Monday, December 12, 2011

Sand

My ass was sore for a week. For days after I could hardly move it. Overnight train rides were spent on my stomach, meals were taken over the backs of chairs, and I was more comfortable than ever about squatting over toilets. It was probably how long the damn thing took. I don’t care who you are: three hours on the back of a camel will do strange things to your body—the nearly constant state of gyration, made all the worse by an irrational fear of being slumped off at any moment.

Tyra and I saw brochures for the outing at our hostel in western Gansu Province. The literature was picketed with phrases like “relive the mystery of the Silk Road” and “experience one thousand and one Arabian nights!” The translations weren’t nearly as polished, but what really sold us were the tiny snapshots superimposed over the text—smiling tourists posing on camel-back, peeking out from inside a tent, and climbing up sandbanks. Almost two full days in the beautiful Mingsha Sand Dunes, the advertisement continued, complete with an overnight stay in the desert followed by a breathtaking morning sunrise.

My eyes widened to the size of saucers. “A camel,” I said to Tyra, beaming. “How many people can say they’ve done that?”

There were seven of us on the trip—two other couples, one Chinese and one American—neither of which could communicate with the other—and a lone female traveler from Shanghai, a spunky twenty-six year old intent on seeing more of her own country. She was seated third in the pecking order of the camel caravan behind Tyra and I, with the final two couples to follow, and an 8th camel charged with carrying the camping tents and cooking supplies bringing up the rear.

Each camel was tied to the one in front of it with a thick rope, a wad of knotted string protruding through its nostril and capped with a stopper to hold it in place. Any hold-up in the journey meant that each subsequent camel in line was turned sideways, its head precariously hooked to the one behind, which forced the camels to quickly learn to cooperate and move in tandem. At the head of the caravan was an older Chinese gentleman of Tibetan or Uighur descent whose inhabitants were not uncommon in the Far West.

The older gentleman acted as the foreman, and walked the end of the rope out in front of the line of camels. For a man of fifty or sixty (I have always been mercilessly poor at predicting age), he was rugged and fit, certainly aided by a profession that involved trekking ten or twelve miles into the desert every day. It didn’t help that it was the middle of July and the desert was sweltering. The foreman was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat, certainly to protect himself from the sun, whereas I had rolled up the sleeves of my thin T-shirt to my shoulders and was tugging helplessly at the hem of my jeans. Tyra was wearing black leggings and a button-down shirt and looked equally flustered.

For all of my ballyhooing about the camel ride, it didn’t take long before I began to tire of it. Out in the dunes, everything begins to look the same. On all sides there were white clouds, blue skies, and towering piles of sand that seemed to reach the stratosphere. The size and scale of it was dizzying. The closest I had ever come to sand was the gravely Coney Island coast, which, even in memory, bore almost no resemblance to the shimmering mounds that swelled and swooped around me, consuming nearly every square inch in sight.



I could tell Tyra was exhausted—as far as I remember, she nary said a word the entire time we spent bobbing up and down like inflatable buoys. Still, it was easy enough to stay amused by the feisty back-and-forth between the foreman and the young unmarried Chinese woman. It was as if she wanted to know everything about his life story—when he got started raising camels, how much he made per year, and what his family was like. It appeared that the Chinese fascination for “otherness” extended well beyond the American foreigner—it was true of its own marginalized citizenry as well.

The foreman acquiesced to her every nagging inquiry. The camels were not his, he explained, but he was able to rent them from a friend to do his treks. His expertise was in leading trips out to the desert and the care with which he took to make his foreign guests comfortable. He had been doing it for over thirty years, and in the winters when it got too cold to camp in the desert overnight, he helped to raise his grandchildren at home, of which he had over a dozen.

The woman seemed particularly intrigued. “How do you make your foreign guests comfortable if you can’t speak any English,” she asked with a smirk. Conversation up to that point had been entirely in Chinese. The foreman remained unfazed.

“Once a foreigner asked me where he could go to the bathroom,” he recalled, repeating the word “bathroom” in English. He hadn’t understood what the word meant and asked the tourist to repeat the question. “Toilet,” the Australian pleaded, looking close to desperation. “Where can I find the toilet?” The foreman smiled. He pointed to a shrub in the distance and, in his most exaggerated English, shouted, “there is toilet.” The whole caravan chuckled in unison.

“So besides speaking English,” the woman asked snidely, “what else can you do?” The foreman thought for a moment.
“I can sing,” he exclaimed, and almost immediately launched into an enthusiastic rendition of a popular Chinese folk song. The woman clapped her hands and looked pleased.
“What about you?”
“I don’t sing,” the woman said doggedly, waving a hand in front of her face.
“Well I’m not going to sing alone,” the foreman averred. “You there,” he said looking up at me, the first one in line. “How about it?”

“Me,” I asked defensively, wishing to distance myself from the banter. “I can’t sing either.” The foreman shook his head.
“Oh I’m sure you can sing,” he said eagerly. “All you Americans must be able to sing something. What about your national anthem?”

There were few things I detested more than my own singing voice. Karaoke with friends in an enclosed room was one thing, but the desert was suspiciously quiet and sound tends to carry for a long time across an open space. I spun around to look at Tyra. She was applying a new layer of sunscreen; the others on the tour looked even more disinterested.

“No, I’d really rather not,” I said. I thought it was an adequate enough rejection, but the foreman pressed harder.
“You need to sing.” He paused. “Or else I’m turning all of us around.” He was staring me dead in the eyes.
“I don’t want to sing,” I blurted out, half-shouting. The foreman’s pace slowed to a halt. The only sound was the lithe crunch of sand beneath my camel’s hooves. For what felt like minutes, no one said anything, and then, at last, the woman from Shanghai piped up.

“What else can you do?” she asked him.
“I can also cook,” the foreman said, as he gradually took the reigns in his hand and resumed course.

At some point along the way I managed to fall asleep. How one falls asleep riding on the back of a moving camel sounds hyperbolic, but there was something otherworldly about the experience. I could almost picture myself a wealthy Chinese merchant, a team of vassals at my beck-and-call, lazily slouching along the Silk Road. For the moment, neither time nor bodily desires seemed of the least concern.

By the time we stopped it was almost dark. The foreman helped let us down, and began unpacking the tents and cooking equipment. He tied the first camel to the last, rigging them in a closed loop, and instructed each one to kneel on the ground one-by-one. He announced that we would have dinner there at the base in an hour, but that in the meantime, we should enjoy the sunset on the lookout of a tall sandy peak he pointed to not far in the distance.

It was as if the sand rekindled some deep child-like exuberance in me. From the moment I stepped off the camel I caught myself running across the plains, rolling down hills and scrambling up embankments. I was six years old again playing in a giant, ever-expansive sandbox. Tyra, sensing my mood, began stalking me like a lion, and the two of us got down on all fours, pouncing and shuffling barefoot in our imagined African Sahara. When she got close enough to touch, I wrestled her to the ground, dusting her clothes and mine with sand. Her skin, white and smooth, contrasted perfectly with its tawny coarseness.

We galloped our way up the sandy peak to the lookout. At one point, we tried to race headlong up the nearly vertical shaft, but with each beleaguered step, we slipped increasingly more deeply into sand. Ours was a cacophony of laughter and high-pitched shrieks. When we reached the top, the lone Chinese woman offered to take our picture. Tyra and I sat with our backs to the sunset in the distance, her head nestled firmly in the crook of my neck.

