Friday, September 30, 2011

First Week


Things are coming together. The first week of work went by like a breeze. There is nothing too difficult either in the work load or the personalities that I can foresee. It’s a refreshing change from my previous employment where at times I felt emotionally taxed to the breaking point. Unpacking is going fairly well. The master bedroom is now put together. Boxes are organized in the garage. Books are making their way onto the shelves and the kitchen is half way there. I’m going to take my time to enjoy the weekend. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Paperwork

Today is a day for paperwork. New hire orientation and rental agreements. I signed enough things as if I was getting married and buying a house. Thankfully that's all over now and I have the keys to my new home for tomorrow's move in. Things are moving incredibly fast. I got freaked out a little signing away rental checks this evening. The rental is going to cost me an arm and a leg but hopefully it will all be worthwhile. For now I'm mentally exhausted. I feel like I've dealt with stress well enough. I look forward to getting settled into my new home and go out to enjoy a pedicure. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Deposit Done, Move Pending

I slept in this morning until 11. I needed the rest. Once up I made a straight dash to the nearest Starbucks. Fall is my favorite season and happiness is only one cup of pumpkin spiced latte away. There are tons of rentals available in Champaign so I need to sample a good variety to zone in on what I'm really interested in and get a good feel for the fair market price. Unfortunately I only have one appointment setup for the afternoon, the rest I either need to find rental offices that open on Sundays or to look from the outside. In a college town, the right neighborhood is going to play a major factor in my decision making process.

To get a good idea on what's out there I stopped in one of the biggest property management office in town. The management company owns lots of properties in different areas of the town from standard apartments of all sizes to condos and townhouses. Although the properties are not always ideal especially in large rental complexes a big company like this typically offers competitive rates that can be used as a baseline for comparisons. The property manager who greeted me was very friendly and professional. When I told him my "current" address he stopped writing and looked up slowly. Just as I was going to spell out T-H-I-E-F thinking he didn't catch the name of the town, he said, "oh, I used to live in Grand Forks." Interesting. Minutes later another manager showed me a townhouse, a 2-bedroom apartment adjacent to the office and another townhouse and condo in two different locations. The townhouses were the same price as the two I saw yesterday but the qualities were not as good. The apartments offered very reasonable rent especially with first month rent free and complementary wifi. The neighborhood is not bad but with so many tenants on top of each other it's hard to tell what to expect. Privacy and quietness are luxuries when it comes to rental properties.

My next appointment is not until 4pm so I called to see if I can view the 2-bedroom earlier than scheduled. The owner was very accommodating and met up with me in 10 minutes. The unit is half of a one level house but the condition was not desirable. I then decided to drive to a rental condo near the ones I saw last night. Once again, very packed neighborhood with lots of townhouses and not enough parking. The price is a bit lower but I know you get what you pay for. I couldn't see the inside but there was an open house just across the street. Why not pop in to see how much these properties go for? The real estate agent, Gil, seemed like a straight forward guy and was extremely helpful. With no other visitors around so we chatted for quite a bit about the real estate market and the differences between rent and buy. The one-level condo is comparable to the one I say last night with full size two-car garage but a bit smaller.  I ask his opinion on a fair market price if the unit was on the rental market. Gil's answer was pretty much what I had expected. Now I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what the rental prices are like around town. I told him about the rental I saw last night and Gil confirmed that it was indeed a good deal. I know I can probably find cheaper rentals but I will have a very difficult time to find another one in such a nice neighborhood. The condo will be the only rental on that street. Most of the other handful of condos on the same side of the road are owner occupied by retirees while the properties across the street are well cared for single family homes. Everything is well kept and the condo association fee will cover all external maintenance and snow removal. I'll pretty much have my own condo without the hassle and risk of purchasing a place.

Afterwards I stopped by one more open house for an one-bedroom one level condo and that was enough for me to make a decision to go with the second condo I saw last night. I called Sally right away to put in the application. The rent is much higher than what I had planned for especially since now I have to pay all the utilities on my own. Having moved many times in my life and seen countless rental properties and real estates I know this is the best one I've seen. Now I have my fingers crossed that everything will go through smoothly so I can move into my new home next week! 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Central IL

I started driving about 10pm last night and arrived in Champaign IL around 4 this afternoon. It took me a lot longer to get through 800 miles since I had to stop to take a few naps along the way. The fall foliage along hwy 94/90 was breathtaking. The kitties behaved well and didn't not make one meow during the entire ride. Ernie did manage to get stuck under the driver seat while I took a nap. I had to unload some stuff to get him out. He stayed in the pet carrier for the reminder of the trip.

