Friday, October 24, 2008

kim goes to the doctor...

i've been experiencing a bit of digestional discomfort this past week, so yesterday i finally went to the doctor to see what's up. i can't help but love chinese medicine. some things that they tell you are very up-to-date and make total sense, but then the advice is peppered with ridiculous, superstitious nonsense that makes it very difficult for me to trust anything they say at all. on top of that, there are some things that they just do differently here, and when you don't speak the language, it all becomes quite an interesting adventure.

when we got to the office, we went to reception to sign in. they have you fill out a short form and then they send you to the cashier counter to pay. then they send you back to the reception desk, where they check your receipt and then send you halfway accross the building to the nurse's station by the patient rooms, who finally ushers you to an open room. everything is such a process here.

we waited for just a few minutes and then the doctor came in. no nurse to weigh and measure you, take your blood pressure and then ask you all the questions the doctor will ask you again anyway. just the doctor. i got pretty lucky, though, my doctor actually spoke a pretty good amount of english. she still had to send a lot of things through my chinese friend and occasionally pull out the chinese-english medical phrasebook, but i managed to piece together most of what was happening, minus the details.

after a lot of questions, a quick examination, and a side-note about how beautiful my voice is when i speak english, the doctor decided a blood test was in order, which was another multiple-desk affair. first the cashier, then reception, then the blood nurse, then back to the waiting room to watch a ridiculous korean movie until the results were ready.

did you know that they can draw blood from your wrist? hold your hand out in front of you, with the back toward you. then follow the line of your thumb all the way down to your wrist, stopping when you reach the joint. there should be a vein that runs right over a bone there. they can and will draw blood there if the ones in your elbow don't stick out enough. even if you don't want them to take blood from your dominant hand, they will. they'll keep talking in chinese and not give you a choice even though they understand exactly what you're saying in english and know full well that you want them to use your left hand. the good news is it's actually not sore at all, unlike the last time they drew blood from my elbow. it did, however, hurt a little more at the time. you win some, you lose some.

lucky for me, the blood test came back normal. at least i think that's lucky. it might have been easier if something had clearly shown up as the culprit, but this probably means it is something less serious. at any rate, after another brief audience with the doctor i was again ushered to reception to take a breath test. yes, a breath test. they gave me a pill and made me wait 15 minutes, then blow into this flat, card-sized thing until the blue dot turned white. which it never really did, but after about 7 minutes they told me i could stop anyway. apparently it was supposed to test the levels of bacteria or acid in my stomach to figure out if i had a certain kind of bacterial infection.

i don't. in case you were wondering.

the only test left was a stool sample which i was unable to produce on command. figures. in the absence of that data, the doctor concluded that i had a stomach infection and proceeded to prescribe a whole slew of medicines. i have yet to figure out if infection is indeed the word she was looking for or if that simply happened to be the only english word she knew. at any rate, while we were waiting for angelina to pay for the medicine and then for someone to bring them, i had the chance to talk with the doctor a bit more. she cracked me up. she was older, probably early 40's, and the advice she gave me was very stereotypically chinese. i'm supposed to make sure i eat regularly and get lots of protein. i should avoid stress and ice water, though, since those will disrupt my digestion, of course. i should also eat slowly and chew my food thoroughly. i just stood there smiling and nodding, all the while thinking, is she serious? how much do i trust her medical advice right now? what on earth is she prescribing me? is this real medicine? are they going to come back with crazy chinese herbs?

finally, someone came with 4 boxes of medicine and directions in chinese. they gave me a pen and some sticky labels so that the nurse could tell me what the directions said while i took notes on the boxes. then the doctor came out and was very adamant about explaining to me how to take them and what they were for and everything. which was kind of adorable and fine with me b/c i really like to know exactly what i am putting in my body. by the time i left, i kind of maybe knew. i think she gave me an antacid, something to make "activity" in my bowels and a probiotic, to make things normal again. we shall see how things go. i'm very curious to see exactly what "activity" means and how well that will work out at school...

