I've been trekking in Northern Laos the past couple days, so I wasn't able to post this link when it was first published.
I wrote this column a couple weeks ago (back when I was in Shanghai) and never got a chance to write a newer, more relevant column this week.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Where Am I NOW??
One reason I haven’t updated this blog recently (and why my weekly update is nearly a week late), is because much of this week we have spent on the road. It’s literally been planes, trains, and automobiles since we left Shanghai, and it wouldn’t shock me if I use a boat as a means of transportation before we get back to Yanji.
The following maps should give you an idea of where I have been:
In the above map you will see what we did last week. The blue line represents our flight from Shanghai to Guilin on Tuesday, January 12th. We spent one night in Guilin, and then took a bus down to Yangshuo on Wednesday (this is represented by the red line).
The second map depicts the past four days of our journey. After spending five days in Yangshuo (which is an amazing city where we literally could have spent our entire vacation), we took the bus back to Guilin in order to board a 19 hour sleeper train for Kunming (these are represented by the red and green lines on the below map, the blue line is there because I’m not very good with Paint).
After staying one night in Kunming, we boarded a sleeper bus (that’s correct, a sleeper bus, as in a bus with bed like structures in it) to Jinghong. This is represented in the above map by the red line.
Do you understand where I am? To the Southeast of Jinghong, you can see Laos, which is our next destination (but more on that later).
Three Things I’m thinking about This Week:
Ok, now you’re just being rude
For the most part, I really like hostels. In my opinion, hostels are the perfect way to travel for twenty-somethings looking to see the world. Not only are they cheap (I’m fairly certain I spent more money on beer last week than I did on accommodations), but if you find the right hostel you will meet a lot of really cool and interesting people, and in China these people usually have really cool stories.*
*This is, more or less, how we decided to go to Laos. When one traveler tells you to go somewhere, it is pretty much meaningless unless you really trust them, but when tens of travelers tell you how awesome a destination is, and when this destination shares a border with an area you were already planning on going (in this case, China’s Yunnan province), then it’s time to consider going there. So, we’re going to Laos.
However, the problem with cheap hostel accommodations is that more often than not you are sharing a room with people you do not know. Usually these people turn out to be similar travelers that are looking to share stories, get meals together, and drink together. I like these people.
Sometimes, though, your roommates suck, and in Yangshuo for a night, we had one such roommate.
The first night we got to Yangshuo, we immediately went up to the bar and starting drinking with the other travelers in our hostel. Most of them were great and interesting people, and we had an awesome Tuesday night. After going to sleep drunk, everybody was expecting a great night of sleep. Then (at what I can only guess was 6 AM, but I refused to pick up my phone to check) a phone rang.
Usually this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe somebody was leaving the hostel early in the morning, or somebody had to wake up for an excursion. Neither of these would be a problem, and I rolled over and didn’t pay any attention to it.
However, the problem was that the person in the bunk above mine (an incredibly stupid Australian girl) began to have a conversation with her sister on the phone. This was in a room with five other people that were trying to sleep at SIX IN THE MORNING.
After the conversation went on for about five minutes (and I obviously couldn’t sleep), I thought of saying something when the Israeli girl in the bed next to mine asked the girl to either go in the hall or end the call. Apparently, the Australian girl thought she could talk quietly or something and she continued the conversation. As I again considered yelling at her from my bed below, the girl got louder and louder.
Again, the Israeli girl asked her to leave the room to have her conversation.
Not moving from her bed, the Australian girl continued her conversation, and I strongly considered reaming her out when the Israeli girl said, “OK, now you’re just being rude.” This promptly ended the conversation.
It was worth it
I previously wrote about my quest to get tickets for Avatar, and I wanted to write a fully fledged review of the film for this blog. The problem is: I have nothing to add to the conversation about the film. Yes, the visuals were stunning, and yes the story sucked (thanks to Dip for that hilarious link).
All I can say is that this is one film that NOBODY should wait to see on DVD and that EVERYBODY should see in theaters (that means you Cindy and Barry, and unfortunately probably Mike as well). I can’t imagine how mediocre this film would be on a television, but in 3D IMAX it is one of the most remarkable visual feats I have ever seen.
This is what everybody has said, so I see no reason to write much more on the subject. The question now, is whether a film with such a mediocre and predictable story deserves to win Best Picture.
Consummating My Marriage
The last time I wrote, I mentioned my love affair for my laptop. This week, I think I consummated my marriage with it.
Everybody talks about theft on trains and busses (especially when you sleep on these trains and busses) and I am not prepared to take any chances with this laptop. As long as I am travelling, this thing will either be locked up somewhere, or pretty much attached to me.
