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I lost it.

November 9, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Chinese Hot PotIt’s often-frustrating living in a country where you don’t understand the culture or the language. Every once in a while I’ll find myself just getting so angry and annoyed at the cultural differences that I have to lock myself up at home and let it pass. I find it soothes my inpatients.

However, on this fateful Saturday night, I lost it.

Our tutor Grace had offered to take us to one of her favorite Hot Pot restaurants. Hot Pot is huge here in Shanghai and I was one of the few people who had never tried it. When Grace found this out, she insisted on taking us and letting us experience this Shanghai treat.

So on Saturday, after a short subway ride we met Gina, Aaron, and Grace in a quest to enjoy some Hot Pot. That’s when my inner turmoil began.

As we attempted to get a taxi a man in a tiny black car starts honking his horn, he along with a dozen other cars are stuck in traffic, stopped at a red light. So he honks, as if that is going to make the cars in front of him go faster, as if the sound of his blaring horn will make the light change and as if no one else is around him. Looking at the situation, I lean down staring at the man through his open passenger window and I say calmly, in words he cannot understand, “honking your horn isn’t going to make the car move sir, I promise.” The passenger in his car chuckles and the driver stops honking. He slowly inches up moving away from me and we continue to stand on the crowded street, blocking the way of the herds of people trying to get by.

After spending fifteen minutes getting honked at by bicyclists driving on the sidewalk, getting shoved by fellow pedestrians and having no luck with finding a cab, Grace suggests we walk up a block to a bigger intersection. So along with the masses we walk, past the dozens of squatting street vendors selling everything from fake Tiffany’s jewelry to winter coats, passing street food smells and smokes, and finally, coming to a huge intersection (where, frankly, chaos comes to die).

We stand patiently at the curb waiting for the green man to give us the go ahead when we notice the herds of people going. They just start walking. Fearing for our lives, we continue to stand there, waiting for our friend the green man to come up. Finally when he does, we notice no difference in the intersection. Cars driving in every direction, turning at red lights, bikes swerving through traffic and pedestrians playing Frogger in between whizzing cars. It was enough to shoot my blood pressure through the roof.

As we play Russian Roulette through the intersection, we spot two empty cabs (we needed two since we have five people and only four fit in your standard cab). We ran as safely as possible, getting the attention of the driver and as we attempt to get in, a huge truck pulls up behind it and starts wailing on his horn, successfully getting the cab driver to move and leave us behind. The second cab pulls up behind the honking truck and stops, letting Garrett, Gina and Aaron in. Grace tells the taxi driver where to go and Grace and I are left behind looking for another cab. But just as their cab is pulling away with everyone safely inside a black car pulls up behind him and starts honking his horn incessantly! He sees that the cab has just gotten everyone in and is starting to leave but he wont lay off the horn. This is where I lose it for the first time.

I begin to yell at him in English, I scream how he can wait and that they’re going and when I am done throwing my temper tantrum I notice hundreds of passersby staring at me chuckling under their looming smiles. The man drives past me, looking at me in utter confusion while continuing to honk his horn. Grace puts her arms around me and walks me away from the intersection while we begin looking for another cab.

Fifteen minutes later we get one and we head towards the intersection where the rest of the group has been waiting. Finally when we arrive Grace leads us through a crowded, frantic street with bright lights illuminating the sky and takes us into the third floor of a big building. We are the only foreigners there. Which, normally, isn’t a big deal but I notice a table of twenty something guys just staring at us with the same grins I encountered moments before. As we walk by they say “Hello!” in mocking tones. (A trend I notice more and more. Some Chinese people will say words in English to foreigners passing by, often repeating the words the foreigners themselves were just saying, and they say them in these tones that are somewhat mocking and very rude.) I manage to hold my breath and not say anything but I can feel my blood start to simmer.

When we sit down Grace is nothing but an angel, she guides us through the menu and we order. Hot Pot works a little like Korean BBQ. You order uncooked foods like beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, eggs, mushrooms, tofu, and anything else you can think of and they provide you with a huge pot of boiling broth divided into two: one is regular flavor broth, the other is spicy. As the soup simmers on the heat plate you add your raw food, slowly letting it cook in your giant tub of soup.

