Forty-Nine Shades of Gray (and Two Green Turtles)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a clear Chengdu sky?

If I can see the birds, and especially the planes, something is just not right in the capital of Sichuan. Most days consist of a gray-tinged sky, where a bit of sunlight pokes through, though never enough to make those ethereal shafts of light that make one think the Heavens are spotlighting their favorite terra-firma creations. It just doesn’t happen here.

So, when I woke up Sunday morning I thought I must still be dreaming. I usually don’t bother to pull the heavy curtains on our floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows since the sunrise isn’t a painful shock each morning, as the sky just takes on a lighter shade of gray as morning progresses. (It isn’t on my “too-read” list, as I really have no interest, but now I am starting to wonder if the chart-topping Fifty Shades of Gray isn’t written about Chengdu. It would be the perfect name for a novel set in our lovely, if rather polluted, city. After Sunday though, I’d have to re-title it Forty-Nine Shades of Gray.)

As I rolled out of bed (in a truly graceful manner, my normal morning bed-dismount usually entails a barrel roll and a bit of grumbling) I realized that I could see the sun- the actual yellow glowing globe in the sky. It wasn’t just a haze covered, distant light, but a heat-emitting, bright and soul-warming sun. This unprecedented event called for a change to my normal weekend morning routine. Rather than sitting on my living room floor, at the coffee table, with an ever-coveted bowl of cereal covered in no more than a necessary amount of shelf milk and the world at my fingertips via WordPress and Facebook, I left the laptop closed and pulled a chair on to the balcony. (I’d love to say my porch chairs were out there, to sit in on a regular basis, but after fifteen weeks at post, we have yet to receive our HHE, which is State Department-ese for “all our junk.” I’ve been told this shipment is somewhere between Shanghai and Chengdu, but that is a heck of a lot of potential area in which the crates may be on the move. Maybe next week?)

Not wanting to let such an unprecedented day go to waste, Thad and I decided to visit the People’s Park in town. Most Chinese towns of a decent size have a People’s Park, and parks here have a whole different flavor than in the US. Chinese parks are not giant expanses of soft grass where college kids meet to play Frisbee golf on the weekends or soon-to-be-married couples go to get engagement pictures taken or where young families spend an inexpensive afternoon with a cooler filled with sandwiches and soda and where their kids learn the finer points of mid-air swing dismounts. Rather, Chinese parks are places to stroll on paths, rest and drink tea at the ubiquitous tea houses, munch on snacks peddled by vendors and take kids for a spin or two on carnival rides.

It may not have been the Katherine Albertson Park in Boise or Caldwell Memorial Park, but Chengdu’s People’s Park made for an entertaining afternoon adventure.

We started by wandering around the man-made lake that is the center of the public space. There were both rowboats and motorized boats available for rent (Why would one choose to row?), but Thad gently steered us away from those lines. (I actually went and looked at prices and eyed the not-so-long lines, which I know he was aware of, and yet there was no question about cost or wait time. It was as if he didn’t care because there was no way he was getting in a boat, even if it were free and immediate. Maybe next time…)

While the main part of the park was pretty packed with people also enjoying the clear skies and break from the heat of summer, there were several off-shoot areas that were less crowded. One was filled with orchid plants (not in bloom, but still a relaxing area) and another had large terrarium-type pots.

These areas were nice to walk through and a good break from the crowds of the city, but the real fun started when I spotted a sign that said “Children’s Paradise.”  Who could pass up a shot at Paradise? (It may not be the legendary land that John Milton imagined in the 17th century, but I am sure that just like his winding tale of Man’s fall from grace, “epic” would be an apt descriptor.) As we made our way back around the lake and through the gauntlet of competing karaoke machines (no less than a dozen within fifty yards of each other, each turned up to full volume with singers belting out their favorite dissonant Chinese folksongs), I knew we were on the right path now.

Children’s Paradise might be more appropriately named Rusty’s Paradise, as the array of carnival rides had more iron oxide than paint on them, but who lets a little thing like lockjaw hold them back from an afternoon of spinning and whirling? Not this Foreign Service family with recently updated tetanus shots!