On our train ride from Guilin to Kunming (which, I’ll reiterate, was 19 hours long), I didn’t know what to do with my laptop. While I considered burying it in my large backpack, I decided that the best place to keep it was with me in my ‘hard sleeper’ bed. When I went to sleep that night, I hooked my small backpack (containing my laptop, camera, passport, wallet, journal) on a small hook next to my bed. As luck might have it, this was the perfect distance above my bed so that the backpack could sit on my pillow.
As I went to sleep that night, I actually slept with my laptop. My backpack (which I only brought with me to carry my laptop) took up half the pillow and I took up the other half. Nobody was getting to this thing without waking me up.
Two nights later, I found myself on a sleeper bus from Kunming down to Jinghong. This sleeper bus was essentially a coach bus outfitted with three rows of six beds that had bottom and top bunks. Each bed was a little bit wider than I am, and had a compartment at the base so that your feet are under the head of the person in front of you.
I had the lousy luck of being in the middle row, so I couldn’t really put my backpack on either side of me (well, I could have, but I have now become increasingly overprotective of this laptop). To keep it safe, I decided that the best place to put my backpack was in the small compartment at the base of my bed, between my legs (or feet).
In the past week I have not only shared a pillow with my laptop, but I have also slept with my laptop between my legs. I am now considering female names for it (like how people name cars).
She is black (although that doesn’t have to influence the name selection) and petite. Are there any suggestions?
Tales From Toledo (and I’m not talking about Ohio)
As most of you probably know, my sister Julie is currently studying in Toledo, Spain. This section is written by her (with only limited edit by myself).
As we stood in the corridor at la Fundación de Ortega y Gasset, tensions were high as each of the students in my program was introduced to his or her respective host parents.“Eva Margarita.. No, ella no está aqui”
with this announcement I became slightly more worried. My host mom had not shown up on time, and still having not slept since 5am the morning prior (in Chicago), I was exhausted, slightly disgusting and really hoped that I wouldn’t have to wait any longer to meet the person I was going to live with by myself for the rest of the semester. And then she showed up.
As many people in America might notice, often times mothers try to dress like their daughters or act like “cool” parents (Note: the dad in Modern Family). The description I received regarding my host mom goes as follows: young-single woman. There was no indication of how old this woman would be nor was there any information regarding her life, so I was in for a slight surprise when my host “mom” Eva came to meet me.
I have spent numerous hours talking with Eva since having entered her life and I can still admit that I have not a clue how old she is. My friends think she is 25. I think she has to be at least 33, considering that she has a 14-year-old son who lives in Ecuador with her ex-husband, but I would never want to offend her by asking. Eva looks as if she would be my sister. She walked into the Fundación in converse sneakers and spandex leggings and when Eva and I were talking about the “rules” (which subsequently don’t really exist in her house), her response was “Julia no sera problemas. Nosotros son jovenes.” Translation: Julie there are going to be no problems because we’re both young! When I asked if I had a curfew or a time that she would like me to be in at night, her response? “Julie, don’t worry about it because I’m going to be out late too!”
Now this is only the beginning. I wish I could say that I felt really uncomfortable and that I was thrown into a really awkward situation, as most students would admit they feel, I feel as if I was thrown into a more spacious college dorm room where rules don’t really exist. In fact, Eva used to be a bartender so I am curious how our “mother-daughter” relationship is going to progress and whether or not she’s going to follow the rule that host parents are not allowed to drink with their students and we’re not allowed to drink in their houses (Now I know why Notre Dame sends us to this school).
After first arriving at Eva’s apartment, I unpacked my suitcase and proceeded asking her many questions the directors at the Fundación had provided in order to break the ice and also as a means of asking the tough questions early on while we are living here. (This is the time when Eva kept responding that we’re both young so our rules are different).
After Eva had finished baking a cake for her brother’s birthday, which we went to later that night, her boyfriend came over and hung out with us for a while. Eva’s boyfriend looks as if he is about 25, hence more confusion about Eva’s age, and is hilarious. I think Eva’s boyfriend’s name is Emiliano, but a part of me thinks this is wrong because that’s the name of our favorite bartender (more on that later) and I probably just heard him wrong*. In any event, this guy is hilarious and I have a feeling that he is going to be a usual suspect at nightly dinners, etc.
After meeting Eva’s boyfriend and then later going over to her brother’s house for dinner, her friends came over to watch a movie. Now, this was hilarious because we watched Public Enemies in Spanish and the actor used to dub Johnny Depp’s voice literally makes him sounds like any one of the announcers on Spanish TV channels in the United States and it is absurd. Also, Eva’s two friends and her boyfriend brought snacks. Apparently in Spain everyone eats 3 meals a day and then goes out to drink and then eats snacks (and by snacks I mean a foot long éclair and bags of Spanish chips)**.
