Thursday, July 31, 2014

Timewarp: Epilogue to and Adventure

I’d hate to leave you hanging about my 40 minute layover in Japan, especially because we were a hour late leaving Shanghai. The flight to Tokyo was one of the bumpiest I’ve been on. The entire way people were oo-ing and aw-ing as we bounced over turbulence (which in the words of journalist Dave Barry felt like we’d “hit airborne water buffalo.”)

As we began our descent into Tokyo, I was sweating bullets. It was already 5:10. The flight boarded at 5:30 and the gate closed at 5:40 for a 5:50 takeoff. Looking at the TV screen on the back of the headrest ahead of me, we were only 10 miles away from the airport, but we weren’t expected to land for fifteen minutes.
By the time we touched down it was 5:25. We taxied for what felt like forever while I just kept praying over and over again…”Please let this work! Please let this work! Please let this work!”

The plane stopped and a flight attendant made an announcement in Chinese, then Japanese, and then English. “I am sorry ladies and gentlemen there is not an available gate for us to deplane. We will have to wait here for a few moments. Thank you for your patience.”
I think I suffered a mini-stroke right there.

At the same time, I noticed two young people sitting in front of me. The girl was chinese and the boy was white wearing American flag everything. They were talking English and they looked as nervous as I felt.
“What flight are you on?” I asked, leaning forward.

“The ANA flight to Seattle,” the girl said.
“The one that leaves in 17 minutes,” I said.

“Yea,” the boy said with a laugh.
“Actually with three of us there is a greater likelihood that they will hold the plane,” I said. “I mean three isn’t a huge number, but the more connecting passengers the more our odds increase.” I learned that from an article in Time Magazine about how airlines determine which flights to delay and cancel. It’s actually a pretty methodical process they go through.

We might nervous chit-chat about China. The two of them were high school students and had been dating for a year. The girl had needed to renew her student visa so the boy had gone with her back to China for a month.
When we finally had a gate and were able to deplane, the three of us pushed our way through the crowd to get off.

“We have 4 minutes until the gate closes,” I told them.
At the end of the jet way, there was a flight attendant holding a sign with NH1078 on it. That was our flight number. I waved to her.

Handing us yellow tickets she said, “No customs but you have to clear security again. Please hurry. The flight is boarded.
We quickly walked following the signs for connections. With the yellow tickets they moved us to the front of the line for security. I went through the detector without taking anything out of my pockets and even though the alarm blared, they rushed us on through.

“There!” I said pointing out the window. “Gate B51 is over there.” It was at the exact opposite side of the U shaped building we were in.
As we made our way into the lobby of the terminal, there were more flight attendants. They were holding signs with our names. The first one I found with my name asked for my passport when I showed her my yellow ticket. Looking at, she said, “We need to run.”

We started running. Soon, we were joined by other flight attendants who had also been looking for us. People were parting out of our way and smiling and waving as we ran passed. It’s the first time I’ve run to catch a plane. I never thought I’d do it with my pack and goody bag of gifts, but the whole scene felt like something out of a movie. I found myself smiling and laughing just a bit.
When we got to the gate, I handed the gate agent my boarding pass. She scanned it.

“Mr. Zachary,” the flight attendant who had told me to run originally. “You have been flagged for a random security screening. Please come with us.”
Random security screening? Don’t you have a plane full of people you’re trying to get off the ground?

For the screening, they basically took me behind a frosted glass wall and patted me down. It was the least thorough inspection I’ve ever had. They also swabbed my hands, but they didn’t open my bags or anything. The whole thing took about 20 seconds and they said I was good to go.
On the plane, I saw the teenage couple sitting a few rows behind me.

“It was a pleasure running through the airport with you,” I said.
They laughed and I took my seat.

I was sitting next to another young couple that were both Chinese. They had just graduated from University and were going to Seattle for a three week vacation. The guy had studied abroad in Seattle for a year and wanted to show his girlfriend around.
In order to beat the jetlag going home, I decided to stay awake for most of the flight. I watched a few movies including The Hunger Games (which is an awesome post-adventure film) and some chick-flick, rom-com that was a few years old. I did eventually doze off during an episode of The Big Bang Theory but the credits woke me up so I figure I only got about 20 minutes of sleep.

The first inflight meal was very Eastern. There was some chicken and rice with some spicy sauce on it, as well as some cold noodles in some spicy sauce, and a thing of tofu. The second meal however was a western style breakfast, complete with scrambled egg, bread, and butter. While I'll admit that eating with a fork was a little clumsy, the food tasted so good!

Both of my flights actually were 787. I think I mentioned before how cool the tinted windows are, but I discovered the toilets are also supercool! Not only do they have sensors to flush, but the sensor also controls the toilet seat and automatically closes it when the toilet is flushed. The planes also have mood lighting to simulate different times of day. They kept it pretty dark for most of the flight, but turned up all the lights about 2 hours before we landed.
When we did, my iPhone happened to shuffle to “The Star Spangled Banner” as we cruised over Mt. Rainier. I have to admit, I got goosebumps. It felt good to be home.

Because I had delayed the departure of our flight out of Tokyo, we were also late getting into Seattle. My originally two and half hour layover was condensed to just an hour. After the scrutinizing questions from the customs agent (“What was the purpose of your visit to China?” “What are you studying?” “Where do you live back home?” “Where do your parents live?” “What do your parents do?” “Do you have any alcohol, cigarettes, or tobacco?” “Did you purchase any souvenirs?”)  I claimed my bags and went out into the main terminal to re-check them.
It took forever to find Frontier’s desk in the SeaTac Airport. I am not missing this flight because my bags were too late to check-in I thought. But since my flight left in 40 minutes, I realized it was a very real possibility.

I suddenly realized something. I could ask for help…from anyone…and I’d be able to understand the answer…from anyone. So I did. Two very helpful TSA officers pointed me in the right direction. Pushing my two rolling bags and schlepping my pack, I got to the gate, paid the fees, and went to get in line for security.
In the security line, I was talking to everyone…because I could. I heard from one little boy all about his Thomas the Train suitcase. I talked to the security officer about the air in China. I talked to one lady who was traveling with her kids to meet her husband in Florida after he’s been on an assignment in Portugal for a month. It was so much fun.

And I have to say, Americans are so quiet (which is not something I believed coming back from Europe.) In fact that was the first of many cultural observations I made in the airport. I realized I’ve picked up a few Chinese habits.
For one, I’m not really used to lines anymore. I find the whole, everybody push and go thing to be way more efficient (less fair, but faster.) I also find that I get a lot of odd looks when I stand around fanning myself with either my hands or the papers in my hands. And my cultural faux pas became more noticeable on the airplane.

When I ordered a snack box, I pointed at the menu and said “this one” (the ways I’ve been ordering food for the past 10 weeks.)
“You want the Mediterranean box?” the flight attendant asked.

