The Great Crumbling Staircase, Commonly Called the Great Wall

We’re not in China anymore! We decided to surprise everyone, including ourselves, and come back to the U.S. for the summer. Currently, we’re relaxing, enjoying all the amazing smells and clean air you get when you’re no longer in a big city, and loving our summer fruit like blueberries and raspberries. And blue skies almost every day? Bring ’em on!

But before we left China, we had to hike the Great Wall of China. . . or at least a small part of it. Let’s just say that small part was plenty for me and I’ve no desire to go back for more at the moment. I may or may not have had nightmares that night about falling down a steep staircase and being unable to stop. And if you were wondering if you should hike the Great Wall when five months pregnant–don’t. Unless you’ve been hiking every day for the past five months. Then you’ll probably be fine.

Why this general pessimism about the Great Wall? Well, take a look. I recommend clicking on the pictures to get the best look at a wall.

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A picturesque view of the Great Wall

Apparently, most of the touristy parts of the Great Wall are kept up–the bricks are replaced if they crumble, they make sure the walls won’t fall down on top of you, the stairs are mostly intact, all general things that most U.S. citizens expect from their tourist destinations.

The section of the Great Wall that we visited, however, was not one of the touristy locations. We started our hike in a little village in the middle of nowhere, where two mentally disturbed ladies got into a fight in front of the us (including punching, scratching, rock throwing, cursing in Chinese, etc…our guide managed to break them apart), and hiked one of the oldest sections of the wall. It also happened to be made of local rock (I think limestone or sandstone) that was turning into sand.

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The village we started from.

So yes, we started from a little Chinese village where people mostly tended their crops and sometimes ventured into the hills to hunt wild pigs and rabbits (our guide told us). The tour website had this hike listed as an “easy” hike, and I’ve done my share of hiking before up some pretty steep slopes and all, so I wasn’t too worried.

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See what I mean by ruined?

The beginning of our hike was this neat little path next to all kinds of apricot trees and flowers–it was a nice gradual slope with a little ascent, but nothing bad. We were just enjoying the sunshine and the fact that we weren’t surrounded by giant buildings and cars and people anymore (though the smog was still there).

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Close to the beginning.

We stopped to look at some lovely views, admiring the hills and the village down below with its colorful rooftops.

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Starting to see the wall.

And then we got to the actual wall. Giant steep staircases loomed ahead of us, daring us to try to climb them. Rocks were missing in some places, crumbled to sand with erosion and age. In pictures, the wall doesn’t look that steep, but let me assure you–it was!

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Just one of the many hills we climbed that day.

Let’s just say I was quite relieved when we got to our first resting place after climbing in the sun for what felt like forever. Some not-so-helpful hikers coming the other direction apparently assured us that the hill we had just climbed was the worst one, and everything else was easier. I’m not sure where they were coming from–but they were wrong!

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Relaxing in the breeze.

This little guard tower was amazing. It was at just the right angle to catch all the breezes, and was about 20 degrees cooler than it was out on the hills. I could have stayed there all day if we didn’t have to get off the mountain.

But get off the mountain we did, and a helicopter lift wasn’t an option. Though I almost considered it when I looked out the other side of the tower and saw this giant staircase I had to go down:

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Yes, we went all the way down that, and then went up again.

Finally, after what seemed like it took all day, though I think it was only around four hours or so, we started climbing down again to the village. And we climbed, and scuttled down steep hills and tried not to fall over, and slid on some patches of sand, cried a few times about how hard it was, and occasionally even walked on a flat piece of ground for a minute or two (those occasions felt blissfully easy!). We finally made it–7 bottles of water, 1 bruised foot (from slipping), and many shaking legs later.

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You feel like a conqueror after mastering all this.

If you want to visit China, I dare you to outdo us! Maybe try to hike the Great Wall when you’re six months pregnant instead of just five.

Tianjin….Again

Tianjin again

I’m sure you’ve all been wondering what hotel breakfasts are like in China.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but just in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve got answers for you.

First thing? They’re quite a bit different than American style hotel breakfasts. Yeah, they kind of look the same: gleaming chafing dishes, a tray full of bread, a refrigerator with yogurt in it. But there the resemblance ceases.

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Those trays of orange and green?

