Gipsy Danger

Gipsy Danger
Gipsy Danger from "Pacific Rim"

Thursday, July 16, 2015

An American Girl

With a name like Gipsy Danger, she seemed destined for international travel from the very beginning.

My Shanghainese street cat has now logged more cage time than an MMA fighter, I'm fond of saying.

We've arrived in America.

But it wasn't easy.


Her story began about two years ago, when she wandered past the lobby of the apartment building I lived in.  My neighbors, Balvinder and Cissy, were with me on the couches, drinking 3 RMB (50 cent) 750 ml bottles of Qingdao beer.  Bal had Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" on repeat and was smoking cigars.


"A kitty!"  I exclaimed.  I'd had a couple of Qingdaos by this point, so my enthusiasm wasn't unexpected.  Cissy followed my pointing finger and drew a quick inhale.  "She's lovely," she breathed.

And she was.  The kitten was five months old, we found out later, and had the most incredible markings--gray and black tiger stripes and orange marmalade whirled over a white belly and four white paws.  At the corner of each eye was a downward cheetah tear stripe that could've made her look pathetic--but her eyes were bright and her body language was confident and curious.

As Cissy and I cooed over the kitten and tried to coax her into the lobby.  "That cat is from the street.  Probably has fleas and God knows what," Bal said.

Cissy and I zipped to the nearby convenience store and bought a can of mackerel to feed the cat, and a few more beers.  The cat sniffed curiously at the fish we'd placed outside the building, but didn't eat it.

"Well, there goes my 7 kuai," I grumbled, but I was smiling.

"I'm talking to myself right now," Bal griped from the couches.  The cat followed Cissy and I back inside.  She made figure eights around Bal's ankles and meowed, purring.

"This is a helicopter cat!"  Bal said.  He seemed delighted now that he was receiving the cat's attention.

I picked her up and checked under her fur.  "No fleas.  Or flea eggs," I reported.  My orange tabby back home, Sitka, had had quite a few of both when I'd gotten him five years ago.  It'd been an easy fix, but in China?  Probably can't pick up a flea collar at the supermarket, I thought.

"Boy or girl?"  Cissy asked.

"Hold her upside down and check!"  Bal laughed. 

We all giggled.  "I can't tell, I'm not a vet," I said, "but most calico cats are female.  My guess is girl."

We all commented on the silky smoothness of her fur, and how she didn't appear to be starving.  Cissy and Bal both asked several people, including the lobby security guard, about the cat.  The answer was always the same:  "Homeless."

A couple of hours later we'd grown attached, and Cissy asked me if I'd take her home.  "I can't take her, I already have a cat at home!"  I protested, holding up my hands.  "I can't cheat on Sitka!"  I'd only been in Shanghai for a couple of months, and I was only planning on staying for a year.  But Cissy was Chinese, and her and Bal were committed to staying in Shanghai for the next year or two.

I told Bal about how my sister had captured kittens in her hoodie, and so he did the same--we rode the elevator up to their floor.

The next morning I showed up at their door with cat litter, a plastic basin for a litter box, and some kitten food I'd purchased at Jiadeli, the local supermarket.  Cissy was in the pajamas that Bal's mom had made for her, and she looked delightfully Asian in the bright red and pink colors.

"Oh, this cat," she started worriedly.  "She's too wild, Bal says.  She kept running over us all night, meowing and meowing.  Bal says we might put her back on the street."

I remembered how Sitka had been at that age.  "She'll outgrow it," I said, as we set up Gipsy's things.

Gipsy wouldn't have survived the winter at her young age, a Chinese vet later revealed.  A subtropical city, Shanghai is nowhere near as cold as Spokane, but we did have a couple of freezing cold mornings.

But Gipsy had other challenges ahead of her, most notably, an unstable living situation.  Frustrated with China and especially EF, Bal had resigned his position in April and returned to England.  At that point, he and Cissy had been married only a couple of months, and she'd decided to return to her hometown of Guangzhou in the south to take care of her ailing mother.  Taking Gipsy was not an option--Cissy already had a dog at home, and she'd be busy with her visa application and studying for her IELTS (English language test). 

I encouraged Cissy to call the two Shanghai animal shelters we could find, but one never returned her call and the other was full.

Cissy missed Bal terribly.  Though we watched Jason Statham movies and went to a pub quiz once a week, I was often working, so Cissy was quite lonely.  She also told me she'd started feeding Gipsy people food. 

"She likes it.  She'll eat anything, even the spicy dishes...But then she vomits."  Cissy looked at me, her eyes watery.  "I'm trying to get her ready to return to the street."

"What are you talking about?"  I demanded.  "You know I'm taking that cat."

"What?"  she asked, startled. 

"Sure, I'll take her," I committed, "and I'll try my best to find her a good home."

When Cissy left at the end of May, she hugged me tightly--something she didn't usually do--with tears in her eyes.  "Thank you so much for everything," she said.