We had dinner on two squat collapsible tables back at base. In front of us, the foreman had constructed a small fire out of packed twigs and brush. He brought out seven metal containers and placed them on the tables. Under each lid was a brick of instant noodles mixed with the once hot water transported from the town. On all accounts, it was a letdown. My body was starving, and after a full day out in the desert sun, the last thing I wanted to eat was lukewarm noodles. The foreman, sensing the collective disappointment, explained:

“The government doesn’t give me enough money to provide any food for the trip,” he said, in his accented Mandarin. “But since I expect tourists not to bring enough, I buy this out of my own pocket.” The foreman looked around the circle but still strained to make eye contact with me. It was easy enough not to trust him—that perhaps he just skimmed the extra money off the top to pay for cigarettes and liquor and gambling. But the narrative didn’t seem to fit. I added a flimsy packaged sausage to the water—something I almost never eat—and slurped up my noodles in silence.

Nearby, the camels snorted and shifted positions. They slept a stone’s throw away from where the foreman had set-up our sleeping tents. All roped together in a circle, they looked like this single living entity, the silhouette of their humps rising and falling with their breath. No respite from the cold night air, nor any food or water of their own, they still seemed perfectly, dispassionately, content.



Pretty soon everyone began preparing for sleep. Tyra and I and the other two couples each had a tent to share, and the unmarried woman had one to herself. The foreman slept outside beneath the stars—“how he liked it”—though I suspect it was more that he could afford to rent one fewer tent, further defraying his overhead. The tents were roomy but provisions were scarce. Other than a thin mat, the only covering we had was the tattered fleece blanket we had previously used as a make-shift saddle on the camels.

I was unfolding the mat when Tyra grabbed my arm to stop me. She had changed into a long black dress that cut a V beneath her neck and rested just above her ankles. Her lips were a searing, plump, red, and she had a ferocious, naughty glint in her eye. She pointed at me, then at herself, and finally at the mesh flap of the tent leading outside. In her hand was the clear Ziploc of condoms we had been steadily exorcising throughout the trip. I nodded greedily and she laughed, stashing the bag in her purse.

We made our move after the last of the tents went dark. Tyra brought the tiny flashlight we had used to examine cave paintings all morning, along with her purse and the quick-dry travel towel we had been sharing, and we slogged up the little ridge. Our tiny encampment was positioned in a man-made hovel at the bottom of a hill. There was higher ground to every side of us like the raised crust around a dessert’s center. This sand hardly gave at all—each step had to be calculated, like we were snowshoeing up a steep cliff.

When we reached the top, Tyra pointed at the sky. I’d never seen stars like the ones that night. Zealous and bright, the constellations shined like dazzling stadium lights in the distance. Further from the ridge’s lip, the view was the same: hundreds of flecked sand dunes, the moonlight shimmering off their glittery surfaces like a theater packed with flashbulbs—an entire inter-stellar audience waiting for the curtain to be drawn and the show to begin.

All at once, a wave of fear came over me. Not two hours earlier, the sand was near scalding to the touch, but now the cold was sending chills up my feet. I was shaking—those innumerable stars, like thousands of piercing stares, felt almost too much to bear.

At the same time, I realized that there were not many other chances I would get. Tyra rolled out the towel and laid it gently over the sand, and I held her tightly, easing her body to the ground. My body glided between her legs and she wrapped them flush against my thighs, bringing me closer still. My lips coursed over her lips and tongue, following the ridge-lines of her mouth. I wrung my shirt over my head and hooked her arms through the thin straps of her dress. She undid the buckle to my belt and I carefully folded the tapered ends of her dress above her waist.

A part of me ached desperately to take her then, to leave the two of us drenched and smoldering beneath the moon’s glow. But a different part yearned for something else, though it was impossible to communicate. In a parallel world, there would be no cosmic witnesses, no dull hum across the floating expanse—the shared moment existing for the two of us and us alone.

The words began to form in my mouth again. “I don’t—,” I muttered under my breath, but just then something stirred inside me. A blast of wind rolled over the dune, fanning out the sand beneath Tyra, and I slid inside her. There was something screaming inside me that needed to be released, a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. I grabbed her arms and held them firmly to the ground. Her body shook as the sand pulsed and swayed, each thrust sending the earth’s force resisting back against us and into the wind.

Beads of sweat trickled down the nape of my neck, but they didn’t last. As suddenly as it came on, the fire went out. And when it was over, we were both still breathing heavy, Tyra on her back, and me crouched in front of her, the jeans still looped around my ankles. The sand had coursed through her hair and mine, matting it at obtuse angles. She propped herself up with both arms and exhaled deeply into the sky. Her eyes, hazel-green, scanning the clouds like a beacon in the desert.

We ambled back down the sloped ridge, Tyra leading the way with her flashlight. As quietly as I could, I unzipped the mesh shell of the tent and we stepped inside. The temperature had dropped precipitously. On the thin mat, we huddled close together—her back curving to form a tight seal against my chest, and my arms clasped firmly against hers. We pulled the blanket up and let it hang loose around our necks. For some time, everything around us was still. I had nearly fallen asleep when Tyra stirred and reached for the flashlight. Rolling to my right, I took her hand in mine and whispered softly: thank you for being so wonderful.

She squeezed my hand and switched off the light. Silence filled the void like a vacuum. What else was there left to say?

*

This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Celebrate Globally

Celebrate Globally

Countries the world over celebrate winter holidays. Although much of Christmas has been commercialized, there are still many holiday traditions that remain unique to different nationalities, giving the world a special diversity. Many of these traditions utilize natural resources making them green by design. Mixing some of these worldly customs into your own traditions, not only adds flavor to your holidays, but can turn the season a bit greener.


The Salutations

Instead of sending holiday cards, which are a great tradition but use a lot of paper, people in parts of the British Isles go from house to house caroling. A tradition that was brought over to America in its early days, but has since fallen out of popularity, caroling parties are making a bit of a come back. Greeting neighbors with songs of joy and love for a happy holiday season is much more personal than cards and it can be a fun family or group activity. We were invited to a caroling party last year. The hostess created little song books and handed them out to all the kids and parents. We were served hot chocolate and cider and off we went a caroling. Everyone had lots of fun, and neighbors even joined as we strolled along.

Delivering of Sweet Treats

In the United States, many people exchange homemade baked goods like cookies, fruit cakes or bread, but delivering all these treasures means spending a lot of time driving from house to house and burning a lot of fuel. In Canada, they have a solution. Instead of delivering the cookies from house to house, one family hosts a cookie party. Each family brings ingredients for one type of cookie and the bowls and mixers necessary to make them. Then they meet at one house and spend the day chatting and baking cookies. A recent tradition is exchanging butter cookies for Chanukah, so this tradition can be incorporated as well. At the end of the party, each family goes away with a variety of cookies to enjoy at home or share with their neighbors. It saves gas and makes cookie-making into a fun, new family tradition.

Decorations

In Nigeria, they use palm fronds to decorate the house. In fact, many cultures use greenery beyond the evergreen to decorate. In Sweden, they use apples. In the desert, we have the benefit of having green plants through most of the winter. Using some trimmings after pruning live plants outside is easy on the environment and can make for a festive house. Last year, I trimmed the citrus and sumac trees and placed them in vases around the house just before our holiday party. I have to admit, I am a sucker for tradition when it comes to the fresh cut pine tree at Christmas. But, in some parts of South America, instead of decorating a fresh evergreen tree, they decorate a large, or cluster of medium sized, dried branches. They string it with lights, paper flowers and other ornaments. It reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas trees growing up. We had decided to spend Christmas in a cabin in Telluride, CO but didn’t arrive until late Christmas Eve night. The stores were all closed and because of a large snow storm, getting off-road for a live tree was out of the question. We found a large bare branch of an aspen tree and with some help from the extra clippings from our neighbor’s pine tree, which we tied to our branch, we created a homemade Christmas tree. It wasn’t the Norman Rockwell version of a Christmas picture, but it was the one our family remembers most. The point is, Christmas trees can come in all shapes and sizes, it’s more about the love that goes into it, then the color of its leaves. We could learn a few things from our neighbors to the south…the bare branch makes for an interesting display and is much easier on the environment than a fresh cut tree or something synthetic. In the desert, many people take it a step further and go native…decorating a live cactus.