Despite the amount of food I have consumed in my first day in Spain, I think I just might have won the jackpot in host families...but it might be too soon to tell.
*His actual name is Emanuel.
**This has not changed in the last two days that I have been here and I feel like the girl from Willy Wonka who eats the gum and turns into a Blueberry.
Rising up my iTunes Play Count
During my 19-hour train ride, I treated myself (not really, as I’m still working off a gift card) to Girls Versus Suits, the 100th episode of one of my favorite television programs, How I Met Your Mother. Overall, I thought it was a great episode both story-wise, and with the overall mythology of the story.
Both storylines fit it well. The Barney-centric suit story was excellent, provided some humor, and showcased the shows signature character. Meanwhile, the Ted storyline really moved the audience closer to meeting the mother, and makes me wonder if we will actually meet the mother in this season’s finale (because, can they really string us along for several more years at this point).
I think this episode was really written with the hard-core fans in mind, and that is absolutely fine by me. However, if that is the case, I would have loved to see Ranjit make an appearance, and it would have been nice to sear some old season one Barneyisms like Legendary.
I think the musical number was decent, but I question whether or not it fit the tone of the show. While NPH is great at musical numbers (see, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), I just wonder whether a) Barney is actually a musical number type of guy, and b) whether the musical number made sense in the realm of the show.
Overall, I think the musical number took away from the show, because it took away from the other characters screen time. All Marshall, Lily, and Robin did this episode was sit in the bar and argue whether or not the bartender was hot. I think they could have been used more effectively here, and they could have added more comedy to the episode.
Overall, it was a solid effort, but I wouldn’t count it as one of my favorites like The Naked Man or World’s Greatest Couple.
Meal of the Week:
Spending approximately one day in Guilin, we decided to do a day trip to the Longsheng Rice Terraces. While these were only marginally interesting (I think it is the wrong time of year to visit rice terraces), the tour we went with (never take tours, ever) took us to the village of Ping’An where we ate lunch.
In this village we were supposed to eat Bamboo Chicken and Bamboo Rice (which, of course, was not included in the cost of the tour). Both of these foods are essentially cooked inside a large piece of bamboo. The rice was just packed into the bamboo (and subsequently cooked), as was the chicken.
Overall, neither dish was anything special. Seeing as I am well on my way to become a rice connoisseur, I didn’t think the rice was very good (although the hint of bamboo was an interesting taste). The chicken was decent, but annoying because they seemingly stuffed the entire chicken into the stick of bamboo. This meant that almost every piece of chicken was attached to a bone and it was very difficult to eat.
I like foods that are simple to eat.
Beer of the Week:
I would never consider myself a beer connoisseur, but when travelling it is always nice to try the local beers to try to find differences. This week I had two different beers that I had never drank before, and might never have again. In Yangshuo, the local beer of choice is Liq Beer. This was a pretty standard beer that came in the taller bottles (for 10 RMB or $1.50 at our hostel) and did a good job getting us drunk. That is what I would recommend this beer for.
The second beer I had this week was Dali Beer, which comes out of the northern Yunnan province. On Tuesday night, I was hoping to stay in and work on my blogs, but as I usually do: I had a beer with dinner. Dali beer was a bad choice for this as it has a whopping 10% A.B.V. and we were (of course) drinking the taller bottles.
Needless to say, I did not get any work done that night, and ended up going out to the bars of Kunming.
Quotations of the Week:
One thing that makes certain hostels great is meeting fun people in them who actually have a conception of the real world (unlike many travelers). In Shanghai we met a guy (I’ll call him Mike) who had actually worked for a couple years as an investment banker; this quote describes what led him to take time off to travel.
Mike: “So we working on this deal with another firm, and after working on the deal for two months, it suddenly fell through . . . the other firm was Lehman Brothers.”
Picture of the Week:
This is a picture of me climbing in Yangshuo (apparently one of the best climbing locations in the world). Notice two things: that you can’t see the ground in the picture; and notice what I am wearing.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Where Am I NOW??
We have finally made it out of the freezing cold by taking a flight from Harbin to Shanghai. Shanghai is great, but we’re heading south this week (something that will make next week’s map more complicated). Hopefully we’ll be able to wear shorts down there.
Five Things I’m thinking about This Week:
This Better Be Worth It
I know I use the Christmas analogy a lot, but if you were a little boy on Christmas Eve, and you could see your presents if you turned around, would you do it?
I ask the question because as I write this I am sitting in the lounge of the hostel with my back turned towards a television: a television that is playing Avatar. But to fully understand my struggle, I have to back up to yesterday morning. . .
