Jessica wanders off

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Home (at last?)

I'm not sure who's still reading ... but I'll post anyway. I am back in Canada, decompressing at my parents' house north of the city. I decided I'd had enough of cities and started dreaming of bobbing up and down in Georgian Bay while I was still dodging cars and elbowing my way through crowds in China and Tokyo. So, in a couple of days, I'm headed further north.

"Gone fishin'" - or maybe "Gone to swim with the fishes" -(but not a la "Godfather")

On my last night away from Toronto I went to a traditional summer street festival in Tokyo. I was there with some old friends from my guesthouse, the kinds of friends I could just pick up with as if nothing had changed. Together we stood on a second-floor balcony overlooking the parade of dancers and musicians. I vowed I would leave Toronto and teaching forever to become either a drummer or a dancer in Japan, or perhaps a dancing drummer, so infectious was the deap beat and the drunken spirit of the crowd. I revelled in the novelty of going to the convenience store, buying a beer and cracking it open on the street in full view of docile "crowd control" police officers. I treasured having my friends take my hand to lead me to the best view.

And what of China? I found it incredibly fascinating but so difficult to be there. Each time I go I feel the need to go back and do it "properly," as if I'd travelled far but gotten nowhere. I don't feel I understand.

In the end, despite having the policy of trying everything, I yearned after the familiar and was intensely grateful that my Japanese mom cooked me a nice juicy steak for my birthday, the day I returned to Tokyo.

Still, I have some enduring memories that I would like to share.

The boy
Those who have read my blog from the beginning may remember my being tickled at the English names of some of the students. Those who had been named by their teachers were usually Anne or Betty or Shelley or Joyce or Jane or Tom or Tim or Bob or John. Those who chose their own names, however, chose creatively. There was Zero, Four, Tomato, Clement, Cloud, and Prince, to name a few. There was one sharp little boy named Saviour. I found him to be a pain in the ass, as he never listened and usually disagreed with whatever activity I had planned. He just wanted to sit back and read science fiction novels and firmly disagreed with mixing with the girls. One day at break time he began to chuck chalk at other boys sitting in the front row. Deciding not to assume the position of the stern teacher once more, I reached into the drawer of my desk and began pulling out boxes of chalk, lining them up while eyeing little Saviour. "You wanna throw chalk?" I said "Well who d'ya think can last longer?" (doing my best Clint Eastwood.) Well, he stopped his antics, but spent the rest of the period holding his satchel in front of him like a shield. I continue to feel badly about this. I never would have pelted Saviour with anything, but I'm not sure he knew that.

I managed to completely fill my appetite for the popular asian leisure activity of Karaoke during this trip. The thing about singing karaoke with the Chinese in China is that you are only likely to get a rise out of them (and really it's all about pleasing the fans) if you sing a song they know. I tried to branch off a few times but I always came back to the standards: "You are my sunshine," "My heart will go on," "Big Big World," and anything by the Carpenters ... enough to send anyone into a downwards spiral of liquor and cigarette consumption. Now every sha-la-la-la-la, every woa woa is etched into my brain. I will never be the same, and I know my fellow teachers can empathize.

Words I learned
Although I feel like my command of Mandarin actually weakened, I still learned some new words that also, somehow, summarize my experience.

la = spicy

ma = numb/spicy. In Sichuanese cooking, there are two prominent peppers: the chili pepper and the "numb pepper." The numb pepper looks like a little peppercorn but causes a lot more pain. If tasted directly, the tongue will begin to tingle and become numb, feeling almost like it's been rubbed in soap. Speech impediment ensues.

gosli = go *&$! yourself. Sorry to be crude, but I had to include this one. Li and his university buddies taught it to us at the very beginning of the trip and amused themselves by having us scream it at the top of our lungs while on the bus in Beijing.

wun un = good night. Just one of those basic, essential domestic-type phrases I realized I did not know when I went to stay with my teacher's family north of Chengdu.

Anyway, I'll go to bed now. Eventually I'll manage to post some photos, so please do stay tuned.

wun un

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Kill me with kindness

I`m coming home ... with baggage.