Timing is everything. I checked into the hotel, got the cats settled in, took a quick shower and was on my way to see some rental properties in town by 6. My first stop was a three-bedroom townhouse at the higher end of my rental budget but it had everything I was looking for: enough square footage, attached one car garage, on-site laundry, large closets, two baths, nice kitchen appliances, dinning area, etc. The only concern was the neighborhood. It's nested in a large townhouse/condo area backing directly into a busy highway. The yard can be improved on and the short driveway really doesn't provide much room for additional parking. Just as I was driving out of the neighborhood I saw a few signs for other rental and sales properties. Even though it was getting late on Saturday evening I thought what the heck, might as make a few calls to see what's available.

A lady picked up my first and only call for the evening. I explained to her my situations: homeless with two cats, starting work on Monday, everything on a truck ready to be unloaded, etc. She listened very closely to what I was looking for in a property and was extremely helpful to point me to a condo nearby that has yet to be listed on the market. Although it wasn't the one I had initially driven past, it suited me much better because of the quiet neighborhood and immediate availability. I pulled up to the driveway while still on the phone and told her I'd be interested to see the inside. Instead of making an appointment for next week during regular business hours, the property management agent broke all the rules and met up with me on the drive way within 10 minutes. Someone once told me I have a guardian angel on my side and the older I get the more I believe in it.

The 2-bedroom one level condo with a full two-car attached garage and fenced backyard was absolutely perfect except the rent which was a bit over my budget. The property manager offered to negotiate with the owners for a slight discount. I told her I'd look at a few more rentals tomorrow and let her know either way.

It's getting late and I'm tired. Back to the hotel to watch some TV with the kitties. I feel like I've done a lot this week and there is still a lot more to do. I just keep telling myself, one thing at a time and everything will work out. So far, it has and I'm thankful.  

Leaving TRF

What started by chance to begin my first cross-country drive to Vegas late at night has now become a habit or even a ritual. It’s easier to leave when everything blends into the darkness of the night, outlines of buildings, familiar roads, restaurants, stores. There won’t be much to miss here. Nevertheless there is a melancholic sentiment of having lived in an exclusive community of 8410 people and a sense of accomplishment for having endured such a tough winter alone. I’ve come to known the consultants during the last few months of my stay here. They will be missed.

Long drive like this is a great opportunity to catch up on what I rarely get to hear on my ipod and think. I don’t know what the future will hold. There is a time for everything. I’ve lived; I’ve traveled and I’ve grown. There were good times and bad. I have faith in all that has yet to come and more importantly I have faith in myself. Rather than going along with the motions and living life capriciously I now want to find self-reassured for every step I take. Like tango, one should take the uttermost effort to feel the surface of the floor with each sliding step. Life is a beautiful progression. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

First Day of Fall

Evenings are now cool enough for frost. I turned on the heat even before the first official day of fall. With winter is not far behind it's good that I'm leaving now before everything freezes over up here. The movers came at 9am and we were done by 3pm. Having moved a few times in my life I had most of the things packed up already and left out some tools to help out. The goal is to get to my destination by early tomorrow afternoon and start looking for rental properties. Still have lots of things to do and a long way to go.

9:10PM: took a little nap and now I'm just about ready to start the drive. See you in...stay tuned!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Farewell TRF

Despite the fact that I never quite felt being accepted into the local community when it was time to leave there are still a few people to say goodbye to.

One of the IT consultants celebrated his birthday in town last night. It was nice to meet everyone at the Evergreen for dinner and then karaoke at the Elk.

The lady who invited me to her house for Easter asked to meet up for a drink today after work at the Black Cat, a sport bar full of Arctic Cat memorabilia. She had always been great to me at work by supporting of my projects and initiatives.

I then stopped by Joana's house to have some delicious homemade Filipino food. Her family have almost adopted me as another daughter. Wonderful warm people.

The third meal of the evening was with Amy at Fraisers. I didn't have any room left to eat but it was nice to have some time to talk to her, Scott and Eric.

