Monday, May 26, 2008

Entry Fourteen: Best of Times, Worst of Times

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late. My apologies.]

When I made it back to Jinhua from Shanghai I found my host family sitting in front of the TV with grave faces. Premier Wen Jinbao had traveled to the area hit by the earthquake and CCTV footage was pouring in showing the devastation. CCTV dedicated every station to 24 hour coverage of the relief effort as the army mobilized to rescue victims. The school already had fund raisers underway and there was a massive telethon aired on CCTV to raise money. The government responded with everything they have. People everywhere were donating money or supplies. It was really quite moving, not only because of the scale of the tragedy but the scale of the popular response.

In contrast to the somber mood in Jinhua, that weekend I went to Hangzhou to witness the enthusiasm of the Olympic Torch Relay. Ying Nina and Chan, my best friends in China, took me and a few others to Hangzhou. After a pleasant one hour on the D train playing cards, we arrived, waited for a taxi and headed to the hotel. From the hotel we visited a Mongolian Restaurant, and Hangzhou’s reputation for great food held up. Delicious! I did, however, try the first food in China that I cannot stand to eat: Smelly Tofu. Chan (and many others) love it, but to me it smells and tastes like the bottom of a city dumpster. That being said, I tried it three times – just to be sure.

That night we wandered about trying to find our way to the West Lake to buy some of the popular “I love China” garb. Patriotic clothing is the latest trend in a post-protest, post-earthquake, pre-Olympics nationalist fervor. While I have my reservations about some of the government’s decisions, I can say without blinking that I love China. So, I bought some items to reflect that.

My 200 plus pound frame slipped into a XXL “I LOVE CHINA” t-shirt, I wrapped a “Let’s Go China!” bandana around my head, and stuck Chinese Flags all over myself. Walking around the lake at night I was the subject to plenty of pointing, and few people asked to take pictures with me. It was nothing compared with the next day.

That evening we ate fruit and made posters in the hotel until midnight. After a quick sleep and a slow breakfast we left the hotel in taxis to get closer to the relay route. Every inch of the way people were selling “I love China” items, and at a premium price given the quality. We lined up along the fenced off road and waited, absorbing the noticeable energy and excitement. One old man had a great spot on a street corner, which he could have only earned if he had arrived at dawn to claim his position. As the crowd gathered around him his eyes just grew bigger and bigger. Consider what that 70 year old man has seen in his lifetime in China; my mind races to imagine how this day compared.

As the crowd grew larger and larger I became more and more of a spectacle. Strangers asked left and right to have a picture with me, and countless more stopped dead in their tracts to raise their cell phone cameras. My friends commented on what I had already realized, Chinese people were excited to see what they’d call a “friendly foreigner." I was happy to be able to support and celebrate with my Chinese friends.

After an hour of standing, the relay rolled by. The screams and enthusiasm lived up to its billing, but the view did not. I was pushed and pulled within the crowd and saw practically nothing. Oh well.

We went for a long walk around the lake and then to the train station. Upon arrival we boarded a slow train in low class seating. Instead of a chair I sat on a plank, there was no air conditioning. It smelled pretty bad. Interestingly, however, I sat next to a business woman from Hangzhou who spoke some English. She asked a few polite questions and then criticized CNN, a common conversation pattern during the months of April and May. After a scare upon arrival (we almost did not get off the train at the right stop) we were back in Jinhua, tired from a long day but glad to have seen the swell of Chinese excitement.

That Monday would be provide a strong contrast to the joy of the relay, as the entire nation would have a moment of silence to honor all lost to the massive Sichuan earthquake. The moment took place exactly one week after the disaster, and during my Grade One class. When the sirens started everyone in the class stood in silence for 10 minutes. This group has always been very quiet and reluctant to open up to me for a variety of reasons. But on this day I asked them to remain in silence after the official silence and write their feelings. Because this day belonged to the memory of Chinese people, English language did not need to be part of the day’s lesson.