First of all, for fresh fruit they had watermelon, which, while not too unusual, isn’t exactly standard breakfast fare in the West. On the other side, they had a tray of sliced cucumber–again, not exactly standard.

For main dishes, instead of the ubiquitous breakfast cereal to be found in America, they had fried rice, scrambled egg and tomato, meat-filled dumplings, boiled greens, and fried cucumbers. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of that angle of the buffet!)

But the really interesting part was the condiments.

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You see that right–that’s all kinds of different fermented vegetables + soybeans.

I think Americans might just keel over and die if they were expected to eat that for breakfast. Other, than, of course, people like my mother, who cheerfully (mostly) eats sauerkraut every morning for breakfast. I’m pretty sure she skips the kimchi and fermented banana peppers, though.

Anyways, enough food. I’m sure your stomachs are all growling now with that kind of description.

We also saw this weird house in Tianjin (apparently one of the things it’s famous for) made completely out of pottery. It’s called the China House or something.

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Looks a little poky, doesn’t it?

It made me think of fairy tales–can’t you just imagine an evil witch living in who lures children to her with all her fancy baubles on the outside of her house?

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It was busy, too.

Think Hansel and Gretel, but with pretty blue vases instead of food. And I assure you, it looked even more strange in person.

After that, we went to church in this beautiful historic building, which had too many trees in the way to take a good picture of. But I tried.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

Apparently every brick was imported from France to make this building–I’m not sure why Chinese bricks wouldn’t have worked just as well, though.

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The interior (slightly crooked, of course)

And, like all western-style things built in China, it was painted a somewhat gaudy combination on the inside, though maybe this one is more attributable to the French. It’s been a while since I’ve studied my architecture, but I seem to remember something about Baroque and pre-Baroque architecture looking something like this in France, only fancier.

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Domes and vaulting.

The blue and yellow did help to keep it light and airy feeling inside.

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The organ!

And, of course, they had a pipe organ. Unfortunately, however, they seemed to have nobody to play the organ, so they settled for an electronic keyboard at the front of the church. It seems to me, though, that if you have a pipe organ in a place like China where there are extremely few, you ought to try to find someone to play it or teach others to play it. Hopefully they will in the future.

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The dome from outside.

And that was our visit to Tianjin–a lovely city, with a breath of refreshing Western-style architecture (yes, I can mix my metaphors so horribly. You try to do it better!).

What We Did on Spring Break: A Visit to Tianjin

Tianjin. It’s a beautiful Chinese city–or at least it seems beautiful to me because of all the European-architecture everywhere. Sure, there are plenty of ugly skyscrapers and apartment buildings too, but at least there’s some variety in this city.

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The Haihe riverfront

If you pay close attention to that blue sign, you may be able to see that it says “No Fishing.” Well, a couple hundred feet away, we then saw this:

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I’m sure he passed his reading comprehension classes.

Tianjin had a lot of French, Italian, and British businessmen living there from the end of the 18th century until China was closed to foreigners. So they had a huge influence on the way the city looks today.

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Influence like this.
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A giant clock. It’s kinda ugly, but kinda steam-punky too.

While in Tianjin, we rented a bicycle built for two and rode around the city. It was a little awkward because the second seat was so low and they didn’t have the tools to raise it for us so my knees kept hitting the handlebar in front of me, but we managed.

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The bicycle guys had no idea how to use my camera. Took them about five tries to get this one, and they’re all about flattering angles!

While riding around, we noticed the super cool stoplights they had there. Instead of being giant and bulky and ugly like they are everywhere else, they were just a light on a pole, and would count down for you so you knew how much longer they’d be green or red.

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This one had just turned green, and the light would move down until it hit the line in the middle. Then it would turn red.

After biking for our allotted hour, we went to the Cultural Street. It was about like every other cultural street in every other Chinese city–lots of paintings and knickknacks and people selling the same kinds of food and hordes upon hordes of tourists.We tried a rice cake thing that wasn’t great and some ice cream and figured we’d seen enough.

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Ice cream…and feet.

Oh, and they had this stall selling pearls…with the dead shellfish that they harvested the pearls from just sitting there. Let’s just say I’ve smelled better smells. But the pearls were pretty.

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So after we got our fill of ice cream and dead oysters (NO, we did not eat them!), we headed over to the Italian quarter for some lunch.

