My #1 Fan

If anyone’s been eagerly waiting for me to update since last summer, they have the patience of a…census fanatic? It took me a while to think of something that doesn’t get updated often. Oh! The patience of Donald Trump’s hairstylist? Are people still making Donald Trump jokes?

But I digress. I don’t have a good reason for not posting on here for the last couple of months, other than I’ve just been really, really busy. Also, I’ve finally begun reading the Harry Potter series (because I always like to stay one step ahead of pop culture) and that J.K. Rowling lady sure liked to write. So there. I haven’t been writing because I’ve been reading. Tah-dah.

Two things happened recently that have led me back here, however. The first is I’ve acquired a stalker. Just writing that makes me feel strange, because I’m still not entirely sure if he is a certified stalker, and also because I’m not Jody Foster.

It started a couple of months ago, when I was walking out of the metro station by my house, listening to my headphones and generally minding my own business. I was just about to reach the escalator to the street when a pudgy white guy came up from behind me, stuck his phone in my face and took a picture. Startled, I took an ear bud out and asked him if he needed something.

     Potential Stalker: No.
     Me: Then why did you just take my picture?  
     Potential Stalker: I didn’t take your picture.
     Me: Yes, you did.
     Potential Stalker: F*ck you.

At which point he started walking in the other direction. Now, had this guy been Chinese and not just dropped an F bomb in my face, I might have shrugged it off and resumed my podcast. As a tall, bald and very white foreigner living in Asia, I’ve had my fair share of pictures taken without my permission, which I assume are blown up, framed and hung in classy living-rooms throughout the region, providing hours of dinner-party fodder. “We saw this guy in Shanghai. Look at the eyebrows on him. Not a single hair on his head though. Let’s discuss.”

But he wasn’t Asian, I wasn’t standing in a tourist spot and his eyebrows rivaled Andy Rooney’s. There was also just something off about the situation, and I quickly found myself screaming at him across the metro station as he disappeared in the crowd, “Hey! What’s wrong with you?! You can’t just take pictures of people!” Which of course he just proved he could.

And I thought that was that. A couple of weeks went by and I had almost forgotten about him when he popped up again, shoving his phone in my face and snapping a picture of me as we were passing each other on the escalators in the same metro station. Once more, I was reduced to looking like the crazy person, hollering after him but unable to move because I live in a country where people don’t understand that the left side of the escalator is for passing, no matter how loudly I sigh on their necks in protest.

Again, I knew it was strange and slightly alarming, so I spent a couple of weeks looking over my shoulder and taking different exit routes from my home metro station, wary of anyone with a camera phone, which is pretty much everyone above the age of five. The thing that got to me was I had no idea what he was doing with the pictures. Was I posted somewhere online? With what caption? Was he taking the pictures for someone else? And regardless, they couldn’t have been very flattering because no one looks good in the metro station’s fluorescent lighting. Not even Jody Foster.  

And then I went back to my normal routine, because I couldn’t let the terrorists win. Or something. But sure enough, about a month later he reemerged, however this time he was at the metro station by my work and I was on the phone with my mother, who is probably the last person you want to have hear your altercation with a potential stalker before hanging up abruptly.

Luckily, my coworker happened to be on the platform to witness the whole thing and was able to confirm that I wasn’t going crazy. This time I had a chance to interact with him – although I was too rattled to think to take his picture, which would have been the most productive use of my time. I learned he’s Italian (as deduced by a strong accent), continually denies taking any pictures of me (his exact words, “You haven’t seen them published anywhere, have you?”) and said he would only show me his phone if the police made him. To which I didn’t have much of a comeback other than “Oh I WILL be calling the police!” which was an empty threat because after a year of living here, I discovered I still didn’t know what number to call in an emergency.

And then, because there wasn’t much of an alternative, we got on the train and I headed home, feeling entirely freaked out and helpless. The next day I went to the police station with my Chinese coworker and security guard from my school – who refers to me simply as “Monkey” and I think just tagged along for the walk – where I was told that because we were both foreigners, there wasn’t really anything they could do. Awesome. This was followed up by a phone call with the U.S. Embassy, where the lady on the other end told me that although the situation sounded “really scary,” she couldn’t really do anything, either. Which I already knew; I didn’t think I’d be admitted to the witness protection program or followed around by a SWAT team, but I had to do something, right? 

During all of this, our downstairs neighbor has been knocking on our door roughly once a week registering a new complaint – can we walk quieter? Can we turn our heater off, as it’s making noise in her apartment? Could we not do jumping jacks in the living room at 7:00 in the morning? Over the last three months, we’ve acquiesced to all of her requests; we’ve taken our shoes off, we’ve turned our music down, we bought a space heater, and we stopped attempting to follow a workout video in our living room. Fine. But when she banged on our door telling us water was leaking into her apartment two days ago, we couldn’t exactly not shower for the duration of the lease, so we agreed to call our landlord with the issue.

When he arrived to inspect the situation a day later, he quickly looked around the apartment, saw there was no water in our place, and told us flatly that she is a crazy person. (Turns out the sign language for crazy person is universal – the finger-circle-by-the-ear gesture accompanied by rolling eyes.)  He instructed us that if she knocks on our door one more time, we should call the police, and then repeated the emergency number three times to make his point: 110. 

I’m not sure what exactly the police would do with a crazy neighbor complaint, but as it’s been just over a month since I last saw my potential stalker, if he’s consistent (and proper stalkers are nothing if not consistent, right?) he should be resurfacing any day now. Part of me is hoping both the crazy neighbor and the stalker show up at our doorstep at the same time, so they can just fight it out between themselves until the cops show up. In the meantime, at least now I know what number to call.


Tying it All Together

Like many lessons I missed in gay finishing school, I can’t really decorate. A colossal disappointment to my gay and straight friends alike, I also can’t really shop. Or do hair. Or dress myself. Or anyone else for that matter. It seems the only thing apart from dating men that denotes my sexual orientation is my love of show tunes. Which never landed me a spot on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Who knew?

Not one to let actual talent get in the way of doing something, when one of my best friends wanted to start an interior design business a couple of years ago, I was game. The plan seemed simple enough: she would do all the designing and I would lift, schlep, paint, clean and basically stay out of the way while she transformed small New York apartments into cozy homes on astonishingly small budgets.

What I didn’t realize was how much time we would be spending at IKEA, and also how bad I was at visualizing what the end product would look like. Standing amidst five couch options, three pillows in each of our hands and six curtains in our cart, my friend was able to spot a lamp out of the corner of her eye that she declared would “really tie it all together.” While I was busy trying to figure out what exactly would be tied together and who was going to be doing the tying, she was off picking out fabrics to put into frames that would double as a headboard, all for under twenty dollars. Completely in awe of her natural gift, I relegated myself to pushing the cart towards the checkout, trying not take out any babies or old people along the way.

Because of her, every apartment I’ve lived in since college has gotten a complete makeover. It’s now impossible for me to move into a space without feeling the overwhelming urge to paint every wall, rearrange all the furniture and get rid of anything that doesn’t “tie it all together,” a notion that I’ve since learned doesn’t involve actual string. I’m pretty sure I’m making progress.

My new apartment has been no different, and from the moment I decided I would be taking it I began mentally renovating the entire place. Most rental apartments in Shanghai come furnished, which is quite the understatement. From what I’ve seen, Chinese people love furniture – the more the better. In my search, I saw places crammed with enough dressers, desks, shelves and tables to stock a generous yard sale for the better part of a year. And like furniture that you’d see on a Sunday morning drive through most suburban neighborhoods, each piece was, well, unique. Let’s just say my friend would be appalled: nothing was tied together.