Gifts

In many parts of the world, holiday gifts are handmade works of love. This tradition not only shows the gift recipient how much you care, putting in hard work and time, but it decreases the footprint of the gifts you give. If you think about store bought gifts, not only just the materials used, but the process to get the gift from raw form into its present form and the transportation to get the gift from the factory to you, and then multiply that by the number of gifts each person gives and the number of people giving gifts and you end up with a huge impact on the environment. While making your gifts won’t always be a good fit (I’m not saying no toys for the kids this year), it’s definitely something to think of when the children are giving gifts. Here are some ideas from other countries.

Plant a seed. In Malta, they plant wheat seeds weeks before Christmas, so that they sprout just in time for the big day. In that island country, they use the sprouts to decorate for the holidays, but it could just as easily make a good gift.

In Japan, they decorate with paper lanterns, which can easily be made using colorful tissue paper and small wooden rods. Painting on the tissue paper can make each gift unique.
Papier mache is always a good green project in that it uses old newspapers and water and flour for glue. In Venice, Italy, the papier mache mask is traditional and easy to make using a balloon as your form.

Homemade candles are a nice gift to give for Chanukah or Kwanzaa. You can make candles rolled from beeswax or get melting wax from a craft store and dip your own candles. You should make nine candles for Chanukah (eight for lighting and one shamus or lighter candle) and seven for Kawanzaa, three red, three green and one black.

For more information on holiday traditions from around the world, visit www.theholidayspot.com. For more information on our family travel television series, which immerses in cultures from around the world, visit TravelWithKids.tv or "LIKE" us on Facebook

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cyber Sharks Are Circling: Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe On-Line

Many people are surprised when they see our kids snorkeling with sharks or flying through the forest canopy on a zipline. “Isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you worried about their safety?” they ask. The answer is no. These activities take place in a fairly controlled environment with a history of safety records. Plus, I am there looking over their shoulder making sure everything is alright. The sharks that do worry me are the cyber sharks. The tough kid at school being mean; the stranger approaching them with candy…with the advent of technology, these villains now enter our home. And with technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. How do I keep them safe from something I don’t even fully understand…texting, sexting, cyber bullying, cyber predators? It’s all kilobytes to me.

The first key to keeping them safe on-line is to talk to them about what is appropriate to share. Don’t share more than a first name. Don’t tell an on-line friend where you live or what school you attend. But as much as we tell them, does it ever really sink in? I was watching a YouTube video made by a child from my kids’ school. She was walking around her house, filming her room, her pet hamster, giving a constant narration about her life. It all seemed innocent enough until she held up her report card. Not a big deal right? Just a kid venting about grades and school, but the report card envelope had the school logo and the child’s address on it. When I paused the video, I could see where this kid lives. I’m sure it never even dawned on her that she was sharing information, but there it was as clear as day. Directions for any predator in cyber space to this girl’s house. As much as we tell them not share information, there are ways the information is released without them even realizing it. So what can we do as parents? According to the University of Oklahoma Police Department, who released a brochure called “Keeping Kids Safe On-Line”, parents should:

- Know their child’s email username and password
- Keep the computer in a family area where supervision is easy
- Talk to the child about what is discussed and what sites they are visiting
- Tell the child to log off and tell a parent immediately if they feel at all uncomfortable with something happening on-line
- Give feedback to sites and service providers about inappropriate content or advertisements
- Warn your child about how easy it is to pretend to be someone you are not on the Internet and the dangers that go with that.
- Tell your child to inform you if anyone ever asks them to meet in person.
- Invest in a program that provides parental controls for on-line use.

So, beyond talking about it, which is always good, how else can we protect them from technology? Travel With Kids recently partnered with a company called MouseMail.com that offers filtering programs for e-mail, texting and social media. Parents and kids can work together to create an approved list of contacts and parents have the ability to check on their child’s activity. The filtering system also scans all the incoming e-mails, texts and social media posts for inappropriate content. If the system detects bullying, sexting or other inappropriate scenarios, an alert is sent to parents. Inappropriate emails are actually diverted to parents before they even reach their children. I am really impressed by what this company is doing to help parents keep kids safe on-line. The program allows kids to take advantage of technology while offering parents the tools to protect them from the dangers that lurk in the cyber sea.

As my kids get older and enter the on-line world, it gives me peace of mind knowing that there is someone who can stay on top of the rapidly changing technology and help me protect my kids from the cyber shark, so I can focus on enjoying my time snorkeling with the real ones who are far less dangerous in my opinion. For more information on this program, visit MouseMail.com

Monday, October 17, 2011

Green Onion and Frozen Pizza

Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.

We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.

Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).

In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.

I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”

I had nearly forgotten how much these small, seemingly insignificant queries dictated my own attitudes toward my first month in rural China. How even the most ordinary things were no longer easy—crossing the street, mailing a postcard—and how it forced me to pay special attention to the little details in my every day life. But pretty soon, everyone learns to adapt. Back in America, you get used to the wide sidewalks, the lack of honking, the monolingual road signs, the orderly grocery check-out counters. By now the joy of those small accomplishments has already fallen away, replaced by preoccupation with bigger, more pressing goals. But to the outside, it’s imperceptible: no one here, perhaps save for Yao Jie herself, understands that loss in quite the same way.

Yao Jie demonstrating Chinese paper cutting at this year's Culture Festival in Tappan Square (photo courtesy of Dale Preston).

I like to think I won’t have culture shock when I eventually return to visit Taigu, but I know that that won’t be the case. My reality is entrenched in my surroundings. I may no longer be shocked or amused by America, but I still yearn futilely for pieces of my past life. In one way, I’m paying it forward, helping to indoctrinate Yao Jie with the same welcoming and patience as those friends I made in Taigu provided for me, but in another, we’re both new to America, struggling with acclimating to this strange, different culture. At our last dinner Yao Jie refused cold water, opting instead to drink the boiled noodle water customarily paired with noodle-based dishes in the north. I paused for a second before I too dipped the ladle into the scalding pot and helped myself to a bowl.

*

I rarely cooked in China because from a pragmatist's point of view there was no ostensible need—restaurant food was laughably cheap and was much more efficient than cooking at home. Cooking always required what felt like a full day's preparation—shopping at the local supermarket in town for things like meat and tofu, the little mom-and-pop granary for rice and flour, and the farmer's market for things like eggs and vegetables. There was a two-three hour stretch of time at night devoted to the actual cooking—six pairs of hands in a crowded kitchenette taking turns by the electric hot plates, sharing cutting boards, and alternately washing and plating dishes. Then, the hour or two dedicated to eating, and finally the clean-up—scraping pans, storing leftovers, and wiping down tables.

Here there is almost none of that camaraderie. Most of my meals are cooked for one, and yet still, I find solace in that solitary act—returning home at noon, turning on the electric stove, letting the chop and sizzle of the saucepan add layers to Ira Glass's inflection. Then at night, the neat simplicity of reheated leftovers for dinner. It's not the co-op at Oberlin and it certainly isn't a Thursday night banquet in Taigu, but it suffices.