I was a little intimidated by the entire process but Grace had wanted to let me experience it since I was the only one who hadn’t. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve had since living in Shanghai but it was…ummm… not enough to make me throw up all over myself.

And so, an hour later, after having devoured an amazing amount of Hot Pot, we realizSquatter Toileted we had ordered FAR too much food and were not going to be able to finish it. Luckily, this place was incredibly reasonably priced and leaving some items behind wasn’t breaking the bank. (By incredibly reasonably priced I mean like 2RMB (30 cents) for a plate of lots of raw food.) It was also at this time that I decided I needed to use the restroom. Gina had warned me earlier that the bathrooms weren’t very clean and that they only had squatter toilets.

I have never used a squatter toilet. In all my time in Shanghai, I have never used one. Not only do I think my legs are not strong enough but I cannot get over the mental anguish that occurs when I think of having to use a hole in the floor. And so, with Grace’s help, I ask someone if there are ANY western bathrooms in this building. No.

Grace and I go down stairs to a McDonalds. No.

We go to a KFC. No.

We go into another mall. No.

Finally we head down the block, across the street and into a KTV lounge where to my relief, we find one.

On our return up the elevator Grace and I are surrounded by people, a group of which happen to be young guys (not the same ones as before) and while Grace and I stand there completely silent they start at it. “Hello!” “HAAYlow!” “Helo!”

What is it with the twenty something male population, do they see non Chinese looking people and assume we speak English? I mean I could easily be French, Russian or heck, Mexican. What if I didn’t speak English? I try very hard to speak Chinese, so that I wont have to inconvenience them and yet I get this! And what is with the tone?!

Luckily before I can muster up enough annoyance to say something, the elevator comes to a stop and Grace and I exit.

After finishing our meal. We head across the lobby to a pretty awesome Arcade where we spend the next half our playing cheap arcade games and screaming at the claw machine. (I don’t know why I play those things; I never win the 25cent stuffed animal!)

Then we leave and get into an elevator. This is where it gets bad.

A lady and a man are already on the elevator when we board and they are having a conversation, a conversation that one would only mimic when standing in the crowd at a rock concert. They were speaking so incredibly loud that no one else could hear themselves. And of course, I am standing far to close to the lady who is now screaming into my ear. I try staying calm but then in one moment, I lose it.

As loud as I can I scream “WHY DOES EVERYONE TALK SO LOUD!!!”

At this point the conversation amongst the couple stops entirely, the people I am with look at me in horror and the elevator reaches the ground floor and the doors open. I smile politely, excuse myself, get off the elevator and the mortification begins. I hadn’t meant to be so loud, I hadn’t meant to be so rude, I just could not handle her screaming into my ear anymore. I couldn’t.

As everyone else follows behind me, I feel a great urge to apologize and explain to them my reasoning but they, understandably, avoid eye contact. We say goodbye to Grace (she lives near by and wouldn’t need a cab home) and head into a taxi. I sit in the back corner trying to justify my behavior but it was too late. The embarrassment had settled in and I just needed to go home.

Chinese people do talk very loud; it’s something I had to get use to at first and thought I had managed to do. But as I sit here with my ear tingling, I wonder, was yelling out all that bad? I mean, I constantly get shoved, cut in front of and go ignored. I’ve been told that it’s survival of the fittest and everyone fens for themselves. So if that is the case, what I did on the elevator was really just me becoming more assimilated into the culture, right?

By Elena Garcia

SuzhouAs an avid visitor to sites like Perez Hilton and a subscriber to US Weekly, I have come to rely on my favorite Paparazzi shots. Nothing is more uplifting than a crazy Britney photo or a Lindsay crotch shot! I always figured that when celebs when nutzo on the Paps it was because they were just jerks. I often thought how great it would be if I were famous and the paparazzi followed me around! I even practiced my “I’m hungry face” in the mirror to be prepared in the event of sudden flashing. I thought it would be so cool! Until of course I sat on the other side.

Don’t get me wrong, the Paparazzi always seemed crazy and a little over the top but there was just always something so fascinating about their bright metal flashes, their gigantic cameras shielding their faces from recognition and their encyclopedic knowledge of one’s name and life. I imagined them like the photographers out of a vintage black and white film, wearing a suit, a hat and a funny accent. I was fascinated.

