Funny Bags and Special Beef

I should have known better than to order the special beef

It was special, all right.  

Since arriving in China I (and my children) have consumed more imported, pre-packaged food from the US than we have in our lifetimes. At least the chemicals in Lay’s and Nestle products feature ingredients approved by the FDA, so while they may not be healthy, I know they aren’t going to kill us. At least not immediately.

Ah, the tradeoffs of living in China.

So, yesterday afternoon we ventured out for a meal that I promised Mike would be exciting and delicious, at a different location of a restaurant at which I'd already eaten and had a fantastic experience. I did not realize just how much my prior pleasant experience could be attributed to dining with a seasoned expat friend until I suffered through this next attempt at eating out. I had been lulled into a false sense of knowing what the heck I was doing, since we apparently made every mistake possible in a Chinese restaurant.

First, we came at a bad time. Despite the restaurant being officially open for business, there is an unspoken rule that after lunch is when all the employees fall asleep at the empty tables instead of serving you. I should have guessed this since the entire city shuts down around the same time, and everyone just stops, drops, and naps wherever they happen to be, even if it is under an overpass. I've seen people sleeping reclined whilst balancing on their parked electric bikes. (Legs on the handlebars, back on the seat, head on whatever cargo they are carrying that day.) 

Due to this bizarre even-while-on-the-clock-siesta, half our food never arrived. Perhaps we were warned, but I'll never know. In defense of the place, at one point a bus girl snuck to my side and whispered incomprehensibly in Mandarin, clasping her hands at her chest apologetically. I wonder if she was saying, "Ma'am. We are all about to go to sleep. So. Uh. Enjoy what we have provided of your meal. I suggest you pay now, or just wait until we wake up?"

The chopsticks were impossibly thin, round, and slippery. Speaking of which, the variety of chopsticks I have encountered here is dizzying. One would think all chopsticks are pretty much the same, and if your U.S. chopstick skills sufficed, you'd fare fine in China. Nope! U.S. chopsticks must be what they give infants here, because I have never experienced more frustration trying to grip my food than with the ones they have here.

The food that did come to the table was unrecognizable as niu rou (beef) or ji rou (chicken). This was clearly my fault. Why, oh, why did I order the “special beef” and “special chicken”. Total rookie mistake. Both were smothered in some kind of spicy sauce to mask the fact that underneath it all, there was something very sinister and wholly un-beef-or-chicken-like going on. Chewy. Very chewy. No grain or texture of actual meat. And very pale. Mike’s guess? It was probably 90% chemicals and soy filler and maaaybe a tiny bit of beef and/or chicken something parts. Yes. Tasted like tofu. But not as good.

So. We have learned some valuable lessons. Don’t try to eat a late lunch. Don't order anything "special." Oh, but perhaps a bright point is that when you find a bug crawling on your plate of scallion pancakes, and you complain about the chingwa you found, they take it off your bill even though what you really said was, “There was frog on my plate!!!”

Okay, crazy meiguoren. Whatever you say.

On that note, I haven’t been the Outraged American™ yet. But the longer I'm here the closer I feel to a full on meltdown. I mean, the other day I did literally scream “Stop pushing me!” directly into the ear of an old woman body checking me in the IKEA lunch line so she wouldn't topple my tray of overcooked Scandinavian (crossing my fingers) fare. She was completely unfazed, glanced over her shoulder as if she heard a mosquito faintly buzzing and continued to body check me with all the might her tiny body could muster, which was a lot. How could she look so frail, yet be so vicious?

But hey, at least I didn’t cry! I don’t think I’ve cried since we got here. I don’t know if it’s because I’m 100% numb and so dehydrated I cannot produce tears or emotions, or if I’m just amazing at rolling with every single Chinese punch and jab that is being thrown at me. I’m guessing it’s a combo of the two.

But I might hit the “three month breakdown” I’ve heard all expats experience, a month and a half early. I'll report back later. But at least I have Dove Chocolate, Magnum bars, and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips to ease the pain.