After the students wrote out their emotions I invited them to the board to write what they wrote (in English or Chinese, as they wished). Usually such requests receive silence stares, but this day many students got up to take the chalk. The blackboard was a combination of Chinese and English writing that expressed both grief and pride. I learned how to write the Chinese characters for “sad” and added my message as well. The writing lasted for 15 minutes, until there was no more room on the board. For the last 10 minutes of class we all sat in silence and looked at the board. It was one of those special moments. When the bell rang no one flinched; we just sat together with our words in the open for everyone to see.

I wish I could say that since that special day I have had countless other moments with the same connection, but the truth is I haven’t. Both my students and I have made large strides toward each other this year, but we still do not seem to click consistently. In each of my classes more than half are engaged, but a strong third are not. Strangely, in the halls everyone acknowledges me with the same smile regardless of how tuned-in they are during class. Because of the language barrier, cultural differences, and the students’ circumstances, I really cannot evaluate my success or failure as a teacher here. But, I can say with confidence, it has been an honor to be part of this amazing year in China.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Entry Thirteen: Traveling with Amanda

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late.]

It has been three weeks since I have been able to really write. I have been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, despite having plenty to say. It is hard to determine why I went on such a long hiatus, but my exit coincided with when the weather first became hot – and for that matter, my return to writing this afternoon takes place after they installed a working air conditioner in my office. I guess you could say things have finally cooled down (wink, wink).

Though there have been peaks and valleys in last few weeks, I continue to enjoy my time. Last Tuesday, after playing some ping pong with my friend Chan, we went out for dumplings and stewed duck heads. (Yes, it is exactly what you fear it is, and yes, I ate the brains, eyes, nostrils and even scrapped the palette off the top of the duck bill. It all tasted like duck, but was a certifiable texture-adventure.) Last Thursday I spent 4 hours in a tea house playing mahjong and answering cell phone calls for the Chinese people I was playing with. They get a kick out of me answering their cell phones. I don’t mind playing along.

So, as you can see, my personal life is really quite settled here. I would go so far as to say it is relaxing. The food is cheap, my hours are light compared with home, and I have lost about 30 pounds without complaint or struggle. But every now and again I get a hankering for a real marinara sauce, a good cup of coffee, and of course, my loved ones. Imagine my excitement when my girlfriend Amanda found a round trip plane ticket for $700.

I took the fast train to Shanghai the day before her arrival. I had hoped it would give me ample time to pick her up (which it did) and a chance to get acclimated with the city (more on that outcome later…). Because I am a cheapskate, I booked us a room in a hostel instead of a hotel. Even still, our hostel’s location was pretty ideal: 5 minutes by foot to centrally located People’s Square, and 10 minutes to the subway stop. Since I walk everywhere in Jinhua (I prefer the 3 mile stroll to Wal-Mart over paying cab fare), Shanghai seemed like a city of short cuts by comparison.

That evening I walked around our hostel looking for a bite to eat. I walked below one of Shanghai’s main roads, the mighty Ya-Nan elevated highway. I quickly found a food road. Unlike in Jinhua, the food vendors in Shanghai are aggressive. I had every fruit imaginable shoved in my face as I meandered around looking for a simple plate of tofu on the food road. Perhaps “food road” sounds a bit strange, but generally the city is organized in this way; each commercial street has a specialty. Walking that night I also found a road where all the shops were dedicated to costume fabric and lace, and another dedicated to musical instruments.

To my disappointment, the food road nearest to my hostel was dominated by tourist-friendly restaurants. In other words, there were picture menus and inflated prices. Three months ago I would have seen this as a relief, but now I see it as a hassle. So I just kept walking.

I walked until the bright lights of the big restaurants went dim behind me, and there I finally found a place serving what I was looking for. There was a man cooking with his open coal fire on the sidewalk. His eyes widened as I approached, like a hunter’s eyes watching a buck emerge from the brush. He tried and tried to sell me some barbequed chicken wings on a stick, but I wouldn’t give in. Finally I got a few words in and asked for a plate of tofu stir-fried with some greens, and a small bowl of rice. The man looked at me completely dumbfounded. My Chinese is not so poor that he couldn’t understand, and also not good enough to warrant such surprise. I am assuming that his shock was more a product of my ordering a cheap, nutritious meal and turning down all the options on a street designed to grab my interest. He then asked if I would eat here or go, and I readily replied that I would stay. He smiled a little as I entered under the aluminum roof.

