Stealing our business

When going to a faraway place, my host family insists upon the aid of locals, claiming that otherwise, we would be lost, or swindled, or found in a ditch with our passports and clothes and dignity stolen. Therefore, even though we were “free-walkers,” referencing a poorly translated bit of Chinese from Hainan Airlines’ travel magazine, we were still largely under the direction of a group of local tour guides and drivers. Yunnan, a place where large numbers of ethnic minorities converge (66 in Kunming, 52 in Dali, 22 in Lijiang, as claimed by our guides), perhaps due to its diversity, has a particular set of rules dictating the behavior of tour guides. We went to three cities, and we switched guides and drivers three times. In Kunming, the Yi people dominated, in Dali, the Bai people, and in Lijiang, the Naxi people. Our second guide, a particularly cute Bai girl, or Golden Flower, who was only a few years older than myself, explained it as territorial behavior. Stepping across city bounds into another ethnic territory was seen as stealing the food right out of another people’s rice bowl, and is not done, out of respect and a basic avoidance of conflict.

Consequently, we were able to experience a distinctly different culture every time we swapped cities, or woke up from a terrifying midnight train ride. The conversations would naturally shift towards marriage, marriage rites, and the treatment of male female relationships. Sure, most of this served as amusement, such as the Bai people, whose unwed men wear their hair in a small pony tail at their crown, and the caressing of this tail indicated a potentially interested partner; or the Mosuo people, who are regarded as one of the only relics of the so-called “walking marriage,” in other words, no marriage, in which children have mothers and uncles, but no fathers. A Mosuo boy throws a bone to his partner’s watchdog, and welcomes himself into her bed, only to sneak away in escape before dawn.

Our Golden Flower spoke of herself: in the Bai tradition, the person who seeks the wedding must support the family. She is the breadwinner of the family, working long hours, especially during peak travel season. She said that marriage cannot be looked upon as a game, but as a duty, and that sometimes personal sacrifices need to be made in the interest of the family. As she spoke of this, and the Bai people’s particular version of Valentine’s Day, April 25, when you fail to honor your partner, but seek instead to reunite with lovers past, a wet glint streaked across her eyes.

Location: Dali, Yunnan, China

A most comical and unsuccessful roadtrip

Expansive, wide, without boundary, circled by trees in the distance, lush and green, dotted by wildflowers, and the sound of locusts: that’s what I was expecting. My last boss, Seward, used to tell me that in order to not be overwhelmingly disappointed by reality, I need to set my expectations low.

We took a two day roadtrip to the grassland (草原) north of Zhangjiakou (张家口), a spur of the moment decision made the day before. I suppose I was warned in advance, by multiple sources, yet my Ayi still managed to drag the entirety of my downstairs family into the endeavor. We spent 5+ hours on the way over and 6+ hours on the way back, on a trip that supposedly takes only 2 hours. Massive highway backups, giant shipping trucks loaded with cabbage and lettuce, and absolute fail toll infrastructure made for far too much tense driving. Not to mention the pouring rain once we arrived, the stipulation that foreign nationals are not allowed to stay in the hotels, and the massive, ill bout of diarrhea that plagued me on the way back, which induced me to race out into noxious, toll booth traffic and hop a highway divider in order to get to a suitable place to drop my pants. To top the summation of all these setbacks was the absolutely uninspired grassland: fenced in, yellow, bogged with water, and smelling of horse poo.

I don’t think anyone had too much fun, except perhaps Baofeng, who fulfilled his goal of eating whole roast lamb. I believe the diarrhea alone was punishment enough for my having dragged a carful of people to this place.

My one consolation was perhaps the quaint little meal we had with a local farm family, yes, the same place that likely gave me diarrhea with their homemade vegetable oil, simply because they had a solar water boiler.


