Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Forbidden City, Great Wall, Monster Trucks, Etc.

It has been a crazy week. In the last few days, I have celebrated my wife's birthday, attended Monster Jam in Beijing, visited the Forbidden City, and walked on the Great Wall of China. I'm exhausted. And tomorrow, we're hopping on a plane to fly back to the States for the first time since we moved to China.

MONSTER TRUCKS! - A whole lot of this.
A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from my high school best friend's high school girlfriend's little sister. She informed me that her soon-to-be sister-in-law worked for the monster truck show Monster Jam and they were coming to Beijing. Would I be willing to show them around?

Now, I don't know this girl, so...I jumped at the chance.

You may not know this, but when you move 12 time zones away from everyone you know, you tend to not get many visitors. Whether you actually know the person or not has no bearing on the excitement level.

I quickly friended this woman on Facebook and started informing her of some of the things she may need to know for traveling to China. When she texted me to inform me they had landed, I made it to their hotel before they did.
As soon as they got checked in, I took them to the Nanluoguxiang Hutong to get them an authentic Chinese experience right off the bat. Over the next few days, as soon as they would finish working, I took them to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, out for a Peking Duck meal, and the Beijing Harley-Davidson shop.

I walked up 58 flights of stairs for this shot.
I hope you appreciate it.

I finally caught my breath enough to lift the camera again.

The petals are Peking Duck.

The (not so) Forbidden (anymore) City

Just like every other Harley shop in the world.
Except the t-shirts say BEIJING.
Other than the meal, this was all stuff that I had never done. Despite living in Beijing for the last 10 months, I spend most of my time setting panda traps to keep them out of my garbage. So, I was excited to get to knock something else off my bucket list. Walking on the Great Wall was #127. Now it's time to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

After such an eventful week, they gave me tickets to attend the monster truck show and then I had to sleep for two days. After all the running around, I went for a massage and decided to try another new thing. I asked for the cup treatment where they heat up glass cups and attach them to your skin to suck the toxins out of your muscles.

6 hours later, I look like this.
It's been a good week.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Chinese Language is All Greek to Me

The title of this post isn't really accurate because I took biblical Koine Greek in college. Saying something is "Greek to me" is supposed to mean that it makes no sense, but the fact that I actually know Greek takes away the punch of the statement. However, if I were to say "it's all Tagalog to me," the purpose of the idiom would be lost and some people may even have to pause to look up what Tagalog is which would sever the continuity of the thought and I would have to stop to explain everything. Which it looks like I may have to do anyway.

Maybe I should just say learning Chinese is like walking into your bedroom because you thought you heard a pygmy goat being strangled by a Mormon divorce attorney, but when you open the door the floor is covered in slimy eels wearing clown makeup and a naked Roseanne Barr is sitting on a beanbag in the corner asking if you brought any cheese. It just makes no sense. Especially since I don't own a beanbag.

Oh, and Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines.

I only say all this because after living in Beijing for 10 months, Red and I have finally started taking language lessons and it has been…um, challenging.

Chinese doesn't really have an alphabet. At least, not as we understand an alphabet. It is thousands of separate characters. And by thousands, I mean thousands. This is not an exaggeration.


We don't really have to know the characters in order to speak and understand the language, but that doesn't help when trying to read a menu, street signs, bus schedules, or apartment notices. This note is in our lobby right now.

Are they doing maintenance? Fumigating?
Evacuating the building?
I kind of need to know!

So, we are learning it all. We need to understand the language when we hear it. We want to speak it, read it and even be able to write it when the need arises. This means we have decades of memorizing seemingly obscure chicken scratch patterns ahead of us. As well as learning what they all mean and how to pronounce them while stringing them together into comprehensible sentences.

However, before we even get around to learning those characters, first we need to learn pinyin. Pinyin is the method for learning how to say the different characters.


Each of the thousands of characters is pronounced with a combination of the initial sound (pictured above to the left) and the final sound (pictured above to the right). And, as if that isn't already difficult, it is not enough to be able to recognize those apparent English-looking letters because the pronunciation is rarely what it appears to be.


The sounds of the letters have to be relearned to make the Chinese sound. And since I already have a background in not only English, but Greek, Hebrew and Spanish as well, it is often maddening to try to remember and produce the correct pronunciation since each of these languages use letters however they want without regard for what the rest of the world is doing with them. And let's not forget that Chinese has plenty of sounds that don't even exist in any of these other languages meaning I have to do 90 minutes of tongue yoga before every lesson to get it limbered up.

Then, once I feel like I might have a decent handle on pronunciation of a word, I am told that I used the wrong tone. A single sound can have up to five different tones and each tone gives the word an entirely different meaning.


For example, the above chart shows four of the five ways that the word 'ma' can be pronounced. These tones are important. Otherwise, you could end up calling your mother a horse or you might really confuse your weed dealer.

It also shows the two different ways that each word is written in Chinese. Yeah, that's right. When you learn Chinese characters, you have to decide which of their TWO alphabets you want to learn. Isn't this fun?

Using the word 'ma' from the chart above, I can just use that word several times, but with different tones to produce an entire sentence. Ma ma ma ma. That means "My mother scolded me for feeding her hemp to a horse." And if I tack the fifth use of the word 'ma' (neutral tone) to the end of the sentence, it becomes a question.

Simple enough, right?

For now, my goal is to be able to read my Frog and Toad books in their original Chinese by Christmas.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Did I Do Wrong?

I love Thursdays.

