Adventures Abroad: Thanksgiving

Adventures Abroad: Thanksgiving

It is officially post-NaNoWriMo for me. Although if you’re still writing, Keep Going! You’ve got five or six days left, depending on where you are in the world.

Today is also Thanksgiving for me, which kind of snuck up on me since it’s a purely US holiday and no one here knows what it is. Currently, I’m no more home wistful than I was a week ago, which will probably change tomorrow when I see everyone posting about their meals—I really like my mom’s mac n’ cheese recipe—and the parade and football. But since I’m not inundated with delicious pictures of food and snarky parade comments I’m feeling pretty good. My mind keeps flashing back to a Black Veil Brides interview where the band is asked if they miss their families while touring during the holidays. Ashley Purdy kind of shrugs and says they miss them a little, but they’d all grown up doing holidays with families and while they might miss home sometimes, what they were doing was fresh, new, and exciting.

And I can’t agree more. No matter how much this school irritates me with their total lack of organization and qualified managing personnel, this is still an adventure! I was reminded of that last night when I went to the big supermarket before—the Gods’ cursed—English Corner. I am making a new dish to celebrate Thanksgiving and needed to find some ingredients not at the small market down the street.

Turns out, in the three or four weeks since I’d last been to the supermarket they have done a massive remodel. The top floor is now nothing but winter clothes with the walls stacked with heavy jackets and giant bins of leggings and slippers and I don’t even know what else in the middle of the floor. All the household supplies that were upstairs are now downstairs and the downstairs has been radically reorganized. It took me ten minutes to find the milk and since I was on a time crunch I went over to the produce section and picked up what I needed there and abandoned the rest of my list. But now it’s like the first week I was here. I have no idea where anything is and they’ve both reduced the number of available goods and added new things I hadn’t seen before.

According to one of the Chinese teachers, Xi’an got their first snow yesterday and it was a pretty good dusting. At some point this mountain city is also going to get snow and I can decide if I want to tackle Satan’s Stairmaster and climb Feng Huang Shan to get some pretty panoramic pictures.

Even now, ten months into this contract, I still catch myself walking down the street and thinking Holy Shit, I’m in China. Again, the sheer inefficiency of this school makes me want to punch things, but I’m still in freaking China surrounded by mountains.

And last month I was invited to a wedding. That was a lot of fun. Everyone wanted a compare/contrast with US weddings, but the last one I went to was my dad’s rather non-traditional marriage. But I could still pick out the things we have in common such as bringing gifts of money and the reception. That’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity right there. But it was a lot of fun and I got to try even more traditional Chinese food.

The food is still an adventure. I could 100% do a Travel Channel show where I visit different countries and scope out the best hostels and cheap street food. I love street food, even if it occasionally tries to kill me. Restaurants just can’t compare. I’ve been informed that now that it’s cold, sheep’s feet is available and so I have to try that. Thus far I’ve had chicken feet, pig feet, and donkey. I’ve also had roasted chestnuts for the first time in my life. Holy hells you guys. These things are delicious. That 10 RMB bag has become a weekly expense. I’m like a squirrel here cracking those things open and watching the Daily Show. I hope it’s a winter thing because I might just weep if they disappear before Christmas. I haven’t yet mustered the courage for stinky tofu, but I told the Chinese teachers I had to try it before I left or I couldn’t count this as a true China experience.

So the adventure in China continues and I am thankful today for the many small things that got me to this point. From the speaker in my Anthro 101 course to the chance conversation at the pumpkin patch all the way to stumbling into Language Corps. The road to get here wasn’t easy and sometimes the adventure itself is a trial, but it’s still an awesome experience and next year at the family gatherings I’ll finally have something to talk about.

vaderthanks

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A Tale of Two Cities

Hey-oh! I got back from Kyoto, Japan…Wednesday. Well I got back to China Wednesday night, I didn’t get back to Yan’an until Thursday afternoon. A story for another time. Suffice to say I was very irritable by the time I got back to my apartment.

This is something I thought about writing while I was in Japan, but I put it off uncertain if it was finally being in my dream country that had my opinion skewed. And I almost wrote it yesterday, but again, I was less than pleased with the previous twenty-four hours and running on four hours of sleep. But now I’m back at my apartment and rested and the feeling is still there.

 

I don’t like China.

Or perhaps I should say I don’t like modern China. Historically, China is on par with Egypt with how many ancient and incredible things are scattered across this landscape. The Great Wall is always the first thing that comes to mind, but throw a dart at any city or town in this country and I guarantee you’ll find at least one building in that town that was built five hundred years ago. And maybe I threw the dart at the wrong town but where I am now, I don’t like China.

I realized it the first night I was in Kyoto. I realized how stressed and anxiety riddled I’ve been for the last couple of months because suddenly it was all gone. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my damndest.

I am a classic introvert. I prefer doing my own thing with minimal interaction with others. It’s probably why solo travel has never seemed so daunting for me. I am a background character. I do not like the spotlight. I don’t like undue attention. I’d rather just go about my day with no one the wiser. Sure, for some that’s their own version of hell, but for me it works.

I am not a background character here. Here, I am center stage. I am the headlining actress at the biggest show you can think of. Everyone watches me. I cannot walk down the street without people watching me go by. Some people will pause mid-step or mid-conversation and stare at me. And I knew coming in that I was going to be under an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny being a foreigner here, but I had assumed after a couple months people would become accustomed to my presence and I’d fade back into the background.

This is not the case.

Sitting on the bus yesterday on my way back to my apartment I sat in the back and had three people turn in their seats to stare at me. The school kids that got onboard clustered—what they consider—a “safe” distance from the foreigner and stared and pointed.

If you want a day in my life here, grab a Sharpie and write “Fuck You” across your forehead and go about your daily business. Watch people stare or cross the street or come up right in your face to look you over.

