Archive for March, 2008

Rules of the Road and Running

For the past few weeks, I’ve been training for a ½ marathon. My first run was more like walk/run/walk/run as I fought the crowds on Nanjing’s streets and waited for stoplights to turn. People are fairly unaccustomed to runners here, and a runner seems to muck up the works of a very finely tuned system of movement. The flow of street traffic operates on one rule: Don’t stop for anything. Basically, everyone more or less plays chicken, and at the very last moment, the person who loses has to give way. But the game of chicken is based on the assumption that you have to act according to your mode of transportation. We have seen a bus take on a crowd of pedestrians in this manner, and it all worked out just fine even though we thought we were about to witness mass destruction. I’m certain that it would have been a disaster if one of the pedestrians were a runner. Being a runner on the streets of Nanjing is like being the person who pulls out the checkbook in the Visa commercials.

One nice thing about running in Nanjing is that I can spit with abandon, since it’s very normal to spit in China. When I say spit, I mean really SPIT. People here are spitting professionals.

I’ve also found, as always, that running is one of the best ways to discover a city. In an effort to get off the streets and avoid injury and pollution, we’ve found the track at the local teacher’s college and a long trail around a large lake, Xuanwu Hu. People still look at me like I’m a little weird and occasionally someone jumps in for a few yards of running, but generally, these places are peaceful.

People here are very athletic, even if this doesn’t tend to come in the form of distance running. People awaken early to do Tai Qi and other exercises. Walking backwards also seems to be popular (and they think running is weird, hmmm). Tennis, soccer, and basketball games are always happening around the track. By far though, my favorite show of athleticism in Nanjing is a young man who practices Tai Qi with a long sharp sword while dressed in his sportcoat, dress shoes, and khakis. He is talented and intriguing to watch, but quite intimidating too. I am trying to imagine someone in the States practicing their swordsmanship in say, Central Park, with a real weapon. Hmmmm…

I would say that the Chinese generally lead a very healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, many people, especially the men, smoke with abandon. They even smoke right underneath signs that say, “No Smoking.” This somewhat explains the lack of distance running. It is very hard to enjoy a cigarette on the run.

~Liz

43 Cent Beer

One of the convenient things about living in China right now is the exchange rate. We get about 7 times more buying power with our American dollars than we do back home. Our friend told us before we left that we could afford to eat out for every meal here- we didn’t believe him, but it’s true!

How much do things cost here? At this point in time, here are some of the prices we’re paying for our everyday items. Keep in mind that Nanjing is relatively cheaper than Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong.

1. Large bottled water, 1.5L: 29 cents
2. Tsingtao 20oz beer: 43 cents (how can you go wrong here?)
3. One yummy steamed meat/vegetable bun (healthy fast food): 7 cents
4. One bowl of stir fried noodles: 71 cents
5. One pound of bananas: around 50 cents
6. Package of 30 cookies: $1.40
7. Two large broccoli florets : 43 cents
8. One bottle of rice vinegar: 33 cents
9. Kung Pao Chicken: about $2.00
10. One bowl of white rice: 14 cents
11. A 1.5 mile cab ride in any direction: $1.29, $1.50 for 2 miles
12. An express train ride to Shanghai (2 hours): $13.28 one way
13. Banging the gong at the Confucius Temple: $1.29 (the more gongs you buy, the greater your good fortune)
14. Typical Chinese restaurant meal for 4: $14.28

There are plenty of other things, however, that cost more than they do in the States, mostly name-brand items that only foreigners buy. Even if they’re made in China, they are tariffed because they’re intended mainly for export.

1. Graco Pack ‘N Play baby crib: $185
2. Cheerios: $10
3. One pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream: $12.57

We haven’t shopped so much yet, but we hear similar reports about many other name-brand purchases. If you can switch to the Chinese brands while you’re here, you’ll come out quite nicely (although quality is always a potential concern!).

Sites around town

Here are a few more pictures from our recent trip around town with our good friend, Orianne. We are incredibly indebted to her for clearing out the local CVS supply of Purell and bringing it to us, along with enough English novels to fill a bookshelf!

We took a trip to Sun Yat-Sen’s mausoleum in the nearby Purple Mountain park. He is considered the grandfather of the 20th-century Chinese revolution. His mausoleum is built high on the mountainside, through the commemorative gate and up more than 300 stairs. The view from the top is great (even if hazy on that hot day).

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Another popular site in Nanjing is the Confucius temple. It’s very well preserved, and still maintains a meditative atmosphere, as long as large, brightly colored New Year’s floats don’t bother you much.

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After a hard day of footing it around town, nothing tastes better than noodles, dumplings and fried rice. This is the menu at one of our favorite stops. If anyone can figure out if they offer cashew chicken, please let us know!

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What’s in a name?

At the suggestion of a very good Chinese friend, we took the surname of a minority race in China that somewhat resembles our English last name. It’s gone over pretty well, especially since it’s rare and memorable to have a last name in China with two syllables.

Today, someone broke the news to us that our last name is used by the majority of kung fu movie heroes. We could have just picked Schwarzenegger as our last name and have been done with it.

To top things off, I picked ‘Jian’ as my first name, again as a close resemblance to my English name. It just so happens that the Chinese character means ‘strength.’ If people laugh at meeting me, I’ll just remember that meeting a ‘Rambo Schwarzenegger’ would make me laugh too.

Nanjing memorial visit

We’ve been in Nanjing for over a month! It’s startling to see time fly by so quickly. I’m in the fourth week of classes at Nan Da, feeling small victories every time I learn a phrase that’s not a simple vocabulary word, like ‘and what’s more,’ or ‘what’s to be done?’ Liz has started meeting with tutors, so she’ll be advancing her learning skills as well.

