Wow. Today is September 24. It’s been a month already. Hard to believe.
In some ways, it still seems a bit like we are on an extended trip – we are still generally living out of our suitcases. Well, we are not literally living out of our suitcases, because we’ve unpacked them, but we are still living only on what was in our suitcases – and, since the furniture isn’t here yet, we’re using the “pile” method for the stuff we can’t hang. And I’m very glad that I got several Ex Officio shirts to wear because the “DC in August” humidity here results in, uhm, perpetual glistening, but I have to say that I’m getting a bit tired of my 5-shirt/2-shorts/1 jeans wardrobe. (Ah … first world problems, I know.)
(As an aside, both J and I are now huge fans of Ex Officio clothing for travel and/or for being in hot and humid weather because … they’re awesome. Any wrinkles really do fall out in minutes after unballing them from the suitcase; “glistening” really does dry up in minutes; you really can wash them in the sink and hang them, and they’ll be dry before the next morning. When home and using the washer/dryer, they’re typically dry in 15 minutes or less (on low heat). And any “chopstick accidents” really do wash out easily too!)
And though we are in our “place,” since our furniture is not here yet, the place still seems a bit foreign … and very empty. The view outward is utterly awesome. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it - whether looking westward out across the river, or eastward over the thriving local neighborhood below. But inside ... we’re sleeping on a smaller-than-queen guest bed in the guest room (which means that the cats are restless throughout the night because they can’t find a good spot). Our bedroom is still completely empty but for two lamps and a TV sitting on the floor, provided by the landlord. When we eat at home (rarely), we’re picnicking because we don’t yet have a dining room table (or a coffee table, which was our primary “dinner table” back in Phoenix). We have two towels, that rarely dry in this weather, so they're getting washed every couple days. So, it’s kind of like “glamping.” Fun, but not exactly home yet.
And, since we have two cooking pans, and very few cooking utensils, I'm making only very simple meals when I do cook, which is usually Monday nights. Monday nights, J watches the recorded Cardinals game, so I try to make a meal. (He won’t go on Facebook or check emails on Monday, because he doesn’t want to know what happened until he watches the game.) So, yesterdary I knew that I’d have several people in and out (again) doing various repairs and such, then have (my first) Mandarin lesson yesterday afternoon, so I wanted to make something quick. Salmon, spinach, and fried potatoes would be easy peasy, right? Yes, actually … except that I had to make the fried potatoes in the wok-skillet first, then clean it out to make the spinach. And I had to bake one piece of salmon in our only other cookware -- a (thankfully oven-safe) small sauce pan -- then take that piece out when it was done and put the other piece of salmon in to bake that one. So … let’s just say that it took a bit longer than expected and that the food was of varying temperatures when served.
And since I only know how to cook “western food” (and barely know how to do much of that~a competent cook I am not…), eating at home is usually substantially more expensive than just going out. I can report one bit of progress. Given my utter lack of confidence in cooking, I’ve always been a “by the book” cook – measuring stuff out exactly, making sure I have all the ingredients exactly as called for and prepped in separate bowls (to avoid missing any ingredients ). Well, I’ve learned to “let go” of some of that, out of necessity. We have two plates, two salad bowls, and two pasta bowls. If I use them for ingredients I have to wash the dishes out before we eat. So no more pre-prepping stuff into little bowls. And, since we don’t yet have our measuring spoons or cups, I’m just guessing on the amounts. A pinch here, three shakes there, a handful of this, a spoonful of that until it looks ok. And, since I either can’t even find some stuff in my recipes – or I find it but it’s outrageously expensive, I’m learning to substitute – or just skip – certain listed ingredients. So ... that’s a bit of progress, I guess. So far, J has eaten what I’ve prepared without complaint. (Then again, he eats all sorts of things most people wouldn’t so I can’t take too much comfort in that.)
Speaking of eating all sorts of things (it’s really NOT all about food…), that is another way in which this adventure still seems more like a trip than a move: Since we are eating out a lot still, and since local food is one tenth the cost of western food, I’ve been “stretched” outside of my food comfort zone again and again. I managed to live for more than 48 years without eating, say, duck tongue, cow tongue, pig tripe (and other offal), jellyfish, tree fungus, fish cheeks, shrimp with the shells.
And, to be sure, it’s not as if at least most of this food isn’t available in the US. It’s just that I just wouldn’t really consider eating it. Indeed, up until my mid-30s, I wouldn’t try anything “new” or “weird” – and my definition of “new” and “weird” was essentially anything that I didn’t grow up eating. Even when I decided to become a bit more adventurous – eating artichokes, spinach, and even tofu (!!) – my idea of what was adventurous was a bit, uhm, not-so-adventurous to most people probably.
