Thursday, August 30, 2007

Breaking News

New Washing Machine Arrives

After two weeks of schlepping my laundry down four flights, over to the International Exchange College, and back up the four flights to hang dry, I now have a beautiful, fully automatic washing machine. At the risk of sounding totally geeky, I am in love. Enough said.

Swarm of Americans Takes Over the Apartment Building

Two days ago we heard noise in the hallway and being nosy—I mean, naturally inquisitive—Samuel poked his head out the door. With a slam of the door Samuel turned to us and said, “A foreigner!” Yes indeed, we all ran to the door, flung it open wide and there she was. Not two minutes later, more came from upstairs and down and I am sorry to say I don’t have a picture of what we must have looked like, slack-jawed and eyes bulging, as the population of the foreign experts apartment building just more than doubled. We have: Vanetta on the fifth floor from Texas; Lynette from Minnesota across the hall from us; Ted and Marsha and nine-month old Carter below us on the third floor; Harmony across from them; and Jed from Chicago on the second floor below Ted and Marsha. They are all English teachers who work for the same ESL company out of California and all of them have been here at least two years. They actually live here all the time! They speak English and some speak Chinese! They are really nice! We are no longer feeling isolated and frankly we feel like we’re in culture shock all over again. It’s a weird feeling.

Crickets Come to Live with Us

Every basket has a cricket in it.

Does anyone remember reading books as a kid where the Chinese boy or girl brings home a small bamboo cage with a cricket in it? I know I remember something like that in my many years of reading, but true to form I don’t have any idea when or where I read it. But it did stick in my mind, the image of a cricket in a small bamboo cage, clutched in the hands of a young child. And so, nostalgia drove me to buy two incredibly big and fat and chirpy crickets for Samuel and Grace.

We have fed them green onions and wet grass. Samuel’s cricket, named Jeff, started looking poorly so we liberated him. Grace’s cricket, Jaimie, is doing much better. She has eaten a lot of green onions, pooped a lot, and chirps quite cheerfully. She will be liberated before we leave for Beijing. Or maybe sooner, as it is bedtime right now and she will not stop chirping, even out on the balcony with a handkerchief draped over her. It is a little tortuous, actually.

Arnold Family Finds Out About Imports Warehouse

Vanetta and Lynette took the kids and me to a warehouse across town for a unique shopping experience. The person who owns the place supplies all the grocery stores around here with imported food, and also sells at wholesale (I think--I can't read my receipt yet, need a translator) these items to people willing to go out to the warehouse. From the outside, you would never in a million years believe what lurked in the shadows behind the crumbling brick walls and the guy stewing auto parts in a pot in front of his shop.

This is in the back of the warehouse complex. It actually looks much more solid than the front of the buildings.

Turns out the electricity went out before we got there so we had to feel around in the dark in the refrigerator room, which was the farthest away from sunlight. Anyway, the people working there greeted us warmly and ushered us into the first room where we found, among other things: cereal, mustard, Swiss Miss cocoa, jam, peanut butter, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, pickles, Campbell’s soup… the mind boggles just trying to remember it all so I won’t even bother, but you get the idea. I got butter from New Zealand in the refrigerator room and Vanetta and Lynette bought gigantic blocks of white cheddar cheese from New Zealand and mozzarella from who knows where. They divvied these up at home and I have lots of cheese in my freezer now. There goes my whining about 7 months without cheese. I feel a little sheepish going on and on about how deprived we are of this or that. About the only things I didn’t find were dried legumes and Wet Ones.

The white box in front left is cream cheese, underneath is mozzarella and next to that is the block of cheddar from New Zealand.

Buying everything meant an hour in a stuffy little room, since without electricity the computers weren’t working. The “cashiers” had to handwrite everything out and look up prices in large reams of paper.

Inside the "office".

Outside the "office"--see the chickens in the background?

Everyone was very nice and there was only one moment where I started to worry: they couldn’t find the price on my big bottle of dried basil and I had become extremely attached to it by that point, already creating wonderful spaghetti sauce in my mind. In the end they figured out something and we were all able to buy our goods. The entire office walked us out to the street, carrying our boxes, hailed a cab and waved us off as we drove away. It was the most surreal shopping trip I’ve ever been on. And guaranteed I will go back again.

Tuna, pasta, raisins, butter, muesli, cocoa, bay leaves, Swiss Miss Cocoa (I yielded to pressure from the kids), chocolate bars, basil, vietnamese chili garlic sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, strawberry jam, tea.

I Get a Toaster Oven

I have inherited a toaster oven from Lynette, who somehow had two. I am coming up in the world as you can see in the picture.

