something I wrote

January 29, 2006

I was recently looking through the writings on my computer and found a piece of a memoir that I wrote for a class my last semester in school. I really liked some pieces of it, so I decided to brush it up. For now it’s going here, but I would really appreciate comments, editing, etc, because I think I am going to try and submit it to Sun Magazine. Why not, right?? I know it’s long… but I hope you like it.

It’s rush hour and I’m riding the loop of the Beijing subway during my spring break in 2002, two months before I will graduate from the University of Wisconsin, nine months since I left this pulsating organism of a city last. The recorded announcement tells me first in Chinese, then in English, what the next stop is. I remember the first time I rode the subway recognizing just a few words of the woman’s destination description. Now, with 14 months as a resident alien and two years of language classes in Madison trailing me, I have it nearly memorized. It doesn’t even sound like a foreign language anymore.

Heading south, between Chaoyangmen and Jianguomen, the subway car is especially crowded. Loads of people have piled on at the last few stops, heading to the interchange station at the next stop. I am the only non-Asian, and almost certainly the only non-Chinese in this car, probably on the whole train. I do my best, as always, to appear as comfortable and nonchalant as every other person in the car. Occasionally I catch the eye of a curious person interested in checking out a real, live foreigner. A map on the space above the door shows the route of the subway. I reread the names of the stops in Chinese characters and their romanized pronunciation for probably the hundredth time.

Based on tanned, leathery skin and a faded blue worker suit, I observe that a nearby man is probably from a rural area, one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Beijing looking for gainful employment. He sees me and manages to maneuver into a space about three feet away, directly in front of me. He proceeds to stare, unabashedly, mouth gaping, at me, the white girl. I try desperately not to laugh, then realizing that he might have a mental disability. I gaze casually at the advertisements and then look out the window as the walls of the underside of this sprawling Asian metropolis pass by. At Jianguomen, most of us get off the car. I lose my fascinated staring man in the crowd.

On this my third trip here, I affectionately call Beijing—with all its crowds and dust and air pollution—my third home. I really feel like I’ve come home. It’s inexplicable how a place so strange and dirty and at times unfriendly to foreigners could be my self-proclaimed third home. I’m a neat freak from the scarcely diverse Milwaukee suburbs and had never been out of the country before my first trip to China in 1999. Although I study journalism and worked for a year as the opinion editor at a campus newspaper, I wouldn’t have qualified in anyone’s book as “worldly.” Like most of my peers, I apathetically studied Spanish in high school, never really taking the time to learn to speak it well. Traveling always sounded like fun to me, but I didn’t have the money or desire to really pursue it. I remember studying Asian history and culture in 7th grade—and hating it passionately.

I’ve changed trains. I now head east, away from the center of the city. I always stand on the train, rarely taking a seat. Being surrounded by the people, conversations and culture of Beijing invigorates me. I can’t be sitting down for these moments, however mundane for everyone surrounding me. The train speeds up, rocks a bit, and the subway woman’s voice breaks through my focus on remaining upright. Yonganli, dao le. Eternal Peace Road stop—The site of Beijing’s foreign embassies, and a popular shopping district catering to foreigners.

In July 1999, during my first trip to Beijing and my first bargaining experience at the famed “Silk Alley” market, a shirt that read: “Never Forget May 8, 1999,” caught my attention. I thoughtlessly stared at the shirt, deciding this was the perfect time to try out my four-week-old Chinese. With false confidence, I tried to ask the vendor, a young man, what it meant. I was surprised that my harmless inquiry sparked agitation and the question “Ni shi na guo ren?”—What country are you from? Still clueless, I answered back, “Meiguo”—America, “beautiful land,” literally translated. My pride at understanding one sentence turned to complete confusion as he spouted off, now angrily, in rapid-fire Chinese. Realizing my inability to actually communicate, he switched to the universal language—hand signals. He made bomb gestures and noises and pointed back to the shirt. I remembered two months before in early May, when my mom had told me she didn’t want me to go to China this summer, because of the U.S.’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the protests at the embassy in Beijing. I suddenly wanted to disappear, apologize, proclaim my stupidity and ignorance. Unfortunately my baby Chinese now completely failed me. I mumbled “Excuse me, sorry” in both languages and left quickly. I had lost face, embarrassed myself, committed a large cultural error and angered a common person by my insensitivity. I had become the dense, ignorant American foreigner I never wanted to be.