I’ve had people follow me in stores and on the streets. It was amusing back in March when the people at the supermarket wanted to take a selfie with me. But it’s October. I had a lady almost faceplant while she ran to catch up to me so she could snap a quick picture. I don’t take the elevator at my school unless I’m late because it never fails that all the people who squeeze on with me will stare or take pictures.

I feel like an escaped zoo animal.

I’ve also had people grab me. I had an old man try to pull my bandana off my head while I was eating lunch at Phoenix Square. I’ve had people touch my hair, touch my skin, tug on my clothes. Mothers sometimes send their children over to hug me. Fuck no. Get away from me. I stopped eating lunch in Phoenix Square during my lunch break because no matter where I go there is always someone who follows, someone who wants their kid to come up and say Hi and repeat whatever sentence they’ve learned in school.

I learned the word for “I don’t know what you’re saying” in Chinese and tried that for a while but that doesn’t stop them from trying to talk to me. Trying to take pictures, trying to touch me. So now I answer in German and leave before they figure out what I said wasn’t quite English.

I don’t go outside anymore. I realized that the first day I was in Kyoto. I was up and out of the hostel by 8am and wandering up and down the streets and snapping pictures of things. I used to do that here. But I don’t anymore. I don’t know when I stopped doing it. I’ve been trying to remember but it wasn’t a conscious decision. At some point the stress of going outside and dealing with the stares and the touching and the unrelenting attention outweighed my curiosity about this place. I don’t leave unless I have to for that bullshit English Corner or meetings or class. And even then I dread going out the door.

It wasn’t like that in Kyoto. I walked over a hundred miles in the nine days I was there and never once did I feel like every person on the street was staring at me. I felt like a person again. I faded straight back into the background and took so many pictures and saw beautiful shrines and temples and enjoyed them at my own pace without someone shadowing me or schoolkids staring or people trying to touch me. In fact, the only time anyone touched me was on a crowded bus, and even then they said Excuse Me as they squeezed by.

Even in the small town I went to in search of ninjas I didn’t have that pervasive feeling of people staring.

And I walked around Kyoto at night. I never leave this apartment after sunset. Last time I did that I had a group of guys follow me halfway back. But in Kyoto I walked down quiet side streets to get to my hostel and had men and women pass me without a second glance both walking and on bikes. This is really hard to explain, but ladies I know you know that feeling of hypervigilance you get when you’re on a quiet street alone. I didn’t feel that. I wasn’t walking around with my headphones on or waving my passport and cash around, but I didn’t feel like I had to have on battle armor as I was walking. I make light of my Resting Bitch Face, but it’s a gift when you’re alone late at night. But I didn’t have to crank it up to 11. I just had my regular ‘Thinking about dinner, but my face says Fuck You’ look.

It’s not like that here in China. I never leave my apartment without my headphones and sunglasses. It can be raining cats and dogs or half an hour until sunset, doesn’t matter. My Ipod battery could be dead, but I will still have those headphones in. Every time I walk outside I go full throttle with the ‘Fuck outta my face’ look. And still people touch me, encourage their kids to come up and touch me or talk to me or follow me.

I tried to break my contract back in August during the summer break. Did I tell you all that? I can’t remember. I spent about three weeks in Ho Chi Minh with friends and wanted to move there. There was still staring, but I was insulated enough being with other foreigners that it wasn’t enough to make my hackles rise. But the notice I sent to the people at the school went unread until literally two days before classes were supposed to start and the gods-cursed sense of responsibility I have wouldn’t let me back out and leave them without a teacher.

By the second full day I was in Kyoto, I considered flying back to China, packing my bag and coming back to Japan and finding a job. Literally the only reason I didn’t is because I need the manager at the school to transfer money between my China bank account and my US account. Foreigners can hardly wipe their own asses in this country without needing to present a passport to do it. I can’t stand the constriction. The only time I had to show anyone my passport in Japan was in Immigration and checking into my hostels. That’s it. Here, I had to use my passport to buy a train ticket and then I had to show it again when they came through doing random ID checks. I’m half-surprised I don’t need to show it when I get on the goddamn bus.

This school is a flaming train wreck nothing short of a complete restructuring and mass retraining is going to fix. The only one of the Chinese teachers that actually enjoys teaching is only there once a week now since she got a better paying job at a public school. The other two are only here because they have bills to pay. They don’t like kids and they don’t like teaching. The other Foreign teacher they brought in for this semester is in the same boat. He’s taking classes at a university in Xi’an and this is just extra money in his pocket.

I signed a contract for a year, and when I couldn’t break that contract back in August I dug my claws in to bully myself through this last semester because a year of teaching experience is a year of experience. But since I got back from Kyoto those days on the calendar look longer and longer.

Strangers on the Stairs

I saw some fucked up shit today on the way home from work.

In the city, there are places where you can pass from one side of the street to the other via underground pedestrian tunnels. I use these things almost daily. Sometimes they’re crowded because they all connect to the underground wholesale store that’s underneath Phoenix Plaza. So I was taking my usual underpass and turned the corner to head up the stairs and almost smacked into a group of people milling around. This isn’t unusual. Chinese people will literally stop in the middle of the sidewalk or hallway to take a call or talk to a friend.

What caught my attention was the man on the stairs. I saw his feet first. He wasn’t wearing shoes. He was curled up so small I actually thought he was a boy and thought he was throwing a tantrum for whatever reason, again, happens all the time. But there wasn’t a parent standing over him yelling and I realized this was a full grown man. No shoes though, so perhaps one of the homeless. But that wasn’t right either because he was wearing a bright gold watch. A very nice watch. He’s rocking back and forth not making any sound. And there’s blood on the stairs.

A lot of blood.

About ten years ago my sister called me and told me her jeep had flipped into a ditch. I called 911, called my mom, got in my car and drove over to where she was before texting my dad. She and her friend had been trying to drift in the Jeep Cherokee. The smartest thing either of them did that day was put on their seatbelts or they would have been killed. The car was totaled. The top smashed almost flat, windshield busted out. It scared the everloving shit out of me, but I handled it.