I asked around:  coworkers, my chiropractor.  I posted a cute sign with Gipsy's picture at Avocado Lady, a small local shop patronized by many wealthy ex-pats.  I went home to Spokane for three weeks and had a coworker take care of Gipsy.  By the time I got back to Shanghai, I was growing quite attached to her.

I started looking into taking her home with me.  Oh, the regulations!  Oh, the horrors of quarantine!  Oh, the horrors of shipping animals in China!  I heard about epic quarantines--beloved family pets incarcerated in cages for six months; the pets were never the same afterward.  I heard about pets suffocating or freezing to death due to Chinese airline staff failing to pressurize the cargo hold.

I learned that certain airlines would allow in-cabin pets (thank you, United).  I learned that Chinese bureaucracy, while a slow nightmare of paperwork and money, can be handled, even if it means waiting in the vet's office for two hours with your cat for that official pet health certificate that cost 1150 RMB (about $200 US).  I discovered that China has strange demands--the rabies shot Gipsy had gotten the year before wasn't "official", so she was revaccinated, and micro chipped, on the same day--in spite of my reservations that the microchip wouldn't work in the US. 

When Gipsy and I arrived at Pudong International Airport an hour before our check-in time on July 8th, she'd already been in the carrier for an hour. 

Going through security, I had to take her out of her carrier (with about 25 curious Chinese passengers behind me, and doors opening up to the rest of the airport on either end) so that they could scan it.  What if she runs away?  I was sweating and tense by the time we got to our gate, and the sweat really popped when an cute female employee approached me, saying my carrier was too big to fit under the seat.

"Well, what am I supposed to do now?"  I said angrily.  Why tell me now, after security and everything?  It seemed that everything I did in China had some kind of problem, and after two years, I was more than ready to leave.

My rude response should've earned me a smack in the face, but the employee and her coworker called the purser of the plane to come out and speak to me. 

"My name is Laura," she said, shaking my hand, "and I have nine cats myself."  She smiled at me and eyed the carrier with a sharpness.  "Well, the flight isn't fully booked.  Let's go for it."  (Again, thank you, United.)

And the employees were right.  The carrier was about a centimeter too tall to go under the seat, but I shoved and tried.  About five minutes after we got settled, a couple of older Chinese ladies wanted to sit together and asked the attendant in Chinese to ask me to move.  I rolled my eyes and grumbled, but we ended up sitting in an aisle seat, rather than a window, a blessing on an 11-hour flight, and had an empty seat between us and a quiet Chinese man.

We landed in San Francisco.  The Customs guy calmly and carefully looked over her Chinese certificate and took her Ziploc baggie of cat food.  "You and I both know what this is," he said kindly, "but Uncle Sam has rules."

"That's okay," I sighed.  "She's not eating, anyway."

And she wasn't.  No eating, no drinking, no bathroom accidents.  I was starting to wonder if Gipsy's body had completely shut down.  I was starting to worry, but I couldn't do anything about it.  I sweated some more.  I'd only slept a couple of hours the night before we left, and maybe dozed an hour on the flight from Shanghai to San Fran.  I have no idea if Gipsy slept at all.

Again, we had to take her out so that security could scan her cage.  This time we were allowed to wait in a private room with ridiculously high walls.  I kept telling Gipsy how much I loved her, what a good cat she was being, and how proud I was of her.  My mom had sent a hormone collar from the US with supposedly calming effects, and although Gipsy still seemed nervous, it appeared to be working.  When the TSA guy returned, he commented, "By now, most cats are climbing those walls.  You've got a nice, mellow cat."  I beamed with pride and put her back in her carrier, and she was pretty good about it.

We landed in Denver.  And there we waited.  And waited.

A computer glitch had grounded some United flights earlier that day, I learned.  We'd already planned for a 7 or 8 hour layover, but it got later and later.  I'd eaten, but, as the airport's restaurants closed down, I felt hungry again.  I peered into Gipsy's cage.  She seemed fine, and she hadn't eaten.  I drew strength from that.  As we waited some more, I curled up around her carrier, draped between two chairs, freezing cold.  I'd forgotten my new jacket in San Francisco--my only worry then had been getting us through Customs.  The sweat seemed to have frozen on my body.  I was tempted to take Gipsy's blanket and use it for myself, but I kept it draped over her carrier--partly to keep her warm and partly to block off any sights that may have frightened her.

Finally we got on the flight.  It was full.  Gipsy's carrier wouldn't go under the seat.  I had to prop my feet on top of it, and my backpack on top of my knees.  It's only for a couple of hours.  Strangely, I never got reminded or reprimanded about her carrier or my backpack.  Lucky.  No one bugged us.

We finally, finally landed in Spokane.  It was about 1 am.  And I could hear jack hammering coming from near the luggage carousel.  My sister Laura met us and I could tell she was worried about us and the jack hammering. 