I went inside and sat at a rickety table, the floor was atrociously dirty, the air conditioner broken and the leaking fluid pooled beneath me. Perfect (and I am not being sarcastic). Three months ago I might have been a little worried about the sanitation, but now I recognize such conditions as being suitable for locals. In other words, the food I was about to eat would probably taste better than the big restaurants and cost less than a US dollar. I was right on both accounts. Shanghai is known for being cosmopolitan and upscale, but I prefer the laid-back environment of tofu and greens on a street corner. Part of this has always been part of my personality, but in many ways my few months in China has made its mark. I am comfortable now, maybe even easy going. But on the downside, and maybe related to my writer’s block, I no longer have fresh eyes. Just in time for Amanda to arrive.

I walked to the subway the morning of her arrival only to be harassed by one of Shanghai’s many con-artists. A 19 year-old-ish kid approached me and began his script in passable English. It was the same garbage routine I heard 10 times during my first 2 visits to Shanghai: “I am a student, be my friend, help me practice, you are so handsome, come with me and be friends….” This time I interrupted him in Chinese to try to get him away from me. He wouldn’t budge. Finally I saw a tall, lanky blonde man walking with a briefcase. He was looking up at the skyscrapers in awe, clearly fresh off the plane. Without thinking, I pointed up ahead of me at the lanky newcomer and said, “There’s another one.” The kid looked up and walked quickly to the new target. Three steps later, it hit me. Why did I do that!? I am not proud or even amused by my action, but it shouldn’t be omitted. I am still pretty upset with myself about it.

Once on the subway I traveled to the Langyang Station, and then transferred to the Meglev. The Meglev is a German engineered monorail that connects PuDong International Airport with the city. It travels at a top speed of 400 km/hr, and turns what would be an hour taxi ride into 8 minutes. Like the airport it serves, everything about the ride is first class. After my arrival at the airport I sat alone in a café drinking Oolong tea and drew pictures of the wilted tulips at my table. I had two hours until her plane landed; one side effect of my travels, I am much more comfortable being alone, so waiting is never a problem.

My first mistake, my most serious mistake, and my most frequent mistake during Amanda’s visit was my struggle to be “Western” friendly. I planned our trip with great care, but made a ton of mistakes because I didn’t anticipate some of her basic needs. I am grateful she was such a trooper, because in retrospect I really was out of touch with what someone needs when they first arrive in China. How is that for ironic?

First mistake, I love mass transportation and walking. So, from the airport we took the Meglev to the subway. From the subway we walked to our hostel, carrying her monstrous luggage across busy streets and over foot bridges. Welcome to China!

After a brief rest I recommended that we go take a look at the Bund (Shanghai’s picturesque skyline on the Huang-Pu River). She agreed, and we departed again by foot because taking a taxi just did not occur to me.

Dog tired, and trying her best not to complain, she walked through smog and construction to see the Bund. I had told Amanda that Shanghai was similar to NYC, so she brought stylish clothes. Big fashion mistake! Shanghai is a city of earth tones. As if being fair skinned isn’t enough, her bright yellow outfit attracted the vendors’ attention like lions to a lamb. Needless to say, the Bund failed to impress after our 30 minute walk down busy streets and the harassment we endured.

Walking along the Bund we looked for a place to sit. A man in a blue polo waved us into a patio seat. We sat. He delivered two drinks neither of us ordered. Amanda was hungry, and since we somehow found ourselves sitting with drinks I thought we should get some food. I asked the vendor if he had any vegetables to cook on his barbeque. He replied no and acted really annoyed by either that I was speaking Chinese, or just because I was speaking to him. He pointed to what was already cooking. I asked to find out what it was. He said nothing. So I asked in Chinese, “Is this chicken.” He said yes. I bought three. I returned to the table bearing three meat kabobs for a hungry Amanda.