I woke up one morning just a few years ago thinking my sister was getting things out of her closet to go workout. Until I got this weird Not Right feeling. I walked into her room and found her having a diabetic seizure. I called 911and stayed with her until I had to pin the dogs up for the firemen to come in and did it with so little fanfare my dad and stepmom didn’t know anything was amiss until the firemen came in and the dogs started barking. Sure, afterwards I had nightmares and insomnia for weeks and was terrified to leave her alone at night in case she went low again. And sometimes when she’s too quiet in her room I’ll knock on the wall or something to rile her dog up just so I hear her tell him to shut up. But I fucking handled it.

I cannot handle this. I cannot handle this man bleeding on the stairs. And it’s because I couldn’t help him. I know the number for Yan’an emergency services, but my Chinese is limited to conversational and grocery store vocabulary. I don’t even know what the underpass is called or what street the underpass is under. So I can call and say something close to “Man want help,” or some equivalent, but I have no actual idea of where I am. I navigate this city based on where things are relative to either the school or my apartment.

I couldn’t even give him reassurance that help was coming because who knew if any of the people there had actually bothered to call an ambulance. There was a man on his phone, but he was speaking the local dialect which has nothing in common with the standard Chinese I’ve been learning. For all I know he was on the phone with his wife telling her he just saw a man fall down the stairs. The best I could have offered was a solid, “Hello, how are you?” or “Do you need help?” both of which are fucking stupid things to say to a person bleeding from their ears.

Normally one of my Chinese teachers walks with me on Wednesday, but in a supreme twist, her fiancé got off work early and surprised her with a date. At first, I was angry she wasn’t there. At least then I could have found out if any of the vultures called an ambulance instead of gaping like fish out of water.

But I had a long walk back to the apartment to really think about it and I’m glad she wasn’t. She would not have handled this. I’m certain she has some kind of undiagnosed anxiety disorder and if that scene on the stairs didn’t make her scream she would have been in tears. So the Fates were kind to her tonight in sending her far in the opposite direction of that underpass.

But that left me to choose between standing there with the others or walking back to my apartment.

I came back to my apartment. And I am still bothered on a visceral level by my inability to help. In the States, something like this I would’ve handled. Did anyone call 911? Can someone find some towels? Did you see what happened? Do you know him? How far away is the ambulance? They’re all stupid, stupid short sentences but I can’t say them. I can fumble through and make the verbs and nouns stick together like a refrigerator poem but gods only know if they’ll understand me or of I’ll understand the answer.

They don’t clean the stairs in the underpass. So there’s a good chance that blood will still be there tomorrow.

Home Wistful

Home Wistful

Today is Mid-Autumn Festival here in China. As with most festivals and holidays around the world, this day is meant to be spent with family and close friends. The traditional food eaten today is the mooncake, and it is delightful. The mooncake is not just a delicious breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack option; it also has its share of symbolism. As my CT explained to me, it’s round to mirror the full moon’s face that goes back to the story of Mid-Autumn Festival, and as none of my CTs seem to be natural storytellers, I’ve had to piece to story together from vague mentions.

oOo

Once upon a time, there were ten suns. The suns took turns being in the sky, until one day they all rose together. It was a disaster. Crops and people caught fire, the rivers dried up, and animals died. An archer named Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one for light and warmth.

The gods were so impressed with him that they offered him a drink of immortal water. But Hou Yi had a wife, Chang’e, he loved very much and didn’t want to become an immortal without her. So he gave the water to her to hide away so they could stay together.

Hou Yi also had an apprentice who knew about the hidden immortal water. He was a greedy man and wanted to be immortal. So, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (Lunar calendar) he waited until Hou Yi was out hunting and forced his way into the home where Chang’e was working. He demanded Chang’e give him the immortal water.

Chang’e refused and instead drank it herself and then flew away. She couldn’t stay on earth anymore since she was now an immortal, but she wanted to stay close to her husband. She flew to the moon and built a palace there.

When Hou Yi returned from his hunt and found out what happened, he was heartbroken his wife had fled to the sky. So he took her favorite fruits and cakes and left them out where she could see. He also sacrificed animals for her. The others in the village soon learned what had happened to Hou Yi and Chang’e and, being sympathetic to the pair, also began leaving out fruits and cakes and sacrificing animals.

oOo

It’s a pretty cool story. China is rife with neat legends and stories like that. The problem is finding someone who will sit still long enough to tell you the story. Aside from that, Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival and those around the world are a time for families.

So of course my CTs have been asking incessantly if I’m homesick.

Well, if I am, what are you going to do about it?

I’m not, for the record. I prefer the term Home Wistful. I keep explaining to them that I talk to my parents usually once a week. Skype isn’t blocked, so we talk on Monday or Tuesday and I tell them about my classes and they tell me about work and whatever’s going on in the neighborhood.

I don’t require proximity to people. The only time I missed home was the three weeks I was in Vietnam and that was because we were all busy and didn’t get a chance to talk. Let’s be real, I miss the cats and dogs the most. I definitely need to find a traveling companion before my next big trip. A year without little paws padding behind me is unacceptable.

I do miss a few things about home, chiefly peanut butter. But we’re getting into my favorite season: Autumn. I love fall and Halloween and both of those things are not a big deal here. Sure, the kids know about Halloween, but no one goes full on haunted house, there are no skull and bat decorations, no costumes. No freaking pumpkins. No apple cider, which I’m pretty sure is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In Indiana, autumn has a scent. There’s a shift in the way the air smells as the leaves start coming down. There’s a bite. When you wake up and open the windows you can smell the dew on the leaf litter. It’s one of my favorite smells. There’s none of that here. There are trees. But, there’s not really any green space. No matter how early you wake up or how late you go to bed there’s always a tang of diesel in the air. I haven’t smelled grass in months. When I water my plants I pretty much stick my face in the pot just to smell that damp earth scent I didn’t realize I smelled every morning I woke up in Indiana.

