Shameless Product Placement

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the items I took with me to China which really helped me. Here are some of the products which I think lived up to their names/functions, and which I would recommend picking up if you’re planning on traveling where the environment is challenging. These are products I picked up before going to China. There were goods I bought there which I’m glad I waited to buy – like my walking stick.  There were things I already had (solid walking shoes, multifunctional clothing).

I used Magellan’s to buy several of my products, however their website is down while they switch ownership. TravelSmith is good, but I find them a little overpriced and their goods are catered towards the fancier people. Amazon is Amazon (all hail…) and you can find most of this stuff there as well.

  1. Go Girl

Go Girl

The Go Girl allows women to pee standing up. It’s a flexible silicon tube. It’s great if there is no functioning toilet around you, yet there is still a “bathroom.” This would also work well if you are going camping and have absolutely no bathroom or comfortable squatting area. Make sure that you bring a ziplock bag for it, though being made of silicon it is easy to clean. Note that the packaging suggests you can carry it in the tube in the provided bag. This is true, and is what I did, but I have the feeling that over time the carton could get damaged.

It’s available at Amazon here.

  1. I can breathe! Mask

I can Breathe

I originally found this on Magellan’s, however at one point they stopped selling the mask – though they still carried the refills. Amazon does carry the brand, though my plain mesh mask is not on the list. You can also go straight to the source and look for the ACF Pollution Mask / Honeycomb mask. Simply put, after my first month in China not wearing the mask my chest started to ache. I thought I was dying somehow (see my “Middlechondriac” post), and my brother pointed out that I was knowingly breathing bad air. So I started wearing my mask, and after an additional week of hacking up sticky phlegm, my chest stopped aching. I attribute that to my mask.

It’s a straightforward deal – there is a charcoal filter which velcros inside the mesh mask. I could not wear my glasses and visor at the same time when riding my scooter, due to the fogging. If you are going somewhere which has air quality issues, buy a mask. Skip the fancy colors and patterns unless you are worried about being judged for a lack of pollution fashion sense.

3. Converter Kit Part 1

Converter

Don’t skimp on this – buy a decent set. Mine is from TravelSmith and it worked wonderfully. The big point with this is to monitor the lights on top – they’ll blink furiously if the power is wonky. And a nice box like this means you can easily organize the plugs, and you’ll know when you don’t have one. Plus, they work all over the world. I prefer to travel with a converter kit as well as a few extra adaptor plugs, for any dual-wattage appliances I have. I needed the converter to charge my e-reader, but my PS3 only needed an adaptor.

Look ahead of time for the wattage of your travel destination. And don’t leave things plugged in too long – I fried my converter in Spain because it was an old house and I was charging a laptop for too long.

4. Converter Kit Part 2 – PlugBug for Mac

The PlugBug

While getting my laptop updated (before I spilt tea on it one month later, essentially wasting a hundred dollars), I mentioned I was going abroad to China, and the helpful Apple salesman suggested a PlugBug.

Though I only used it a month, I highly recommend it. If you are taking an Apple product abroad, buy a PlugBug world. There is a fantastic built in USB port built into the adaptor, so  you can charge your laptop and a separate Apple product at the same time (instead of having to plug everything into the computer itself). It is a little pricey for a single brand product, but given the prices of Apple products, a little extra insurance feels warranted.

5. Blister Bandaids 

Bandaids

Blisters are the worst. Let’s all agree on this point – blisters are awful. You with me? Good.

I will sing the praises of these bandaids to the rooftops. I will write sonnets to these bandaids. I hike a lot, and China provided me plenty of opportunities to climb. These bandaids saved me from blisters. They’re waterproof so they won’t wash or sweat off. They have medicine in them to treat the blister while you walk. They’re gel-like and cushioned, so you don’t feel any extra rubbing on the affected area. Best of all, they’re inexpensive and you can buy them in any drugstore. Oh, and did I mention that they have a great shape which better contours to toes and fingers? Because they do. They’re magic.

If you plan on hoofing it in Paris, hiking in China, or just walking around Chicago in heels for a night of microbrews, put one or two of these in your purse/satchel, and walk in confidence.

Airborne

Airborne

Placebo or not, I bought a bulk container at Costco (3 tubes), and took it regularly. I felt like it worked as a Vitamin C supplement at least, because fresh fruit and vegetables were difficult to find, at least at first. Also, I was told to avoid a great deal of fresh produce if I did not wash it myself in purified/distilled water. A supplement, either through something like Airborne, or a multivitamin, will help you get those immune boosters and vitamins you might miss when being over careful on diet.

—–

That’s about it. I had other things, but these were the ones which I used most often. For example, I had water purification tablets, but I did not use them because bottled water was so prevalent. Had I done more trekking/rural tours, I would have used the tablets and drops.