I nodded. Then it hit me. I can read that! And I can pronounce that! And she can understand it if I say it.
“Yes please,” I said and chuckled, handing her my credit card and receiving my receipt with both hands (as is polite to do in most Asian countries.)

And as I ate, became rapidly aware of the fact that I was eating entirely too fast. I realize that whenever I ate in China, we were eating faster than Americans. The goal with chopsticks is to kind of shovel the food into your mouth. It works, but in the US, I’m sure it looks disgusting. I also realized that loud bodily functions (which often accompany eating in China) are no longer acceptable in public.
When we landed, I checked my watch. I’d been up for nearly 24 hours. Now that I was on the ground and re-set my watch, it was 1 hour and 28 minutes before I took off from Asia. This time travel stuff is great!

It was a domestic flight so there was no customs screening. I walked out of security and saw my Dad waiting for me. He got up and we hugged, tears in both of our eyes.
And just like that…I was home.

The Middle Kingdom

Well I’ve made it out.

This morning, I woke up well before my alarm. I pretty much unpacked and repacked everything, so that I was sure I had everything. Luckily, I had plenty of time to do so, as well as time to shower, shave, and send a few last minute messages to my family and co-workers.
As I showered, I started to feel very frustrated. I didn’t want to leave. I kept remembering how frustrated I’d been coming back from Europe (and I’d come back to an action packed summer that time—this time I’m coming back with barely three weeks until I start school) and I didn’t want to go through that again. I didn’t want to battle the wanderlust anymore and be unable to move on from the trip.

So I decided, I won’t. When I got back to my room, I made a list of things I am looking forward to. Number one is of course my family. There are also several friends that I am looking forward to seeing so we can go swimming, hiking, and camping in the few weeks I have left of summer break (heck being able to just pick up the phone and call people is going to be nice.) I also want to see people from my church. Before I left, I agreed to help with a little project in the end of August for my old Boy Scout troop, and that will be a lot of fun. I’m excited to get back to work at the SCUBA shop, as well as returning the Study Abroad office at school. I also have an inbox full of people asking to get together to hear about China.
As I looked over the list, I started to laugh. “My life is so cool,” I said out loud to the empty room.

Then I started to laugh. Soon, once again, I was crying tears of joy. “I’m going home! I’m going home.”
I checked out of the hostel and my driver actually showed up a few minutes early. As he loaded my luggage into the trunk of his car, I looked around the street, taking in the sights and sounds of Shanghai one last time. As we drove to the airport, I twisted and turned in my seat making sure to see every landmark I could recognize one last time. Again, we had a bright blue sky today…and I realized we’ve actually had blue sky every day in July.

At the end of my trip around Europe, I made a list of “things I learned from studying abroad.” I’ve definitely learned just as much in China, but I am not sure my take-aways are quite as interesting and philosophical as Europe was. I still feel like I have a few thoughts worth debriefing (more thoughts will probably form in the coming days, but this is a start.)
One of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about today is the opening introduction to one of the first books I read about China when I arrived. It posed the question, “Is China a superpower or have they faked it really well?” I’ve thought about this a lot throughout my trip and riding to the airport today, I tried to crystalize my answer. On one hand, China does deserve a lot of credit. I mean the Chinese civilization has continually existed longer than any other country in the world. The emperors were contemporaries with the Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Soldiers. That does deserve some credit. And—despite some of the methods used to accomplish such achievement—Mao Zedong basically led the country from the brink of universal poverty following WWII, to being a fully industrialized nation in just 30 years. They’ve accomplished what it took America 200 years to do.

At the same time, the two biggest issues are (1) poverty and (2) sustainability. In terms of poverty, my observation is that China is a lot more fun if you have money. Living in the apartment, working at the office, and enjoying the city life of Shanghai was a lot more fun that slumming in the hutongs of Beijing (which don’t get me wrong, was an incredible experience and one that I wouldn’t trade for the world…but I wouldn’t want to live that way forever.) In terms of sustainability, the pollution has to catch up to China eventually. I can only imagine that the health consequences for living in such an environment will eventually be widespread. After just ten weeks, my throat and sinuses are so dry and my lungs hurt.
But I think a better question to ask is “What is a super power?”

I mean yes, China does have a GDP rivaled only by the US, as well as a domestic security budget unlike any other in the world. They have some of the worlds most populated cities (Shanghai being #1) and public transport networks that efficient move literally hundreds of millions of people every day. They have an economy based entirely on supply and demand (where you negotiate the price you are willing to pay) and a capitalist mindset that hasn’t been seen in the west since before WWII. If you break it down though, China’s GDP per capita is on par with sub-Saharan Africa, their medical system is decades behind the Western world, and their government is basically controlled by a fraternity of the country’s most wealthy. In the end though, it kind of works.
Or take the US. US is the strongest economy in the world, with most of the world’s currency being in US dollars, and the dollar being used as the benchmark to set the value of every other currency in the world. The US is on the brink of innovation with technology, specifically as it relates to data storage and communication. It has the largest military in the world, one of the most religious populations in the world, and some of the most well respected universities in the world. On the medical front, the US has been able to prolong life by decades with each and every generation. The US is also the most philanthropic nation with both government programs and private agencies traveling the world to help end poverty and cure diseases. At the same time, we have the highest rate of violent crime in the world, the highest rate of obesity, a polarized government with some of the most over-paid politicians in the world, a media system driven by ratings, and the most incarcerated citizens of any country. In the end though, it kind of works.

And I think that is the lesson I’ve learned from my time in the Wild, Wild East…no country is perfect. No government has it all figured out. Everyone is doing their best to provide the most comfortable life they can.
I truly have come to believe that pity is somewhat rude. So many people seem to make these observations about how they feel bad for people in other countries. While yes, the poor in the US have access to more things than the poor in other countries, I don’t think it’s right to pity anyone. Rich or poor, people find happiness in the world they know. Many people that are considered “poor” by our standards are just as happy if not more so than many people we consider “middle class.” It all comes down to different strokes for different folks. Of course there are people who want more or need more and are unable to get it…but I don’t think it’s right to assume that everyone who lives differently is worse of off than we are in the West.

The Chinese psyche really is interesting. You can definitely see the influence that the various religeons—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—have played in shaping the mindset, as well as that of ancestral worship and a paternal based societal structure. I think two of the biggest take-aways that foreigners can learn are (1) the concept of face and (2) the concept of relationships. Face really comes down to a very complicated view of reputation. While from a western view it does seem like a bit of a scapegoat, it is very deeply rooted in the chinese mindset. If you study it a little, it really is more than just what people think of you. It is really connected to the value you bring to society. There are certainly some convoluted aspects to it, but it isn’t entirely different than the “blue collar, middle class, American worker” image that we try to portray in the US.
As far as relationships go, Chinese people have to be the most friendly and hospitable folks around. While some of the mannerisms are different than the “Friendliness” we expect in the west, they will go above and beyond to make sure that foreigners feel welcomed and appreciated. I heard a lot about how Chinese people sort of have a “tit-for-tat” view of relationships, but I only really experienced that with Claire. I do believe that it is part of the culture, but I don’t think it is as deep or as strange as Westerners make it sound.