I love going through pumpkin patches. I can spend hours wandering up and down the hills searching for the perfect pumpkin. But my favorite thing to do is curl up on the couch with a mug of hot cider and a Tim Burton movie while the clouds are grey and heavy with rain and the wind is too chilly even for a sweater. There’s always a cat close by, either on my feet keeping my toes warm or on my lap trying to get into my cider.

Or when I’m at my dad’s house and there’s a fire in the fireplace and the dogs and I sprawl out in front of it and watch football or a movie with pizza on the way.

Those are the things I miss. I miss the smell of autumn and I miss having a purring cat on my lap or a big farting dog next to me. People I can talk to, I talked to a friend for almost eight hours this week. I knew way back in January that fall was going to be the time I missed home the most, but being halfway through September and not seeing even a pumpkin window cling I think I might miss it more than I thought I would. So I wouldn’t say I’m sick with missing things, but wistful for my own little autumn traditions.

And peanut butter, dammit.

Adventures Abroad: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Well, well, well. Long time no see. I think. I don’t know. Time lost all meaning for me about July 16th.

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam right now at a delightful hostel called the Skygon. I’ve been here just shy of a week and I am having an absolute blast.

Wait, what? Where did Vietnam come from?

Really, it surprised the hell out of me, too.

So August 1st, I finally was done with classes and sacked out on the couch with snacks and a week’s worth of Daily Shows to catch up on and a second viewing of Zootopia in my immediate future. I had zero plans for that day and the next day and the day after that and after that and so on and so forth. The only blip in this sea of nothingness was an expected visit from a friend who’s been living in Cambodia. And that was almost two weeks away. After that though, I was scheduled to go on a trip with the school to Qingdao. Initially, I’d been told my friend could come with me, so I was really excited about the trip. Then they reneged on that and said they couldn’t bring and unknown foreigner on a school trip. All right, I’ll grudgingly give you that. But I was significantly less excited about spending an regimented ‘vacation’ with my school knowing I would be on a shorter leash than I’ve had so far. And that shit has been short. And it would also cut my friend’s visiting time almost in half.

August 2nd rolled around and I had watched The Daily Show and Zootopia and I was looking around for something else to do when my friend posted a picture of himself at a little outdoor café in Ho Chi Minh City. And I don’t know what happened but, much like my decision to come to China, I thought, ‘Hey, flights to Vietnam are pretty cheap, why don’t I just meet up with him there and we can come back to China together.’

So I messaged him and everyone else down here making sure it was okay that I just fucking drop in like a paratrooper in the middle of their lives and it was. So by Wednesday, August 3rd, I had my plane ticket for a departure time on Friday. My school pretty well wigged out when I told them I was leaving for Vietnam in two days but not much they could do about it.

Friday morning, I woke up at 0300 for no goddamn reason and just decided to stay awake. I had a train leaving at 0700 to get to Xi’an which is about a three and half to four hour train ride and then from there I would have to catch the airport shuttle which would take about an hour and then my initial flight from Xi’an to Hong Kong left at 1550. And then from Hong Kong my flight to Ho Chi Minh City didn’t leave until 2200. Pretty straight forward.

Train left the station no problem. But we stopped on the tracks twice. For about twenty minutes each. We didn’t pull into Xi’an until 1215. The airport shuttle bus leaves every half hour. And of course it’s only like a ten minute walk from the station if you know where it is. Thank the gods for Tuk Tuk drivers, man. One of them gave me directions and then rode down the street next to me for two blocks until he pointed out the tiny, out of the way, im-fucking-possible-to-find-on-your-own station. I bought my ticket and slid into one of the last seats at 1232.

The bus didn’t leave until almost 1300.

Traffic was light, well, light for Xi’an, so the bus actually managed to make good time. That and the man drove like he was possessed, which, not complaining. We made it to the airport just shy of 1400 and I realized as I was walking in, I had no idea which airline I was flying on.

See, to get my ticket, I wanted to use my China bank account because my US funds are, LOL. But the only sites I could use for my China account were, of course, in Chinese. So my manager is the one who actually bought my ticket and then she sent me a screenshot of all relevant information, which was in Chinese.

So I asked the two guys at the door who are in charge of checking for bombs in luggage if they could get me to the right check-in counter and they pointed me with confidence to H. I walk up to the lady at H to verify that this is the check-in counter I need. Nope. She points me to G. So I scurry around to G and ask a lady there. She shakes her head and points me back to H. So I go around again to H and find a different airline counter and ask the lady there. Nope. She points me back to G. So I go to the other end of the Gs and finally fucking find my counter.

I get through my check in no problem. But while they give me my boarding pass, they don’t let me leave the counter because they want to verify that I can actually get into Vietnam. See, the way Vietnam visas work is that you have to fill out all the paperwork beforehand and get a letter of entry and then you pick up your visa on arrival. So I used an express service for my visa since I was leaving really short notice and they lumped me in with the nine other people they had on the same flight. The airline people thought this was quite suspicious that I had all these other traveling people on my official paperwork but I was a solo traveler. So I had to wait another half hour while they verified both with Vietnamese Immigration and the company I went with that I could indeed legally enter the country upon arrival.

1445, I finally get through security—where I had to go through “extra security measures”—and settle at a small overpriced café to finally eat something. After that, I boarded the plane.

And then we sat.

There was a storm en route and traffic control had us delayed to avoid it. I had a three and a half hour window between flights in Hong Kong, which I figured would be enough time to get through all the other security that goes with connecting flights. Only bonus for the delay was that I finally got to watch Captain America: Civil War. What a damn good movie.

So we land in Hong Kong and my primary goal is to find my gate and sit in front of it until I get on that goddamn plane because Holy Fuck this fucking day, man. And the lady at the directing others who had only minutes to reach their connecting flights tells me my gate hasn’t been assigned yet.

