China, Transportation, Travel

Xi’an Taxis 101

My life in Xi’an is ruled by the teacher’s shuttle bus. Don’t get me wrong—I am very very grateful for the shuttle bus without which I could not live in my lovely neighborhood. However, it angers me that I am so dependent on the shuttle bus when there are seemingly other options that could get me where I’m going on time. Actually there are lots of them—yellow and green VW Jettas that make a mockery of the institution of taxicabs, destroying all of my naïve preconceptions and we’ll just throw in my hopes and dreams as well.

Let’s start with the naïve preconceptions. As a California suburbanite taxis were truly something seen only in the movies. Taxis—as I understood them—were very responsive to hand signals and whistles. One had to merely stand on a curb and throw up one’s arm or umbrella (1-2-3 Hail!*) and a taxicab would come racing to a halt with all the enthusiasm of a dog returning with its ball. Upon dropping off a fare, taxi drivers were already on the scent of the next, peeling away and weaving back into the flow of traffic. Fast, efficient, eager—that’s a taxi.

I rode in a taxi only once in my entire childhood. This solitary time came when our loyal Dodge Caravan, “Big Blue,” broke broke down in San Francisco during a family excursion. After getting our van to a garage, our family of five piled in a cab and continued with our plans for the day. In my memory it hasn’t seemed at all difficult to get a cab. It was as it had been shown to me in movies, you just stood on the curb for a few minutes and—voila! A taxicab!

This experience did not prepare me well for Xi’an. It allowed me to hold onto the obviously false belief that taxis serve at the passenger’s need. Though in Hangzhou there were signs of my future trouble. A short visit during Spring Festival introduced me to the disturbing phenomenon of taxis simply refusing to take you where you needed to go. The dismissive wave of the hand, that dreaded horizontal shake of the head. I was dumbfounded. Taxis turning down fares? What did they think they were?

Upon arriving in Xi’an I assumed that taxi drivers would be eager for my patronage, especially since I was a guaranteed 60 RMB fare. A creative driver could get that even higher (65! 70 RMB!) by taking me on the “scenic route.”** However, in fact, drivers recoiled from destination as I do from the scent of stinky tofu. I quickly learned that it is far more trouble than it is worth to deviate from the school’s spartan shuttle bus schedule.

However, this semester has thrown a hitch into my dutiful riding of the school shuttle by requiring me to miss the afternoon pick-up. I am now tossed into the wild seas of needing a taxi for a long fare at the worst possible time of day—the taxi change-over time. I smugly thought I had a solution to this problem—a private car. Through my work I thought I could arrange someone to pick me up and take me out to my college, thereby dusting my hands of that problem. My colleague though, in her most matter-of-fact text message to date, told me that no one would do that. No one? Did people stop needing money or gainful employment? What’s going on with the world?!?

On Monday I allowed myself a generous 2 ½ hours to get out to my college. I told myself it wouldn’t be so bad—think positive! You’ll get a taxi! I paced the street anxiously, checking the time often. Even when I could get an available taxi to talk to me they, of course, didn’t want to go out to my college. After 30 minutes, I decided I couldn’t wait much longer; I needed to make a decision: keep waiting or go catch a bus. I could take a city bus up to where it connected with one of the two subway lines in Xi’an and take the subway to the end of the line at the train station where their was a true taxi stand—dozens of taxis all lined up ready to go (in theory). Not feeling confident enough to risk it, I caught a bus and enjoyed a packed bus ride and packed subway ride.

At the train station, I was happy that there was a train disembarking and there was a line at the taxi stand. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because you haven’t lived in Xi’an.) I’ll only say that a line of fares provides cover—the taxi pulls up, you get in, and it drives away. There’s much less chance of refusal.

However, even here I wasn’t safe. Upon telling the driver where I need to go—a destination only about 10 minutes away—he is extremely peeved, lots of grousing, eyebrows down, scowls abound. And why might he be so vexed? Oh, probably because he wanted a longer fare. And he would have had a longer fare if he would just come down to my neighborhood or had one of his cronies deign to pick me up. Oh, and did I mention that he immediately turned off the meter? Now I’m going to have to pay more because HE’S inconvenienced by my destination. If there’s going to be a contest for more aggrieved person in that car I’ll be DARNED if he’s going to win!

In summary: I can’t get a taxi from downtown because it’s too far away; I can’t get one from the train station because it’s too close. I clearly need a taxi pick-up that’s JUST RIGHT. And where, might I ask, would that be, oh tetchy taxi drivers of Xi’an?