What’s driving me bonkers

  • The staring. Not just staring, but for example, if the family is sitting down to eat, people will gather and soundlessly observe us like monkeys in a zoo. I will try to spark conversation in Chinese. Zhe shi shenme mingze? What's your name? More staring. No one understands a word I say. Even though I know I am 100% saying things correctly.
  • That the “please do not disturb” sign on the door of our room is always reinterpreted by housekeeping as “come on in and just ask me if now is a good time to clean the room even though I've clearly stated it is not.” I mean, it’s fine to double-check I suppose, but could be veerrrry awkward when they walk in on the wrong room one day…
  • The driving of motorcycles in the parks where my kids are running around and playing.
  • The parking of cars on the sidewalk where I need to pick up my kid from school.
  • The fact that nothing translates the way it should. I have no idea what anyone is trying to say to me, but apparently I signed up my son for a class called Funny Bags. What happens in Funny Bags is anyone’s guess.
  • The way I cannot read anyone’s emotions. Do you like me? Do you hate me?
  • The way I’m laughed at for no discernable reason. They think I’m cute? Stupid? Amazing? Intimidating? Mysterious?

Aaalllthough! The highlight of my life was possibly when our driver told Mike (not me, mind you!) that I was “Virtuous and capable.” Literally the best compliment I have ever received, in particular because our driver is the most virtuous, capable, and affable person I have ever met. I also kind of like how he didn’t tell me, but essentially complimented Mike on his choice of wife, leaving it up to Mike whether to pass on the word to me.

  • The fact I know enough Mandarin to know people are talking about me, but I don’t know what they are saying. LaoweiForeigner. I’m the only one in sight!!! I know you are talking about me right in front of me! I might start doing funny dances or something, just to keep things interesting.
  • The way every expat from every country besides America speaks like 80 bajillion languages. I attended a choir rehearsal for the local Communist Catholic Church (more on that another time I’m sure), and there were people from Indonesia, Ecuador, Mali, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Angola. And they could just speak whatever language the other one chose first so I felt utterly idiotic, and they all just ended up speaking English for my benefit. On the upside – they all thought I was in college! Yay, I look like I’m in my 20s! Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine why a middle aged stay at home mother living in China would want to join the praise band.

Ah. It sounds like I’m having a terrible time. But I’m really not. It’s just that, “Everything is awesome!” makes for uninteresting, self-congratulatory blog posts about how I'm So Good At Living Abroad! Which, maybe I am, but it's all just a bit much from time to time.

I will be posting a “What I Love About China” post at some point. Today is just not that day.

The journey to Nanjing

28 hours
3 children
5 carry ons
6 checked items
0 sanity

We are exhausted, this is an understatement. I am feeling on the edge of collapse at all times. However, there is an energy, perhaps a survival mechanism that kicks in, keeps us going. Everything is alive, new, exciting, even if perhaps a bit scary.

I will start with the low point, since it’s actually not all that bad, considering other things that could have gone wrong. I completely broke down into a blubbering mess, in public, on our last leg of this journey on the plane from Beijing to Nanjing. We were going on hour 25, with about 45 minutes total sleep during that entire time since between 3 kids, none of them slept simultaneously, and in order to have them survive the trip without incident, hating us, having permanent mental and emotional damage, and irritating every other passenger on the plane, we tried to cater to their every whim. That may have been a bad strategy, but it’s just the one we took.

As we were boarding from Beijing to Nanjing, we were let on first because of all the kids and carry-ons. But shortly thereafter, a hoard of people basically stampeded me to get to their seats on the plane because that’s how people are on planes, and especially in China there is not a whole lot of cultural nicety around waiting one’s turn in lines (you often have to elbow other people away from your spot in check out lines, for example). So this man was trying to barrel past me, with a baby on my back while I was trying to maneuver my carry on from one row to another – I even put my hands up in a “stop” sign in hopes of getting him to allow me a moment to get situated. He was impervious to my pleading and kept trying to push past me. I finally scooted out of his way, but in so doing, knocked my head on the overhead bin, knocked my brand new sunglasses off my head, and when I bent over (baby on back, remember?) I stepped on and cracked them and nearly whacked Howard on the head.

Horrified eyes greeted me, “Who is this crazy American baby lady blocking the way, flailing around…” So I burst into tears. More horrified eyes.

The first few days

You can imagine the first few days have been a hectic haze of jetlag and confusion. It’s amazing how difficult it can be when you don’t have just a few of the things you are used to having, like kitchen towels, salt and pepper, a vegetable peeler. You can improvise a lot of stuff for sure, but after a while it all adds up to just this very disorienting weirdness.