So, yet again, I sit down for some overpriced airport food. Although, the Starbucks black current slushie was really good. And Hong Kong has some cool ass money. I was going to ask the lady for smaller bills but there was a line behind me and I refuse to be that tourist. Hong Kong airport is pretty cool too. It has charging stations for your phone at pretty much all the gates so I just plugged in to one of those and caught up on my cracked articles.

With no other issues we finally board the plane annnnnnd the entertainment system is down and won’t be working for the duration of the flight.

 

But that’s why we have Ipods.

Finally, finally I arrived in HCMC at damn near 0100 and then I proceeded to sit for an hour while they prepared my visa. So glad I’m backpacking, because if I’d had checked luggage, I’d have left that shit.

I got to Skygon just shy of 0300 and met Jay, my traveling buddy, outside. Skygon is on the 12th floor of a 22 floor building and has incredible views of the city and river. It’s the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been in and the ladies are so nice. Really, if you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, stay at the Skygon.

 

 

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

I’ve been in Vietnam eight days now. On the bottom floor of the building where the hostel is located there’s a tiny supermarket. Like the size of a gas station. They have, what Jay and I declared “The World’s Most Chill Cat” who lives in the supermarket. He’s awesome, he sleeps curled up by the ice cream cooler and doesn’t even crack an eye open when people pet him. One of the guys who runs the place picked him up one day like a sack of potatoes and put him over his shoulder and the cat didn’t twitch a whisker.

He’s freaking awesome.

But I went downstairs this morning to pick up some traveling toiletries and something was wrong. As soon as I stepped off the elevator I could hear this awful sound it was a low gravelly meow, like the sound was being piped through some kind of distortion. And there just past the door to the store was The World’s Most Chill Cat yowling and screaming that awful sound while tucked away in a small grocery basket. There was a small dog nearby so I figured, maybe World’s Most Chill Cat isn’t chill around dogs. And then the dog left. And he was still making that terrible noise. It was a noise of pain and fear. There are sounds you can hear from a block away and you know whatever is making it is in pain and scared and that’s what World’s Most Chill Cat was doing. He was scared and in pain and no one in the store really seemed to mind.

Walking up to the checkout I noticed the fur on his legs and belly was dirty and matted like he’d waded through a puddle. I tried to ask the guy what was wrong, what happened, but his English is limited to numbers and I only know three words in Vietnamese.

I can’t leave an animal in pain. So I crouched down to pet him and try to figure out if this was something I could fix. I thought at first he’d been hit by a moto and maybe had spinal damage. He couldn’t get up. It was like his front and back legs weren’t getting the same signals. He couldn’t coordinate his front legs enough to push himself up and his back legs only seemed to be able to kick. But while I tried to calm him I saw the lacerations on his front legs, the bite marks on his neck. He’d been attacked by something. Something bigger than him, and, by the looks of it, something that managed to bite his head hard enough to cause neurological damage.

I had a cat. His name was Oliver. He was my baby boy. He was terrified of everything, but when I was nearby he walked with a swagger and tried to bully the other cats. He was a dork and not the brightest crayon in the box, but he was my little boy.

I had to put Oliver down a year ago this month. He got sick. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know if I didn’t catch it fast enough to save him or if there was nothing I could have done to help him. All I know is that I noticed my fat cat was losing weight, fast. And when I took him to the vet they told me it was probably diabetes. But the shots didn’t help and the food didn’t help. And a week after that when I came home from work he was so weak he didn’t even protest when I picked him up and jumped in the car with him.

They could have done more tests. They could have given him steroids. But I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t afford to find out what was wrong with my baby boy. And he was weak and he was in pain so I did the best thing I could for him.

And I know he was probably a little scared when they gave him the shot, but he was so frail he couldn’t fight. But he tucked his head under my chin like he always did and I held him until his heart stopped.

I miss my little boy. And maybe it wasn’t for the absolute best, but it was the best I could do for him at the time. And that’s what owning a pet is. It’s doing the best for them, the best you can do, even if it kills a piece of you to do it. If that means giving them to a better home or giving them lasting peace, then that’s what you do.

But these people with The World’s Most Chill Cat, they are not taking care of him. They are not doing what’s best for him. There is no saving The World’s Most Chill Cat. The damage is too severe and human healthcare out here is iffy at best. There is no medicine or surgery out here that can save him. And if I can find the Vietnamese to ask them where to find a veterinarian, I will do right by this cat. I will do the best that I can for him, just like I did for my baby boy.

Adventures Abroad: Mountaineering!

Adventures Abroad: Mountaineering!

20160603_144940            Hey-oh! So two weeks ago, after recovering from what shall henceforth be known as Plague Death, I decided to take my—still recovering—body out for a spin. On Friday, the sun was out and the day was a perfect upper seventies with a nice breeze. Our staff meeting ended early and I had a whole afternoon to myself. So I decided I wanted to climb a mountain.

 

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This mountain.

My target: Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain). This is the mountain that has lights along its upper ridge that glow different colors at night that kind of look like the dorsal spikes of a dragon. Anyway, it’s pretty and my Chinese teachers told me it was free and gave me some vague directions to the entrance.

I almost walked past the entrance. It’s just a sweeping set of stairs with a little landscaping around them pressed right between a small side alley that leads to homes and a restaurant. I mean, there might be a sign, but I can barely read pinyin, definitely can’t read Chinese characters.

Once you get past the building though there’s more decoration like some rocks with characters on them that might be a poem, or the name of the mountain, or telling people not to litter. I don’t know. You go up a little more and the stairs become a staircase and on the railing are the zodiac animals and peonies and birds. There are a handful of ornamental trees that break up the monotony of stone, but not much. It didn’t look like it was going to be a very interesting walk because those first few levels are mostly stone and concrete.