But on a trip Suzhou I realized the glitzy dreams of fame and Paparazzi are just that… dreams. Suzhou is a small town about an hour and half out of Shanghai famous for it’s old temples, pagodas and tourist. Garrett, his parents and I went their on a weekend trip during their visit to Shanghai. Walking along crowded streets, I experienced the attention most celebs get everyday.

As I walked in the midst of the crowd, I was approached by a 20 something girl who spoke broken English. Immediately, I assumed she was trying to pick pocket me. (I had heard stories of locals getting near and trying their best to get their hands down your purse, so I quickly grabbed onto it making sure it was secure, hidden beneath my armpit and hugged by my chest and arm.) With my purse secured I continued listening to her attempts at talking to me.

Garrett looked over and saw my paranoid face in conversation with a stranger and quickly came to my side to find out what was happening. Although I was prepared to battle it out with her over my belongings (she was tiny, I could of totally taken her) I didn’t have to. And Garrett didn’t have to either. The girl approached me to see if I would take a photo with her. Assuming this was a ploy, to pick pocket or con me, I shrugged her off by saying sorry but no.

I thought the girl had been mistaken or a thief but sooner rather then later another person approached, and another and people approached Garrett and soon it occurred to me that they weren’t trying to pick pocket us, and they didn’t think we were famous.

They’d never seen white people before.

People in China stare… they stare at us, they stare at each other, they stare at random objects, they just stare. It’s not rude, it’s not polite, and it’s not anything, they just stare! Garrett and I had gotten use to this. We’d gotten use to people looking, and never thought it was us… it was them.

Occasionally in Shanghai, we’d gotten stares from tourists visiting the metropolis who hadn’t encountered our white faces in their small towns but never often enough to remind us of the oddities of white people in China.

In other words, we knew a lot of Chinese people had never seen a foreigner but in Shanghai we’d only experienced it a tiny bit because Shanghai is filled with foreigners!

On this particular trip we were reminded of the oddities of our foreign faces and I didn’t like it.

My entire life I have craved the attention, to stand under a single spot light, on a center stage, with all eyes on me, every elementary teacher I ever had would tell you that! But when all of a sudden I had to perform, I froze!

Throughout the remainder of the trip people snapped photos of the temples, of the rock gardens, of us and for the first time I understood why celebrities flip out on people. I wanted nothing more then to scream at them and shake them into the realization that I wasn’t anything special or different.

Now, there are plenty of people who think this kind of attention is charming and cute. Garrett had a great time with it, taking pictures with anyone who asked and even asking to take pictures with his camera. Garrett’s Parents were also quite popular with the locals and often posed for group shots!

But for some reason it really got under my skin. I’ve settled so much already during my stay here. I mean I put up with the spitting, the staring, the pushing and shoving, I feel like I have reached my limit. Any more unwarranted attention, disrespect or cultural nuances and I might lose it. So I continued to refuse and hoped I wasn’t offending anyone.

Nevertheless, LaLohan, I totally get it.

STOP YELLING!!

February 14, 2009

By Elena Garcia

It was brought up during lunch that for many English speakers coming to China, Chinese speakers seem to be yelling. Because of the inflections, tones and what not of the Chinese language, it often seems to us foreigners as if people are screaming at one another, fighting even. For some the tones (and often volume) of speech stay consistent whether they are arguing or if they are telling a joke.

This often leads to some major confusion on my end. I sit on the subway minding my own business when BAM like a New Yorker and a bus, I’m hit with what I think is a hostile situation spoken at a max volume. My ears ring with the sounds of panic and curiosity. What are they arguing about? Should I get help? Should I stare (what they all stare at me!)?Thinking someone is going to get smacked I turn to look (of course I want to see what is going on) and I see nothing more than two ladies having a conversation. I don’t know what about but I am sure it’s not going to lead to any violence.

I can not speak to the specifics of the Chinese language since I know none of it. But I would think that just because the tones change doesn’t mean the volume has to. I mean don’t people whisper here?

It’s like people want everyone knowing there business. They want everyone knowing that they had cereal for breakfast, are having meatloaf for dinner and are sleeping with there milk man. Plus there is no personal space; you’ve read the stories about my metro rides. Boundaries China! BOUNDARIES!!!