And in terms of an “us vs. them” mentality…it was odd living as a minority for ten weeks. While I certainly got more respect and adoration than minorities get in the states, it was strange being stared at, pointed at and talked about. It was flattering being looked at and talked to like a celebrity, but it was also frustrating to be ignored (in restaurants, by taxis, etc.) for looking different.
I think a lot of Americans fear China. I’m not sure there is really anything to be afraid of. People said it’s dirty, and yes it is—but it’s not grimy. People said the government is controlling, and yes they are—but it’s not oppressive. I really think it is a very warm society, with wonderfully kind people, interesting history, and a fascinating world view.

Me personally, I don’t think I would choose to live in China. If I had to go there—for a great job opportunity or some other reason—I absolutely could and I would be happy to live in either Shanghai or Xi’an. There are really just 2 reasons I wouldn’t choose to permanently relocate there: (1) the heat is horrendously stifling (2) the polluted air really is hard to get used to. Beyond that, it’s a great place! I will definitely come back to visit again—in fact I’ve already mapped out my next trip to include Hangzhou, Guilin, Chengdu, and Nanjing.
When my car dropped me at the airport, I thanked the driver and rolled my bags inside. Taking one last lung full of Chinese air, I went into the airport and checked in for my flight. I paid for my extra bag, cleared customs, bought a book in the terminal, and had one last chinese meal of dumplings and milk tea.

You know, I thought to myself, people back home will never understand what you’ve been through. I knew that was true. I realize I have an opportunity to share with people about an incredible culture many will never get to see up close. It is a great blessing and a true opportunity. At the same time, I know it will be frustrating. But I have lots of wonderful memories to hold onto, and lots of amazing opportunities to go home to.
My trip home has three legs. I fly from Shanghai to Tokyo (where I have a 40 minute layover!) and then from Tokyo to Seattle (where I cross the international dateline and land 5 hours before I take off, and then home. I happened to be lucky enough to be flying on the 787 from Shanghai to Tokyo. It really is an amazing experience. There is so much leg room, the tray tables are huge, the lighting in the cabin is soft and changes colors, and the window are awesome. The windows on the 787 don’t even have shades, instead, there is a little button that dims the light form outside. You can still see out, but it’s like putting on sunglasses, and you can control how light or dark you want it.

There was both a lump in my throat and a smile on my face as we took off from Shanghai. I’m sad to leave but elated to be going home. I know that I’ll be back again someday, and I know other adventures await me in other far off corners of the globe. And as we climbed above the clouds, the whole experience flooded back through my memory. In some ways, it feels like it was just a dream. In other ways, it feels like the most real two months of my life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Re-Made in China

I feel numb.

That’s the text I sent my mom this morning when I woke up. Actually, it’s only a snippet of the text. As we messaged back and forth—and my brother chimed in from time to time—I told my family some of the stuff I’ve been wrestling with since I got back to Shanghai. The biggest thing is that I never planned out the ending. I spent four months getting ready to leave for China. I imagined what it would look like when I arrived. I imagined the food. I imagined the homesick nights. I imagined the panic of being lost and the joy of making discoveries….but I never imagined what my final days would look like.
Yu Cui texted me to say that she would not be able to meet up with us tonight so we would have to say “goodbye” over WeChat.

I texted back a frowning face with a tear.
Please don’t. She replied. If you look sad, then I think maybe it’s better not to say goodbye.

I’m actually really bad at goodbyes I admitted.
Let’s say ‘See you next time’ then she suggested.

Around the same time I got a text from Vivi saying that my suitcase had arrived. She suggested I come to the office to have lunch with her, John, and Yang Renjun so I could pick it up.
I went back to my room, changed my clothes, shaved, and got ready to go. My hostel is actually in a pretty nice part of town. It’s definitely not as urban feeling as my apartment was, but it really feels like the essence of Shanghai. That said, it is about 50 minutes away from everything in town. Riding the subway, I couldn’t help but notice that every song my iPhone shuffled to was a sad song about endings.

I really need to get new music I thought.

Ironically, I took the wrong exit going out of the metro. I would up in the middle of the park where Vivi had shown us her secret place. There were tons of old people practicing Tai Chi, and I noticed a bunch of statues of exotic animals I hadn’t been able to see in the dark the other night. I also had to smile at the weather. The blue sky was again gorgeous and the temperature (while still a lit hot) was the nicest it has been in a while.
When I walked into the office, Vivi pointed to a large box in the corner.

“Cool!” I said.
“Don’t say that until you opened it,” John said.

Vivi gave be a box cutter and I pulled my bag out of my suitcase. It was perfect! It actually looks almost identical to the one I bought in Germany, except it is blue and white instead of blue and red.
“Congrats on getting a non-black bag,” John said. “We have some luggage that is great and we don’t want to get rid of it, but it’s black and looks like every other bag coming out of the shoot.” That is the nice thing about my German suitcase; you can always recognize it.

Vivi ordered delivery. She got me and John both the restaurant special, which was sausage, cabbage, and rice. John paid for my lunch and we all went to the kitchen to eat.
“Do you miss American food,” John asked.

“Not really,” I said. “I mean I’m looking forward to having it, but I think if I really wanted to, I could find a lot of the same stuff here. I mean those Mex & Co burritos don’t really compare to the real stuff.”
“Well if you eat enough of them, you forget what the real stuff tastes like,” John said.

I laughed. “I think it’s easier to find American food here in China than it is to find traditional Chinese food back in the states.”
“Yeah but Chinese food in the states is still good,” he said. “I mean are you really going to stop eating it because it’s not traditional?”

“Probably not,” I said. “But even though it’s different from over here, it will be a long time before I eat Chinese food again.”
When we went back to the office I asked them about a tea market that I had heard about. They looked it up but weren’t familiar with it.

“Everything with tea is kind of a scam in China,” John warned me.
“Young people don’t drink much tea,” Yang Renjun added. “Only old traditional people.”

“Yeah, you’ll probably get to taste a lot of tea, you won’t be able to tell the difference between any of it, and then you’ll get a really stern sales pitch to buy some overly priced tea to take home,” John said.
“You can buy better tea in the supermarket,” Vivi added. “But I do not like tea.”

They had sufficiently talked me out of the tea tour.
Jazlyn works half days and when she arrived, she and John got to work on a project. Vivi was going to help me buy some more gifts that evening so I told everyone I’d be back at 5:30. Taking my suitcase back to the hostel I started packing.