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…and more crowds.

This was the most multicultural place we’ve seen in China–they had Italian restaurants, Thai restaurants, French restaurants, German restaurants, and Chinese restaurants. They might have even had more, but those were the ones we saw. Of course, all the people were Chinese, but at least the food was different, right?

We opted for Thai–and even remembered to take  pictures of the food.

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Spring rolls (it started with six….)
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And Pad Thai.

It was good, and good to have a little variety from run-of-the-mill Chinese food.

Then we walked around the Italian quarter for a while and took pictures of all the brides and grooms getting their pictures taken.

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Isn’t her dress pretty?

The brides had beautiful dresses, but this groom’s fashion sense was rather odd, to say the least. I didn’t want to seem TOO creepy, so I didn’t maneuver quite as well as I could have, but a purple plaid suit with a bright orange tie is not exactly my idea of sedate wedding wear.

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See? His tie is ORANGE!

I’m not exactly sure, either, why someone would want to get pictures taken with approximately two thousand people in the background, but apparently the flowers and the houses outweighed the people.

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The other “bride” (her “groom” was in jeans and a t-shirt, so I think she was just getting pre-wedding pictures done or something. They do that here.)

When we were done looking critically at men’s fashions for the day, we strolled around the rest of the square and enjoyed the random statues of famous Italians like Dante. Because he’s so connected to China.

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And since this post is eons long already, I’ll leave you with that and be back with part II shortly, I hope.

Marco Polo Bridge

In March, we visited Marco Polo Bridge (in Chinese, Luguo Qiao–which doesn’t have anything to do with Marco Polo but I forget what its actual Chinese meaning is). One of Jared’s professors from Peking University kindly took us there in his nice car and told us all about everything.

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Jared and his teacher.

Unfortunately, he took us in the evening since we could get on the bridge for free after 6:30 or something, so the pictures are all kind of dark.

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One of the proclamations by Emperor Kangxi.

Apparently, westerners call it the Marco Polo bridge because they first heard about it when Marco Polo wrote about his travels in the 13th century. The bridge here now has been updated since the 11th century when the first one was built (apparently it needed renovations in the 17th century), but the lions decorating the edges and some of the stones in the middle are the original stones, I think.

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View to the city at the end.

Our guide told us that nobody knows exactly how many lions there are: people have tried to count them and come up with different numbers. I guess some of them have gotten worn away with time, so that doesn’t help either. This lion, for instance, has a little lion under its paw and another by its head–and every lion on the bridge is different.

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Stone Lion
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Some more little lions.

Another thing Marco Polo Bridge is famous for is being the place where World War II started in China (also known as the Second Sino-Japanese War) in 1937. My Resident Historian (everyone should keep one on hand!) tells me that Americans don’t think of WWII as starting until their involvement in the war with Pearl Harbor in 1941, but that the official date should really be July 7, 1937 because that’s when Japan extended its invasion of China.

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Original stones in the middle. The ruts are where wagons used to cross over.

Apparently, the objective of the Japanese was not just the bridge over the river, but Wanping “city” at the other end of the bridge. (It’s really more like a fortress or castle, but our guide told us it was a city.)

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Wanping Fortress

The fortress was built a lot like Xi’an: city walls of nearly 30 feet thick, a series of gates and courtyards for the entrances(so when the enemy had broken through the first gate they’d be penned up like sheep and easy to kill), and guard towers directly on top of the gates. It’s quite a bit smaller, though.

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The gate into the fortress

On the outside walls of the castle, you can see the marks of the Japanese invasion. The walls are riddled with bullet holes and in some places scarred by cannon fire. But even a cannon can’t do much against a 30-foot wall.

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A  large hole in the wall from cannon fire, I think.
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Bullet holes.

Eventually the Japanese did capture the fortress of Wanping, and Marco Polo Bridge became known not just for its beauty, but for its tragedy.

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Jared and me trying not to shiver while standing still.
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The lions guarding their bridge.