* For The Avengers fans in my life—you know who you are! (No, not the comic book ones—the other, classier ones.)

**Little did they know that I tracked their routes on my phone and got smart to their tricky ways.

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China, Travel

Getting to Know You: Xi’an

When looking at a map of China, it has been noted that there is some resemblance to a certain feathered fowl in profile. There’s the big feathered backside of Xinjiang, the neck and head of the northeast and a nice slopping tummy of coastal provinces. If one uses that mental image to assist in locating my current placement then one should look right in the middle—top of the wing height—and you should spot my city. If you threw a dart at a map of China, you might have money coming to you if you hit Xi’an. It’s not the bull’s-eye, but it’s pretty darn close!

Xi'an Map

Now, some of you might be wondering about the apostrophe in its name. Actually, probably the first thing you’re wondering about is how to pronounce that ‘x’! Of course real Mandarin uses characters, but China also has a standardized system for using Roman letters, called ‘pinyin’, for which foreigners are very grateful.

In short, Mandarin has two “sh”-type sounds, neither of which is the same as the English “sh”. The ‘x’ is a “sh”-sound in the front of your mouth with lips more widely spread. It’s like you’re getting ready to smile. The ‘an’ uses a soft ‘a’—a Spanish “Ana” rather than an English “Anna”. Okay, now you are ready! Smile and say “Xi’an!” Great job.

Now, the apostrophe is due to the fact that there exists in Mandarin the syllable “xian” which be represented by a single character and be pronounced differently according to the rules of pinyin. So the apostrophe alerts us to the fact that we need to pronounce each part separately. It’s not one syllable, but two. Good?

Xi’an’s been around for awhile—a mere 3000 years or so. With all that history to play with, it’s had a few name changes. From our comfortable seat in the present, going back and then fast forwarding through all the changes seems like a Mickey Mouse VHS complete with the high pitch squeaking of voices. Fenghao! Chang’an! Daxing! Xi’an! Fengyuan! Anxi! Jingzhao! Xijing! Xi’an! Sheesh. “Xi” means ‘west’ and “an” means ‘peace,’ so all together it can be understood as “western peace.” Peace is good.

With all that history, Xi’an has a lot to offer in terms of historical sites, the most famous of which is the Terracotta Warriors of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It also has an intact city wall upon which one can ride bicycles. It has pagodas, and palaces, and parks—oh my! It also has a lot of noodles and buns and other tasty snacks. And most importantly—it has me! (So come visit!**)

**It was reported to me that this past spring there was an exhibition of Terracotta Warriors at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Those who saw it said it was very good. That’s very nice—I’m happy they had a good time. However, certain people who saw said exhibition seemed to imply that having seen said exhibition no longer felt any need or inclination to come visit Xi’an as they had already seen what Xi’an had to offer. Ahem. I respectfully think that’s kind of missing the point. If you’ve already seen the Golden Gate Bridge, should you not come visit San Francisco? I’m trying to appeal to logic, but I’m not above wheedling and, of course, begging is still on the table.

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China, Travel, University Teaching

The New Job

As usual, what was intended to be a brief explanation has turned into 800+ words of long, reflective, somewhat emotional blogging. For those of you with limited time, please feel free to read to your capacity. I would humbly recommend the summary and possibly the pros and cons. For those with lots of time wanting the full, delightfully wordy scoop–read on, dear reader!

Summary: For the 2013-2014 academic year I will be working for a respected Midwestern university* but on site with their partner university in China. Students enroll in our program at the Chinese university with the intention of transferring to the American university within one or two years. My “mission” is to get the students fully admitted to the university, prepare them for the transition, and give them the tools to succeed once they are there. (Whew!) My job title is “lecturer” which seems slightly misleading. No, I will not be dispassionately delivering lectures to long rows of seated students in echo-y auditoriums. Instead, I will need to be some combination of marketer, cheerleader, teacher, administrator, counselor, and coach to give the program vision, to keep up enrollment, to develop students and set them up for success in the USA. It’s a tall order.

I have helpfully prepared a list of the pros and cons as I currently see them to give you a peek into how I feel about this new job.

The Pros:
I am employed by an American university.
(I have BENEFITS! Dios mio! BENEFITS! Can you believe it!?! )
They provide a very nice 2 bedroom apartment in a good area (Visitors, puh-lease!!)
And roundtrip airfares.
They brought me to the campus for “orientation” and paid for everything. (I can submit receipts for reimbursement. Whoa.)
They gave me a work laptop. (A MacBook!)
Business cards (Squee!)
I still get to work overseas.

