Monday, October 29, 2012

Richard, What's Happening?

Last Lunar New Year Dawna took a trip to Kenya. She flew first to Ethiopia and had an early-morning layover there. At 5:30 in the morning, in Ethiopia’s airport, with her headphones jammed in her ears and her eyes concentrating half-heartedly on the laptop screen in front of her, she sat there, unshowered, weary, waiting for her connecting flight to Nairobi.

As Dawna sat there, a tall African man came and sat down next to her. She ignored him, because of all the aforementioned reasons and then some. He stared at her. The burn of his stare bit into her cheek, and finally Dawna removed one headphone, held it a few inches away from her ear, looked at the large African man, and said, “Yes?” The man introduced himself and struck up conversation. Thinking that this was just a typical, casual airport conversation, similar to the ones we’ve all had, Dawna sighed (inwardly) and obliged to answering the question put forth by the large African man – a man we’ll call Richard. Because that was his name.

Richard asked Dawna about her name, her occupation, her origin, her current place of residence, her faith. Her life. Thinking that this was just a typical, casual airport conversation, Dawna answered the questions truthfully, including the question about what her e-mail address and Beijing phone number were. Who calls China from Africa? It couldn’t hurt. After each question, Dawna would re-jam the earphone back into her ear, where it belonged. But the questions kept coming.

Eventually, Richard realized his flight was leaving soon and returned to the group of friends he’d left to come talk to Dawna, the same group of friends that had stood watching the entire conversation between the two. They left, though not before Dawner had received one smooch and had also been promised the life of a princess in Nigeria.  However, leave they did, and Dawna reinserted the headphones back into her noggin and, sighing again (outwardly), resumed whatever she’d been working on before Richard had approached her.

But suddenly, an hour later, Dawna felt the earth tremble, and when she looked up, there stood Richard! He looked like he’d just won a million dollars. “My flight’s been delayed!” he cried out happily. “And, I’ve been watching you through the window for the past hour.” The headphones came back out of the ears. Conversation resumed.

Then it was Dawna’s turn to say, “Richard, my flight…it’s leaving. So am I.” Richard insisted on walking Dawna to her gate. They arrived there and Dawna got in line to check in. Suddenly, Richard got down on one knee. He thrust his hand into his pocket; it emerged with a ring. “Dawna! Marry me! Come with me to my village in Nigeria! I am a wealthy, powerful man there! It is God’s will!” bellowed Richard confidently.

It was at this point that Dawna had had enough. She politely declined the offer of a new life with this man whom she’d met a mere two hours before, despite his promises of earthly love and divine blessing. Richard could hardly bear it. Tears flowed down his cheeks, right there in front of God and everybody. Dawna was apologetic but resolute. She continued on, past the ticket lady and into that section behind the glass. She cast one last look back. There was Richard, nosed schmooshed against the pane, watching her.

Having narrowly avoided marriage at age twenty-three that day, Dawna went on to Kenya and had a delightful time in Nairobi. She volunteered at a school, caught up with a high school friend, and just generally rocked the house. After an excellent two-week stint in Kenya, Dawna flew back to Beijing and got all set to begin the second semester at her school. She felt great, she felt the high of a great experience, and she felt free and unfettered by African callers.

Until the assault of texts, calls, and e-mails began. It began with a text that read something like this: “I want you, I need you, oh, baby.” Yes, perhaps those words are but a poor paraphrase, but, behold! Real, live excerpts from an e-mail Richard sent Dawna, containing an unending parade of actual heart-rending lines. If you are not ready to swoon, prepare yourself. The e-mail's contents: “the fairest of ten thousand,” “my bright morning star,” “the only eyes I use in seeing,” “the angel of my life,” and “the breath of my life.” And then, of course, the calls began. Multiple calls, in the middle of the night, the ones that come in bursts and are impossible to ignore and make you think, “Well, it’s probably just him again, but…yeah, just him…no one else would call at this time…only him…unless…what if something happened at home? No, no. It’s just him…rrr…what if it’s someone from home?” The kind that wear at you and bother and fester until you go crazy and pull out hair with chunks of flesh still attached to the roots and bite at your own arm meat.

