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?


August 5, 2009

By Elena Garcia

rolling-stones-american-flag-tongue-stickerWe’re the kids of the America!

I am home.

On Monday of last week, at 12:30 pm, I boarded United flight 858 from Shanghai to San Francisco.

Days before I had started packing my bags attempting to fit enough clothes for my eight week visit home and all the gifts I had bought for friends and family. Garrett and I tried to predict if my bag would be within my 75-pound limit and quickly determined it wouldn’t. Not unlike me, it’s rare that I am ever within the absurd weight limitations of the airline industries. How is a girl supposed to fit all her shoes, clothes, accessories, in two bags at 75 pounds each? I think the length of your trip should determine the weight limits set by the airlines. A person traveling for a few days should only get one small bag but no they get just as many as I do with eight weeks of packing to do! It’s really not logical at all!

Lugging my huge bags to the check in gate I held my breathe as Garrett used all his might to load them on the scale. The nice man checking me in took his time before glancing at the scale to see if I was within my limits. The anxiety slowly crept in with an incredible erge to shake him and yell, “HURRY UP!” But I refrained from such actions and waited for my verdict.

After checking in, with no over weight luggage fees, Garrett and I enjoyed a last lunch at the Ajisen in the airport and a goodbye before the security gates. Then it was off through the roped lines, the x-ray machines, metal scanners and duty free shopping! I managed to score some not so expensive make-up and last minute gifts. By the time I finished perusing the shops and made my way up to the lounge I was exhausted. But the excitement running through my veins turned into adrenaline and kept me going as I stocked up on snacks and diet coke. As I sat down in one of the plush leather chairs over looking the main gates of the airport I heard the friendly reminder that my flight was on it’s final boarding call. The lounge attendees helped me gather my stuff and rush to my gate,

I scurried through the boarding area and onto my flight, flashed my gold ticket stub and was lead to my big leather seat. Luckily the seat next to me was empty and I was able to get comfortable and store some of my things there. As I finally caught my breathe, the attendant handed me the menu for the flight and as I perused it I took the remote and started flipping through my in flight entertainment options. I was finally going home.

It’s crazy how much things haven’t changed since the last time I roamed the streets.

On my second day home after struggling with the expected Jet Lag I headed out and roamed the streets of San Francisco. Bringing Frankie along; I took him to his favorite park, Fort Mason, to his Vet on Fillmore and then to his groomer on Polk St. The bonding time was nice.

Later in the week I went shopping and had dinners at a variety of my favorite spots and caught up with friends who I missed so much.

It was easy to fall right into pace again, like I never skipped a beat. Everything was like normal. And of course the more time I spend here in the normalcy of American life, the more I realize how much I missed it.

I missed Frankie’s shedding hair, the crisp air of a San Francisco evening, the chatter of people lives and my friends. But I have quickly realized that although many things here haven’t changed, I have! And probably not for the better.

One evening after leaving dinner with a friend I was walking to my car when I bumped (okay maybe slammed) into a person walking by. I didn’t even notice I had done it until the slight sting of the impact began to tingle. I was already a few feet away when I realized I had just walked into him and realized I hadn’t said anything. Not an excuse me, I’m sorry or any form of apology for causing the collision.

My time in China has taken away all my manners!

Upon realizing this, I quickly turned and apologized profusely.

In China, bumping into people is an everyday occurrence. If I apologized to everyone or said excuse me all the time, I would never stop talking. That said, I try very hard to have some manners and say “dui-bu-qi” (which means excuse me/sorry) to all those who’s personal space I have invaded.

No one has yet to return the favor.

Another example is saying “God Bless You” after someone sneezes or “Thank You” after someone says it to you. I use to be so good at it, always on top of it but now… now I forget. I go minutes without noticing. So much time goes by before I realize that by the time I shriek my apology for not having said it, I’m interrupting an already continued conversation.

People in China don’t say “Bless You” after a sneeze. In fact, they usually look at you in disgust and fear that you may be the one to spread swine flu, bird flu, or the animal infection du jour.

Hopefully I get into the habit of having manners again and quickly. I would hate to bump into the wrong person on the wrong day. Ouch.