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But once you get up to the first landing you’re already pretty high. Aside from the occasional car horn you can’t hear traffic or people. I moseyed up to the next level and found a small side path. Bingo. I took off down that like a hound on a scent. The little path was cool and shady and smelled so wonderful. You have no idea how much you miss the smell of grass and trees until you don’t smell them every morning. The one thing I miss the most about home is opening the windows and smelling dirt and grass and dew.

 

The little path brought me back around to the main staircase. If ever there was a Stairway to Heaven, it’s this damn thing. I figured the little trail I was on would get me to the top eventually. Nope! That was just a little side expedition, if you want to get to the top you need to climb the stairs.

I don’t know if you know how many stairs there are to the top of a mountain, but it’s a fuck-ton. My gods. And there are no trees. It’s just you and sun and stone and concrete and a fervent wish for an escalator.

 

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So. Many. Stairs.

I had to stop and enjoy the scenery a couple times, but I finally made it to a little oasis. There’s a small park-type thing about halfway up with benches and big shady trees and restrooms. It was nice to walk more than two steps without having to step up a stair, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t at the top. I wandered about in the maze of little paths trying to find the accursed staircase.

I stumbled out some gates and found a road with nothing and no one on it. It was really weird because where Feng Huang Shan is, I’ve walked all around this area and I’ve never come across a road that came up the mountain. Because if such a goddamn road existed I’d have taken that and not those bullshit stairs.

I was a little hesitant to explore too far because there were several signs around, but none that looked like they said Keep Out, but I can only assume that a Chinese Keep Out sign looks like a European/American one. Thankfully, a couple came down the road that didn’t look like they were on any official business so I assumed it was safe to explore that direction.

And I found it! Just beyond the curve in the road were a small parking lot and a section of a giant city wall that one of my CTs told me was there. Past the city wall is a new looking park area with beautiful rose bushes planted all over the place. The place smelled amazing. All the roses were scented and there were only a handful of people there so it was quiet enough to still hear the birds. Two of the men there were flying kites. They had these contraptions on their chests that looked like boat wheels. They were really serious about their kites. And from this park you can see the whole city. Yan’an is really cool, people. They way its built between these mountains and the river. It’s awesome. Hard to appreciate from ground level, but way up high where you can see how the streets wind and how the buildings work like Tetris, it’s amazing.

But I wasn’t done! There’s a watch tower still standing on the section of the intact wall. And of course there were stairs to get there. And after a hundred more fucking stairs, there’s a steep ramp to climb and then you’re finally at the watch tower, the highest point on the mountain.

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There were two other people up there with me but the three of us were content to stare out at the city. And just when I was thinking I could stay up there for an hour or two I heard it.

Thunder.

I had hope for probably twenty minutes that the rain would stay one mountain over where I could see it already falling. And then the sun disappeared. And the wind kicked up. And the thunder was louder.

I started heading back down. It was about five o’ clock and I still had to figure out if I wanted to make dinner or get something from a street vendor. I usually try to be in bed before ten on Friday night because Saturday night I rarely sleep more than a couple hours. So the more sleep I get before the weekend starts the better off I am.

Anyway, most of the pop up storms we’ve had have been over and done with pretty quick. I knew I was going to get wet, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it. A few sprinkles, maybe a little more, but I figured I’d be dry before I got back to my apartment since I had about an hour walk ahead of me.

Haha! No. I made it back to the staircase that would take me to the street and it was like someone turned on a faucet. I was soaked through in less than five minutes. And of course, I was on the stretch of stairs without even a flower to hide under so I just put in my headphones and trudged on thinking it would end soon enough.

When I got to the street it was still raining so hard the street looked like a river. Still a half hour walk ahead of me and I have fully come to terms with the fact that it is going to rain the whole time. So I bought some cherries from a little side shop and some cookies from my favorite bakery.

Walking into my apartment block the rain started to lesson to sprinkles and by the time I got up to my apartment and had my socks rung out the sun was out. Pretty sure I pulled a muscle when I rolled my eyes. But, I did make some tea and cobble together some leftovers and binge watch The Daily Show for a couple hours and eat cookies. So, rain and all, it was a pretty good evening.

Adventures Abroad: Team Building Day

Adventures Abroad: Team Building Day

Friday we had “Team Building” day and I will preface by saying I was not particularly looking forward to it. It’s become abundantly clear that what my fellow Chinese teachers consider fun is radically different from what I consider fun. And I had to be at the school at 8am which irritated me because I knew it would be 9am before we actually started the day. But if I was late I’d never hear the end of it. So I got there on time and proceeded to wait around for everyone else to show up. At 830 I was told I had to do a demo class.

*headdesk*

A high level demo class, so, at least an hour.

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And I knew it was going to be a special kind of day when after my demo the line manager told me she had a near religious experience while doing one of the activities. I split them into groups and told them to make a machine. Any machine, a machine that can do whatever they want, and then they had to tell the class about it. This made her think some deep thoughts apparently and she was quite moved.

But once that was over we were on our way to starting our day for real! I got to ride in the car with the other teachers while the line manager and front desk lady took the bus to meet us there. In my exploration of Yan’an I’ve mostly gone east and west and not so much north and south. So I got to see another part of the city as we drove to the countryside.

I am and always will be a country girl at heart. Cityscapes are not my thing. Give me hills and fields and birds and coyotes. So when we finally left the hustle and bustle of Yan’an behind and got into the country where the mountains and hills where bright green and there wasn’t a building in sight; bliss.

We pulled into a small town, which I’m guessing still had a population larger than my hometown, and they finally told me what exactly this team building day was going to consist of. Up to this point the only thing I knew was that I had to be at the school at 8am and we were going to the country. We are at Wanhua Mountain! This is a place I’ve mentioned before, way back when I was still researching cities. It has the largest concentration of wild tree peonies in china. And they were everywhere. Unfortunately, we were a little early for most of the blooms. Anyone who heads over there on Monday though is in for a show because those buds were just about ready to pop. There were enough open though that the air smelled fabulous. For the first time since we went to Sihanoukville I could smell trees and flowers and not diesel and people.