"I think Gipsy's kind of in shock, anyway," I said, laughing, loopy from lack of sleep.  It hadn't quite sunken in that we'd made it--that we were in America.  I unnecessarily reminded my sister that we'd lived next to a construction site for two years.  I joked, "It's probably a 'welcome home' sound for her."


It's been over a week now, and Gipsy has met Sitka and Nellie, my sister's cat.  She's explored both levels of the house.  So much space compared to our tiny 40 square meter studio in Shanghai!  Yesterday, she even went outside with the other two cats.  She has fallen for Sitka, following him around like a starry eyed teeny bopper.  There's been some hissing, and some batting of paws, but no biting or scratching.

My Shanghainese girl is now an American girl--out in the open spaces of the West, enjoying the fresh air and grass under her paws, exploring this New World--just like I'd promised.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Freedom is...

"They can take our lives, but they'll never take...our...FREEDOM!!!"

Of course Braveheart's line kindles a fire within me.  As an American, freedom is my middle name.

Interestingly, there are things I am free to do in China that I can't do back home.  I can walk down the street, or onto public transportation, with a can of beer in my hand.  I can light off a fistful of fireworks whenever the occasion (or the mood) strikes.  I can smoke anywhere I want, even if there are a dozen signs claiming "NO SMOKING", because those signs in China are just there for decoration.  If I had a scooter, I could ride it onto the sidewalk and disregard any and all traffic lights.  If I had a kid, I could hold him/her over a garbage can to relieve themselves in public, and no one would call C.P.S. on me.

But what is public drinking compared to the right of free speech?  In my country, I can say whatever I want to about my government, and I won't disappear into some gulag, never to be seen again.  Even now, people disappear in China after saying politically volatile things. 

What is lighting off explosives compared to freedom of religion?  If I decide to run for political office in the U.S., I don't have to swear to renounce religion.  As a member of the Communist Party in China, you'd have to swear your only allegiance was to Communism. 

I don't have to put my age, gender, photo, health, or marital status on my resume. 

Feeling as I do, I still wanted my students to talk about the idea of freedom without feeling as if some foreigner were judging them.  Because the 4th of July is coming up, I thought it'd be a good idea to give them just a few minutes of U.S. history--specifically, why the U.S. declared its independence--and then the rest of class would mostly be open-ended discussion.

When I talked about the colonists' complaints against England (search and seizure; quartering soldiers; imprisonment without knowing the charges against you; and of course, taxation without representation), my students' eyes widened.  In China nowadays, and especially in Shanghai, some of these ideas are as foreign as they are in the U.S.

"After more than 160 years of this, the colonists were pretty upset.  Many of them had only lived in the colonies--they'd never been to England.  Sometimes whole generations had only lived in Boston or New York.  That made them more American than British (even though the United States of America wasn't a country yet!).  But the British government--over 5000 kilometers away over the ocean--was still ruling their lives.  Quite unfairly at times.  And that's why they declared independence."

I knew I was simplifying, but when your classes only run 50 minutes and you don't see the same students on a daily basis, you have to come to the point as fast as you can.

Still, sometimes teaching opens a door in me I didn't know was there.  For the first time, I could really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors.  I could feel a bit of what they must've felt.

I'd prepared about 20 discussion questions for my students--What is freedom?  What freedoms do you have, and which ones do you wish you had?  Is working 40 hours a week like slavery?  Should everyone in the world be able to bear arms (own a gun)?  I knew a lot of my students would be more comfortable if I ran the class as a partner discussion, where only one person might hear their opinions on the idea of freedom.  Running the class this way also would keep me from overwhelming them with my own opinions--at least, that was my hope.

Here are some of the things I caught from three different classes:

I try to escape from my mother's controlling!  [Laughter]  I can't make choices by myself.  [Her parents had said] "If you don't go to Fudan University, we won't send you to another one, and we won't visit you."

[Freedom means] I can read any book I want, watch any program I want...In our country, there are too many limitations, and you cannot choose...

Freedom is good, but we must have rules.

You have to say the [Communist] Party is always right...I don't think it's correct.

Freedom has limitation also.

We can discuss ideas [political, etc.] in private but not will be deleted [by the government if posted online or written in print].

Governments make mistakes...[police] officers make mistakes.

We don't have complete freedom.

The government protects the rich man.  (Not a uniquely Chinese situation, I wanted to tell them.)

[Freedom means] you can say what you want, and no one can hurt you.

It was a bittersweet class, partially because it was my second-to-last Life Club class, and partially because so many of their opinions were similar to my own.  And yet they lived in a country where they couldn't have some of the freedoms they knew existed elsewhere.

At the end of my second class, a female student asked, "Teacher, what's your opinion?"