Monday, October 20, 2008


so, i voted today. from china. which, like everything else in china, turned out to be a bit of an adventure.

there is a program called express your vote that lets you print a write-in absentee ballot from online and then fed-ex it to your state for free. the only catch is that you have to use specific fed-ex locations. which doesn't seem like a big deal. unless your fed-ex location is in the middle of nowhere shanghai. i never, ever would have gotten there on my own.

we got in the cab after school and jess had quite the conversation with the cab driver about where we were going. he, apparently, had no idea where the fed-ex was. 18 rmb later he slows down in front of a dilapidated strip mall in an equally run-down, very chinese neighborhood and informs us that this is the address on the post-it. it's definitely not the fed-ex and we have no idea where we are, but he's right. this is the address on the post-it.

we drive around for a minute looking for it and finally jess tells him to stop so she can call someone to figure out what's going on. lucky for us, while we're sitting there, a nice gentleman on a motorcycle drives by slowly enough that our cab driver can shout at him out the window, to see if he knows anything. luckily he seems to know something and points us in the direction of an alley close by.

alley might not be the right word. it wasn't that dirty. but it was sort of an industrial area, with several different company office/warehouses, security guards and a couple loading docks. (it reminded me of that area off 14th and old cheney in lincoln where nebraska book company and weever's are.) the farther we drive, the less it seems like a place for a fed-ex and the more i can't help but laugh. who the crap would mail stuff from here? but we've got nothing to lose, so we keep going and finally, all the way at the end, like a beacon in the night, we see those beautiful letters: FedEx. the world servce center, even.

the rest of the process was actually completely painless. the man at the desk spoke pretty good english and he knew exactly what we were doing and how to handle it. which was really nice. i can sleep easy knowing that my ballot will be there by wednesday at the latest. which rocks. it's a great feeling to know that i just voted. especially in this year's election. it's kind of a big deal. in case you didn't know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

attempts to be brief must inevitably fail

Day 2: another day at the national park.
after successfully finding the right bus with relative ease, then spending half of the ride trying to get through the worst traffic flow pattern i have ever seen, we arrived, yet again, at the national park. after quickly buying ponchos in preparation for the impending rain, we headed off in search of a more scenic trail. despite the worthless map, we managed to find exactly what we were looking for.

we got the forest all to ourselves. we actually found a trail with no people. none. i don't think i can express how unheard of that is in this country. anyway, it was a nice stone path with plenty of stairs, but at a more gradual incline. and, despite the fog, the scenery was beautiful as well. we kept coming across random wooden buildings that were maybe kind of old, but probably not as old as they were trying to be. and the smell. oh, the beautiful beautiful scent of unadulterated nature.

after a bit of hiking and several adjustments to the ponchos, we stumbled upon a beautiful clearing essentially on the side of a cliff. there was a hollowed out rockface on one side, which made a very nice shelter from the rain, and a decent drop-off on the other. we were resting and refueling on the rocks when we noticed the footprints. lots and lots of stone shoeprints. no one really knows why, but there was a large circle full of different-sized ones in the clearing and a path of them leading back into the woods, along the stone trail. so of course we followed them. and we were not led astray.

about a half hour later we trudged out of the woods as the last of the footprints faded to find another clearing, this one with a large cabin. it turned out to be a restaurant/hotel full of locals chilling out, getting drunk and playing cards in the middle of the afternoon. we sat down for some tea and ended up ordering an entire meal, despite everyone's claim to not be very hungry. but man was it worth it. fresh fresh veggies and good rice. not to mention great company. we barely sat down before kaitlin went over to the other table of locals to see what they were eating and try to say hello. they gave her a glass of what she thought would be tea but turned out to be local chinese white wine, aka whiskey. a great addition to any hike.

i was also a fan of our method for ordering. after some confusion, one of the men finally went into the kitchen and came back with a random assortment of vegetables and an egg. he would hold up the veggies and we would tell him yes or no, which was actually a very effective way of going about it. we knew exactly what they had and they knew exactly what we liked.

after we ate, they took some pictures with us and asked us to leave our mark by signing a big sheet of white paper to be hung on the wall with the messages from other travellers that had passed through.

full and happy again, we decided to continue the trek up the mountain in search of a village which may or may not exist. we never managed to find it. instead we found a lot of steps, a very foggy view and a great metal bridge where we discovered that many in our party are a bit scared of heights. i'm glad we brought them to a mountain.