She also gave me a loaf pan and a couple of “cookie” sheets. This is why I bought cocoa and butter--ah ha! And now it looks like Marsha downstairs has two crockpots—guess who gets to have the second one?

Monday, August 27, 2007

One Month

In the dreaded bathroom--Did I ever mention
how much I miss my pretty yellow bathroom at home?

The irony of the “saga” of the green onion pancakes is that once we got them, all of us—the kids to a lesser degree—got a stomach bug. The kind of bug that makes you stay very close to home and wish that you were at your real home, having your mom feed you warm jello.

I guess we should just be happy that we’ve made it four weeks in China without this kind of thing. It is hard to believe that it actually has been that long and that we still have six more months to go. I have heard that the first month in a new country can seem like an eternity while the subsequent ones fly by. By that standard, the next six months should happen in about six weeks, because the first month seems to have lasted at least half a year. We have experienced a learning curve that practically jumps off the paper and of course we are still learning every day. Take the stomach bug: I brought lots of Imodium, but being naturally averse to taking medicine, I refused to take it all day yesterday, thinking I would get better on my own. Dave took an alternative route by going to the pharmacy with Mr. Song and picking up some Chinese medicine. This is not the cute little packages of various herbs sort of variety, doled out by a wizened doctor. Rather, he got some boxes of stuff all in Chinese, save one word on each. With that one word on one box we found out (via our great friend Google) that Dave had bought an extremely powerful antibiotic that has, among other side effects, diarrhea and cramping listed as probable side effects. We decided that we wouldn’t touch that box with a ten-foot pole. The other box proved a little more tricky to decipher, but with much work Dave found the main ingredient and we are pretty sure it’s a fairly harmless garden variety (no pun intended) herbal medicine. He didn’t take that yesterday, either.

So, after a day of suffering at home, and a fitful night, we woke up to a slightly lessened condition but still in no mood to leave home. We took the plunge: Dave took the Chinese medicine (not the antibiotic) and I took Imodium. What have we learned from this experience? I’m not entirely sure yet. I think that we are probably way too cautious about taking medicine, but then, what is the alternative? In any case, I think it will be a long time before we get green onion pancakes again.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird

I think that the last time I wrote I was still feeling overwhelmed by the oppressive heat both inside and outside the apartment. Smog and dust and heat and a very small apartment with no air conditioning made it really difficult to do much more than the bare minimum. This is my lame excuse for not posting sooner. I don’t know if we’re just having a little break, or if I’ve just witnessed the fastest switch of seasons ever, but Thursday night the cooler air came in and on Friday we had a beautiful, bright, clear day, crisp (still warm but with a definite autumnal edge) and smelling of fall. Since then we’ve had rain, wind, and more blue sky, but the extreme heat hasn’t returned. Yet. I’m sure I’m jumping the gun but gosh, a nice long drawn-out autumn sounds pretty good right now.

To celebrate the end of Dave’s teaching week (two seminars on American history to junior faculty) and the incredibly beautiful day, we visited Da Zhao on Friday, originally Hohhot’s largest lamasery (think, monastery), and now a prayer hall and tourist attraction. It’s a beautiful collection of small buildings surrounded by walls, originally built in 1579 but currently undergoing extensive renovations, complete with a shopping mall under construction in a similar architectural design, opposite the main entrance. For some reason not entirely clear to me, Tibetan Buddhism hopped over most of China and made a deep impression in Inner Mongolia. This temple is full of scary deities, “heaven/hell” type scenes, dragons, many many statues of Buddha and long frescoes surrounding the main prayer hall.

Outside Da Zhao

Incense burning in foreground, prayer hall behind.

A meditation hall. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the prayer hall.

It’s a beautiful place but Grace especially got spooked and didn’t like being there. Samuel liked the many gift shops lining the entry way—he has developed a passion for shopping that freaks me out. I can’t tell if he’s trying to become a super-consumer, or just trying to assuage his feelings of homesickness by accumulating touristy junk. It’s funny, though, to be in a Buddhist temple and have Samuel wanting to acquire more things; but then again, he’s never claimed to be a Buddhist, he’s just a homesick American kid. We did escape without buying anything.

There is a street just off the temple (I wonder if it will still be in business when the fancy shopping mall opens up?) that we wandered up, full of all kinds of gee-gaws and junk, but apparently an expensive tourist-trap type of street, complete with pickpockets, if we are to believe the slightly weird New Zealander Dave spoke with there.