I don’t know what the meat was, but it was not chicken. As I munched my way through the first kabob I causally spit the fat onto the table. In China, you sort food out in your mouth and not with a knife. So, bones, fat, cartilage, and whatever else you don’t want to swallow, you just spit it on the table. Amanda almost screamed as I spat chunks of fat across the table in front of her. Again, I am a little out of touch.

I can eat handsomely in Jinhua for 4 days on 100 RMB, so I was stunned when the grumpy vendor (who all of a sudden could speak both English and Chinese) told me that 100 RMB was my bill. I complained about the price and the man’s colleague became a little angry. I decided I couldn’t put Amanda through a street argument, so I paid 100 RMB for 19 RMB worth of product. We then spent the next twenty minutes walking the Bund and being harassed by more vendors. Travel agent/Tour guide I am not.

The next day we got an early start to our first full day together in China and walked to the Shanghai Museum. We waited in line for about 30 minutes, but when we finally entered we were greeted with good news and bad news. Good news: admission was free because of the May Holiday. Bad news: I was in Shanghai during the May Holiday, when the busy city becomes the tourist destination for millions (more) of Chinese people.

Amanda enjoyed the museum, especially the minority costumes and a miniature furniture display. There are a tremendous number of Tibetan Buddhist relics in the museum: horns, countless statues, and other instruments of religious worship. Despite a 20th century of relative isolation, many of the other artifacts in the museum bear evidence to a history of communication with the outside world. Many vases and sculptures depict animals from the Middle East and North Africa, testimony to the long history of interaction between the Chinese and Arab world. There were also a few plates with heraldry from the Qing Dynasty, evidence of the emerging influence of the West in the 19th century. Some of the museum plaques carried the Communist Party’s characteristic tenor. My favorite example: “Pottery belongs to all of mankind, but porcelain is China’s invention.”

We left the museum and sat for a bit on a bench in the People’s Square, and grabbed lunch in a Hong Kong themed restaurant at the underground mall. She was so thrown off by the pickled mushrooms that garnished our spring rolls that she took a picture. Funny what interests people at first. After a walk through the mall, which by the way has a corporate sponsored “Old Shanghai” theme walk, we headed to Nanjing Lu – the most famous shopping street in China.

Due to the May Holiday, Nanjing Lu was absolutely mobbed and overwhelming. Amanda seemed dazed by all the goods for sale, and was uneasy about negotiating - just as I had been at first. After an hour or so of wandering we found a Starbucks, a retreat we would take many times during her visit. At this point her jetlag was kicking in, so we went back to the hostel. We abandoned plans to see an acrobat show and Amanda went to sleep while I, wide awake, ventured into the common room to read the May copy of National Geographic. It is a special edition dedicated to China; I read it cover to cover, absolutely compelling and on the mark.

Still not tired, I entered a game of billiards with a bloke from Oxford, England. He was 23 and teaching north of Beijing. We spoke at length about our experiences and world politics. Needless to say, our conversation was more interesting than our terrible billiards play. Meeting new people never gets old.

The next morning Amanda woke up hours before me, a product of jetlag. When I finally came around, we ventured out for some dumplings. We walked up and down the far end of the food street until I saw a place completely full of Chinese people. The dumplings here were more bready than any I have had in Jinhua, but they were delicious. After that, however, the day turned sour.

Amanda loves gardens, so the next stop was supposed to be the Yu-an Gardens. But, my errant directions took us far from our destination. We walked in stifling heat for the entire morning only to take a cab back to the hostel for rest three and half hours later. Once at the hostel I received new directions, and we again walked. This time we found the garden, but could not find the entrance. Amanda decided we should accept our fate, and renamed the place the Yu-Don’t-Exist Garden. But, I insisted we continue to look, and I foolishly took us into a strange city temple and then through a local park without luck. Finally, after a brief time being accosted by vendors in the infamous Dragon Market, we left for the hostel.

