Monday, February 22, 2010

Pick your Poison

At mid to high range, coastal, Chinese restaurants, you are greeted by tanks upon tanks of live entrees.

Yes, you literally get to point and pick your evening meal. Our host took us to this restaurant in the downtown area of Fuzhou, China. Being a born and bred midwestern girl, I couldn't even name half of the creatures in the murky tanks. When my host gestured to the whole room and said, "what for dinner?", all I could do was smile and say, "fish!", and trust the rest to luck.

That night we feasted on warm corn juice, boiled whole flounder, seahorse soup, veggie jello pizza (my best guess), and beef tail. Not too bad considering my earlier generalization!

The seafood chefs at our restaurant in Fuzhou

Dinner a la live crabs

The chopping block : Public viewed fate of all seafood previously pictured

Monday, February 15, 2010

Travelista Tip #2

Do what the locals do.

Sometimes, when you are in a country where you cannot speak the local language, the best move is to follow the lead of those who can understand their circumstances.*** Develop an eye for the body language, movements, emotions, and habits of those surrounding you. Then mimic them. This will allow two advantages : 1. You can respond to situations without truly understanding the situations. 2. You can blend into the scene more successfully, attract less attention, and get a better sense of the true culture.

Case Study:
Finally it is time for me to leave Fuzhou. Climbing onto the Apollo Hotel bus is the first leg of my trip home. The "Airport Bus" leaves every 20 minutes for Fuzhou Changle International Airport, and is already packed to the brim. Again, I am the only foreigner.


I compare driving in China to stampeding in Africa, and now I am about to reep the ramifications. 10 minutes later, our bus gently collides with a green taxi, on a 4 lane road, in the middle of an intersection. As the taxi passengers bail and run best they can to the sidewalk, our bus driver shuts down the bus, grabs his cell phone, and exits. I can feel stress tempting my stomach for control, but I watch the other bus passengers. We all have the same destination, and we all have deadlines.

At first, my busmates talk quickly and lean to see the impact point. When the police arrive, one man grabs his bag, ready to make a rapid get away. I don't know how this works, or what will happen next. Suddenly a passenger at the front of the bus speaks, and the whole bus settles. Around me, everyone's eyes glaze back to patience, and their agitation subsides. No one leaves. They are content to wait, and therefore I wait.

15 minutes later, another Airport Bus pulls up in front of us. We deboard, grab our bags, reboard, and continue, just a little off schedule, to the airport.

***Please note, this strategy only applies when there are many locals surrounding you. Don't do what individuals do. Do what the masses do. (You can assume that the masses are doing what is generally cannot assume the same thing about an individual!)

Wolf girl at the bus station

3:30pm, January 17, 2010, Songbai Bus Station, Xiamen

I am waiting at the outskirts of Songbai bus station. My boss has gone to a ticketing window with a written request to get seats on the top level of the bus that will take us back to Fuzhou...His success is unlikely.

I stand with all of our baggage like a fortress surrounding me. It is winter for this part of China, and all of the Chinese are in coats and sweatshirts. Even the merchants of cheap food around the edge of the bus station are bundled. I, however, am in a 3/4 sleeve fashion jacket. Winter for this part of China is still about 30 degrees warmer than the weather back in Cincinnati. I barely feel chilled.

Suddenly, one of these merchants is at my side. It is a man above 40. He is speaking to me, but I do not understand. He beams with a gleaming eye, and I recognize that he is amusing himself. Uncertainly I smile back, and the smile encourages him. Lo and behold, he reaches out and strokes the top of my forearm!

I am accustomed to attention of various degrees while traveling because of my youth and gender, but actual physical contact is very rare. Sensing my discomfort, the merchant speaks quickly to me and again strokes my forearm. He then proceeds to lift his own sleeve and stroke his forearm. As he meets my eyes again, hoping for some comprehension, he laughs and gives me a big thumbs up.

Two possibilities occur to me. This merchant might be complimenting me on my skin tone and quality. More likely, however, he is impressed, if not shocked, with the amount of hair on my female forearm.

It's true the difference between our hair quantities is dramatic. My dark winter hair is visible from 10 feet away, but in terms of hair, this man's arm more closely resembles my forehead. The Chinese are notoriously hairless, and likely, this Chinese man is admiring my body hair in terms of strength and masculinity.