Tourist street

There not being too many foreigners in town, when we see one we act just like the Chinese and gawk. Dave struck up a conversation and the long and the short of it is that maybe this guy might think the world is coming to an end, maybe the US is some kind of “planned with a purpose” country and who knows what else. Dave didn’t exchange phone numbers with him, anyway. I bring this guy up for a couple of reasons, not just filler, really: first, it’s eye-opening to realize how much we not only thirst for a conversation with someone—anyone-- since we are generally limited to a few choice phrases like, "Hi”, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”, “I’m from America.”, “I don’t speak Chinese.” It’s hard to have any kind of meaningful interaction on such a limited repertoire.; but also because now we were the gawkers, saying “Look! A foreigner! Quick, let’s go talk to him!” I think that when we’re back home the culture shock may simply be this: we won’t be unique anymore and frankly, that will be a relief.

Friday evening Kun Kun’s mother Betty invited us to the musical fountain in town. I regret that I have no idea what the name of the fountain is, much less the plaza, or even exactly how to get there—how’s that for accuracy in reporting? My excuse is that we rode the bus to this park on the east side of town and I totally lost my bearings. It took us 45 minutes on a squashed bus (I mean, we passengers were squashed, not the bus itself, although that does generate a funny picture to muse over), when we could have 1) taken a taxi or 2) rode our bikes, both in a fraction of the time it took. But again, we were invited and it was her call how we got there. The kids played in a park a short distance away from the plaza, as dusk came on. It was such a spectacularly beautiful day, and the coming of evening was just as lovely.

Along the Canal

We walked along a canal on the way to the plaza and spied a crazy frog swimming in it. I say crazy because he was huge, maybe 8-10 inches when stretched out, and he would stop swimming to peer up at us, just as we peered down at him. A policeman on a bike stopped and just like us, was mesmerized by this frog. We all gazed down at him in the growing dark and maybe it was just a trick of the light, but its face looked almost monkey-like, with eyes in front and a little mouth that formed an “O” as it looked at us. Was this some kind of mutant frog, we wondered, or a new species? Dave couldn’t get a picture of him, so now we will never know. Maybe we could’ve become famous with our discovery of the first-ever frog-monkey. What a waste of an almost 15 minutes of fame.

As Betty kept saying, the fountain is the largest fountain in all of North China. It’s placed in the canal and I couldn’t even tell you how long it is, but it’s big, and shortly after 8 p.m. (it is very dark by 8 now) the music started up, jets of water shooting up, and lights fanned through the water, creating all kinds of shapes, both on the water and even onto the skyscrapers behind us. I had Grace up on my shoulders so she could see, Dave took many pictures, Betty stayed near us, and Kun Kun and Samuel played like maniacs, running and wrestling and doing “kung fu” and who knows what else. Just being crazy boys. The funny thing is that there was a guy there with his camera/phone, and he spent more time photographing Grace and me than the fountain. Like I said, we’re going to be a staple in many a Chinese photo album. He completely ignored his little old mom and wife, so busy was he collecting an even more interesting attraction than northern China’s largest musical fountain. By 9:00 I convinced Betty that because Grace was so tired (kids are a great excuse sometimes) I would really prefer to take a taxi home, our treat. Miraculously, we got our way. I think it’s a first and I really don’t think she minded, as they had a long bike ride home afterwards.

We got home very late, put the kids to bed and dropped off ourselves. Dave and Samuel went to Helin the next morning very early for Dave to teach the kids English. I won’t go into great details about this except to say that two very interesting situations occurred. First, for Grace and me. We went to Weiduoli to do some grocery shopping. As I have said before, Weiduoli supermarket is in the basement of a huge, multi-story mall. I picked out some nice towels, some lovely cockroach hotels (gag—would never do this at home, but then, at home I don’t live in fear of being infested with cockroaches, only the occasional mouse), some peanut butter, etc. when suddenly the lights in the back part of the store went out. Okay, I think, this happens sometimes, I shouldn’t worry. But then I see that the bazillion shop attendants (there are no kidding three ladies to each aisle, plus three at each little sale island at the end of each aisle—they stand around a lot and hassle shoppers or, in our case, stare) are looking up at the ceiling and there is a security guard type guy talking into a walkie-talkie (do they still call them that or am I being quaint and antiquated?). Not speaking or understanding Chinese, I start to get a bad feeling. I notice that there are no exits anywhere near me, that I am in the basement far from the one escalator exit, and that there are no sprinklers on the ceilings as one would normally find in every store back home. I start to smell something burning. I gaze longingly at the green onion pancakes and bao tze in the deli counter not far from me, I glance down at my cockroach hotels that I really really want, and then I look up one more time. Ah, flames shooting out of a fat electrical wire. Okay, that decided everything. I left my cart, grabbed Grace, and made a bee-line for the escalator. While Grace started to panic because she didn’t know what was going on, I marched us up the escalator, past the cosmetics (just like any department store, jewelry and cosmetics on the first floor), out the doors and into a cab waiting in front. We went straight home.