My landlord marketed my apartment as a two-bedroom, and it took me a couple minutes after I first left to figure out that while it had two bedrooms, it was lacking a living room. When I called the rental agent, Fifi, to tell her I wanted to take it, I began a surprisingly long negotiation process to have him remove the smaller bedroom’s furniture and replace it with a living room set.

Fifi: So you want the smaller bed taken out?
Me: Yes please. Well, the whole second bedroom set, if he wouldn’t mind.
Fifi: Can you keep the dresser?
Me: No, not really.
Fifi: What about the side tables?
Me: No, thank you. There’s already two side tables next to the other bed.
Fifi: Ok. So the bed and the side tables. But can you keep the dresser?

We went back and forth like this for hours; the sticking point seemed to be the dresser, which wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if the apartment didn’t already have a giant wardrobe and dresser set, and also if this particular dresser wasn’t roughly the size of the Titanic. At one point, the landlord suggested I push the second bed against the wall and put some cushions on it and voila! A couch. Problem solved. Oh, and can you keep the dresser?

Ultimately he acquiesced and removed all the furniture in the second room, but declared he would not be replacing it with a living room set. Judging his eye for furniture from his previous purchases, I decided this was a blessing and would happily furnish the room myself. This meant a trip to Shanghai’s IKEA.

Located not too far from the city center, and only a couple of stops on the metro from my new place, from the outside the store matches its counterparts everywhere else in the world; a giant, blue and yellow behemoth of a building with a constant stream of people spilling out, hauling oversized plastic bags to their cars or waiting taxis. Its interior is the familiar walk-through of rooms dotted with the bright, Swedish mass-produced furniture I’ve called home for years. There was the couch from our place in Spanish Harlem. And the lamp from the Brooklyn apartment. And pretty much every coffee table I’ve ever spilled food on.

Come for the furniture. Stay for the meatballs.

Trying to keep in mind my relatively frugal budget, I headed toward the first big ticket item – the couch. On my first IKEA trip a couple weeks prior, shortly after signing the lease but before moving everything in, I had fallen in love with a particular couch that was just outside my predetermined budget. And by “just outside,” I mean it was my entire budget. For the whole apartment. But unlike most other IKEA couches, this thing was ridiculously comfortable. I didn’t want to get up, and taking a cue from my fellow Shanghainese shoppers sprawled out around me in various stages of sleep cycles, this didn’t seem to be an issue.

Now armed with my latest paycheck and heading straight for The Couch of My Dreams, I was derailed by a sale display trumpeting a new sofa – available in three colors, about the size of the one I wanted and a third cheaper. Now this was a problem. I had already resigned myself to living outside my means and eating pasta for the next month in order to afford The Couch of My Dreams. Why were the evil Swedish geniuses at IKEA doing this to me?

Joined by a friend, I spent the next forty-five minutes flopping back and forth between the two options. Option A: insanely comfortable to sit on. Option B: slightly less so, but more comfortable on my bank account. Option A: I want you, I want you, I want you. Option B: I don’t really want you, but the older, wiser, more sensible Travis should want you.

After changing my mind a dozen times and asking the poor sales assistant to print out five different versions of the order form to present at the cashier, me, my hairline and my bank account decided that I was, in fact, the older, wiser more sensible Travis and I went with Option B. With the money I saved from the first couch, I was able to buy a rug, a TV stand, some pillows and a bunch of other smaller items. And after a very sweaty afternoon of assembling everything according to IKEA’s hieroglyphic-inspired instructions, I’m happy to report I appear to have the start of a comfy home.

In the end, it seems I might have unwittingly picked up some lessons from my years spent as my friend’s apprentice, and even though she’s thousands of miles away, I know she would be proud with the end result. She might even say I managed to tie it all together.


Rainy Day Fund

As the credit card companies that take a large chunk of my monthly payments can attest to, I’ve had hard time learning how to save money. It seems every time I have disposable income, I find incredibly quick ways to dispose of it. But that’s why they call it disposable, right? Right.

The one positive habit I’ve acquired over the years is keeping a change jar, in which I deposit each day’s pocket worth of coins. I wish I could say that when this jar (or sock, or water bottle, or whichever container I’ve been using during that particular period in my life) fills up, I take it to the bank and place it in my savings account for a rainy day. But that would assume I have a savings a savings account. And besides, coins are the most disposable of incomes (I mean, they’re barely money), so I generally find a way to spend my newly acquired pile of cash on the way home from the bank.

In New York I grew accustomed to heading to a local branch that had a flashy coin machine in the lobby where you could guess how much you thought your piggy bank contained. I never did find out what the prize was for guessing correctly – turns out I consistently overestimated my stockpile. I’d say $600. Easy. Probably closer to $650…What? $23.78?! Oh well. Should I go see a movie? And get a coffee? And some shoes? And just like that, the only shot I had at starting a savings account disappeared. Next month.

Turns out the months kept piling on, and this June was particularly rough on my bank account. Apartments in Shanghai require a significant amount of money up front – as does my social life – and as the month wound to a close I discovered I was going to need to dip into my savings/bag of coins stashed in the back of my closet to stay afloat. Hauling it to the bank around the corner from my new place, I began to get the giddy feeling that usually accompanies these trips, during which I brainstorm all the things I’m going to buy with my newfound windfall. A scooter? No. Think big, Travis. This is going to be huge. Ticket to Thailand? Ticket to New York? Ticket to Thailand, then New York, then back to Thailand? BAM. Also, toilet paper. You should get some toilet paper.

When I arrived at the bank, the elderly security guard greeted me and showed me the machine where I could select the reason for my visit. Underneath each button was a helpful, though somewhat awkward, English translation. CASH REASONS. FOREIGN MONEY GIVING. BUSINESS ACCOUNTANTS ACCOUNTS. I wasn’t sure if there was a button for “About to Drop a Money Bomb,” so I just showed him my pile of loot and waited for the jealousy to set in. Instead, he laughed in my face and pointed at the door while simply muttering “no, no, no” over and over again.

Too confused to grasp what was happening until I was outside on the curb, I figured I must have gone in during someone’s lunch hour and headed to the next bank, which was just down the block. Five minutes later, I was back on the street sure I was missing something. These are banks. This is money. You go to a bank with money, right?Sure, things have been different in China, but this was by far the strangest hiccup yet. Was I going to have to buy my around-the-world plane ticket in coins?

I decided perhaps the problem was I didn’t have an account at the first two banks; maybe I needed to head to a branch of my Chinese bank. If I was turned away one more time, I decided I would rock the world of the next homeless person I saw and call it a day.

Again welcomed by a cheery security guard, I was relieved when he didn’t immediately shove me out the door upon seeing my bag of coins, but instead screamed across the room to one of the tellers. After being motioned over, I sheepishly showed her my stash and exhaled as she nonchalantly took the bag from me and placed it on the counter in front of her. When she got up, I figured she was going to get the counting machine and I started the usual game of wildly miscalculating the coins in my head. A couple of minutes later, returning with a plastic mold of some sort, the teller sat down and asked me how much I had in the bag. Slightly confused, I confessed I didn’t really know, and asked her where the counting machine was.

Teller: (in the Chinese I could understand) No machine.
Me: So…what do we do?
Teller: (switching to English) There’s no machine here. I will count.
Me: Oh. What?

Deciding not to waste any more breath on me, she dumped out my bag on the counter began counting the giant pile of shiny coins in front of her, making piles of the larger coins and then inserting them into the mold and wrapping the finished products in scrap paper, which she would tie off with a rubber band. Not knowing what else to do, I quickly dove in and we spent the next twenty minutes sorting through my coins as the security guard intermittently peered over my shoulder and laughed. I was fine with this laughter; at least he wasn’t throwing me out.

