What China is This?

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I stand above the Yangtze River for the Three Gorges cruise – the river and the gorges are not now what they once were.

I first came to China in 1994 as a student at Beijing Normal University as a part of the College of William & Mary’s study abroad program.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. On our second day in country we were served fried scorpions at lunch. Even more surprising to me is that 14 out of 16 of the students in our group ate them. I refused. (I then ordered a bowl of chicken soup only to find as I stirred it an eye ball popped to the surface – and this is how I kept my girlish figure while in China, by surviving on white rice with soy sauce and peanuts and garlic stir fried broccoli.) I had my first experience with a squatting toilet – something again I refused to use. I even held “it” one day during a 12 hour bus trip from Changsha to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, steadfast in my determination as each rest stop only presented “traditional” facilities. A delayed flight and Mother Nature eventually forced my hand and it turned out not to be so bad.

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In my Beijing Normal U dorm room. I cannot believe how great my hair looks.

We stayed in the international dorm – each of us assigned a Japanese roommate to encourage our Chinese language acquisition even first thing in the morning and just before bed. I had a room on the fifth floor of the dorm – no elevator of course. We had only one telephone per floor located at one end. Hot water in our showers was available from 5 PM. It was supposed to last until eight, but if you waited too long you were generally in for major disappointment – and a very brisk bathe.  We also had two hot plates per floor for cooking. I used it perhaps twice in six months – not a surprise at all as my good friends know that is only a little less than I use my kitchen now.

I rented a shelf in a mini fridge of an enterprising Korean student. There I kept my few prized refrigerated items like cheese and Tang. Each of us was issued a large thermos. Most evenings I would make my way down the five flights and to a small brick building across from the dorm where there stood a very large coal furnace constantly heating water. I would pop off the corked top of the thermos and fill it with scalding water and then carry it back up to my room. I would leave the top off overnight to cool the water and then in the morning fill my smaller bottles with the water, mix in the Tang, and then switch the new bottles for the cool ones in the rented fridge.

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The old hot water furnace and my super chic thermos. I thought it would look even older in Sepia; I was right.

I had an old bicycle that two thoughtful classmates acquired for me. As I understand it they staked out an area in the massive student bicycle parking area and monitored activity. They identified a weather-beaten green one that, according to them, had been left neglected for weeks. So they liberated it and gave it to me. I did not ask too many more questions. I took it to an on-campus bicycle repair shop to get it into riding shape and I joined the (hundreds) of thousands of Beijing cyclists that took to the roads daily.

I rode to class each morning, with my glass bottle of drinkable yogurt in my basket (the bottles were returned to the dorm café to get a few jiao back), and across town to the little Uygur village behind the Minority University where I would go to the last shed where I bought the most fabulous tudou qiu (potato balls) with a soy sauce and cilantro dipping sauce. Once while riding to my English teaching job of two Korean boys who lived in the Asian Games Village, all the spokes on my wheel dropped off one by one in a spectacular fashion. I simply coasted a few hundred feet to a roadside bicycle repair guy, who for a handful of kuai had me on the road again in no time.

Twenty years later I find myself once again living in China. Although I am in a different city I feel as though my life has circled back around. Amongst the modernity there are glimmers of the past and I experience the occasional sense of déjà vu that transports me back to the China I first knew.

Shanghai is so incredibly modern and glitzy now (as is Beijing and other major Chinese cities) that I imagine few students here would know what to do with the giant furnace I once had to use. And only one phone per hall would be cause for most students these days to walk out in protest.

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A glimpse into our hard seat train compartment.

There are so many things that have changed. No longer are bicycles the chief transportation method. Gone are the bicycle lanes that rivaled those for cars and parking areas where they sat by the thousands awaiting their riders. There are still some intrepid cyclists, but they have been mostly replaced with fancy cars, mopeds, and even electric bicycles.

Train travel too is not what it used to be. The trains now, at least those I have had the pleasure of taking lately, are ultramodern and sleek. Comfortable reclining chairs with tray tables in clean and efficiently serviced non-smoking compartments. This is so far removed from the two day train ride in hard class chairs that my friends and I took between Beijing and Qingdao. On the return trip I remember an old man in front of us smoking beneath the no-smoking sign. When my friend and I asked him to put out the cigarette and pointed out the sign he took a deep draw and turned and blew all the smoke in our faces. The hard seats were just that – hard benches with unforgiving straight backs. Bleary-eyed and desperate for sleep I asked for and received the newspaper another man had finished. I took it and spread it down in the aisle and it was there where I went to sleep for a few hours. I was awoken in the morning at 6 am by the snack cart coming through – I was surrounded by apple cores and banana peels and other debris. And the time we took the two day hard sleeper from Beijing to Chongqing. We were the top of three bunks, maybe a foot and a half from our sleeper, i.e. hard fake leather slab, and the ceiling. A small electric fan by my head kept shorting out and when I tapped it sparks flew and it made a few more revolutions. THAT is train travel my friends, the kind that you never forget.