Most of you know that I am an organization freak and sometimes this gets me into trouble. Like, when I have planned that the day is going to go like this: go to Weiduoli, buy cockroach hotels and lunch (the aforementioned green onion pancakes and bao tze), come home, set out the hotels and eat lunch, plan dinner for when the guys come home from Helin; and then this doesn’t happen and I am immobilized. Of course, we were both a little upset by our experience, too. We came home, ate a snack, and I tried to think of what we could do for lunch and dinner. About 11:30 I started to wonder why I hadn’t heard from Dave yet, especially as I had text-messaged him about the Weiduoli situation and expected he would write back pretty soon. [Aside: Yes, we had to come all the way to China to learn how to text message. Everyone does this rather than pay for a phone call. We have found that it is actually preferable to a phone call because while many of our new acquaintances speak some English, it is very hard to have a clear conversation in English on the phone.] Anyway, I broke down and called, because I figured he’d be at lunch by then. Dave answered right away, rather subdued, I thought, and it finally came out that he was at the police station. Actually let me rephrase that: he was at the POLICE STATION. Apparently he had been talked into a second class, which he was in the middle of teaching, when the police showed up and whisked him and Joe (the interpreter and fellow English teacher) off to the police station. I will not go into details, as he will post all about it (yes, he now has a blog: but I will say this: Samuel was off playing with some kids and Dave didn’t get to see him before going, Dave spent THREE (no need to rephrase) hours at the station filling out paperwork and being repeatedly fingerprinted, and ultimately paid 200 yuan (about $26) for the crime of being a foreigner without his passport. It really is a good story in retrospect. I am sure he will post soon, so keep an eye out for it. Anyway, Samuel did remarkably well for not knowing where his dad was for so long and for being entirely surrounded for 3 hours by people who don’t speak English (he now has one of our phrasebooks that he swears he will carry with him always). It was very nerve-wracking for me and I didn’t have to deal with it personally. It apparently boils down to a situation of corrupt small-town cops with nothing better to do than harass foreigners and extort money, much like what happens when you are stopped by the Mexican police while minding your own business and have to pay a heavy fine for no apparent reason other than that you are a foreigner (a “rich” American in that case). The silver lining is that Dave has wanted to get out of teaching in Helin and now he has the best of excuses not to go back. I know that Lily and Joe and everyone at the school feels horribly embarrassed and very sorry that it happened, but we are glad to be done with Helin.

We went back to Weiduoli today (Sunday) and saw that it is still standing, so I guess they found a fire extinguisher somewhere. Anyway, I now have cockroach hotels strategically placed all over the apartment and we got our green onion pancakes and bao tze after all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who Needs Cheese, Anyway?

I know this is kind of silly, but I just have to write about the ice cream bars here. You can buy them absolutely everywhere: street corners, grocery stores, at vendors evenly spaced 50 feet apart at the park. The main milk company around, which I think I mentioned before, is Mengnu ("the cow from Inner Mongolia") and really, it is just very very good. All of it, milk, yogurt, ice cream bars, is made from whole milk. That's right, you skim-milk and 2% Americans--whole milk. So all that weight we lost in the transition? It's slowly making its reappearance thanks to these babies.

I had to post about this ice cream bar for another reason. Samuel and Grace, 10 yuan note firmly grasped in grubby paws, actually went to the grocery store behind our apartment building by themselves, picked out four bars, stood patiently in the not-line for quite a while until the check-out lady took pity on their silly "stand-in-line like good customers" manners, and grabbed the bars out of their hands to check them out. [Here is another of those asides I am becoming increasingly fond of: It is particularly difficult buying groceries at peak hours because everyone shoves in front of you to get their groceries first. Remember the fearless old ladies crossing the big boulevards with nary a glance to left or right? The same ones are just as ruthless at the check-out line. The shorter, cuter, and more wizened, the more they push to the front. No problem. We just forgot to tell the kids about it.] But they survived and came racing home with our goodies and now, tummy full of oreo-stuffed, chocolate-clad, vanilla ice cream, I write about this great event. It's like the 1950s, no?, kids running to the corner store by themselves without fear of drug dealers, pedophiles, or speeding cars (well, maybe that last one...).