Packing proved more difficult than I expected. While I haven’t necessarily acquired a lot of things since I came, the things I have acquired are awkward in size. I eventually got it all to fit, only to realize I would still need room for the gifts I was buying and the pile of dirty laundry on the floor (which is only two shirts, two shorts, and two pairs of underwear, so no I am not taking my laundry home to my mother for once.)
About 3:00 I got a text from Bryan. He was wishing me well and asking about my last few days in China. We both agreed that we were ready for a break from China, but that we weren’t quite ready for the excitement to be over.

He also warned me that a lot of the kids he’s been working with have been running into flight delays due to military flight drills in Shanghai. A delay for me would be very bad. I currently only have 40 minutes on the ground for my layover in Tokyo. I can probably make that, IF we take off on time and IF we land on time and IF I don’t have to go through customs and IF the gates aren’t located at separate terminals (I am packing a change of clothes and a sleeping bag in my carry on in case I get stranded.
Luckily, so far (you know 12 hours out), my flight is on time.

About 3:30 I decided to out for one last cultural experience. Taking the metro back over by work, I went and got one last chinese massage. This time—since it wasn’t all new to me—I was able to relax and really enjoy each manipulation of my muscles. Everything seemed to relax and melt away—every market in Suzhou, every step up Huangshan, every bus ride in Qian Dao Hu, every plane ride to Japan, every airport seat in Hong Kong, every bike ride in Beijing, every hot day in Xi’an, and every couch, bunk bed, and train car that I’ve slept in—it all disappeared.
I got to the office a little early and hung out while they finished working.

“Yu Cui had a lesson canceled,” Vivi said, “so you can say goodbye. She will be here soon. I think God wanted it this way.”
I smiled. It did seem to have a funny way of working out.

John was the first goodbye. “Thanks for a great summer, I told him. “I learned so much, I had so much fun, and I definitely have an idea of the types of jobs I want to do going back.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “If you’re ever back in China, let us know if you need anything. We’ll be here and we’d love to see you again.”

Yu Cui was next. She gave me a big hug and said, “Until next time, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Until next time!”

Jazlyn, Vivi, Yang Renjun, and I walked to the metro.
“I am going for a massage,” Yang Renjun said, “So I cannot go to shopping with you guys. But it was nice to meet you. We will meet again in Chengdu someday.”

“Yes!” I said. “Thank you for all of the lessons. We will definitely meet again someday.”
“I’ll look you up on Facebook when I get back to the states,” Jazlyn said.

“Awesome! And we can email until then?” I suggested.
“Sounds good,” she said.

We parted ways and Vivi and I went to Tianzifang to pick up some gifts.
Vivi had arranged for us to meet with her friend Claire who lives in Tianzifang. She thought that a more “local” guide might be able to help us find some good deals. At first, she was only taking me to stores that Chinese people would shop at. They had very nice things, but they weren’t exactly Chinese-y. They were more practical items if you lived in China…like furniture.

We did eventually start winding around through the little merchant shops. Vivi was able to help me haggle more or less successfully. She thought I paid too much for most of the items, but with the exchange rate, I got all of them for much less than they would cost in the US (and I was under budget for what I’d planned to spend on gifts.)
When we finished, Claire asked if we would come back to her apartment. She has an interview next week with a Swiss company and they sent her some practice interview questions. She wanted to know if I would read them to her (so she could hear the English) and then critique her responses (to see if I could understand her english.)

Her apartment reminded me a lot of Helen’s from Suzhou. We sat in a sitting room that was attached to her bedroom. She brought us bottled water, chocolates, and fruit (which I did not touch because diarrhea on an 18 hour plane ride sounds awful—pardon the imagery.) As we practiced she was weaving a bracelet to give me as a token of thanks for helping her.
It was interesting going through the practice with her. Vivi was frequently have to translate back and forth between us. I tried to give her a few tips for interviewing with a westerner. For example, in China, it is very acceptable to want money and to talk about wanting money. When I asked her “Why do you want this job?” her response was “because it pays a good salary.” For “where do you see yourself five years from now?” she said “maybe I will own my own car.” Vivi joined me in explaining that these answers would not work as well for Westerners as they would in China.

Vivi was a harsh interviewer herself. She would follow up a lot of the scripted questions with “Why?” and “Explain more?” She definitely has a good knowledge of Western culture and was able to give some really strong interviewing tips.
“I think you’ll make a good boss someday,” I told her.

She blushed, “Thank you!”
I recorded a few English sentences for Claire to listen to so that she could hear the questions a few more times before the interview. When we finished the practice we needed to wait for a bit while she finished spinning the bracelet.

“We need some music,” Vivi said.
“I have a song,” I said pulling out my iPhone.

“Is it pop or soft,” Vivi said. I knew that Vivi preferred soft music.
“It’s soft,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite travel songs.”

I played “The Call” by Regina Spektor. It’s not a very popular song, but it talks about leaving a place, holding onto memories, and returning someday when the time is right. I listened to the song a lot before I left for Europe; now it feels appropriate to listen to it again.
“I also saved some quotes about travel,” I told Vivi. “I think you will like them.”

I pulled up a website of travel quotes on my phone and read them to her. Many of them made her say, “Oh yes.”
“I think traveling is a like a fairy tale,” Vivi said. “You get to go to some new world and experience new things with some interesting people. It is your own adventure and it changes you forever.”

“I agree,” I said. “Even if your not fighting a dragon, you certainly have an adventure.”
“And I like meeting people from different places in the hostels,” Vivi said. “But it is always so hard when they leave.”

“I know,” I said. “You get to know them for such a short time, and they feel like friends, and then its just over.”
“Yes,” she said.

“In some ways, I think travel reminds you that you have a heart,” I said. “You learn to love people and places, and then you feel it break when it’s all over.”
When Claire finished the bracelet, she fastened it on my wrist. It apparently was the first one she’d ever made so she took pictures to send her friends. Vivi explained that it was a traditional gift to give people during some festivals. You never made it for yourself, but only to give away. The knot that fastens it cannot be undone with one hand so you need someone to put it on and take it off for you. Wearing it is supposed to bring good luck.

“You can walk to your hostel,” Vivi said. “It is very close.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I cant take the metro once I go home so tonight is my last chance.” Plus I still had ten rides left  on my card so I might as well burn them.

Claire walked us to the metro and we said goodbye to her and rushed for the escalator so we wouldn’t miss the last train of the night.
“I have to apologize for my friend,” Vivi said. “In China, when you help someone with some shopping or something, it is okay to assume that they also have time to do a favor for you. But I know in Western cultures it is not like this. I know it is more polite to ask ahead of time and make the plans so I am sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” I said. “It was fun and I don’t mind at all.”
As we rode through the subway Vivi asked, “How will you celebrate your graduation next year?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged with a laugh. That still seems really far away. “Maybe with a trip. I am thinking about going to Peru to see Machu Pichu.”
“That would be nice,” Vivi said.

“And probably celebrate with friends too,” I said. Then I smiled. “Or maybe a trip with friends.”
“Yes,” Vivi said. “I think that is the best idea.”