Part of me wanted to get up on my soapbox, but after living in China for a total of three years now, I knew it'd be the wrong thing.  I wouldn't have been surprised if the government had sent the occasional "guest" to "monitor" my classes, and I could also see myself getting hauled out of the country before the day was over for instigating a revolution.

"Well, this class isn't about me.  It's really about what YOU guys think freedom is.  My ideas about freedom will be very different from your ideas, because we come from different countries."

She looked disappointed, and asked again, "But what's your opinion?"

I wanted to tell her, but at the same time, this was a student I'd never met before.  I knew this was China, and I was feeling a bit paranoid.  The irony is that I'd grown up believing freedom of speech was a God-given right, and here I was, buttoning my lip...meanwhile, a Chinese person, who'd grown up under Big Brother's watch, was asking me to speak freely.  But paranoia won out.  I repeated what I'd said before. 

In the third class, it happened again, this time with a smaller class of students I'd known for a while.  I gave them a similar answer, then expanded a bit. 

"I think education is really the ticket to freedom," I said.  Not very original, but it's something I've believed most of my life.  "We're really lucky--American women, Chinese women.  We get to go to school."  All of my students in this class were women, and they were nodding.  "If we were in some places in Africa or the Middle East, we wouldn't be at school.  We'd be at home with the baby, or working in the field.  That would be our life.  I think it's great that China has such high respect for education."

This was true.  I've felt more respected as a teacher here than I ever have in the States.  Of course, most of my students in the States were considered at-risk youth, so that might have something to do with it.

I was also hoping a little flattery would cover up the fact that I wasn't completely giving my opinion--that on my VPN-sourced news, I've read how many Hong Konger's online posts are taken down; that the people here work hard, pay taxes, and have no right to say what the government does with said taxes.  Taxation without representation!  Censored art exhibits!  My sealed packages being cut open at the post office every single time to be searched right in front of me. 

Only one student seemed to catch on--a girl named Soonie, the one who'd been forced to Fudan University by her parents.  A bright student with smooth English, she looked a little disappointed at my lack of complete transparency. 

If I was ten years younger, I probably would've spoken my mind completely, and damn the consequences.  But was that the right thing to do?  To inspire my students into a democratic revolution less than two weeks before returning to my own "land of the free", leaving them to be silenced (by any means necessary) by their government?  I'm not saying I have that much power, but as a teacher, you sometimes never know.

My hope is that, by having them discuss freedom, by thinking about what it really means to them, that they will come to their own conclusions, their own truth.  My hope is that they will be inspired to discuss things more freely, that they will fight for freedom, not in my way, but in their own.

My hope is that, one day, freedom won't just belong to Americans.  It'll belong to everyone. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Fish Tank

If you think people aren’t damaging the environment, you haven’t lived in Shanghai.

Even the seabirds don’t fish in the Huangpu River.

Today I saw ten dead fish floating in the water.

I know fish live there; I’ve seen them jump from the water and make little splashes, sending ripples larger than themselves into the muddy, slightly greasy flow around them.  But they don’t live very long.

I’ve also seen a single plastic sandal, capsized like a boat in that river.  I’ve seen cellophane wrappers from cigarette packages.  Styrofoam packing material, floating like fake Hollywood rocks.  A brightly colored Gala apple, dancing on the surface like a sick Halloween invitation to bob for apples.  Bamboo shoots like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s stakes.  Aerosol spray cans.

The water is unclean.

Oh, it flows.  Pristinely white cruise ships dock along the Huangpu's entire length, huddling conspiratorially together like gossipy fur-clad heiresses.  Short boats carrying coal float just feet above the river's surface, chugging up and down the river all day and all night under their burdens, proudly flying their Chinese flags.  Their laundry is hung to dry on deck, and it flutters in the toxic breeze like Tibetan prayer flags.  Hulking ships from Australia or other locales carry steel car parts, clothing, Siemens refrigerators, Nike shoes, iPhones--nearly everything the world buys and sells.  

But it’s not clean.

The air smells and even tastes like burnt metal sometimes.  Coal smoke sends its toxic fumes into the already deadly air.  Sometimes the air smells of dust or smoke.  It’s worse at night when I come out of the metro and head for home after work.  I wonder if this is why the government shuts down the metro between 10 and 11 pm:  Are they trying to limit the people out in this airpocalypse?  Or is it a secret curfew to keep crime down?

Sometimes my throat hurts for no reason.

I have recurring rashes:  one above my collarbone and one in my left armpit.  Sometimes the skin at the corners of my mouth and nose is raw and peeling.  I get painful canker sores inside my mouth more often here than in any other place I’ve ever lived, but that could just be my body reacting to the   24 million person germ pool!  I have tried Tiger Balm, hydrocortizone cream, and my go-to in the Peace Corps, bacitracin ointment.  I take allergy pills regularly.  Nothing works.  Just when I think I've had my last canker sore, I suddenly find myself slurring around another one.  The rashes go away for a while, but then they come crawling back like cockroaches. 