And I guess I have to say that, homesickness aside, I am growing fond of certain things about Hohhot, like the chugging of the farmers' tractors out front as they scoot along the road from farm to city and back again. It is a calm, steady, full sound, almost reassuring because it just passes by without honks or squeaks or blaring megaphone, and it always happens, from early morning to late evening. I like watching all the people, young and old, exercise at the exercise park at Manduhai, at all hours of the day, no matter how hot. I like packing up my new basket on my bike with nets, water, and asian pears and zipping off to the park with Grace behind me, Samuel and Kun Kun (I spelled his name wrong before--sounds like Quinn Quinn, spelled otherwise), just ahead of me. I don't like lugging my laundry two buildings over but I really like seeing it hanging on my lines on the balcony, like it is now. I like watching the barbeques being set up at night all along one street, the pool tables along another one, the card games everywhere in between, people gathering in the evening to visit and eat and just enjoy the end of the day.

Gee, I guess I should eat more ice cream bars--I get downright dreamy, don't I?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Old World and New?

And all I have to do is haul Grace! (see her leg?)

Open Mondays in Hohhot

Grace in front of the museum

We got ourselves into another one of those hospitality situations today, although the outcome was much smoother than the time in Helin. Last Friday at the Security Bureau Dave innocently asked Athena about a huge museum he saw on his morning bike ride. She didn’t know, so she called her uncle. One thing led to another and this morning at nine o’clock Athena, Athena’s uncle and mother, and another gentleman who drove the Ford minivan, picked us up to take us to the museum. We must be careful about the questions we pose, for we never know where they may lead us. In this instance, we are very happy with the whole day, and certainly grateful for the incredible hospitality extended to us, we just can’t believe how friendly people are here.

The museum is in the north of Hohhot and we learned that it was only recently built as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. It replaces the museum that is in the center of town, near the train station, listed in our guide books. This museum is enormous, with a great sweeping movement of metal and glass, the ultimate in modern.

It's too big to even fit into the camera frame.

Inside, the rooms are cavernous, with marble floors and walls, and beautiful women decked out in traditional Mongolian dress escorting groups around.

In keeping with the whole hospitality “situation”, Athena’s uncle insisted on paying our way. I have no idea how much tickets cost, but my suspicion is that it isn’t terribly cheap, by Chinese standards anyway.

[Here comes a big aside: We are not rich by any measure in America. History professors and stay-at-home moms are not generally known to be rolling in dough, so to speak. Here, however, we feel uncomfortably cast in the role of rich American. We've heard the average pay of a teacher in the International Exchange College is between 2000-5000 yuan/month—between $264-$660. That’s per month! Of course, costs are pretty low. Dave just got a haircut along with the kids, and for all three he paid 15 yuan, about $2. Like I said before, Pizza Hut is one of the most expensive restaurant in town, and we stuff ourselves for about $26. So there you are. The lady who takes care of the building, Mrs. He (pronounced Huh), goes through everyone’s garbage and so today on the way out, she asked me if I was going to Weiduoli, a very expensive mall, which also has a big supermarket in the basement, where we shop. From this question I learned two things: first, that she does indeed go through the garbage (I see this everywhere, people spend a lot of time sorting trash.), and second, that Weiduoli is not the normal place for normal people to shop. Our bikes, our food, our trash, everything points to our “wealth”. It’s a big clash of whom we really are at home, and who we are perceived to be here, and who we are, actually, here: rich, by Hohhot standards. It’s weird.]

So there we are, having our way paid into the museum. One entire side of the museum houses many many dinosaur artifacts. There are lots of full skeletons, but since we can’t read Chinese, we aren’t sure if they are actually real or replicas of fossils. They’re really amazing, anyway. The cool thing about Chinese museums (say I, who has only been to two so far) is that you can touch anything that you can reach and that isn’t under glass. The other side of the museum has three floors of Mongolian artifacts from earliest time to the present. I won’t describe it all, just put in some pictures, because there is just too much to even know where to begin.

One of many dioramas, this one of a traditional ger (tent) and
Mongolian family.

Athena's uncle on left, the driver on the right.

The whole thing is so big, so impressive, so incredible. We spent about 2 ½ hours there (trying to get Athena’s uncle’s money’s worth—that’s a lot of apostrophes in a row!) and felt overwhelmed, as one generally does after that much time in a museum with children in tow.

While Dave and I are earnestly trying to learn how not to unwittingly solicit money being spent on us, the children haven’t caught on yet. Samuel turned to me within hearing of Athena and her mother and said to me, “I’m hungry!” Athena quickly translated this to her mother, who promptly invited us to lunch, at her expense. They took us to a lovely seafood restaurant where all the fare met us at the door, happily swimming in tanks and buckets. I successfully learned how to peel a shrimp that still has his head and feelers. They were delicious and Grace tried her hardest to eat them all by herself (with me peeling, of course).

Athena's mother on left, Athena next to her.