after an equally beautiful trek back down the mountain and a less enjoyable bus ride, we opted for dinner in the green tent, per jenny's request. the green tent is exactly that. one of those tents without sides that you can rent for outdoor festivals, fitted with 6 tables, 4 light bulbs, 5 gas lines, a grill and a beer cooler, all perched happily atop a pile of rubble. here, the food available for consumption was laid out beautifully on a table and we could smile and point at what we wanted. then they would either cook it on the grill or on a hot plate in the center of your table. it turned out to be awesome food and it was fun to watch as the entire family helped to run the place.

we also hit up the noodle man whose cart was parked next door. his was a similar operation. you point at the veggies/meat you want in your noodles and he cooks it all in a wok right there. so good. this was my favorite meal of the trip and possibly my favorite place as well. good food, good atmosphere, good people, what more could you ask for?

needless to say, day 2 was a much happier day than day 1. i think it was about this point that we started saying "today is my favorite day!" which might be true, except that we would say that every day until we left.

Monday, October 13, 2008

the beginning of an epic...

oh my, if you think vacation is an adventure, try vacation in china. there's just nothing quite like it. i'll do my best to sum up the highlights, but it's difficult when there is at least one thing every hour worth writing home about.

we managed to arrive in Zhangjiajie without any trouble at all. unfortunately, that ended the second we stepped out of the airport. i've found that finding a taxi or a bus in a developing country is pretty much always an adventure. after a lot of arguing in chinese (thank goodness for danny's skills) and several attempts to climb into multiple taxis, we eventually made it to our hostel. which turned out to be nothing that we expected. the picture on the website shows an adorable cabin-esque building surrounded by gardens, a water wheel and lots of blue sky. the place our taxi dropped us off was a 10 story building on a main street of the city. but the names matched and the poster in the elevator claimed that it was "such a beautiful and pleasant place, i don' wish to leave," (their punctuation, not mine) so we decided to give it a go. turns out the picture is taken from the roof 4 floors up and the blue sky is really several floors of hostel rooms. but the water wheel does exist.

the hostel itself was nice, minus some strange rules about payment and magnetizing our keys. personally, i was a big fan of the leopard/dalmation sheets and rock hard beds. and really, who needs a shower curtain?

after some quick settling in, the first order of business was dinner, our options being chinese food or more chinese food. we settled on a restaurant and of course they seated us at a giant table in the front window of the restaurant, right next to the fish tanks - which only served to persuade us not to order fish there (i'm pretty sure they shouldn't swim upside down...). i felt like we were the window display.

the food in hunan, it turns out, is very spicy. delicious, but spicy.

Day 1:
"hey, let's go to the national park today."
"ok, we can take the bus, right?"
"yeah, sure, the woman at the front desk gave me what she thinks are the directions for finding it, but which are actually useless."
this is the conversation we should have had thursday morning. but we didn't. instead we headed out in search of a bus. an hour, 3 chinese people and the only other foreigner within blocks later, we settled on the oldest, crappiest taxi left in town. remember in high school and college when you would try to see how many people you could fit in someone's car, just for fun? (i mean, i would never do that, mom, i just heard that other people did...) it was kind of like that. no one really wanted to take us that far, especially not in 2 taxis. so when one guy said, climb in, we said, ok, and let the rest of the town gawk as we attempted to cram all 6 foreigners in one tiny car.

two-thirds of the way there the taxi driver pulls over and starts talking to us in chinese. we all look at each other and pray that he isn't trying to drop us off here, in the middle of nowhere, china. but no, he just wanted one person from the front to climb in the backseat. apparently we were coming up on a police station and too many foreigners in the front seat would look bad. i'm not exactly sure how 5 people in the backseat is ok, but we've learned that it's generally best to smile and comply, so we made room.

by the time we finally arrived at the national park we were pretty ready for some nature. you think national forest park, you expect hiking, beautiful scenery, relaxation, etc. not in china. try 3000 stone stairs up the side of a mountain crammed to capacity with chinese tourists. tourists wearing high heels, carrying babies, with old people and dogs, eating corn cobs and goldfish on sticks. or entire cucumbers - that was also a popular one. add to that men carrying people up and down the 2-person-wide steps on sedan chairs and you have our day. not quite the day we expected, but a day nonetheless.

