08 November 2013

Stress Dream

In the dream I'm visiting my dad, whose apartment looks just like my grandmother's house. There's a knock on the door and my dad greets a man and woman. They come in and chat for a while and I realize that my dad has no idea who these people are. But this isn't unusual because my dad is really bad about remembering people's names. Now there are two young children with them and they're all sitting on couches. I'm separated from the group, sitting on the floor with their dog, a friendly Doberman who is tugging at a button on my shirt. I say "No", but the dog keeps pulling and the button stretches unbelievably far without snapping off. The children are watching from the couch and laughing in a way that embarrasses me. I say "No" more firmly and the dog lets go. I pet the dog’s head but it doesn't look pleased, and I wonder if it might suddenly bite me.

Meanwhile, the adults are having a very superficial conversation and it becomes clear that the visitors don't know my dad, either. I want to find out why they're here, so I join them and ask a few casual questions, hoping to piece together some information. They end up saying that our mutual friend Dan invited them here for a slide show. Of course, that makes perfect sense, except that the slide show is next weekend. They look so disappointed and say they drove all the way from Castro Valley. I tell them I'll ask Dan if he invited any guests from Hayward who might want to carpool with them next week. But they still aren't leaving. I look at the clock and now I have only an hour left to shop for groceries and make stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner at Dan and Becky’s. As they continue talking I become more and more frustrated, and I start to cry and complain that I don't have enough time to shop and cook for dinner. I don't even have a recipe for the stuffing I'm supposed to make. My dad reaches for a cookbook that happens to be on a bookshelf next to where he's seated. I take the cookbook with one hand while blowing my nose with the other. 

Now I'm in the living room of an apartment with D. The walls are painted white and the carpeting is white, and it's clean and completely empty except for the couch on which we're sitting. We're facing the front door, which is wide open. The apartment isn't ours but we are comfortable and no one else seems to be living here. An elderly woman walks through the door. She is about five feet tall with short white hair and is dressed conservatively but nicely, as if she's going out to dinner. She is followed by two middle aged women. One is wearing a short maroon chiffon dress with sparkly gold ribbon around the flared hem. She is wearing a tiara, and I think I see wings on her back like those from a fairy costume. They walk right past us without any acknowledgment. I ask the older woman, "May I help you?" She says she's here for the slide show. With a sick feeling I tell her that Dan must have given everyone the wrong date. She replies with a smirk, "So he's emasculating the Jews." [Editor's note: WTF?] I don't know what she means by this, but I look at the three women in the room and wonder if they are Jewish. 

Still sitting on the couch, D and I watch as more and more people stream through the open door. Soon we are surrounded by a sea of people, so thick we can't even see through the crowd. They are all happy and talking loudly to each other, but we don't know any of them and it's as if we aren't there. D tries to call Dan to clear things up, but Dan doesn't answer. This isn't surprising because he's probably busy hosting Thanksgiving at his house. I have an open book on my lap and have been pretending to read but haven't read a word. Now I am really nervous and hiss at D, "We don't have any food or drinks or anything to serve these people!" But D just calmly says, "Don't think like that." And the crowd continues to swarm. 

27 October 2013

Getting To Know You - China, Part 4

October 17, 2013

Meet Stan.

     Me: I think I saw lightning last night.
     Stan: That's way too much information.

     Patty: Did you see the pig snouts in the market?
     Stan: I don't know what they taste like, but they smell really good.

One night in Beijing Stan, Cathy, D and I ventured out to dinner on our own. Stan had read about a restaurant across town that makes delicious handmade noodles. The taxi ride through the city was not for the faint of heart. The driver made left turns through multi-lane intersections as if the four lanes of oncoming traffic weren't there. And for some reason the motorcycles and scooters don't use their headlights at night, but that didn't seem to slow them down at all. I only had to close my eyes twice.

