Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cave Dwellers

When I was a kid, our family vacations often consisted of going camping at Rend Lake in Southern Illinois. Rend Lake is the lake that was a few miles from our house, but to make it feel like we were on a major journey, our parents would always take us to camp on the other side.


Now, we did have some fun times, but I would yearn for the times when we would go further than the next county over. And get to sleep in an actual bed. And didn't have to catch our food if we wanted to eat. And use a real shower.

I don't blame my parents. A trip to the lake was a low-cost vacation and we didn't have a lot of money. Plus, the main purpose for a vacation is to get away from the stress of work. My dad worked hard in a coal mine and just wanted to get away now and then. Planning a big trip often just causes more stress and my father was of the belief that encouraging man's careless eagerness to live indoors just exaggerated that stress.

Despite the desire to stay close to home and eat burnt potatoes dug out of a campfire, sometimes we had to venture further out because my mother's family lived on the other side of Missouri. On one of our trips to visit them, we made an unscheduled stop to visit Onondaga Cave. I don't know how our parents felt about it, but that cave blew my brothers and I away. It was awesome. From that day on, anytime we were in the St. Louis area, we would beg to go back and see the cave.

On one of these trips, as we saw the interstate sign advertising that the cave was 87 MILES AHEAD, we started our usual pleading and my mother pointed out that there other caves beside that one. Now, that may have been true, but we had not seen those other caves and as stupid children (you may have noticed this about your own children), we wanted to see the one we knew we loved.

Despite how adorable we were, my mother denied our request and forced us to go to Meramac Caverns instead. Once we stopped crying about how horrible our mother was being to us, we looked around and noticed that this cave was even better than Onondaga. It was amazing. From then on, we became cave people.
Wait. Not "cave people" like we quit school and started living naked in the caverns while eating the few bats we could knock off the ceiling and using their guano to protect our skin from the sun when we stepped outside, but "cave people" like people who really enjoy caves.
Every time we were on a road trip, we kept our eyes open for cave systems and since Missouri has over 6,000 chartered caves, there were plenty to find. Our vacations started to center around cavern systems instead of the local lake. One of our vacations even took us to Arkansas because of a large system of caverns we were eager to explore.

On one of these trips, Dad heard about a cave we could explore ourselves and we drove out in the middle of BFE to find it. We went down miles of dirt roads and eventually parked in a field and started walking. It was a long walk, but we eventually found the mouth of the cave and ventured in. I was in junior high and my brothers are 3 and 5 years younger than me. This means that we are significantly younger and more nimble than our parents and were able to move through the cave more quickly and easily.  As the ceiling of the cave got lower and lower, my brothers and I pulled further ahead.

Before long, it required crawling on our hands and knees to progress further. Our parents checked our lights and told us we could go a few yards up to see if it opened up on the other side. If it did, they would follow us through. We edged forward as the ceiling lowered and lowered and soon had to pull ourselves along on our bellies. We yelled back that we were fine every time we heard our parents voices calling for us and continued forward.

As the ceiling started scraping our backs when we moved forward, we decided to move over into the small stream that was flowing beside us. The water was freezing, but the erosion of flowing water gave a few more inches of space to work with. Unfortunately, the ceiling was still getting lower as we progressed. We eventually had to flip over onto our backs and just keep our faces above the water as we pulled ourselves through. Imagine lying on your back in about a foot of water unable raise your head out of the water because there is a slab of stone about two inches above the surface. This is what we were pulling ourselves through. Of course, now that our ears were underwater, we could no longer hear the cries of our parents screaming for us to answer them.



We slowly pushed forward with no regard as to how we would back out of this if the ceiling got so low we couldn't breathe or what our plan would be if the water started to rise. Remember my earlier statement about children being stupid? We inched along and began to notice that we had a little more space than before. We were soon able to flip back over to our stomachs and move much faster. And then, we found the opening. It opened up into a HUGE room. Stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns were everywhere. It was beautiful.

As much as we wanted to see everything, we could see that there were several paths out of that room and did not want to get lost, so we needed to head back to let our parents know that there was a room back here and they could come on through. We went back into the hole we just came out of.

Using the same method of lying on our backs to breathe, we inched our way back to our parents and surprisingly found them much sooner than we expected. When they were no longer able to hear us, they had done their best to follow us and prayed we didn't all get lost in there forever. They stopped in one of the little rooms we had found not knowing where we had gone after that. They didn't realize there was a path deeper in if you were willing to submerge yourself in water and pull yourself through on your back. Who was being stupid now?