And now the day is finally coming to a hot and sticky close. It’s 8 p.m. and already dark. The heat isn’t subsiding but the shift in the coming of dusk makes me hope for cooler days in the near future. Today is our 13th wedding anniversary and I have to say, it is the most unique place we have ever spent it.

The kids brought us breakfast in bed.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tortillas in Hohhot

We may not have cheese, beans or sour cream, but hey, we now have tortillas!

Check out the new fancy apron, the high-tech propane hot plate, and the nalgene bottle rolling pin! And of course, the iPod to block out the din of everyday life in Hohhot and the nagging and whining of children in a too-small apartment.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Public Security Bureau, Part 2

We had to go to the Public Security Bureau again today, escorted by Athena and Soon Ying. Soon Ying’s job is to get all the foreign experts’ paperwork through with the proper authorities, so that these teacher’s (like Dave) are properly documented. It is amazing what he is able to do, and with a lot of good humor. The visit lacked all the drama of last week—we mostly just sat in a room while Soon Ying showed the police ladies all of our paperwork and we had our photographs taken yet again. I’m posting, though, to show Dave’s pictures of us and Athena and Soon Ying.

Athena and Soon Ying

On the way back, we saw this man selling asian pears. We bought some and ate them up as quickly as they could. Absolutely terrific fruit!

Getting Around Town (or, How to Avoid Being Run Over by a Taxi While Crossing the Street)

Sample Traffic (note the old lady right in the middle in the
big white hat)

Before we left for China we confidently told everyone that we would probably buy or rent bikes in Hohhot, “since everyone rides a bike”. Once here, confidence gave way to horror. I vividly remember trying to cross the street in front of the Education Hotel our first day here. I turned to Dave, after being narrowly missed by taxis, donkey-driven carts, bikes and buses, and very firmly announced, “No way will we ever get bikes!” There are no traffic rules, at least not in the way we understand traffic rules back home. I think I’ve mentioned before in a post that crossing the street, and certainly riding in a taxi, feels like leaping arms open and eyes closed into the proverbial “jaws of death”.

My, how quickly things change. We moved into our apartment on a Sunday, and that Monday Dave went out with Tyler (an avid American biker from Oklahoma who has taught here for almost two years, and is married to a Mongolian woman) to the one and only high-end bike store in Hohhot, and bought himself a very nice mountain bike for 900 yuan (about $120). Samuel jumped all over Dave as soon as he came home: “When can I get a bike? When can I get a bike?” (repeat at least one hundred times over and you’ll get an idea of what it was like here the rest of the day.) I was still really against it all. I mean, if Dave wants to risk his life, so be it, he’s a big boy. But the rest of us…? The next day Dave and Samuel and Tyler went back to the store and came home with a very nice mountain bike for Samuel and a great bike for me, too. He just couldn’t resist the bargain. They are really excellent, light-weight aluminum bikes, which cost a fraction of what they would cost at home. We’ll ship them home on the plane and they’ll still cost a lot less than if we had bought the same there.

Do I sound like I’ve been converted into a fearless Hohhot bike rider? Not quite. My first try out, I nearly bumped noses with a taxi and got lost. Not exactly relaxing. After a number of family rides under Dave’s tutelage, I feel much more comfortable. Oh, and Grace rides on the back of my bike. Kids, babies, and adults alike do the same. We all have helmets and we stand out a mile away because we have by far the nicest bikes (and are the only people wearing helmets), and we’re the only waigouren (foreigners) around riding bikes, besides Tyler. Every big street has at least a painted line that separates bikes from vehicles, and many of the biggest boulevards have tree-lined separated bike lanes. There actually are rules to the road, but you have to watch for a very long time to glean them, and crossing intersections and roads is still a heart-thumping venture. No one goes too fast, and pedestrians are mixed up with everyone (little old ladies are the most fearless and seemingly the most unaware of anything but their own trajectory), so I guess if there was an accident, it would be pretty mild. (I hear my mom and my mother-in-laws groaning out there.) Since there are lots of bikers, we feel that there is basically safety in numbers.

Samuel, Me (and Grace), Quin Quin

Samuel and Quin Quin

Our Street (Grace and Me, Samuel ahead)

There are huge bicycle parking lots outside the shopping malls, parks, and apartment buildings.

These lots are manned by an attendant who puts a tag on your bike and gives you the mate. You lock your bike (to itself, just through the frame and the back tire) and stand it in a row of many other bikes. We’ve left our bikes at two different parks for about 2 hours each time and it ended up costing 3 jiao per bike (10 jiao = 1 yuan; there’s about 7.5 yuan to a dollar), and your bike is still there when you get back from hanging out in the park. At home we either keep our bikes on our balcony (no small feat, getting 3 bikes up four flights of stairs) or in the bike cage on the side of the building, which is locked at night.