“Me too,” I said. “You know when I traveled Europe, part of the fun was doing it alone. I was so scared, but every city that I figured out, I felt like I had really accomplished something. I went home from Europe realizing I could take care of myself in so many ways and that I could do so many cool things. I thought when I came to China it would be the same. And traveling alone was really cool. I mean when you do something hard and realize you did it all by yourself, it’s amazing.
“It will be unforgettable experience for you,” Vivi said.

“Absolutely!” I agreed. “But now I have two life changing trips that I experienced alone. I can tell the stories but no one was actually there to make the memories with me. They’re just my memories—which is cool in a way—but it’s also a little lonely to think about. I think whatever my next trip is, I won’t go alone. Maybe by then I’ll have a girl friend or at least a group of friends that like to travel too.”
“Yes,” Vivi agreed. “I think part of what makes memories special are sharing them with friends.”

“I agree,” I told her.
“I believe that experiences are okay, but the special parts of life come from the people you have the experiences with,” she added.

“I think that’s true. I don’t think people were created to be alone,” I told here. “I think we need each other.”
We caught the train and rode it to a transfer stop. Again we were going in different directions on line 7. As we got to the platform and my train arrived, I felt a little lump in my throat. I didn’t want to say goodbye to any of them—John, Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, Jazlyn, or Vivi—but having Vivi as the last goodbye was the hardest. Saying goodbye to her made it official. In reality, she was probably the last person I was going to talk to before leaving China (it’s amazingly easy to navigate airports by pointing and smiling.)

“Well goodbye,” she said and wrapped her arms around me. As she hugged me, I realized for the first time how much shorter than me she was. But even so, she was strong, and she just about knocked me off balance.
“I’ll see you again,” I told her.

“Yes,” she said. “Have safe trip. And enjoy your family.”
“I will,” I said. “And you keep in touch. Message me on WeChat sometime.”

“Yes,” she said letting me go. “Now, see you later?”
“See you later?” I said.

I hate this I thought as I got on the train. I realize now that the reason I do things alone is I can’t handle the goodbyes that come at the end.
When I got to my next transfer stop, I discovered the metro was closed for the night. Ironically, that would have been my last subway ride, but now my adventures with public transportation were over. Luckily, one of the security guards spoke English and she was able to write the intersection of my hostel for me in Chinese so I could catch a cab.

And now here I am. My bags are (mostly) packed. My flight leaves in just 12 hours. I’ve decided, I’m excited to go home. After Europe, I was so determined to hang on to the memories, I never really “went home.” I know now that the memories will always be unforgettable, but if I cling to the past, I’ll never be able to enjoy the present (I have to thank my friend Bonnie for sending me a wonderful quote about this, but I’m not sure I should publish it here J.)
I’m going enjoy American food, appreciate American customer service, speak English and love hearing it, and take adventures in my own city, state, and country while I’m there. Of course I’ll also be scheming my next adventure…but in the meantime, I also have a lot of new ideas for my future. I want to invest in new relationships, pursue some new career ideas, and start thinking about what part of the globe I want to come call home.

Until then…I’m ready to go home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chinese Food

At the metro station, I said goodbye to the girls. When I got back to the hostel, I was surprised to find that Jessica had left my little green TSA lock on the front counter. I guess part of me figured I’d never see it again, but once again, travel proves you can trust people.

I also found a text from Sabrina that was a few days old. It told me that a letter had come for me at the office. Catching a cab—which is not easy to do being a foreigner, a lot of them speed by or shake their head when you try to get in…even if they have their green available light lit up—I rode back over to the office to pick up my letter, and then caught another cab back to the hostel. At that point, Yu Cui messaged me about picking up my bag and meeting for dinner.
I met her at her apartment and we walked down to a café. We were chatting away when someone bumped into Yu Cui. They said something in Chinese.

“So sorry,” Yu Cui said.
As we walked away, I asked, “Is ‘so sorry’ Chinese?”

She laughed. “Oh wow! I guess you have my brain thinking in English. I didn’t even notice.”
When we got to the café at the corner she asked, “Do you want to eat here or have Chinese food?”

I only have about 36 hours left in China, I thought. “Let’s do Chinese food.”
“You like wantons right?” she asked.

“Yes I do!” I said.
“We will go have the best wantons.”

She didn’t lie. These wantons were probably the best I’ve had. They were filled with pork and shepherds purse, and had that good peanut and sesame sauce drizzled over them. She offered to buy me several orders, but I figured one was enough.
“So,” she said as we sat down. “Are you ready to go?”

I smiled. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been asking myself that the last three days.” I thought for a minute. “I am definitely ready to see my family again. And it will be nice to sleep in my own bed. But I’m not ready for it to be over.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think it will be good for you to go home and have a rest. It is hard to travel all the time. After a break, you can come back or go somewhere new.”

Yu Cui honestly introduced me to most of the best food I had in China. As we ate, I shared with her my list of favorite dishes I’ve been keeping.
“I like milk tea,” I told her. “I’d never had it in the states.”

“Is easy to make,” she said. “You just brew tea in milk and serve over ice.”
“No I know,” I said. “I’ll make it when I go home. I just never had it before.”

I continued. “Hot pot was definitely my favorite.” She agreed. “And the peking duck in Beijing was really, really good.”
“I have never had it,” she said. “Was it flavorful?”

“So flavorful!” I said. “And really, really tender. And then I like wantons. That fried pumpkin you took me to eat for lunch one time, at the restaurant around the corner…”
“Yes,” she remembered.

“That was awesome,” I said. “In Beijing I had this chicken that had vinegar and brown sugar on it. It was sticky but it was really good.”
“I don’t know it,” she said.

“I like the roasted bamboo,” I said. “And even though it made me sick, those yaoming berries were pretty good.”
She laughed again.

"I also like the carmelized potatoes.” She looked confused. “They are potatoes, cut up, covered in sugar and baked. The sugar becomes hard and when you bite into it crunches and shatters in your mouth.”
She thought for a second and then smiled, “Oh yes!” she said. “I love this dish too.”

“And even though it gave me a head ache and just about made me cry,” I said, “I did enjoy the flavor of the mouth numbing noodles.”
She laughed. “I think you will miss all of our peppers when you go home.” I’m not so sure about that.

“And I like bing,” I said.
“Oh!” She said. “I am so proud.” Bing is Yu Cui’s favorite.

“I think the bing you brought me the first day was my favorite,” I said. She agreed.
“The thing you told me you ate in Xi’an, off the street food,” she said. “It is also a type of bing. I really like this one too.”

“Yes!” I said adding it to my list. “And the dumpling you brought me on my last day of work. The one that had beef in it and the juice splattered all over my face when I bit into it.”
She laughed recalling the incident. “It is called Shengjian.” She was impressed that I spelled it correctly when I put it in my phone.