in all fairness, the view from the top was pretty incredible and, personally, i think it was worth the chinese experience. when all else fails, we have a great story.

rather than facing the stairs and corn cobs again, we opted to take the cable car down. i think we expected something scenic and at least slightly less crowded. however, after being herded through a maze of moveable fencing (think amusement park ride line meets cattle ranch), we arrived to find that what could be a beautiful, scenic ride has been china-ified into nothing more than a way of transporting the most people in the shortest amount of time possible. i still can't decide if it was really worth the price and the waiting. my legs appreciate it but my soul hasn't completely recovered.

anyway, by the time we got down we were ready for some food and where else do you go after a day like this one but KFC, the only american chain in town? it was actually not bad. atmosphere-wise it was the place to be in zhangjiajie. as for the food, they have these wraps that are pretty decent and incredible peach juice, but i don't recommend the salad.

after a brief stop-off at the hostel we decided that our aching feet deserved a little pampering and so, because that's what we do here in china, we headed out in search of a massage parlor. which, as turned out, wasn't very hard to find. the problem was finding one that could accommodate all 6 of us in one room. 4 is apparently a max in zhangjiajie and 6 white 20-somethings looking to get massaged together was apparently unheard of. after making a mild scene in multiple places, we finally settled on one and were pleasantly surprised when our foot massage turned out to be more leg than foot. our limbs definitely needed it and, in the end, i think it was $7 well spent.

life lessons from the theatre

so i went to see the broadway musical AIDA this weekend and, as with everything here, it turned out to be kind of an experience. one of the 3 main characters was a sort of ditsy blond girl and as i sat in the audience watching her, i began to understand the fascination that some other cultures have with american girls. despite being much older, the actress and the character she played reminded me of an average american high schooler. i'm not sure that i can really put it into words, but there was something very compelling about her. she had much more of a presence than any chinese women i have met. whether she was physically bigger or not, she seemed it and the head of blond curls and voluptuous bosom only seemed to magnify the differences.

granted, she is in the theatre and onstage playing a role, so everything about her is magnified, but that's sort of what i needed to be able to understand the fascination with western beauty and culture. i can suddenly understand how, had you spent your entire life here, american girls would have a certain boldness, forwardness that is both shocking and alluring. not that every single girl is like that, but this actress reminded me of the "average" girl. the one that is popular in high school and portrayed in movies and television. i'm sure there are women with similar presence here, but they are few and far between and i feel that they would carry the same exotic alluringness.

i'm glad that it suddenly makes some sense. i always thought it was so strange that other cultures try so hard to be like americans, but when you grow up in a culture that feels sort of naive and sheltered, there is something about american boldness that draws you in. it's sort of like teenagers scoffing at their parents' archaic, naive worldview in favor of something that feels more progressive.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

what does meat mean to you?

so, we are talking about food groups in my classroom right now and yesterday i asked my kids to name some foods in each group. we went through fruits and vegetables with little to take note of and then i asked them what foods would be in the meat category. they looked confused so i suggested beef and chicken and then said, "what else?" which, in china, is kind of opening a can of worms. it went something like this:

Student: "pig!"
Me: "yes, very good. what else?"
S: "cat!"
S: "dog!"
Me: "umm...not quite, but probably."
S: "jellyfish!"
S: "frog!"
Me: "yep, that too."
S: "eel!"
S: "octopus!"

and then i thought maybe we should move on to the grains before we listed off the entire animal kingdom. ah, the joys of living in china.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

mourning the loss

sadly, yesterday saw the loss of two amusing characters from my life. the first was a student of mine that, somewhat suddenly, transferred to a new school. he was an adorable and incredibly bright little boy who i miss dearly. i'm really bummed that i won't get to continue to watch him flourish. i know i'm not really supposed to have favorites, but there was something about him that i connected to and i miss having that in my classroom.

the other surprise blow was a new bus driver. apparently the parents of our students didn't find uncle's driving as charming as did jenna and i and so he has been replaced by a very nice, but somewhat calmer, driver. i'm sure that we will come to love him just as much (and he probably is a safer driver) but uncle and his driving brought me a certain joy that i will surely miss.

so long, friends, it was incredible while it lasted. i wish you the best and hope you know that you are truly missed.