The restaurant was very chic. The first thing I noticed upon entering was that all the customers were Chinese. The second thing I noticed was that none of the wait staff spoke English. When we asked for someone who did, the poor woman who was sent out to deal with us spoke English about as well as I speak Czech. She must have drawn the short straw in the kitchen. Our menus had photos with English captions, but even then we couldn't be sure about what we were ordering. Stan had heard that their specialty was a type of pasta shaped like a cat's ear. When the waitress nervously approached our table, Stan pointed to a photo in the menu, tugged his earlobe and said, "Meow." The waitress looked confused, so Stan meowed again, more convincingly this time. Then the waitress's eyes grew as big as saucers, and she backed away from the table crying, "No no no!" Holy crap, she thought we wanted to eat a cat. Thankfully, with more pointing and arm waving, Stan was able to coax her back and clear things up before anyone called the police.

Stan wants to take us to another restaurant when we reach Shanghai. We'll join him only if he promises not to bark at the dinner table.


Getting High - China, Part 3

October 13, 2013

To reach the gondolas that would take us up the mountain to the Great Wall, first we had to trudge one-half mile uphill from the parking lot on a cobblestone path. It was lined with vendors in booths hawking all kinds of souvenirs. You want? I give you special price. How about a revolutionary cap with a big red star? Giant panda paw gloves? Or a t-shirt with a picture of President Obamao? D picked up an item to look at more closely and the lady selling it was on him like white on rice. She offered him a few good prices, but he refused to buy it. When he placed it back on the table and started to walk away, the lady was so frustrated she swatted him on the butt. If only we had a WiFi connection, her Yelp rating would've tanked that day. Only one guy gave me a sales pitch, and it was in Mandarin. But he was walking behind me and there was so much chatter around us I didn't know he was talking to me until I heard D say, "America." I turned around to see D pointing at me, and the vendor looked confused. Then the vendor waved me off dismissively and turned away with what sounded like the Mandarin version of "Pffft."

Before the spanking

The gondola ride above the trees to the top of the Great Wall was scenic and brief, which is perfect for people like me who are acutely aware that safety regulations are painfully lacking here. This is why I'm not so good at living in the moment, because I'm often absorbed in imagining all the different ways things could go terribly wrong. But once we stepped out onto the Great Wall, wow. The sky was unusually clear and blue and we could see the wall snaking for miles, following the contour of the mountains all the way to the horizon. It was breathtaking. We spent two hours up there on top of the world, hiking up and down impossibly steep steps, peering out from stone turrets, and trying to grasp the incredible engineering and hardship that went into creating this wonder of the world.


26 October 2013

Getting My Chinese On - China, Part 2

October 11, 2013

Before we left home, a friend of a friend told us she'd been to China two years earlier. "I hated it," she said. "All we ate was Chinese food. And you can't even read the signs!" If those were her biggest surprises I am in good shape. I kind of expected to be illiterate and eat Chinese food in China.


I speak more Spanish than Cantonese, which isn't saying much, if you've ever heard me try to speak Spanish. I don't know why I mentioned that anyway, because Cantonese is completely irrelevant in Beijing. We are learning some basic Mandarin phrases.
     "Tsao" Hello.
     "Nee hao ma?" How are you?
     "Shieh shieh" Thank you.
     "Ding ding hao" Very good. (Or "ding ding dong" depending on who your traveling companion is.)

But there are a few more phrases I need to learn soon:
     1) Vodka martini, please.
     2) I am allergic to peanuts.
     3) Please call an ambulance.

What CAN you do in this park?

In Tiananmen Square it's really easy to get lost in the crowd. I've read and seen pictures of the place, but I couldn't imagine how incredibly huge it is until I stood in the middle of it. Thousands of people filled the square. They come from all over China, and for many it's their first time in a big city. There is a lot of excitement and shouting and jostling around. Thank god we had our Whispers - little one-way radios that can pick up our guide's voice from pretty far away. I placed the Whisper in my inside jacket pocket, strung the baby blue earpiece up through the neck opening and positioned it in my ear. It's almost like being undercover, in a dorky, touristy kind of way.