After we finished eating, we talked for a while about plans for the future. I am going to miss these guys so much. They feel like such close friends I can’t imagine not staying in touch with them.
Once again, Yu Cui bought my dinner. She helped me get all of my bags to the metro. As we were walking there all I could think was I hate goodbyes. I suck at goodbyes. I avoid goodbyes like the plague. But at the same time, I know that saying goodbye feels a lot better than never saying goodbye.

But luckily, we put it off one more day. Yu Cui said that she would message Vivi tomorrow when we go out shopping and try to meet up with us.
I successfully navigated the subway and got all my things back to the apartment. When I did, I sent a few emails before sitting down to journal about the day.

Tomorrow is my last day in China…that is such a weird thought to me. After four months of getting ready for it, and two months of adventures over here, I guess I never thought about what would happen when it was over. Coming home from Europe, I had a very distinct set of goals and a life I wanted to return to. After China, I really feel open to anything. I don’t know what I want when I get home.
I still have a lot to think about.

Haggling & Other Adventures in Shanghai

I hate haggling. It scares me a little. Having worked in sales, I get frustrated when people try to negotiate on the price with me. Even though it’s the norm here, I’m just not used to it. But I wanted to get some gifts to take home, so I decided to give it a try.

There are a few items I know I want to get which could be a little pricey. So that I don’t get ripped off, Vivi has agreed to go with me on Wednesday night to pick them out. Some of the other stuff I felt confident I could find on my own.
Sabrina suggested the Science and Technology Museum as well as the Yuyuan Garden area to find good, Chinese themed gifts. I’d made a list of things I’d seen that I thought people would like. My first stop was the Science and Techonlogy museum (aftually my first stop was Family Mart to pick up a muffin and yogurt for breakfast and then I went to the Science and Technology Museum.

The experience was crazy. The Science and Technology Museum station looked a lot like the metro in Japan. Shops were everywhere, and the people were aggressive. As soon as I got up the escalator one man came up to me.
“Ni hao,” he said and rattled something off in Chinese. I kept walking so he switched to English. “Hello, you want bag? You want watch?”

I shook my hand in the Chinese geture for “no” or “I don’t want it.”
“Necklace? Jewlery? Belt? Suicase?”

“Meiyao,” I said [I don’t want] and kept walking.
He followed me, “Bag, watch,” he repeated. “What you want?”

“I don’t know!” I said, a little overwhelmed. He got the message and ran after someone else.
It happened again just 10 seconds later. A woman came up to me, “You want t-shirts?” she asked. “Polo.”

I shook my head and kept walking, but she grabbed my arm and pulled on me, “Men’s shirts. Ladies shirts. Sports shirts.” I pulled my arm free and walked away.
I put on my sunglasses hoping that they would disguise me just a bit. I read in one travel book that a common disguise foreigners use when they want to “blend in” is a pair of reflective sunglasses and a fedora. I haven’t actually bought a fedora, but I’m thinking that even if I wore one, my Jewish curls and German jaw-line probably are never going to blend in.

There was definitely a lot of stuff to buy here, but none of it was really souvenir stuff. There was cheap clothing and some nice luggage (I made a note of that in case my bag I ordered online doesn’t arrive tomorrow) but nothing gift worthy. So I went and got back on the metro to head to Yuyuan Gardens.
When I arrived at the metro for the gardens, I rode up the stairs, crossed the street and made my way to the entrance. Suddenly I heard a voice call out to me, “Hello.”

“Hello,” I said. I saw a young boy and girl. They were both Chinese and  both looked to be about my age.
“Excuse me,” the boy said. “Can you take our picture?”

“Absoltuely,” I said. They handed me their camera.
“With this building,” he said in crispy clear English. I took two photos and handed back the camera.

“Are you from Australia?” the girl asked.
“No, the US,” I said.

“Oh,” the boy said. “How long you have been n Shanghai?”
“Two months,” I said. “Since May. It’s…67 days, I think.” I’d counted just the other day but I wasn’t sure how long it had been since.

“That’s cool,” the girl said. “What other cities you have gone to in China.”
“I was in Bejing last week,” I said.

“We were in Beijing too!” the boy said.
“Yes, and I’ve been to Hong Kong and Xi’an,” I said, not listing all the others.

“That’s cool,” the boy said. “You look young. Are you studying in Shanghai?”
“No I was working,” I said.

“But you are student, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was an internship.”

“Oh” the boy said. “We are students too. What year are you?”
“Fourth year,” I said.

“Me too!” The boy said.
“I am a first year,” the girl said.

“What are you studying?” I asked her.
“English language,” she said. “I like talking to foreigners to practice.”

A thought crossed my head. Maybe these two could help me haggle. They could do the translation for me, and I could help them practice English!
“Where have you been in Shanghai?” the boy asked.

“I’ve been to The Bund,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Lots of beautiful buildings. Did you go up any?”

“Yes,” I said. “I went up the World Financial Tower.”
“Oh,” he said. “Is very big. The Pearl Tower is famous in Shanghai. It is originally tallest building in Shanghai until they built World Financial Tower. And now they are building an even taller one. Maybe you can come back on holiday and see it next year.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve seen it. It’s very impressive.”
“Have you been to Yuyuan Gardens?” he asked.

“I have,” I said. “I am going there now to get some gifts.” This could be a perfect segue.
The boy pulled out a map and pointed to brown dot next to the gardens. I couldn’t help but notice it was an English map…and they were a Chinese couple. Something didn’t add up.

“Do you know this restaurant?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve only been to the gardens.”

“Oh,” he said. “It is a tea house,” he explained.
CRAP! I thought. The tea scam. Here we go. I know I explained this once before, but basically the tea scam is China’s answer to the pickpocketing problems in Europe. Chinese locals approach tourists saying they want to practice English with them and they invite them to a “traditional tea ceremony.” They will go to the ceremony and then leave part way through it, forcing the tourist to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars to the restaurant staff (which is often in on the scam.)

“Have you had much tea in China?” the boy said.
“I have,” I said, getting a bit defensive at the fact they were trying to manipulate me.

“What is your favorite tea?” he said.
“I like the oolong,” I said, giving the cliché tourist answer.

“Oh,” he said. “I like oolong too, but I like lemon more. Lemon I like one, oolong I like two.”
“Oh,” I said a bit emotionless.

“This restaurant does a tea ceremony,” he said. “It is very traditional. Have you seen the Chinese Tea Ceremony.”
“I have,” I said, hoping to throw off his schtick.

“You have?” he asked. “When?”
“A few weeks ago,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I think this tea ceremony is the best. We can all go together and we will explain to you what is happening.”
“Actually,” I said. “I don’t have much time. I need to go buy those gifts now.”

“It will only take 20 minutes,” he said.
I’m sure it will I thought.

“No, I don’t have time,” I said.
“Fifteen minutes,” he said. Apparently the thousand year old tradition can be modified to meet your needs.