Some people (especially on the metro, as if being underground calls for yelling) just can not control there volume. I have grown quite found of my headphones during my morning commute.

I know that at home, every so often you encounter one of those people who are loud… too loud. But here its one in every 5 (at least). And GOD do not put them on a cell phone. PLEASE! You know loud cell phone talker guy? Well times him by 50, higher the volume just a bit and void your self of any personal space and that my friends is my commute home. Best part of the day… sarcasm.

Did I mention my headphones, cause if I didn’t… I think they need recognition!

By Elena Garcia

SaleFor Sale and On Sale

Two very different things.

When I go shopping, I love the hunt. Trying to find the best thing, for the best prices at the best stores. When you go shopping, odds are everything in the store is on sale, but not everything is on sale.

Every so often, during that once in a blue moon shopping trip, you will find something so amazing, so fabulous, so absolutely marvelous that you fall in love with it and prepare yourself to pay full price.

You know the feeling. When you walk into a store, you find that amazing (fill in blank) and you head into the fitting room. There in the tiny 2 x 2 room, filled with the right amount of lighting, you try on what might very well be your next favorite (fill in blank). After you squeeze it on, you stare in the mirror at the reflection of perfection. This feeling is rare, and exciting. At that moment you look at the price tag and your eyes pop out a little, its (fill in blank)!! It’s not on sale, or even worse it is and it’s that much! Then you look at your reflection again, but it makes your (fill in blank) look so good. Again you look at the price, aggravation. It makes you look so good, it makes you so happy, but it costs that much. Slowly, as you stare deeper and deeper into your reflection you begin to convince yourself. “Well it’s not that much. It’s worth it because it looks this nice. I could even wear it to (fill in blank). I needed to buy something for that anyway. Okay, I’ll get.” And with a little bit of guilt and excitement you walk out of the fitting room and towards the register. There you stand in line, continuing the debate in your head but knowing all too well it’s too late to turn back. Then you hand it over; the cashier rings it up and says, “Your total is (fill in blank).” With a look of surprise and joy you hand over your form of payment and giggle on the inside. You were entirely prepared to spend much more then the grand total. You had internalized the pain of losing that much money for that one object. You had mentally dealt with that anguish and for no reason. It was on SALE! It wasn’t marked but it was still on sale. (Or the cashier made a mistake. But shh we won’t tell.)

We all have had that experience. When I’m old and write my memoirs I am pretty sure my top 10 favorite moments in life will all consist of a time when I purchased something with the intent to pay full price but then having the joy brought back by being surprised with a sale. It’s like a surprise birthday party except it’s a surprise sale.

I bring this up because here in China, any sale is a surprise sale. Thus making shopping that much better!! Since I don’t speak, OR read Chinese I have no idea who is having a sale or what that sale is all about. I know what the price tag says, and well that’s about it.

The other day, I went into a store called “abase” which has super trendy clothing and accessories for us twenty something girls. They are a mixture of Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. While I was there I noticed a mannequin wearing a white knitted cape with thin black strips. It was so cute! It looked warm and cozy, perfect for winter. So I decided to try it on. It was perfect. It fit great; it had the trendiest arm cutouts, and amazing big black buttons. Then I looked at the price… they wanted that much for that! I was beginning to feel deterred, but then I looked in my reflection… it was too cute and it was the last one, no one else I know would have it (I think).

After the above-mentioned debate, I decided to get it. I picked it up, and an earlier discovered black belt, and headed to the register. Quickly doing the math in my head I thought I had figured out the total. The cashier rings me and shows me the total (since I didn’t understand her Chinese). It was less then half of what I expected to pay, for the cape, not to mention the additional belt. I was so excited! If the store hadn’t been thumping awfully loud Chinese pop music I am sure I would of heard the angels singing.

Guilt free I walked out of the store, bag in hand.

It was such a great feeling and it wasn’t the last time during the weekend that I would feel that. At Papa Johns (yes the pizza place) the chicken wings were half off, at Emporium (a trendy boutique) a skirt I like ended up being 30% off and I just found a vendor who sells leggings and tights for a quarter of the price of the department stores less then a block from my door step!!

Ahh… thank you for shopping at China!!!