In China, I am wolf girl.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ode to Nancy Drew

I apologize for this entry; it's a bit of a misfit in a travel blog. HOWEVER, it was Nancy Drew that first inspired me to adventure and exploration. She taught me not to be afraid! So, enjoy my Ode to Nancy. (Book cover images courtesy of

I never idolized movie stars. I never had much faith in sports heroes. My pastors, teachers, coaches and other role models were important but never beyond my own understanding. From all outward appearances, I have been an independent, peer-pressure resistant, and capable individual. I am now 26, and hindsight is 20/20. I did have an idol. Her name is Nancy Drew. 

From the ages of 7 to 14, I saturated my brain with the Nancy Drew stories. I soaked in her perfection and wholesomeness.  I basked in the convenience of her innate wisdom and supernatural ability to know exactly what to do in every situation.  Everyone loved and trusted Nancy Drew, and she led a life of adventure and surprise. Nancy’s biggest fault was her over-developed sense of humility.

This model of female of perfection became my idol. I ached to be as adored and capable as Nancy. Unwittingly I began to define my success in terms of relational and situational perfection. (Is this similar to how girls can idolize Barbie physically? Maybe.) My life became unfulfilling without an adventure surrounding every new acquaintance. Because Nancy was poised and beautiful (and only her sidekicks were chunky or boyish,) I linked success with external appearances. Somehow I got trapped in a mental cycle between the need to be overtly optimistic and personal critiques of my inability to be everything.

But Nancy instilled other things as well. Girls can be capable AND feminine. The brain is a girl’s biggest asset to solving cases (also, life situations). Leadership requires kindness and sacrifice. Success is not exclusive of humility. A little bit of karate knowledge can save your life. If you get a bad feeling, you are probably about to uncover a dastardly crime.

Nancy, for better or for worse, you have made me who I am today.  Your blue convertible, shapely legs, and random survival knowledge have set a standard for me that I will never reach. I will forgive you however, because YOU caught my attention and admiration. Instead of adulterous movie stars, drug dependent athletes, or self-serving leaders, I idolized a smart, young girl who loved her friends and had her priorities straight. 

Thank you Nancy Drew! By driving me to moral and relational perfection, you helped me avoid more dangerous personal and cultural pitfalls.  I still admire you, and hope your purity and logic can survive the literary future. 

...Can’t you just mess up once though? Go ahead; snap at Ned. Tell Beth she’s being an idiot, and tell George to put on a dress. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why, hello kitty

9:30pm, Jan. 13, 2010. Puxi, Shanghai

Someone please explain to me, the westerner : the Chinese adore Hello Kitty. She is cute enough, but why the obsession? In my understanding, Hello Kitty is a proportionately inaccurate representation of a girl kitten that can change clothes (but not postures) and has a very limited vocabulary. (hello.) Yet, they love this little feline. I learned that they love her enough to justify a store front in the busiest shopping district of Puxi, Shanghai, named after her and selling nothing but her.

I am walking through said shopping district. I enter said Hello Kitty store.  Stuffed Kitties bump my head where they hang from every ceiling space. Floor bins full of small dolls lead deeper into the chaos, and I follow because I expect each bin to contain something that will unmask this obsession. By the time I can no longer see the street entrance, I realize that each bin only holds Kitty in a differently colored shirt. The eager clerk moves nearer, presumably to sell me one of 50 sticker sets lining the walls. I turn back, looking forward to the scratch-n-sniff free air again. There is nothing but masses of white and pink, interrupted only by the jet black hair of the shoppers seriously perusing the merchandise.

What is it about that creepy Kitty!?

There is another mystery from my night of street walking in Shanghai. This entire distance of this highway is lit from beneath with blue rave-ish lights.  Is this meant for function or beauty?  I have a sneaking suspicion it is meant for beauty, but again, I don't quite understand! The lights turn everyone walking beneith into aliens or sickly smurfs.
View from pedestrian crossing near my hotel

Monday, February 1, 2010

Travelista tip #1 : taxis

ANY time you are traveling internationally, create a list of all your hotels and contacts before you even get on a plane. After you arrive, carry it with you at all times.

If possible, write the hotel names in the local language, and always include the hotel phone numbers. Taxi drivers, even if they don't understand the name of the hotel, can call the phone number and get directions. Cell phones numbers are internationally legible.

In my last trip to China, this phone number trick potentially saved my life 3 times.
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