‘Twas glorious. The trees were cypress as well so we had the pungent peony scent with that sharp pine smell and I about swooned.

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But I couldn’t go frolicking through the hills as soon as we got there. We had to wait for Line Manager and Front Desk Lady. While we waited the other teachers picked up a quick snack, which for me would have been a complete meal. Chinese people can pack away the food y’all.

When the rest of our group arrived I was almost at sprint for the entrance when Line Manager and Front Desk Lady said they wanted to get a snack too. So I wound up getting a little biscuit/roll thing—stuffed with meat and vegetables and deep fried—from a street vendor while they sat down to cold noodles.

And then, finally, FINALLY! We were off!

I’m having fun exploring the city of Yan’an. There are a lot of small alleys and side streets hiding great food and cool things all over the place. But you put me in with trees and flowers and winding dirt paths and I cannot resist. I have to know. I have to know where it goes, what’s on the other side of that hill, and where does the path lead? So while the city has done a magnificent job of creating a wide safe stone walkway with easy to navigate stairs and handrails that winds you around the peonies about ten minutes into this hike I was gone.

I did try at first to weave between staying on the official trail and wandering off on the smaller footpaths. I really did try to stick with the group. But it seemed their goal was to get to the top of the mountain whilst mine was to enjoy the climb. I was taking pictures left and right and just reveling in hearing birdsong for the first time in months that didn’t come from birds locked up in cages.

I gave up about halfway up and set off to follow a promising path and found a big cluster of peonies in full bloom right on the edge of a drop off. What. A. View. You can’t capture these vistas on a phone, you just have to take my word that it was straight drop off the edge and those hills stretched for miles.

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My path got me to the plateau first which I thought was funny because the whole time I was off on my great adventure I could hear them telling me I was going to get left behind.

And at the top we found a whole stretch of peonies in bloom with a clear view of the hills again.

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A little further down there was a huge statue and one of my CTs told me it was Mulan.

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Holy Hells, THE Mulan? Yes! Apparently Wanhua—where the peonies are—has some kind of claim to Mulan. I don’t know how true that is since it seems when exactly and where exactly Mulan was born is a little fuzzy, but that’s what she told me. Whether it’s true or not, who cares, the statue was freaking awesome.

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At this point, only a live Phoenix landing on her shoulder could make this better.

If you don’t know, yes, it is the same Mulan from the Disney movie. She took her father’s place in the army, with a little less fumbling than the movie portrays, her father taught her warfare and how to use weapons. She was a general in the army for something like ten years and at the end of it she refused any and all rewards and instead married one of her generals and retired to her hometown. There is a myth/legend that she gave birth on the battlefield to a son, but the only one who knows if that’s true is long dead.

I was trying to think of any badass lady statues we have in the US and Liberty is all I could think of and she’s not even a real lady. She’s just an icon. We need more Mulan-esque statues.

After we took a couple pictures with the statue the rest of the group was ready to go back down the mountain. I, on the other hand, spied a small side path. I told them I’d meet them at the bottom and took off before anyone could say otherwise. The path I started on was paved and it just led to a bathroom.

But, just past that were a tiny foot path and trees and glimpses of a view that could rival what was on the other side. Boom. Gone.

If they came looking for me there wasn’t a trace to be found. I was in the bushes and ducking through trees without breaking stride. Found a steep drop half hidden by long grasses and weeds.

And I popped out not too far from where I’d gone in and I was about to head back when off to the right I spied a well word track going further up the mountain.

Well, LET’S SEE WHERE IT GOES!

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Nothing bad has ever happened from following a forest trail, right

This is what I needed. This right here. Solitude and silence with a warm breeze and the only evidence of people was the path I was walking. They’ve done a couple studies on peoples’ brains and discovered that even if you were born and raised in the city seeing natural landscapes relaxes your brain. We may have come quite a long way from Lucy, but it still puts subtle stress on our brains to constantly see manmade objects. This is why greenspaces in cities are such a big deal. People need nature. The quantities vary, but we all need to see a flower every now and then to stay sane.

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Pictured: Sanity

I’m so glad I can take a bus to Wanhua because I didn’t find the end of that trail and I want to know where it goes.

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Adventures Abroad: Yan’an

Adventures Abroad: Yan’an

I’m really—really—bad at blogging. I thought that suddenly being thrust into a whole new country and culture I would be better. I’d be one of those bloggers that puts up a new post every week with pictures.

Clearly, this is not the case.

It would seem that while I enjoy long form fiction writing, when it comes to blogging I’m a micro-blogger. But, I’ve committed myself to keeping some form of coherent recollection of this adventure so I will do my damndest to keep up with this thing.

 

The three hour train ride to Yan’an was really fun. I slept for only a few minutes at a time because the landscape had me preoccupied. Just outside of Xi’an the landscape looked pretty similar to Indiana; lots of fields and a few stray trees with farms in the distance.

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I haven’t been to the Southwest United States, so the rugged mountainous landscape coming in to Yan’an was the first time I’d seen that many shades of brown and gold. The sun was setting and it cast this pretty orange glow over these craggily peaks and the scattering of vegetation clinging to them. There were winding rivers, canyons, and small plateaus where people had crops planted.

 

As a rule, I dislike arriving in new cities at night. There’s something about not really being able to see where you are, the shut up buildings and lack of people that makes new places seem like the far side of Mars.

We arrived in Yan’an just after 7pm and the sun had already packed its bags and hightailed it behind the mountains. The other reason I don’t like arriving somewhere new at night, there’s nothing really to look at. The buildings right there by the road are lit up with streetlights and signs, but past that it’s just dark shapes you can assume are buildings or landscape. So there’s not a lot of distraction to keep me out of my head. And if there is one thing I don’t need when I touchdown somewhere new, it’s time in my head.