Not all of these things happened to Dawna. She did answer the first call, early early early in the morning, only to hear a thick Nigerian accent begin praising her unending beauty and prophesying the truth of God’s promise for her marriage to…him. Only one call did she ever take, after which she named the number “Answer and Die!!!” in her phone. Many times did I beg her to let me answer it, to threaten Richard (you know, with my big, manly arms) or speak in Chinese to him (you know, in my flawless, accent-free 普通话) or to tell him I was Dawna’s new boyfriend (you know, since I have many years of experience being a boyfriend to people), but only once did she let me answer. It wasn’t Richard’s number; it was an unknown one, and when I answered and exercised option #2, I was met with a less-than-amused father telling me, “I’d like to speak to my daughter, please.” Close call.

Anyway, the calls and texts continued from February into March, and then into April and June, and then finally…they stopped. Because Dawna went to the United States for a month. Perhaps the calls didn’t stop; perhaps Richard continued calling her phone for many a sleepless night, hoping to catch a hint of her voice or at least talk to one of the Chinese government surveillance dudes who listens to calls for buzzwords so he can cut the call off and trace it to a home to which he can send a local re-education police team in Beijing. At any rate, when Dawna returned to China after her summer vacation (and her sick trip to Jeju-do), Richard’s reign of terror on Dawna’s mobile appeared to have ceased.

There was a brief flare up in September, but Dawna took care of that in a flash; one morning a few weeks after Richard started calling again – via a new number – I got a text one morning that read: “Guess who won’t be getting calls from Africa anymore” (this is verbatim because I still have it in my phone and am looking at it right now).

What has Dawna learned from this? What can we all learn from this? That it’s wise to not give your contact info out to verbally aggressive men? That it’s best to wear a fake wedding ring during visits to Africa? That love is just around the corner? That long distance relationships aren’t worth it, all things considered? As with any epic, true tale that promises to live on throughout the centuries, there are many valuable lessons to be learned here, but I think we can all agree on one thing after hearing or reading this tale: Dawna is hot, and men want her. What we (and she) do with that information will likely vary from case to case, but every lesson learned is valuable, and certainly this instance is no exception.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Day in the Life of a BWYA Teacher

Recently, at my school, a student asked me if I would help her with a video she needed to create for the school's online TV program. All I needed to do was take hundreds of pictures of myself on a Friday and capture my daily life. I did this; then she made the video above. Other necessary information:
a) Neither the student girl nor I have, obviously, any rights to the song in the video.
b) This video is so far beyond what I could ever do as far as video editing, and it was done by an eighth grader.
c) If you can't get the video to load, you are not close enough to China, so get up and move your laptop a little bit further west, or east, or north, or whichever way brings you nearer to Beijing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cha Qingdao

Preface: China's National Holiday (October 1st) and Mid-Autumn Festival (September 30, or the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, or when the Twins clinch last place in the AL Central) caused most of the People's Republic of China to be stuck with a vacation between September 30 and October 7, so I left Beijing and went to two cities: Dalian and Qingdao. This post about Qingdao and the previous one about Dalian are monotonous narratives of trips into major metropolitan areas east of Beijing. 

After leaving Dalian on the night of Monday, October 1, the actual day of National Holiday in China, my trip continued as my plane crashed down violently into Qingdao, a city on another peninsula south of Dalian, southeast of Beijing, and far west of Rock Rapids, at around 11:15 p.m. As I exited the terminal, I made my second seemingly-unwise decision of the trip, hopping in with an illegal taxi driver who took me from the airport to a dark, shady spot of some road and! And promptly dropped me off with a legitimate, licensed driver. I wonder what his cut was. The real taxi driver checked the address of my hostel, called someone to ask where Dago Road was, and kind of promptly took me there, into the heart of Qingdao.

Qingdao is full of some five million people. It is on this peninsula that sticks out into the Yellow Sea. The sea is yellow because an ancient emperor once made a decree that everyone must use this sea as a urinal. I know this is a juvenile fact, but it's true. "Qing" is the sound you make when you get a lot of money, as in "Cha qing!" and "dao" means island, so, literally translated, "Qingdao" means "green island." Never mind the fact that the biggest bill here is red and that the city isn't actually on an island. Based on hearsay, Qingdao is most known for its brewery, the one that makes Tsing Tao beer, and its German architecture, left over, not surprisingly, from the Germans, who occupied it from 1897 to 1914 or so, and then left. On a related note, perhaps, Qingdao was recently named China's most livable city.