In the end, I did manage to become friends with quite a few people here. I will miss them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

LC Has Left the Building

Spent my last half day at work today. Although I had planned to stay here for a minimum of two years, when a better opportunity opened up it would be foolish of me to not move on. The past year has been a great learning experience both personally and professionally. I can now say that I've had the experience of living in an exclusive community of 8410 people. I've done a lot of things for money and now I know one thing I will not do again is to live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. From now on there will have to be some standards or at least a Starbucks. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Day Tour through Suzhou

Humble Administrator's Garden

Suzhou, China

Lion Grove Garden

Friday, September 16, 2011

Comfort

Comfort comes at a price and at this point I'm willing to pay a lot just to have a modern shower with good water pressure. I arrived in Shanghai HongChiao airport in the early afternoon after a short flight from Changsha. The city is covered in heavy smog and the later summer heat is showing no sign of recession. I kept my fingers crossed and arrived smoothly at my 5-star hotel by the subway. This is probably the most I've paid for a hotel out of my own budget and it's worth every dime. Here I've got AC, broadband, CNN and lovely shower pressure and I enjoyed the amenities in that order.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Family Dinner


The whole family met together one more time for dinner before I leave for Shanghai in the morning. These kinds of opportunities are so rare and they go by so quickly.

This trip has been an eye opener in many ways. The older I get the more I see how different I’ve become from the people I grew up around. Our perception of beauty, health, love, marriage, quality of life and purpose is so diabolically different that even a casual conversation can be arduous. It is highly probable that I am a difficult person to begin with and that makes it all the more important to find and confide in like-minded people, which are hard to find.

There are still so many things I want to do, see and experience. Every now and then I cry, not knowing how to do it all. Life is finite. I find it impossible to be patient with something that can end so suddenly. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mission Accomplished

On some shopping trips we buy more than just the products themselves but the experiences associated with the purchase. Today it's shopping for Chinese silk embroidery with my 2nd aunt.

I rarely collect any significant souvenirs from my travels so it took me a while to think of one thing I want to buy from Changsha: 湘绣/Xiang-Xiu (a special type of silk embroidery from this region). Two days ago my uncle showed me a hidden neighborhood with a cluster of these specialized shops where I’m likely to get best prices. This afternoon I came back here with my 2nd aunt but our day started much earlier with a total fiasco at the bank.

The Bank of China refused to convert some of my US dollars because they were not brand new and that some of them has ink marks on the surface! I tried to explain just about all larger US bills in circulations are marked to show their authenticity but the customer relation person couldn’t be swayed. On top of this, all the ATMs were either down or out of money. When one of the machines was finally repaired I still couldn’t get out anything. Finally my aunt offered to take out a thousand RMB for me. Luckily the bank people were very courteous and brought us some water. But by the time we finally left we were both tired and decided to go meet my aunt’s daughter for lunch near her workplace. The restaurant was nothing special but food was very tasty, probably one of the best meals I’ve had since I came back.

These two days has been extremely hot. Over 100 degrees with humidity makes it feel completely unbearable. I was sweating even before breakfast. Aunt and I started at one of the high end shopping malls in downtown sand found great deals on three dresses, two of which are in traditional Chinese qi-pao style. Different clothes are designed for different occasions. Here people wear whatever they want wherever they want, rather chaotic. Jeans are ok at workplaces but in the market you can see people dressed in top notch dresses with high heels for no reason. My uncle’s daughter is by far the most fashionable person in the family with dark strawberry blond highlights, perfect makeup and always what seemed like trendy but out-of-place cloth. Thankfully she’s got a tall lovely figure to make everything look nice. I’m always the least stylish person in the bunch every time I visit obviously not because I don’t have enough nice things but when on the road, comfort overrides everything else.

By 3pm we were finally on our way to the xiang-xiu district. There are a few around town but the one we are going to is only known to the most knowledgeable locals.  The little shops are hidden away in a narrow street and really don't look like much from the outside. Once inside, each shop is like a tiny compact gallery featuring lots of embroidery pieces from large framed works to small intricate wooden display cases showing the double-sided embroidery. Majority of the works for sale are not displayed. We asked to see a variety of samples by asking for the design theme. Typical Chinese embroidery themes are flowers (rose, cherry and water lily), nature, birds, horses, bulls and traditional Chinese paintings such as 清明上河图 (paintings same as the one displayed in the China pavilion during the 2010 Expo). themes We literally examined a hundred different embroidery pieces. Each handmade pieces differ in design, color and quality. At first I wanted an ancient painting theme but then aunt leaned more towards the colorful roses for a high impact piece. The last shop we stopped in had the biggest selection and I was immediately drawn to a larger water lily piece. I love a bargain but am not at all good at bargaining. Luckily I was in good hands with my aunt who used to be a lawyer. Although not an authentic local she fakes a pretty good accent and acted as a tough price negotiator. At the end we got the large water lily piece for half of the asking price and a great bargain for a smaller cherry blossom piece.  The shopkeeper told us the pieces we picked are older works and that such refined embroideries are becoming more rare. I was extremely happy with the purchase (so much so that I wanted to buy a few more!). I have no doubt that such amazing handmade pieces with increase in value over time but of course, I purchased really just for my own enjoyment. I look forward to framing the pieces one of these days to properly display them in my living room.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Chicken Breasts