Because two tall blondes don’t stand out enough in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, we decided to take a spin on this strange ride that followed a track about eight feet off the ground. Each cart had a steering wheel that let the riders turn the cart 360 degrees, it had a power switch that let the riders come to a complete stop at any time, and my favorite amenity, a button to change the “radio station.” (From the ground, this didn’t look too high, but as someone with an ever-growing fear of heights, I would like to mention that eight feet is a lot higher when you are eight feet off the ground than it is when you are looking up at it. Thad, ever the helpful one, reassured me that if we fell, we would only break some bones, not die. Thank you for that.)

This little cart excursion was followed by one of my all-time favorite amusement park rides- the Tilt-o-Whirl! I may be terrified of heights and embarrass myself my crab-crawling across the glass floor of the Macau Tower, 1,000 feet in the air,  but I can spin in circles all day long. Dizzy rides are the best rides! People’s Park’s Tilt-o-Whirl, like everything else, was rusty, and the seatbelts didn’t work, but we figured centrifugal force would keep us from flying onto some sharp, rusty chunk of metal. With no worries, we paid our ten yuan each and boarded the ride, as the only riders, tilting and whirling to our hearts’ content.

Feeling pleased with our Children’s Paradise stint, we wandered through the rest of the park, watching several different dance groups and strolling through the aisles of toys and souvenirs for sale. At one such kiosk, movement caught my attention and I turned, only to see a metal stand on which hung a bunch of tiny plastic bottles, each one containing a single baby turtle. What?!?  Those are living creatures put in itty-bitty jars with just a bit of water and no food.

Michelle to the rescue!

I took it upon myself to “save” two of these tiny creatures. After examining my choices and picking the two that still looked the most robust, Thad paid for my purchases and some turtle food and we decided it was time to head home. My new buddies, Gong Bao and Ji Ding (their names are Chinese for kung pao chicken, literally meaning Palace Style and Chicken Cutlet) needed a new tub filled with fresh water and a roadside brick on which to bask. I’m going to give these miniscule reptilian family members a palatial home that lives up to ol’ Gong Bao’s moniker. (Now, if only these little guys last longer than my goldfish did. I had to convince my niece, who met my goldfish via Facetime, that she couldn’t see them again because they are out playing with their fish friends.)

While I miss the acres upon acres of grass, just waiting for me to throw a blanket on it and lounge away an afternoon with a book, my Idaho park excursions never entailed a discussion of our chances of getting tetanus or how to care for tiny turtles. Chalk this one up for the Chinese.

(No people or animals were harmed in the adventures of this entry.)

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Like a Horse Standing Among Chickens

As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, one never quite moves on entirely. It doesn’t take long before your non-Peace Corps family and friends are sick of your stories about washing dishes on the floor of the bathroom in the winter because it is the only room with hot water or the ones about how you had to share a not-so-private outdoor squat-toilet (basically a trench flowing into a farmer’s pig sty) with a big ol’ honking goose. They are great stories and volunteers can tell them a million more times and never get tired of them, but the same cannot be said of the poor saps forced to hear them over and over. (I would imagine returned missionaries feel the same way. When you first get home after two years, everyone is excited to hear everything, but soon, the more gritty than gospel stories tire out the loved ones who were left behind.)

This last weekend, I had a chance to relive a few of those PC days, as five of my former students from Longnan Teachers’ College in Gansu came to visit us in Chengdu-Ebba, Shirley, Kacey, Eric and Alex.  They would be joined by one former student who is already living in the city-Amazon.  (Notice I did not say I invited students to come or asked students to come. Not long after we arrived in Sichuan, I got an email from Ebba, the ring-leader of this group saying they would be coming. I, thinking it would never really pull together, said that sounded great and to let me know when they could make it. Then, about two weeks ago, I got a phone call from Ebba announcing they had bought train tickets and would be arriving Thursday afternoon! Okay then!)

So Thursday rolled around and arrive they did. The group got a bit lost, none of them having been to Chengdu before and without the aid of Amazon, who was in class, but eventually found their way to my neighborhood, where I spotted them sitting curbside (on newspapers, of course), waiting for me to get home.