. . . After going out somewhat hard (read about that below) on Friday night, my alarm went off at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning. It was time for me to wake up. It was time for me to get my tickets to see Avatar. Being the movie person I am, I determined that the one thing I HAD TO DO in Shanghai was see Avatar in 3D IMAX. As soon as we got to Shanghai I started to ask people questions about how to get tickets to movies and quickly figured out that Avatar was the hottest ticket in town.
To get tickets to the show, I was told that I would have to line up outside the theater early in the morning two days earlier than when I wanted to see it. This meant that at dawn on Saturday morning, still drunk from the previous night, I was standing in a line full of Chinese people listening to a This American Life podcast and waiting for the tickets to go on sale.
For two hours, not much happened. I stayed in line for a bit, once I felt comfortable I walked around and looked at the rest of the line for a while, and things were pretty relaxed. The problem that I noticed, however, was that two branches of the line had been formed after the beginning.
I knew that this was going to turn chaotic, very soon.
Sure enough, when 8:45 AM rolled around and it was time for the theater to open, things turned crazy. Immediately when it looked like the theater was opening the gate at the front, the line turned into an enormous Chinese mosh pit. People started mobbing the door like they were giving away a million dollars inside and I was caught in the middle of it all.
For 45 minutes I was crammed in the middle of a Chinese mob. With one hand on my wallet and another hand holding my camera in the air, I was crushed into the mob from all sides. At times I thought that I could almost fall asleep standing upright with all the other bodies keeping me standing. I couldn’t fall asleep, however, with an arm in my back and cigarette smoke blowing in my face, so I just stood there wondering when I could get my tickets.
After long enough mobbing, with the mob occasionally chanting Avatar in Chinese, the police arrived and broke it up to organize things. They huddled with a man that appeared to be the theater manager and eventually moved everybody into lines. In time I made it to the front of one of these lines where they had me go under the half-opened gate and into the movie theater.
I was there.
After a four hour ordeal of standing and waiting, pushing and standing, I had my tickets to see Avatar. The first movie that I ever felt would be worthless to see on DVD, and a movie that the world is going crazy for right now.
So now I sit here in the hostel lounge, with plenty of people looking past me towards the television as I wait for tomorrow morning where I see one of the most anticipated films of the past year for me.
I just hope the film isn’t dubbed into Chinese.
I Hate Clubs
Even in China, I am still asked how old I am at clubs. They suck.
My Favorite Things
A couple days ago I lost my ATM card. Yea, I know, I’m an idiot. Luckily I have my support team back home (thanks Mom) that is shipping a new card to a city I might be in ten days from now.
The funny thing about ATM cards is how important they are, yet how meaningless they are. I’m not angry that I lost my ATM card, I’m just annoyed. When you go long-term travelling like we are, you have to take a lot of stuff with you, and my ATM card was honestly NOT one of the more important things I have with me. Sure it will be a pain to obtain a new one, but at least I CAN obtain a new one. With that in mind, here is the list of the top five things that I currently have with me, that would be most devastating to lose or have stolen:
5) My Notre Dame Student ID
I’ve probably saved 50 RMB already just by getting student prices on things, but I would gladly pay that amount to retrieve this ID if it was lost. I’m really proud of the fact that I still have the same ID that I was given on my first day at the University of Notre Dame, and I definitely can no longer get this thing replaced. Even if I was still a student, the current form of the student ID is long gone. I’d hate to lose it.
4) My Journal
I’ve got a Moleskin journal that I have been keeping track of my travels in. While I am several weeks behind in my journaling, it would really suck to lose this. I even have a reward listed in it for 200 RMB, and it has NO value to anybody else. I’ve got a lot of stories recorded here, a lot of stories that will only have value if I write them.
3) My T-Shirts
While my most treasured article of clothing is my 40’s Jersey, I am relatively certain that if I lost it the guys in 4a would have a replacement for me by the next time I got to campus. My favorite t-shirts, however, are limited edition. I am travelling with my red God, Country, Notre Dame Shirt (that was worn when we collected money to support Katrina victims at a football game in 2005); my 2005 Leprechaun Legion shirt (which I like A LOT more than any other Legion shirt); my The Mob is Taking Over shirt (an O’Neill Hall Pep Rally Shirt), and my Saint Mary’s Swimming and Diving t-shirt.
It might seem silly that these shirts would be more important to me than an ATM card, but they are also things I could never replace.
2) My Passport
As much as it sucks to get a new ATM card, this would suck a whole lot more (and keep me from venturing into Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, or Macau).
1) My Laptop
This is where the magic happens . . . in all seriousness, I have a lot of important documents saved on here that I have done a lot of work on, and it would be impossibly time consuming to recreate them. I’m in love with this laptop, and I couldn’t live without it.
Out of the Freezer and Into The. . .