Maybe all this sounds like disastrous planning to you, but the fact is life here rarely goes as planned. For example, I was told I would start teaching new classes. Three day before my first class and I was still not told how many classes, or when the classes were, or what they hoped me to accomplish with the new classes. When the day finally came I taught the new classes and everything was fine. It is just the way things work here, and one just has to be flexible and relax. So, getting lost in Shanghai was, well, for me just another day.

But, with all the walking and misdirection, the day took its toll on Amanda (as it would have me, back in February). She didn’t complain, but her frustration and fatigue was obvious. That evening she naturally wanted to sleep, so I ventured out to eat Hot-Pot Chicken with the guy from Oxford. When I returned to the hostel I brought her back some noodles, which she enjoyed in the comfort of her room – far from the crowds and aggressive vendors. The next day we sat for a bit in the park, and then headed for Jinhua by train. Though Shanghai was not a complete disaster, I recognized that I had really lost touch and felt pretty bad about the time I had shown Amanda in the city. Fortunately, Jinhua is more my turf, and things would go much smoother in my Chinese hometown.

The train ride was very comfortable, as I had bought first class tickets on a fast train. One memory that lingers with me was my first train ride to Jinhua in February. It was a slow train for 5 hours surrounded by odors that are not fit for description. This time around it was 2 hours in luxury on the D train, and it still cost only $22 US dollars for each ticket.

Upon arrival to Jinhua we waited for Helen to pick us up, as she had planned to take me and Amanda out to dinner. Accompanied by Rosa, an outstanding English teacher who earlier this year taught me to make dumplings, Helen arrived. The first restaurant we visited was quite beautiful; however as we stood trying to get a table it dawned on Amanda and I that we were in the middle of a wedding reception. We stood there with all eyes on us for about three awkward minutes before we were hurried out of the building. Later that evening we would return to my apartment where, unannounced, a new resident was sitting on my couch. The mother of a local student, this new woman had begun to rent one of the vacant bedrooms in the apartment. No one told me ahead of time or introduced us. Over time she became a friend, so no worries – it is just the way it goes in Jinhua. Remember, one must relax and be flexible.

When we entered the next restaurant we were seated in a large room with one other family. Amanda commented later that two boys next to us had brought their pet hamsters and were playing with them in the restaurant, something I hadn’t even noticed. We ate cabbage, chicken, and a number of other staples. Amanda still had a hard time with the “spit on the table” reality of Chinese dining, but she liked most of the dishes. I was most surprised by my own reaction to returning to Jinhua. My three days in Shanghai was most time I had spent away from Jinhua in two months, and returning felt like a relief. I can’t wait for my real homecoming.

We spent the next few days introducing Amanda to my friends, relaxing, eating at my favorite local spots, and playing Sim City. Settled into Jinhua life, the next great challenge was on the horizon. Amanda had agreed to attempt to cook a marinara sauce as we threw dinner parties for my Chinese colleagues.

Please realize this sauce had to be from scratch. And I mean scratch. Tomatoes, garlic, onion and many other ingredients are readily available. But there is nothing in a can to shorten the process. So, using a giant pot we borrowed the night before from one of my student’s parents, Amanda boiled and skinned 60 or so tomatoes. Then, without a blender, she hand pressed each tomato through a strainer to mash them down to sauce consistency. My mother had mailed me parmesan cheese, basil, oregano and a few other spices impossible to find in China. Using the spices, and hours upon hours of cooking, Amanda did it. In the end it was DELICIOUS, spot on perfect, and a big hit among the dozen guests we had for our dinner. Later that Friday we would make the sauce again for another dozen of my Chinese colleagues and friends (except the second time I did much of the tomato mashing since I did not have classes.)

While in Jinhua we went to see the Double Dragon Caves, as I wrote about in an earlier entry. We were also the guests of many dinners across the city. She loved how convenient it is to buy fruit; at almost any hour on many street corners you can get a fresh cut pineapple for less than 30 cents. Amanda confirmed my impression that people in Jinhua are especially friendly, and the atmosphere is easy going. But I would have to say that the most memorable event of Amanda’s time in Jinhua County was when we left the city for the countryside.