Customs of the Chinese Post

By far, one of the more laughable things about living in China is the postal system. People tootle around in little bicycle trucks with China Post or EMS or Amazon on the sides, delivering packages and letters to their destinations. Once they get there, they call your phone and you go collect your package. It’s really rather a smart system, for things within China. For things coming outside of China, though, they don’t do so well. The number of packages and letters that they’ve lost for us amounts to nearly half of the packages and letters that have been sent here. Maybe they like the poor Americans to feel even lonelier amid their thousands of people. Or maybe we just don’t know enough Chinese to get our address right.

The latest edition in the silliness of Chinese Customs, however, was just recently. My parents sent a small box a couple days ago (full of stuff that I’m too much of a cheapskate to buy, like clothes–seriously, everything nice here I’ve seen has cost around 600-800 RMB. No thanks!), and FedEx customs wanted to know every detail. Could I send them my passport? Done. Could I fill out a form with my name and address and passport number, signing away my rights to inspect the package? Done. Could I tell them, in minute detail, what the contents of the package were? Not really. But I tried, using my stereoscopic X-ray vision that can zoom in on a package I’ve never seen that’s somewhere in the middle of Beijing and determine what EXACTLY was put into it back in America. I’m cool like that.

Actually, I just made it up, based on my rudimentary knowledge of what I was expecting to see in the package. So Mom, you better not have stashed anything illegal in it. May I suggest, oh dearest of dear Customs people, that you think up a slightly smarter system for finding out what’s in people’s packages? Like, I don’t know, maybe asking the person who PACKED the package, instead of the recipient? Except they do that too. Maybe they like playing mind games with people.

Other than spending time obsessing over when (or if) I will get a letter or a package or some reminder that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth and become one of your dear departed, I’ve just been up to the usual craziness. Eight classes. Midterms. Biking. And taking pictures of spring flowers, with which I will leave you:

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Four Ways to Keep Your Faraway Friends

When you’ve grown up with someone and seen them practically every day of your life, it’s a bit hard when you have to move away. You can’t do spontaneous things like going out for coffee in the afternoons or going shopping for a couple hours or even going on a walk like you used to. Instead, you have to balance busy schedules against the rigors of different time zones and different lives. You may even start to wonder if it’s even worth it to keep your friendships going–if perhaps they’d be happier if you just bugged off and let them keep living their lives without constant interruptions from you reminding them what life used to be like.

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The rose bushes are always greener on the other side of the fence.

Fortunately, friendships don’t have to peter out with distance and changing lives. There are still some things you can do that will help your friends far away feel like they’re still connected with you–that you still care.

First, be proactive, whether you’re the friend that left or the friend that stayed. Don’t assume that just because they’re your friend that they can do all the working of keeping the friendship together, or figuring out all the wonky time-zone differences, or figuring out your schedule. If you work together on this, it will also have the bonus that you talk more!

Second, try to make things easier for them to call you. If there’s a foreign country involved (no, we’re not starting any wars or anything!), chances are neither of you can just call from your phone like you normally would. Try to get free apps like Skype or WeChat (which is huge in China!) that will let you talk without one or the other of you spending a boatload of money every time you get lonely. Even $0.05 a minute adds up pretty quickly.

Third, (and this might be the hardest), keep thinking of things that you can talk about. If you’re anything like me, when something interesting comes up that you want to talk about with your friends, it may be a couple days before you get to calling them. And by that time, it might have disappeared! And if I can’t remember anything I wanted to talk about, I’m pretty much the world’s most boring friend. Conversations devolve into a series of “How was your week?” “Fine.” “Anything exciting?” “Nope.” Read a thought-provoking book, or talk about something interesting you read in the news, or even discuss funny YouTube videos. Or, you can remember the interesting things that happened at work that week, like the time your student said “shit” in class without knowing it was a bad word. (He was using it to talk about dog poop).

Fourth, do what you can from a distance to make your friend feel cared about still. (I’m really bad at this one too.) Send a postcard, or an email if a postcard is too hard. Maybe write a letter, or, if funds allow, send a small box. If you feel up to it, visiting is always appreciated. Just think of it as your only chance to see the world.

So, if all your friends have moved away (or if you’ve moved away), your highschool habits of forming friendships just aren’t working anymore, and you’re wondering if you’ll ever make new friends again, or if you’re doomed to die friendless with hot ears from talking on the phone so much, think of these tips. Long-distance friendships are possible–though hot ears are pretty much inevitable.

Cute Girls and Spring Flowers

I’m back! Did you miss me?