We’ve also worked out some of the kinks in our apartment, like figuring out which combination of appliances trips the fuse box. We can go days (sometimes) without having to make the extra trip down the stairs to flip the switch. Even in the absence of a holiday we still get occasional fireworks outside our window, which is fine since Leo has learned to sleep through them.

This last weekend we had a tremendous time with a good friend visiting from Shanghai, Orianne. She was visiting there on business from the States, and made it out here for two days to see us and the local sights. We saw Sun Yat-Sen’s mausoleum, a local temple to Confucius, and the memorial museum to the Nanjing Massacre. She also translated numerous restaurant menus, effectively tripling our knowledge of the different types of dishes we can order, all without the extra anatomical additions!

The Nanjing Massacre Museum deserves at least a passing observation. This brand-new exhibit features artifacts and historical reflections on World-War era aggressions made by Japan against China. The main focus is on a six-week period between December 1937 and January 1938, where Japanese troops brutally pillaged Nanjing and the surrounding countryside. The museum captured the savage reality of these events- 300,000 out of 1 million resident civilians were killed, by means of 28 mass-executions and hundreds of incidental executions by the Japanese occupiers. People were herded together in groups of thousands and then mowed down by machine guns, or were cruelly beheaded one at a time in front of soon-to-be victims. When sunlight grew short, executioners sped the process by dousing crowds with gasoline and setting them alight. Women, children, and elderly were not spared. 20,000 cases of rape were reported. Bodies literally piled in the streets. Thanks to a group of less than 20 foreign residents of American and European citizenship, an International Safety Zone was cordoned off in the city, about 1/8th the area inside the city walls. Hundreds of thousands of refugee civilians took shelter here to escape the slaughter. Our apartment actually resides within this historical zone, as it hugs tight to the university area.

This gruesome period of history is not so frequently reported in US textbooks, so we wanted to give at least some mention in case people are unfamiliar with it. It definitely deepens our appreciation for the dark times this city has seen, notwithstanding the 70 years of history in the massacre’s aftermath. It’s amazing that there are still survivors from that time living in Nanjing today- their testimonies were the most gripping elements of the whole exhibition. Needless to say, diplomatic tensions still lie between the two countries to this day. Relations have improved, but it will be a considerable time before they are completely normalized.

Shopping for a crib

So, for the past month our little boy has been sleeping in a suitcase. We’ve had nagging doubts about being poor parents, seeing as how we couldn’t provide a decent bed for our son. In reality he has been sleeping quite soundly atop his Thermarest pad laid inside the suitcase, topped by a blanket. We decided bringing a crib with us wasn’t necessary, as we assumed we could find a crib to our liking once we arrived.

We looked at four different department-type stores in search of a Pack ‘N Play style, portable crib. None of them, including Walmart, had portable cribs of any fashion at all. It seemed that only traditional wooden cribs were for sale in all of town. No one had even heard of Pack ‘N Play cribs. For us, however, the dilemma was whether a full size wooden crib would be practical, seeing as how we expected to be on the move in China over the next few years. Plus, some of the cribs were nowhere near up to safety standards from the States- you could fit a large grapefruit through the slats of some of them, pretty much obliterating the smaller-than-a-coke-can slat spacing regulation we expected.

Desperation started setting in as Leo started outgrowing his suitcase. It was already the biggest one we brought. We were about to fold and buy an expensive wooden crib when a classmate suggested we check out Toys ‘R Us. Nanjing has a Toys ‘R Us?? Yes, right in the central commercial area, in the expensive mall building. It turned out to be on the fifth floor of the mall, a few stories up from the Gucci and Dolce Gabbana stores, closer to the Nine West and Calvin Klein shops. Toys ‘R Us indeed had just the crib we wanted, and it turned out to be on sale too! Leo was thrilled to have a new sleeping place with some real space to stretch out.

Finding the crib was a success, but also a disappointment. Passing by all of the name-brand stores at the mall made one feel like 5th Avenue wasn’t so far away after all. This isn’t the China described by Mark Salzman, who was here just a few decades ago in search of kung fu mastery. It’s not even the Nanjing described to us by friends who lived here just a few years ago. We didn’t come here expecting to have all of the conveniences of life in the States available to us- some, but not all. Finding a Pack ‘N Play is nice, to be sure, but we didn’t expect it to come hand in hand with Milton Bradley games, Transformer toys, and Play-Doh. We wonder about expenses involved here beyond the cost of importing goods- having a neighborhood Toys ‘R Us inevitably supplants more original patterns of life and commerce here in Nanjing.

Victory at the Grocery Store

Today I went to the grocery store, passing by the many “Christmas Merry” signs still posted on shop doors in March. As I puzzled over what kind of noodles to buy and hoped for a package with instructions I could begin to understand, I noticed a lady talking to me without really looking, vigorously shaking a bag of noodles. Now this happens all the time, as people are usually looking at Leo and trying to make him smile, but something about her was different. My first thought was, “Oh, it’s a poor crazy lady,” and I said, “Duibuqi.” (“Sorry” or “Excuse me.”) A moment later, when she addressed me again, I paused, because I realized that a) she was blind and b) I actually understood what she was saying. The latter hardly ever happens, as accents vary and people usually have to slow their Chinese down to a Southern pace for me to get the jist. I regretted my earlier thoughts of insanity and began to answer her questions. She didn’t know (since she couldn’t see me) that I wasn’t Chinese, although that became clear when I opened my mouth to tell her how much her noodles cost and what kind she had in her hand. Nonetheless, she understood me and further asked me to help her find bags of noodles that weren’t broken up. It was a victorious moment for me. After four weeks of many interactions where I’m not so sure what was said or what I just said, I had a clear (if short) conversation, and I was able to help someone here.

~Liz