Advertising is also a bit different. Gone are the unimaginative roadside billboards extolling government policies like this one:

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Hooray for the one child policy!

And instead they have been replaced by sleek advertisements for just about everything including luxury goods, international brands, and world-class performances on stage at first-class theaters. Even commercials that remind the Chinese to be good citizens of the world, such as this one, which might surprise many people outside of China:

IMG_6699 (2)And probably one of the most surprising things of all is the number of signs everywhere directing Chinese to behave in public. No smoking. No spitting. No littering. No this. No that. People get into lines. I can hardly believe it myself. Gone are the days at a fast food restaurant where those who were served first were those who fought their way to the counter best. Or like when I stood in line at the Forbidden City in Beijing and many people behind me chose to pay those in the front of the line to buy their tickets too. There are still those would-be line jumpers but these days the Chinese around them will usually give them a good scolding and maybe even rough them up.

090But there are still glimpses of the past. Off the main glitzy streets, I mean just one block off, you can find clothes still hanging out to dry from apartment windows – even twenty or thirty stories up. Also many women still wear pantyhose in inappropriate lengths – knee highs with thigh high skirts or even thigh highs with short shorts. This really takes me back. People still squat down on their haunches on the street – today I passed a young woman doing this on West Nanjing Road, old Shanghai’s premier street. She was reading text on her smart phone.

The parks on mornings and weekends are still full of groups of old and young doing tai chi or ballroom dance. Nowadays you can also find the occasional belly dancing or hip hop group, sometimes right next to one another, their music and routines in side-by-side competition.

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Taken in 1994 but except for the fashions (or even including the fashions) you could see this in most parks in China today.

I am especially tickled to see that correct English spelling and translation remains elusive. Despite the rise in the number of Chinese who speak English fluently, you can still find some fun signs about town.

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The country is modernizing so quickly and leaving traditions behind; there are times when I do not feel I am living in China, but rather somewhere else. Somewhere with some Chinese characteristics but not quite China. Sort of like Singapore, but not exactly. It can be a challenge to live here – as an international student or a foreign diplomat – but it offers every visitor and expat, at the very least, some interesting experiences and never ceases to surprise. More than twenty years on and I am still trying to find my place in China.

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Decompressing in the DR

I really, really, really needed this vacation with my daughter in the Dominican Republic.

Yeah, I said the Dominican Republic.

Usually when I mentioned that we were headed for the DR for the combination holiday of Mid-Autumn festival and the multi-day National Day together called Golden Week I heard: Why?

Well, why not?

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The Occidental Grand Punta Cana Resort. This will do.

I am aware it is nowhere near Shanghai. That is sort of the point. I have a history of traveling places nowhere near where I am living. When I lived in Jakarta I vacationed in Moldova, the south of France and South Africa. And when we lived in Juarez we visited places such as Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and the Isle of Man.

Do I have friends in the DR? Did family meet us? No and no. I just had a few criteria for this trip: warm weather, a beach, small child-friendly hotel, in a new-to-me country, and fairly far away. The DR met them all. Check. Check. Check.

It might seem a bit crazy to travel 27 hours and 45 minutes or so with a small child to get to a vacation destination. Maybe.

The population of Shanghai is approximately 24 million people squeezed into an area of 2,445 square miles. It is almost impossible to ever be alone in Shanghai (and as I have a small child any chance to be alone is already infinitesimally small). The DR on the other hand has a population of 10.7 million in an area many times larger than that of Shanghai. Even with the near constant music in the DR – the wonderful tipico band that greets arrivals at the Punta Cana airport and the Merengue or top 40 hits playing in the restaurants or during the nightly resort entertainment – it felt quieter than most any day in China. That most of the sounds were the soft roll of ocean waves and the rustle of the wind through palm fronds and laughter did not hurt either.

I also did not run into a single Chinese tourist. Not one.

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Sunrise. Not a Chinese visa applicant in sight.

I very much enjoyed hearing and speaking Spanish again. Granted I would be very hard-pressed to score above a 1+ (if even) on a Foreign Service Institute test in Spanish at this point, having forgotten terribly important words like nuclear non-proliferation or labor union. Yet I remembered the word for bacon so though FSI might not agree with me, I feel I am winning that balance sheet.

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Sunrise.

This was not my usual vacation. Any of my previous travel stories will tell you that much. I am not generally the stay in one place and do little kind of traveler. But strange times (adjudicating 16,000 visas and counting let’s say) call for strange measures, which to me is an all-inclusive resort with nine restaurants, three swimming pools, a Kids’ Club, nightly entertainment, tennis courts, archery, spa, gym, “Punta Cana’s best nightclub” and a bunch of other amenities. I’ll tell you I was so downright lazy that we went to only two swimming pools, ate in only four restaurants, and managed to do little else.