In highschool I had a job clearing dishes after snack-time and putting them in the dishwasher, not an easy task when there where 3o or more plates, cups, plus serving utencils. One of the other workers at the daycare would say to me `You see Jessica, it`s like a puzzle; Just push harder and all the pieces will fit.` This advice has come in handy with packing this bag of mine.

The problem is that I am not skilled enough in the ancient Japanese art of `Omiage,` and I am beginning to think that it is one of those subtleties that westerners can never attempt to understand. `Omiage` is the carefully considered giving of souvenirs. When a Japanese person takes a trip, they will buy for everyone they know, co-workers included, and can often be seen with long lists of everyone they know, ranked according to appropriate price range. A boss, for example, would not get the same thing as the son`s teacher. They wouldn`t ever expect a foreigner to abide by the same social guidelines, although they seem to apppreciate it when an attempt is made.

One more tricky thing in my case is that I was returning on my birthday after a long absence of 3 years. I knew there would be gifts and I was hoping that the room cleared in my bags after giving my omiage would be sufficient to accept everything I was getting. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and I spent several hours today finding ingenious ways to fit all my gifts in. I am particularly proud of the way I was able to flatten 28 paper cranes (one for each year of my existence) and fold them in between two layers of clothing. The sembe (rice crackers dipped in soy sauce) I don`t have much hope for. They will most likely be crushed into a fine dust long before they reach Toronto.

I`ve had a very nice and relaxing time here in Tokyo, a place with some very happy memories for me. My Japanese mother spoiled me rotten and I believe she managed to help me gain a couple of pounds back. I didn`t have any huge ambitions for Japan this time around. I had some wonderful sushi, went to a hot spring, and saw some old friends. I`m happy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Figuring out my experience

It really feels like I`m home, my second home.

I`m still at Fusako`s home, in a quiet and leafy suburb of Tokyo. I haven`t even attempted to venture downtown yet, even though I have a plan to visit all my favorite spots that I enjoyed so much while I was living here. For now it`s just nice to relax on my futon, lay my head down on my buckwheat pillow and read my book. Let the world come in some other time.

Perhaps I`m suffering for some sort of sensory overload, or culture shock. In my last few days in China, I rarely spoke at all, and was so relieved to meet up with another Canadian, Jeff. Travelling alone can be freeing, but also incredibly overwhelming at times. There is no buffer between me and this incredibly strange and layered outside world where I`m virtually illiterate and mute and completely alien.

But I had that buffer, Jeff from Cambridge Ontario, for my last day in Beijing. We both wanted to see Mao and met up early on a gorgeous Sunday morning to join the long line-up that goes all the way around his gigantic mausoleum on the south end of Tianamen Square.

Although just a few metres away in the square, people are selling kitchy Mao watches, alarm clocks, and little red books, a visit to the mausoleum is not to be taken lightly. The attitude of the crowd is very respectful and many people buy yellow flowers to deposit at his statue in the entrance. I must say it was one of the most orderly queues I`ve ever been in in China. Even the babies taken in by their parents to see the Great Helmsman were silent. There were also very few foreigners, as they must get scared at the length of the line and end up heading directly for the Forbidden City at the north end of the square. As it was early in the morning and the line was constantly moving, we were only in line for about 45 minutes Once inside and on the red carpet, we had guards making sure we had taken off our hats and were slowly shuffling along with the rest of the line. A father grabbed his little son`s hand as he strayed a little to far to the edge of the path.

Mao himself was in a smaller room behind a layer of glass and encased in a crystal coffin, protected by two soldiers. His big belly was draped with the Chinese flag and at first his head was barely visible. In all, I believe I was in his presence for about 30 seconds at the most, shuffling through and past in silence, trying to determine whether this was wax Mao, as rumour has it, or real Mao. My guide book also claimed that his left ear may have had to be stitched back on after falling off during the embalming process, but I didn`t have the presence of mind to look at the right time. In any case, I had one more glance backward at the crown of his head and then passed through to the souvenir shop, where I could have bought a statuette, pendant, watch, ring, framed photo, or plaque for an unusually high price.

And why did I visit Mao? I barely know. In a way is was a perfectly confusing way to round off a perfectly confusing trip, full of temples, cities, incredible wealth, and scenes of abject poverty, also mountains, gardens, and tea. Mao, for me, represents this difficult recent history that the country is still finding its way through. Some temples I had visited would have statues decapitated by Mao`s Red Guard, pointed out matter-of-factly by tour guides. So much history lost.