“No thank you,” I said.
“You can help me practice English,” the girl said.

“It was nice to meet you,” I said. “Have a nice day.”
“Ok,” they said. “Bye bye.”

I turned to walk away.
Haggling turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. I found one stand that sold most of the things I needed. While I’m sure other people could have talked the girl down further than I did, her English was very good, she was very helpful, and she seemed sympathetic to my line that I was a poor student running out of money. I negotiated a bundle price on everything I bought and while it was a little expensive, it was less than the maximum I had set in my head. By looping around to a few other stands (and stopping at DQ for a green tea blizzard) I found just about everything I needed.

Going back to the hostel, I dropped off my stuff. I decided I would try to squeeze in a little bit of site seeing, so I went to find the Jade Buddha temple. This temple is a tourist favorite and often featured on travel shows and blogs. Basically a Buddhist monk went to Burma in 1912 and brought back a two ton, two meter tall white jade Buddha statue. A temple was constructed for the statue, and it has become a pilgrimage site in Buddhist faith. Over the next century, the temple acquired 4 more jade statues, bringing the total to five.
Initially when I looked up the directions in one of my books, I thought that the Jade Buddha was off of Chengshu road. When I got to the metro, I figured that just couldn’t be right, mostly because all of the maps showed the Buddha as being close to the train station. As I studied the map of the metro system, I realized that there was a stop on line 7 called Chengshou road. Looking at the map on my phone again, Chengshou road was close to the jade Buddha. I decided to go there.

When I got out of the station at Chengshou road, I turned left. I didn’t really know which way to turn so I figured it was a 50/50. After walking a few blocks and about 10 minutes, I decided to turn around. And it was a beautiful day for a walk. It was really hot and I was really, really sweaty, but the air was so clear and there was a brilliant blue sky overhead. I think Shanghai is trying to show off for me in the last days I’m here.
As I was walking the other direction, two white girls approached me. “Excuse me,” they said. They had heavy Eastern European accents. One was tall and blonde and the other was shorter with brunette hair. The brunette had the most stunning eyes I’ve ever seen.

 “Is there some temple around here?” the brunette asked.
“With a jade Buddha?” I asked.

“Yes,” they said.
“I’m actually looking for it myself,” I told them. Joining forces we continued a few blocks.

When we walked by one restaurant, the blonde girl stepped inside. In flawless mandarin, she asked for directions.
“You guys speak Chinese?” I asked.

“Yes,” the brunette girl said. “At least a little. We’ve studied it, but all of the dialects here make it hard to understand.”
At that point, we started swapping life stories. The two of them were from Ukraine (and it did take a lot of will power for me not to blurt out, “So how bad is it over there?” when they told me that) and they were on a three week language emersion program in Shanghai from their university. They were both Chinese language majors, although the one was double majoring in English literature too. China had not been kind to the two of them. Being from Ukraine, apparently spicy food was a new discovery, and they were not a fan. They also did not like the crowded cities or the chaotic metro.

The temple, which we did eventually find was a big yellow building. The courtyard was so filled with incense, that ash floated in the smoke as it whirled around the air.
“It smells like the churches in Ukraine.”

The first room of the temple, which was the main prayer room, had three large gold Buddha’s. They were very beautiful, but I think the altar on the back side of the BUddhas was more colorful. It showed all of the incarnations of Buddha coming to worship one central Buddha. The ceiling was also beautiful. It looked like a black hole, with light spinning in circles, leading up to a small opening of Heaven. The sides of the chamber were lined with other golden statues and I’m not sure if they were Buddhas or guards.
The admission to the temple was 20RMB, but to see the Jade Buddha was another 10 RMB (8USD total.) It was kept in a glass display case in the top story of the monastery behind the temple. The wooden staircase leading up to it was tight and twisted. I had to duck to keep my head from hitting the next flight of stairs above me.

The Buddha was beautiful. The room it was in was dimly light, but the incense smoke was so heavy you could see the beams of sunlight coming through the window on either side of the Buddha. The statue itself was made of white jade and really was quite elegant. The ceiling was guilding with thousands of tiny little buddhas.
Not only could you not take pictures of the Buddha, you also could not approach it, or pray to it. The brunette girl got in trouble for snapping a photo, but they didn’t really do anything to her other than make a scene about it.

Downstairs, there was another jade Buddha, which was actually laying down instead of siting. The one upstairs was the original from Burma but this was the only other one of the five open to the public. We also stepped into the hall of ancestors and a few other prayer rooms, but they all looked a lot like the other temples. One entire wall of the temple had been torn down and was under construction (which kind of killed the atmosphere a bit) it was a nice “last temple” to see before I go home.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Last Supper

I took the subway back up closer to the office so I could meet everyone for dinner. I walked around a mall for a bit trying to find a suitcase to take some of the extra clothes I’ve acquired home, but everything I found was about 3x more expensive than I was willing to pay. I went and got a tea from the tea house across from the office before going and sitting in the café that occupies the bottom floor of our office building. I spent some time looking at career websites on my phone and thinking about all these new ideas I have after working for AllSet. Eventually Vivi texted me that they were ready for dinner and I went upstairs to meet them.
John was with a client so Vivi, Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, Jazlyn, and I snuck out. They laughed at how heavy my pack is but I guess I’ve become a bit immune to it.

We went to a food court in the basement of a mall. This may not sound traditional, but it really is the quintessential chinese experience. So many Chinese people stop to eat at these places on their way home from work. They aren’t like American food courts that have a bunch of fast food chains; they have like individual vendors and delis that make the food for you on the spot.
Vivi bought a pre-made hot pot that had beef, tofu, dumplings, and baked blood in it (I could not bring myself to try the blood…I felt bad, but I’ve made it this far without losing my lunch, I wasn’t willing to take the risk.) She also ordered some special dumplings. Yu Cui got an order of fried dumplings. Yang Renjun bought some fried, boneless chicken breasts.

While they got the food, Jazlyn and I walked around to order drinks. We briefly looked at getting smoothies, but then found liter cups of lemon tea for just 10RMB (about 1.20USD.)
“I guess this is the Chinese equivalent of a Big Gulp,” I joked.

“These special dumplings are eaten during the spring festival,” Vivi explained as they brought over the white delicacies that she had ordered. “We eat them for good luck and to celebrate some special occasions.” We cheers-ed our dumpling bowls together and then bit into the sweet tweets. The inside was filled with sweet rice and sesame seeds. It was really, really good.
The hot pot was really spicy! Not the spiciest dish I’ve eaten (that award goes to the noodle bowl Vivi and Yu Cui introduced me to…the name literally translates from Chinese to English to be “Mouth Numbing”) but it was spicier than the hot pot Yu Cui and I had.