I think that was the first time I ever got grounded on a subterranean level.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

Red and I have been in China for nine months now and we have one of those "first-time since arriving" milestones coming up. We are going back home to visit.

Now, we have not even been here a year yet, but since our jobs are in the education field we have chosen to take advantage of the summer school vacation to come back to the States to clean out our storage unit and tie up a few loose ends we weren't sure what to do about before we left.

We have a list of tasks we need to do, but there are several things I have been fantasizing about ever since we booked the plane tickets.

No, China, no!
Bad China!
Learn what a hamburger is.
The meals we each want. As much as we love the food of Beijing (and we do love it), the food here leaves much to be desired when they attempt to create a food from other places (for example, any place outside of China). It took us almost four months to find a decent pizza here, over six months to find a hamburger I could choke down, and we still haven't found anything that remotely resembles Mexican food. Eggs are always radically overcooked and I think they boil their bacon. I've had Mountain Dew exactly twice in nine months and I had to pay a fortune to have it shipped to me from Thailand. And lastly, I miss American-style Chinese food. I plan to visit the #6 China Buffet in my hometown. That may sound crazy, but you can't get any of that stuff here in China.

Walking down the street knowing what's happening. Right now, we can't read the street signs, we don't understand the conversations around us, we can't appropriately respond to store clerks or waiters questions, and we're basically guessing about everything all the time. We have gotten pretty good at shutting the world out to prevent mental exhaustion. Although, we do have some concern that when we get back into an English-speaking country, the sudden influx of understandable dialogue and readable street signs may be information overload.

Having people laugh at my jokes. As a person who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm, back-handed insults and witty banter, it is sheer torture to be surrounded by people who don't understand my sense of humor. It's not just a language thing. The Chinese find totally different things to be funny. Just yesterday, I was explaining to a Chinese girl that I prefer to watch movies at home and don't really enjoy the movie theater experience because they won't pause the movie for me to run to the fridge and I always get thrown out when I take my pants off. She paused for a moment, looked at me scornfully and said, "No. You can't take your pants off" and then proceeded to tell me how nice the Beijing theaters were. A few months ago, I asked my boss (I teach English) how many kids I could choke each week before I would get in trouble. She just said, "We don't do that here" and continued explaining my pay schedule. I NEED people to laugh at me.

Let's go back to food for a moment. I want a steak. A big, fat, juicy steak. I've been out for steak a couple of times here and (once again) I don't know what they do to meat here, but I was depressed for a week afterward. I have to get a good steak while I'm in the States.

Step outside without people staring at us. We live in a very international city, but in a strictly Chinese neighborhood. There are exactly ZERO non-Chinese people living in our neighborhood. It is not uncommon for children to point at us or for us to hear the words 老外 lǎowài (foreigner) or 美国人 iguórén (American) from people who don't realize that those are two of the seven words we actually know. We are such a novelty, people even approach us to have their picture taken with us. I know I'm ready to just blend into a crowd and not be noticed.

"That man is so tall. How does he not fall over?"


Have a conversation with someone that is not my wife. I love my wife. Very much. She is my favorite person in the world. However, sometimes…just sometimes, I want to talk to someone who is not her. I talk to a lot of people, but due to language and cultural issues the conversation is generally quite shallow. I'm looking forward to sitting in a group conversation involving complete understanding from all participants.

We really need to learn Chinese.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Am Who I Am

Since moving to Beijing, I have been continually amazed at how much of my previous knowledge about China and Chinese people is totally wrong.
  • Rice is not nearly as prevalent as I thought.
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's anthing? You will never find any of these foods.
  • Although it is a highly respected ancient skill, almost no one knows kung fu. Which means no kung fu battles on the streets.
  • Their children are not math geniuses.
  • There is an alarming lack of ninjas.
  • I have yet to come across a panda digging through a trash can.
These misconceptions work both ways. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the Chinese belief that all foreigners hate cilantro (click here to read it). Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, but I have had many encounters with people here who are surprised that I am not what they consider to be a "typical American".

My wife and I both enjoy spicy food. Now, I know that not all Americans can handle spicy dishes, but I know many people who love to test their intestinal endurance. Any time a dish is being prepared in front of us, when the cook gets to the spicy ingredient s/he pauses. "Oh, crap. This is for an American. They can't handle this stuff, but I can't just leave it out. That might be insulting and Americans like to shoot people." The cook then holds up the spoonful of red powder and gives us a look that clearly communicates, "Are you going to want this stuff." We always smile and nod 对 (duì, duì - yes;that's right) while we point to the dish. It becomes immediately obvious that they are surprised by that answer or concerned that we may not be sure what we just agreed to.