Most of my days went like this:
Wake up (and this started around 1 am due to jet lag and then gradually managed to move closer to 5:45). See sunrise. Eat breakfast. Laze around room. Laze around pool. Eat lunch. Laze around. Walk on beach. Eat dinner (though this was only once the jet lagged had eased and we did not fall asleep before sunset) . Sleep. It was magical. Once I had passed the half way point of my vacation I even began to wish I had booked two weeks of this instead of eight days.

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The oldest cathedral in the Americas

We did make it off the resort twice. The first time was for an all day tour to Santo Domingo. As a self-declared history buff, if there was anything I was going to do while in the Dominican Republic other than little-to-nothing at the hotel it was to see Colonial Santo Domingo, the first permanent settlement in the New World. Only the fourth day in of a twelve hour time difference, I was not sure how C or I would fair with the jet lag, but the trip went off without a hitch. Well, okay C woke up at 2:30 am and vomited for an hour or so, but hey that is just travel with kids, right? Right?? She fell back asleep, and then woke demanding bananas; 2.5 bananas later she was ready for our 2 ½ hour bus trip to Santo Domingo. We slept most of the way there and back and enjoyed all the sites for the day. They crammed a whole lot in and yet it did not feel particularly rushed. I would have liked more time at some places and to see others that were only drive-bys, but overall I was quite pleased with the trip. And C was not the only child on the trip. Another couple brought their one year old and there was also a two year old boy. All the kids did really well. Hooray for parents traveling and sightseeing with their kids!

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Our first view of Santo Domingo

Our second off-resort trip was to Manati Park so that C could see some animals. We were the first picked up in what C referred to as the “Rainbow Bus,” the colorful US-school-bus-like transport painted in the full pallet blasting energetic Merengue music as it made its way from resort to resort and then through a torrential downpour before arriving at the park. Four other similar buses disgorged their passengers at the same time and a brief flood of people poured in. It is not a particularly large park and not particularly awesome, but it is a good place to take a small child who loves animals and is too small to take part in other outings like swimming with dolphins or snorkeling or caving. And she got to not only ride some ponies (a lifelong dream even at age 3) but the staff even let her help them as they brushed and washed a pony. The guy even gave her the lead so C could take the pony back to his stall.

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At the Taino Village in Manati Park

It wasn’t a perfect vacation mind you. There was bored, beer-guzzling Bob from Chicago who took a little too much of an interest in my daughter and I, or maybe just in my mini-bar beer. On the evening of the lunar eclipse, I popped just outside my room for a look-see while C snoozed. It was just before 11 pm. The man I will call Bob appeared to be heading out but then stopped to comment on the moon. We got to chatting for a bit. He seemed friendly enough. He was headed to the all night pizzeria for a snack and, after I had mentioned I do not drink, he said he would come back to get my neglected mini-bar beers. Given the time, I expected he would head up to get pizza and then be back before 11:30 pm for the beers. He knocked on my door at 2:30 AM! And then asked if I would wake him for sunrise the next morning when we headed to the beach. It seemed harmless enough though he was drunk enough to be swaying dangerously as we made our way to the beach. And except that then he just kept stopping by at odd hours. Odd because it is an all-inclusive resort that includes free alcohol with most meals and at any of the seven bars open from as early as 9 am until 1 am. And odd because at no time did I say, hey Bob, my daughter and I would love to have you randomly insinuate yourself into our holiday.

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I was pleased as punch to not only see the lunar eclipse but to actually get a decent photo with my point and shoot. But beware those you meet under the lunar eclipse.

I suspect Bob is just a lonely guy who got his signals crossed (or is so numbed by alcohol he is unable to read them) but nonetheless I requested a room change. Thankfully it was granted. We still saw Bob around the resort at least once a day, but at least I did not have to keep sitting in my room pretending I did not hear the knocks on our hotel room door.

There was also Jorge who came to my room to check my air conditioning unit. He was only in the room for maybe five minutes before his pointed questions revealed I am a single mom and we live in China. Jorge graciously offered to move to Shanghai to take care of me and give C a father. As romantic a proposal from an overweight only-Spanish-speaking hotel maintenance guy I had just met sounds, I turned him down.

Our final day was my birthday. I spent it, in very uncharacteristic fashion, doing almost nothing. I even took my very fair-freckled self to the beach for over three hours. After several hours of play my daughter wrapped herself up in a towel, lay on a beach chair and watched the ocean. She then turned to me and said, “Mom, let’s go home.” “To the hotel room?” I asked. “No mom, to Shanghai.” I told her the following day we would head home (via a little overnight stop in Newark).

Traveling to the Dominican Republic reminded me why I love to travel and see new places. It reminded me how much I love tropical countries and beaches. And it gave me the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with my child.

Oh, and not a single Chinese tourist.

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Another sunrise.