I love food but compare to the others I’m not even in the same ballpark. Grandpa literally eats all day long except when he’s napping. Grandma sent us to the supermarket to buy a chicken today. After 60 years of marriage she is still not done giving instructions for every little thing (just like my mom and I’m no better). Grandma said, “Stand to the side and watch which chicken is the strongest and most alive. Don’t get one that’s taking a nap!” One can easily get live chickens at the farmers market but I’m not sure if that’s still the case in supermarkets. Most ones I’ve seen have already been cleaned (but definitely not frozen). Chinese prefer their food fresh.


American chickens are like 36DD while Chinese chickens are 32AA, bony and no boobs. I remember having the hardest time finding any boneless chicken dish for my US coworkers on my last trip to Beijing. Boneless chicken is almost like an oxymoron here. I’ve stopped buying chicken breasts in the States all together after watching the documentary Food Inc. (chickens are modified to grow breasts so big and fast that they literally fall over and die). Although the chickens here are likely not pure organic by US standard, Chinese have strong preference for field grown chickens or tu-ji. These chickens are smaller in size with tender meat and lower fat content. There is no distinction between dark and white meat here but how animals are grown. People have developed such discriminatory taste overtime they can tell by flavor along which ones are field grown and factory grown and even whether it’s male or female (when it comes to chicken).

Now here’s an idea to correct the high-calorie junk food problem in the US: replacing everything in the chips isle with Chinese snack, air-sealed individually-packed chicken feet. It will be zero calories because no one would eat it. As much has American fast food chains are taking over the world, the snack section in the supermarket is still uniquely Chinese. I don’t know if Doritos are not here because of policy reasons or consumer preference (or lack thereof). In four isles and lots of display islands of “junk food” the only western thing I found was a small bin of sneaker bars next to tiny vacuum packed beef jerky, quail eggs and squid in all different flavors. A childhood and local favorite snack is ginger: pickled, salted, dried or in whatever other form that makes them salty and spicy.

In this modern world of McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Diary Queens (which is ironic since people always say Asians are lactose intolerant) majority of the people here still prefer the good old Chinese food. 

Happy Moon Festival!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Family Visits

Everyone came to grandparents' place for lunch. It's been a long time since we all had a meal together at home. Nowadays it's much easier just to eat out with such a big gathering. Still, nothing is better than homemade meals with the family. Later in the afternoon I visited my cousin's new condo. Nice pad with 3 balconies and since it's just a bit outside of Changsha the air quality is significantly better. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Headache

I woke up with a gigantic headache this morning. I’ve been having bad allergy since I got here. At first it was sore throat and then sneezing and running nose and now headache and nausea.  My uncle picked me up with his new Ford Focus and wanted to drive me around the city for a tour. I was in no shape to deal with the stop and go traffic and it didn’t take long for me to ask to be dropped off home before I throw up in the car. There is no shortage of doctors at home and grandpa’s medicine cabinet is probably well stocked enough to run a small pharmacy. I was proscribed a number of Chinese medications, some of which should be outlawed due to its vile taste.  However, I had not hesitation to take down just about anything at this point. I’ve always been a big advocate for Chinese medicine. You don’t need to believe it for it to work but it sure helps to get the prescription from people who know what they’re doing. Rather than finding common cures in western medicine, the Chinese form is much more individualized and tailored to each patient’s normal physical condition and illness symptoms. Nowadays many traditional medicines have been made into pill form but it still takes a trained physician to prescribe the proper combination and quantity. Luckily with the right stuff and some rest I recovered quite a bit in the afternoon.
What’s worse than being sick is being sick away from home. Although this might be “home” as well, I am far from being comfortable. For me (and probably most western people) modern conveniences take up an overwhelming portion of one’s over all comfort. And by modern conveniences I mean a western bathroom with proper water pressure. This is the reason why I’m not a camp person. This is why I always get so stressed out coming here. My mom keeps telling me, “…at least it’s the end of summer. You could be sweating in 100 degree summer days or freeze to death in the winter with no heat!” She’s right. I was back here in December of 09 and I had to go to a hair salon to get a haircut just to get my hair washed. It was way too cold inside to even consider taking a shower… I wasn’t home for long. I absolutely dread going to the bathroom here or taking a shower. I know it’s terrible but I countdown the days until I can go stay at a 5-star western hotel in Shanghai and then go back to TRF!
What’s worse than being sick and away from home is being blamed for it all as well! Everyone keeps coming up with diagnostics for my illness that has nothing to do with the root cause. There is only one reason why I am sick and it’s because of the air quality or lack thereof! The environment here is even worse than what I remembered from two years ago and exponentially worse than then I grew up. I’m convinced that there is no blue sky in China. I saw something close to it in Beijing in the winter but the best day there is still the worst day in LA. Some of my relatives would turn their noses up and say, “You people from America have no immune system, unlike us, so strong.” A few others would say nonchalantly, “it’s no big deal; everyone has to get sick when they come back to China.” Bullshit! My immune system is just fine! It is your damn environment that is killing all of us! Of course I didn’t say that but I sure thought about it.
The sad thing is that people don’t know what they don’t know. There is nothing for them to compare with. The big cities are tolerable but smaller cities like Changsha are so dirty I am afraid to touch anything when I go out and I’m not even germaphobic. I had no hesitation to eat street food in Brazil but here I am becoming more and more cautious. With all the respiratory difficulties the last thing I need now is a bad stomach.
Not surprisingly my desire to come back to visit is at an all-time low. I informed my aunts and uncles that from now on they have to go over to the US to visit me. Frankly I’m happy to meet up with them anywhere in Europe and the western hemisphere.
Underneath it all, everyone here is aware of the poor air quality (water quality, wild life quality or any other quality there is). A variety of diseases brought on by environmental factors are on the raise. Years ago lung cancer was an extremely rare thing. Nowadays, it’s so rampant the government can’t build cancer center fast enough to receive new patients. Even the number of miscarriages has gone up drastically in recent years. Grandpa summited it up well, “China has developed it economy and this is its price.” A nice big dose of selfless sacrifice spirit. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Cousin