Just outside, in the square, a couple was having their wedding pictures taken, the bride in a western-style white dress, complete with layers of material, a veil and a big bouquet of red roses.

We spent the rest of the day souvenir shopping and wandering around what is left of the traditional style Beijing houses, called Hutongs. They are usually one-storey compounds arranged around a private central courtyard. All you can see from the street is walls and big old wooden doors, brown or red, sometime with gold and red good luck messages on either side The government is tearing a lot of them down in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, claiming that they are decrepid, and lacking modern plumbing. This is true, and walking through such a neighbourhood is always a violent attack on the senses, but I wonder whether the residents will be able to recreate such a sense of community in the newer high-rise apartments. Also, forever the priveleged tourist looking for `authentic` scenes that I couldn`t find in my polished and fatenned world, I would like to have things kept just the way they are.

Ah, anyway. Our final meal we sat in an open-air restauraunt, slurping noodles and chewing alarmingly tender beef. On a balcony a few metres away some actors were putting on a traditional Chinese opera. I heard it likened to listening to cats in heat ... and must conquer ... but there`s definitely something to be said for sitting outside on a summer night, sipping on a beer and listening to someone else`s romantic agony.

Monday, August 21, 2006

And now for Tokyo

I`m writing now from my bedroom in Fusako`s house in Tokyo. Fusako is an ex-student of mine who adopted me toward the end of my stay in Japan 3 years ago. At that point I was weak from a mixed bag of illnesses (double ear infection, nasty cough, explosive diahrrea) and she was incredibly good to me. This time I was worried that I would show up on her doorstep in the exact same shape ... but no!

Arrival in Beijing
I got off that night train in Beijing in a foul mood. The train, which was on the last leg of the long journey from Lhasa to Beijing, was crowded and messy. I`d had to share a set of four seats with three young men who started taking pictures of me first thing in the morning, about 2 hours from Beijing. Not quite the nicest awakening I`ve ever had. The scenery outside was flat and hazy yellow before the urban sprawl begain coming into view. I was so angry and lonely and tired I could have cried.

At this point I was just ready to go home. The only things left for me to do was finish gift shopping and pay Mao a visit. A tour operator at my hostel assured me that his mausoleum was open that afternoon and advised me to go asap, so I hopped on the subway, only to find when I got there that it was, in fact, closed in the afternoon. Once again ready to cry from exhaustion, loneliness, and anger, ...the sweat running down my face doing the job of tears already, in fact. I looked at the large statues of proletarian pride out front and wondered what to do next.

I was then chatted up by a bubbly young Chinese woman named Linda, who wanted to practice her English. She ended up taking me shopping down an old shopping street close to Tianamen square.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Xian to Beijing

I'm leaving Xian tonight for Beijing, on a "soft seat." I left it too late and couldn't get a sleeper. So it looks like I'll be sitting up overnight on the 11 hour train ride, which should be okay. At least it's not a hard seat, which is a bench that is meant to fit three, but ends up squeezing in 4 or 5 people.

I saw the Terracotta Warriors yesterday, finally. I've been looking forward to this for my entire trip, and I wasn't disappointed. This life-sized army of what feels like thousands of soldiers all face east, protecting emperor Qin Shi Huang in death. They all have different faces and seem to be waiting for something, that threat that still hasn't come. This is the kind of history that smacks you in the face.

Perhaps it stabbed me in the stomach as well, since this part of me hasn't been feeling too well for the past day or so. On my first night here, after assuring my mother over the phone that the hostel was clean, I found two cockroaches in my room. Deciding that the staff needed to be notified, I went downstairs and got an obliging young man to follow me and see what he could do. We were looking around for a couple of minutes, finding nothing on the floor, and then I looked on my bed. There, on my pillow, like a welcome mint, was a large roach. I started swearing and the staff member worked quickly to catch the thing and throw it outside. That's when I requested a top bunk, thinking that they couldn't jump that high. I've only seen one more so far, and my fear is that I'll open my bag in Beijing or Tokyo and get one in the face. An even greater fear is that I'm digesting one right now .