Three years later, I meander the path of Silk Alley, observing and remembering. I quickly remember my distaste for the ignorant tourists – waving cash around, speaking far too loudly, and treating the shopkeepers like servants. From the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2001, when I studied in Beijing, this was generally a place I felt welcome to experiment with my budding Chinese skills. A foreigner who speaks Chinese here can get goods priced almost at what a Chinese would pay, brand-name parkas for $20, Gap sweaters for $5, Abercrombie khakis for $8. After my embarrassing incident in 1999, I never wanted to be that ignorant tourist again. I wanted to fit in as much as possible in my white skin, although my light hair and large nose would always give me away. I buy almost nothing on this trip. I’ve bought all the souvenirs I can manage in China. There’s nothing else I want, other than more time here, to exist, to understand why this place has me so bewitched.

Back on the train, this time headed back west, to the center of the city, in order to complete a full-circle around Beijing in my 10-day trip here. Tiananmen, dao le. I’ve arrived at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Square to the rest of the world. It had been 12 years since the democracy protests, when hope, pain, crackdown and death had filled one of the world’s largest public squares. On any given day, police vans wait near the perimeter of the world’s largest urban square, waiting for the Falun Gong demonstrators to take their places, first in Tai chi-like positions, meditating and practicing special breathing, then, in the paddy wagon, arrested for their faith, taken away to who knows where.

Strolling Tiananmen Square the memories and experiences submerge my psyche like flood waters. My first time here, as a student-tourist, taking far too many pictures of my friends and I, Mao portrait in the background, the smoggy Beijing sky so pale a blue it was almost gray. As a student, biking past Tiananmen become a regular occurrence, but despite the frequency of passing, I never stopped feeling an emotional tug, imagining what had happened on these streets, years ago. One late night in 2001, as the end of the school year neared, my fellow ex-pat friends and I decided to bike to Tiananmen. It had to be at least midnight, extremely late in Beijing time. The streets were eerily empty, all the taxis and Volkswagen Santanas hidden away for the night. It was probably the least-populated version of Beijing any of us had experienced. We abandoned the bike lane for the middle of the road, some of the girls sidesaddle on the rack over the back wheel behind one of the guys, just like millions of Chinese girls rode every day. My roommate and close friend was mourning her father, whose death had brought her suddenly back to the States a few weeks before. She had returned to Beijing for a few days to pack her things and say goodbye to life in Beijing. Arriving at Tiananmen, we realized the square was literally closed for the evening. The 2760-meter perimeter was literally roped off and guarded by security. But we had gone to Tiananmen that night for the journey, to feel the breeze as we rode through the calm streets, enjoying one another’s company, not to see the landmarks for the umpteenth time.

Jishuitan, dao le. The stop for the university where I had studied, socialized, lived and experienced China. The campus hasn’t changed much since I left, except for the construction. Some buildings have been finished and opened, other ones are being torn down and rebuilt. Cheap laborers from the countryside climb all over the scaffolding, working behind the translucent green mesh put up to hide the progress. This mossy green fabric is ubiquitous in a Beijing that barely stays the same for five minutes. Construction goes on day and night in China. The sounds of hammers and cranes pierce the eerie quiet after the students’ strict 11:00 p.m. curfew. Floodlights, used to illuminate the emerging structure for the workers, shine into my hotel window several hundred yards away.

On foot now, I take the long walk from the subway stop to the alley that leads from campus to my old apartment. I come to an open lot just behind my building and am thankful to find things much the same. The couple that use this spot to sell fruits and vegetables out of a pick-up truck greet me, somewhat surprised by my return. Next to the truck, a dozen or so retired men have gathered, as usual, to play cards and talk. The vendor and his wife explain who I am, saying I studied at the university the year before, and then some of the card players recognize me too. I am touched. I head to buy my favorite iced tea from another neighborhood vendor who I had been friendly with. The woman greets me, excited, and offers me the usual without asking if it’s what I want. I smile, feeling very much at home.


northern room

January 24, 2006

Friends, I don’t have anything new to report tonight, but I do have some cool news about an old K-12 schoolmate of mine. Milwaukee’s 94 WKTI recently staged a contest for a local band to win the chance to open for Bon Jovi in their Jan. 28th concert at the Bradley Center. I found out today, that my elementary school crush and high school/college friend’s new band won that contest – they will be playing in front of Bon Jovi in a week – so fabulous. Anyway, Andrew Jonathan (he apparently scrapped his youthful nickname A.J.) is the lead singer of
Northern Room and their first EP comes out in a week. If you link to their site it will automatically play some of their stuff. I think they sound fabulous.