Location: Zhangjiakou, China

Friendly cops and neighborhood spots

Ridiculous. I walked outside of the convention center and there they were, more than a dozen of them, sitting along the parking stiles like birds on a power line, or workers on a girder. For all my negative feelings toward police authority in general, I would still describe these guys as rather adorable.

This was right outside of the China National Convention Center, in Olympic park, by the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, where I was attending the 2010 International Music Educator’s Conference. Xiao Yi, a music teacher, had a couple of extra delegate passes and invited me to sit in on the presentations and performances. As a whole, I have to say the conference was a big disappointment for me: poor, crowded, out-of-tune performances, a smattering of bad food, and equally unappealing discussions. But then again, I am not a music educator, just a scraggly youth with a little bit of love for music and a well-connected host family.

It was nice, however, walking around Olympic Park on a fair-weathered day.

Location: Beijing, China

Difficulties with food

The other night, Baofeng took me to Wangfujing (王府井), to gawk at and try the odd food items they have in the multiple vendors along the street. I didn’t end up trying anything too out of ordinary, just some fried dough and lamb kidneys. The spice from the sizzling kidneys and the ridiculous sauna weather drove us indoors before long. On the way out, we got to talking about street food and foreign diets.

I suppose it doesn’t surprise me too much, this lack of understanding of Western food. If I didn’t know better, I would probably think of Chinese food as General Gao’s Chicken and Kun Pow Beef. The equivalent is true here. People here comment a lot about my height, dismissing it as a product of growing up eating hamburgers. When I ask people what they think Americans eat, they answer: pizza, burgers, fries, and sandwiches. Yes, these are iconically American, in the same way that General Gao’s Chicken is iconically Chinese, or pasta is iconically Italian. It is true, we eat a lot of junk in the States, and lots of people have no idea what cooking is, but modern American food is so much more than a slew of cosmopolitan carbon copies.

Honestly, healthy eating is not defined by the food itself, but by the quality of ingredients, the full constituency, and the care taken in its creation. There is plenty of junk food eaten here: cookies, cakes, pastries, packaged and unpackaged, loaded fancifully with sugar instead of corn syrup, chips, greasy street snacks, deep fried anything and everythings. In fact, everything about my household’s eating habits goes against my personal beliefs about food. They get takeout a lot, and eat out a lot, and have lots of junky snacks throughout the day between consistent meal times. Just because the food is Chinese in nature does not make it any fresher, any more direct from the ground, or any more healthy.

I am slowly introducing them to aspects of my food philosophy: starting from as scratch as possible, as fresh as possible, and developing native flavors intensely and slowly. I cooked for them yesterday, starting with the simple things: fresh griddle cakes in the morning with honey and jam, mini meat patties, beef turnovers, tomato salad, and spaghetti at night with fresh tomato basil garlic sauce and a lightly dressed salad. Everything was eaten, everything was approved.

Location: Beijing, China

A whole lot bigger

Never in the world could I have imagined enough scenarios about my move to China to have anticipated this one. I’ve been here a week and a half, and I’m still a bit lost in the clouds. Beijing is gigantic, happening, and muggy beyond belief. My first week here was marked by various sorts of detoxification and toxification: sweating from all pores and orifices, readjusting to a formally hospitable environment, and dealing with dirt, dust and tragically underrated air pollution. Yesterday, the air finally cleared, the temperature dipped below 30C, I could see mountains in the skyline, and even some stars at night.

…I am a sucker for these things.

I have to say, for all my recourse, that I rather like it here. My host mom, who the neighbors have dubbed Zhang Zong (since she owns a variety of businesses and is always running busily between her stores) and I have affectionally dubbed Ayi, is pretty fantastic. She’s gorgeous, and successful, and busy: the way I like life to be lived. She has a thirteen year old son Baofeng, who I drag most places with me to prevent becoming lost. This was all expected, and described in detail by HHS Center, but what I did not expect was the largeness of the extended family I had moved into. On the first floor lives Xiaolu Ayi’s family, who are also hosting an au pair: Matthias, from Germany. Our families hang out all the time; in fact, I can barely count the days in which we haven’t seen each other…because there aren’t any.