Friday. My younger cousin called this morning to invite me to visit at his new condo. I had met his new wife for the first time at dinner last night. Very slim in built, my new sister-in-law a very smart and well educated young lady (actually a couple of months older than me). They are expecting their first (and only) baby in March. I heard the new policy in China is that a couple can have two kids if both parents are from one-child families. Not sure if many people are taking advantage of the one-child policy reform since it takes so much resources and energy here just to raise one. The stay-at-home-mom thing is more of a western phenomenal. In China it is looked down on to not be part of the workforce regardless of the gender, marital status or whether or not there are any kids in the family.

Most people are well aware of the old traditional Chinese bias for boys in order to carry down the family name, land, wealth and etc. Just about all kids adopted from China are girls. Because of this bias there is now a noticeable imbalance between the number of male and females in the country. Many adult males, especially in smaller villages, are unable to find suitable mates because of the gender imbalance. The government has been combating such gender bias since the first day there was a government back in 1949. The government has been known to denounce any kind of organized religion but what’s not talked about much outside of China is also its long and hard battle against unfair and unjust traditional mores such as gender bias. Along with the one-child policy introduced in the late 70s are also rampant propagandas on girls are just as good as boys. To reinforce the message and prevent people from aborting girl babies during pregnancy, the government outlawed ultrasound scans to find out the baby’s sex prior to birth. Of course, like any law there are people who find ways to go around it but it is seen as a very shameful and backward thing to do, not accepted by the mainstream population.
I went grocery shopping with my cousin and had lunch with them at home. Their 13th floor condo has three bedrooms and 1 ½ bath, pretty roomy by Chinese standard. 13th floor is ok, only #4 is omitted in many buildings here as it is seen as the number of death. Condos are sold by the square meter ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands per square meter.
My sister-in-law has been under a lot of stress on getting doctor’s notes for work and applying for the right paperwork to have the baby. Unlike everywhere else in the world, to have a baby in China you actually have to apply and receive a permit. The process can be long, confusing and frustrating to say the least. To start, a family has to provide copies of the marriage certificate, health certificates, government issued identification and proof for legal residency status for both parents. Then there are a number of forms and government agency involved. If you work for a government owned business/organization, you are allowed to get notarized paper works from your workplace; if not, you will need to find the person responsible for family planning in your neighborhood to have the proper recommendation. Back when I was born, partially in order to enforce the one-child policy, there was a family planning specialist in every company/organization and neighborhood who oversaw the permit application process. There can be many unexpected hiccups in the process especially when both parents are from different places from where they currently reside or work. Kids born without the proper paper works will have extremely difficult time to qualify for government healthcare and education. Needless to say except for special circumstances each family is only allowed one birth permit. In order to cultivate more tall people in China there is likely no birth limit for tall basketball stars like Yao. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Birthday

Best birthday ever, at least the most celebrated one. I was glad to see that my grandparents were in excellent spirit despite being 88 and 86 years old (with my grandma two years older than grandpa). They appeared to be in even better shape than the last time I saw them in December of 2009 (maybe the winter had something to do with it). I took a few photos of them in the middle of the condo development. These kind of high rise condo developments often have a few building together as a cluster with some small community conveniences ranging from a small grocery store to shared gym. These clusters are called “xiao qu” which literally means small community/neighborhood. Xiao qu-s, ranging from a few buildings to a couple dozens, are the building blocks of the modern day Chinese concrete jungle. It sure is not my preferred way to live but when land is scarce people are forced to develop upwards.