Today we went to a park with Samuel’s new friend Quin Quin, who is the ten-year old son of a teacher in the International Exchange College. We rode there and back and I only had one moment (crossing a street, no less, but not at a light, at a crosswalk in the middle of the street which means about as much to drivers as the Chinese characters on the restaurant menus mean to us) where I felt uncomfortable. Quite a learning curve from last week. I think we’ll be able to ride to parks from now on, instead of taking taxis, trading one thrilling ride for another, but at least we’ll have a little more exercise.

By the way, all of these pictures are Dave's, which is why he's not in them. He is by far the better of the two of us in taking pictures.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Our Local Market

I forgot to include a picture of the early-morning market down our street. Here it is:

Our Local Market

I forgot to include a picture of the early-morning market down our street. Here it is:

Look at the Monkeys; Laundry on the Rocks; The Search for Food

I’ve already mentioned in previous posts how much everyone flocks to Grace and Samuel, especially Grace, wanting to touch their hair, cheeks, noses, arms, legs, wanting to have the kids pose with them for pictures, staring at them when they try to play at the park or simply when we are sitting quietly by the water. All of us attract attention wherever we go, for the simple reason that we are the only foreigners around and I guess staring isn’t considered rude. We went to dinner tonight at a “fast” food noodle place, where they make the noodles from scratch right in front of you, and every restaurant worker, from the cashier to the noodle guy, to the people who clean up the tables, everyone stared at us, some giggled, made comments to each other, but mostly they just stared and stared. When we first got here it really unnerved the kids, now they mostly don’t pay attention, except for times like today at the park: the kids got some fish nets and were trying to find minnows and snails at the pond’s edge. People in paddle boats swerved from the middle of the pond right up to the edge where we were, one boat even grounded itself, all in the attempt to get a better look at us. A lady and her child came and asked us to pose for a picture with her baby. I finally got up the nerve to say no, I’m so tired of being the novelty in people’s picture albums. When I’m by myself I just get stares, but it’s the kids who get the physical attention. Poor things. We’ve talked to them a lot about being understanding, that they don’t mean any harm, they just aren’t used to foreigners, and especially they love children and really, ours are awfully cute if I do say so myself. The kids have taken it basically in stride, it’s Dave and I who sometimes get really fed up, like tonight. Oh to just have a little anonymity!

On another note, my laundry machine stopped agitating today. Yep. I shouldn’t have complained about it. I had a load of towels in it. And so after a day of waiting for someone to do something about it, I finally had to hand-agitate them and hand-rinse, and wring them out, and I hope they will dry overnight outside.

Food, glorious food, I’d like to try it…. At least, that was the song we were singing in the first few days here. Staying in the hotel, we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to make anything for ourselves, and really, we didn’t have the mental ability to do so. We ate a lot across the street at the Mongolian restaurant (of banquet fame) and I think we are filled to the brim with mutton meat pies, mutton gyoza, and garlic broccoli. Then we found the grocery store behind the hotel, where we could buy little biscuits that are very reminiscent of the ones I used to eat in France, sort of graham cracker-types, and top ramen-type noodle bowls, and yogurt and milk. Dave went out every morning trying to find some kind of breakfast food and there was a definite learning curve involved: first he found a Chinese bakery that had pastries that did not satisfy; then he found a European bakery, Inner Mongolia-based, and the danishes there helped for a couple of mornings; lastly and not least, he found a Hohhot institution, the bai tze (bay-ze). It’s a pastry, heavier than a croissant but still flaky, and sold on the streets. It’s absolutely delicious.

Hooray! By this time we had moved into our apartment so we could start cooking for ourselves, and continue to venture out for meals.

One of the last dinners eaten while in the hotel I didn’t participate in, so tired was I of foods that didn’t sit well on my tender jet-lagged stomach. Dave took the kids to a dumpling restaurant around the corner, which sounds great until you realize it’s a restaurant that serves hundreds of different kinds of gyoza, of which we were already getting tired, and the menu was entirely in Chinese and no one there spoke a lick of English. Dave put all of his education to work and managed to order beef gyoza, but he ended up ordering about 2 pounds worth.

UCLA PhD reduced to buffoonery in Inner Mongolia (Dave did a little dance and mimicked a cow in order to get beef gyoza).

As neither kid could eat much, Dave stuffed in as much as he could to be polite. It was either a low-point or a high-point, depending on how seriously we chose to take ourselves. We certainly got a good laugh out of it, so I guess all in all it was a high point. But I don’t think any of us want to eat gyoza for a good long time.