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

from Chengdu to Xian

I got off the sleeper train from Chengdu a couple of hours ago. I'm in Xian, home to the famous terracotta warriors. I shared my compartment with a mother and a set of very rambunctious twin boys, aged 5. They didn't seem to get tired of playing peak-a-boo with me, and made the game more fun by hiding under my bunk, then springing up and chucking padded coat-hangers at me. Once I had collected them all I thought I was safe, and then the boys switched ammunition and threw their stuffed animals. Then I had all their stuffed animals plus the coat hangers and appealed to the mother for help. She was quite a nice and quiet woman who seemed completely incapable of producing these little monsters. Physically they looked like they would grow past her by the age of nine. She introduced herself as a primary school teacher, and gave me her phone number just in case I ran into trouble in Xian. And then she fed me, as everyone in China seems to be concerned with my eating habits. I really appreciated it since I hadn't had time to buy food before getting on the train and the train food was overpriced and nasty.

I actually enjoyed playing with those boys, since I've found I can't communicate with the adults properly and this has created so much stress. If only I could get by with my impressive lexicon of funny faces.

So yes, my homestay is finished now. I was with the family for a mere four days and they took care of me like I was their very own. I had been hanging around Chengdu for three days, wandering around temple gardens and teahouses, and finally seeing Li after he'd sprung himself from the hospital to get back to work. After one night out with him and his businessmen friends in which I believe I successfully drank them under the table and became a blood brother, I was ready for some more wholesome activities.

I stayed at this family's apartment in a town just north of Chengdu for four days. Although I enjoyed their company very much, I think I'll miss their 8 year old, Nunu, the most. She had a forthright boyishness to her, and proudly showed me her dirty towel on the bus one day, to prove that she had managed not to have a bath the night before. From observation, I believe her favorite activities are climbing things and collecting bugs and other small animals. On saturday we walked up a Taoist mountain named QingChenSan. Shu caught a large cicada for his daughter and helped her put it in a water bottle, which she tied to her waist. Occasionally she would lift up the bottle, give it a good shake and inspect the dying bug, temporarily shocked back to life. At most shrines she would throw herself down on a cushion and bow to the ground three times in earnest prayer. Between shrines and posing for pictures, mother Xiaop. and Nunu would pause to inspect caterpillars, stick bugs, and shiny beatles, pushing them off the crowded path and back into the forest. Fitting for a taoist mountain, as the taoist don't believe in killing living things. They also believe that cutting their hair cuts their life, so all monks had large buns on the tops of their heads. I saw one redo his hair at a rest stop ... incredible.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Unfortunately, I can't make this a long one, although I have so much to tell. Tomorrow I'm taking the sleeper train east to Xi'an, so this will be my last night with the family.

My emotions are mixed.

My Mandarin teacher set me up with this family, since they are very close friends of hers. And I'm sad to say, my language skills have fallen extremely short. Although I can chalk this up to be an incredibly enriching experience, I fear I've tortured this poor family.

(I'm writing this from the family computer. NuNu, the family's 8 year old daughter and future zoologist, just came up to me to show me a tiny lizard. I jumped and she told me not to be afraid, and started to pet the little thing, which then freaked out, jumped off her hand and ran behind the computer. I looked at her for guidance and she shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Thinking the family would not appreciate a crisp lizard anywhere in their house, I got down on my hands and knees and searched for it. I spotted it just as it dipped under the tv unit, at which point I shrugged my shoulders and came back to the computer. NuNu was not worried, so maybe I shouldn't be either.)

Oh, but anyway. Yes. Mandarin does not roll off the tongue for me. And in many ways I've become mute, infantile, or dumb. Xiaop., and Shu and their daughter NuNu have been incredibly patient with me. They even got a friend of Shu's older daughter to come and help out, since she speaks English. LiHui has become my translator, poor thing, and I've used her as a crutch, a voice, and then as a friend.

