Sunday, May 14, 2006

In sickness and in health

I had the flu yesterday--the worst flu I've had in ages. Since coming here, I've had three bouts of cold or flu, Zack's had two, and Blanca's had two, plus a long-running cough after one of them and a separate afternoon of unexplained high fever. Since this is being read by those outside my immediate family, I won't go into the gastrointestinal issues. My mother and I often comment on the fact that most travel writers never talk about the downsides of their trips: the weeks spent being sick in a yurt in Mongolia, the days of food poisoning in Paris, the simple inability to communicate your most basic needs at a most urgent time. I am not such a travel writer.

Everything we've had is relatively minor and perfectly normal when starting a new daycare or hospital job, but it's harder to be sick when you aren't sure the medicine you're buying really is Ibuprofen, and if it is, what the dosage is actually supposed to be. It's not unheard of for kids to be put in hospitals for colds here, so we hesitate to go to a doctor for Blanca.

Also, it's been raining every day for the past week. It's always damp even when it's not raining. The subtropical humidity keeps anything from getting really dry. The shower doesn't have a door or curtain, so water gets all over the bathroom. It's not even really a shower, but a tub with a movable nozzle located about a foot outside the tub. The kitchen sink leaks too, spraying a fine mist when we use it. The tea kettle sprays water, too, when pouring, and we need to use it a lot because we have to boil all our drinking water. We could buy water from the store, but I got tired of carrying it after about a week, so we boil it as the Chinese do, and generally drink it hot as they do as well. We store the water in a very good thermos, which keeps the water hot. It leaks, too.

Every so often we have a blackout in our apartment and a lightbulb explodes.

Travel writers don't write about things like these partly because it's not that interesting, but mostly because it just doesn't matter. The adventure is completely worth it. As long as none of us, especially Blanca, comes down with anything major or chronic due to this trip, we would do this again in a second. The thrill of leaping into the unknown is that good. (After the first few weeks, once we realized that Blanca's new and challenging behavior was more due to being two years old than due to being away from home, we became much happier.)

I love seeing new things and how other people live. When I bought that Ibuprofen (I think it's Ibuprofen), a pharmacist was using a hand scale to weigh herbs for a prescription. She had her abacus, too, all spread out on a glass vitrine. That was a great sight. One of my favorite travel games is Aimless Bus Ride (TM pending). Just hop on a bus outside your hotel or apartment and ride until you see something interesting or are ready to go back, then take the bus back. Cheap and fun. Play it anywhere, even from home. A minor journey into the unknown, with a clear way back. My travel philosophy in a microcosm.

Travelling is like jumping off a high dive. I am far too scared to jump off a high dive, but live in a place where I have no friends and don't know the language and can barely find my way around and don't know what the foods are in the store and have no idea what I'm eating most of the time? Sure, no problem. My travel adventures are relatively physically safe and I still have a life in New York, so it's like jumping into a giant safety net, but the feeling of falling is still incredible.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Things on bikes

The Chinese use bicycles for transport of themselves and everything else. A short list of things I have seen being transported on bikes:

Plate glass for large windows
Cartons of toilet paper and tissues
A sofa
50 Mylar balloons
Plants for sale, as in a florist shop
Food stalls
Flattened cardboard cartons
Styrofoam packing material
Canisters of gasoline

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Does Blanca speak Chinese?

Many have asked this question. We didn't know. After all, she didn't speak it to us. She'd imitate us when we tried to speak it to her, and she'd say "Xiexie (thank you)" with a good bit of prompting, but she'll say "thank you" in any language with a good bit of prompting. We asked her teacher, and the teacher said that she didn't speak Chinese. Tonight, however, unprompted, she counted in Chinese to about eight. We clapped and cheered and got very excited, and she did it again a few times. About ten minutes later I asked her, in Yiddish, if she could count in Chinese, and she said yes, and started counting: "Eins, tsvay, drey,..." in Yiddish. She thinks it's Chinese.

It's a long way to travel to get a real-life version of an old joke.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bright lights, big city

I just spent two days in Shanghai. Big buildings! Amazing architecture! More organized traffic! Westerners! Higher prices! I went to the Shanghai Museum. I saw an amazing acrobatic troupe. I shopped. I had a meeting with my company's China branch. It was all great, and you can read about all of it except for the meeting in any travel guide.

It made me happier than ever that we are in Fuzhou.

When we told people who know China that we were coming to Fuzhou, the reaction was a unanimous: "You don't want to go there." The consensus was that it wasn't an exciting place and there wasn't much to see--expressed in much harsher terms. That's true; it is a generic Chinese city, and that's been perfect for us.

Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, is about 25 miles from the southwest coast of China, across from Taiwan. It's about one-third surrounded by the Min River and two-thirds by mountains. These natural features give it what character it has and make it more pleasant than it would otherwise be. I can't say that the city itself is beautiful; few Chinese cities are. Even Shanghai, outside the incredible central areas, features the same cement apartment blocks and drab streets. Several of Fuzhou's mountains are in or easily accessible to the city. We climbed one the first week, and while we did not enjoy the climb, the forest scenery was lovely. Of course one doesn't get amazing vistas due to the ubiquitous Chinese pollution. Another mountain is about half an hour's walk from our apartment, and the lush smell of the subtropical vegetation overpowers the city's smells; it's nice just to sit at its base. We've spent some time at a riverside beach and today I took a walk through riverside parks.

There's a miniscule play area outside our building--I can tell my eyes are adjusting to Chinese spaces, because I no longer consider it so tiny--and the smell of honeysuckle is strong and lovely in the early evening. After school and work, kids and parents from our apartment complex gather here to play and talk. They try to talk to me, though I can't say much beyond "She's two," "Thank you," and "American." This perfectly landscaped little area also has a walking path and fishpond. This is in not more than 500 square feet. The play area probably takes up about half the space. The complex is a community and we are a welcome curiosity, even if we can't be part of things due to the language and cultural barriers.

Blanca's and my walk home from nursery school has several landmarks. We smile and wave to the people on the alley where her school is, then to the people on the small street leading to the alley, including the tailor who sets up shop under a tree. The other day we waved and said hello, and I actually understood when a neighbor of his laughed and asked him, "Your friends?" Blanca watches the fish pond outside a nondescript Chinese hotel and wine shop. Then we stop in to say hello to the shopgirls in the clothing stores on the larger street leading home. They rush out to greet and hug Blanca, who loves the full-length mirror in the men's clothing store. Then we stop at a very chic salon with a fishpond indoors, and large stepping stones leading to the salon area. We wave to the money-changing woman, the tea woman, and the fruit stand people, then the doormen, and then we are back to the play area.

Every day I wander around for a few hours; there's rarely anywhere specific to go. I've found tree-lined alleys filled with small shops each selling a single sort of merchandise. One nearest us has a canal running alongside, and old-fashioned three story apartment houses with vegetable gardens running in between. Just looking at that canal calls for a tetanus booster, and those houses have community bathrooms. It's probably some of the worst housing stock in the world, but it's a great adventure for me, if not for the inhabitants. One day I ran across a mustard-yellow Buddhist temple, all painted the same color as two of our living room walls. It was a large, pleasant complex, empty except for the monks and people working there. No tourists come because it's really not tourist-worthy; it's just a nice feature of the neighborhood.

Not only people on the street are thrilled to see us, but Zack's colleagues have been welcoming and kind, hosting banquet after banquet in our honor. Part of this is just the way China is; part is because Westerners are a rarity here. Had we been in Shanghai or Beijing, or even Xiamen, a small pretty coastal city we visited this weekend, we would have been among other Westerners and less of a curiosity. We would have seen far more sights, but have missed a lot of China.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The real reason China's destined to be a superpower:

They get their kids toilet trained by 24 months.

Yesterday we went to the river with our lovely new friend Cathy, a Chinese woman who's studying English, and her 20-month-old son (that's right, SON, notoriously harder to train than a daughter), and he was completely day trained. Blanca was wearing a pull-up for the excursion. The kids sat down to play with another little girl, just two, and her mother expressed surprise that Blanca was wearing a diaper. We hung our heads in shame.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

All who are hungry

I can tell we're adapting to life here because we're eating well.

We eat rice and noodles with some vegetables, beans, and fish. We also eat a lot of fruit. We have two electric burners and a microwave in the apartment: no oven. We don't know if Chinese don't have ovens in general or if just this apartment doesn't. With Pesach, we'll supplement our diet with matzah. The produce is excellent, bred for flavor rather than appearance and longevity, as in the US. The only drawback to that is that we need to eat what we buy within a few days. There is very little fat in a traditional Chinese diet, but we supplement with Western exports such as Oreos and Dove chocolate, as do the Chinese. I guess the Chinese also get their fat from meat, especially pork, the main meat.

Today I went to the food store at the housewives' hour, while Blanca was in school. I'm sure my bruises from being pushed and shoved by grandmothers as we fought over the apples and carrots will heal quickly. The concepts of personal space or waiting in line just don't exist here. Thank God this store doesn't have shopping carts, or I could have sustained some serious injuries. I don't really have to go to the main store, except for specialty items such as milk--dairy sections are laughably small. I could buy pretty much anything from the backs of bikes, large wheelbarrows, people carrying baskets on their shoulders, and large tricycles. There's a meat vendor at the corner of the street where Blanca's school is. He sells raw meat from his large tricycle under a tree, in the heat and humidity. Don't worry about sanitation, though; he uses his handheld scales to keep most of the flies off.