The weekend was a whirlwind of eating and site-seeing and shopping, and then some more eating.

Thad and I took all six of the kids (I call them kids, as they were my students, but they are all in their early 20s) to western food for dinner one night. None of them had ever eaten with a fork and knife before and they were very nervous leading up to the evening. More than once I was pulled aside to find out if there would be chopsticks available. “No way, Jose!” would be my gleeful response. (Appropriately, as we were going to Peter’s Tex-Mex restaurant.) Once we were at dinner, I had to remind them that westerners don’t usually eat “family-style,” so they would each get to order their own entrée, whatever they thought looked good. The table ended up with a smorgasbord of selections: tacos, spaghetti, chicken sandwich, enchiladas, avocado salad, macaroni and cheese and more.  The funny part was that after all their worry about the fork and knife situation, many of them chose dishes that are best eaten with their hands, but they wanted to experience the fork and knife thing, so I watched tacos and chicken sandwiches be sliced (once I had to turn a butter knife the right direction for the user) and stabbed before being consumed.

It was great having the kids here and we even ended up with a meal of homemade dumplings out of the deal! As a non-cook to begin with, as well as someone still awaiting the arrival of my HHE, my kitchen is pretty sad when it comes to food/cookware, but the girls made an impressive showing with my two pots, six bowls and handful of utensils.

Thursday through Monday felt a bit like having a house invaded by whirling dervishes, but at times I just had to take a step back and laugh. Here are just a few gems from the weekend:

**When the kids first arrived, they walked into the apartment and announced, “We brought peaches!” And yes, yes they did. Tianshui, the hometown of the majority of the group, is apparently famous for their peaches. (Every town in China is famous for something. In Chengxian, we were famous for our wonderful walnuts.) The crew brought enough peaches that The Presidents of the United States would feel right at home in my apartment, partaking of their lyrically-desired millions and millions of peaches.

**One evening, as we were sitting on the couch talking, ringleader-Ebba turned to me and said, “You know your special pink sweater in the closet?” (At this point I had no idea, as nearly everything I own is pink, but I replied with a vague grunt.) “When we tried it on…” (What?!?) “we noticed it had holes in the sleeves for thumbs. We think this is a very good idea!” So, apparently, there were mini-fashion shows at night after Thad and I went to bed? I’d rather not dwell on that one for too long.

**Being a paranoid host (I am always worried I won’t have the right breakfast foods or soap or other in-the-larger-scheme of things unimportant details for my guests), I hauled Thad not once, but twice, to IKEA to get bedding for our spare beds to make them comfortable and homey. I thought I had created cozy little spaces for our guests to relax in, only to learn after the second night, that several of them had taken to sleeping on our floor! Why? Because those lovely beds I worked so hard to create were *too* soft. (Anyone who has spent any time in China, outside western-brand hotels, is well-acquainted with the Chinese love for a hard bed. When we first got to Gansu I thought I would never survive two years on the board that was our bed, but over time I gradually got used to it, to the point where when we went home, the first night we were back in the States I woke up in the middle of the night having what was nearly a panic attack, as I felt like I was drowning in the mattress, pillows and piled up blankets! I guess everything really is relative…)

With all the randomness of the weekend, my favorite quote came on Sunday morning when we were out shopping. The girls wanted to go look at clothes and get some gifts for their families and friends, so the boys were hauled along for the adventure. (Thad introduced them to the term “man-bench,” which they came to be quite well-acquainted with by the end of the five hour buying marathon.) While we were waiting on a couple of the girls who were adding shoes to their growing collection of purchases, Ebba asked me if I wore high heels. I said I did all of the time in America, but not so much in China, as I am already so much taller than everyone around me. She thought about this a second and responded, “Yes. In China, you are like a horse standing among chickens.” And there you have it- truer words may never have been uttered.

The kids headed out today while Thad and I were at work, but I came home to find they had discovered my stash of purple sticky-notes, leaving us messages throughout the house, thanking us and making sure we were fed for a few more days. While it is nice to have our apartment back to ourselves, I will miss their smiles and giggles and really random pronouncements.