Here, I just decided to go for it and try stuff at least once. And so I am. To some degree of success....
Not to yuk anyone else’s yum, but I still don’t like organ meats and tripe and that sort of stuff. (I’m thinking maybe there’s a reason that offal rhymes with awful … or that maybe I just haven’t had it prepared the way I might enjoy it. It’s one of the two.)
And frankly, while duck really IS delicious, duck tongues and webs are a whole lot of work for a little teensy tiny bite. Shrimp shells? Well, they’re not great but they’re not awful either – just add a bit of crunch to the bite.
Now -- pickled jelly fish and cabbage? Yummy!!! Edible tree fungus? Delish! Fish cheeks?Awesome!
And ... I know I will get used to our neighborhood and I am starting to recognize a few neighbors and vis-a-versa, so it’s beginning to feel “home-ish” but the neighborhood outside the complex is still so very exotic to me. To the north is the financial center, which could be AnyBigCity. To the west is the river. To the east and south are smaller “local” neighborhoods and wandering through the streets still feels exotic and foreign. Especially on weekends where you never know what you’re going to see on the street. Like “repair shop row” right outside our complex, where you can get your shoes fixed while you wait, your bike repaired, your AC repaired, or your flowers refreshed. Or, if you like, you can stop for a quick haircut.
And ... I really do need to learn at least some Mandarin beyond "hello," "thanks," and counting 1-10. That only goes so far (which is not very far at all). And I can’t keep calling the bilingual translator service every time I get stuck with a clerk or serviceperson at the apartment, although I'm so happy to have discovered it. (Well, I could but that’d just not be right.)
Very Cool Thing: You can call this number any time of the day or night, and ask for a translation. You say what you need to say, then pass the phone to the other person. The operator will explain what you need in Mandarin. The other person will respond to the operator, then pass the phone to you. The operator will then explain the response to you in English. It's a bit clunky, but was very helpful when a repairman showed up yesterday to fix our tub and the gestures just weren't working to explain the issue. The service is free - part of Shanghai city services. I "discovered" it while at a store, when a clerk was trying to sell me something. I wasn't "getting" what she was saying, so apologized for not understanding her and started to leave. She held on to my arm (!) then called the number and the operator explained what I needed to know. Sale made. And I was assured that I got what I needed for the price I wanted. Great service, but don't think it's a viable alternative to learning the language for day-to day living....
I did have my first Mandarin lesson last night and will have my first language exchange session tonight, so … I’m getting started on that, finally. This is a good thing, because the printer we got only has Chinese keys and codes and I still haven’t figured out how to work it. And, I am going to have to figure out how to use the washing machine and dryer consistently. (Sometimes it works great; other times, the clothes are literally still soaked at the end of the wash cycle and/or still sopping after a hour in the dryer. I have to wring them out in the sink, then dry them for ... a couple hours ... at least. There's just gotta be something I'm doing wrong.) I know that most of the language lessons I’m scheduled to have will be for spoken Mandarin, but I’m most interested in learning written Mandarin – at least the things I need to know to be able to run appliances and read menus and signs!
And ... I look forward to being able to establish some routine in my days. Back in Phoenix, my days and weeks had a general routine. Even though we were very busy and traveled a lot, there was a general routine to all these things. I just don’t have one here yet. Too many things still up in the air. It’s been hard so far, because every day “something” is going on: a repairman is coming to fix X, Y, or Z, or I need to go find envelopes so we can mail something, or the property management needs to come by to address a bill, or a delivery of something or other is scheduled. And on that, let me just say that my experience to date indicates that the concept of time is very different here than in the US. In the US, repair people will generally say that they’ll be at your place during a certain three-hour window on a certain day - and then they are often late. So far, my experience here is that something is scheduled for a certain hour on a certain day. But they virtually always come early. So taking a shower within two hours before the scheduled visit is not a good idea; chances are that the doorbell will ring just as I am soaping up.
And the only errands I can run during the day of a delivery or service are those within a couple-block area because chances are very good that my phone will ring with a message that someone is at my door waiting to deliver something . No matter that the visit wasn’t scheduled for another four hours. I need to get back home quickly, because they are waiting. Best thing is to just wait until the visit occurs before venturing out. And, there are days where nothing is scheduled but I still get a call or hear the doorbell, because someone who was here yesterday forgot to tell me something* … or because they think they might have left something here ** … or because they miscalculated some cost and need to give me the correct change.** *
*Yes! This has happened twice! Even though everyone has cell phones here, people will come all the way back to the apartment and up the elevator to tell me something they forgot to say while they were here about something!