A week ago we were in Harbin, a city that was so cold a water bottle would freeze upon walking outside. Walking down the street there we would be incredibly excited for the prospects of soon being in the heat of Shanghai. As it turns out, Shanghai does not actually have that much heat this time of year.
Sure it is significantly warmer here: I don’t have to wear a hat all the time, I only wear one pair of pants, I can wear my Cons without always fearing frostbite, two pairs of gloves are far from a necessity—but it isn’t really that warm here. Since I’ve been in Shanghai, I have worn my winter hat a lot of the time. I have worn gloves sometimes. I have worn both parts of my coat the entire time.
Yet, I still feel like it is really warm here, and that definitely says more about how cold it was up north, then about how warm or cold it is in Shanghai.
The Eyes of Texas are in Shanghai
As I walked into the American-style sports bar here in Shanghai where I would watch the National Championship game, I was somewhat surprised. While there were plenty of people there (like I expected) I was surprised to see that everybody in this bar was wearing the burnt orange of the Longhorns. Sure, I was going to root for the Longhorns (after 2005, they are forever my Big XII team), but I thought that a random foreign city would have more representation.
When I thought about it, however, it made complete sense that Alabama didn’t have any fans in Shanghai. Not because their coach is evidently an emotionless robot, but because it is Alabama, and what could possibly bring an Alabama alum to China.
Meal of the Week:
One cool thing about being in Shanghai is that we can get a lot of different types of food. We’ve indulged a bit this week and got some American meals that were amazing (my breakfast during the UT-Bama game was the best I’ve had in months), and also had some meals from other Asian countries.
Our Japanese dinner was definitely the best, however.
On Friday night we went to a Japanese restaurant that was all-you-can-eat, all-you-can drink for 160 RMB (roughly $25). Being one of those restaurants where they cook the food in front of you, we were able to order a lot of meat, some fish, and some fried rice. My two favorite dishes of the meal were a fish that the guy grilled right in front of us, cut open, and marinated with some garlic, wine, and other things; and a beef dish that was similarly marinated and came with onions (yes, I eat onions now; but wouldn’t you all expect that seeing as they have no color to them).
Because the meal was also all-you-can-drink, we also had a lot of beer and sake. It was all excellent and we made sure to close down the restaurant. Later that night I definitely passed out in a cab so that the driver had to wake me up, and I still managed to wake up the next morning to get my Avatar tickets.
Me: “Being from New Zealand, I have a question for you . . .”
Henry from New Zealand: “Have we heard of Flight of the Concords?”
Picture of the Week:
This is what it takes to get two tickets to Avatar in IMAX 3D in Shanghai (note, that I was in the middle of it all when I took the picture, also note the police in the middle of it).
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Where Am I NOW??
Here is my Indiana Jones-style map of where I have been this week. The green dot is Yanji, the red line is a bus ride, the red dot is Changchun, the blue line is a train ride, and the blue dot is Harbin (where I am now). Note, that it is very cold here.
In case you do not know where this map is located on the globe, look just north of North Korea on a world map and you might find one of these cities (if you have a good enough map).
Five Things I’m thinking about This Week:
So this is the New Year, I don’t feel any different
Because of a misunderstanding that is typical of our experiences here in China, we thought that we weren’t going to be able to leave Yanji for our winter break until after January 1st. Typical of our school operations, we eventually found out that we would be able to leave on New Year’s Eve, but since we had already booked our flights down to Shanghai for the following Wednesday, we decided to make our way further into the cold and the large industrial city of Changchun.
Evidently, there is nothing in Changchun, or no reason for tourists to ever go there. While it is a huge city of like ten million people (at least, this is what we were told by cab drivers), there isn’t much of anything to see. The American equivalent of Changchun is probably Detroit—except like everything in China aside from the people, it is much bigger.
After taking a five hour bus ride, a 30 minute cab ride, and wandering around one area of the city for far too long considering the temperature was probably -15 degrees, we found ourselves in the apartment of some South African girls that we had met in Xi’an several months earlier. They had graciously offered to let us stay in their apartment, and were taking us to a club for New Year’s Eve.
This is how, with 90 minutes left in 2009, I found myself in a Chinese nightclub standing at a bar behind a ginger from the land of Mandela taking questions from the Russian woman (more than likely a prostitute) sitting in the bar stool next to me about where I was from.
At first glance this looked like any other night club. There were different people drinking different things: I drank a Budweiser for awhile and a Long Island Iced Tea after that (my first one of those since my last night at The Backer). There were flashing lights, people taking pictures, the Black Eyed Peas pumping through the sound system, private seating areas for those willing to drop down a little extra money, and televisions behind the bars showing relevant events.