Very rarely do I get to celebrate my birthday in China with all my relatives. To mark the special occasion my grandparents offered to invite everyone to dinner at an upscale restaurant nearby. Grandparents are well to do by Chinese standard with consistent pension payments from the government but this is the first time I’ve ever seen them making such big gesture for a birthday. To make it a truly Chinese experience, it is not only a great honor to receive such treatment but it is also a bit awkward. I don’t want to make my other cousins feel like they are left out and I also don’t want to people to make this a habit for future birthdays. I insisted to pay for dinner myself but of course, no luck. Fortunately for me I got to order all the dishes tonight: 12 dishes for 13 people. What’s impressive here is not the extremely hot food but to be able to eat it all with boiling hot tea! Great for the sinus, not so much for your mouth! I learnt very quickly from my first trip back that there is no ice water in China no matter how good of a restaurant you go to. Chinese people drink hot water, period. Even most soft drinks are served at room temperature, yuck. Bring your own ice cubes because you won’t find any here. The food was pleasant but to have a meal with so many relatives together far outweighs everything else.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Train Ride to Changsha

Changsha is the capital of Hunan province in central southern China. The most familiar thing about Hunan for westerners is perhaps the spicy food. In China, Hunan is known as the fish-rice region. I was actually born in a smaller city south of Changsha called Hengyang. My mom’s brother’s had always lived in Changsha and in the last ten years all the rest of my relatives moved here also. With no other family members in Hengyang I now make Changsha as my home stop on trips back to China.

The Shanghai train station is next to the old airport and looks just as big from the outside. Once inside there are countless rows of seats and entries to different tracks down stairs. In the old times people didn’t move far from the village they were born in. Nowadays with new industrial zones near major harbors and cities more and more people are forced to move away from home to find work. Overcrowded transportation is a big problem for everyone to go home on holidays. I still remember taking the overnight train from Beijing to Hengyang every year for Chinese New Year when I was little. We were always lucky to get the sleeping tickets. Most other Chinese people can recall going home on 18-hour standing only train ride. China has been aggressively developing its high speed rail system hoping to mitigate the bottleneck of long distant travel via airplanes. The recent accident has led to an expansive investigation and in the meantime reducing speed for all new trains and delayed start for new tracks. None of the setbacks have decreased the amount of demand for traveling by train.
From Shanghai to Changsha is just over 700 miles. The ticket costs 260RMB (roughly $40USD). The reduced speed train with a dozen stops on the way takes 9 hours from 9am to 6pm. The ride started up pretty nice with speed up to 200km/hr but after the first 20 minutes or so things went south. The train picked up extra passengers which quickly filled up all the seats and reduced speed to 150km/hr. The new passengers soon make themselves comfortable on the train by playing Chinese poker. Noise is a big problem in China. For the rest of the ride I had no chance to rest or do anything other than hating myself for not taking a plane! Thanks mom for suggesting that I take the train! AHHH!

When we finally arrived in Changsha on time at 6:21pm I was more than ready to jump off. My mom has 3 younger sisters and a younger brother. The 2nd aunt met up with me at the station while the 4th aunt was making dinner at grandparents place. The 3rd aunt is now visiting my cousin in Lafayette, IN. My cousin Lida just had a new baby girl this morning name Joana.