Whenever I talk to my students about the environment in China, I force myself to admit that the U.S. isn't perfect, either.  Spokanites used to push their broken down cars into the Spokane River.   Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, that beautiful rainbow of steam and water, was once treated like a garbage pit.  It’s hard to believe that America the Beautiful, Home of the Hippy, once treated its natural treasures this way.  But it's the truth, and if I can, I want to save my students from making some of those same mistakes.

Still, health is the number one reason why ex-pats leave Shanghai.  (  When PM 2.5 (the particulate matter portion of the air quality index) reaches 50 micrograms in the U.S., they caution parents to keep their children inside.  An average AQI in Shanghai is 150.  Daily.  You can't keep your kids in all the time.  Some ex-pats talk about the fact that their formerly healthy children now have asthma. And according to The Atlantic, even some Chinese want to leave.  

But leaving China doesn't mean you'll escape the problem. The Weather Channel reported last year that air pollution from China has reached California.  This has been confirmed by UC Irvine.  Some reports claim that a quarter to a third of the pollution in California can be traced back to China.  Not that California isn't producing its own share, but China’s problem is not isolated.  It’s on America's shores.  We can't point a finger and say, "It's over there.  It's not us, it's them," because it is us.  Pollution doesn't stay inside political borders.  It doesn't need a passport or a visa.  No border patrol is keeping it out, or putting it on a truck or a boat back to wherever it came from.  Its master is the wind and the tide.  And us.  But we've let it get out of control like a spoiled child.

I get so angry when Americans say climate change or global warming is a hoax, because they are straight up lying to themselves.  Suicidal individuals suck on a tailpipe when they want to die.  I don't want to die, but I'm huffing emissions from cars and factories every day no matter where I live.  Scientists in every country have concurred:  the weather all over the world is increasingly extreme.  A co-worker from the Philippines told me they just had hail for the first time in history.  Hail.  In the Philippines.  In the tropics.  What the hell is hail doing there?!

A lot of people in Spokane and in the U.S. don't believe the scientists.  They seem to think science itself is one big hoax.  Well, if you don't believe the scientists, then talk to the oldest man or woman you can find!  Ask them if the weather in their hometown has changed in their lifetime.  I guarantee they will say yes. 

 Notorious for denying anything negative about itself, China admits that the pollution here is extremely hazardous.  In addition, they are perhaps starting to be even more concerned about the effects of environmental degradation on their economy.  The English language China Daily newspaper states that pollution costs equal about 10% of China's GDP.  Whether the Chinese want to or not, they are paying for pollution.  They can choose to pay for organic food and electric cars, or they can sacrifice their GDP.  But they will pay.

 As a whole species, we will pay.
Stephen Hawking, not usually a glass half empty type, has just predicted that humanity won't last another 1000 years on this planet, and that finding another habitable planet is the only thing that will save us.  (
When I've talked with my students (teenagers in danger of dropping out, adult English Language Learners) about pollution, I get them to think of a fish tank.  Some of my students have kept fish as pets, and most know that when the tank gets dirty, you need to clean it.

 “Why?”  I ask.

 “Duh.  Because the fish will die if you don’t!”  a high school student answers.

 “Okay, so what does the cleaning involve?”

 “You must have new water,” a Chinese student answers.

 “Exactly.  Now imagine that our Earth is our fish tank, and we are the fish,” I say.  “What happens when our tank gets dirty?  Where will we get new water?”

 This is when the room falls silent.  This is when even the lippy teenagers get genuinely thoughtful faces.

 I don’t want to scare my students.  I’m usually positive and light.   

But they all need to hear this.

 “There IS no other water,” I tell them.  

Sometimes I show them a picture of our beautiful sapphire and emerald home at this moment.  It's suspended in the black loneliness of space like a lost child.  Unique and limited, precious and finite in an infinity of God's stars. 

“This is it.  If we continue to pollute our fish tank--our planet...We.  Will.  Die.”

Monday, April 27, 2015

Faith in Travel

If you want to test your faith in God, travel abroad.

In a place where you don't know the language.


And then get lost.

I have been lucky--blessed--to have experienced this a few times, and have everything turn out all right. 

My Advanced Workshop students were traveling (so to speak) through our lesson "Complaining about a holiday".  Our final task was to role play a conversation between a tourist and their travel agent, but some of the students had suggested a small group discussion instead.  "We could use more of the phrases," one pointed out. 

That's one of the things I enjoy most about Advanced students.  They're more able to express opinions if you ask for them, and they usually have good advice.  And it's a bonus for me to see them at this level, when I met some of them as Intermediate students just two years ago.

The second time I taught the lesson, a few students asked for me to tell one of my bad holiday experiences.  I was caught off guard.  I've been working hard this past year to reduce my TTT (teacher talk time)--if you want people to learn to speak English, you have to shut up so that they CAN!  I hadn't planned to talk about any of my experiences in class, but I immediately thought of my trip to Turkey in May 1998.