My teaching schedule is Monday through Thursday, so it is the last day of my work week. Plus, on Thursday nights, I go to an English salon. It is a place where a bunch of Chinese adults get together to hang out with native English speakers and practice their English.

At the very least,
a burger has to be made of ground meat.
I don't know why it's called a salon. The Chinese sometimes have funny names for things. For example, any piece of meat served on something that even slightly resembles bread, they will call a burger.

As near as I can tell, a salon is basically an informal teaching setting. The English salon that I attend is in the front room of a school, but it's set up like a living room. It's usually me and 5 or 6 Chinese locals who all want to talk to me. And this is great for me because I love to be the center of attention. Plus, I'm pretty awesome, so it works out for everyone.

We talk about the differences between China and America. We talk about food. We talk about travel and spend a lot of time talking about American politics. Everybody always wants to know what I think about Trump. The conversation flows freely. There are no suggested topics. It is just conversation that happens naturally. Once again, the purpose of this is just to give them an opportunity to practice their English outside of a classroom setting. I love going to this every week and I even get paid to be there. It's great.

Since I don't have to work the next day, when it is over I am not usually in a rush to get home. My wife, on the other hand, has an early day on Fridays. This is why she never attends these events and is generally in bed pretty early. Since she will be in bed when I get home anyway, I often find excuses to find something to do. Sometimes I wander the streets and call one of my friends back in the States. Some weeks, I will go try out a new restaurant or explore a new part of the city I've never seen. Last night, I just decided I would walk home instead of taking the subway.

It's only 9 subway stops. No big deal. Right?
It's over 7 miles, but I didn't know that yet.


The school is right next to the subway stop and the number 10 subway runs right under the Third Ring Road. I live next to that same road. All I had to do is follow the road and I would see some parts of the city I'd never seen above ground. I popped into a convenience store to grab a Pepsi and started be-bopping up the road. I enjoy exploring big cities and this night was no different.

About 20 minutes into my walk, I started to become very aware of the 96 degree temperature, but was determined to push on and I kept walking. I walked and walked and walked and walked while the sweat poured into my eyes. It was miserable, but I began to see this as a challenge to overcome and stayed my course. I maintained my quick pace and made it back to my apartment building in just over two and a half hours.

I was so happy to step into the elevator and begin the ride up to my shower. The ride seemed to take forever due to the Chinese belief that air conditioning is unhealthy and I no longer had the benefit of the night breeze. I was roasting in that metal box. I finally hit the eleventh floor and found my way to our apartment in the dark (the Chinese also seem to have some belief about light being bad for you). I turned the handle and pulled the door only to discover that it was locked.

Red doesn't lock the door on Thursdays before going to bed because the sound of me unlocking it always wakes her up, but it appeared this week she had changed her mind. I dug out my keys and tried to turn the lock slowly to keep the noise down, but the key turned too easily.

It wasn't locked.

I tried the door again and realized she had locked the bolt on the inside. The bolt cannot be unlocked from the outside. It is a hand bolt on the inside only.

Crap! Now, I'm going to have to wake her up.

I knocked on the door while also being careful not to disturb our neighbors. After all, it was after midnight. There was no answer. I knocked again louder, waited 30 seconds and then knocked even louder. Nothing.

I pulled out my phone to call her, hoping that she had not turned the sound off. As I started to dial, I thought, "Wait. Is she mad at me? Is that why she locked me out?" I started running through the day's events in my mind to think of what I might have done.
  • I ordered food to be delivered while she was in the shower without checking to see if she wanted anything.
  • When she apologized to our Chinese teacher for distracting the lesson by talking too much, the teacher said, "Oh. It's not a problem." I was too quick to say, "Just wait."
  • I had bragged all day due to all the retweets my joke about her squishy boob was getting on Twitter.
  • When our attractive female Ukrainian friend suggested Red use some of Red's essential oils on her, I asked if I could watch.
No, it couldn't be any of that. I do that kind of stuff all the time and I'm precious.

I called her phone. No answer. I sent her a text message. I left a voice message on WeChat (Chinese social media app). I called again. Nothing.

I knocked on the door much harder. I have to wake her up (or apologize). After several more attempts, I began to realize that I was not going to be spending the night in my bed.

I started looking around for a place to lie down and quickly ruled out lying on the filthy concrete floors in our hallway. I was going to have to go outside, find a bench and ride this out until morning.

I checked my phone. It was at 40%. I figured if I stayed off my phone, then when she does wake up and realize I'm not there, she will probably call or text to find out where I am. If, and only if, I haven't drained my battery, I would get the call letting me know that she was now awake. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I knew I was tired and hot and really needed to get back out to that breeze and find a place to ride out the night.

My sweaty hands made my finger slide off the elevator button when I pressed it and I began contemplating what a miserable night this was going to be. This was going to suck. As I waited for the elevator, I thought I'd use those last few seconds trying again. I knocked one more time and then immediately again hoping to further register the sound in her sleepy mind, but still got nothing.

Defeated, I lumbered back toward the elevator. As I waited, I heard a small click behind me. She was fumbling with the lock! I ran back to the door. "It's me. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that or eaten all the food or tweeted about your boobs. Please let me in."

The door slowly swung open and she's crouched down covering her naked body with her hands and peering into the dark hallway. As I stepped inside, I could see that she wasn't really awake yet. "Why are you crouching like that?"

She said, "I'm naked and didn't know who it was."

"And you opened the door anyway. I love you. Go back to bed. I need a shower."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cave Dwellers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We really need to learn Chinese.