It’s spring here! Earlier than anywhere else I’ve lived, even though it’s no farther south.

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Color!

Last fall, I was assured that winters here were terrible–extremely long and cold. It made me think we wouldn’t be seeing any warmth until maybe mid-June. But apparently, they were wrong. (I think the moral of the story is, don’t trust a Seattleite’s perception of winter. Any winter with more than two weeks of below-freezing weather seems long and arduous to them!)  Mid-March is really early for spring, in my opinion.

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But it’s not all beautiful blossoms and 20 degree weather (of course I’m talking Celsius!). Along with the (one week of) warmer weather has also come more mosquitoes. And guess who they’re after? Yours truly. There must be something about my blood that makes it like crack for mosquitoes–if it’s a contest between me and Jared, I win 95% of the time. You can call me attractive.

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Not on the spring theme, but funny anyways:

In the middle of Beijing, what’s the last thing you’d expect to see?

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Yes, it’s a horse. In the middle of Beijing. It’s generally there every weekend, though I have no idea where it lives or how far they have to come. Sometimes it even has a mule and donkey pal with it. They sell oranges out the back of that wagon, though I’m pretty sure they weren’t grown locally. Some things are just a mystery.

And this little girl was just too cute. She was standing and talking to the horse, and then she leaned over and tried to kiss the horse.  As you can see, it was unimpressed.

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Jared says the girl in the background is like someone from a science fiction movie. You’ll have to ask him for clarification on that.

Any spring flowers yet in the frozen wilds of North America? Or horses trotting down your city streets?

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in the middle of a city?

The Day I Almost Became the First Wife

To the Chinese, they say, there are only two countries in the world: China, and America. This bothers the Norwegians to no end, but we have little pity for them.

This hypothesis was borne out the other day when Jared was getting a shoe fixed in a small shop near our apartment. While he was in there, watching the shop owner carefully stitch up his shoe with strong thread, another Chinese man came in and began talking.

“You so strong! You so handsome! You must be an American,” he said.

Jared replied, “Thank you! I am an American.”

“You’re so good-looking,” he intoned again.

“Uh, thanks.” Jared said. “You are a teacher (he asked in Chinese)?”

“Yes,” he replied in English, “I am professor.” But his English wasn’t quite good enough to specify what it was he professed. So he returned to his favorite subject–the attractiveness of my husband.

“You are so good-looking, you can take care of two wifes,” he matter-of-factly stated.

Jared was a little shocked, but managed to croak out, “Uh, thank you, but I’m happy with the one I have.”

“No,” the man insisted, “you can take care of a second lover, one with nice legs, because you’re so handsome.” (No, this was not a comment on the state of my legs–I wasn’t there, and as far as I know the man had no idea if Jared was even married or had a wife!)

Jared was nonplussed by that, and could think of nothing more to say than, “Um, have a nice day!” as he ran away with his newly-fixed shoes. Chinese may admire America more now, but apparently traditional China isn’t dead yet!

All of this seemed particularly reminiscent to us as we’re reading Pearl Buck’s famous book The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, in traditional China. He begins poor. But then he gets a wife who up till then had been a slave in a Great House, and who now works beside him in the fields, bears him lots of sons, and makes him rich through her diligence (and talents at acquiring jewels). He then does what every self-respecting wealthy traditional Chinese man would do, and buys himself a second wife, appropriately named Lotus, for she was the human form of the flower: dainty, sweet smelling, useless in the fields, but my, what a sight to behold. Anyway, in the story, once he gets his Lotus, as you can imagine, the First Wife (O-lan) wasn’t very pleased, and his household became a very unhappy place. Wang Lung then forgets about his First Wife and enjoys his flower. Only when O-lan begins to die does he notice her again, but by then it is too late.

So I’m thankful Jared had the moral fortitude to run away from his hypothetical second wife with beautiful legs. He told me he didn’t need another flower–he already had his Rose.

I Love Vacation

I know this sounds crazy, but school is starting soon. (Yeah, don’t mock me, all you US readers. I understand you’re about to do midterms now. Well, China’s DIFFERENT!) I’m going to have to give up my life of leisure applying for jobs and filling out forms that I’m convinced were invented by someone with a diabolical imagination (sequel to the Screwtape letters right there) and going to Chinese class and tutoring in the afternoons and suck it up and actually work. On my four (4!) classes per week, that I’m hoping will have almost no homework to grade. Sounds pretty miserable, doesn’t it? I hope the tears of pity are dripping down your face right now.

