of courtyard. A plain, ordinary courtyard filled with ordinary things: a car, a tree, a bike. People shuffled around the street and sparrows hopped from crumb to crumb.

And in that ordinary moment, I remembered some Tennyson: “I am part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades /For ever and for ever when I move…”

The day to day living is the same here as in America – I have written this before. Me in a courtyard in China is just like me in a courtyard in America, though I might be a little more confused in the Chinese courtyard.  Nevertheless, my feet are here in this courtyard. And my feet were on top of Emei mountain, and in the streets of Shanghai, just as they walked the Golden Gate Bridge and jogged the streets of Chicago.  And I think part of what Ulysses feels in “Ulysses” is that pull of wanting to be himself elsewhere, of recognizing the pull of the world and how it resonates in his heart. The horizon is a tantalizing thing because it promises differences, but what I think we hope for is that we will be different.

“Ulysses” is sad – he’s reflecting on the need to prove himself in his twilight years; that it is better to go out and fight than grow old at home. My cynical side notes that it’s easy for him – he’s got his son who inherits the kingdom and can do the work in his absence. I am lucky that I get to travel to work, but I must work.  I have no husband or children to carry on my legacy. That’s another difference – Ulysses is old, and I am not. I cannot go out and seek the way I would want to because I have student loans – shackles which will stay with me until I’m as old as he was. OH! So when I am as old as Ulysses, and my debts are finally paid, then I too can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western starts until I die.”

Now there’s the melancholy necessary to appreciate this poem, coupled with the optimism of knowing that I will not stop because things are difficult. Optimism in the face of challenges – that sounds pretty good.

“Ulysses”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

….Now how do I get out of this courtyard?

 

A Plum Bum

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“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

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We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.

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All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.

 

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We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.

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Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

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They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.

 

PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.

 

Photo 10

 

Connectivity

As you’ll recall, I broke the internet last weekend. For clarity: I reset the router and didn’t know the school’s static IP.

Once it was fixed, I merrily went on the internet.

I’d like to discuss the internet…I’m going to say problem…here in China. For me, this problem is twofold.

The first part of the problem is connectivity in the personal sense. I try to keep this blog updated on a semi-regular basis – two to three posts a week. That becomes difficult when the internet bugs out for a couple of days at a time. The whole school simply ceases to have functioning internet. The produce store I frequent has better wifi than this place, and I can’t park my laptop in the apple cart and hope no one notices. There are no Starbucks in the immediate area, no coffee shops. The tea houses are bucolic and tech-free.

It would not be so bad, except I’ve missed two meetings this week back in the States, and I have no way of explaining myself. My Chinese cell phone can’t call America, without wifi my computer can’t contact anyone anywhere. I could, in theory, turn on the cell data for my American phone – Verizon charges $21 for every 1MB of data – yeah, MB not GB. I don’t want to pay fifty bucks to tell my meetings “Sorry, there’s no internet where I work all day.”

I am not dependent on my online presence to keep me going. I can function outside of technology just fine, but I also recognize that I need to change my plane ticket and have no way of calling Delta. That I have Skype meetings I’m missing. That I need to buy a Father’s Day gift. My presences is requested online, and I can’t get there. That’s what’s so ungodly frustrating about all this. I have responsibilities which I cannot complete. And yes, occasionally I want to check in on my Facebook people and find out whose adorable babies are doing what, and which color soul a friend discovered they had.

The second part of the problem is the firewall. Google won’t work – China simply says “nope.” This includes gmail about 50% of the time. I can access it through my iphone, strangely enough, but not my work laptop. I can’t go the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (NPR works fine…because I bet the big wigs like listening to Wait, Wait! Don’t tell me!). No social media, and that’s not just Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook – anything resembling a blog doesn’t load. It’s like navigating a video game street, where there are inexplicable obstacles for seemingly simple tasks.

I can read web comics, go and watch snarky movie reviews, and enjoy fake news . It’s whack-a-mole, trying to guess which sites will be deemed inaccessible and which won’t. Who managed to make China angry today? Attempt to visit their website and find out!

But here’s the thing – I can go the Canadian versions of those sites no problem. I can go to google.ca or bing.ca and navigate with minimal trouble. I only get kicked back 25% of the time. So it’s politics, all the way out here in the heartland of China. They don’t mind the Canadian versions of the websites, even though I think they’ll provide the same results.

There are ways…around the firewall. If there weren’t, I’d be e-mailing these posts to my sister to put up for me. Unfortunately (again), they aren’t reliable either. I get stuck just sitting here, trying to connect with the rest of the world.

Connectivity is a wonderful thing. The internet is an amazing tool at our disposal. With it I can keep in contact with my family across the Pacific Ocean, and find all sorts of useless and useful information for class. I can find pictures of vocabulary words which fail to translate, like “clover” and “otter” and “genius.” Not having easy access to those tools only highlights how much of a gift they are. That sounds really nice of me. I’m cleaning up my awful swearing rants for the sake of internet. This is me after twenty attempts to get somewhere:

Me: “Jesus Christ! You motherf***ing piece of sh*t government control a**hole Communist sh*teating f**k faces. IT’S A YOUTUBE VIDEO!”