By Elena Garcia

Slit baby pantsBodily fluids… are probably one of the hardest things for me to talk about. They are gross and have no place being out in the open. Which is probably why people use private stalls in secluded restrooms, and why people are made to feel shamed if they pick their nose and why MOST people refrain from spitting everywhere.

But as you may predict the rules that I was once accustomed to no longer apply here in China.

People squat on the floor to pee, they make magnificent noises when they are hocking up a loogie, and they flick their boogers onto the shoes of passer bys.

At this point I’ve seen everything and heard everything. I’ve seen a woman clipping her fingernails on the metro, I’ve heard of babies squatting and taking a dump on the side of the road. (They have pants with slits that run along the crotch to allow kids to pee and poop anywhere, at any time. Talk about Skid Marks!) I’ve also heard that the mother of the above mentioned child used a tissue to pick up her child’s poop and then put that poop filled tissue in her purse. I’ve seen grown men pick their nose and examine the results. I’ve seen spit that requires medical attention but yet I have never seen anyone NOT cover their mouths when using a toothpick.

It is rude and disgusting, in Chinese culture, to use a toothpick openly. So if you require a toothpick you must cover your mouth while using it, so no one can see what you’re doing. But pooping, that’s okay!

The way it was explained to me by our tutor Grace is that everyone poops, everyone clips their nails but not everyone has food stuck in their teeth, thus making it gross to pick their teeth. Logic is different here too!

My co-worker tells me stories of finding footprints on toilet seats because so many people here are use to using Squatters that western toilets are not comfortable. So they stand on the western toilet and squat. Awesome.

I have refrained from using any public restrooms for quite a while now, having used public facilities only about a dozen times since moving here. I am absolutely terrified of the facilities here.

I am also quite sick of hearing people spit everywhere. The noises that are made by these people… it can’t be right. It’s so gross. You walk along the streets dodging tiny puddles of spit; it’s so incredibly unpleasant.

If people were less inclined to expose their bodily fluids and bad habits, I am sure I would enjoy China, just a tad more.

By Elena Garcia

For the first time since moving to China, I am sick. My throat, my head, my nose are all functioning in the exact way I don’t want them to. For instance, my nose is running a marathon (but I have not trained for this marathon), my head is dancing to techno music (but I hate techno music) and my throat has invited all the cats from the neighborhood to take down the wallpaper (I am a dog person). All in all I feel not so hot.

Normally at home, I would call Kaiser or go to Walgreen’s and get the remedies de jour. But here I don’t have those luxuries what I do have are: about a half a dozen Cough-eeze cough drops we brought from home (I’ve already finished those), some Nyquil we brought from home (which does me no good during the day), tissues, water, some Chloraseptic we brought from home, and of course Garrett (who has turned into quite the handy butler during this time). My list of supplies isn’t bad but it isn’t enough. You see I feel a certain level of impending doom.

I wonder are my symptoms just signs of a severe sickness I contracted while adventuring through Shanghai? Or do I just have a cold and I am being ridiculous?

I’ve always heard about people here dying from Sars, the Bird Flu, or some other disease we westerners didn’t have to deal with before. I worry about my resistance to the above-mentioned diseases and any others that fill the air. (I will tell you right now; if I die because Big Bird gave me this cold I will not be a happy camper! What a way to go, just put on my tomb stone “Chicken Little killed me.”)

It’s probably nothing but I still worry. I mean I don’t know what the lady who gave me this was doing when she got sick… ohh that subway lady!! Curse her.

It all started on a typical commute home after a long day of work. In what I thought was a lucky moment I found a seat and plotted down to listen to my music and play some games on my phone. It was all quite nice until SHE stood in front of me. In her jealous rage she coughed and coughed and coughed. Did she cover her mouth, did she turn her head, did she even say excuse me? NO. She just coughed all over me as if I needed a germ shower.

Now some may say maybe I should have just gotten up and let her have the seat. But to those I say, you obviously don’t use Public Transit to get to and from work! Getting a seat is like finding a pair of black Prada pumps at the Rack in your size you don’t just give it up, EVER. And if for one second one would think that I would give that woman the satisfaction of taking my seat because she is rude. No!! What kind of lesson would I be showing her? That would only perpetuate this behavior! She would think that being disgusting, rude and inconsiderate would win her subway seats, and I will not allow for that!! No way!

I would rather be sick and know that she didn’t have the satisfaction!