6pm is when everyone gets out of work in China and absolutely the worst time to find a taxi. We waited for a while in the taxi line but didn’t see any car pulling up other than private drivers or “black taxies” soliciting for business. Most people are smart enough to ignore them, including a large built American guy ahead of us. The driver poked fun at him and said “oh, fat guy don’t want to ride?” Heh. I felt kind bad for him and wanted to help but figured since he’s made it thus far he should know what the heck he’s doing (I sure don’t).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lunch w/ Grandma


I got up just before 7am with really no discernible jet lag. The highlight for today is to have lunch with my step grandma. So between 7am and 11 I have nothing to do but to sit and twiddle my thumbs. Top signs of a boring vacation: 

5 Reading the Ikea catalog 
4 Browsing online for the next vacation
3 Playing solitaire 
2 Trying to book an earlier ticket out of here
1 Wishing I was home in TRF

If Shanghai is Manhattan, going to Grandma’s condo is like going to the outer boroughs. Aunt and I spent an hour on the subway and then walked for another 20 minutes from the station. The area is relatively nice by Chinese standard and the condo has two rooms with just the bare minimums. Grandma recently fell and broke her arm but she’s slowly recovering. Although in a good spirit grandma appeared weaker and much slimmer than before. Even though I’ve visited my mom side of the family a couple of times in the recent years, it has been 15 years since I last saw anyone from my step father’s side. Grandma was very happy to see me. The first thing she said to me was “You’ve gotten fat! You’re much fatter than before!” These words were not meant as complements. What a nice dose of Chinese honesty! Few minutes later she looked at me more thoroughly and said in a concerned voice, “make sure you don’t get any fatter.” Once my uncle arrived we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. In China it is customary for whoever paying for the meal to order the food. Most of the times when dinning with relatives I never get to choose the restaurant and would be extremely lucky to even see the menu. This meal was no different. Uncle ordered and I gladly ate everything. As people say in English, beggars can’t be choosers. When the bill came uncle peeled off a few Chinese hundred dollar bills from a stack of easily ten thousand. Not sure why anyone need to carry so much cash these days.

In the afternoon uncle dropped us off in downtown so we can walk to the historic district. It is still quite warm in Shanghai these days and all the people and traffic is really wearing on my patience. The place is more or less the same as I remembered before. We did not linger and by 4pm we were on a taxi back to aunt’s place to rest a bit. When in a vehicle here it is best not to pay attention to where the driver is going. Dinner was once again ordered by the same rich uncle with some of the same dishes we had for lunch. Personally I’m not a big fan of Shanghai food or Shanghai in general. Lack of flavor. Uncle insisted that we visit his newly decorated condo after dinner so we complied.

Chinese dialogues vary much more drastically than the north-south divide in the States. Even adjacent cities have different dialogues. Shanghainese is  characterized by its high pitched syllables and exaggerated phrases. Consider yourself lucky if you haven’t experienced it but for me, not so lucky. I’ve been experiencing it for two days now and tonight I get to hear it in stereo effect. Except when dinning with Kyle, who moved back here after spending 7 years in the cold Canadian tundra known as Winnipeg, everyone else conversed with each other in Shanghainese throughout the meals as if I was completely invisible. For outsiders the Shanghainese dialogue can be extremely difficult to understand. Even having lived here for half yean back in 96 I can still only understand two third of what’s been said. People only stopped occasionally during a meal to switch back to standard Mandarin to ask a question. It’s rather strange to be a guest here. I guess in Shanghai one can never really feel like an insider without being born and raised here. I fell asleep on the couch at uncle’s condo over loud Shanghainese conversations in the background. I’m looking forward to take the train back home to Changsha tomorrow.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Shanghai


Now that I am behind the great electronic wall of China, I can no longer access social networking sites or my blog! Luckily I can still upload photos on Flickr. Hopefully there will be lots of photos. I will continue to write but things won't be posted until I get home. 

Got in last night around 11pm. Everything went smoothly except for the 4-hour delay. The flight was less packed than usual since a good number of people opted for an earlier flight out that stopped in Osaka. My cousin Kyle and his girlfriend picked me up at the airport. I visited Kyle in Winnipeg last fall after I moved up to TRF. He had lived there for few years by then and was getting fed up with the harsh winters and lack of social life. Finally by February he moved back to Shanghai despite opposition from the family. Kyle looks in much higher spirit now with his new Lexus and girlfriend. Who wouldn't trade Winni for Shanghai? 

It has been 15 years since I was last here. In the darkness of night I couldn't make out much except the newly constructed highway connecting the new airport to the city. Traffic was sparse late at night and we got into the city in no time. After dropping off the girlfriend Kyle and I had a late night dinner near my aunt's condo. This is what I love about Asian cities. You can get a good meal no matter what time of the day it is. It was a rather nice restaurant and the food was of course better than anything I could get in the States. I wasn't all that hungry but we inhaled 3 dishes effortlessly. 

Kyle updated me on his job: qualitative analysis on small-medium cap start-up businesses. He travels often to visit new businesses to create reports for his company and potential investors. Sounds interesting but I'm way too used to the American lifestyle to ever come back to live and work for a Chinese company. Things are very different here with a whole other layer of complexity between relationships and professional interactions. Everything in China is based on relationships or "guanxi." Without it you're dead in the water. 