At first glance everything looked normal, but when you looked closer at the details everything was quite strange. The televisions behind the bars weren’t playing sports or a countdown show, but what appeared to be a Japanese style game show in the same vein as Wipeout or the Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. The Russian’s were strange. There were only women, and they all were apparently prostitutes. The Chinese men were touching each other more than I thought they should, and every so often I would see somebody that looked Middle Eastern and wonder how they managed to get to this part of the world.
With about 20 minutes to midnight, the band started to play. The band, as well, looked pretty normal—except when you took into account the fact that it was half-Chinese and half-Philipino. They sang a Chinese song, and then they started a song in English; which was Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend, played here in Changchun, China with roughly fifteen minutes left in 2009.
(oh, and if that wasn’t weird enough, there was some guy walking around the dance floor wearing a Tiger costume in the style of team mascots and Disney characters).
After they played Girlfriend, the band then started playing some sort of ballad which is evidently a Chinese pop anthem. People stood on chairs and tables, as they sung along with the words. It could have been Piano Man at Finny’s or God Bless the USA at The Backer. . . but it wasn’t, it was a Chinese song.
Just like most places I have been for New Year’s (places that didn’t just pay attention to the time based on a television feed) the band on stage did not have any clue when the New Year actually began. I think they said Happy New Year two minutes early and everybody went crazy.
When we went back to the bar to get more drinks a little while later I again looked up to the television. This time they were showing clips of NFL games interspersed with graphics from Madden video games. I couldn’t hear the sound (and it would have been in Chinese anyways), but occasionally I would see a graphic (like a red arrow stretching from end zone to end zone that said 100 yards on it) that helped me understand what was on the television.
Half an hour into 2010, the televisions in this Chinese bar had a program on them that was explain the rules and procedures for American football. It was weird.
As we cabbed our way back to the apartment, however, I came to an obvious (yet important) realization. Two years ago, I would have said with complete certainty that 2008 was about to be the best year of my life. One year ago, I would have agreed with that, knowing that 2009 would probably be better (it was). Today I know that the past two years have been my best, and that the next year will almost certainly be better.
My years just keep getting better, and on New Year’s Day, that’s a pretty cool thing to know.
Briefly, My Brief 2009 in Cinema
My Top Five Films of the Year
1) The Hurt Locker: The best war movie since Platoon . . . seriously.
2) I Love You, Man: Far and away the funniest film of 2009 (and I did see The Hangover)
3) Star Trek: The first Trek film I’ve seen, and an action-packed enjoyable ride throughout.
4) (500) Days of Summer: Not as unconventional as people claimed, but definitely enjoyable.
5) Up: Probably my seventh (out of ten) favorite Pixar film, which says more about the company than it does about the film.
Five Films I Want to See (and would have seen had I been stateside this fall)
1) Avatar: I think I’m obligated to see this in IMAX when I’m in Shanghai or Hong Kong.
2) Pirate Radio (also known as The Boat that Rocked): From the director of Love, Actually . . . enough said.
3) Up in the Air: Because it looks like the front-runner for awards, and it was directed by Jason Reitman.
4) Where the Wild Things Are: Because ten months ago, I read the book to a room full of second graders.
5) The Informant!: I listened to a great This American Life episode that this movie was based on.
Mutiny on Ice
New Year’s Eve was our last day in Yanji, and before the students were dismissed for their New Year’s holiday (they actually have final exams this week, but their exams in our classes are earlier), the school had a winter sports meeting.
At our fall sports meeting in September, all of the students were excited. They did track and field events, and were competing very happily. This sports day was different, however, because the temperature was well below zero, and there was a lot of wind.
While the games started out alright (I did 87 jumps of the rope in one minute, wearing boots and thick winter clothing) the students quickly decided to mutiny and run inside. It was far too cold outside, and none of them were really having that much fun. Subsequently the teachers just decided to end school several hours earlier than they were planning to, and we went out drinking.
Oh the Places I’ve Slept
In 2009 I slept in 29 different places. Of these places: I slept at beds in 15 of them, I slept on couches, futons, or air mattresses in 14 of them, and I slept on the floor (without any sort of padding) at 4 of them. These places stretch across 2 countries and continents (obviously), 9 US States, and 3 Chinese Provinces. Two of them were moving vehicles.
In 2009 I spent some amount of time in 16 US states. Of these states, three of them (Tennessee, Connecticut, and West Virginia) I merely drove through (with limited stops) and four I spent some degree of time in, but did not sleep (Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan).
Because I only paid to sleep in five of these places, I would like to thank all of the people that welcomed me into their homes in 2009. I hope that I will be able to return to visit you again in 2010 and beyond as I look to achieve my 2010 objective of sleeping in 65 different places (I wanted to write 100, but that seems too unlikely).
Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright
On our first full day here in Harbin, we decided to go to a tiger park. To get to the tiger park, our book told us to take one bus, transfer to a second bus, and then that bus would drop us off near the Tiger park. So we did everything that the book said until we were standing at the middle of a snow covered road in sub-freezing temperatures with nothing of note to be seen in every direction.
Standing there in the middle of freezing nowhere, Gavin and I turned to each other wondering what we were supposed to do next.
Just then, a van came barreling around the corner Charlie Chin-style honking at us as if he was insane. He pulled up next to us flashing a small sheet with a tiger on it and told us to get in. He said it would be 40 kuai each (which is an absolutely RIDICULOUS price, it’s like the price we pay for our combined dinners at our downstairs restaurant) to get to the tiger park; so with no other choice, we reluctantly got into the ‘cab’.
While the park was close enough to walk to, in theory, it was probably a good thing that we got into this quasi-cab because it wasn’t all that close, we didn’t know where it was, and it was (predictably) very cold. However, when we got to the park, the cold didn’t matter—because there were TIGERS EVERYWHERE.
First we got into a van (Jurassic Park style)* and drove through vast areas with lots, and lots, and lots of tigers. There were tigers near trees, tigers with their young, tigers prowling towards the van, tigers sleeping, tigers running, and tigers pacing back and forth next to the fence. I am pretty certain that I saw more tigers in one hour than I will see in the rest of my life combined.
*I definitely said, “Hold onto your butts” after Gavin pointed out the Jurassic Parkness of it all.
After getting out of the van (not in the tiger cages) there was a pedestrian walkway where we could see more tigers from afar. We saw tigers chasing after a jeep that they thought would give them food, we saw Chinese people kicking snow down on tigers, we saw tigers running after each other, and we saw tigers majestically watching over it all from the top of a hill.
Overall, I think I saw a lot of Tigers on Monday.
Rising up My iTunes Play Count
The Who: Greatest Hits—Sharky gifted me some iTunes cash for Christmas, and said that I should use it to pay for Lost next month. Instead, I bought The Who’s greatest hits. It is very good.
Meal of the Week:
Currently I am in the city of Harbin, which should not only be noted for its cold temperatures, but also for its Russian influence. The streets of Harbin look much more European that the streets of Yanji, Beijing, or Changchun did, and I have seen a lot of signs here that are written in Russian.
Because of this, we decided to have dinner at a Russian restaurant. While the restaurant we chose was much more expensive than we had hoped, it was fairly good food. I had beef stew and we also had an appetizer of marinated pork. The stew was really good because it is very cold outside, and the pork was also great. I do not, however, know how ‘Russian’ this food actually was, or what the difference is between this stew and any other stew.
We also had some Russian beer, which was alright. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special. I think if we go to another Russian restaurant while we are here I might just drink vodka.
Quotations of the Week:
“This is crazy, the band that’s playing is half Philipino and half Chinese, and it looks like they are friends with all of the Russian prostitutes.” –Gavin, describing our situation on New Year’s Eve
“I’m so sorry.” –One of my 3rd year students who never came to my class, being apologetic on many occasions at our send-off dinner
Picture of the Week:
This is a picture of an ice castle in Harbin. To understand how big it is, look at the people that are standing at the level near the base of the tower. They were huge.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
My Weekly Run-Down will be coming in a day or two. For now, here is the story of my Christmas.
I didn’t bolt out of bed with a smile on my face; I didn’t run up the stairs to the family room of my parent’s house in anticipation of the gifts that would be under the tree. I hadn’t been up till 3 AM the previous morning helping my Dad take gifts out of the attic, and I hadn’t again discovered some liquor that I didn’t particularly enjoy as much as I should.
I wouldn’t be seeing my Aunts and Uncles today, and I wouldn’t be trying to bond with my young cousins over Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. I wouldn’t be eating pancakes this morning, just like I hadn’t eaten fried fish and noodles the previous night (that being the traditional Polish meal my family has every year).
I had presents, but they wouldn’t be opened. I had cookies that had turned into crumbs. I had my Christmas movies which had been mailed to me, and I would be wearing my Santa hat and my Christmas pajama pants.
I knew it was Christmastime, but this Christmas was something entirely different.
I rolled out of bed, showered, and ate some Chinese brand Cocoa Puffs as if it were any other day. I walked outside in the sub-freezing temperature and made my way to the teacher bus that takes us to school. When we arrived at the school I took off the GBN swim team warm up pants that I had worn outside, to reveal the Christmas pajama pants I had received the previous Christmas from my roommate. I took off my coat and hat and put on my Santa hat for everybody to see. If they didn’t know it was Christmas before, they certainly would know about it after today.