The hostel I had booked was one of the only quality ones in Qingdao, according to I had actually been planning on staying with a couch surfer on Monday night, the night that I arrived, and then I had booked three beds at Mancheng Hostel for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday because Ramon and Nallely had originally been planning on meeting me in Qingdao. But! Ramon and Nallely could not get tickets, so they were not coming to Qingdao, and the couch surfer who said he could host me Monday also bailed on me. So I'd e-mailed Mancheng and requested the cancelation of two of the beds and the addition of one for Monday night. When I arrived, they'd lost track of what was going on with me, as you probably have by now after reading this paragraph, and I ended up sleeping in Mancheng's staff room.

Day 1 in Qingdao, a Tuesday, consisted of as much walking around as Day 1 in Dalian had. That meant nonstop, blister-inducing, fat-burning, and back-disconjointing stretches of moseying around, looking at stuff. I immediately sensed Qingdao was going to be more happening and more interactive than Dalian; within ten minutes of leaving the safety of the hostel, I'd been greeted by multiple Chinese people and talked to some college kids who were traveling. Hurrah! I then ran into St. Michael's Catholic Church, which is a tourist attraction of sorts.

Got my pictures taken and moved on to Qingdao Bay. It seemed to throb with the steady buzz of people on vacation, taking pictures, selling things, and checking out the beach.

I ended up walking east and going into Little Qingdao Lighthouse Park, which is a lighthouse (what?) that overlooks the aforementioned Qingdao Bay. It was pretty peaceful, despite having plenty of people roaming all over it. I would have loved to have packed a lunch, or a breakfast, or something, and eaten out there, but! The need to see everything else - and the fact that I'd come with nothing to munch on - beckoned me onward.

Onward to Luxun Park, which was more park/coast/rocks/shoreline. Another place that'd be fine for chillin', so I grabbed some barbecued...squid? And some sort of ray, maybe? I don't know exactly what it was that I ate, but it was good and it was lathered in delectable sauce, so I sat in the sun and ate those dead sea animals and looked at Huiquan Bay, which Luxun Park overlooks.

Then I saw another aquarium opportunity. Now, remember, if you are drinking and reading at home (what other circumstances could bring you to this blog?), you are drinking whenever somewhere is completely crowded by National Holiday takers. Take about fifty shots here. Underwater World was abysmally crammed with people, both the old and the young, and all of them with cameras, and sometimes with loud voices. No joke, I thought I was going to punch someone in the face.

But I didn't. I couldn't. I was distracted by the fact that the first half of Underwater World had been misnamed! It should have been called Underwater Cemetery, because all the sea creatures on display were in jars. It looked like a science lab.

And it got worse after Pierre Aronnax's insane experiment asylum; I came into the Underwater High School Theater Production Closet, where fake animals could be viewed. Fake animals that were falling apart and wouldn't fool anyone.

But then it got better. There were a bunch of real animals in tanks. Some sharks, some fish, another moving walkway. Still crowded, but more enjoyable. It was no Sun Asia Ocean World, I mean, but it was worth seeing. Just so you know, the first picture here is a picture of a shark tank.

Finally, I pulled out of there, out of the dark, and leaped into the light of day. The next natural stop on my coastline journey eastward was No. 1 Bathing Beach. There are six such bathing beaches in Qingdao; I don't know if this one was the first one or the best one. It was just a huge, long beach with huge, long crowds. Pretty typical. An awful proportion of older, Speedo-clad men to young, scantily-clad vixens, but who goes to the beach hoping for something other than that, right?

I walked the length of the beach and then out to where the tidal pools and the sidebar were. I went out to the sandbar and looked back at the beach, and then I realized the tide was coming in, so I hustled back through the rising waters and cut my foot and went to sit off by the side and noticed some kid watching me and my gored foot and a few minutes later she - at her parents' prompting, obviously - brought over some cotton alcohol swabs. I laughed; it was super cute. Nice people.