The dumplings Yu Cui bought were also really good. They were fried but shaped more like little balls of noodle with just one edge a little crispy. The inside had some of the meat juice which squirted out when you bit in. I have finally learned to bite cautiously into Chinese food, so I wasn’t surprised this time. The dumplings were really, really good and I probably ate entirely too many of them.
The chicken Yang Renjun bought was also good. It was fried with breadcrumbs on it, and then had a mustard like sauce drizzled over it. Yu Cui said she knew a better version of the same and went to buy it. When she brought it back, it was probably 4 times the size of the dish Yang Renjun had bought. And it did taste a bit better. It had more spicing to the breading and was cooked with the bones in…which I admit gives it a lot more flavor.

When we finished the food, Yu Cui bought us all soft serve ice cream. We sat around and laughed, talking about what they had done since I left. Vivi, Yang Renjun, and Yu Cui had taken a trip with John and his wife while I was in Beijing. Jazlyn had been studying and was about halfway through her internship now.
“Did you get a haircut?” I asked Yang Renjun.

“No,” she said.
“Because both of you look like your hair has gotten longer,” I said pointing to Vivi and Yu Cui.

Vivi pulled on her pony tail and Yu Cui pinched her bangs. “I don’t think so,” Vivi said.
“Maybe my hair got longer because my body never got longer,” Yu Cui said. We all laughed.

“You have definitely lost weight,” Yang Renjun said.
“Really?” I said. I mean I’d kind of noticed it myself, but I didn’t feel like it was that substantial.

They enjoyed my stories (although they told me I was too hard on Hong Kong.) I admitted that I enjoyed every place I went. Xi’an was probably my favorite, Beijing was definitely the most interesting, and Hong Kong was beautiful—just frustrating, although I admit my own preparedness might have played a role in that.
“You know, I don’t think I could live in China,” I admitted for the first time out loud. “I like it so much, and I want to come back, but I can’t do the heat.

They laughed. “You were lucky,” Vivi said. “This summer has set a record as the coldest summer in China in over 30 years.”
“Seriously?” I asked.

They all laughed.
“No I really do like it here,” I said. “The people are friendly and fun, and the cities are beautiful, and the history is so interesting. I just need to live somewhere cooler…but I will come back to China.”

“Yes there are so many places to see,” Yu Cui said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I really want to go to Chengdu.”

“When you go there,” Yang Renjun said, “I can be your guide.”
“Sounds like a plan!” I said. “And when you guys come to the US, I will be happy to show you around.”

After we finished our ice cream—which I noticed they ate the same way I did, so I don’t know why those people were laughing at me in the summer palace—we went outside to walk around. There was a small park behind the mall and Vivi wanted to show us her “Secret Place.”
“But it won’t be a secret place anymore if you show us,” Jazlyn pointed out.

“It is where my book club meets,” Vivi explained.
It turned out that her secret place was not so secret as there were about 10 other people there. But it was pretty. Situated behind a likely 5-star restaurant, her secret place was a little dock that overlooked a small pond. We took off our shoes and sat with our feet dangling in the water. Actually, my feet were the only ones that reached the water, and I realize it was kind of slimy as my toes dipped below the surface.

Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, and Jazlyn took photos and played with the photo editing software on WeChat. Vivi and I sat on the dock talking about trips we want to take in the future.
“If I lived in China,” I said, “I’d either live in Xi’an or Shanghai. Xi’an was beautiful and the air was so clean, but Shanghai is easier to get around with the metro. And I think the people are friendlier here.”

“Yes,” Vivi said. “I like Shanghai. I have many friends here. But when I get married and have a husband, I think I want to live in the country.”
“I can relate to that,” I said. “I think living in the city is fun. It’s definitely easier to meet people and see lots of things, but it is nice to settle down some place quieter. I’d like to live in a city for now, but when I get married and have a wife and kids, I’m not sure I want to raise my family in a down town area.”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t want to spend my whole life in the cities.”
Marriage really does seem to be a big topic of conversation in China, and we talked about it a lot. Vivi was also interest in how gay marriage worked in the US since it really is not socially acceptable over here.

Everyone had a bit of a commute to get home, so about 8:00 we headed out. Yu Cui, Yang Renjun, and Jazlyn went on one line, Vivi and I took another but in opposite directions. We made plans to see each other again on Wednesday before I go home.

As Vivi and I walked to the train station she said, “I think traveling reminds me of the movie Alice. You know it?”
“Alice in Wonderland?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You get to see new things and go to fun places. And in the end, it feels like a dream.”
“That’s so true,” I said. “My internship went so fast. I can still vividly remember my first couple days. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve been in China forever. It’s funny for me to think back to life without subways or crowds or smoggy air. I’m excited to go home but it…it feels weird.”

I really do feel so torn. I am so ready to see my family again, but I am so not ready for it to be over. I miss that crazy rush of being on the go, totally lost, and just taking adventures as they come. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most incredible.
Back at the hostel, I bought tokens to do laundry. As I sat in the lobby waiting for my clothes, I overheard a girl checking into the hostel. She was white and didn’t have much accent (in other words she sounded American) but her speech pattern sounded as if English was not her first language. I couldn’t completely tell though and I haven’t really been around enough Americans lately to completely remember the dialect. I find that often when I am talking to people, my grammar kind of takes on a “Chin-glish” form.

Anyway, the conversation I overheard with her and the hostel manager was that they were out of locks for the lockers in the bunk rooms. They thought they’d have more in the morning.
“But I have a laptop and other stuff in here,” the girl said pointing to her bag. “Is there somewhere safe to put it.”

“Maybe you can sleep with it?” the kid at the front desk said. She thanked him and walked away.
Feeling in my pocket, I realized I had my own lock with me. It’s a little green TSA lock that my aunt and uncle loaned me when I went to Europe. I never returned it—it literally hung on the zipper of my old backpack for 11 months—and it’s been a real lifesaver on this trip.

I stood up and followed the girl. Finding her wandering the maze like hallways of the hostel I said, “I have a lock.”
She looked at me a bit confused and I realized it was an awkward way to start a conversation. I pulled the little lock out of my pocket. “I overheard your conversation back there. I have a lock that carry with me, but I’m in a private room tonight so I didn’t need it. You can use it if you like.” I handed it to her.

She took it. “Oh thank you.”
I told her the combination. “You can just leave it at the front desk,” I said.

“Great!” she said. “Thank you so much. What is your name?”
“Zach,” I said.

“Jessica,” she said. We shook hands and from her handshake I am definitely thinking she is not an American.
As I walked back to the lobby I realized I am probably never going to see that lock again. At the same time I thought I feel like I can trust her. Most travelers are pretty trustworthy it seems.Besides, enough people have bailed me out on my adventures—with outlet adapters, medications, etc.—it’s my turn to pay it forward.

Yu Cui is helping me order a suitcase online so we’ve been texting back and forth. Tomorrow, I guess I get to sleep in. I think I’ll use it as my last day of touring around, and then Wednesday I’ll get packing.
Here’s to a great last…62 hours(!) in China!