I'd been studying in Athens, Greece since March and a few of my classmates wanted to take our spring break in Istanbul.  They were planning to go down to some beaches after the city, but I wanted to see Troy, as I'd read about the Trojan War in school.  So we made different travel arrangements.

I'd read about the May 1st Labor Day riots in Istanbul, but I figured they were over by now and wouldn't be a concern.  That's what being 20 years old does for you!  Luckily, I was right.  I was flying on May 2nd, a day after my classmates.  

Upon arrival I queued up with the rest of the tourists and natives to go through Customs and Immigration.  My agent looked up from my passport.  "Where is visa?"

"Huh?  Uh...I was told I didn't need one!"  I'd called ahead, as recommended by my classmates.  I was told the same thing they were:  a visa wasn't necessary.  But this guy wasn't letting me go.  "Need visa," he said, shrugging.

"How much?" 

"One-hundred U.S."  No sooner had I started counting my Greek money than he interrupted.  "Only U.S. or Turkish lira.  No drachmas."  I'd heard that the Greeks and Turks weren't exactly friendly with one another.

"But...I don't can I get some lira?"

My agent handed me my passport and waved at someone behind me.  Up came a man with a huge rifle.  I don't even remember his face.  All I remember was that big gun.  He held up the red rope for me and indicated that I should follow him.

Oh, crap.  Were we going to a scary interrogation room somewhere?  I prayed hard that we were going to an A.T.M.  In spite of the big gun, the man didn't seem intimidating.  I prayed again that I was right.

And I was.  Phew.

I withdrew a sum of 2000 lira.  That should do it, I thought, unable to remember the exchange rate.  Dollars, drachmas, lira...

A group of three white tourists happened to be passing by.  "That's about four bucks, honey," an overweight man said with an American accent.  His buddies smiled.  I hated being called "honey" by random men, but I appreciated the tip.  "Thanks!"  I called, waving and sticking my bank card in again.

My "friend" with the big gun escorted me back to the Customs line.  I got my visa and hoped I had enough money left for a taxi to the hostel.  I clutched the hostel address in my hand and went out into the bright heat to find a cab.

Immediately I was accosted by a young Turkish man.  "Taxi, you want taxi!  I have taxi!"

"Uh...okay..."  He looked quite young, and very plainly dressed.  I wasn't sure this was right.  I looked around, but no other cabs seemed to be immediately available, and I wanted to get to the hostel A.S.A.P.  I couldn't wait to tell my classmates about my visa issue.

The taxi driver kept walking ahead of me, enthusiastically gesturing and smoking.  I followed him through two parking lots, and kept increasing my distance from him as the minutes ticked by.  Was this right?  Was this guy some kind of creep?  Why wasn't his taxi parked closer to the entrance?  Why were we going all the way over here?  But the broad daylight and my 20-year-old cockiness kept me following.

We arrived at a small maroon sedan.  There was no light on the roof, no logo on the side.  I hadn't grown up in a taxi city, but I thought I knew what to expect.  As the driver opened his door (unlocked, if I remember correctly), I peered in through the passenger window.  I saw a legitimate-looking meter.  The car was rundown but clean inside.  Nothing seemed to be wrong with the vehicle--the tires were full, nothing was leaking, no funky smells.  I got in the taxi.

And held on for dear life.  I learned later that Turks believe your fate is written across your forehead at birth, and that pretty much nothing you do (or fail to do) will change that.  So they drive like crazy people.  Rather than staying in his own lane, my young driver created his own lane a couple of times by either driving on the shoulder (next to a concrete divider at high speeds) or by squeezing the nose of his vehicle between the two cars ahead of us.  They moved over amiably.  I pressed my feet to the floor as if I could brake the car somehow and prayed not to die.  The man swerved, honked, sang to the song on the radio, and never missed a beat.  He didn't curse or get angry.  He was enjoying himself.  And it was kind of contagious.  I relaxed just enough to enjoy the wind whipping through the window and tangling my hair.  I actually managed to smile when I paid and said goodbye.

At the hostel I was given a note as soon as I showed my passport.  In it, my classmates had written that they'd switched hostels.  They'd written the address, a promise to explain later, and orders to ask this hostel to call me a taxi.  The bottom was covered with smiley faces and their now-familiar signatures.

Oh, great.  At this point I was tired and just wanted a stable place to set down my stuff.  The level of fear and anxiety I'd been feeling since the Customs and Immigration line had kind of plateau'd and even decreased.  I had to get through this.  I had to get from this hostel to the other one.  What else was I going to do?

When I arrived at the other hostel, they'd gone out for the day, but all of their stuff was in the room we'd be sharing.  I looked at this stuff--belongings of people I'd known as classmates for less than two months--it felt like I was looking at the stuff of loved ones.