I took hand sanitizer, and a couple of packets of those disinfecting wipes. Kleenex was available there, as were most of those minor drugstore things.

These are the products I am glad I had with me. I couldn’t afford to buy the fancy items I would have wanted, like a fancy solar charger. I didn’t get germ purification systems or all those awesome little goods that you don’t need but make you feel like you are super prepared. I was going on a relative budget, and I had to be mindful of the long term needs of living abroad. If you’re going to be abroad for a long time, you have to expect to adapt.

I think that’s all for now!

Dime in a Dumpling

And now dumplings.

I am eager, in my last days here, to learn cooking. I mention as much to the teachers, and suddenly Wednesday turns into a cooking class. I was typing, working (of a fashion – I mean as we get to the end there is less and less which needs to be done), when Lily and Kate come in with bags and bags of ingredients. Summer and Erin arrive later, carrying Lily’s portable cook. I watch, pleasantly dumbfounded.

So, here’s how we all make dumplings. First, you will need a filling. Lily has prepared three – one with mushrooms, one with shrimp, one with veggies and pork:

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The preparation of the actual dumpling is pretty straightforward. You put a small bit of filling in the dumpling wrapper, fold it up, and make it look pretty. Observe:

Take a wrapper

Take a wrapper

Fill with filling

Fill with filling

Fold over the wrapper

Fold over the wrapper

Crimp the edges

Crimp the edges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can fold the edges different ways – Stone makes his look like coin pouches and he purses the top shut like it has a drawstring. Summer makes hers look like envelopes by pinching the edges together. I attempt to mold one to look like a pig (my Chinese zodiac sign), and fail utterly.  My efforts meet with much enthusiasm, however, and we’re all having a good time.

Then you boil them for a few minutes a batch – enough to cook the filling.

We make too many. How many is too many? This many:

 

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This isn’t all of them – this is what we had to cook after cooking the initial plates of dumplings. I warned Lily that two hundred dumplings was a bit much for seven people, but she laughed and nodded, agreeing and doing exactly what she was doing before. In keeping with the celebratory tradition, I put a dime in one of the dumplings. They do it in China – a coin in a dumpling for luck. They do it in Greece as well, only there they bake a coin into a bread on New Year’s.  Maybe an American equivalent would be breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving? We borrow lots of ideas, but we don’t bake money into our food.

Correction: Easter Eggs – We put money in those plastic Easter Eggs.

I thought we were just having dumplings, but there’s an accompanying spread of vegetables, rabbit (maybe), pork, and peanuts. I provide bowls (I knew buying a dinner set would pay off!), and we compare our sauces. I take a moment to preen and show off that I can, in fact, make my own dumpling sauce. You mix a little chili paste with soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, salt, sugar, and “flavoring” (a processed product which looks like what you use to grow crystals).

Somewhere towards the end, with a whole mess of dumplings left uneaten. Lily exclaims, “Oh! I am lucky!” from her seat. She’s holding the dime aloft, and everyone cheers.

This whole thing – from beginning to end – makes me wish the teachers and I had started visiting each other a lot earlier. I’ve been living the life of a hermit for a few months now, with limited human contact. I admit I am accustomed to being by myself, and can get annoyed with company. But I am not so much of a loner as to wish away laughter and learning. I forgot how much fun it is to eat with company. I forgot about my belief in food – I am a firm believer that food is a medium to get communication moving. It could cure so many problems, if world leaders made their own food in each other’s kitchens. At least, I think it would.

Full, the teachers put the rest of the dumplings in my freezer and refrigerator. To be precise, they put the dumplings directly on the freezer’s surface, so that all the dumplings immediately adhere as though glued (I spent a long while cleaning it out). Luckily I am able to salvage most of them.

I will have lunch until I leave for Beijing. Or until I invite everyone back to help me finish.

 

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Tea Ceremony Part I : See one…

The English language teachers, having realized that my door is always unlocked, that I am in the office about fourteen hours a day, and that I am by myself for about twelve of them, have decided that it is time for me, as I near the end of my trial stay, to learn all about Chinese culture.

Biting back my cynicism, I agree. It is better to learn and enjoy than to wallow in self-pity and snarky observations.

First, I learn about the Chinese tea ceremony. Erin invites the teacher who is in charge of teaching the tea ceremonies down to the office. The teachers arrange the desks and set out the tea tray, kettle, pots, cups, spoons, carafes, tongs and tea containers on the desk, creating a scene that would be beautiful on any other surface than a generic white IKEA desk. The tea trays are nifty little devices, with slatted tops and a bit of tube on the bottom, which allows for water and discarded tea to drain into a bucket on the floor.

Beautiful setting, utilitarian locale

Beautiful setting, utilitarian locale

I don’t know the tea ceremony teacher, and she does not speak English. Luckily, I have five teachers who are eager to practice their translation skills. The school’s photographer shows up (I don’t know who the informant is), and immediately starts snapping pictures.