Stocking our kitchen has been one of the biggest challenges and concerns for me. I am used to cooking almost every meal at home, so eating out with 3 kids and shopping in a foreign country where quality can be questionable or good quality can be exorbitantly priced has been rough. Our driver, Mr. Wang, has been very helpful in this area, but also very picky about what he “lets” us buy. He basically rejects up to 60% of what we want to buy, either by pointing out the item is way past expiration (flour I wanted to buy expired 1 year ago!), or that it’s potentially contaminated or chock-full of chemicals, or perhaps he just doesn’t like it. He shakes his head and waves his hands and repeats emphatically, “Bu. Bu.” (Which means no.) This resulted in a lot of items on our list being rejected, like Milan’s beloved apples. The kid LIVES on apples and at store after store, they were Bu’d by Mr. Wang.

Mr. Wang’s son is apparently some kind of nutrition expert who makes intricately designed foods (he showed me photos) of highest nutritional quality. I don’t understand entirely what field of culinary arts this is as Mr. Wang speaks no English and tells us everything through a translation app, which might be a bit inaccurate, but this is my best understanding of what his son does. But the bottom line is, Mr. Wang seems to have much higher standards and information about food than we might, which is frustrating, but also kind of great. 

However, a friend and Nanjing expat veteran, offered to take me shopping to her favorite markets where she says she has never had a bad food experience - so I was more than happy to take her up on the offer.

Which brings me to…

This ridiculously giant rhinocerous beetle just hanging out on a coconut at the counter of the best (24 hour!?) fruit shop in Nanjing
So if this occurred in Detroit, I’d have been shrieking and mortified, but in China I’m like, “That’s amazing,” and taking photographs. Uncertain if it was a pet, or a stowaway on a Thai coconut (and yes, coconuts are large, so the beetle was also very large), Mr. Beetle was the subject of much entertainment for myself and my friend until finally an employee bagged it and threw it in garbage…we had our answer. He was an intruder, indeed.
But beetles aside, I was so grateful for this shopping trip – it was making me feel human again. The fruit and vegetable markets were great, and the import market was also wonderful.

Tostitos! I have never been so happy to see a bag of Tostitos. I know that sounds silly since I haven’t even been away from the US for even a week, but psychologically, Tostitos were dead to me, so it really was a special thing. The excitement continued…409! Fruit wash! Ajax! Brooklyn IPA! Duncan Hines!

Our kids
They are amazing. They are special. They are handling this transition like champions. They are, at times, losing it. We may be overcompensating with cookies. However, I hope that in a week or two once eating and sleeping routines have been re-established and we are able to explore fun things to do, Nanjing will start to feel like home for them. All in all they have just taken to this adventure with minimal complaining. They miss their grandparents, but often say stuff about how they will show them things when they visit, etc. My hope is that by Mike and I staying positive it has helped them embrace things too.

About staying positive

It’s hard to do all the time, but I will toot my own horn here: we have been taking each challenge in stride, praying when things feel tough, and take heart knowing that there are lots of people supporting us here and at home. Having kids actually makes a lot of this easier, in a very weird way. We don’t have the luxury of losing it, or being really negative, because for the sake of the kids we need to lead by example and show them this change can be fun and rewarding, even if difficult. Even if we didn’t outright say negative things, they’d be able to feel our vibe, so we are doing our best to make this a fun adventure, and guess what – that just turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some more pictures for your enjoyment!

Rhinoceros beetle atop a coconut

Fresh egg and grain stall 

Fresh noodle stall - the smell was amazing

Man standing outside museum with birds on chains - his pets?

Howard made a friend his own age - 10 months

There is no Apple store in Nanjing...this picture was taken in Nanjing, you do the math

All the feelings

Ups and downs  
Since returning from Nanjing, my head and heart have been an emotional swirl, now in a general upward swirl as the momentum and adrenaline of Heck Yeah Let's Do This is taking over with t-minus 15 days left in the US.

But many of my emotions are not China-related, while at the same time also very much China-related. Everything is connected. Butterflies flap their wings in China, and a monsoon lands in Detroit, right?

Anyway. Last weekend my sister came to visit with her son, my (first!) nephew, and it was a beautiful time. It was our first introduction and he's even more precious than I could have imagined. He is like her: a lovely, serene and sweet soul. (A side note about my sister: she is literally the most calming person I know. Being in her presence is just a balm, she radiates peace. She is nothing like me. :) )

I relate to my nephew differently than other babies I have met. While being an aunt is not like being a mother, it's also not like meeting a friend's baby. It is its own special thing. I felt an instant connection to him - like I'm his special guardian, but without all the baggage and anxiety of am-I-doing-this-right of parenthood (heh, sorry kids!). With my nephew I can just scoop him up and love him to pieces and hand him back if he fusses...this is what everyone has always said about other people's kids that I was able to experience myself.