Having faith in strangers isn't easy.  It isn't fun.  It can be scary and ugly, and sometimes it turns out horribly, horribly wrong.  When you're foreign, especially when you're not in an English-speaking or European country, you stand out--you could be a target.  And being a woman alone makes you even more of a target.  You hear scary stories all the time about young girls trusting the wrong man--and never being heard from again.  About foreigners getting abducted, even in America.  Or that German pilot who deliberately crashed his plane, killing himself and all of the passengers. 

But, as the Chinese say, mei banfa--literally, without the way, or no choice.  In other words:  "What can you do?"  Am I going to stay locked in my house 24 hours a day because I'm afraid something might happen?  Maybe my fate isn't written on my forehead, but God has counted all the hairs on my head.  He knows when I sit and when I stand. 

Sometimes you have to trust random people if you want to get from point A to point B.  If they say, "Get on this bus, this is the right one," you have to believe them.  You have to take it on faith, because sometimes you don't have a guidebook, and even when you do, sometimes the guidebook is wrong. 

I've come to believe that some of these strangers are sent by God (like that annoying American dude who "honey"'d me) to give us a tip at the right time and the right place.  Maybe they're angels, who knows?  No one knows their airline pilot personally, but we all pay hundreds of dollars and let him or her fly us to our destination.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're trusting a complete stranger with our lives.  I'm willing to bet that some of them are angels, too.

There is something scary about this, but also something strangely exhilarating, like riding a roller coaster (which, oddly enough, I really don't enjoy).  You are locked in.  You can't get out.  The vehicle is falling downhill and you can hang on and scream for your life with your eyes screwed shut (which is usually my roller coaster style) or you can let go and throw your arms up and open your eyes, because you can't get out until the ride is over.  (Interestingly, my travel style is the second one.)

My students who've gotten lost in a place where they don't know the language have that look in their eyes that I feel--a spark, an excitement--and a desire to do it again.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The pandas in Chengdu

There was a panda waiting for me when I landed in Chengdu.
Admittedly, this panda was actually a cheesy costume with a man inside it, but it felt as if I'd been welcomed to Sichuan Province by panda-kind nonetheless.

Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and I felt like I couldn't leave China without seeing these guys in their natural habitats.

Last time I'd seen a live panda in China, I'd been 10 years old, and we'd just arrived in Beijing.  A giant panda was huddled like a prisoner in a concrete cell, bars over the window, scraps of bamboo at his feet.  I'm anthropomorphizing, but he looked deeply depressed.  He was alone.  The hospital green paint on the walls didn't help.

I saw something about China's improved panda habitats on National Geographic's "Wild China" series (which I highly recommend) and felt inspired to visit Chengdu.  I had never intended to go to Sichuan, honestly, though.  Huajiao (Sichuan pepper) is famous for numbing your entire face, not just your lips and tongue, and I must confess I preferred cuisine from Hangzhou or Xi'an, both of which are full of flavor without making the skin of your tongue peel off.  One of my students encouraged me to drink lots of water, and her classmates nodded enthusiastically.

I was going to stay with a friend who was teaching in Chengdu and who had offered his guest bedroom free of charge.  I hadn't seen Kristopher since last July, but I was sure his reddish-brown hair would make him stand out in a crowd of 5'5", black-haired Sichuanese.

I was finishing my photos of the panda man when a tall, somewhat shaggy figure approached.  Canvas loafers on bare feet were topped by shorts and a parka and scarf.  On his head was a tam-o-shanter-like hat.  A white mask hid most of his face.

"Heather," he called.

"Kris!  Yay!"  I exclaimed. 

"Welcome to Chengdu," he said as we hugged.  He took a step back and held out a second mask.  "Put this on."  When I laughed, he went on, "PM 2.5 is two-fifty today."  (Shanghai, for reference, averages a particulate matter level of 150.)  "Oh, God," I said, putting the mask on immediately.

"I'm also coming down with something," he said regretfully.  "I may not be much fun."

"Well, you sounded busy," I said.  He was lead teacher at his center.  I hadn't been sure of his schedule, but he said he'd go with me to see a few sights.

We caught a cab to a Tex-Mex joint near his apartment.  Chengdu has only two metro lines, so it's more of a bus/cab town than Shanghai is.  We caught up on gossip and made plans.  We agreed to see the pandas my second full day in Chengdu. 


Due to seeing another friend and staying up quite late, it felt painful to get up before 7 a.m.  My schedule teaching adults means I never have to be up early these days.  But I'd been advised by no fewer than five people that the pandas were fed at 9 a.m.  They were supposedly asleep or very lazy for the rest of the day, and I was hoping to see something entertaining in the way of panda behavior.