Finally! I broke away from the coast and headed north into the city, through Huiquan Square (what is it with these cities and their squares?) into Zhongshan Park, which is huge and beautiful and has a big TV tower within. Obviously this was my destination, but I did take in a bit of the square and the park in the meantime.

The tower! It was alright. The climb up reminded me a lot of Namsan Tower. The observation deck reminded me of a science and technology museum, which made me wonder, "What did people come up here for?" Of course, the view was alright. A bit smoggy. But nice enough.

There was a haunted house. Do not ask me why.

I got a chocolate shake and watched the sun...not set, really, but go down into its blanket of pollution. I sat there and wrote down some thoughts and looked at the sun disappearing until it was gone. And then I left.

And I wondered around forever. I walked and walked, down the hill, onto some overpass, up the wrong street, through an intense night market, and finally I hopped onto Bus 25 and got dropped right where I wanted to get dropped near my hostel. Before calling it a night, I walked out to Huilan Pavilion, which is just this pagoda plopped in the middle of Qingdao Bay. Again, immensely crowded with tourists and vendors and me. But not bad.

Thus ended Day 1 in Qingdao. As Day 2 began, I vowed to get out of the city and away from these dang people. My plan to get away from them involved, as all good plans do, a huge jam packed with Chinese hikers. My goal was this beach called Shi (stone) Lao Ren (old dude), but the bus I took was bound for Lao Shan, an even more popular hiking destination that I dared to attempt the next day. At any rate, I was crammed senselessly onto Bus 304 and couldn't breathe and missed the Shi Laoren Tan stop and had to get off later and double back (if you are playing the drinking game, you should be blacking out about now), but eventually I made it to Old Man Stone. There were plenty of people there amid the rocks that the tide had left out; some were tourists taking pictures or exploring, and others were people collected what would soon become seafood. Interesting mix. This was going on almost everywhere I went, it seemed.

Anyway I perused around the rock area for a while and then headed back to the actual beach area, which I reached by taking a bus one stop and then walking the distance of three bus stops (don't ask). Shi Laoren Tan was even bigger than No. 1 Bathing Beach, possibly with as many people but with more area over which to spread out. It was relaxing; I grabbed some food, had lunch, and took a little nappy nap. Just one.

Eventually I left there and got onto another bus, the 317, this time bound for May 4th Square. This place was my favorite spot in Qingdao, I think. Everyone seemed to be having a real good time, lots of laughing, lots of smiles, lots of kites flying and photographs snapping. One of the front desk girls at the hostel told me that once, some foreigner got super drunk (unfathomable) and climbed the big red thing at night; the police were everywhere, as was this dude's picture in the papers. Hmm.

I walked down east to the sailing center thing; it did not match up to the square.

Then I walked back, smiled at that big red thing again, and walked the other direction to Music Square, which also did not compare to the big red thing.

By this time, I couldn't tell if my legs were still attached to my body without looking down and checking, which looked stupid, me always checking on my legs, so I headed back to the hostel. Once there, I coerced one of the staff members to come eat with me, since I had eaten every meal in Qingdao by myself thus far. We went and ate mounds of seafood...shrimp, shellfish, potatoes; some dudes next to us even gave us a crab he didn't want. Win.

Day 3. This was a day on which I figured I was actively making yet another inadvisable choice. I'd seen the crowds all over Qingdao; I knew what they were capable of. And it terrified me. Yet, I still chose to get up - quite early - and head to Lao Shan, this small mountain forty kilometers east of Q-Town. The crowd that had smashed me in the bus had been heading there. The very thought still makes me cringe.

I got up at 6 and, after having to wake up the sleeping front desk chick to let me out of the hostel's locked doors, hopped onto the 304 bus. This time I got a seat, and the bus never even really got crowded. In an hour and a half we'd reached the entrance to the Lao Shan scenic area complex thingy. It was basically this big area of mountainous, rocky hills that was accessed by tour buses. There were six or so stops on the tour bus route; you'd get dropped off at one and then eventually find your way back onto another. The whole route thing was frustrating to me. In my mind, getting dropped off at point A and then climbing to point B and taking the bus from there to another stop, maybe Point C, further on made a lot of sense, and that was how it was set up between some stops. Between others, you just got out and walked around and then got back on the bus, which wasn't so bad, but at the first stop, I got out and walked through awesome hills for two hours, but when I reached the end and got to the bus stop, the bus took me right back to where I'd came from. In hindsight, thinking about it from the safety of my warm apartment, I probably just read (by "read" I mean "tried to remember which Chinese characters I'd seen before and which looked unfamiliar") the signs wrong. Who knows.