When we finished, I resisted the urge to high-five her and instead just asked how much there was. Borrowing a calculator from the girl next to her, she quickly punched in a few numbers, scrunched up her face, and tossed it back across the desk. Turns out the calculator was too annoying and instead she pulled out an old-school abacus from a drawer. I almost fell of my chair. When I tried to take a picture of her using it (because how often do you see an abacus being used? In a bank? In 2011?) she got angry and for a second I thought I was going to get kicked to the curb again. Putting away my camera phone, I settled for the mental image of her swiftly flipping the beads (or are they beans?) up and down to add up my pile of wrapped coins in front of her. In a bank. In 2011.

Leaving with my newly fattened wallet, I briefly wondered who else at my bank was tossing aside modern technology for age-old tools and when Coinstars would make their Chinese debut, before getting distracted by my burning desire to have a coffee. And see a movie. And should I get a new pair of shoes? In my defense, it was raining outside.


If These Walls Could Clean Themselves

People don’t tend to move twice in one year. Especially when one of those moves is from New York to Shanghai; that usually fills the quota for twelve months. However, as the lease was up in the shared apartment I moved into six months ago, I recently found myself looking for a new place to stay just after feeling like I had finally settled in.

Originally, the plan was to find another shared apartment; not only because I’ve become averse to signing leases for any amount of fixed time, but also because this time I wanted to move in with real, live Chinese people from whom I would glean the subtle intricacies of Mandarin I was missing and become fluent in a matter of weeks. Easy enough, right?

What I hadn’t exactly planned for was what my Chinese co-teacher crystallized for me one afternoon as we were hunched over the local version of Craigslist. I had just finished explaining my criteria for my future roomies: preferably I was looking for a three bedroom apartment with two existing occupants, so at first they could just chat amongst themselves, alleviating the need for me to constantly be producing the language, but also so they wouldn’t revert to English to communicate with me. On this point, I was hoping they would know some English, in case of actual emergencies, but not enough to form coherent thoughts on a daily basis. Also, it was important they didn’t want to live with a foreigner to improve their English abilities; this was going to be strictly a one-way street of benefits. I was hoping, but was not entirely expecting, one girl and one guy – this would balance out the different tones and cadences in the spoken Mandarin I would be absorbing in my sponge-like state of learning from the couch. Oh, and the apartment had to be nice. And in a good location.

After summing up what I had decided was a pretty low-maintenance list of requirements (I was flexible on the genders!), my co-teacher simply laughed in my face.

Me: What?
Co-teacher: Well. Ok. But what if they don’t want to live with you?

Incredibly, this thought hadn’t really crossed my mind. Who wouldn’t want a roommate who worked strange hours, was here for an indefinite amount of time, couldn’t really communicate beyond basic subject/verb combinations (toilet broken! I’m hungry!), never cooked anything worth sharing and was only moving into their house to get a couple of free teachers. She was right. I wasn’t exactly bringing a lot to the table. Apparently, my winning personality doesn’t quite translate yet.

And so, after following a couple of dead-end leads, I set out to see what kind of apartments I could afford on my own, resigning myself to the fact that I would have to sign a lease.

Looking for a place in Shanghai is not dissimilar to finding an apartment in New York, and I began how most people in both cities start their search, by stumbling into various brokers’ offices, stating my budget and requirements and getting laughed out the door. The only difference is I had been a broker in New York. I was used to being the one laughing directly in people’s faces and then steering them to places they could realistically afford and having to explain how an exposed pipe in the middle of their living room floor was charming.

I arranged to meet my first broker at a metro stop not far from the neighborhood I envisioned myself living in. When I arrived, I discovered that I wouldn’t actually be meeting the nice, English speaking lady I had talked with on the phone, but rather a runner from her office named Peter. A sprite young guy in his twenties, Peter did not possess any of his bosses’ charm or language abilities, and as he hurried me across the street in the rain, he explained excitedly how close the place they had found was to the metro stop – it was just across the street! Location, location, location. Trying to nail down an actual price proved more difficult, as he responded to my inquiries by simply repeating it was just across the street from the metro. Real Estate 101: don’t give out the price before actually showing the place. Well played, Peter. Well played.

When we entered the courtyard that was surrounded by a handful of low-level buildings, we were greeted by my future neighbors gathered around what appeared to be a small pile of garbage on fire. Undeterred, Peter shuffled me towards a green steel door and instructed me to wait; he had to call the landlord to let us in. Using the time to gather myself and take it all in, I realized that I wasn’t the only one making observations; it seemed every resident who was home had been alerted that a bald, white foreigner was standing in their midst and hurried to their windows to check me out.

While I was pondering the appropriate social protocol (to wave or not to wave? That was the question) I noticed a man in front of me on a bike, chain-smoking cigarettes. This isn’t exactly an uncommon sight in China, which is why it took me a minute to realize he didn’t have any arms. He sat casually at the helm of a flatbed bike piled high with discarded metal puffing away and eying me suspiciously.

Before I could formulate all of my questions for this man (But who lit the cigarettes? And how did he steer the bike?), Peter reappeared with the landlord who quickly unlocked the door and showed us in. The apartment that was just across the street from the metro was also up five flights of concrete stairs, shared a kitchen with the neighboring apartment and had a toilet in the hall. To be fair, there was also a smaller toilet wedged in what used to be some sort of elevated closet in the middle of the living room, which made it look like it was awkwardly on display, and the apartment had recently gotten new floors. All in all? Not the worst place I would see in my search over the next two weeks.

After going through a couple more brokers and up way more flights of concrete stairs, I found Fifi. Energetic, near-fluent in English and one of the fastest walkers I have seen in Shanghai, Fifi took a friend and I around one afternoon to see four or five different places, all of which she found some way of declaring animatedly would be perfect for me. Real Estate 201: exhaust your clients into making a decision. Fifi nailed it, and a couple of days later I found myself signing on a place that was in a great location, two flights up and only needed a little cleaning and rearranging before it would, in fact, be perfect for me.

I underestimated this last fact, and shortly after getting the keys discovered just how much cleaning and rearranging it would require before I would feel comfortable moving in. Or taking off my shoes. Or my hazmat suit. I’m not sure what the previous tenants did for a living, but judging by the state of the walls, they could have supplemented their income by selling modern art. It looked like they walked from room to room, just tossing random debris and leftover food around to see what stuck.

Like this. Only with food.

Having employed a maid at my old place, I figured this was my karma for having spent the last six months barely lifting a rag. I spent the next week cleaning, painting and trying not to throw up as I unearthed the layers of grime that started around the same time Chairman Mao was leading the revolution. Finally, it was ready and on Wednesday I moved in all my belongings and happily began the long process of settling in for the second time this year.


When Pigs Flew

I’m generally a fan of team building excursions, usually because they involve a free lunch. And if I’m a fan of anything, it’s free food. Luckily, my company in China operates much like it’s American counterparts, so when our boss recently announced a team building outing which would take place on one of our days off in a park on the outskirts of Shanghai, after confirming lunch would be served, I quickly signed up.

I’ve lived in big cities most of my adult life, and I’ve never really been one of those city-dwellers that yearn to get back to nature; a quick stroll in a small park usually does the trick. Or by a small park. Or seeing people strolling through parks. Generally, just knowing there’s a park in which, theoretically, at one point in the future, if struck with the need to stroll I could join other strollers strolling, I’m good. But I was excited to get out of the city center and hopefully get some much needed fresh air.

The general plan was announced in our regular Friday meeting; we would meet at the KFC (or, as I like to refer to it, KFChic) on the corner at 9:00 a.m. sharp to board a chartered bus that would take us to a cherry blossom field somewhere outside of Shanghai. What exactly we would be doing at this cherry blossom field remained vague; nailing down details was proving to be a challenge as everything was being organized by our Chinese boss, who seemed to answer all inquiries with a giant smile and a pronouncement that “it would be very fun!” This was the same description she used when offering me dried pig’s tongue over lunch one day. So. This could go either way.