But with my sister's visit and her new motherhood I feel we have bonded even closer and the fact I'm leaving makes all this achingly bittersweet. And big. Imposing. Huge. Everything is changing. And some of it is great, but all of it is new and a tad frightening. And the world is going crazy too, which doesn't help. And since she left I have been on the verge of tears at inappropriate times, like at the Whole Foods cheese counter.

Cheese Guy: Hiya, what can I do for you?

Me (what I actually said): Oh, I'm just looking for some gouda.

Me (what I was saying in my mind): I'm looking for world peace. I'm looking for everyone in the entire world to stop fighting and realize how good life is. I want everyone to stop wasting time on things that don't matter. And I wish I was President of the world and I want to lift everyone out of poverty and throw all the guns and McDonald'ses into the ocean. I want everyone who misses someone to be with that person. I want everyone who is sick to be healthy. I want everyone who has died to come back to life. I want utopia. Because I'm feeling overwhelmed. And also maybe I want some nice gouda cheese.

I fully acknowledge that every interaction I have with people right now is weird. I'm just going to own it. I stare goofily, wanting to blurt out to random passers-by, "You are so beautiful and you don't even know it!" I suppose I could get it across in a cool motivational speaker kind of way if I didn't look absolutely disheveled, exhausted, and insane. Like if I had on a maxi dress and chunky necklace and had actually bathed sometime in the last 3 days. So I say nothing but my glassy eyed stare is probably doing all the talking for me. *Sigh*

Reality is that everyone and everything looks more beautiful and precious and special to me right now. Maybe it's because I'm leaving this place and I want to linger just a second. I think it's a similar reaction to when graduating, or leaving a job you didn't hate but need to move on - you get sentimental; extremely so. You don't want things to end and at the same time you can't wait for new things to begin and you feel like you are cheating on your past with your future and it's all just a sad-but-exciting jumbledy mess.

You want to tell your past, "No, really, you've been great! But I can't ever see you again! I'm changing in permanently life-altering ways, but you didn't do anything to make me want to do that. I hope you're not mad...even though this is the end." It's extra weird when you feel like this conversation is not happening with people around you, but to yourself. I'm guessing someone one there knows what I'm trying to express here...

I blurt out, "I'm moving to China" regularly. Mostly to check-out line employees. Because I forget something I might need in China on a daily basis and am taking way too many trips to Target and Costco. So once I get to a check-out counter, I land on a moment where I have nothing to do. I'm held captive by the beep-boop-beeping of my almost-belongings past the scanner and I just wait there, limp with release of thought and action. I suppose I could distract myself with my phone, but that's rude. So instead I blurt "I'm moving to China" to explain my demeanor. And why my grocery list is an improbable combo of things like gouda cheese, 2 rolls of duct tape, 8 boxes of tylenol, bathing suits and chocolate chips.

On top of moving to China stress and excitement, there is also what I experience every summer: my father's death comes back to life. As soon as June hits, Cancer Diagnosis, Uncertainty, Decline, and Death start their march into my consciousness just as they did in June 2007. A friend just posted this most excellent quote, "Grief changes shape but never ends." ~ Keanu Reeves

Mr. Reeves has hit the nail. I am now permanently grieving and/or healing from grief, which sounds dramatic, but isn't. Immense, but simple: death brings grief, and grief is permanent fixture. Or perhaps a permanent removal of something. Like if I were to lose a limb. At the very least it is a state-change. But the psychological expression of this grief-state-change is that my awareness of death is ever-present and salient. Sometimes it is expressed as a fear of dying. But other times it is expressed as a desperately mad attempt to live this undeniably glorious life to its fullest.

China is giving me new life in this way. And in my happiness and excitement, I am also missing my father. I am missing the person I may have been if he were still alive, celebrating the person I have become without him. Oh geez it's a complicated thing: a woman losing her father. There's a great book written about it a friend gave me and I read shortly after my dad passed. The author has now gone on to write feline murder mysteries... (!) I mean, talk about a new life, right?

There is SO much waiting for me. I've been knocked over and I'm getting up in China. It's just so exciting.