Before I gave myself up to the care of this family, I was staying in a hostel in Chengdu for a few days, after the Chongqing bus adventure. At first relieved to be alone and able to walk around without a set schedule, I soon began to miss said-schedule and the maker of it, Napoleon of the east. I'd managed to get a hold of his wife in Chongqing, who explained to me that he was in hospital with a very high fever. That evening I got a call from the man himself. His fever had broken just an hour before and he wanted to make sure I was alright. He told me that he would get himself out of the hospital the next day and fly to Chengdu on business and he'd look me up. That he did.

But anyway, I'd better let the family get to bed. More to follow, of course.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Getting on the bus

So yes, the cruise. It now feels like it happened a year ago. In reality, Li (our colleague at the school back in Toronto) picked us up at the port in Chongqing on sunday and got us checked into another gorgeous hotel right in the center of the city, which was showing us its' best face that day with an unusual clear sky. We were then whisked off to Dazu, about an hour and a half outside the city to look at some gorgeous stone buddhist carvings from the 12th century, meant to inspire believers to abide by the principles.

Traveling back into the city, Li began to feel sick. The man keeps up a crazy pace, traveling around China on behalf of the school, running recruitment seminars for prospective students, and firming relationships with different agencies, Chinese style. This means a lot of meals, karaoke, and drinking. His health always breaks down at the end of these business trips.

That night, however, despite being run down from this business and a weekend-long highschool reunion in Chongqing, he still went out with us and some of his friends for an explosive Sichuan meal, drinking, smoking, and finally karaoke. One of his friends was still in the midst of a multiple-day bender beginning with the same highschool reunion, continuing with a wedding, and culminating with a night of karaoke with us and a bus trip the next day to Chengdu with Li and I. He'd promissed to bring some plonk to keep us thoroughly pickled for the 5 hour ride. I was anticipating a very eventful time.

The next morning at 6:30, as Anne and Aga were getting ready to leave for the airport to get back to Shanghai there was a knock at the door. Li's wife made us come with her to her husband's bedside. There he was, our mighty Napoleon of China, swathed in bedclothes and shivering. He explained to me that he had a high fever and needed to go to hospital and so the plan had to change. We sent Anne and Aga off and then he began to make arrangements for me. having his wife hold his cell-phone for him while he talked to his friends in Chengdu, making arrangements for someone to help me out when I got off the bus at the other end, shivering, coughing, but still calculating logistics.

I got on the bus in Chongqing and actually felt good to be striking off on my own. I was really touched that he was so concerned, but felt a bit stiffled. What he was doing for me, what he had already done for me, was so thoroughly not Canadian. As my hostel room-mate pointed out to me, there's a tension when you resist being helped or offering to help someone when you can see they need it. You don't want to put them out or be put out, you don't want to be dependant, or even open yourself up. This is what continues to be stressful to me.

I wanted to begin doing things for myself, and perched quite happily upon my seat and began to watch modern-Chongqing go by.

And then .... as I looked out, I noticed that our bus was getting rather close to a city bus, stopped to pick up passengers. As the driver began to make a really tight left turn, there came a grinding and crunching sound of metal on metal and glass. Everyone on the bus was thrown forward. I think we were lucky that we weren't going very fast. The two drivers got out and yelled at eachother and then immediately got on their cell phones. Then the city bus passengers got out and started yelling at our bus driver, who was clearly in the wrong. He'd hit a stationary vehicle, after all. It was then that I noticed he had a large scar over his left eyebrow. A previous accident? Or perhaps a partial lobotomy? Not sure. In any case, the matter was cleared up in about 10 minutes. Our driver had taken the mirror off the city bus, but our bus wasn't that badly damaged. So, after depositing a bag of vomit contributed by the little boy sitting up front, the driver got back in the bus and got underway again. I was amazed to see that the man sitting across from me had the confidence to go to sleep right away.

As you may have guessed, I have survived. And the story will continue.

Anyway, I'm hogging the net. Tomorrow I'm starting my homestay. they do have the internet, so I'll write again.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Cruise

So here I am in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, incredibly laid-back, steamy and spicy. I arrived alone yesterday by bus from Chongqing, after a slight change in plans. But more about that later.

