Thursday, July 31, 2008

Getting nervous

With just more than a month before I'm on a plane for Beijing, I'm starting to feel nervous. Very. Now last summer, before I went to NZ, my friends will remember that I was pretty much cool as a cucumber. I was pumped and ready to go, and barely looking back. But in New Zealand, they speak English, eat identifiable food (with a knife and fork!) and poop sitting down, rather than squatting. Oh, and New Zealand is about the size of Colorado. Hard to get lost.

China, on the other hand, is approximately the same size as the United States. I've struggled with how to tackle a destination of such magnitude. Imagine coming to the United States for the first time--You've probably heard of New York, DC and Los Angeles. Maybe a few other cities. But after that, where do you go? I've made some headway in this area and have narrowed the scope of my trip somewhat. I'll delve into this more later.

Now back to the language barrier. The Chinese speak a language that Americans have very little contact with, unlike, say, Spanish (which I can speak to a usable degree) and other European languages. Fortunately, some half-assed studying has somewhat eased my fears of Mandarin. But being able to understand a couple key phrases and blurt out some (perhaps) understandable essential requests doesn't help when you're looking at a map or train timetable.

Does 中华人民共和国 make any sense to you?? I didn't think so.

Yet, I'm also excited. While my time in New Zealand was my "great escape," my travels in China, and other to-be-determined Asian countries, will be my opportunity to see what I'm made of. Can I maintain some level of patience when I can't figure out how to get to my next destination? Will I lose my sanity during those long bus or train rides? (Think of driving across Nebraska and switch out the corn for rice...) How will I get through that first trip to the squatter?

I'm looking forward to testing myself and enjoying all that China has to offer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


To get ready for my trip to China, not only have I been studying Mandarin, I have been doing some reading. I've enjoyed some excellent books on the Middle Kingdom that have helped me understand the state of things in the country and how it got to where it is over the last century.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

"Wild Swans" is about 15 years old and has been a best seller. It's the true story of three generations of women living in China during the rise of the Chinese Communist party and Mao's Great Leap Forward and the later Cultural Revolution. The author's grandmother was the concubine of a military general. Their daughter, Jung's mother, married a communist and faced many years of struggling to be accepted in the Party. The author herself was a member of the Red Guard and witnessed many members of her community, including her parents, "criticized" quite severely. This book was a great way to learn about the extreme changes the country went through in less than a century.

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

I am a huge fan of Paul Theroux. He's a great travel writer and especially likes to write about train travel. Riding the Iron Rooster is about his extensive train travel through China in the 1980s, after the fall of Mao. He talks to a lot of locals and compares his trip with one he took through the country two decades earlier.

Red Dust by Ma Jian

This is a very different book from the others I read (though I'm not completely done with it). Also nonfiction, Red Dust was originally written in Chinese. It's a personal narrative of a man's journey through his motherland in the early 1980s. During the Cultural Revolution, as an artist, Ma definitely would have been called bourgeois during the cultural revolution, but even after, he was seen as a person of questionable character. He decided to leave his job in Beijing and set off to see China. It's a nice contrast with Theroux's experience as a total outsider at the same time.

China, Inc. by Ted Fishman

China, Inc., is the most-recently published book I have read, and perhaps the most important. It highlights the transformation China has made since the end of the Cultural Revolution, toward industrialism and its own brand of capitalism. In a land where the government once owned virtually everything, China is now teaming with small and large business owners. In fact, towns and cities become known for one thing, because when one business takes off (say, umbrella manufacturing), dozens of copycats spring up in no time. The book explores not only this transformation, but also how it affects America's economy, from job outsourcing to the cost of our products to Wal-Mart's role in the whole thing. Very enlightening.

Thanks to these four books, I've been able to see how China has transformed from a dynasty-run society at the beginning of the 19th century, through Maoism and onto capitalism in just over a century. I feel much more prepared to experience this new and exciting culture--one that most of us simply don't take the time to understand.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Killer visa!

I got my passport back today from the visa service and inside was the exact visa that I wanted! Twelve months (from the date of issue--July 10), multiple entries and 90 days per entry! This leaves the possibilities wide open. I can stay in China until Dec 3, assuming the unidentifiable food, squat toilets and people spitting everywhere haven't gotten to me yet. And if I want to hop somewhere warmer for winter and come back for a few weeks in spring, I have that flexibility! Very exciting. Only 47 days until I leave!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Back to the grind

Well, sort of. I work two shifts this week at the restaurant I was at last year before I left. Sounds like I will be picking up some kitchen shifts, as well, which will be a fun change. On the downside, I have opted not to get a car for the summer, so I will rely on a ride from my parents or my bike for transportation--it's only about a mile away.

I sent for my Chinese visa yesterday. Cross your fingers for me--I left out one part of my application, my flight itinerary from the US to Beijing. I e-mailed it to the visa service company, hoping they can print it out and tack it on for me. But I did include an itinerary for a flight OUT of China, which is certainly the more important of the two. But The thing about my incoming flight is that it shows that I'm not going until AFTER the Olympics, which is what has inspired the clamp down on visas.

Aside from work, I've been playing lots of video games. Real productive I know. I've also been trying to keep up with my Mandarin lessons. Hopefully I'll do a better job of that this week. More updates to come as I continue my preparations for China--which I depart for just 55 days from now!