Driving in the backseat of my colleague’s car, Amanda and I sat watching the scenery change from urban to rural. My friend and colleague Deborah had invited us to visit her husband’s relatives’ orange farm in the countryside. We drove for about an hour and arrived to a dirt road that meandered through bogs and agriculture, with smoke stacks looming in the distance. We drove past an abandoned cement runway, a relic from the days of the Cultural Revolution. The farm was similar to those I had seen earlier from my train window; meticulously cared for, but surrounded by pollution.

The farmers were self-sufficient, making their own wood crates and living from the sale of their staple crop. After a quick cup of tea we changed buildings to play some Mahjong. On the way we passed a building with a collapsed roof, Deborah said it was a former community hall that was never repaired after a storm decades ago. The narrow cement path eventually gave way to an opening with three buildings. We entered one of them and sat for Mahjong. Mahjong is a game played with tiles where you try to be the first to match groups of three. It is a traditional game whose rules are credited to the “Kingdom of Heaven” from the Taiping Revolution of the 19th century.

Deborah’s mother in law then entered bearing snacks she had bought from a person in the alley. It was a homemade delicacy that Deborah remembers as a special treat from when she was a child. It is a pig’s bladder stuffed with seasoned rice. Amanda began to squirm.

I insisted that Amanda and I weren’t too hungry and could share one between us. So I began to sink my teeth into the moist and rubbery bladder skin, revealing the rice inside. I ate as much of the bladder as I could. This allowed Amanda to nibble a bit of the rice to appease our host, who was very insistent that we eat up. I have every once of faith in Deborah and her family, but even me (Mr. Food Adventure) was a little nervous about this one. After all, I was eating a countryside bladder purchased in an alleyway days after the reported outbreak in my area of China. I did have a little stomach ache later that day, but it was nothing a little antacid couldn’t solve.

Saturday we took the morning train to Shanghai, from where we would depart at 7pm on an overnight train for Beijing. After our last experience in Shanghai, I was a little nervous about passing time between trains. But, we stored our luggage and hit the subway to find some shopping. We decided to head back to the Dragon Market for some shopping, but we did not know which subway line to take. Unlike last time, I was eager to have exact directions. A tall foreigner, obviously America, was reading a map with his Chinese (guessing) girlfriend. I asked for directions, and the plan was made.

Thirty seconds later the plan changed as the American returned, introduced himself as Jeremy. He asked if he and his girlfriend could tag along since they were headed in that direction anyway. As luck, or fate, would have it, it was with Jeremy’s assistance that Amanda and I actually found the once elusive Yu-An Gardens. Amanda took my camera and went on a garden-lover’s-picture-spree. The garden was quite beautiful, a true refuge from the bustle and skyscrapers of Shanghai. I was thrilled she enjoyed herself, and later after some shopping we parted ways with Jeremy and headed back to the train station.

On the way to our train passed by a Subway restaurant and grabbed two sandwiches. When we made it to the station all of the seats were taken in the waiting area, so we sat on the floor. Hungry from all the walking, Amanda began to eat her sub. I had to smile at what travel can do to a person. One week earlier she was decked out in high fashion and cosmetics, and here was Amanda now comfortably eating a sandwich sitting on the floor of a crowded Chinese train station.

The overnight train to Beijing is the way to travel. For $65 USD one can get a comfortable soft bed in a climate controlled room with only 3 other people. The train departs at 7pm from Shanghai and you wake up at 8am in Beijing, having saved the money you would have spent on a hotel room. Since I fund all of my own travel in China, I was happy to find such an inexpensive option.

Our first day in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the larger-than-life dynastic palace in the heart of Beijing. We spent practically an entire day walking from place to place in the palace and covered only about a third of it. It is too big for words.

Our second day in Beijing was for one purpose only, to see the Great Wall. Once again, with my wallet thinning by the moment, we needed the cheapest possible option. We found it. Taking a tour with a tour guide and a bus can cost over $100 US per person. Taking a taxi to the nearest Wall point and back can cost $80 USD per person. BUT, if you know which bus to take and do not mind a bumpy ride in a crowded bus, you can get to Ba-Da-Ling (one of the most popular spots on the wall) for about $5 US per person round trip! I love mass transportation.