Two weeks ago I received an unlikely gift. Hand-delivered by Alexandra’s sister over seven thousand miles to Oberlin—what in Taigu could almost pass as a food staple unto itself—a package of Taigu bing. These particular bing—Chinese for “cookie,” “biscuit” or almost any breaded ration—came in a red plastic bag, the words “red date” emblazoned across the bottom to indicate the flavor. They are particular to Taigu and absolutely ubiquitous—rare is it to pass a store that doesn't carry them in large plastic crates, the stylized gold characters practically dancing across the label. But to receive them here, at a fancy restaurant in Oberlin, felt like something outer-worldly—my brain just couldn't process it.

I have been holding out on eating the last one, perhaps so long that it will end up spoiling in spite of my efforts, but I can't quite seem to let it go. This, a food staple that I bought with such utter regularity as to never question whether or not I'd have enough, a breakfast item I paired with a bowl of yogurt and a sliced banana each morning. For want of the more conventional Western pastries I once craved, these fluffy, sesame seed-studded cookies were all we had. And now, a single, solitary mouthful is all that remains.

It's a feeling that I find hard to explain. It's like being the sole proprietor of a contraband food ration in the army. Or, perhaps, like a foreign teacher laying claim to the only personal pizza in a rural Chinese town of 80,000. The pie that Gerald took back with him after each trip to Pizza Hut in the nearest big city of Taiyuan, an over four-hour journey in all. At each unveiling, there stood a small group swarming hungrily around the microwave or, more accurately, Gerald holed up in his own room alone, careful not to draw attention to the prodigious gift, like an archaeologist protecting a new discovery.

I can imagine him there, and then again after having returned back to the states—frozen pizza stocked in nearly every grocery store, Domino's delivery never more than 30 minutes away. But staring into that microwave, there was that one extraordinary moment—the collective hopes and dreams of seven foreigners pinned to that gleaming vessel of tomato and cheese, a time when any one of us would have traded the world for a bite. And now, as if in some distant universe, Gerald heats up a slice of pizza in his microwave back home in America, thinking to himself: remember when this used to be valuable.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

vacationcondosmsbeach

vacationcondosmsbeach

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Travel With Kids TV show comes to the ROKU Player: Travel With Kids Channel

Roku player users can now purchase the Travel With Kids channel from the channel store for a one time fee of 4.99 to view all 4 seasons of the show!

Roku streams netflix, hulu, amazon on demand and dozens of other channels right to your TV.

Roku.com

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mudd and the Towering Inferno of Flames

I hate how much I missed Mudd. How as a student I could go there after a long day of classes and meetings and be comforted by the feeling that everyone there was in it together, working for this one collective goal. In a lot of ways, I liked being there more than my own house. My favorite place was this spiritually dead room, a window-less cube full of computer monitors and desk chairs. No color, no human interaction, hardly a sound. I couldn’t conceive of a better place to study.

Now that I’m here again it’s like an addict falling off the wagon: the brilliant glow of the fluorescent lights drawing me in, the smell of charcoal and pine outside filling my lungs like the flame of a kerosene lamp. And then there are the stars, lucid and unfettered, burning up in the sky. I could go to Mudd at my absolute lowest, and still feel better knowing that someone in there knew my name. Now, the same sentiment holds true, even if it's done in obscurity.

But if Mudd itself is full of the peculiar liveliness used to comfort individuals, then leaving at night, once the study carrels have emptied and the computer screens are left glowering at vacant seats, has a certain loneliness to it. Walking out into the stark night air—jacket zipped, bag thrown over my shoulder—I am immediately reminded of that senior year. It is a sensation so vivid it shocks me to realize it’s only a memory. Every detail, from the smoke-laced outlines at the side of the ramp down to the cold rush in my hands as I stoop to unlock my bike, is the same.

*

I saw her for the first time last week. It was midday, almost lunch, and there she was sitting at a bench with friends, speaking in loud gestures, the rise and fall of her hands like she were conducting a symphony. Before that moment, I never experienced what it felt like to have to avoid someone—how it was suddenly inappropriate now to make conversation with a person who, not long ago, had occupied an enormous part of my life. We dated prior to me leaving to go to China, and in the ensuing aftermath that followed, haven't so much as exchanged a word since.

Her friends stood up to leave and, against my better social etiquette, I walked up to her, not knowing what to say but knowing that I had to say something. It was short-lived, a string of empty pleasantries, and pretty soon the conversation was over, and I was walking not towards her but away. The whole episode felt so unsettling, how the underlying force of our convictions were laid dormant. Why is it that love always feels most alive when it's past its end, fraught with the sudden, crippling onset of its nonexistence? The passion that comes with all rejection—a sudden departure, a loss of life. Like how in some cultures even mourning can't be done quietly—a funeral pyre set in a torrential blaze, fiery and vivid and raw.

I hate when things fall apart. Even worse, when they fall apart and you don't understand why. I emailed my dad about it. He told me that sooner or later, you learn to let go. Sooner or later, he wrote, you learn that there's not always closure that is satisfactory. Sometimes things kind of sour and rot and smell bad. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

*

I saw her again yesterday, this time at Mudd. She used to tolerate my time at the library, but joked that I spent more time there than I did with her. This time, I managed not to talk to her. We were now just two people in the world, our lives detached from one another's, and I realized that it didn't have to be this long, drawn-out sadness. I remembered what my dad had written: If she deigns to see you, by all means, but be aware that it may actually be re-traumatizing yourself. Try not to be attached to the outcome. Give it your best. And if it doesn't work out, then let it out talking to me, or chopping wood, or sparring. But don't go back to the well again and again to be re-wounded.

Two years ago she left a note by my bike. Tucked into the metal crux of the handlebars, a slip of notebook paper, folded and creased, that read, simply: “Saw your bike and thought of you. Don’t stay out studying too late. Miss you. Love, C.” That should have been my cue to go and see her that night, but knowing me I probably didn’t. Here’s what happened: I pocketed the note, rode my bike south and west (the opposite direction of her dorm), walked upstairs to my warm, dimly-lit room, and, with the smell of sandalwood and marijuana piping in from the screened-in balcony, I went to sleep.

Weeks and months passed, but every day since then I kept checking my bike. Edging down the library ramp, hands bristling from the cold, it was the same routine—first the handlebars, then the front wheel spokes, even the narrow slit underneath the seat. Each time I left the library—fingers clutching the bike keys—hoping in vain for some trace of her. The fruitless game I played. I still do.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Our Need to Rebuild Is the Reason Everything Falls Apart

It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.

Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.


East meets Feve. From left to right: Gerald, David, and myself (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”

I wanted to explain that it didn't matter if I was good or bad at networking or whether or not I even liked to do it. It just wasn't an option for me—I'm an extroverted person and when I'm not around other people for too long I start to lose it. “I can't help it,” I said, “it gets lonely up in this ivory tower.” I paused. I knew I had used the wrong analogy and was sure she would call me on it. “Well this ivory tower seems to have a lot of other towers in its neighborhood,” she quipped, not missing a beat. “It's an ivory tower colony,” I joked, “with no zoning restrictions.”

My own ivory tower is located on the southeastern fringes of campus. It's not to say that I don't feel disconnected from the concerns of non-campus life, but it's so easy to get caught up in my own tailspin—work, school, friendships to maintain. Some of the isolation is self-imposed but most is a product of circumstance. There are “young professionals” (what we call ourselves) in other departments in the college—ResEd, Athletics, Admissions, the MRC—but there's little opportunity for contact, and I certainly never had my radar out for them when I was still a student.

Being older than almost everyone doesn't help either. That, and having to strike a balance between my so-called grown-up friends and my student friends. Then again, the distinction may be a moot point. On my fourth day here I went to a karaoke cook-out event for incoming international students and the staff from the MRC was up there right alongside the new first-years singing “Bad Romance” and doing the Cha Cha Slide.