** This has happened twice too. Once for a disposable plastic bowl, and once for a tea mug that – despite searching for 10 minutes, we could not find here.
**Yes! Just yesterday, the property manager employee came over to deliver 2.5 rmb (that’s 41 cents) because they had miscalculated the electricity bill.
Another thing that makes it difficult to have a routine – or to be able to plan out a day when I get up – is that I never know how long something is going to take. Running to the store to get four ingredients might take 15 minutes – or it might take three hours because I can’t find what I’m looking for in the first … or fifth store I visit. And I just might not find it at all. And, I just might be so frustrated with the fact that I can’t find something or I might be so exhausted from the effort that I decide to stop in and get a shampoo/blow dry, so there goes another hour!! And, before I know it, it’s early evening and the day has disappeared.
On that note, I just may never wash my own hair again while I’m here. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but only a bit. I’ve been working my way through the multiple salons in a two-block radius. I’m not done yet. There are at least three times as many hair salons here as there are nail salons in Phoenix. And I’ve found one that gives a great shampoo/blow dry, albeit without the massage and other fluff, for $3. I found one that gives a decent shampoo/blow dry and decent massage, for $8. And when I want to splurge and get the full treatment (ears and all), it’s a whopping $16. I still have at least six more salons to try – assuming I stay in a two block radius. If I decide to venture out to a 3-block radius, there’ll be a least another dozen or so to try.
And on travel, Trip Advisor has lots of information on China cities we want to visit, so that's great. But it only goes so far. Getting train tickets - or plane tickets - isn't just a matter of logging on to Expedia or Travelocity. There is no Southwest Airlines here (although we learned that at least some airline tickets are refundable, thankfully). I found a way to order train tickets online, but they have to be ordered at least four days before travel. (And right now, we can't definitively plan four days in advance due to variations in J's schedule.)
And, when we do travel like we did to Hangzhou this past weekend, it's a very different sort of trip. Even fewer people speak English. (Fortuantely, J's amazing faculty with languages is serving him (us) well. He's already doing more than I'll likely be able to do in a year.)
It's difficult to find a reliable map -- or has been for us so far. And my iPhone's Around Me, Google Maps, and iPhone Map are ... almost ... worthless. We were looking for a specific place J had read about this weekend, so I looked it up on Google Maps, then in the iPhone Map, then on the paper map that the hotel gave us. Google and iPhone showed the address in completely different parts of the city -- though both were on the east side of the lake -- and we couldn't even find the street on the hotel map. So, we had a cab take us to the east side of the lake and we wandered around. For three hours. Had a great time - Hangzhou is a beautiful little city - but we just couldn't find the address. It didn't seem to exist. We walked up and down the street twice. Tried north. Then South. We gave up and decided to turn back north again and just go find some dinner since it was nearing 8 pm. And stumbled on the place. The address had no (linear) relation to the actual location of the place although it was, as stated, "lakeside." As in it wasn't on the street named (though it was only two streets over), and while the building did have the right number on it (13), the building was not between 23 and 10 on that street. Mystery we still haven't solved. Except to know that can’t rely on addresses and maps the way we are used to doing. So, it's not exactly like hopping in the car for a quick trip to Flagstaff, Cottonwood, or Wilcox for a relaxing weekend. It's much more of a production: Must remember to have directions to hotel in Mandarin on your phone - then remember to have your phone with you always. (Or be prepared to find a work-around if you forget it, which we did one night....) And learn to enjoy what's in front of you rather than trying to find something you think you want to see.
I know that at some point, all of this will be the “new normal,” but it hasn’t yet sunk in yet. Maybe when our stuff gets here, this place will really start feeling like our “home.” Or maybe when I get through one day without getting utterly stumped about how to do something. But I’m just not there yet. It’s hard to describe. I opened by saying that it feels like a long trip. That’s true – but not as in a long vacation trip. There’s just too many “hard things” for it to be a vacation. There’s not much relaxation going on ... well, except for the shampoos of course. There is a lot of wonderful discoveries and excitement (or terror, when going down the wrong side of the road, or seeing someone coming at you when you’re on the right side of the road).
The thing is, it’s not just a trip. It's not just an interesting vacation. And it's not yet "home" either.
It’s … different.
It’s an adventure ... every day.
… Stretch, Tes, stretch ….