BaDaLing is a microcosm of “progress” in China. I put “progress” in quotations because sometimes what is hailed as progress feels a little awkward. This is especially true at the ancient sites. There is a superhighway/expressway that leads to the Great Wall entrance, and an Animal Safari Park nearby along with another “fun park” under construction. The wall is ancient however well restored and smalltime vendors peddle their traditional gifts along the way. For about $5 you can have your picture taken on a camel. There is a Starbucks. The view from any one of the towers shows rolling hills and extraordinary mountains to the north. Alongside the wall stands a giant Olympics-logo sign. That's tourist-China.

We climbed for a bit, Starbucks in hand, when a few tourists walked by us and pointing. One said in clearly American-English, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Starbucks?” I nodded, but even as I drank my macchiato, I was thinking the same thing.

Having saved money from the bus ride and the overnight train, I was ready to take Amanda for a nice dinner. Enough of this roughing it, it was time for some class! I asked the front desk clerk for the best Peking Duck in Beijing, regardless of price. She insisted to know how much I planned to spend, and I confirmed price was no object. She called ahead and made reservations, and smiled as she gave me the directions written in Chinese.

Amanda and I put on our “nice” clothes and headed out the door excited for an evening with a hint of luxury. We caught a cab and were on our way when the cabby stopped and told us to walk across the intersection. I was baffled; there was nothing that looked like a nice restaurant on the other side. We crossed and found what looked like a slum, an old Hu Tong village with garbage in the streets and sewage stink in the air. A rickshaw driver took one look at us, decked out in dressy clothes, and came for us. He pleaded with us to get in, but I was skeptical. After a few moments of negotiation and his insisting he knew where we were trying to go, I agreed and in the rickshaw we went. Instead of driving around the slum, we drove deeper into it. Amanda began to look nervous, and I was worried I had fallen into some kind of trap. Finally he stopped at a rundown building with a duck painted on it. I sat in disbelief as the driver said in Chinese, “we have arrived.” I looked down at my reservation paper and the phone number matched the number painted on the side of the building. Indeed, we had arrived.

We were hurried in through a door into a small restaurant with four or so rooms, as smoke from the kitchen clouded the air. The floor was covered in filth, and when we arrived at our table, the window we sat next to was broken. A waitress came to deliver the menu. The wine list was 40 pages long, and the multilingual menu displayed duck prepared in every way you could imagine and at a price that would make you blush. I looked up and saw the plates on other tables and realized we had indeed arrived at the best duck restaurant in Beijing.

Before she had arrived in Shanghai I was always keen to find the place that didn’t look good but was full of customers, like the tofu I had the night before her flight. It seems traveling with Amanda had revived my “western” sense about things, but after a few deep breaths in a Hu Tong slum I was comfortable again. We ordered a roasted duck, complete with the whole spread and ate like crazy. The food was spectacular.

The next day we got lost around Tiananmen Square looking for a bus that, as it turns out, did not exist. It made for a less memorable day (hey, relax, that’s how it goes), but when we finally arrived at the Summer Palace we had a nice walk around the grounds. We did not know it at the time, but while we were looking out at the water at the palace, a major earthquake hit Sichuan Province of China.

That evening on our return trip from Beijing we shared a soft sleep cabin with 2 graduate students, one from Shanghai and the other from Taiwan. They spoke about how the election of Taiwan’s new (generally pro-China) President was going to bring positive change in the next year, and also expressed optimism about China’s relationship with a new U.S. President. I have had a lot of political conversations about the U.S. election in the last month, something I have really enjoyed. One of the graduate students was studying law, but said her dream was to be a flight stewardess. She was pretty frank about the lack of an independent judicial system, and her interest in law was not going to translate into the career of her liking. We talked and talked, apparently ignorant of the earthquake.

The next day I delivered Amanda to the airport and began my lonely trip back. When my train came to a halt at the Jinhua station I saw that on the outbound track there was a long flatbed cargo train with medical army vehicles and jeeps. They were tied down and ready for departure. Only then did I realize something else serious had happened.