Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cultural Awakenings.

When you live overseas, even after 7 years (ack, has it really been that long?) you will find yourself confronted with cultural...incompatabilities. I have known a few people that really have become culturally assimilated into a new culture, but for most of us...even though you become very flexible and patient when things don't go the way you expect (or think they should), there are times when you throw up your hands and say, "I will NEVER understand this."

For me in China, it's driving. Driving is an exercise that challenges every single notion of whatever seems organized and predictable and regular. It challenges every bit of patience and self-control. It is wonderful to be able to drive because it does give you a lot of freedom, but I still hire drivers and take cabs into the city sometimes, due to traffic and parking headaches. If you don't know where you're going and you get lost, it is a looooooong time to get straightened out.

There are 22 million people and some 6 million cars. Beijing does have fantastic roads, considering they were built when there were hardly any cars on the streets, and Beijing does have actual rules and regulations for safe driving (I know, I did take the test and know exactly what to do if I'm in an accident and my passenger has become somehow disemboweled--I get a bowl and place it over my friend's stomach so I can contain the intestines). Beijingers often drive the way you might walk or ride a bike--at variable speeds (a freeway can have people driving 90+ mph and 35 mph--in the same lane...and you can back up if you miss an exit).

The horn is essential and you must use it all. the. time. Back home, the horn, aside from that friendly "beep" reminding you that the light is green, signifies a pretty big misstep--changing lanes without looking, cutting someone off, etc. Here, the horn is applied when you come up behind someone, when you are turning, when you see someone else turning, when you see a bike/scooter/pedestrian, when you are passing, when you are being get the idea. Using your blinker is optional, and rather pointless, since no one will pay attention to it. Turning may be accomplished whenever you think of it, from whatever lane you happen to be in. Not sure what to do? Just stop and think about it. It's OK if you're in the middle of a lane. Or an intersection. Or a driveway. We can drive around you because using the oncoming lane is always a viable option.

In America we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about other people. Don't take too much, there might be others. Don't stand so close, the other person might feel uncomfortable. Defensive driving is all about thinking about the other person. In China, it is all about me. If there is an inch between me and the car in front of me, then a car will definitely swerve in, forcing me to brake (hard). It's OK, because it's my responsibility to get out of his way. If I'm turning onto a road, I don't have to look, because it's the responsibility of the oncoming car to see me turning and slow down or get out of the way. It's taken 3 years, but I've finally figured out the rules and expectations (which have nothing to do with the driving exam questions I learned).

There has been NOTHING living overseas that has inspired more ill feelings toward my host country or put me in a sweaty fit than driving. I never was a tense or frustrated driver, but here....grrrrr. Never in my life have I choked back so much profanity! It amuses me to think that something so silly as how people drive sparks such a reaction--I think it's because when I'm in the car, I'm going somewhere and it's then that I miss the ability to be efficient and get so much done on an outing, ala America. EVERYTHING takes so long and EVERYWHERE we go, it's in a monstrous crowd, whether it's on a freeway or in a shop. When in Rome, I do what I need to, because driving by "my" rules won't get my anywhere--literally. Watch out!


Panjiyuan is also known as the Dirt Market. In the "olden days" (which here can mean 50 years ago--or 5) the market was in a space with no it's been spruced up. For some reason it doesn't make the top of the lists for tourists, but it should. While the Pearl Market and the Silk Market have all the electronics and knock-offs, the Dirt Market has all the trinkets and "real" antiques (haha--things that are made antique by burying stuff in the ground and letting it age for a bit). Some things are old, though--I think it's funny when I'm told that "no, this is not old, only 150 years" because to a people whose culture is 5,000 years old, it is new!

The dirt market is only open on the weekends and best early in the morning. It's busy and crowded and there's always something unusual to see. Like this:

Man's best friend(s)...FOREVER. And a rabbit. Today several people were selling furs outside the main entrance. I really don't know what kind of furs they are, but many of them are clearly dyed and painted to look exotic. I suppose some of them might be dogs, but I couldn't tell, and they absolutely would not let me take pictures. The expression on this black dog, however...he does seem completely astonished to find himself in such a state.

We also saw a guy getting thrashed by two other guys, who were kicking and punching the snot out of him. I wondered if he was a thief...but he was really getting a beating. As we walked on, we saw security guards running over there, but they all looked about 16 in their faded baggy uniforms. I wondered if they would have any authority to stop things. When we lived in Tanzania, we saw thieves beaten terribly and knew that often they would be killed. I haven't seen as much of that here, but obviously, being caught stealing is taken seriously by people on their own.