Did you know that there are different ways of brewing different types of teas? For example, you put jasmine tea into the larger teacup, and use the lid to brush away the leaves when you drink. For oolong, you use the first infusion to wash both the tasting and smelling cups, and drink the following. Green tea is made in a tall clear glass so you can watch the leaves “dance.” I learned the basics of this when I was in Shanghai and went to a tea shop.

There is something much more lovely about the ceremony. The teacher is the epitome of grace. After every motion she flourishes with her hands in a small arc. She only uses her fingertips to touch most things, even though the pots and cups are very hot. And each tea has its own ceremony and its own history. I like it much more than the store ceremonies, even though I know the teacher trains students for just that purpose. In the store, they push what each tea will cure – black tea for diabetes, ginseng oolong for detox, green for fighting cancer, etc. It’s not about the history, or the beauty or symbolism in the gestures – it’s business and sales and money. I respect that, but seeing a ceremony done simply for the ceremony is a far more enlightening experience.

And by going slow and smelling and sipping, a tea ceremony is respectful of your time. It puts a value on your presence. There is no hurrying the kettle. You sit and drink, chat and wait, and become more aware of yourself and those around you. I found it to be incredibly relaxing, even though conversation was a little scattered because of the language barriers.

The slow pace of drinking tea here and the small portions makes taking tea almost like tasting wine. There is much more character in the leaves than I would have thought, many more layers of flavor. I really like pu’er tea, a dark red tea that has a smoky taste. I also like oolong because one infusion can be smooth and light, the second infusion bitter and woody, and the third sweet and mellow. Oolong is the like the chameleon of teas. Green tea is a workhorse tea, though green tea with jasmine is floral and pleasant. The men who drive the pedal taxis have clear glass thermoses packed with green tea, which lasts them throughout the day. My “last a whole day” tea is buckwheat tea, with its sweet, earthen taste that smells of fields.

At the supermarket (which I will write on later), there’s a buffet of tea options. Dried lemons, dried rose hips, dried flowers and fruits – it’s like a build-a-bear workshop, but with teas. You can see how tea is ingrained in their culture, their mindset. It’s served in place of water in the restaurants (though this is more because tap water is not quite potable unless boiled).

I make tea at home with a kettle, and I will, on occasion steep leaves and take my time. I try to avoid using the microwave. I make my tea in a big coffee mug with a handle. I do not drink my tea delicately, though I do savor the taste. I drink my big mug of tea while I write, or do needlepoint. I tried having a glass tea pot for my flowering teas – twice, actually. Both times my family cracked them through disrespectful usage, and so I gave up delicacy in favor of thick ceramic mugs.

It’s nice to pretend that I could drink tea from a cup which holds less than a shot glass, that drinking tea can be such a delicate, tiny affair.

And don’t you fret, coffee pot – you are still my morning ritual.

 

I decided to put one of my videos of the ceremony here – this is the making of jasmine green tea. I want to mildly apologize for the quality of this video – I took it on my phone and didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere by moving around.

 

Pop a Squat

I feel it is time to finally address Chinese bathrooms.
Now, in America we have toilets that resemble chairs – thrones, as they’re called. Among other things. In China, there are some chair-like toilets. They are primarily for the handicapped. The rest of us get squat toilets.

This is a nice squat toilet, in the new Global Center Mall in Chengdu:

 

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It is, in essence, a hole in the ground. It flushes and such. Some are sensor activated, some are foot pedals.  And you use it by, in essence, squatting down as we must have done before we elevated our bums a couple of feet of the ground. At first I was very leery. It seemed foreign and a little primitive as a means of relieving oneself. In fact, talking about bathrooms in general goes against my tendency towards “proper” conversation topics.

Whatever – I’ve sworn and cited Tennyson in these posts. I can talk about bathrooms.

The reason I want to talk about it because after using squat toilets for several months, I have to say I can see why one might prefer them to our “Western” styled toilets. The biggest reason why, as far as I have surmised, is that with a squat toilet there is no unsanitary toilet seats. Or touching a toilet with your hands. A dirty Western toilet is absolutely terrible (it’s part of the reason why I bought a Go-girl – that’s another post). Like a dirty port-a-potty – you don’t want to sit on it.

Now, this is not to say that a dirty squat toilet is more hospitable. They smell worse I think. This one is from one of my mountain trips. And it’s not the worst – I just considered it a high point of tastelessness to take a picture of the worst ones:

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But still, you’re not technically touching anything, which seems somehow more sanitary.
Just wanted to let you know that they’re not that scary. And if you come to China, more and more establishments have Western toilets. But don’t be alarmed if you walk into a stall, and there’s just a trough in the floor.

And bring your own toilet paper.

OBE

OBE is an acronym – a military acronym which means “Overcome by Events.” It is used to describe a situation in which nothing has gone correctly, and there is no salvaging a plan.