Still, I arrived early at the crowded KFC on the appointed Wednesday morning. I have no idea why this particular American export is so popular, but I’ve yet to walk by an empty store – turns out the Chinese love them some fried chicken. God help them and their arteries if the Double Down ever makes it to this side of the Pacific.

Piling onto the bus with the rest of our staff, I was already excited about lunch. From prior experience, eating out with large numbers of Chinese friends usually ends up with giant heaps of food piled on the table that I would otherwise have no idea how to order, with my table mates encouraging and delighting in my endless appetite. I’ll try anything once, and usually twice after that. A full fish, complete with its head? Sure. Some other animal’s dismembered feet? Yes, please. As long as they weren’t taking us to a KFC, I’d be fine.

About an hour later, our bus pulled into a relatively empty parking lot surrounded by budding cherry blossom trees, and our boss announced we had arrived. We started down a small path and like most groups on vacation in China, took pictures of ourselves in various formations roughly every twelve steps. Turns out, the cherry blossom farm also housed a reconstructed version of an old Chinese village, complete with vendors selling homespun clothes and handmade crafts. Also, laser pointers. Because you can’t really go anywhere in Shanghai without someone trying to sell you a laser pointer.

At the end of the street, we came to a small stage where traditionally dressed performers were wrapping up the afternoon show, which gave us the chance to climb on stage and take more pictures of ourselves. Satisfied we had captured nearly every moment, our boss began excitedly pushing the large wooden benches in front of the stage out of the way, clearing a large area where our team building exercises would commence.

Our first game looked similar to versions of Marco Polo I played in my childhood, with an added twist where the searcher could command the rest of the group to freeze by barking “RED LIGHT!”  Using this technique, they had to stumble their way around to locate one lucky member, who then had to be identified by what can only be described as groping. The first player selected? Yours truly. To ensure I couldn’t peek, our boss giddily wrapped her large scarf around my entire face, effectively making me look like an escaped Iranian hostage.

By the end of my turn, a small crowd had gathered to watch. I couldn’t really blame them –  we were quite the show. A group of foreigners and Chinese people running around blindfolded and feeling each other up? Bring the whole family! After tiring of the game that surely would have made any HR manager in the West fear an onslaught of sexual harassment lawsuits, we moved on to an egg race, which I promptly lost for my team by fumbling the egg two steps into my turn.  In my defense, I’m pretty sure I was tripped.

Wrapping up the games, we were ready for the entire point of the trip: lunch. Walking towards the restaurant, we passed a fenced-off area with couple of guys standing by a door selling tickets. Understanding only the word for “pig,” our Chinese coworkers soon explained that behind the gate there was a pig racetrack. I’ll let that sink in for a bit. Pig. Racetrack. Pigs. Racing around a track. How do you pass that up?

Quickly paying for our tickets, we entered an area roughly the size of a pee-wee soccer field that had been turned into pretty much exactly what you would imagine a pig racetrack to look like, assuming you’ve imagined what pigs would need to race around a track. Hoops to jump through. A slide. And my personal favorite: stairs that led to a platform from which the pigs jumped into a small pool of muddy water five feet below. This. Was. Awesome.

At the sound of a bell, different groups of baby pigs were released from their pens and charged surprisingly fast around the track in different heats. They skillfully jumped through each hoop, scampered down the slide and for the grand finale, gracefully swan-dove into the mud-pond. These little versions of Babe were well worth the dollar entrance fee, and seemed to have almost as much fun racing as we had cheering them on. The only thing that would have completed the experience? A bacon concession stand.

Now officially ready for lunch, we gathered in a small concrete building that housed what appeared to be the area’s only restaurant, and the mounds of food arrived shortly thereafter. It was everything I had dreamed it would be; full fishes and feet soon piled up in front of us, and the Chinese staff cheered me on as I ate my bodyweight in all of it.

Before lunch, a couple of my coworkers asked if I wanted to bring some chicken back with me. Politely declining, I assumed they were talking about the chicken dish on the table, which I planned to decimate in a couple of bites. I don’t tend to leave leftovers. It wasn’t until one of them held up a box with a small air hole cut out of the side revealing a live chicken staring back at me that I understood what they had been asking.

Me: What are you going to do with that?
Coworker:
Kill it. And then eat it.
Me:
Right. So. Ok. You’re going to kill it?
Coworker:
You’ve never killed a chicken?
Me:
Well, no. Not on purpose. 
Coworker:
You should get one. They’re very cheap.

Mmmmm. Dinner.

Chewing on what could have been the brother of the poor guy in the box, I wasn’t exactly in any position to feign indignation about chickens being killed. But I couldn’t imagine returning home with a live chicken and explaining to my roommate that I’d be slaughtering it for dinner. Where does one even kill a chicken in an apartment? The balcony? The bathtub? There were just too many questions.

An hour later, full to the point of illness, our small group and a couple of live chickens got back on the bus. While it wasn’t exactly the team-building excursion I had originally imagined, turns out nothing brings a group together like watching pigs fly.


Let Them Know You’re There

Before I moved to Shanghai, I was warned about the traffic. The warning was less about the congestion and more about the fact that crossing the street might result in a fatal accident. Taking it in stride, I actually wasn’t all that alarmed by Shanghai’s intersections when I first arrived; yes, it might look like people regard red lights as mere suggestions, but if you actually took a step back and observed the seemingly chaotic flow, distinct patterns emerge.

Busses, especially those attached to electric wires dangling above the street, do very little turning and as such, most cars tend to scurry out of their way. Cars, like their drivers when they’re in the metro or lining up at the supermarket, shove to the front of intersections and rarely bother with their turn signals. And bikes, both motorized and pedaled, are usually confined to a separate lane where they race in and around each other carrying loads that Westerners would usually put in a trunk. Or a car seat. Do you have the visual yet? Good. Now picture everyone honking.

When I was fifteen and a half, entirely too impatient to wait for the driver’s ed class in school to begin, I used my tip money from a job waiting tables at IHOP to pay my way through a private class. Somehow sanctioned by my parents and the State of Illinois, the class only met a handful of times in a damp office space where we would watch videos produced in the 1960s and listen to the monotonous instructor drone on about how many times we were supposed to check our mirrors before we even thought about putting the key in the ignition. One of the videos that we half-dozed through showed a man I’m pretty sure was Walt Disney driving a giant boat of a car, happily honking at pedestrians and fellow drivers. His catch phrase? “Give ‘em a honk – let ‘em know you’re there.” Now I’m not exactly sure how people drove in the 60s, but from what I can tell from watching Mad Men it didn’t involve honking as much as pounding hard alcohol behind the wheel while chain-smoking and degrading women. Regardless, in my subsequent years of driving I’ve been conditioned to only use the horn in an emergency. Or, you know, when I want to degrade women. Holler.

But from what I can tell, everyone in China has watched this instructional driving video and has taken up the cause of honking with the same zeal they’ve shown for winning Olympic gold medals. I wake up to the sound of honking. I fall asleep to the sound of honking. In fact, I’ve become so accustomed to it that it no longer has its intended startling effect; now if I see a car approach an intersection and not blast it’s horn in random, indiscriminate intervals I think less of the driver. I mean, how are we supposed to know you’re there?

So when my roommate initially offered me the use of his scooter while he was on vacation in February, I declined. I have eyes. And ears. And that mess of a traffic accident waiting to happen is nothing I wanted a part of. It wasn’t until shortly after he left for his vacation that I began to regret my decision. The weather was warming up, I felt officially settled into my neighborhood and a scooter would actually be a great way to explore Shanghai. And get to work. And see friends. And lug groceries home. And learn Mandarin. (This last excuse is something I slap onto most anything when I’m trying to convince myself of its dubious merits.) The question wasn’t whether or not I could drive in Shanghai traffic. The real question was how had I made it this far without owning a scooter.