I just remembered something funny. When we were in high school I remember being in Spanish class and A.J. was talking to this goofy, class-clown sort about starting a band they were going to call Glass Rose. It was pretty funny. Later A.J. started a band (whose original name I shamefully cannot remember right now) that later morphed into Jacobstone, who I always thought were quite good. Now there is Northern Room. I also remember thinking in high school that one day when A.J. was famous I was going to get to claim that I had known him when he was a kid. I think I’m one step closer to having that dream come true.

the shining

January 22, 2006

So it’s my day off, and I started watching “The Shining” on A&E this morning at 11:30 and now it’s 1:44 and I can’t turn if off. Have you guys seen this movie?!? It’s creepy as hell. I’ve never seen it. Shelly Duvall just locked Jack in the cooler after she knocked him down the stairs when he said he was going to kill her. SO CREEPY! I haven’t seen a movie this creepy in a long time, maybe ever. Maybe that’s why it’s a classic.

I am going to make bread today, but it’s hard to make bread and watch “The Shining” (3.5 hours with the commercials!) so I guess I’ll have to wait until 2:30. While I am sitting here on the ball trying to correct my posture while watching a thriller, I think I will scan some photos so that my old friend Angie who lives in China can see me. I love reconnecting with old friends. It’s a great thing.

I feel like my blog is getting lame lately, but I will be back with more meaningful, interesting posts soon. I am currently reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and Kathryn Harrison’s Seeking Rapture, both of which are very thought-provoking. Velvet Elvis goes along with Blue Like Jazz and other recent takes on a “repainted” Christianity from a slightly new perspective.

For the moment I have exhausted my ability to discuss my current issues/perspective on faith, so I am leaving these conversations to Jon, Cory and Sara & Matt’s pages, enjoying chewing on the thoughts rather than producing them.

Well, time to watch the remaining thrilling minutes of my movie, and then bread and laundry await.

look I’m famous and I should be exercising

January 19, 2006

So, I should not be blogging right now. I worked 11-8 today (and it wasn’t horrible, perhaps because I got a call from a recruiter from acompany that I am somewhat interested in this morning) and at about 6 pm consumed the first caffeine of my day, making me very awake right now. My house is a mess, there is nothing on tv to even slightly capture my interest, and I should not be sitting on the couch with laptop on lap, writing.

But just give me five minutes to chat. I made it, terrible photo and all, into MKE magazine again, however, I am a movie reviewer this time. This weekend I went to see “Brokeback Mountain” for my first assignment. I headed down to the Oriental Theatre on the east side by myself as I had to work immediately afterwards and didn’t really have anyone to go with anyway. It was a great movie.

It was fun to go to a Sunday matinee on the east side by myself. There were lots of loners like me there, and I got to eat a $3.00 bag of popcorn all by myself. Thrills. But besides that I really do enjoy going to movies, and all the better when I don’t have to pay for the ticket.

My husband got me an exercise ball for my birthday, which I totally wanted. I’ve decided that some of my favorite exercises will be sitting on the ball eating pitas with hummus (or other snacks) and sitting on the ball watching Mexican telenovelas. No, really, I am really going to try and exercise more.

Well, this is more randomness than I have posted for a while, so I think I’ll straighten up all of my crap now, perhaps fold the laundry that’s been sitting in the basket for three days and then maybe I’ll sit on that ball while I drink some tea and chat with Fermin.

no more complaining

January 19, 2006

I am getting the feeling that everyone is really sick about me talking about my job, as my rantings on this topic rarely elicit any responses. I guess I will have to stop that for now, which I will attempt this evening after said “work” is over. In the meantime, for some light-hearted hilarity, check out Jen’s newest post (link to the left). It’s really funny.

my own personal office space

January 13, 2006

There are too many days lately when I get so stressed, even angry at my job, that I wonder why I am doing it. I am not a particularly angry person. I definitely have my gossipy side, and I know that I can get easily irritated at times, but I’m not an easily angered person. Lately, however, I can measure the level of dissatisfaction with my job in how easily I am bothered by things that go wrong. Lately there is so much pressure on us as managers that it seems impossible to focus on all the things I care about in my job in favor of taking care of all the little things I am “supposed” to do in the eyes of the new upper-management regime.