Let's start with the cruise up the Yangtze. Princess was much impressed. I've never been on a cruise before, but from what I imagine, this must be different from any other cruise. The Yangtze is a highway for industry and commuters as well as a path for pleasure cruises. While all those pictures of huge gorges rising up and over, unwilling ever to fit properly in a camera lens are true, so are the coal deposits and ships, and factories belching fumes into the air. We saw it all. The ship itself was really comfortable. I had my own room and was able to open the curtains in the morning and watch the river traffic and hills spooling by. The passengers were both Chinese and foreign, and we rarely mixed, except for morning taiji exercises on the top deck. One morning, after the loud mah-jong playing croud had left, I was the only one at taiji and got some private instruction. The instructor got frustrated trying to explain things and before I could impress him with my knowledge of the chinese version of "head shoulders knees and toes" he ran and got a translator. They both grabbed at my limbs and tried to manipulate them and tried to explain what to do. But I must say, it was exactly like pilates for me. Everyone comes out sweating, claiming to have exercised their "core." Well, I have no core, and now it turns out that I have no ... chi?

Okay, I'll be back later with more stories.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


... and do not pronounce it as "Chunking". Rather, it's Chong-ching, a city that has become it's own province which has a population of 30 million. We've just come from our cruise on the Yangtze river (spectacular!) and now, out to dinner and more karaoke with our host Li and his friends. Tomorrow, Anne and Aga are going home, and Li and I will go on into Chengdu, Sichuan.

Rest assured that I'm happy, and healthy and will get back on the internet in a couple of days.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Goodbye Shanghai

We will be leaving for the airport soon and, of course, have almost run out of time. I really wish I had another day in Shanghai. It is such a fascinating city.

Last year when I came I was really surprised to see all the old colonial buildings alongside the Jetson-esque skyscrapers. Apparently the communists gave very little money to Shanghai for almost 40 years, starting to develop the city in the early 90s. As a result, there are fewer Communist-style concrete buildings around and more decrepit European buildings. Parts of it feel like Paris as I would imagine it in the 1930s.

I don't think I can give the best description of how this city makes me feel right now. There are hints of the seedy underbelly that once was, and probably still is. The incredible conflict of the past when the city was divided into foreign concessions shows in the architecture. The French concession where I've been staying, still looks French, even though it has lost its french street names. French police officers used to patrol these streets and all residents abided by French laws, which became notoriously lax. As a result, Shanghai's gangsters came here and operated. Also, the communists had their very first meeting here in 1921, before being discovered and fleeing to Zhejiang province.

I went to the house where they had this meeting yesterday, now gutted and made into a museum with some historical information. I arrived a bit late (due to lack of familiarity with the metro) and purchased the day's last ticket. The inside was very sleek, and had information about how the city was taken over by "foreigners" after the opium wars, shocking pictures of famine, smuggled revolutionary pamphlets, and then a life-sized diarama of the famous meeting, including a young wax Mao. The stern guards shooed me on, wanting to close up for the day. I tried to charm them into getting some extra time, but they wouldn't have it. It's funny how they seemed to be the only people in Shanghai completely unable or unwilling to communicate with me in English.

But anyway, I really must go. Eventually, I'll have to do this city justice. Right now, I'm going inland.

Shanghai Princess

Princess has been put up in a 5 star hotel in Shanghai. Princess has her own bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, free sewing kit, mini bar, and flat screen tv. Princess gets coffee for breakfast and a newspaper delivered to her room and truly believes that this is the way she was born to be treated.

Our contact with the school was able to get three of us to stay on for an extra two nights at the hotel we came to with the group. Everyone has gone home now, and phase two of my trip has begun.

Admittedly, I was really emotional to see that part end. It was a difficult month for me, as you may have guessed. I think I really wanted to please everyone (fellow teachers/friends, students, administrators), tried to, and ended up pleasing no one. In any case the three of us left cried and sang "Big Big World" at the top of our lungs as their bus pulled away from the hotel, the overflowing luggage van following behind like the slave of the fat imperialist. (Much shopping was had by all.)

Now I am in Shanghai with my two travelling companions, Aga and Anne. Together we will go off to Yichang tomorrow, about 1.5 hours by plane, hop onto our cruise boat and crawl up the Yangtze river. My goal is to post tomorrow morning some info about what I've been up to in Shanghai. After that, I won't post until I get to Chongqing or even Chengdu.

And now, it's almost 1am. Time for bed.