Fish are sold live. A friend of mine who hunts and I have discussed the hypocrisy of being willing to eat meat but not kill it. I am a hypocrite; I send Zack for the fish. He's working on learning to fillet it, because they don't do that for you. Zack also cuts off their heads.

I have also been sampling street vendors' and small restaurants' wares. Each one specializes in one item. For lunch I usually buy rice and vegetables with fish, eggs, or beans, from the small rice and vegetable restaurants. If I want noodles, I go to a noodle stand. For scallion pancakes, I go to the scallion pancake place. The other day my stay in China became completely worth it when I found a dumpling place with "vegetable" dumplings down a small alley. There are also fried things, sweet things, cake things, and stuffed buns. I know what very little of this is called. I just point and eat.


I love to watch the traffic from our 17th-floor apartment. It's like a carefully choreographed ballet. There are three sections: the middle one is supposedly for cars, trucks, and buses; the lane nearest the curb is ostensibly for bicycles and motorcycles; and the sidewalk is for pedestrians. In reality, things are a lot more fluid. Vehicles go where they want. Bikes and motorcycles are on the sidewalk as a matter of course (to be fair, they sometimes are entitled to HALF of it); cars drive on it occasionally. People walk in the cyclists' lane. It's amazing from above. Being out in it, however, is another matter. Nothing stops for nobody; everyone and everything just keeps moving. Cyclists don't always stop for red lights. All vehicles can turn right anytime, with no stopping. When I'm out walking, I can't flinch and freeze if a bus seems to be heading straight for me. I try to remember that if I just keep going, that bus will miss me by a centimeter, as the driver has carefully calibrated. Our intricate dance would look beautiful from the 17th floor.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Living large

When we were packing to come here, I suspected we were taking as much stuff for our six-week-stay as Chinese families use in a year. Now that we're here, I'm sure of it. The man who arranged Zack's job and met us on arrival was politely shocked at our two large suitcases, one large duffel bag, and four carry-ons. Of course, those did include 100 diapers, 5 pounds of matzah, and 3 bottles of wine.

We have a two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of a modern high-rise in central Fuzhou. The view would be spectacular if not for the grey-white haze that hangs over everything. It's a nice building by most standards and positively luxurious by Chinese standards. Most Chinese live in horribly ugly six-story cement walk-ups. We have about 800-900 square feet, perfectly adequate by New York terms for a family of three, or even four. I suspect this is enough space for a Chinese family of six: grandparents, parents, and two kids (the one-child policy has eased somewhat and was probably never strictly one child in this provincial city the way it was in Beijing or Shanghai). We have 24-hour hot water (that's a big deal), a small refrigerator, and a washer. There are two balconies, one for general use and one for laundry. There are no dryers, so that's where the laundry hangs, though it takes a long time to dry due to the humid subtropical climate. This luxury building comes complete with a built-in washboard in the laundry sink. The washer holds about three days' worth of laundry and there's just about enough space to dry that much. The refrigerator probably holds about the same amount of food. So we have to do laundry and shop for food every three days at most.

Given the limited facilities for taking care of our stuff, we did in fact bring too much. We in the US own too much. We eat too much. We use too much. There is one little garbage can in this apartment. One. In the kitchen. Probably for foodstuffs. We are probably the highest garbage-generating unit in the building, and that with the fewest people. There are towels for washing dishes and wiping the table rather than throw-away sponges. Kids are toilet trained earlier because disposable diapers just aren't as widely available or inexpensive. People use handkerchiefs, not tissues.

Of course, China's getting rich off the West's appetite for stuff. Many of our toys, clothes, furniture, computer parts, autos, books (yes, I'm part of creating that superabundance--I don't know how to reconcile it, either), and on and on are produced here. Today Blanca and I rode a bus past the Fujian Color Printing Plant; they work on a lot of full-color Western books. A Honda plant was on our way to the mountain we climbed a week ago.

When I leave China--when I finish any long-term trip--I'll toss half the clothes I brought. (I don't know whether clothes get extra-worn and grubby travelling or whether it's because I bring worn clothes to start with--also, I need grubby clothes for childcare.) I don't even need to replace them. I have more pajamas, more sweaters, more t-shirts. My two-year-old already has enough dolls and stuffed toys for a lifetime.

Long-term travel is what taught me I needed less stuff (not living in Manhattan, though that helped). It's not environmental; it's aesthetic. If most of the world can live with so much less stuff and if I can live with the contents of a duffel bag for months on end, then I don't want to be weighed down with all that excess baggage in my daily life.

Learning Chinese

I was woken in the middle of the night last night by someone yelling "Jiu ming!" or "Help!" on the street. For a moment, I was pretty proud of myself for understanding until I realized that this was not a language tape and someone actually did need help. Fortunately, a police car pulled up, and I guess they spoke more Chinese than I do and were able to help.