As luck would have it, my roommate had another vacation planned for last week and this time I was going to take him up on his offer. Before he left, he took me out on a little spin to show me its controls, its quirks, and how to honk at everything that moved. After getting comfortable, I thanked him profusely and was excited to take it to work the next day, sure that my commute was going to be cut in half.

This means honk at pedestrians. Right?

Leaving the house a little earlier than normal, I headed down to the garage where he pays a little over two dollars a month to house and charge the bike. Holding the helmet (yes, mom, I wore a helmet) as I walked through my apartment’s courtyard, I admit that I might have been swaggering a little. Biker’s helmet. Riding gloves. The only thing missing was an actual motorcycle, as opposed to the white electric scooter I was about to climb on.

Any sense of cool quickly dissipated as I struggled for twenty minutes trying to get the bike’s seat unlocked so I could store my bag in the compartment below. Dropping the helmet multiple times and almost knocking over the entire row of parked bikes created such a scene that the garage administrator eventually came over to help. Apparently I needed to push down on the seat while turning the key. Got it.

Vaguely aware that bikes were not allowed on the large bridges that cross the river to the side of town where I work, I spent a brief five minutes looking at a map online before I left to see my options. From what I could see, there was a ferry terminal just underneath the bridge, which looked to only be a couple of miles from my house. After that, I just had to take one big road straight and turn left on the next big road, which dropped me right in front of work. How hard could that be?

And so I was off. The first leg of the trip, while slightly terrifying, wasn’t bad at all. I managed to find the ferry stop after only a couple of wrong turns, and barely had to wait five minutes or so for the next boat to come. I used this time to gracefully demonstrate the control I had over my bike to my fellow commuters; almost falling twice before getting off and holding it awkwardly from the side, I was unable to roll it back on its kickstand because other bikers had decided the best place to park was directly on my ankles.

As for the honking, I broke my internal promise to honk only for emergencies almost as soon as I got on. I honked at pedestrians. I honked at other bikers. I honked at other bikers honking at pedestrians. And I could definitely appreciate how easily everyone slipped into this habit: not only did it make you feel an active part of the road, it was fun. Honk to pass. Honk to get passed. I pretty much honked my entire way to work.

Eight hours later, heading home in the dark and waiting roughly twenty minutes in the cold for the ferry is when I began to question my desire to buy a bike. It was also when I started to question how much battery this particular bike had left. My roommate had quoted me a distance that it could travel before it needed recharging – a figure I quickly forgot and demonstrating my razor-sharp attention to detail, I hadn’t bothered to determine the distance between my apartment and work. And back again.

Gunning it off the ferry, I noticed the pickup start to give and thought that at least I was on the right side of the river; absolute worst case scenario, I could push it home. Block by painful block, the power drained from the battery until I found myself coasting with my lights off on the side of a busy four lane road. It finally completely died around the corner from my apartment building, and I had to resort to shoving it past the security guards and back to the garage. And the worst part? I couldn’t even honk to let them know I was there.


Part of Their World

Some people say I swim like a dolphin. A merman, if you will. Minus the gills and grace, I’ve been throwing myself in bodies of water since I was a kid. In fact, one of my first significant childhood memories is trying out for the swim team around the age of five or six. As I remember it (which is obviously exactly how it happened), my older brother had already made the team and I, being the dutiful younger sibling who had to do everything he did (but better), couldn’t wait to catch up with him. The coach, a man roughly the size of a humpback whale, declared that in order to have the honor of him barking at you from his floatable chair all summer long, you had to make it the entire way across the twenty-five meter lap pool without stopping or grabbing onto the white and blue lane ropes.

To the best of my recollection, I sailed across on my first try and was hailed as a swimming prodigy. Or, you know, sputtered and choked my way along what felt like the first leg of the Iron Man, only to find out that “swim team” was less of a team sport and more of an organized way in which parents of over-active children tire them out. Either way, I was hooked.

As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to find a reasonably priced gym with a pool where I can do laps in every city I’ve lived. My go-to stress reliever, I much prefer the white noise that encases you while swimming over the hectic and sweaty cardio room, or god forbid the confusing and testosterone filled weight section, where I’m almost certain to be getting in someone’s reps or interrupting a lateral. Plus, where else can you hum “Part of Your World” on repeat and no one will notice? Exactly.

Which is why I was thrilled my apartment complex in Shanghai had a gym and a pool, conveniently located in the center of the courtyard. Shortly after moving in, I discovered that along with working out, my membership included access to a ping-pong room, dance studio, some type of table bocci situation, a reading room, a handful of study rooms and two piano practicing rooms. In the downtime from working on my Adonis-like figure, it seemed I would also be perfecting my dance moves, challenging a couple of my Chinese neighbors to ping-pong (I hear they’re not that good), and composing some original scores. I couldn’t wait.

On my first trip to the pool I found I had the whole thing to myself. Long used to swimming at the 14th Street YMCA in Manhattan and regularly sharing a single lane with up to four people, each more intent than the next on kicking me directly in the head, I couldn’t believe my luck. I quickly jumped in and rocked the Little Mermaid for the better part of an hour.

Almost box-shaped, the length is probably just over the standard twenty-five meters, and I was surprised to find out that it’s an indoor/outdoor pool. Set atop a hill in the compound’s large courtyard, the outdoor section is walled off from view, which is why I hadn’t seen it before. Glancing through a window of the closed garage-like door that separates the pool in the winter-time, I saw the outdoor area extended to include a jacuzzi, waterfall and a small sun-bathing island. Swank. I now envisioned my summertime Mandarin lessons with my tutor occurring pool-side, or perhaps in the jacuzzi. I could definitely get used to this.

Stopping somewhere around the half-hour mark to get some water, I noticed a lifeguard had appeared at the far end of the pool and was propped up in his chair, casually reading a newspaper. Go ahead and relax, buddy. I got this. Still, it was nice to know he was on hand so I wouldn’t have to interrupt my workout if an obnoxious, less-advanced swimmer joined me and decided to start drowning.

Ten minutes later, coming up for air during a daring lap of butterfly strokes – which aren’t exactly my forte and usually result in me looking like a newborn seal fighting for its life – I smelled smoke. I didn’t think anything of it at first; it was probably just an open window, someone smoking outside. But then, panting on the side of the pool just underneath the lifeguard chair, it was unmistakable. Was someone having a cigarette in the pool?

Yes, yes he was. My lifeguard, the man whose very title announced his duty to save lives, was nonchalantly exhaling all over my attempt at being healthy. It being an indoor pool in the middle of winter, the smoke quickly permeated the muggy air and pretty soon it felt like I was swimming in a giant, wet ashtray. There is no way Ariel would have put up with this.

Finishing out the rest of the hour, I slowly realized that before Marlboro Man stunk up the place, I hadn’t really noticed much of a smell. Strange. Also, the water felt different than other pools; less pool-y and more like a…lake? And then it dawned on me: the smell and feeling I was missing was chlorine.

Towling off, I confirmed my suspicion. Cigarette smoke notwithstanding, this definitely didn’t smell like indoor pools I was used to smelling. And my skin, which has grown accustomed to taking a beating from the insane amounts of pool chemicals I routinely subject it to, felt completely fine. This was not ok.

But there’s no way, right? There’s no way that a pool, potentially used by hundreds of guests in a relatively upscale apartment complex in the middle of Shanghai wouldn’t treat its water. Right? Because if that was the case, then I just spent the last hour swimming laps in what was basically an over-sized puddle. I had to investigate.

She's probably thinking about chlorine.