It was almost 1am by the time I finally arrived at my aunt's place. Being a very distant aunt, my stepfather's cousin, I've never even met her before. She has studied and traveled everywhere in the world in her younger years but now she lives by herself in a nice condo near the center of the city. I slept soundly until 7am, made my instant Starbucks coffee and now ready to take in one of the world's largest cities: Shanghai. 

Aunt and I took the subway to People's Square, once a horse race course, now the center of numerous attractions. Shanghai Museum is a great place to hide out from the hot weather. I immediately recognized the round structure as one of the pit stops for the Amazing Race. Here you can find a good collection of ancient Chinese art and modern foreign visitors. After a quick lunch at a Japanese noodle house we took Nanjing Ave. westwards from People's Square to Jing'an District. Nanjing Avenue is known for its high end shopping centers and designer retail, where the newly self-made billionaires can get new Prada outfits to go with their Bentley and Aston Martins, but for the rest of us it's good for window shopping and people watching. 

I picked up a train ticket for Wednesday morning to go see my relatives in Changsha. Despite the government's push to open high speed rails throughout the country there had been numerous setbacks and technical deficiencies that have led to lots of casualties. Changsha is about 700 miles southwest of Shanghai. Although I won't be taking a bullet train, the newly improved train will make the trip in less than 8 hours with stops along the way. 

Kyle stopped by after work to take us to dinner at a Thai restaurant. One of the major misfortunes of visiting people in China is that I don't always get to eat what I want. Aunt had lobbied for McDonald or Pizza Hut for lunch. The Japanese place we eventually settled for was nothing to write home about. Now a Thai restaurant for dinner? Even though all I crave for are simple homemade meals, the typically Chinese food just doesn't have enough novelty and appeal for the locals. Here not only do I not get to decide where to go but what to order once we get there. On top of all I have to always appear to be gracious. What's the fun in that?

After dinner I promptly booked three nights of hotel stay for my return trip through Shanghai between Friday Sept. 16th and Monday the 19th. For me, traveling to China is never as fun as people think it is. I'm always obligated to spend my whole trip visiting relatives and staying in their boring homes. All this become more stressful considering everyone has different living standards so I never know what to expect and there is no escape. With a 4-star hotel I can at least expect a standard bathroom with good water pressure. I hate to sound ungracious but this is nothing like what I would consider as adventurous travel. I've barely started my trip and I'm already bored and irritated! Despite all the raves about Shanghai it remains to be personally my least favorite place in China. Before I return to the States I'm going to make a best effort to have a good time here. 

For now I'm looking forward to go to Changsha to see my mom side of the family with whom I am much closer to. All the aunts are like close to me like moms and cousins are more like siblings. It also helps that food in Hunan will be much more suitable for my palate.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

See you in China!

Kath's mom went to the farmer's market for a fresh melon and made us upside-down rhubarb cake for breakfast. The family has been wonderful for me. Now all is ready. See you in China!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Just Breathe

After a week of stress and anxiety I can finally breathe now! Hallelujah! My passport and visa have finally arrived this morning just in time for my trip. Oasis International Travel is nothing short of miracle workers! They were able to get me a new passport and visa in TWO days! I've used their service before but now I'm a customer for life. It wasn't cheap but I was more than glad to pay and that's the true test for good premium service.

I was so tense yesterday I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I made through half of the day at work and had to go home to lay down before I either throw up or pass out. I kept going through everything in my mind: things I need and things I need to do before and after the trip; what's in control and what's out of control... I cycled through the tiers of travel essentials from the most important items to the least:


  1. Passport, Money, Keys, Phone (and contacts)
  2. Camera(s), Memory Card, Batteries, Computer
  3. Makeup, Instant Coffee, Ibuprofen, Sleeping Pills
  4. Shoes, Clothe, Gifts, Vitamins, Travel Pillows
A coworker was kind enough to bring me to Twin cities last night and let me stay with her family until my flight on Saturday morning. Not sure if I could have made the trip myself. I've also lined up a ride for going back to TRF on Monday the 19th. It would have been especially tough if I have to drive back for 6 hours after 18 hours of flying! I did that drive after the Munich trip and it really pushed me to my limit. 

Admittedly I've got some anger issues but in general I'm a very calm person especially in tough situations. All this is really putting me to the test. Things will probably make more sense in a few weeks. For now I just need to breathe and enjoy. I'm happy to be able to relax for a day before my trip. Cafe, computer, wifi, civilization, what more can one ask for? Having nothing to do on a work day is a luxury.