That reptilian part of your brain, the one that’s in charge of survival, self-preservation—what’s it called, the hindbrain?—starts to wake up and get loud. This is something new. This is something different. Something unknown. And that’s when it starts screaming. WhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudone WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!

But then there’s that middle part of your brain, the one that balances survival with reality. And the reality is that you’ve gone past a grocery store and a supermarket so you can go there in the morning and pick up supplies. The reality is you’ve done this before, just take it slow. The reality is you know in a couple months you’ll know the streets and bus routes and where to get a great meal cheap. The reality is, this isn’t scary, it’s just new.

And then there’s the small part of your brain, it’s quiet now, but in a few weeks it’ll be louder than everything else. It’s the part that sees the lights winding up the mountains and wants to know where they go. It’s the part that hears the names Pagoda Mountain and Phoenix Mountain and wants to climb them. It’s the part that hears there’s a Kung Fu school somewhere in the city and gets a thrill. It’s just a whisper in the back of your head but when the sun comes up it will get louder. It’s that little voice that pushes you out the door to explore, to find that grocery store and see what else is on the street. It’s that voice that sees the bridge and wants to know what’s on the other side.

One thing at a time. Right now you need to sit for a couple hours so the screaming ape part of your brain can calm down. But in the light things aren’t so bad. And the rational part of your brain gets you moving.

 

I’ve been here three months today and while I haven’t figured out the bus routes—the school is within walking distance—I have figured out where I can get a quick good meal and have made friends with some of the street vendors. I get discounts, people. Discounts. Sometimes the bakery I go to gives me a free cookie.

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Yan’an is built into the hills and mountains surrounding it. They have literally carved this city into these peaks and valleys. From every window in my apartment I can see a mountain. My kitchen and bedroom windows face a sheer rock face. Really, the mountain is about ten feet from my windows.

 

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Yes those are bars. Pretty sure they’re to keep the falling rocks from coming through the windows.

My apartment is becoming closer to home. It’s big, two bedrooms, which if I had my books with me would be great because then I could make a library. But alas, my Kindle is my library now. Anyway, I figured out last month that this place feels so big because there aren’t any furry feet running around. This is the first time in my life I’ve not had kitty or dog paws tapping across the floor after me.

I don’t know how people do it.

I’m at the point where I’m thinking of buying a rabbit from one of the people selling them on the street just to fill up the empty space. I haven’t yet. I’m holding out for an adorable stray kitten. And, well, if that doesn’t happen then my pets back home will have to endure endless snuggles.

Have I mentioned yet there’s a primary school in the courtyard of this apartment complex? Yeah. At 7am sharp Monday through Friday they blast this music to announce the beginning of the school day. I can hear them having their gym or recess right now. There’s a man with a microphone saying something in Chinese.

I don’t mind it. Although it recently became a stress point in my life. Now, you see, I’m a pretty private person and I’m not overly social, never have been. So China is a challenge in a lot of ways for me, because as of writing this, I am yet to see another foreigner in this city. So I get stared at a lot, which most days I can ignore, some days I get a little hostile, but fuckin’ hell, I understand why celebrities take swings at the paparazzi.

Anyway, I’ve been told—and I knew before arriving—that people are really curious because like I said, they don’t see non-Chinese people very often. A couple weeks ago I was coming home from the store during the primary school’s lunch hour and a group of five or six girls ran up to me and tried to start a conversation. Fine, I can play nice with the little kids and it was pretty funny trying to figure out what they were saying because they only know two questions in English and my Chinese is limited to pleasantries and asking where things are and identifying fruits and vegetables. So I tried to answer some of their questions for a few minutes.

Then they wanted to know where my apartment is.

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Ab-so-fuckin-lute-ly not.

Thank the gods for language barriers, I just pretended like I didn’t know what they were saying until I waved and said goodbye while pointing to my bag of groceries. They waved and said goodbye too and I start trudging up the stairs.

They started following me.

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Oh no. Oh hell no. I do not need the 300+ K-5 kids in that courtyard to know where my apartment is. People stress me out enough on the street I don’t need to wonder if when I come home at 7 o’ clock at night there might be a small hoard of people gathered by my door wanting to ask me questions. Fuck. No.

So I faked I forgot something at the store.

Judge me.

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I did pick up some apples, which I realized I needed as soon as I started walking in the direction of the small grocery store. So that worked out and by the time I made it back to the complex school was back in session and the courtyard was blessedly quiet.

But I have a new rule, I can leave my apartment whenever I want, but under no circumstances can I come back until after lunch or after school is over. It sounds stupid, but if I’m going to endure people staring at me like they’re waiting for me to turn into wyvern I have got to have my Fortress of Solitude.

hiding

 

Adventures Abroad: Sihanoukville pt. 2

Adventures Abroad: Sihanoukville pt. 2

The next day in Sihanoukville we went island hopping. As a group, we got on a tourist boat—$20 a person with breakfast and lunch included—at nine in the morning and set sail. I’ve never considered myself much of a beach person; I’ve always pictured my dream home either snuggled in a mountain or part of sunny meadow. But nine hours moving from tropical paradise to tropical paradise can change a girl’s mind. I could totally live in a treehouse on Kong Roh or Koh Rong Sanloem.

But I know you don’t give a damn about me hanging out on the beach, so here are some pictures. Live vicariously, my friends.

Here’s a soundtrack for you.

 

And after a really great day of sand, sunburns, and thorough relaxing, we went back to the hotel, changed, and headed back to the beach for dinner. I had a delicious fruity drink that was served in a an actual pineapple and spent a couple hours on the beach, digging our toes into the sand enjoying good food and company. We splintered off a bit after that. I gave “going out” about half an hour before deciding that the club scene is not and never will be my thing. So I walked around for a bit with a couple others looking at shops and postcards and talking. We were some of the first back to the hotel but after nine hours on a boat–I burned the top of my head!-I was out cold in less than fifteen minutes.