Back in Beijing

The last time I was in Beijing, it was December, wickedly cold, and busy busy busy as I helped a student prepare for an English speech competition.  (By the way, he placed in the top three, not that I’m bragging *cough*beimpressed*cough*).  It goes without saying that a lot of things have changed since then.

For one, Beijing.

No, the city didn’t suddenly get swallowed up by a sinkhole and transform.  It’s still the cosmopolitan/traditional mishmash that it’s been for years.  But now, it’s summer, which means that evenings have full streets of people slurping ice cream, buying snacks, and speaking in the very distinctive Northern accent I’m completely unaccustomed to.  Not this concrete sprawl intercepted by cultural relics that I thought it was back in December. 

Damn, Beijing’s huge. 

“I mean, seriously huge,” I told my former classmate Ruonan, who’s from Beijing.  “I thought Hangzhou was a big city, but well…yeah.  Beijing’s huge.”

We walked along a gussied-up hutong area that was full of restaurants and bars, clothing designs, and lots of bikes and cars wending their ways through the people.  Ruonan’s been in Decorah, Iowa, studying for a long time, and after a year of hanging out with students learning English in China, it was a jolt for me to remember that I didn’t have to explain everything I said, or shy away from Midwestern-isms.

“You can tell your students about Decorah,” she said.  “It’s too small.”

“By Chinese standards, I guess.”

And we kept walking along the street.  Already, Decorah feels like a faraway dream, this distant land of Make Believe where I used to run around with my friends and explore in the middle of the night when the ink-black sky felt particularly delicious.  A hunk of rock, a patch of trees, a folk dance on the side streets.

In other words, nothing like Beijing. 


“Oh, look!  Dancing!”  I said.  Three women were in front of the subway entrance park dancing what Ruonan told me was a Tibetan-style dance.  A woman bent and reached her arms out as if offering every last piece of her soul in a move I later learned meant “I love you.”  They swirled in their skirts as harmonicas, drums, and stomping feet accompanied them. 

“You should join them.  I mean, why not?” Ruonan said.

Why not, indeed. 

After moments twiddling away on the sidelines, I gave Ruonan my purse and started swaying in my respective corner.  Immediately, the clapping got louder and the surrounding people urged me with “Yeah!  Yeah!” until I was in the center with the women dancing.  We wove in circles, flicked our wrists, and arched our arms in fluid (well, not for me, I guess), movements.  When it was all done, we bowed, and even though I was being the dancing white monkey, we came away smiling.  Ruonan grinned from behind her phone, in which I know are videos and pictures. 

The last time I came to Beijing, I was worried about the kind of person I was trying to be, the kind of person I wasn’t, and the kind of person I ought to have been.  I was a child lost in grey cold streets as the world told me to keep up.  And I was always three steps behind.  But as I said, Beijing is huge.  And this time around, I’m seeing the other people.  The other, fascinating, joyful, kooky, claptrap people turning up wherever there’s space. 

Some places need a second glance.


By the Sea

Qingdao is known for the three B’s: buildings with red roofs, beer, and beaches.  Well, I saw the buildings on the first day, clamoring up hills to catch the skyline that is pasted all over postcards.  I went to the Qingdao Brewery, which was full of horrifying mannequins, and funny translations which are part of the building ultimately concerned with slapping labels onto glass.  I drank the beer, of course, which is served in plastic bags because, you know, class. 

But today, I went to the beach.

“Wow, look at those waves!” I said to no one in particular.  The crack-a-thunder of water colliding with barnacle-crusted rock, tearing away space before the tide smothered them.  I’d been to the main beach in town, which is full of Chinese swimmers, sand, and men in speedos going for a run.  But here, it was all back to the wild.  Waves.  Rolling, advancing waves.  They rose in cymbal-crashes, which I welcomed with raised arms.

“Argh!” I yelled as salt water splashed in my face.  I hadn’t been paying attention to the tide, being raised in Minnesota.  I skittered along the rocks, the horned, spine-cracked surface with shells welded into the stone.  It was not a place for billy-goat hopping. 

That’s the thing about seas: the shoreline’s always changing, and the wildlife skitters in whatever spaces it can find—crabs scuttling and clawing at each other, bugs scattering with my shadow.  Rocks are a map of what has been able to live through the waves, advancing like fingers sifting through files.  All ending in foam. 

I kept going along the shore, picking up stray shell-bits, taking pictures, stating the obvious to local Chinese people (“Is that your boat?  It’s very big!”)  until I was stopped by the disappearing shoreline behind me.