It felt like looking at Oberlin through the eyes of a stranger. All of the buildings had a foreign newness to them, and I had been exploring them slowly, so as not to embarrass my former self. The people had changed too. No longer could I simply expect to have friends based on geography and shared experience. It made me realize how lucky I had been in Taigu. Oberlin felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, like most of the rest of the world. I wouldn't be able just to fall into friendships here; I'd really have to work for them.


Peters Hall, with newly renovated $1.4 million slate-and-copper roof.

The fall from celebrity to dime-a-dozen has played out like your classic fall from grace, marred by all the telltale signs of recovery and addiction. I realized that I had invariably switched roles overnight—instead of being the person whose door everyone else was trying to knock down, I had become the archetypal “rando” who shows up unannounced and bearing gifts at four in the afternoon, appealing for nothing more than genuine friendship.

The night I went to the Feve with Jerry and Dave—two of the six foreigners I had lived with in China—a new art installation was up on the second floor. They had always been characteristically out there, even when I was a student, but this one seemed odder than most. Next to a collection of multi-colored lighters forming the outline of the African continent there hung a simple blue-and-white ceramic tile, on which, in all lower-case, was scribbled the line, our need to rebuild is the reason everything falls apart.

I wondered, if we stopped trying so hard to create anew, maybe all that should be lasting in our lives would cease to come undone? The network I had gone to great lengths to craft in my four years couldn't have felt more achingly distant. Looking around the bar that night, some faces looked familiar and others I just convinced myself were. Either way, it didn't stop me from trying to make conversation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately—giving my phone number out to almost anyone who seems interesting, hoping only that they might call me back.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Acceptance

Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.

I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.

As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.

That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.

I told myself that if I tried hard enough I could fit in here. After all, aside from a BA, what truly separated me from this sea of unknowns—a girl with a shaved head, a guy with biker shorts and a denim jacket, two girls in sun dresses and wedges, a pony-tailed boy with purple nail polish and a “Steak 'n Shake” hat? Sometimes I don't feel my own age, and at other times, it forces itself on me like a creep at a dive bar. Some people looked too old, and others, just about what you'd expect. But for all of them, it was too early to tell: in what ways Oberlin would come to mold their self-image at the end of four years.

That sea of unknowns followed me into the inaugural orientation concert at Finney Chapel. The room was packed, with overflow seating available down the street in Warner Concert Hall. Both President Krislov and Dean Stull made long, meandering speeches, and everything in me wanted to believe that they were talking to me when they spoke—of the limitless opportunities, the expectations of greatness, the proud tradition we would serve to uphold. But they weren't. Like a scorned older child I had been cast aside, neglected at the unwelcome arrival of a new sibling. Now I had only the legacies of other alumni to aspire, their influence so great as to cast a shadow over my very existence.

It was the most engrossing concert I had attended in recent memory. It's not to say that the performances weren't great, but I think it speaks more to the time I had gone without hearing live music, without the sensation of feeling it in every part of my body—back arched, spine tingling. In two hours, I hardly so much as shifted my weight. I found myself immeasurably drawn to each musician on stage—to the way their hands moved, the arch of their fingers, the gape of their mouth. Insisting on going alone, of doing this simply and irrefutably for me, I reveled in music as the great equalizer, in the feeling that we were all one collective audience in the face of its grandeur.

Pretty soon parents and their kids began filing out. On the walk back home, I remembered where I was six years ago, rounding the end of my first day as an Oberlin student. My parents dropped me off at my dorm after the concert and it would be the last time they would know me as a son, a boy on his path to adulthood. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and although I didn't cry then, I felt it now, the tears welling in my eyes like storm water. Suddenly I was that parent, knowing that his time had passed, letting go of what had come before to allow for all the greatness to follow.

Before the concert, I was sitting in the Japanese garden outside of Finney Chapel, where the class of 1996 had dedicated a memorial to those Oberlin students who had given their lives during WWII. Among a long row of plaques listing names and graduation years followed by the letters USAAF and AUS, I saw one, on the far right, with the postscript “AMT '40, Navy, Japan.” And I thought to myself, if in the annals of history, Oberlin could come to accept him, then they'll find a way to accept me too. I didn't need to be someone I wasn't to fit in. Maybe being exactly who I am would have to suffice.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Uprooting, Replanting

At the front door, just before turning to leave, she handed me the keys to the house. There were two sets—one for the back door and my apartment on the third floor, and another for the company van, a light blue Toyota that we drove back from the airport. The drive from Cleveland wasn't what got to me—stretches of anonymous highway interspersed with small-talk: in-laws, grandkids, vacation, exes. No, it wasn't until we rounded Lorain Road, past Deichlers and the IGA, that things really started to coalesce—that the fuzzy picture of “Oberlin” that I had in my mind was beginning to look more and more like something real than imagined, to come into focus right before my eyes. We took a left at the art museum and slipped past the Oberlin Inn, and before I knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot outside Shansi House. No doubt about it, I was back in Oberlin.

It was an eerily similar feeling to when I first arrived in Taigu two years ago. It felt like waking up from a coma; there was this immediate shock, an overwhelming sense of both dread and astonishment for all that was yet to come. A part of me had gotten used to the way things were, and another, anxious for something different, on this, the start of yet another new life. Standing at the front door, luggage in hand, I wondered, how many more of these can I really bear? I'm not built for change, and yet, the last two years have seen little but it. It's as if change has wormed its way into the fiber of my DNA. It was never an innate trait, nor one that had lain dormant like a cancer, but one that was transplanted, grafted from a more able body onto mine, in the hopes that in time it too might sprout buds and flourish into something large and outstanding and worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed about the new house was the space. More rooms than I could thoroughly explore in a single sitting. There was a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, foyer, two office spaces, a library—and that was just the ground level. The second floor had six bedrooms, a private residence attached to the back, two bathrooms, a shared kitchen, and a living room. And then there was my room—bathroom, kitchen, split living room/study, bedroom, big bay windows, and more closets than I could possibly fill spanning the entire third floor. Perhaps many American homes are this big, but I have never lived anywhere even approaching this size. That's what was so ironic—in Taigu I could be forgiven for experiencing culture shock at my new surroundings, but if this truly was my culture, why did everything that should be familiar feel so unimaginably foreign?


Wide, open space. My living room/study at Shansi House.

Last week I went to Target and all I could think about was the space: how there were whole sections where mobs of people weren't clambering at clothes racks and stripping shelves bare. Standing in the middle of a wide aisle, I had only the gentle push of the shopping carts and the Top 40 radio to occupy my thoughts. Coming from China where people habitually live on top of each other, and even my mom's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where the four of us had to temporarily co-habit, the seemingly endless stretches of open space in Ohio have been the biggest readjustment to life here. It's like going from one extreme to the other, with nothing in-between. The same can be said of my Shansi experience, with my Taigu life and my Oberlin life each comprising polar halves. Trying to bridge them together in a cohesive manner is like trying to knit a scarf by starting with each set of tassels, and hoping to eventually meet both ends in the middle.

When I went to visit Karl at the office, he told me that being the Returned Fellow is like waking up from a dream, where it's hard to reconcile which part of your life was real and which was imagined—they are so disparate that it seems impossible for them to coexist. Upon first entering my new apartment, there was a 1973 hardcover-bound Time-Life book on the desk entitled The Amazon: The World's Wild Places, that got me half-thinking about embarking on my next great “adventure,” as if my two years of it had scarcely ever happened to begin with. After so long on “the road,” it's weird to be settling down. But even now I know that this is temporary. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, that's all life really is: one never-ending standing-only ticket on “the road,” with no end in sight. Besides, even if I really wanted it, does such a thing as “settling down” even exist?


Everything in its rightful place—coconut milk pencil holder, desk lamp, book on the Amazonian wilds.