Roasted sweet potatoes mean fall in Beijing. I don't like sweet potatoes...but the smell of them baking is heavenly!

The lanterns are thin fabric and wire like chicken wire. So so cute hanging in groups from a ceiling. Mark has them in his reception space and I love them.

Already learning the requesite photo pose.

The Dirt Market is one of the places to see a few of the minority cultures. China has a lot of different ethnic groups but the Han are by far the most numerous. This woman is Miao...her long long long hair is very recognizable. They sell a lot of textiles, some of them looking a lot like Hmong fabric--and amazing silver work, like this:

These necklaces look heavy, but they're very light--the silver is so thin.

A lot of monks were shopping that morning--I always snoop and eavesdrop on what the Chinese are buying--and how much they're paying! Haggling is a challenge here--prices do not come down easily or quickly.

Relics of a bygone era...some of the clocks are old, but the toys are not. Still, looking at them reminds me of the 1950's...these booths have such a nostalgic feel. The toys are very popular--there's always a crowd around his table.

If you come to visit, we'll take you's great!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Scenes from the Jing--courtesy of Instagram.

There is so much beauty in small things...these are from my new iTouch. I used an app called "Instagram." It's a visual Twitter--instead of tweeting your 140 characters, you use photos to "comment" on what you're doing. Ava's teacher last year is incredibly visual and has a fantastic eye. Her instagrams are like works of art. I don't have anyone following me--I just love the filters you can apply. A lot of them make your photos look older or faded and some of them have those old photo borders on them.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Price of Things

Everyone always wants to know if it's expensive living overseas. Yes--and no. Some things make living overseas easy--a lot of our expenses that would be out of pocket are covered as part of our work contracts. There are perks in many countries like affordable domestic help that definitely make life easier. Things that locals eat, especially if you buy them at local shops or markets--rice, fruits, vegetables, some meats--are cheaper.

Some other things are similar in some respects, but because we have more disposable income (because of the expenses our contracts cover), we can do them. Lots of restaurants charge American prices (and no refills!) but at a Chinese restaurant, even one in our expat area, we can eat and drink as a family of 5 for less than $50. Movie tickets are about $10 per person, but since China only allows 25 foreign movies per year, there aren't a lot of times we go--besides, you can buy a DVD for about $1.50.

Other things are more--gas right now is running between $7-8 per gallon. Ouch--but when the weather is nice we hardly ever drive the car (we use bikes and the scooter) and we don't have to drive very far (less than 2 miles) for work or daily activities. Obviously, the traveling that we do each year at Christmas is our major expense--and our summer costs are quite high since we don't have a house to live in.

Everyone goggles at the amount of luggage we carry back each summer--we buy almost all our clothes and personal toiletries back in the States. Clothing is very expensive here--if you buy at the markets, you have to bargain for everything, the prices are still high, the sizes are small, and the quality can be quite shoddy. Some local toiletry items are fine, but I just miss the scents and feel of some favorite things. Others are really pricy--I just saw L'Oreal kids' shampoo for $9.00 (!) today at the store. Anything that is not locally produced is much higher in price. Generally you can take the RMB price and divide by 7, then add a bit more to figure the USD price.

Hey. We're Minnesotans, and sometimes you do need a can of cream-of-something soup, even if you are paying $2 for it. And sometimes you just need a bowl of Double Noodle. Or Chef Boy-ar-dee Beefaroni. Stop judging me.

These babies show up often at our house--at over $3 a bag, they get eaten way too fast. And not by me (NOAH and CAMERON).

What is up with cereal products? For some reason, they are GOLD. Like this $8 box of oatmeal. Cereal is the same price. Even Malt-o-Meal. And the small box, not those family size boxes, either.

Luckily you can't tell when sour cream goes bad because you have to have it for tacos and the almost $5 price tag is for the yogurt-sized containers.

No more hot artichoke dip for me--to the dismay of my book club (honestly, one of the perks of living overseas is that perfectly ordinary things like broccoli salad and hot artichoke dip become fantastically original dishes). They used to sell larger cans for $4, but these petite jars at $10 make that yummy dip a thing of the past.

Other things we regularly buy--potato chips (the smaller bags) at $4-5 a bag, salsa (same price), and pasta ($3-4 per box). Sometimes we go in streaks--absolutely no cereal forEVER, then a few boxes find their way home. Bringing all that stuff back, at least for us, is not about not accepting life overseas--it's time and money management.