Our local guide Vivian and her trusty fuah-fuah, herding cats in Tiananmen Square

I wandered around taking pictures of people taking pictures of people. There was so much going on I didn't think anyone noticed me. But, then the staring. One thing that is both fun and annoying about this culture is that it isn't considered rude to stare. Fun if you're doing the staring. Really annoying if you're the one being stared at, and I mean STARED at - unblinking, mouth open, body frozen except for the head rotating to keep watching as you pass by. The champion starers might even start to drool. (OK, I made that last part up.) If you think you can outstare a Chinese person, you are wrong.

D and Cathy taking a picture of Stan

Once we entered the Forbidden City, I got my first real sense of Beijing's ancient history. It was built in the 15th century by a million workers. A series of four security gates must be breached before reaching the Emperor's living quarters. Six layers of brick completely cover the surrounding area to prevent intruders from tunneling in. It housed 24 emperors until the last emperor was forced to abdicate in 1912.

You figure out quickly that there is no waiting for your turn in China. Lines are for sissies. I picked up valuable skills from shopping in Oakland Chinatown that came in handy in the Forbidden City. The Emperor's throne room was surrounded by a swarm of people packed about five deep in the doorways. I stood behind them searching for an opening, but every time a gap started to form, another body oozed in to fill it. So I channeled a little old Chinatown lady and wedged my elbow between two people in front of me. Then everything else followed in a wave as I edged myself in sideways. So now we know that hula also works as a contact sport.

Here we go. Elbows out...
And we're in!

Getting There - China, Part 1

October 8, 2013

Our Korean Airlines flight was all about the food. Kimchee! Bibimbap! Mystery sauce in a tube! My only worry was about the beautiful haughty flight attendant. When D asked for water between meal services, I feared that her icy stare would turn him to stone. We got our water, but after that I decided we'd be fine without it for the remaining 9 hours of the flight. Anything to avoid being looked at that way again.

Our flight had left late, leaving us with only a 30-minute connection in Seoul. Toward the end of the flight, we were moved from the cattle car to Business Class so we could get out faster and catch our connection. That last half hour was bliss, all stretched out in a recliner. The flight attendants made the rounds, bowing and thanking each passenger for his or her patronage. Everyone, that is, except for us peons from economy. But by that time I was too exhausted and comfortable to care.

When we finally stepped out of the Beijing airport, I thought there was a fire nearby. Then we realized it was the thick smell of cigarette smoke and smog. Even in the semi-darkness the air looked hazy. We'll spend 4 days in this city and I wouldn't be surprised if I developed asthma on the spot. Thank goodness our friend Stan is a doctor. He's touring with us and I sure hope he brought his prescription pad.

October 9, 2013

Frank, our guide, says our group has a lot more Yin than Yang: 13 women and 5 men. We'll be living closely together for two weeks,  and I find myself sizing up my comrades during the orientation. Which of these people will I get along with best? Who's up for an adventure? Who will be high maintenance? Mark introduces himself, and he refers to the empty chair next to him as his wife, "who will always be late." Uh-oh. Then Bob raises his hand and asks if we can get hepatitis from drinking the tap water. Oh dear. It is not looking good for Team Yang.

Four of the women are traveling together from Rhode Island, not all from the same town, but you can cross the entire state in 45 minutes so they might as well be. Patty and her friend Diane "No Relation To Justin" Bieber are from New Jersey, but absolutely not from Jersey Shore. They want us to be clear on that. Sue is 87 and is the mother of Mark's invisible wife, Jennifer. Thomasina was named after her father, Thomas. She is also married to Cautious Bob. She is soft-spoken but I suspect she has a lot of inner strength. Carol and Mary are educators from San Diego. I'm not exactly sure what Carol means by that, but I figure they're either school teachers or administrators. But definitely not nuns.

And then there are Stan and Cathy from North Carolina, who we met two years ago on a tour in Turkey. Stan is a doctor in a women's prison and for that reason alone I hope to never be one of his patients. Cathy is retired, recently took up golf, and has since hit three holes in one. They suggested out of the blue that we join them on this trip, so here we all are.