About this time, food deprived and losing weight, not quite in the grip of traveller’s diarrhea but always on the edge, Dave and I each had a major rant about being in the middle of a city where no one speaks English (a slight exaggeration but actually remarkably few people do—of course, we are the ones that are at fault, since it is China after all, we should be speaking more Chinese) and in a country where we kept repeatedly hearing about all the McDonald’s and WalMarts and Starbucks, we apparently landed in a city of 1.5 million and none of those were to be had. That was about 2 days before we had to eat our words with great embarrassment, for I have personally seen at least three Kentucky Fried Chickens,

one McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut. There is no Starbucks though, alas. In a fit of trying to get the kids to eat last week, we took them out to Pizza Hut for dinner.

Happy Campers Going to Pizza Hut

This, by the way, is no kidding the most expensive restaurant in Hohhot. Our dinner of two supreme pizzas, two fruit smoothies, and three beers came to a grand total of 250 yuan, or about $32.

It tasted just like home. Of course, the menu also boasts pizza with octopus on it, but then, some of the best Pizza Hut pizza Dave and I ever had was in Paris, the quatre fromage, which had four different kinds of French cheese on it. To each country its own. Not only did the pizza taste like home, helping ease a bit the homesickness plaguing both kids; being an upscale restaurant the clientele was a little more wealthy, therefore more educated, therefore not quite so inclined to stare at us. Bliss.

So what have we been eating since moving in to our apartment? Lots of bai tze at first, then we found the market on our street, open from about 6 to 7 every morning and where we can get vegetables straight from the farm, garlic, ginger, fresh tofu (can’t get it in the store, tastes great), fruit, tea (but not black, alas), socks, bai tze, legumes, hats. It’s always a little unnerving going to the market, since there are no prices printed anywhere. I just get what I want and then when they say something to me in Chinese I hand them some money. If it’s not enough they let me know, if it’s too much they hand back change. I really am trying to learn some numbers, I’ve learned how to count to ten on one hand and that helps a little bit. Eggs are fresh everyday and kept out of fridges. They taste great, being very organic and free range. J Meat has been a bit problematic, first because I am not a big meat eater and not inclined to look at it much, second because all the cuts are different from home and so it’s hard to know what to get.

Dave found these guys fixing their motorcycle on the street.

To be honest, Dave has done most of the cooking up until now. He’s always been the stir fry guy. And I am much more a baker (we miss cookies already!) and a recipe-follower. We were provided with an awesome rice cooker so that has been great fun, the kids are in heaven with white rice. Lunches have been hard since there isn’t sandwich bread and up until recently we couldn’t find anything to put on bread anyway.

Each day we’ve improved our eating situation: first night here, Dave made fried potatoes and eggs, then spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, then we’ve had a series of great stir fries, with really fresh vegetables and either tofu, eggs, or most recently, beef. We found baking powder and flour so Dave has been making pancakes, which we eat with jam we found at the store behind the apartment. I made a fruit salad today with the yogurt we get, already sweetened. We’ve ventured into eating fresh fruit, we just peel it if possible or wash it thoroughly as with the grapes today. We even have bananas! We have oatmeal for breakfast and sometimes for lunch. If I could just find some black beans I’d like to try out tortillas…

The biggest break-through came yesterday when Helen (a teacher in the International Exchange College) took us to this absolutely gigantic mall near the Pizza Hut. It is 4 stories high and full of everything. And all at American prices, so I honestly can’t even imagine how rich some people must be to be able to keep those stores going. Anyway, in the basement is a supermarket of vast proportions, at Chinese prices (read: cheap for us), where Helen took us through aisle by aisle, helping us find: black pepper, cumin, peanut butter (Skippy, but hey, it’s heavenly), tuna, mayonnaise, cornmeal, Lipton black tea (yes, I have unfortunately sunk this low, and am putting Assam tea on my wish list from home) and lest you think all we want is American food, bao tze (known as hum bao in the US), green onion pancakes and a deli counter that stretches for miles. I also found butter, big score. The kids were a little freaked out by the fresh meat still on body parts at the meat counter, another learning experience. And so we are feeling pretty comfortable, trying out restaurants in the neighborhood like the noodle place tonight. Dave is out right now with Mr. Song, who is showing him some good restaurants within walking distance (including a Korean place, fingers crossed for bibimbop).

So now you can see, that although things started out very rough, we are doing much better now, which of course means that all that weight I lost is probably going to come back soon. Oh well. We are adapting and feeling better. It’s a good mixture of home/comfort food and trying to venture out into our surroundings for local food.