But, they left with the promise to come back again before our two years here are up and I have no doubt that at some future date I will be receiving a deja-vu inducing phone call saying, “We have purchased train tickets. We will be there Thursday.”

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Chengdu Redo!

We’ve reached the two month mark in Chengdu. That means we’ve got two months of hotpot and Sichuan-style dishes in our bellies, but also two months of polluted air in our lungs. On a cosmic triple-beam balance, those may come out dead even. (Really though, I can’t say I’ve seen any negative effects from the air. Some days I can see farther through the haze than others, but as far as how I feel, so far there have been no noticeable side effects. Let’s wait until winter and see if this little bird is singing a different song…)

In the last eight weeks I’ve gone from being unemployed and living in what was basically a hotel (that makes me sound much more vagrant than the reality of the situation!) to fully-employed and living in a three-bedroom, two bath 24th floor apartment with a housekeeper that comes twice a week (which makes me sound a lot more fancy-pants than the reality of the situation!)

I’ve also joined the ranks of the scooting folks in China, (click here for that story) with just one mishap of note. Last Thursday, coming home from work, I was gleefully riding along, actually contemplating what a great, problem free trip is was turning out to be, when a, let’s say “jerk” in case there are any younger readers of this blog, comes up the scooter lane going the wrong direction. Not only was he a fish swimming upstream, but he decided that he didn’t need to yield to the traffic coming in the correct direction. He threaded his scooter in the space between my fabulous fuchsia one and another woman’s less awesomely colored one, clipping mine in the process. This put me into a reverse-fishtail, making the front end of my scooter skid all over the place. To get it back under control, I put my foot out to steady the twisting, at which point I kicked the metal guard railing, smacking it with the top of my foot. My first reaction was thinking I had broken my foot, but the shooting pain soon lessened to a slight throbbing, and with both self and scooter under control (under control doesn’t count what I was murmuring under my breath the rest of the ride home) I made it over the bridge and to my apartment complex. Once in the scooter parking garage, I checked my bike for damage, and finding none, checked my foot, which was a bit swollen and had a few scratches, but was none the worse for the wear.  Just another reminder to always be aware when scooting in China!

A nice apartment furnished with an actual dishwasher and a clothes dryer, plus a bathtub and several air purifiers were not a part of my life when I was living in Gansu. Neither was a the hot-pink scooter, as volunteers, even helmeted ones, were banned from riding them.  Now, these things are just normal parts of my daily routines. I’m movin’ up in the world!

But, while being here with the State Department is definitely a different experience than being here with Peace Corps, some things never change. We’ve been doing a lot of rediscovering things/places we knew when we were in Chengdu for training with the Peace Corps.

Peter’s Tex-Mex is back on the dinner options list, where I semi-regularly enjoy a plate of macaroni and cheese. (Yes Kristen, I always say it in my head with your quirky emphasis! It will never just be regular mac and cheese again.)

We’ve hit up Sabrina’s Country Store for our extravagantly over-priced import needs, such as Cheetos and Pop-tarts and the brownies that I made for my CLO-sponsored New Spouses Welcome Coffee last week. (As I am still learning the quirks of the Chinese oven, as elucidated in “Betty Crocker, I Am Not,” the brownies did not turn out beautifully. They tasted yummy, but they could have used another two or three minutes in the oven, meaning when they came out of the pan, they were a bit on the soft side and ended up squished by the spatula. Then it didn’t help that I had to put them in a Tupperware container in the “trunk” of my scooter! Needless to say, they were tasty but definitely not pretty.)

Since we’ve been back, we’ve also re visited the pandas (click here to read about their fuzzy fabulous-ness), JinLi Street’s tourist shops, where I bought my first round of postcards to send home to family, the Wide and Narrow Alleys and a couple of “antique” markets.

It has been a clichéd blink of an eye. Maybe it is because we lived here before, or hopefully because we are just so dang adaptable, but we’ve quickly created routines and habits to help us make Chengdu home.

Two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. One thousand three hundred forty-four hours. Eighty thousand six hundred forty minutes. Four million eight hundred thirty-eight thousand four hundred seconds. It may not quite be the lyrics from Rent, but it is how I currently measure the life of this woman in my season of Chengdu love.


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