When I accosted the first person I figured could shed some light on the situation – my tutor – I didn’t want to come off sounding like some enraged, ethno-centric ass who couldn’t envision a different way of pool cleaning. Maybe the Chinese had mastered a more efficient, effective treatment that didn’t have as distinctive a scent as the chemical combination my Western nose was used to. Or maybe I just swam in a bunch of people’s urine. Either way, I wasn’t going to jump to any conclusions.

Directing him to my balcony the next morning, where you can see the courtyard and enclosed gym/pool/table bocci/dance studio compound, I gingerly asked him if he thought the pool used chlorine.

Ray: What’s chlorine?
Me:
It’s usually in pools. To clean them.
Ray:
Why? Is it dirty?
Me:
Well, I don’t know. I couldn’t smell any chlorine.
Ray:
Oh. It’s probably dirty.

And that was that. After trying a couple of more avenues (“But do you think they clean it? Maybe they use something else? Like magnets? Or chopsticks? No? Nothing?”) Ray seemed bored with the subject and headed back inside, where he proceeded to overload me with vocabulary that had nothing to do with pools or chlorine or urine.

I spent the next couple of weeks avoiding the pool, opting instead to tackle the weight section of the gym and finding they weren’t as complicated as I had previously thought. Turns out you just lift them up. Who knew? But soon my inner-dolphin needed some loving, and my Mandarin has slowly progressed to the point where I feel comfortable in small conversations about isolated topics. I can now order most foods without frantically pointing at pictures. I can give a taxi driver simple directions. I can comment on the weather. And I decided I could attempt to find out if my pool was clean.

Armed with the ridiculously useful Mandarin-English dictionary I recently downloaded on my phone, I headed to the gym’s front desk and began what I thought was a very pleasant conversation.

Me: Hello!
Front Desk Guy:
Hello.
Me:
It’s raining outside.
Front Desk Guy:
What?
Me:
Is pool clean?
Front Desk Guy:
What?
Me:
Do you have chlorine?
Front Desk Guy:
What?
Me:
I like to swim.

At which point I showed him the character for chlorine I had loaded on my phone’s screen as a backup and repeated my phrases, until a vague look of recognition came over the guy’s face and he nodded vigorously. Unable to really go much further in the discussion, we now just stood there smiling broadly  and nodding at each other. It seemed either the pool was cleaned or he was very happy it was raining out. Regardless, I had my suit in my bag, my soundtrack in my head, and blind faith that someone, somewhere was treating this pool with a less-fragrant alternative to chlorine. I mean, they have to be, right?

  

 


Cold on the Inside

I didn’t really start paying attention to weather forecasts until The Weather Channel neatly packaged theirs in an app on my phone; it was now easy, convenient and entirely necessary to check it religiously every hour on the hour. I knew it had gotten bad when I found myself seeing what it was like outside by turning my phone on rather than walking the thirteen steps it would have taken to reach my backyard in Brooklyn. And, you know, see what it was actually like outside.

So when I decided I would move to Shanghai this past January, I updated my “favorite” places on the app and began comparing my future home’s weather to New York’s. This is about the time I became the annoying guy who tells people the weather in another city, completely unsolicited.

Me: Did you know it’s 52 in Shanghai right now?
Innocent Bystander:
No. No, I didn’t.
Me:
Yep, and sunny too. Look, it says so right here on my phone.

Having loved the weather during the year I spent in Busan, South Korea – located just North of Shanghai, across the East China Sea — I was happy when my app announced I would be heading to a climate I remembered fondly: temperate, crisp and sunny. Was it cold in the winter? Sure, but nothing like Chicago or New York. These are the annual forecasts I like; four distinct seasons, but nothing so dramatic that your closet ends up looking like a FEMA storage shed. Sign. Me. Up.

Lies. All lies.

When I arrived, I spent the first week or so riding one of the craziest fevers I’ve ever had, so I was in no position to judge the weather. However, once my internal temperature stabilized I noticed that while it might have been 52 or 48 or whatever mild looking degree of Fahrenheit happily promoted on my phone’s app somewhere in Shanghai, I never found that place. The Shanghai that I’ve lived in has been at least as cold as New York or Chicago, with one big difference.

After finishing our ten-day training session, I began work at my school and started meeting my students. Having previously only worked with children above the age of seven or eight, I was now faced with a room full of three and four year-olds and their cuteness cannot be overstated. This, coupled with their general lack of any language, much less English, leaves me grinning from ear to ear for eight hours straight every single day. You haven’t seen adorable until you’ve watched one my of my students exclaim, “I’m GRRRREAT!” when asked how they’re doing. I can’t even.

However, I quickly noticed that these kids seemed somehow larger than their Korean peers, and almost as over-sized as their American counterparts, which just didn’t seem right. I knew their economy was gaining on ours – no one told me they were challenging our obesity rate as well. Can’t we be number one in anything anymore?

This lasted until about twenty minutes into the first class I was observing, when one of the students announced he was hot and the assistant teacher helped him take his bulky blue sweater off, only to reveal another sweater beneath. Twenty minutes after that, he wiggled out of this second sweater, exposing a thick, thermal sweatshirt. And this was happening around the room on fifteen different kids; by the end of period, the students had shed more weight than the cast of the Biggest Loser, and I was waist deep in a pile of discarded sweaters, sweatshirts and hoodies.

I chalked up their layers to the stereotypical overbearing Chinese parents various people had warned me to expect. Most of them were only allowed the chance to have one child; I just figured that along with the hopes and dreams of their entire family, they also piled on every piece of outerwear they could find. These poor children.

However, it was during this same week I moved out of the hotel my company had set up for me and into an apartment. As in Korea and some other Asian countries I’ve seen, I found my bedroom’s small heater located on the upper corner of the far wall, nudged against the ceiling. Mumbling something about how heat rises, I turned it on my first night and crawled into bed, thinking once it kicked in the room would warm up and I would finally get the good night’s sleep I had missed while being sick at the hotel.

Not so much. It was somewhere around 3:00 a.m. when I realized I looked exactly like one of my students; I was basically wearing half of what I brought to the country, and I spent the rest of the night trying to reposition myself so I would be in the line of warm air intermittently spewing from my heater, which seemed to be going directly out the window.

I know very little about city planning and engineering and building codes, but based on the average temperature inside my apartment for the past two months, I’m pretty sure the whole thing is made out of cardboard. I’m not sure if it’s an insulation issue or a material issue or what, but I do know now why my students are sent to school every day looking like mini Stay Puft Marshmallow men. It seems just because you’re inside doesn’t necessarily mean it’s warm, and sometimes I feel like I’m camping inside my house. The cruel joke in all of this is the heating system at my school could not be working better, so by the end of every class, my students and I are near melting, only to be sent back into the cold outside. And by outside, I mean my apartment.

The good news is over the past couple of days it feels like spring might be arriving in Shanghai. This prediction comes from the fact I’ve been able to sleep without two pairs of socks and sweatpants for a week now, and the mountain of outerwear in my classroom seems to be shrinking. Turns out, this is a much more reliable forecast than my app ever was.


Jailbreak

To be clear, I’m mildly obsessed with my iPhone. Well, most Apple products, really. If Steve Jobs talks about it while wearing a black mock turtle neck and dad jeans, I want in. Which is why I decided to bring my American iPhone with me to China; if I couldn’t find a way to make it work as an actual phone, I figured I could still use it as an iPod. Or an alarm clock. Or a best friend. Whatever.

Researching online before leaving the States, I found that once the phone was “jailbroken” (a term that refers to the process of undoing all of Steve’s hard work at keeping the phone’s software exclusively under Apple’s control and which initially sounded very, very scary to me), it would be able to work on China’s cell phone network. All I had to do was find someone to jailbreak it – and from what I was reading online, that wasn’t going to be very difficult in Shanghai. In my overactive imagination, this involved some sketchy, dimly lit alley where I would meet with members of the Chinese mafia.