And so I returned to watch this advance of destruction.  The rocks on the shore evidence of what can survive the beating waves.  From a distance, it’s welcoming sea foam, light breezes, soft sand.  But once the water rises, it’s the clamp of water against rock.  First, a sprawl of sand with rocks littered like accidents.  Then, the spines of barnacle-rock slowly disappear, the waves consuming them in silent roars.  Shhhh it says as the water crashes and thumps along rock, weathered fishing boats bobbing in the rising waves.  The shore, now a crescent, caves into the pressure, the urge of nature insisting on the change. 

I watched it come toward the shore, first in the tepid ripples, then the cymbal-crash explosions like firecrackers shooting from the sea.  The water swept back, rocks clacking from trying to settle before it all began again.  White-tipped jagged edges, gaining momentum, sometimes collapsing into itself, sometimes smashing into the barricaded wall which we stood on top of.  A moment of indecision as I thought the tide was surely done.  And then the waves won.  The shore, no longer present, now a silent secret under waves.  A graveyard of stone.

The memory of waves is fickle, and I found that, if not for the pictures I’d taken, I might not have remembered where I’d once walked, where once there were rocks to scuttle along. 

But the sea waits for no one.  And so it was that I left this beach with the sounds of waves advancing with every step I took back to the bus downtown, the crisp clutch of salt in the air fading with exhaust fumes.

And the rocks clattered along the bottom, shaping tomorrow’s shore.


Like a Sherpa

Someone took a picture of me as I walked into the Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao, and said he was going to send it to Lonely Planet.  Don’t get excited.  He saw me walking into the building, with a backpack stuffed to the gills (the small black one I use for school), my sandals lashed onto the back, my raincoat tied around the back as a rain cover, and then my glasses, which he thought were “special.”

“No one could be mad when someone like you walks into the room!”  he said with a smile. I think he meant it as a compliment, though I can’t help but think I must look like a buffoon with my backpack, bent over like Quasimodo on a pilgrimage.

Despite all of this, I am proud.  I reduced, reduced, reduced until it was just me and that backpack, which will be sort of my pal on the road this time.  Everything’s in there, hilariously squashed down until it’s nothing more than wrinkled lumps.  Absolute minimum, as it were.  All clothes mercilessly compressed into a sack, first-aid kit gutted for all of the essentials, laundry detergent at the ready to make the most of my meager clothing pile. 

Am I a backpacker?  No.  Because I’m not exactly roughing it.  I’m staying in hostels, which means that in this backpack, I don’t need to lash anything like a sleeping bag or tent for those good ol’ slumber parties on the road.  I’m just an idiot who detests the rolly sound suitcases make on the ground when they get all cockeyed and threaten to fall over and down the stairs. 

It’s called packing to move.

And now some random people on the Lonely Planet website can look and see me schlep. 

The Weekly Weird–June 16-22


Since I’ll be on the road shortly, this will be my last “Weekly Weird” for a while.  I have no doubt that they’re be strange things wherever I go, but maybe it needs some time off, too.  I’ll be dropping in every so often with updates along the way, so feel free to stop in and have a look. 

For now, here’s a final collection of the strange in Hangzhou.



I’ve talked about the smiling poop-like sausage called “Breakfast Sausage” before.  That time, it was a smiling, albeit dubious-looking sausage link grinning at a sun.  This time, what really caught my eye was a more serious poop-sicle.  It had a stern face, furrowed eyebrows, and a red cape billowing behind it.  As if in mockery of the Man of Steel, Superpoop had an “S” on its chest.  Two very large fingers hold up this Justice League reject as it says something along the lines of “Keeping breakfast safe and making health better.”  But I don’t know.  Even in the plastic wrapping, I have to look again and again to make sure there aren’t any other nasty surprises, of not-so-heroic proportions.  Because, if a meal is in danger, Superpoop is probably the last thing I’d call to help.  


Collon, come here

This was another snack I saw that made me look twice.  Not because there was anything overtly weird in the packaging, but because the name “Collon” was uncomfortably close to anatomy.  The images on the outside included these toilet-paper rolls with rabbit ears smiling up at the buyer.  They hopped around on the back, on the front, and I had to wonder why toilet-paper wafers had to move at all.  So I was concerned, to say the least.  Instead, when I opened the pastel-colored package with strawberries on it, I saw this rolled wafer-like sticks, which were surprisingly normal.  I ate a few, waiting for some kind of kick, but it never came.  Instead, it was a snack with a very poor choice in name.  Good intentions warped when people like me take them for a spin.