That’s connectivity for you.

Net Loss

This is my bed:

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Nice, right? Note the netting – a new addition! I put up the mosquito netting because I kept waking up between 3 and 4am with painful hands. The mosquitoes would bite me on the knuckles while I slept – always on the knuckles. I don’t know a lot about mosquitoes except that I don’t like them. I don’t know if they give off chemicals that tell other mosquitoes where to go. They seem to enjoy my joints (getting high off human blood…).

One night I woke up, my hands tingling with bites. I turned on my lights, and there above my bed were four fat mosquitoes. Still half-asleep and full of anger, I smashed them all and left blood stains on my wall. I sat there staring at my clock. I’m ok on a little sleep, but I am worthless on interrupted sleep. And this was happening almost every night. I was going a little crazy. I would wake up to phantom mosquito sounds at 3am, turn on my light, and sit in perfect silence for fifteen minutes or so, ears straining for humming. When I finally caught one, I was so relieved that I wasn’t going insane. When I didn’t, I worried that I had finally cracked.

Recognizing that such paranoia (and repeated sleep deprivation) was not healthy, I put up the netting. The first night I got bit twice. I chalked it up to accidentally trapping the mosquitoes in with me. Then another night, another set of bites. I woke up in the morning to see two fat mosquitoes on the inside of my netting. My paranoia settled back in. I wasn’t safe inside my shield? But I had put up a wall around me – how did they breach my defenses?

I realized the problem through sitting up in the middle of the night, listening to humming. For whatever reason (again, I don’t study mosquitoes), the little bloodsuckers here stick to the floor level. They don’t come swooping down – they sort of drift up. And the netting was behind my headboard, so the mosquitoes were under my bed, and coming up in the rather large gap under my bed between the netting/headboard and the mattress. That’s why they were always perched on my headboard. That’s why they always bit my hands – I sleep with my hands above my head, putting them closest to the gap.

So I put the netting next to the mattress. A little more intrusive, but worth it to keep from getting bit. Problem solved *dusts itchy hands off*.
Then I got bit some more.

Last night I woke up, having just sleep-smacked myself in the ear/pillow as a mosquito taunted me. I turned on the light. Just above me was a mosquito with a swollen abdomen. My hand itched. My sleep victim was a blood spot on my pillow – lovely. Looking around, I saw another post-gorging insect by the net’s overlap. And I started to blubber. I was the picture of piteous, broken defeat. I don’t think I’ve blubbered like a little girl since…I was a little girl.

The great injustices of the universe tumbled down upon me at 3:47am. All I wanted was to make it through a night without getting bit. I’m so scared of getting that lone case of malaria, even though it’s not a threat in this province. I’m tired of my hands hurting. And how – HOW ARE THEY GETTING IN?! Not fully awake, I rise to my feet on the mattress and start inspecting. There are no holes. There are no gaps. How is it that three – THREE – mosquitoes get in? Do they help each other out? Is my bed some horrible reverse of The Great Escape?

The only other problem I can see is that the netting lets me out – It’s not a perfect bubble. It’s got an opening where the edges overlap, and there is a gap sometimes between the two edges. I’ve noticed it, but when I look at it and think “A bug would have to be really smart to figure out how to get in this way.” Mosquitoes aren’t smart. They’re just voracious. I’m still more upset by the number. Ok, one lone mosquito figures out how to get in and bites me. Asshole mosquito. But three? They must be in cahoots. There must be chemical clues, like ants marking the way to cake.

I could tuck in the edge at night. I could buy a little velcro and ensure that the edges don’t open up. It’s a small inconvenience to me, but it might be best in the long run/ immediate need for a full night’s sleep.
The other solution is to never open my windows. As far as solutions go it’s absolute. Just stick to the air conditioner and accept that my room will start to smell stale after a while. But on cool days I like opening my window and letting the breezes make the curtains waft around. It’s pretty, damnit.

  • Wafting curtains and environmental awareness, accepting that IKEA makes the single worst mosquito netting in the history of all netting?
  • Or air conditioning and a stale room, where I get to sleep without fear of humming in my ear and bites on my hands?

Philosophical Aside:
I do alright with most bugs in my room, reaction wise. If I don’t feel threatened by them I throw them out my window and let them live (millipedes for example). I hate mosquitoes, but the only time I really had a girly freak out was when a giant cockroach got stuck in my drying sheets. That was awful because it was scared too, and it was so fast and I almost couldn’t squish it because it darted around so much. And it was big.

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(I took this picture postmortem, obviously)
I think that is, perhaps, what our fear of bugs and snakes is all about – the speed. We don’t like things that are fast. Perhaps that’s an evolutionary trigger. Snakes are quick. Spiders are quick. Roaches are quick. Birds are quick (I know several people who are afraid of birds). Maybe when people admit they don’t like “creepy crawlies,” they’re actually talking about the fact that bugs are fast movers, and that’s unnerving to our animal brains.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never met anyone who is afraid of turtles.