Back in reality, shortly after arriving our HR director pointed me to a mall in the middle of the city where he thought I could have someone jailbreak it. Climbing out of the metro with two friends from my orientation group who also needed to unlock their iPhone and Blackberrys, we headed into a shining building with a giant glass globe encapsulating its upper floors, on which various images were projected in bright neon colors to the Times Square-like intersection below; not exactly the dark alley I had envisioned.

On the third floor we found what appeared to be our destination – rows and rows of electronics counters, each branded with their company’s logo and staff members milling about, playing with their booth’s various gadgets. Cameras. Cell phones. PlayStations. Nikon. Canon. Nintendo. If it had an on switch, it was here. We decided to split up, find our respective booths and hope for the best.

I’ve never been good at haggling; mostly because I forget I’m supposed to be haggling. If someone tells me a price, that’s the price. Even when I’m traveling in countries that I know you’re supposed to bargain with sellers, I get instantly uncomfortable with the concept and usually end up paying at or above the asking price for whatever I’m buying. “$7? But I only have a $20. Here, take $25. It’s probably worth $30. No, you’re right. $35. Do you want lunch, too? Have my sandwich. And my hotel key.” This happens in outdoor markets, where it’s customary to talk the price down; I would never even consider bargaining for things when there’s a roof over my head.

I quickly found out my friend who was also unlocking his iPhone did not share this problem. At the first booth we stopped at, having been quoted 250 RMB to unlock one phone, he immediately scoffed and countered with 50.

Me: 50?
Him:
It’s not even worth that much. It’s easy; all they have to do is plug it into a computer and download a program onto it.
Me:
Oh. But. Um. He said it was 250. I’m pretty sure we should give him 300.
Him:
Just let me handle it.

And I did. I followed him as we walked away from the first two booths, who wouldn’t go below 200 for each phone. With each interaction, I got more used to the idea of this whole bargaining thing. He was right; there was no way we should be paying so much for them to simply stand there and hook our phone up to a computer. Feeling ballsy, I ventured off on my own and sidled up to a shiny counter at the far end of the floor stocked with various Apple products.

It being my third day in China, I had yet to learn any Mandarin beyond simple greetings, however it seemed the term “jailbreak” was widely understood. Steve must be thrilled. The impossibly skinny Chinese guy behind the counter wearing what I assumed wasn’t a sanctioned Apple shirt, showed me his initial offer by punching “300” into an oversized calculator and handing it to me. Displaying my newly honed look of shock on my face, I erased his 300 and countered with 75. Boom. Let the games begin.

We went back and forth, each huffing dramatically at the other’s counter offers until we settled on 150. Victory. Scanning the crowd for my friend to tell him the good news, I spotted him a couple counters down, performing the same ritual with the calculator that I had just finished. Motioning to my guy that I would be right back, I hurried over to tell him the deal I had snagged.

His counter was filled with similarly dressed staff members, each wearing the unauthorized Apple shirts and knee deep in iPods, iPads, iPhones and cases for each. Towards the back of their small station they had set up a large flat screen TV, where friends had gathered around a PlayStation basketball game, intermittently eating noodles and fiddling with their cell phones, and generally unaware that they weren’t in someone’s living room.

The salesperson he was dealing with spoke a good deal of English, and it seemed they were only using the calculator to emphasize their various offers; when I arrived he had gotten him down to 175. I pointed at the the booth I had just come from and told him they were willing to do it for 150 – and then instantly felt guilty as the first guy saw me motion to him, obviously using him as a bargaining tool – and suddenly our new salesman was eager to take 125. Still not satisfied, my friend incredibly cajoled him down to 100 which we agreed to and paid on the spot. With that, he took our phones and handed them to a plump guy I hadn’t noticed sitting next to him, who quickly plugged them into his laptop and got to work.

Which is about the time I started to panic. My phone – my perfect, beautiful phone was now in the hands of a man who looked like a sumo wrestler, who was doing god knows what to its software. I did not know this man, and I had no reason to trust he had any idea what he was doing. Worse, after receiving only a blank look in response to my rapid fire questions about what exactly the program would do to my phone, we discovered he didn’t seem to speak a word of English. Slowly nodding, he turned his attention back to his computer where it remained for the duration.

Steve would not be happy.

Thinking the entire process would take five to ten minutes, I grew increasingly alarmed as we waited for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes. My friend, who had apparently jailbroken phones back in the U.S., reassured me that this was completely normal. There was nothing for me to do; I nervously stared at the small pineapple that had appeared on my phone’s screen, and then at the large man who I decided looked like an apple himself, and back at my phone again. Forty-five minutes later, our English salesman returned and announced that my phone was finished, and that Apple-man would now begin working on my friend’s phone.

Him: Ok, all done. But you can’t turn off.
Me:
What?
Him:
It’s just beta. If you turn off, you can’t turn back on. Maybe one week you come back? Then it will be finished.

Clutching my phone, I had no idea what any of this meant and was instantly sweaty. I couldn’t turn my phone off? Ever? And I paid for this?

My friend explained that the jailbreaking program for my phone’s software was still in its initial beta form, that the hackers of the world apparently needed just a little more Mountain Dew and had not completely finished the job yet. One of the kinks that they had yet to solve was turning the phone off; in its current form, if it was turned off, it had to be plugged back into a computer with the jailbreaking software and endure the whole process all over again. Kind of a large kink, if you ask me. And one that I would have appreciated hearing about before turning my prized possession into a ticking time bomb. Writing his name out for me in English on his card, Chan Wu kept repeating that I should just come back in one week and they would install the final version for me, free of charge.

Already touchy over my phone’s battery life and used to scouting out plugs in coffee shops and restaurants if I know I’m going to be out all day, I was now tasked with never letting my phone die. This meant cutting back on Angry Birds if my battery was low. And only listening to music on the metro when I knew there was an outlet waiting for me on the other end. And awkwardly climbing under people at Starbucks to get to a plug. This was going to be a long week.

On my first day off from work a week later, I headed back to the electronics mall, excited to get my life back and hoping that Chan was there and would remember our deal. When I got to the counter, the first person I saw was my Apple-sized friend who gave me a look of faint recognition before turning back to his computer, apparently unaware that I wanted to be able to turn my phone off. No smile, no hug, nothing. And I thought we had something.

Chan, who was talking with a co-worker a couple of booths down, saw me and hurried over, definitely remembering who I was and started apologizing as soon as he got within earshot.

Chan: Sorry, sorry. Not ready yet.
Me:
What? Why? It’s been a week!
Chan:
I know. Not finished. Maybe one more week?
Me:
Crap. Ok.

Defeated, I told him I would be back on my next day off and that he couldn’t forget me. He promised he wouldn’t, and I left after unsuccessfully trying to get a wave out of Apple-man.

Each week for the next five weeks we replayed the same scene: me trekking halfway across town on my day off, Apple-man showing me no love, and Chan apologizing, telling me the update still wasn’t out. I’m sure I could have Googled this information without showing up week after week, but a part of me was afraid that if I didn’t go, Chan would forget about me and I would end up having to pay for someone to do it all over again once the final update was released. Plus, I enjoyed trying to get a smile out of Apple-man.

Dutifully embarking on my weekly pilgrimage yesterday, Chan finally had good news. The update was out, and even Apple-man seemed happy as he took my phone and plugged it in his laptop. Not that he smiled or anything – I could just tell. Feeling part of the family, and noticing that there wasn’t anyone on the PlayStation behind the counter, I challenged Chan in the street fighting game that his friends had left in. Keeping one eye on the counter, Chan still managed to destroy me, and soon his friends returned from their smoke break to laugh as he repeatedly demolished my character, each ending bloodier than the last.

"That called Poison. It's no problem."