Today I was OBE. Interestingly enough, I also found the point at which I walk out of a situation. I’ve never walked away from something – it took ten hours and an IKEA.

Note: The original draft of this post was a lot longer. I’m editing it down to highlight why today was rough.
The plan was as follows: Get up early, get to IKEA and set up delivery of goods, get perfume at Sephora, go buy bracelet at Tibetan district, maybe hit up JinLi or one of the monasteries and relax. If it’s too late, I’ll take a taxi back. At one point during my horrible day today – when Vega realized he left his umbrella at IKEA and had me watch his backpack for twenty-odd minutes in a mall – I can only think that this was supposed to be a fun, quick trip. IKEA was supposed to be, at most, maybe half of my day. Pick out some cool things for my room and move on. It was not supposed to be a maddening full day of Hell.

But it was – IKEA was not a fun experience. There were so many people, constantly moving and stopping. I don’t speak Swedish or Chinese, so nothing made sense. The workers were not really interested in helping me, and Vega was so…I’ll say polite…that he just kept agreeing to do what they said, which was mostly go find someone else. This was when he showed up at the end to help me buy my list – I let him go relax while I walked around because he was so clearly bored. In short, what was supposed to take maybe two hours took closer to five, and ate up the entire day. I got my first case of anxiety ever, and I blame the music – they kept “Let it Snow!” and “Let it Go!” playing on repeat.

I got the perfume at Sephora – nonrefundable I’m told. Brilliant.

On the metro, I’m in line to get on the train. It’s going to be packed – it always is at the junction at Tianfu Square. It’s the only stop where Lines 1 and 2 of the metro meet. Exiting passengers go out the middle, entering passengers enter on the sides. I’m in line – there’s a guard trying to keep people from getting too close to the doors. As the people start exiting, something goes wrong – no, not wrong. I’m told this is just how China is. A second line forms next to our “official” line, and they start cutting people off and shoving through the exiting passengers. The guard stops our line, and I’m not allowed on the train. Vega is. I’m staring at my angry, pudgy face in the glass of the tunnel, fuming. I tell myself it could be worse – the footage of Ukraine on the TV makes me guilty for feeling so put out.

On the second train, I’m shoved hard into the doors, as I think someone fell over in the jostling.

There’s no line for the WenJiang bus – a blessing! The driver takes a strangely circuitous route to avoid traffic. The was no line for the bus because all the buses have stopped running in Wenjiang for the day. Vega apologizes again and suggests we get a taxi. The first taxi we see doesn’t know the IBIS hotel. I say I have the address, but Vega wants a taxi that knows the hotel.

That’s when I walk away.

I’ve had enough – I spent hours in a store in utter confusion, I got cut out of my subway line, there are no buses, I’ve been dealing with unhelpful people. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I will not walk around in circles trying to find a specific taxi, and I will not hear one more word.

So I tell Vega it would be easier if he found himself a taxi to the school, I will be “just fine” walking. Because English is not his native language, I don’t think he can hear my tone change. But I can – I recognize what’s going on. I am being hyper-chipper, which means I am just about to snap. He’s not comfortable with me walking, but I don’t care. And before I say anything cruel or sarcastic (I’ve been biting down cruel, sarcastic, mean-spirited things all day – if I start, I won’t stop), I’m off. I sort of know where I’m going. It might be a mile and a half or so to the hotel.

I think it can’t get any worse – but it can.

In my angry walking, I step wrong or hit a weird spot in the sidewalk. My heel decides to remind me of every nerve ending in my foot. It hurts, bad, but I can still walk, and now I’m really angry walking. I’m stewing and I like it. I like how hurtful I’m being to the world in my head, squashing the nice voice that tells me to chill and just roll with the punches. The only thing that voice can get through is to tell me if I scowl more people will stare. I try not to scowl.

I know I have to head south, but there are no intersections for a good long while. I’m worried about my foot and don’t realize that I’ve started to cross the first intersection I find just when the light turns green. I dodge cars (mindful of moody foot) and keep walking.

A man hits me with a flyer – I won’t take it, so he jabs my arm with the pointed end as I pass. I don’t know how I kept a calm exterior – I murdered him in my brain.

At last, I see my landmark – the Gloria something Hotel, with its shark fin top. WenJiang Park – I know where I am! In the park over a hundred Chinese people are dancing some sort of soft Zumba to a techno beat. It’s twilight, but I will make it.

I stop at the HongQi chain to get a milk tea once I get close to my hotel, to calm myself. I reach for the tea, and somehow upend the price tag shelf. I’m holding this plastic shelf thing in my hand, staring at it like it’s an alien. I fix the shelf and rest my forehead against the door for a slow exhalation. My hotel is a block away.

I make it to my room. My room, which was not cleaned today.

OBE