Chipmunks for Sale

I found out what will happen with the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise at last dies out.  No, there will not be a nostalgia tour.  No, there will not even be reunions where they sign pictures and reminisce about what it was like to have obnoxiously-high voices.  They will be in China, and they will be sold as pets to anyone who wants them.

Maybe in this part of the world, owning a chipmunk as a pet isn’t all that strange. But for someone who saw them scurrying all over the yard on a daily basis, the last thing I would want to do is keep one in a little hamster cage and watch it attempt to be cute.  All the same, I saw them in little cages outside of Wumart and there were children admiring them the same way we might look at puppies in the window back at home. 

Maybe Alvin would get a second wind and reach star-dom all over again.  

Oh, god, I shouldn’t even suggest it.


A-Stick Mini

For my last Weird Random Thing, I decided to try “A Stick” snacks.  Mostly because there was a monster on the front, and it looked cute, even with a wafer shoved into its mouth.  This particular monster was chocolate-colored, had one giant eye, and was holding a brown and white-striped wafer-stick like a staff.  I turned the cover over, and there were more monsters.  “Coconut Boy,” “Cheese Girl,” “Vanilla Girl,” and “Peanut Boy.”  But somehow, the chocolate man was missing.  “Where did he go?” I wondered, trying not to look too deep into it.  The monsters were all lined up with open, grinning mouths.  Above, in slanted red words, read “Let’s Astick.”  What did “astick” mean, actually?  Was there some horrible secret going on in this clan?  Suddenly, they didn’t look as cute, with their garish eyes all glaring at me, vacant grins likened to hunger.  

“You know what?” I thought, “Let’s not astick.”


Journey to the West

“Did you pack a long-sleeved shirt?” she asked.  We were looking at the blue compression sack containing all of my clothes for the next 2 1/2 months.  

“Yes, I packed it.”

“Do you have enough?”

“It’s definitely enough.”

She picked it up and commented to her son about how tight it was.  Scrunched up like a jack-in-the-box for that first night in the hostel when I wanted to take out a towel for a shower.  Showering out like fabric confetti.  Celebration, party of…well, me.

“How many bags are you bringing?” she asked.

“Just the one.  And maybe one for train-food.”  She just sort of nodded, looking at my littered debris of a packing pile.  “I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” she said.  “But still, be careful.”

Then we took out the giant map of China tacked up over my bed to see where the summer would take us.  She, her son, and her husband, would be going to Xinjiang.  I, too, would be going to Xinjiang, but at a different time and more or less in the cities dubbed “the hottest places in China.” And, no, the reviews were not talking about popularity.  I plan to see ruins, desolate deserts, piercing stars, and whatever else happens to be within bus-distance.  I must not be very good at geography, because along with searing heat, there’s also a glacier nearby, and oh-by-the-way snow-capped mountains.  I fully expect the unexpected, which is to say that I will not be spoiling the effect by looking at too many pictures beforehand.  Which is also to say that, aside from planning the hostel and the train, I haven’t figured the rest out.

“Where else will you go?” she asked as we leaned over the map.  I reached out to point to my first stop, tracing along the railway lines from one stop to the next.  The route more or less from the east of China all the way out to the west.  Me, following the Silk Road, or perhaps the Monkey King, or maybe not following anything at all, who knows.  

“Wow…” she said.  “This will be a very big summer.  You’re very…(she asked her son how to say something in English).

“Brave!” he said.

“Yes, you’re very brave.”

Huh.  I guess I don’t feel very brave.  Brave people climb things and take on armies and defy corrupt forces and kick down the barriers of oppression.  Cripes, I’m just going on vacation.

Still, as my finger traced from Inner Mongolia over to the eventual journey to Xinjiang, then down into (hopefully) Tibet, and then over to the Yangtze River, I started to think “Have I gone crazy?”  Maybe.  But then craziness never hurt anyone.  Much.

“I think you’ll have a great summer,” she said.  “But still, be careful.”

“I will, I promise.”  

And then we said goodbye, and it occurred to me that the next time we saw each other, I could very well have become a completely different kind of crazy.  

Let’s just hope it’s the interesting kind, hmm?


Life, measured in shoestrings

We begin without them.  Bare feet, toes wriggling in the hush of first air upon them.  But then they find us all the same, these feet-coverings that take us further and further away from home.  Tennis shoes to run.  Sparkly shoes to strut.  Cleats to tear the earth asunder.  Shiny black Mary-Janes to impress.  We walk through our lives in a series of shoes, endpoints of one journey to the next.  

To move is to slip from one pair into the next.  To go new places in old soles.