We met Kris' friend T.J. at the red panda enclosure.  Red pandas remind me of cats--if cats had come from a marriage between red foxes and raccoons.  They seemed to want only to rub their posteriors on things or to chase each other, but they were fun to watch. 
Next up were the giants.  Xiong mao, or bear cat, is the name in Mandarin.  Use the wrong tones in your pronunciation, though, and you're saying "chest hair".  So be careful!  The walk was uphill, and in the slightly moist, cool air, it was invigorating.  With all the grass and bamboo around, the air was fresher.  I could smell the soil of the Earth and the roots of growing things.  I inhaled deeply and frequently, trying to get my fix.

First up were the "juveniles".  I thought the term was hilarious, as I'd had many experience teaching "juveniles" and even "juvenile delinquents".  And, typical, the juvenile pandas weren't that different.  They seemed incapable of sitting upright, preferring to lean against wooden poles or each other, gnawing on snacks or pushing at each other.  Give those juveniles a cell phone and some girls, I thought, and the picture would be almost human.  They were adorable.  Eight of them (probably on purpose, as it's a lucky number in China) sat on weathered bamboo platforms, eating fresh bamboo.  T.J., Kris, and I acted out conversations ("Hey, that's my stash, man!") when one juvenile tried to steal a friend's food, and giggled.  We made jokes about them smoking bamboo joints and made funny voices for them.  I felt like a little girl seeing a pony for the first time.  I hadn't expected to be so giddy about it, but there they were!
On the way past panda "Kindergarten" we saw a few peacocks, and I failed miserably to capture their shimmering blue colors on my phone's terrible camera.  I'd forgotten my camera in Shanghai and kicked myself for it each day I was in Chengdu.  The "kindergartners" were cute, but most of them had finished eating and were napping (cutely) in trees.

Next were the giants of the giant pandas.  I expected more laziness, and the first big guy I saw seemed to confirm it.  He was laying on his back and eating, he was so lazy!  In the next paddock over, though, a curious guy emerged.  He climbed a tree--slowly, to be sure--as Chinese and foreign tourists snapped pictures, rolled video, and babbled quietly and in awe, pointing and smiling and posing.  When he got about halfway up the tree, he hung upside down in a crotch, pivoted a bit, and began rubbing his butt on part of the trunk.  A couple of times we could hear small grunts of pleasure, and we all laughed.  Taking his time, the panda clambered down, panting, and proceeded to climb up another, thinner tree.  A few branches snapped off, and the "audience" gasped as the main branch bent like a fishing pole, but Kris was an old hand.  "Just watch.  He won't fall.  They never do."  And he didn't.  He turned the same trick, though, hanging upside down like a kid and scratching his butt on a branch, grunting.  He came down a few minutes later, panting heavily, but I swear there was a big grin on his face.  He moseyed over to small pond lined with smooth, round stones, plopped himself in it with his back finally turned to us, and sighed.  The performance was over.


My first full day, Kris and I had gone to the JinSha Museum.  I had plans to meet up with a friend from my intake group in the People's Park for drinks later that night, and Kris gave me a few recommendations for the area.  I'd be on my own, since he'd be resting up.

"Oh, by the way," Kris said with a grin, "Watch out for ear cleaners!"


The metro put me down at Tianfu Square.  Poppies were blooming everywhere, months ahead of their North American cousins.  There was a huge statue of Chairman Mao across the street, holding his hand up like a command and a blessing.  I felt obliged to take a picture, but I'd grown tired of the Chairman's smug mug on every piece of paper money, to say nothing of the plain-style Communist propaganda statues in every city.


It was later, after the pandas, before I learned what Kris had meant by "ear cleaners".

T.J., Kris, and I were sitting in a fabulous teahouse.  We'd just seen DuFu's (famous Tang Dynasty poet) Cottage, and I'm sure we all felt poetic, wanting to continue our journey into Chinese traditionalism.  We ordered a pot of cinnamon tea and a few Sichuanese dishes that tickled my palate without leaving me screaming.

The clear glass cha hu (teapot) sat over a candle and was often refreshed with steaming kai shui from huge copper kettles nearby.  Teahouses are comforting, I find, and often extremely pleasant.  Many are open to the sky, or let natural light in from skylights.  Bamboo and other plants grow up to this light, mingling with cigarette smoke, steam from cups of tea, and the chatter of Chinese dialects.  This particular teahouse offered sunflower seeds, and the snap and crunch punctuated every conversation.

Totally satisfied and relaxed, I gazed lazily around at books on shelves and noticed a bronze statue of two Chinese men.  Each wore traditional robes with frog clasps.  One was seated, with his head titled to one side.  The other was poised to clean his ear with a long metal rod.

"So that's what you meant!"  I said.

T.J. laughed, shaking his head.  "You should see them in Tianfu Square.  They rub those two metal rods together like they're selling them.  And they'll follow you across the park!"

"They're wiped but not sanitized," Kristopher warned, then added wryly, "I don't see myself taking 'em up on the offer any time soon."