At any rate, the scenery was gorgeous. After the first dropoff, I got out and did the most climbing I did all day. It was all stairs, and it was never really very difficult, nor was there ever a definitive peak. I enjoyed going up and was dismayed by how quickly I found myself descending.

I reached a bus stop. I got on the [wrong] bus. The bus took me back to where I'd started. I immediately got in line for another bus, which took me...halfway up the hill I'd just climbed. Then I waited in line for an hour, perhaps with people who all found themselves in a similar situation.

Eventually the line ended in buses that took us to a temple up in the mountain. It was cool enough. I'd meditate there.

And then that was it. The bus exited the sight-seeing complex and dumped all its passengers off, and there we were on the side of the road. It was about 2 p.m., and I was okay with heading back to Qingdao - which I figured would be an adventure anyway - because surely the roads would be swarming with similarly-minded tourists. The bus I thought I wanted took at least a half-hour to come, and then after everyone boarded it sat waiting for another fifteen minutes, and then it road slowly for an hour back to Qingdao, and then I got off it to get onto a bus that would take me closer to my hostel, and then once I boarded that bus I sat for about forty-five minutes, and then I reached where I'd started the day, and I sat and watched sun sink down into its smoggy blanket once again.

By this time I felt that I had exhausted my list of ideas about what to do in Qingdao, so after a shower and a nap at the hostel, I went and ate one last seafood meal by myself. I can't actually say I ate alone, since some cat who, after receiving two pieces of shrimp head that I gave it, warmed up to me immediately. And then some old ladies started making fun of me/us. So it was not so lonely. Me. The shrimp heads. The cat. The old ladies. Mmm.

My last hours in Qingdao were spent wandering around the calm westernmost end of the peninsula on which the city is situated, looking at the sea and at the old people doing their old people things, like dancing and kickin' the hack around and singing karaoke. All day I'd been sick of the crowds, sick of the things that everyone seemed to be inconsiderately doing, but walking around in the quiet that last night, I realized it was all fine.

Then the next morning I flew back to Beijing. The end.

Qingdao was a lot more stimulating than Dalian. There were way, way, way, way more people in Qingdao (take one more shot), perhaps because it is a more tourist-friendly city, or because of its reputation, or something. It seemed like I walked aimlessly around Dalian and was left alone there, while every time I went somewhere in Qingdao, I interacted with some person in some way, whether it was getting smashed by an elbow or greeted by some university students or engaged in conversation by the other hostel dwellers. Maybe it was because there were, in fact, way more people visiting Qingdao.

I saw a lot of the city and the surrounding area, but I feel like there was more that I didn't see. I didn't get into the historical side of the metropolis much, like the German occupation or the impact on the culture (by this I mean the presence of China's most famous brew, Tsing Tao beer, of course). Maybe if Ramon and Nallely care to head there, I'd go back with them.

Weirdly, though I spent most of  those six days in Dalian and Qingdao wandering around quietly by myself or with Your Memorial, Josh Garrels, and Talib Kweli on my iShuffle, the things I have found myself reporting to friends in Beijing have all been related to the folks I met. The couch surfers, the girl who helped me get the hotel in Dalian, the multiple people who forced me to engage in Chinese conversation with them; those were the things that were interesting and memorable. The stuff I saw...was fine. But, again, there was no one to share it with, no human element to most of the experience except my own presence there. I don't think I like that very much.

On the other hand, I had lots of time to think. I thought about what I'd like my life to look like in the near future (and didn't come to any concrete conclusions) and in the far future (and didn't come to any concrete conclusions) and then about how the expectations I did have fit or did not fit in God's plan of what will be best for me (came to lots of conclusions here). I thought about these things in that order. It was a good sequence of thoughts, I guess.

Thus ended the traveling, for a time. School and normal life leer their ugly heads again, and on things go.