It’s pretty bad that I have no idea how much homework these classes will have–and I’m one week away from starting to teach them. I don’t even know the textbook we’re supposed to use yet. But that’s China for you: keep you on the seat of your pants, they do, and only tell you things when you’re getting mildly nervous about what’s going to happen and what you’re going to teach and wondering if-anyone-shows-up-to-your-classroom-what-are-you-going-to-tell-them and will-they-all-think-I’m-a-confused-American-teenager-that-wandered-into-their-classroom-by-mistake. (Last time, a couple of my students said they wondered if I was one of their classmates. Good for inspiring confidence, that! I should figure out this “mature look” better, I guess.)

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You know you’re not very mature when you still take selfies, right?

But by the time class starts, I will know what I’m supposed to teach, and I will have a textbook. They’re being extra kind this semester and giving us our syllabus and information a total of two days before the semester starts. Two whole days.

So excuse me while I make the most of my break here–you can imagine me lying on the beach reading my favorite book or touring around China seeing the Great Wall and everything else.

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Oh yeah, that’s where I’ll be. Where it’s sunny and warm.

Imagine me there, because in reality, I’ll be planning lessons for my one-on-one students this week and filling out more job application forms while my brain begins to scream in protest. I vacation in style.

Stuff and Things. And Crazy Looking Bikes.

So my poor little blog here is feeling neglected. It just hasn’t had so much attention lately, I guess.

Or maybe it’s not the blog that’s feeling neglected, but me. Whatever it is, I just haven’t had anything to write. Writing’s supposed to be therapeutic, they say, calculated to let you pour out all your feelings and thoughts and expressions into one cathartic experience. But lately, I’ve just been complaining. And who wants to read that? (Plus, is it really that cathartic to complain? Generally it just leads to more.)

Maybe it’s because Beijing around the Chinese New Year is so empty it makes you wonder if the Rapture really did happen and carry everyone off, leaving you behind. I haven’t noticed any piles of neatly folded clothes laying around, though, so maybe we’ll discount that explanation. Beijing really is turning into a ghost town, though. Bike parking is opening up, restaurants and grocery stores are shutting down for the next week (meaning that we need to stock up on food before it’s too late and we go on an unintentional week-long fast), and the city is actually almost quiet. Sadly, it hasn’t led to much of a decrease in pollution levels.

One thing that hasn’t completely disappeared, though, is the smart car/e-bike cross. I’ve been seeing more and more of them around lately, and they’re simply hilarious looking.

Exhibit A:

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Alien transport pod, possibly?

This groovy little yellow pod meets all standard fashion requirements. With three scales covering its exterior and a warm and cozy interior, you will be set to tootle around Beijing in the latest style. Order yours today!

Exhibit B:

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Almost MORE classy, isn’t it?

In case snazzy yellow-ness isn’t your thing, you can go for this army-green model that looks as though it’s seen one road trip too many. But a large windshield/dashboard combination along with some stylish yellow nursery-floor padding will be sure to keep your eyes protected and your legs warm. Our most afforable option! (I’m guessing.)

Exhibit C:

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Just lovely, innit?

Very similar in style to Exhibit B, this vehicle offers just a squinch more versatility. With a fully-enclosed driver compartment, you never have to worry about your legs getting too cold. Plus, large glass windows enclose the back, making it easier to see when you’re about to get run over by a bus the panoramic views the city affords.

Exhibit D:

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Now THAT’S more like it!
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I thought I had a better picture of this, but no such luck.

This last option comes in a couple different colors, and is by far the most upscale of all our options. With up-to-date options like front and rear doors, along with actual working lights and no duct-tape to be seen, this is an option that the most glaringly correct could feel proud to drive. Plus, it’s easy to park!

If you’re interested in investing in any one of these lovely vehicles, come to China. They’ll all be ripe for the picking. And if you ask me nicely, I may just tell you about the time we rode in one of these lovely little bicycle vehicles and nearly fell out the floor.

Whaddaya think? Did I miss my future in writing advertising copy?