But I don’t know if my protest was recognized. I do know that I am sick. And if it’s the bird flu I will not be happy.


December 31, 2008

By Elena Garcia

I just had the weirdest experience of my life. I decided to venture out today and enjoy my neighborhood, finally. So I got my laptop and dictionary and headed out. My plan was simple; I would stop by a local manicure shop and get my 30rmb manicure (for those of you counting, that’s less then 5 dollars). After which, I would go to the Costa Coffee at my local mall, do some writing.

Everything was going great. I went to the manicure shop. There I enjoyed a magnificent half hour of relaxation. The young girl who did my nails was sweet and nice even though we couldn’t talk. Just like home. At one point an older lady who was in the manicure shop said something while she stared at me. I looked up and over at her, she continued to say something and point to her eyelashes and using her finger to extend them. First I thought I had something on my eye, so I started rubbing. She continued with the same reaction, and then I figured she was saying something about my eyelashes being long. I said thank you, and she smiled and continued to stare. Now there were 3 or 4 of the nail girls staring with her. They were surrounding me just starring closely at my eyelashes… awkward. I said thank you again, but they just continued to stare. What else could I say? “Yeah I wear great mascara, it probably helps?” Not like any of them spoke English and I sure as hell don’t know enough Chinese to say that. So I did what I do best, just smiled and nodded until they finally went on their way. Definitely a weird moment for me, but I got my magnificent manicure, and continued on my way to Costa Coffee.

When I got here it was crowded, all the tables were filled and the tables are first come first serve. After walking around I saw a pair of gentlemen getting ready to leave. I approached their table and asked, or more gestured, if they were leaving. The nodded yes and one of the men gestured me into the table. I began to put my bag down when I noticed another man and two ladies begin to take the bench in front of me. Wasn’t a problem for me, I didn’t mind sharing the table. I just needed a seat. The man then said something to me in Chinese and I just smiled and nodded. But this time it didn’t work. They were gesturing me to leave the table. Well I wasn’t going to do that. Then a man, who was with the group who spoke German approached me and said that they wanted to sit here. He said it in almost perfect English. So I responded yes, that’s fine. But then he continued by saying there were four of them and they needed more space. I told him he could have the entire bench across from me and the space next to me. I just needed space for my stuff and me. Then his reaction kind of startled me. He started off on a rant, that there were four of them and they couldn’t fit, and that there was only one of them. I was so confused; they could have all the empty space. I just needed to space for my things and me and I showed him my laptop bag and my 2 books. It really wasn’t that much.

He started saying something to the extent of what stuff, again I showed him my things, it wasn’t so much, and I didn’t understand what the big deal was. Then he mumbled something in German, which HA I lived in Germany bro, I kind of understand. In German he said to one of the ladies next to him that I needed space for all my stuff and that my one person would take the entire bench. I interjected and said the space next to me is open. That is enough for one person. Then he said, in perfect English, “You’re Crazy!” I was blown away. I don’t know you sir; therefore there is no way for you to evaluate my mental status. I quickly replied with, “you don’t have to call names.” He rolled his eyes at me and went to a nearby waiter to complain. She approached me and asked if I had ordered, I said I needed a menu. At this point I didn’t realize the man had complained. To be honest I was still fairly confused as to why he was so upset. People share tables here all the time.

The waitress told me that they wanted to sit at this table and I told her they could. I also told her I thought maybe there was a misunderstanding. I told her that they could sit in every seat at the table except for the one I was in. She said that they thought it would be too crowded. I then said, “but I was here first?” She smiled handed me a menu and went off to deliver the message. Those four people could easily have fit at this table, what was the big deal about? After the commotion two ladies approached me to sit at the table and they didn’t have a problem fitting, and there is still a lot of space. And really, name-calling? Really?

It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if later a man, foreign looking, hadn’t walked by and given me a look of death. I guess the German man complained to him and he graciously gave up his table. Yeah because he was done, and he was using one table for himself, it’s like don’t give me a dirty look; you don’t even know what happened. Nothing even happened!!

To be honest I am still completely confused about the whole situation. It wasn’t like they were gigantic people who needed a lot of space. And it’s not like I could eves drop on their conversation. I just don’t get it.

Whatever. Happy New Year!!