In my closet, a pair of moccasins.  Thick maroon down slippers.  Faded yellow shower shoes from the men’s section in Wumart.  Blue and white crocs from a family wishing to supply me with slippers.  Worn-down black teaching shoes.  A pair of black heels.  Hiking boots.  Tevas.

They can’t all come with, not when the journeys ahead are so far away. Or when the restless feet that beat them down, down, down, on the ground wear them away to stubs of themselves.  Only a few survive.  

I wore the maroon slippers upon returning from Spring Festival.  Hopping, waddling, skipping around the apartment like a child, my incentives for successful travels snug on my feet.  Now, in the drenched summer-heat of Hangzhou, they’re put to rest on top of my closet.  Waiting.  A cold day, warm feet. 

What wait for me, when I come home from summer vacation, are shoes of a very different sort.  Not meant purely for comfort, not something brought from home.  A pair of sporadically-colored converse-knockoffs that I painted with one of my students.  The colors make no sense.  Wild.  Sort of like a nebula-burst on all sides.  Where I’ll go in these shoes, how I walk will all be determined in the fall when I slip them on to wear at last.

Because it’s not until the fabric brushes along the skin, snug and tight, not until our feet bend with the first step and reach out for another, not until we even take a few paces along the ground that we know who we are.  Perhaps a jaunty step, perhaps a lithe one.  A dance.  A tepid stroll.  A tiptoe into the uncharted waters of where we’re meant to go.  

Shoes tell the story, we go along for the ride.

The Weekly Weird–June 9-15

Hangzhou’s gone from nice spring breezes to full-on broiler.  So I’m more than happy to talk about weird things going on rather than how sweat has become the latest fashion trend.

Shall we?


Of Mannequins and Feet

Last week, it was mannequins without heads.  This week, it’s mannequins with complete bodies, but wardrobe malfunctions.  I was out with one of my former students, Faye, who was helping me navigate a three-story clothing market, which is home of the ultra ultra cheap clothing.  We admired all kinds of different clothes, Faye sometimes telling me to wait outside while she bargained for something I liked to make sure I didn’t get ripped off (that’s a true friend, people).  When, all of a sudden, I saw a mannequin with its shoes about to fall off.

“It should probably tie those,” I thought, before realizing that it was not a sentient being.  Instead, I looked closer to realize that the shoes were taped onto the toes, and more or less dangling off.  Maybe the designers wanted those heels to look extra-high, but the result was a little bit unsettling for me.  I mean, why do mannequins need shoes anyway?  Who put shoes on if they can’t even fit?  I mean, Cinderella ended up okay, but c’mon, she wasn’t made of plastic (yet?).  

It reminded me a bit of the models I saw on the runway, stomping right out of their shoes if not for well-placed tape.  So I guess mannequins learn this from somewhere.  Still, they’ll be saying something differently when they can’t sneak off to see the male models at night.


Robots go for a swim

It was a tiny little slice of street-art that was more science fiction than PSA.  A blue electricity box, with a couple holding hands on it.  Except that this couple was actually a brown robot with a cube head and a blonde woman in a swimsuit.  The robot-person had a wide grin and   wide eyes that said “I’m innocent, I swear!  Now, what were you accusing me of?”  The woman also had round eyes, but also a wide mouth that looked as though she was either screaming or shouting that he was being weird.  Of course, I don’t know what they were doing on the streets of Hangzhou, and frankly am not concerned about that.  I want to know what their first date was like.  “Will.  You.  Date.  Me.”  “Affirmative.”  Was she a robot programmer who, through defect, created a being capable of love, if not obsession?  Was she a more advanced robot?   What if they lived on a planet of robots and were trying to escape to Earth for a vacation in a primitive place?  

The likely story: the artist isn’t very good.  

Dare to dream, people.

Inca Chips

When there’s a product with the word “Inca” in it, I assume that I’m going to eat something that will make me feel part of an ancient society, akin to watching a Dr. Who episode while eating a snack.  So it was with my WRT which was a bag of chip-like things, and a sort of Native American-looking guy in a headdress standing with arms crossed in the corner.  He had a basket of potatoes, earthenware with a stirring rod (Spoon, for those not innately in attuned to the ancient like me, har har!).  When I opened this magnanimous secret to the ancient world, I saw what looked to be corn flying saucers.  Were they supposed to be bowls?  Who knows.  The bag promised to have “Ethnican Flavors.”  They tasted pretty average, to be honest.  But then, maybe if I was wearing a headdress like the guy on the chip bag, I might become one with the unknown.  For now, I’ll stick with crackers.

That’s all for this week, folks!  Which of course isn’t to say that China is done being quirky.