Now that I'm in Oberlin, old friends and professors greet me with a hearty “welcome back,” as if I had meant to be back all along. I don't flout their politeness at all, but even being back connotes a return to some semblance of life as I knew it before, and even that is a misnomer. This life, like others that have come before it, will be very different from any life that I have experienced—everything will be changed, from my position at the school and my daily routine to my place of residence. Even despite being the only current inhabitant, this place can scarcely be called my own. All around me are the remnants of other people's lives—people who, like me, have come for a year and gone, leaving only discarded fragments of their identities behind: scribbled reminder notes, FedEx boxes, toiletries, reading materials, stationery, souvenirs, appliances. Theirs is my life to make sense of now—the same fate I left to my own contemporaries upon leaving Taigu.

“You feel like people are saying the same things as before but wearing different faces,” Karl said, as I was leaving the office. And then, just as I turned to leave, he added: “it can sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy.” I began to see it everywhere—the guys chain smoking by the library, the couple holding hands at Gibson's, the girl biking barefoot through campus, the family squatting down in Tappan Square for a picnic—weren't they all people I had known before? There are different faces with the same voices, but there are familiar faces too. On a trip to Yesterday's, I saw Marc, an acquaintance that I made when I was still a student, who is from the town and still lives and works here. I didn't buy any ice cream from him but we exchanged numbers and promised to meet up again. It was encouraging to know: in spite of it all, some things still manage to stay the same.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

We Sip Champagne When We're Thirsty

Whether it was the worrying or late-stage jet lag that was keeping me up at night, no one could say for sure, but the worrying certainly didn't help. Past a certain age, birthdays become more of a burden than they do a reward; less an expression of one's individual character than they are a declaration of his social worth. It's not to say that I've crossed that threshold yet, just merely that it seems closer now than it had before the big 2-4 yesterday.

Sam and his girlfriend Brittany treated me for lunch at the Shake Shack near Times Square. It was my first time, and the excess of it all was what really stuck with me—mouths gorging on cheese fries, burgers oozing with mayonnaise and ketchup, Day-Glo Creamsicle floats and frozen custards. Just peering expectantly into the gray-swirled concretes studded with chocolate chips and fudge chunks was enough to make my heart stop. The burger was definitely good, but you don't need to take my word for it. The lines are so routinely out-the-door that even their promotional T-shirts picture their original Madison Square Park location with a line of people wrapping around the front.

But exactly how good? Consider that the cost of a single ShackBurger nets almost four Tuesday promotional $1.29 Whoppers at the Burger King a block from my house—where I ate my day-after-birthday lunch—and I'll reconsider whether or not I want to wait in line again for 40 minutes. We wandered our way through the Meatpacking District after lunch and darted into Chelsea Market to escape the rain—a hulking steel building outfitted with giant whirring ceiling fans and over-sized cargo elevators built in the late 1890s. The sheer depth to the stores there was remarkable—enough bakeries to fill a small New England township and a specialty produce shop that even sold tamarind rinds and dragon fruit. We bought zucchini and squash to barbecue for dinner.

I had my birthday dinner, not with my own family, but with Sam's. It wasn't so much the circumstances—Hannah was bussing back home from Maryland and my mom had called to say that she was out and wouldn't be home until late—we just weren't that kind of family. Besides, it was something of an accident—the three of us were playing Halo with Sam's kid brother in the living room and lost track of time. Dinner was fancy by my standards—pasta salad, poached salmon, bruschetta—the first real home-cooked meal I'd had since being back. It would have been any ordinary dinner had Sam not mentioned to his mom that we were going out, and before anyone had time to object, Mrs. Graves was out with a kazoo humming the four chords that no birthday celebration should be complete without.

We took the 4 train from Union Square to the Upper East Side. It had been over two years since I'd made it up to that neighborhood, and it felt like I couldn't pass a single building without staring hard at it, the way a dog might eye an errant stain of piss. Inside, the bar could have passed for any house party at college. Ex-frat boys, still wearing Greek letter T-shirts and plaid shorts, playing beer pong on two long tables by the back wall. Girls in tube tops and mini-skirts surreptitiously looking on. Dirty messages scribbled in the bathroom stalls. Blink-182 and Yellowcard blaring over the stereo sound system. A Jets game on one set of TV screens and a Yankees game on the other.

The seven of us were sequestered at the first table by the entrance. When we arrived, another group was in the process of wrapping up a birthday of their own—streamers hanging from the lamp shades, printed napkins in colorful hues, even a half-eaten cake sitting in the center of the table, the letters “PY” and “THDAY” left untouched. To the casual observer, the whole scene would have hardly garnered a second look. Even I, had I tried hard enough, could have believed that the whole production—paper plates and tiny serving forks, fragments of tinsel and wrapping paper—something I never would have asked for but at the same time would not have refused, could all have been for me.

About an hour in, the table next to us cleared out and another party was getting seated. Brushing aside stray cake crumbs, a short, trim man with a mustache inquired about an umbrella that had been left at their table. It was one of those long retractable ones, the kind kids use to propel at each other on rainy days. “Is this yours,” the man asked us, knowing full well that it wasn't and that he was now reluctantly charged with its fate. He turned to me, sitting closest to him. “Well, how would you like a free umbrella,” he asked with a smile. I thought to myself—it wasn't that outlandish of a request. “Sure,” I told him, really meaning it. He handed it over, careful to spare the drinks, and with a sense of irony he couldn't possibly have imagined, added, “Here you go, buddy. Happy birthday.”

*

Just to allay any worries, my birthday was lovely, and I want to thank everyone who came out with me to celebrate on Monday. Again, these vignettes are semi-fictionalized, and, like much of my writing, tend to ere on the darker side.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Notes from a Casual Spectator's First Trip to Yankees Stadium

The last time I saw a live baseball game was when I was twelve. The days of Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams. A powerhouse pitching staff. The Subway Series. Four World Series Championships in five years. A dynasty.

It's been a decade since. Back before Sosa and McGwire. Before doping became a household term. When Joe Girardi still played in pinstripes and the Boss was still “The Boss.” Back when “The House That Ruth Built” still referred to Yankees Stadium. I'm not much of a baseball fan now, but I used to be. How could I not? New York was experiencing one of baseball's great ages, its Renaissance, an absolute resurgence of the sport. No one, save for His Airness in Chicago, was as exciting and electrifying to watch.

Signed 2000 World Series jersey of Paul O'Neill, my favorite baseball player of all-time. On display at the Yankees Stadium Museum.

This time around, I barely recognized the names on the starting line-up. Only two or three players carried any weight—after all, I still cheered on the Yankees' 2009 victory via streaming webcast from China. But it wasn't the same. Ironically, I felt more at home in the Yankees in-house museum than I did in the rest of the newly-built stadium. At least there I could actually pass with some degree of knowledge. Everything else had a newness that was hard to place. Steel struts and supports that almost sparkled. Working water fountains. Ramps and walkways with nary a crack. No gum stuck to the bottom of the stadium seats.

So if not for the fandom and not for the familiarity, why choose to go to a Yankees game? Who on a whim buys three tickets for himself, his best friend, and his sister to a baseball game slated for the middle of the workweek? I felt like Ferris Bueller. To be sure, the “Free Hat Day” promotion helped to sway my vote, but it was more than that. I wanted a truly, one-of-a-kind “American experience,” and what better way than at a showcase of “America's Sport?" It was iconic—everything from the Cracker Jack and fried corn dogs (both of which I ate) down to the Star-Spangled Banner to start the game.


Submitted for your approval, Scott, Hannah, and yours truly, all sporting our free Yankees caps.