The other day, Ayi took us out for a welcome dinner, and we ate hot pot, even though it’s the middle of summer and no additional steam source was necessary.


Location: Beijing, China

Better a tourist

On perhaps our third/fourth day, time befuddles me in retrospect, Christie and I decided to head over to the Asian side of Istanbul. Had we (I) woken up at a regular hour, perhaps the next series of events wouldn’t have occurred, and thus, I thank myself for waking up at the early hour of 2PM. At the Kabata? ferryboat station, while confusedly searching for the ferry schedule to Üsküdar, a middle-aged, weather worn, tourist-looking man approached us and suggested we visit the Prince’s Islands, where he has a summer home. What started as a suspicious introduction turned into a sun-filled afternoon listening to a tragically autobiographical tale.

He was a carpet and goods dealer, buying and reselling overseas. He had spent the last twenty years in New Zealand, opening up shop with his wife and kids. Then, after a brutal, unexpected divorce, he found himself exiled to the country of his origin, a tourist in his native country. He kindly invited us into his home, a cute and small apartment nestled in the hills: private, just enough, and real. We sat on the shore line watching the sun sneak past its peak, drinking island tea. Afterwards, we supplanted the freshest seasonal fruits: black cherries, overripe and seedy grapes, and cold melon, to his home, and ate under the fleeting twilight sun. He sent us home with fresh bread.

Location: Princes’ Islands (not sure which one), Istanbul, Turkey


It is strange to always have to avoid looking people in the eyes, but down those narrow tourist-geared alleys, it was the only way to escape being hassled. Ni hao, an nyoung ha seh yo, konichi wa, hello, I’m here, we have rice here, flood us from all directions, menus thrust into eyesight, perhaps-desperate restaurant owners stand in our ways. This was the difficult part, escaping these death traps and finding those places with more suave and native pull. We managed, and when we did, it was wonderful. In an economy largely supported by tourism, it makes sense that Istanbul natives, especially men, feel the necessity to sell you not only with their wares, but their friendship and companionship. When faced with such friendship, one which both parties expect to terminate in hours or days, false sincerity and false promises are exchanged…or perhaps, not false, but simply cheap.

Beginning with such a bleak view of the personages of this city, I was surprised by the number of truly valuable interactions Christie and I found. On the evening of the second day, exhausted, we spent the better part of an hour wandering Ishtiklal searching for a suitable hookah bar. Most of the ones we passed were either filled with thumping Europop music and screaming, or fully-opiated patrons. On a quieter street, we settled on a cute place situated on a hilly street with a non-English-speaking owner and a number of friendly looking locals. Aside from some of the best, longest-lasting hookah I’ve ever smoked, we also managed to learn the basics of backgammon from the nice Kurdish owner, Osman. Backgammon, tawula in Turkish, was taught to us completely in Turkish (which explains why I only managed to learn the numbers up to six). It became our one consistent obsession over the next few days, and we managed to sneak in a few games every time we sat down to tea.

At one point during the night, Osman was sitting next to me studying Christie’s guide book, Just Enough Turkish. He leaned over and had me read from it. Are you married, the page read. I shook my head no, and motioned to Christie and myself. He then pointed to the next line in the book, I am married, shook his head, and said, Prob-lem. A problem indeed. I suppose religious and cultural stipulations make it difficult for Turkish men to interact with women, single or otherwise, outside of their own immediate family. Foreign women who come to Turkey on vacation or for business provide some of the only opportunities for such interactions. As such, these interactions are often a bit strange, or awkward, perhaps due to lack of practice or normalcy. The cute, shy waiter guided me to the restroom at one point in the night (the toilet was in a neighboring restaurant), and when I had finished, he told me his name, shook my hand, and clasped it for the better part of a minute, unwilling to let go.


Location: Istanbul, Turkey