When my phone was done updating, I tested Apple-man’s handiwork and turned it off and on in front of him, just to make sure. Other than it now displaying a ghost-like version of the Apple logo during the start-up (“That called Poison. It’s no problem.”), Chan assured me that my phone was, at last, finished.

Still not able to get a smile, wave, or any sign of recognition from my port friend who safely shepherded my phone through this process, I shook Chan’s hand and thanked him. Fighting off my instinct to pay him an extra 100 RMB for all the trouble (He’s so nice! He wanted 250! It was worth it!), I left and got on the metro home. Realizing I was now a free man, I listened to music, played Angry Birds and started texting all at the same time. Just because I could.


Almost an Asian Student

When I hired a tutor to come to my house for two-hour sessions, five days a week for the next six months, I knew it was going to be a commitment. And as someone who generally doesn’t like making plans more than thirty-seven minutes in advance, this was a big deal. As I explained earlier, the panda-themed Mandarin school I ended up choosing offers a “demo” lesson, where you can try out your potential tutor for no charge. If you like him or her, you sign up. If not, the panda factory sends out another tutor to try and explain the Chinese language to your feeble mind, presumably until you either find the right fit, or the school gets sick of you free-loading off their already woefully underpaid staff and stops returning your calls.

I was more nervous than I should have been the night before my first session, considering I was the potential paying customer in the transaction. I began to realize that if the only words I knew were “hello” and a pathetic attempt at “thank you,” maybe he wouldn’t want to teach me. Fearing a brutal panda rejection (“I’m sorry. He too stupid to teach.”), I broke out my Lonely Planet phrasebook and sat down in front of the web-based version of Rosetta Stone my company provided for us. The phrasebook turned out to be completely useless when trying to impress a future tutor, unless of course that tutor was doubling as my waiter or taxi driver. The Rosetta Stone, however, was amazing and fifteen minutes later I proclaimed to my roommate that I wasn’t sure what everyone was talking about – Mandarin wasn’t that hard. Maybe I didn’t need a tutor after all. But what I definitely needed was a beer.

Oversleeping on your first day of school is never recommended, especially when the school is ringing your apartment’s buzzer. In my defense, my over-zealous tutor decided to show up a half-hour early, and also beer is really cheap in China. Not a good combination. Needless to say, sprinting around my apartment frantically trying to brush my teeth, throw clothes on and buzz him up all at the same time did not lead to the look of calm confidence I was hoping to exude in our first meeting.

Introducing myself, I opened with my best “ni-hao!” and tried to remember something, anything from my brief encounter with Rosetta Stone less than twelve hours earlier. The only thing that came to mind was the word for “boy” which, while I was sure I would have rocked the pronunciation, I didn’t think awkwardly labeling our genders in the first thirteen seconds was the best move. He returned my “ni-hao” before mercifully switching to a very accented but impressive English and introduced himself as Ray.

Tall and wispy, Ray is the kind of guy that wears glasses without any lenses in them. Sporting an over-sized coat with a patch of fur around the hood, he quickly surveyed my living room and asked where we should have class.

Me: I was actually thinking we could go to the Starbucks downstairs.
Ray:
Really? Starbucks? It’s expensive.
Me:
Oh, um. It’s not that bad. I’ll buy you a coffee.
Ray:
Really? Every day we go to Starbucks?
Me:
No, no. Just today. My roommates are sleeping and I don’t want to wake them up. And I definitely need a coffee.

I quickly found out that Ray begins most English sentences with an upturned “really?” – it sounds like life is constantly surprising him. I also noticed that he seemed to want to talk about anything other than Mandarin; after grabbing our coffees we settled into two adjacent stuffed chairs and began talking about the weather in Shanghai. And then about the weather in New York. Then the weather in Korea. We talked about what I did in New York, what I was doing in Shanghai and why I ever went to Korea. We talked about the bathrooms, the mall, the coffee, my lack of hair, his lack of lenses and his feelings on fur (“Really? No problem.”). Lady Gaga. Barack Obama. Apple products. Chinese cars. American cars. And on and on.

About an hour into it, I started getting worked up. While this lesson had been a great chance for him to practice his English and me to ask questions about things I didn’t quite understand (like squat toilets – “Really?”), I hadn’t learned more than three words in Mandarin and at this rate, I would be sending Ray and his hipster frames back to the panda factory at the end of the second hour. Wanting to be upfront, I interrupted our lovely coffee date and explained that the primary reason for me moving halfway around the world was to learn this language, and the reason I wanted to hire a daily tutor was so I could hopefully have pretty intense, one-on-one classes to move at my own speed. Which I was hoping would be very, very fast. I told him that while I liked him a lot, I definitely wanted a tutor who was going to push me and challenge me and generally kick my ass.

Ray: Really? So you want to be Asian student?
Me:
A what?
Ray:
You want me to treat you like Asian student? Not American?

Ray then explained that most Western students he’s had generally want a tutor who will hang out with them, teach them a couple of words every now and again but mostly do any Chinese translation errands they can’t do themselves. If I wanted him to teach me like an Asian student – he used a current Korean student of his as one shining example – then he definitely would. Deciding that I most certainly wanted to be an Asian student, we shook hands and agreed to meet the next day to sign the contract.

Ray: Ok, you’re an Asian student now. You will regret this.
Me:
Really?

He wasn’t kidding. It turns out being an Asian student is exactly what I always imagined it would be; lots of memorization, flashcards, tests and an inexplicable desire for a Hello Kitty pencil case. But Ray has also been extremely patient and surprisingly funny, sometimes even on purpose.

In yesterday’s class, we learned numbers and counting words. Well, technically I learned numbers – Ray seemed to know them already. After reviewing and then re-reviewing and then reviewing our review, Ray busted out a deck of cards and announced that we were going to play poker. Our poker game turned out to be a watered down version of Go Fish, with each of us laying down our cards and proudly telling the other person, “I have three fives.” I had no idea we were even playing an actual game until Ray shrieked, “I’m the winner!” in Mandarin and then a translated version for my benefit.  I’m pretty sure he cheated.

When he arrived at my apartment this morning, he was perkier than normal and said that he had brought a present for me, but it was a surprise. First, I had to demonstrate I remembered yesterday’s lesson. Reciting my numbers and counting various things in my kitchen as I poured our tea, Ray solemnly approved each set with a nod. Sitting at the dining room table that has become our makeshift classroom each morning, I finished my mini-test successfully. Ray clapped happily and reached into his bag, pulling out a brand new deck of cards wrapped in yellow plastic.

Ray: For poker!
Me:
Oh, cool. What’s on them?
Ray:
The lady at the store said foreigners like these.

As he unwrapped the tinted cellophane, I began to make out what looked like old Chinese art.

Ray: It’s old Chinese art.
Me:
Oh, nice. Are they famous paintings?
Ray:
Really? No, not famous. They’re having sex.
Me:
What? Who is?

Looking at the front of the deck’s box, now fully unwrapped, I could see the title in a misty red font: “Chinese Erotic Art.” Each card had what appeared to be different Chinese couples in various compromising positions – sometimes in a tastefully decorated bedroom, other times in the middle of a farm. You know, just your standard, run-of-the-mill deck of erotic art playing cards.

Pretty sure they're not playing cards.

Our little game of I-know-my-numbers-and-kind-of-how-to-play-Go-Fish had now taken on a whole new meaning, and I was afraid Ray was going to make me use my newfound counting words to describe some of the scenes on the back of the cards I was holding.

Because there is no better time to bring up one’s love of Madonna than playing with Chinese Erotic Art cards, Ray began to dance in his chair and sing her song “Erotic” while telling me how great she is, even at fifty. We then spent the next ten minutes laying down a lot more than “three fives” and discussing our favorite Madonna moments. While this was mostly in English and definitely not going to help me learn Mandarin any quicker, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t doing this with his other Asian students.