I had worn my Santa hat to school every day of Christmas week. When I first wore it on Monday, many of the students laughed. I noticed some of the students saying things about me in Chinese, and some of the teachers thought it was funny. One teacher, Lucy, even asked me if everybody in my family wears special hats for Christmas. The thing about being in Yanji is that every little thing that I do can be perceived as having some greater meaning for all of American culture—but it doesn’t.
By the time Friday (Christmas Day) came around, everybody had grown accustomed to the fact that I was wearing a Santa hat. Nobody really mentioned it in the later parts of the week, and I knew that I would need to escalate my clothing ridiculousness in order to increase my spread of Christmas cheer on Friday. So on Friday I wore my Santa hat, a red polo shirt, and my Christmas pajamas.
Again there were eyes constantly turned towards me and questions running rampant. The teacher, Lucy, again asked me a question: “Does everybody in America wear costumes for Christmas?”
We gave the other English teachers presents for Christmas. Candy Canes and Chocolates all shipped directly from America brought about more questions related to the candy canes we were giving them, and even more questions about why these candies were featured on my pants. I was doing my best to spread the Christmas cheer at least across my school in this far-flung corner of the world.
The teacher, Lucy, noticed that I had a huge smile on my face the entire day. I was brimming with excitement because it was Christmas Day. I started to tell her and several other teachers about all of the traditions my family and friends have for Christmas. I told them about the Polish dinner on Christmas Eve (which also prompted a brief explanation of America being a country of immigrants). I told them about mistletoe and how last year I walked around Christmas parties with some of it on a large stick. I told them about Egg Nog and how excited I was for the following Christmas when my family would complete the transition from ‘a family of Children and a present-oriented Christmas’ to ‘a family of young adults and an alcohol-centered Christmas’.
I was brimming.
After we showed our students the Christmas movies (which you’ve already read about,) in our classes, and the students all went home for the weekend; it was time for the teacher’s party. The last Friday of the year, the teachers have a ‘New Year’s Party’ at the school. Including food, drinks, games, singing, dancing, prizes, and surprises, this party had all the makings of any company’s Christmas party in America.
The party started just like any of the school events I have been to with the teachers in China. We sat at tables and drank water while everybody waited until the food came out. Once the food was brought out (this time it was buffet-style), there was a flurry of eating and drinking the likes of which I have never seen before.
People chowed down the food and did toasts at all the tables for about twenty minutes and everything seemed pretty normal (for a larger dinner in Yanji). But then, it all ended. The lights darkened and smaller lights were turned on to a dance-floor like area in the middle of the room. It was like that moment of a wedding reception or other banquet when the focus turns from drinking and eating to dancing. When the proceedings began, however, it was decidedly different. What followed will absolutely, positively go down as the most bizarre Christmas I will ever have in my life.
Two teachers took the floor dressed in a tuxedo and an evening gown, holding cards that looked like the note cards one would hold if they were hosting a game show. These would be our host and hostess for the party (something that most parties in China evidently have), and they would lead us through the events that would transpire.
When the lights turned down, the drinking ended, and everybody turned their full attention to what was happening at the center of the floor. Gavin and another teacher sang a song in Chinese. A couple teachers’ children played songs on the flute and piano, and several other groups of teachers sang prepared songs (complete with dance moves and everything).
Then, it was time for the prepared dance numbers that all of the teachers were a part of.
When I graduated from college, I didn’t really know which courses I had taken that would prove to be most valuable in the long term. Maybe, if I became involved with politics, my political science courses would give me a lot of basic knowledge that would be important. Maybe, if I started working in hard journalism, my economics courses would be important. I thought it was possible that my film history classes would be influential or that my fiction writing class would help me along the way.
Never, however, did I think that my experience in my tap dancing class would be important in the year after graduation.
About three weeks before the Christmas party, all of the teachers were divided into groups that would perform dance numbers at the Christmas party. My group was essentially recreating what appeared to be a dance number they had found on some Chinese website. It seemed like a pop song, nothing too difficult, and nothing too weird. We just spent a lot of time memorizing all of the moves—a LOT of time.
During my tap classes, a lot of the people were just goofing around. Sure, most of the people actually learned the tap moves (mainly because of Professor McKenna) but nobody was taking it too seriously and everybody’s main objective was to do have a lot of fun.
When we were preparing our dance moves in China, this was decidedly NOT the case. Rehearsals for these performances were incredibly serious and time consuming. Most of the groups practiced after school every day for three weeks. During practices our group would get together in a classroom, put the video on a computer screen in the front, and just watch and repeat.
Some people would count off numbers—yi, er, san, si, wo, liu, chi, ba—just like I had seen done many times in dancing movies like Bring It On. We practiced a roughly four minute dance number over, and over, and over again until we knew it backwards and forwards. Long after I had a basic understanding of all the moves, we continued to practice it. If I tried to screw around during the rehearsals, Chinese people would get upset with me.