The atmosphere and company alone more than made the experience worthwhile. But if I had any doubts, the victory certainly didn't hurt. The Yankees beat the Angels 9-3—the game was never close. If you want the play-by-play, check ESPN; these are my own notes from the game:
  • I learned that metal containers of all kinds are effectively banned at Yankees Stadium, presumably to prevent escalating a heated physical altercation between fans or with players. Unfortunately, this also included my expensive reusable water canteen. Thankfully, security in charge of such dealings isn't very stringent. Even after a nescient once over made me suspect, I sneaked it in nonetheless.

  • The Asian food counter at the stadium had exactly four menu items: General Tso's Chicken, Chicken Noodle Bowl, Egg Roll, and Dumplings. And then, in something of a misstep, Rainbow Shaved Ice and Sno-Cones. It stands to reason that I would be upset. If this is your selection of Asian food, at least call it what it is: Bastardized Chinese.

  • As if I needed any more of a reminder that I was no longer in China, there was this: no alcohol being sold on the street (illegal), no pushing and shoving in the lines, ramps and passageways with enough space to accommodate guests, and enough exits so that wait time was effectively neutralized. Efficiency is a beautiful thing.

 
The third-tier bleachers directly below our section, still delightfully empty 40 minutes before game time.
  • Product sponsorship is far from uncommon in our modern age. But sometimes corporations take it too far. Official sports drinks, cleats, and athletic-wear I can fully accept. But when you call yourself the “Official Pudding of the New York Yankees,” I think you're trying too hard. (It's Kozy Shack in case you're wondering).

  • Overheard via stadium loudspeaker (liberally paraphrased): You too can own a piece of history! For a limited time, Yankees fans can now buy an original bleachers seat from "The House That Ruth Built!" All original chewing gum, mustard stains, beer resin, and dried blood perfectly intact! Display it in an abandoned parking lot or Industrial Sculpture Garden near you! Available now only from Steiner Collectibles.

  • If I missed an interesting play on the field (exemplified by the crowd cheering or wincing in unison), I kept half-expecting the players to revert back to their original position as the play unfolded again after a 5-second delay. My generation grew up with instant replay and it's as much a part of our world as, it would seem, reality itself.

 
A zoom-free view from our seats in right field. Angels up at bat and the Yankees take the field.
  • When the grounds crew comes on to sweep the field, the effect is uncharacteristically serene. Four men, each evenly-spaced with a long rake in his hand making a perfect half-circle of the dirt around the perimeter of the baseball diamond. With the right attitude, they could be practitioners at a zen garden. Except, perhaps, when they dance and raise their arms to the Village People's “Y.M.C.A.” at the end of the sixth inning.

  • Frank Sinatra's timeless “New York, New York” must have been for his generation what “Empire State of Mind” is for mine. I wonder if in twenty years we'll be hearing that to close out each game at Yankees Stadium.

  • By the time the last out was recorded, the electric banner reading: “Party City celebrates another Yankees win!” began scrolling across the stadium's LED display. And as fans started making their way to the exits, Scott Grabel was officially christened as a Yankees fan. He wasn't the only one.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kaleidoscope. So. Innocent.

It felt like regressing. The four of us sitting in the living room—Jerry, Steph, Paul, and I, a pipe and lighter at the ready. We were in their new apartment—Paul and Steph both transplants from out-of-state. New-wave. Jerry was visiting on his way back home to Fort Worth from Norway and was crashing on their couch. I brought over a six-pack, and there we were, drinking, Paul taking stock of the inventory, Steph fiddling with the projector, and Jerry fishing Sour Patch Kids out of his backpack. We could have been in a movie. Four Asian stoners with time to kill. Like Better Luck Tomorrow.

It took me thirty minutes just to find the place. This, after Paul told me that it was a 5-minute walk from Nostrand Avenue—left on Pacific, right under the LIRR. He couldn't have made it any easier if he tried. I went the opposite way for twenty minutes before doubling back. It was the elevated tracks that tipped me off, crisscrossed metal struts fastened to a wooden track like some ancient roller coaster.

The day before we all got dinner together in Brooklyn Heights. It was the quintessential New York experience—view of the bridge, brick oven pizza, Sinatra on the jukebox. It felt like everyone in there was Italian. New-wave. That is, if you don't count us and the one other table of Asians by the window. And then, even after they left, they put another group of Asians right there in the same spot. Paul joked, “one pipe bomb through the window, and boom, all ten Asians are dead.” He said it so matter-of-fact he could have been talking to a child. “How's that for a 60 Minutes special?”

Before dinner I caught myself taking pictures of the bridge. Imagine that, staring up at the same goddamned bridge I'd seen since before I could think and fussing with my f-stop. I couldn't tell which had changed at that instant: the bridge or me. It was the same feeling I had when I went out with the three of them after dinner for drinks. We drove to Williamsburg, and yes, before you even have to ask, I'll tell you that we had the oysters. The last time I had seen any of them was in Asia—Jerry with me in China, and Paul and Steph living together in Korea. Seeing them here, in my own hometown was like the two halves of my life uniting—the alien and the local, the visitor and the native.

The Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We talked for a long time that night—about what, it's hard to remember. Stupid stuff. The kinds of things friends can pass hours talking about. Movies. Girls. Reminiscing. Hopes and dreams. How nothing had changed. Or everything. How we could come back from being abroad and feel like strangers to ourselves. And all the while wondering: did we trade in our innocence for a shot at the world? But the whole thing was effortless—like the four of us, all transplants to America, had always known each other like this. It was like going back and forth through time, taking from the past everything we needed to get to that moment.

I woke up in the morning with three words scribbled in my notebook: kaleidoscope so innocent. The memory was fuzzy but still intact. At one point, the visualizer on their projector made a shape like a kaleidoscope—colorful geometric stencils dancing in rhythmic patterns. A kaleidoscope is a child's toy. Children are innocent. Perhaps to a superlatively high degree. Therefore, the kaleidoscope netted innocence of its own. I thought about the last time I looked through an actual kaleidoscope and the whole cognitive process checked out. I was a child. I was innocent. Times had, quite evidently, changed since.

Getting back home from their apartment took just under three hours. This, despite the fact that we lived in the same borough. There's the late night train schedule for you. What does it matter if the subway is 24 hours if there is exactly one train between two and three in the morning? On the way home, I went the opposite way again. I took the A train towards Queens instead of up to Manhattan where I had to change lines. All that trouble just to go back to Brooklyn again. Figures. Sometimes you have to backtrack before you can move forward.

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This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward...that's what they called it when Chairman Mao pushed the Chinese populace to export more food (to the point of which the general public was starving) and melt down steel for export (which had peasants thowing everything metal...including necessary items such as cooking pots and tools into the fires) so that China could import factory and military technology to modernize their country. The plan was a fiasco ending with countless dying of starvation and many of Mao's own camrades turning on him. Too much too fast at too large a sacrafice. However, when traveling through China today...high speed trains darting through city after city of high rises past world monuments in the shadows of modern marvels, you have to wonder if this is the China Mao had envisioned. And in the process of leaping, has China missed out on something along the way? We crossed China by train this summer to find out.



We started our trip in Shanghai - a thriving metropolis with sky scrapers in quirky shapes (one with a spire engulfed by a giant ball, The Pearl Tower and one with a giant open square in the middle, The Bottle Opener) lit up in every shade of neon imagineable. Kid-friendly activities range from an aquarium with "the world's largest underwater acrylic tunnel" to a massive science museum with Disney-esque displays on rainforests and robots. Expansive concrete squares and walkways were surrounded by designer shops with neon signs and upscale eateries, but there was something missing - Chinese history and culture. There are parts of Shanghai that nod to the past...the French Quarter, the Bund, the Yu Gardens area, but most are tourist attractions, not living history.