When I took this job, I was really excited to be working for this particular company and really hoped it would be a good fit for years. I don’t want to be the person who changes jobs every three years, but I also know that my current state of mind and spirit right now is not healthy for myself, my husband, or the rest of my personal life.

On one hand, I know that all the changes that are going on at my workplace are about them taking their success to the next level. They want to grow and compete and thrive and grow some more, but I guess my level of interest about success, especially at the cost of my own and my colleagues’ quality of life, has waned. I know it’s important to follow particular standards and procedures in order to maintain quality, but I’m driving myself crazy spending my days concerned about things that really don’t matter.

Rules and regulations designed in large part by (I imagine) WASP-y men in suits in offices who have rarely seen the back of a restaurant. Maybe I am totally wrong, but some of the things they expect of us lately are insane, even to the average person who has a reasonable level of concern about sanitation. I had to cook for a while tonight, and even knowing all the standards as well as I know them, and being very conscientious about following them, it was impossible for me to do it all. I couldn’t do everything necessary and still produce enough product. If I can’t do it, how can I make my cooks do it? I just feel like it’s becoming too much insanity. It’s so bad that for days turning into weeks on end I’ve felt like there was no way I can stay in this environment, where one mistake with one stupid plastic glove or apron means failing a corporate inspection. Maybe there are other better people to do this sort of job I guess I’m just not one of them.

I enjoy being a restaurant manager for all the wrong reasons I guess. I just want to produce good food, please customers, create a staff dedicated to teamwork where friends are made and skills are developed. I care about being profitable and successful and want to run a clean, well-organized store. But lately the corporate focus is so much on enforcing strict adhesion to a plethora of very difficult and very extreme sanitation policies. On top of that the new expectation is that general managers work the sort of hours that managers in full-service concepts work, and those people make significantly more money than we do. I realize this is all getting very technical and restaurant-speak laden, but I am really frustrated with my job, and I don’t really know what to do.

Today I thought about walking out – the ultimate reckless, irresponsible act, only pulled off by those who are truly detached from the consequences of such a thing. I couldn’t do it, although it might have forced me to really find a job that I can do that doesn’t make me insane. Well, I am too irritated to be writing right now, so I’ll try sleeping, and tomorrow I’ll get up and go back, and then afterwards I’ll go to the holiday party. Let’s toast to me not having so much to drink that I spew any of this in front of my boss tomorrow evening.

Four things for my birthday…

January 12, 2006

I wasn’t tagged either, but I like these games.
Four jobs you’ve had in your life:

  1. McDonalds cashier, cook, drive-thru worker.
  2. Elderly (and lazy person’s) transport via golf cart at the 1996 Parade of Homes
  3. College newspaper Opinion Editor
  4. Mexican Grill chain General Manager

Four movies to watch over and over:

  1. “Office Space”
  2. Harry Potter (any of them)
  3. Artsy Chinese Kung Fu movies like “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
  4. “Les Miserables” with Liam Neeson

Four TV shows you love to watch:

  1. Grey’s Anatomy
  2. ER
  3. What Not To Wear
  4. Project Runway (a recent fave)

Places you’ve went on vacation:

  1. Eagle River, Wisconsin (aka “up North”)
  2. Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (the perfect dream island, now being rebuilt post-Tsunami)
  3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
  4. Puebla, Mexico

Four websites you visit daily:

  1. Blogs of Mary, Jon, Jennie, Rachel, Sara/Matt and a few others
  2. New York Times
  3. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  4. Qdobanet (work-related clearly)

Four of your favorite foods:

  1. Chinese: Spicy green beans and kung pao chicken in Biejing
  2. Mexican: mole with chicken a la my mother-in-law
  3. Thai: Curry noodles with veggies from Singha-Thai of West Allis
  4. Indian: almost anything involving yellow to orange curry sauce, some sort of protein, saffron rice and flatbread

Four things you would change about your house:

  1. Carpet in our upstairs den
  2. Paint the walls in the downstairs living room, something I have talked about since we moved in 1.5 years ago
  3. Strip the flowery wallpaper in the kitchen and replace with bright, bold paint colors
  4. Grow better, more mature and attractive landscaping

Four bloggers you are tagging:

  1. Mary
  2. Jon
  3. Sara and Matt
  4. Allan