Sep 13, 2018

Time keeps on slipping

Uncle Foreigner gets existential

China can be a really chaotic place. Forget about plans changing last minute; sometimes plans aren’t even made until the last minute. Just today, I was part of another surprise photo shoot at school. It’s a difficult way to get things done.

But you can wail against the flow, or gracefully bob along on the tide. One way is a heck of a lot more likely to be a pleasant journey. One way is also a lot more honest about how much control we actually have over our lives…

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their 十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But it’s China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days.

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

Jul 22, 2012

Replace your passport: The final chapter

I’m me again

Chapter 6: Luzhou — Exit/Entry

Objective: Get a new visa

It was nice to be home after our Chengdu adventures, but I still had some unfinished business: I still needed a visa.

That may sound daunting, but it was really just a matter of compiling paperwork (including a passport-sized photo; never embark on anything official in China without a pile of small self-portraits), and heading back to Exit/Entry. I submitted my paperwork, paid my 400RMB and waited 5 days. Blammo: new visa. I was now officially a U.S. citizen and temporary resident of China. Again.

Quest complete!

Jun 24, 2012

In which we are invited to take a brief trip back to America, sort of

Or, What happens when your passport is stolen in China

Prologue: Don’t look now …

We’d gotten a little too comfortable at sticks, I guess. I had fallen into the habit of putting my purse down on a chair next to us, and then keeping a not-so-watchful eye on it. Eventually, this garnered predictable results.

This would have been a minor inconvenience but for the fact that someone along the line had told us that it was a good idea to keep our passports on us at all times, in case we were ever questioned by the police. (Later, I would be asked repeatedly [including by the local police] why on earth my passport had been in my purse.) So I was now a player in the extremely boring RPG, “International Bureaucracy: Replace Your Passport!”

On our RPG adventure

Chapter 1: Luzhou — Exit/Entry Bureau

Objective: Collect a Statement of Lost Passport from the Exit/Entry Bureau of the Luzhou city government

With the help of my coworker Chris acting as translator, I filed a police report, which I then took to Exit/Entry. The officer there processed my paperwork and gave me the Statement of Lost Passport.

I could now make an appointment with the Consulate General of the United States in Chengdu to apply for a new passport.

Chapter 2: Luzhou-Chengdu Highroad

Objective: Keep yourself from going stir-crazy!

Get on the bus

By the end of our quest, we will make this journey 4 times in two weeks. This trip is long. And boring.

And, departing from Luzhou, we spend almost an hour idling at three different bus stations before even leaving the city, the inefficiency of which drives me crazy every time.

Jack ... Rose ...

They do play movies during the drive. In English even! Unfortunately, they’re usually terrible. Though on this first trip, the movie was “Titanic.” This movie is hugely popular here, and, well, it’s watchable enough.

The monotony of the drive is interrupted about halfway through and replaced with horror at the Rest Stop Toilets of Doom. Both the men’s and the women’s rooms contain a smelly canal, over which you squat (there’s a half wall for the least-private privacy ever), and down which water is sluiced every five minutes or so. We both try to plan our liquids so that we don’t need to visit this convenience, but sometimes life doesn’t work out that way.

When we pulled into the Chengdu bus station, The Titanic was still sinking. It had been for more than an hour - though we’d miss the very end of it; it turns out, “Titanic” with Bus TV commercials is even longer than the drive from Luzhou to Chengdu. Good work James Cameron! That’s truly epic.

☆ Side Quest: Xiao Tong Alley

Objective 1: Find a place to eat
Objective 2: Find a place to sleep

Back at the Loft

Our love of this area is well documented. Part of our excitement at returning to Chengdu was that we’d get to stay at The Loft again. So our second objective was easily accomplished. They put us in the Erykah Badu room this time. And the rooms have TVs now!

Objective 1 was trickier. By the time we got settled we were both starving, but it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday and most of the restaurants in the neighborhood were closed. We trudged around the block, grimly entertaining the idea of a dinner made from convenience store food. But then we spotted it: 串串. This is the Chinese name for what we call “food on sticks.” That’d do it!

We laughed at the fact that we were in a city with so many more options than Luzhou, and yet we were eating the same meal that we eat almost every night. But it’s delicious and we love it. And, at this place they used very different spices. So it was really almost like a completely different meal.

We returned to the Loft for a healing sleep so we’d be ready to resume our quest tomorrow.

Chapter 3: The Consulate

Objective: Apply for a new passport

Out in the street

The U.S. Consulate in Chengdu is in a fancy part of town, just around the corner from a bunch of flagship stores for international luxury brands. So we took a photo of that, instead of the nondescript government building guarded by men with guns.

The inside looks just like a typical American government office - imagine your local post office, with a bunch of Chinese nationals waiting on line to apply for a visa. Even the bathrooms felt American: There was no wastebasket for used tissue, which meant that the plumbing could handle toilet paper! … Am I obsessed with bathrooms? I’m starting to wonder. Although in my defense, we read later that Chengdoo magazine rated the bathroom at the consulate one of the six best public restrooms in the city. It really is something to see.

Once I filed my paperwork and paid for my new passport, I had to raise my hand and swear that all the information I provided was truthful to the best of my knowledge. They gave me a flimsy receipt, told me not to lose it and come back in 10 business days.

The saga continues …

Nov 24, 2011

The Hong Kong visa run

Fun with paperwork

Living in China entails a lot of paperwork. I don’t write about it often, because it’s kind of boring, but we’ve had at least one major form to fill out/file/correct and refile per week since June. We’ve been pretty meticulous about things, and had the help of our hosts, but every once in a while there are mistakes made that need correcting. One such incident resulted in me writing a letter to the police that I was very sorry in my heart (the language is really like that!) that I misfiled something, and I won’t do it again.

But so the occasion for our trip to Hong Kong was actually to fix something with Peter’s visa - that for whatever reason was not fixable in country (Hong Kong is not a fully integrated part of China). And this is what we did with most of our Friday.

Here’s the thing about visiting the embassy, both here and in New York. Go first thing in the morning, with all the paperwork you think you need already filled out. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this, but it seems like they don’t. If things go smoothly, then you’re finished for the day, without having to wait on a four-hour line. If things do not go smoothly, then you have time to fix them.

Unfortunately for us, things did not go as smooth as they could have. Our head teacher forgot to give us the forms from Peter’s physical in Chengdu that proved he was healthy enough to work. But, since we got there early, we had plenty of time to fix it. We went back to the hotel and called our boss. She emailed the forms over and we found a print shop where we could print them out. By this time, the embassy was closed for lunch and wouldn’t open again until two. You’d better believe that we were back right at two. But still, the wait for our number to come up was considerably longer than it had been in the morning.

This time: Success! We got our slip which said to come back Monday afternoon.

They told us to come around 3 pm, so we got there around 2:45 pm. There was a huge line waiting just to get into the embassy. Yikes! But, we consulted with the guard at the front; that line was for people dropping off applications. As we were picking up, we could go right in. As on Friday morning, there was no line, and we were out of there in 20 minutes.

And we’re one step closer to being permanent temporary residents of Luzhou.