I don't care about sports. When a local here learns that I am from Illinois, they don't know what that means. But if I tell them it is where Chicago is, they want to talk about the Bulls. This is something I cannot do. All I know about the Bulls is that Michael Jordan played for them until he quit to make a movie with Bugs Bunny and sell underwear. Every kid wants to know what my favorite sport is and what teams I follow. Due to the language barrier, it takes great effort to get them to understand I don't care about any of it. They always seem genuinely confused. This happened in the States too, but at least I could explain that I think grown men chasing a ball is not quality entertainment.

I am not a big drinker of alcohol. I get the impression that Americans are viewed as being big partiers and I know there is a Chinese belief that Americans can hold their liquor better than the Chinese. Because of this belief, in social situations (even when work-related) they want to see this demonstrated. The liquor flows freely and there is always someone to keep refilling your glass or bring you a new drink whether you want it or not. I am not opposed to having a beer or two, but that's it. When I say I'm done, it always causes confusion and I am sure that I am breaking a few social rules. Although, on that one I am a typical American. I have no problem breaking social rules. Been practicing for years.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Power Game

On October 18th, I wrote about the adventure of paying my power bill in China. You can read that post here. Without getting into how difficult it was to pay, here is a recap of the money portion of it.



The picture above was taken on October 18, 2016. Those numbers are the amount of money that I had on the meter. In US dollars that is close to $75. Many people asked me how long I expected $75 to last, but I had no way of knowing at the time. My guess was that we were good to go for about a month.

I checked that meter every week for the next month because I didn't want it to run out and have our power shut off, but I soon quit checking because it moved slower than a stoned sloth on Ambien. I didn't look at it again until the beginning of May when we started using our air conditioner because the temperature hit nearly 100.

Once the air was on, it started moving (although slowly) and it got down to 125¥ about two weeks ago. That means it took seven months for us to use just under 400¥. For those of you playing at home, that is less than $60 for seven months of electricity usage. That averages out to less than $10 per month. It was under $4 when we weren't using the air conditioner.

I can't help but wonder why I always paid at least $300 every month for the same service when I lived in the States. I have a theory, but it's rather controversial and involves Kathy Griffin devouring the gall bladders of lab-grown goat embryos provided by the Illuminati to finance a third Paul Blart movie. I try not to get political here, so I won't get into details.

In the meantime, as the city outside is melting, I have no reservations about cranking the A/C up high enough to have icicles forming on our shower curtain rod since the monthly expense is less than a couple of Big Macs.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Relaxing Week

Living and working in China definitely comes with its share of challenges, but it has some great advantages as well. Today, I am enjoying one of those perks. I didn't have to go to work.

About a month after arriving in China, we experienced some horribly unpleasant weeks when we were pulled out of our jobs until our work visas were completed. This left us without work and without money. This experience led me to demand guaranteed pay in my next job. The school can make any decision it wants about how often my classes are cancelled, but my contract states that it cannot affect my pay. This clause has protected me several times.

Right now is one of those times. This past weekend was Memorial Day in America. Coincidentally, we also had a three-day weekend in China. However, here, it is the Dragon Boat Festival (忠孝節). We had to have school on Saturday because the holiday stretched from Sunday to Tuesday. Since we would be missing two days of school, they added an extra day at the end of last week to get one of those days back.

I reported back to work on Wednesday and was told that I would not need to come to work the following day because June 1st is Children's Day. School would be in session, but it would be a day of parties and there would be no need for English class. I also never work on Fridays, so I had a one-day work week. Lucky me.

Don't let their appearance fool you. All children are horrible.

Children's Day is a major holiday for children here. The kids in my class say that it is better than Christmas. The whole day is dedicated to them. In fact, the majority of my classes for the last month got cancelled because the children were preparing songs and skits for the Children's Day celebration. I have worked so little in the past month, this is why I am happy to have that guaranteed paycheck agreement. Time off is nice, but bills still have to be paid.

With all this time off, I have tackled many of the issues that have needed to be attended to. I have figured out food delivery, how to order stuff online, where to buy clothes in my size (Chinese people are significantly smaller than me), and how to repel panda attacks. I'm starting to figure out how China works.