None-the-less the kids loved strolling down the paths and feeding coi fish in the Yu Gardens and bargaining for Mao merchandise (a watch with Mao's hand waving as the second hand or a general's hat from the Red Army) by the gates. The dumplings at the stalls nearby were outstanding (Nathan - our ten-year-old's new favorite food) but the line to get them was just as outstanding...they're very popular and there are A LOT of people in China! The people of Shanghai are very modern...in Western dress, with mobile phones, eating at Western fast food chains and moving at break-neck paces...unfortunately no one has schooled them on Western manners as lines are non-existent (people just tend to surge forward in a swarm-like fashion) and spitting is rampant (although signs are posted everywhere warning against the practice as it spreads germs), but it's all part of the fun of foreign travel, right? After Shanghai, we decided to head up the Yangtze River to the interior of China to see if this modernization had spread into the countryside. We purchased China train tickets through ACP Rail before we left and they delivered them to our accommodations in Shanghai.

On the overnight train from Shanghai to Chongqing, we got a bit more of the non-line formation as the crowd pushed forward on the train platform as if Justin Bieber had just walked by. We held back a little and found that we could board the train just as easily after the rush as over and we had assigned cabins anyway, so what was the point of pushing? The kids loved the train journey! Although not many people spoke English (only one or two people and very limited at that), Westerners were a bit of a novelty...more than one person during our weeks of overnight trains asked why we didn't fly. In addition to getting to see the countryside whiz by the window

and meeting locals, immersing in the culture, another benefit to overnight trains is that the price includes a night of accommodation....and the kids thought the bunk beds were pretty cool. Everytime the kids walked through a compartment the whole crowd would turn and stare and that's when the pictures started as well...about once or twice per compartment, someone would ask us to sit and take a picture with them. The kids thought it was great...just like being famous. They also liked the bunk beds in the train compartment (we traveled on soft sleepers which were private compartments with four beds and air conditioning). We didn't pack much to eat thinking we could eat on the train, but the options were very limited. We did hit the fruit cart for bananas a few times and had Ramen noodles.


In Chongqing, we boarded a ship for a three-night journey with Sanctuary Retreats down the Yangtze River through the infamous Three River Gorges. As many of you know, one of the world's largest dams, the Yangtze River Dam, was constructed in this past decade in an effort to control flooding at produce hydro-electricity, an effort which caused the relocation of millions of Chinese people and flooded over many historic buildings and sacred places. With the change of scenery and relocation of towns, we wanted to see how this leap forward had affected the countryside. In the first stop on our cruise, the cruise director had arranged for our group to visit both a traditional home and a new home for people who were relocated. The traditional home was obviously more rustic - dirt floors, simple furnishings, limited electricity - life as always. While the modern apartment into which families were relocated had air conditioning, glass windows and tile floors, but the inhabitant said the biggest draw back was that she was separated from her neighbors - a leap away from traditional community - and she missed that. At the end of the journey, a wide slab of concrete juts a mile and a half across the Yangtze with much controversy. The Yangtze River Dam is the largest construction project in China since the Great Wall (Mao would be proud as it was he who originally suggested a large dam here during the "Great Leap Forward").

The dam has been the source of much heated discussion due to its relocation of almost 2 million locals and the environmental impact of displacing that much water. Although the soaring limestone cliffs are less soaring now (the water was raised by almost a football field) they are still spectacular and a journey through the gorges is well worth doing.

Our ship docked in Yichang where we boarded an overnight train to the political heart of China, Beijing. The center of Beijing is the vast cement slab of Tiananmen Square which is guarded over by a massive portrait of Chairman Mao (hanging from the entrance to the Forbidden City - the last home of the emperors of China and one of the few ancient sites that was not plowed over during the Communist take-over).

Tiananmen Square was originally built for the people, but today, due to riot control, security is tight, there is no filming and it is closed at night. The square is surrounded on two sides by Communist/government buildings. The third side is lined with Western fast food chains (Mao is probably rolling over in his masolaeum, which is in the center of the square) and the fourth is the Forbidden City.

The soaring red doors, colorful murals and curled up corners of the buildings in the Forbidden City is quite a contrast to the gray cement rectangles of the Communist era buildings nearby...a leap right over any local architectural tradition. The kids enjoy wandering through the narrow alleys of the Forbidden City.

They meet kids snacking on chicken feet (a common snack food here in China)

and are asked to have their picture taken over and over again. They are starting to get the idea of why famous people become reclusive. But it's short-lived so they're happy to oblige. We learn about the emperors and empresses that live here and what life was like in the royal court.

If there is a feather in the hat of Chinese progress, it's their hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. About 45 minutes out of the center of Beijing, we visit the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube - landmarks from the games. The kids are delighted to find the Water Cube, where Michael Phellps set so many records, has been repurposed into Asia's largest indoor water park. So they hop in, sliding down two story slides, hopping around the wave pool and joining the locals as they "splash attack" various other patrons.


The other highlight to our trip to Beijing is a visit to the other great construction project in China...the Great Wall. The wall runs over 5,000 miles from northeastern China following near the Mongolian border. We had been approached in Tiananmen Square by an English speaking driver to hire a private car for four of us, which turned out to be cheaper than taking an organized tour. Badaling is the closest wall access to Beijing, but it's very crowded, so we head to Mutianyu about 50 miles from town. After weaving through trinket sellers, where Seamus enjoyed tasting amazing dried fruits, we found a chairlift to the top of the wall. The chairlift looks like something from a 1950s film set in Switzerland with rickety chairs with narrow seats, but the views are incredible and the kids thought it was lots of fun. I'm glad we decided to take the chairlift too because once you are at the top there is plenty of hiking along the wall and the kids would have been too worn out by the intial hike to do too much exploring. The kids had lots of fun imagining they were Chinese soldiers and the huns were attacking as they ran up steps to the watchtowers that connect the walls, peering out narrow, stone windows through the forest where the wall bumped and dipped along the form of the mountain terrain winding off into the distance. After a couple hours appreciating the wall, it was time to head down, but instead of hiking we took the luge.

You read it right...they have a long metal slide with go karts that wind down the mountain side back to the base. Cheesey tourist attraction...yes, but not something you can pass up with two little boys. It ended up being a neat way to get down...gliding quietly through the forest.

If Beijing is the political capital of China then Shanghai is the capitalist and financial capital, but how does Hong Kong fit into this modern country? Our last stop in China showed us that not much has changed in this British enclave...at least on the surface. You still have to go through immigration to and from China, they still use different money...you get the idea. The one thing that I noticed was different from last time we were there, which was just around the time of the British hand over, is less British pubs. We stayed at Park Hotel Hong Kong in Tsimshatsui - an area lined with mostly Chinese restaurants and great shops selling everything from fashion clothes to Chinese trinkets. The kids enjoyed a surprise trip to Hong Kong Disneyland while we were there. The park is set up very similar to the original, although it is smaller with a few rides missing. But they enjoyed the Jungle Cruise ("It's even better than the original with fire and water geysers!" says Seamus) and of course, "it's a small world", where the no-lines culture hit a feverish pace as visitors pushed to board the little boats standing back to belly, filling in every bit of space. At night we enjoyed gelato at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the city lights.

With the massive construction (cranes on almost every building it seems) and cities popping out of what used to be farmland, and two more dams in the works, even bigger than the Yangtze River Dam, it seems China is still taking a huge leap forward. Where it will end up, especially in this world's economy, is yet to be determined. But if you want to see ancient China with its winding hutongs and rice fields, and travel through a foreign country where few speak English and squid on a stick is a popular snack (even in Disneyland) then you best go fast as they may soon leap right beyond the cultural divide.

 

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