The Cons:
I am the ONLY foreigner onsite for our program in China.
I am one of TWO foreigners at the Chinese university.
Our entire program in China consists of me and a Chinese office manager.
There’s been a lot of transition in the program and nothing has been well documented.
I was told there was a curriculum but there’s really not.
I still work overseas. (Note inclusion on both pro/con lists. Placement depends on the day)
I still work in a country where I no comprendo the lingo. (Sí, dos años en china y todavía no hablo chines. Soy una persona horrible. Yo sé.)

If you’ve reached maximum capacity on hearing about Amy’s new job you may stop reading here. I think you’ve got the jist.

For those wanting more touchy-feely details, read on:

The Longer Version: This job was one of those jobs where you apply with little expectation of ever hearing back. I was surprised to be contacted. There was an initial Skype interview at 11 o’clock at night where I disagreed with one of the interviewers and thought I’d never hear from them again. (Funny story: I actually thought the interview was at midnight and only was in the apartment by chance.) But I heard from them again. A second interview and then a third.

The more I talked to the interviewers the more I was intrigued. They seemed like nice people, with an understanding of what it’s like to work in China, the challenges, the opportunities, etc. At that point I’d sort of pinned all my hopes on being accepted into a special fellowship program for TEFL. This was sort of a change of plans, but not necessarily a bad one. The more I thought about it and talked to people the more it seemed like a BETTER plan. So I signed that offer letter.

A few months later I don’t regret my decision. Of course there are wrinkles to every new job. (See “The Cons”) With a fuller understanding of what has been done and what they are hoping to see in the future I feel slightly overwhelmed.

This is a job with a lot of potential. I have a lot of freedom to create something cool. That’s great. It wouldn’t be that fun to be denied the opportunity to make changes and be creative. At the outset though I think I’d prefer a little less freedom as it’s a lot to try to create something while finding your feet.

I will probably need the year—one full cycle—to find those feet of mine. Which makes this job not really seem like a year position. If you put in all that work are you really going to want to walk away right at the point where you know enough to be able to improve it? But am I committed to staying in China longer? (I mean, REALLY, I’m already going on three years when I never expected to be in China at all.) And my feelings towards China are quite complex, emotional, and therefore messy.

And this all seems like way too heavy of thinking for a job that has only just—and I mean JUST—begun. I haven’t even started classes yet. So think of this as a mental and emotional snapshot of me on this date and at this time: August 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM. It will be interesting to return to this post in a few months of so to reflect on my changing thoughts and emotions. I will endeavor to keep you updated.

*For various reasons, I don’t really feel comfortable connecting my blog with the name of the university as I consider this a personal rather than a professional place of reflection. And I don’t want to get sued by anyone. Or fired.

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Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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Transportation, Travel

Can you say “whoops”?

I think I was a little drunk on Auckland, almost giddy from the natural setting. This feeling of being surrounded on all sides by beautiful blue water, rolling green hills, and nothing but blue sky and perfect clouds above. And throw in the most perfect weather imaginable, too. All my photos seem to reflect this amazed, disbelieving quality. I took more and more photos and they just seemed to get better and better.

It was sad to contemplate leaving Auckland after having seen so little, but unfortunately we had a schedule we needed to stick to. So in the morning we packed up our bags and went to investigate rental cars.

Rental cars. Oh. My. God. What a disaster. Stephen and I had a long list of agencies and fliers and naively assumed that it would be easy-peazy. Drivers’ licenses: check. Credit card: check. Green light—go! Yes, theoretically that is how it works if the rental cars were not INSANELY EXPENSIVE* with all sorts of MADDENING small print involved. It didn’t help that we were going to a city that most agencies didn’t have a depot in. Nor did it help that we had thought to rent the car for only two or three days. And it positively, absolutely did not help that we only wanted a one-way rental. Uh-uh. Nope. Not good.

Stephen and I trundled up and down the avenue with our rolley suitcases bumping along behind us. We went to one agency. Sorry, no depot in that city. We trundled to the next agency: Sorry, minimum of 7 day rental. We jay-walked across the street to yet another agency: sorry, one-way rentals have a BILLION dollar non-negotiable fee. It was truly like one of those movie scenes. Up the street. Down the street. Heads getting lower with every failure. I see us through the eyes of the rental agency rep’s. Boy, those kids don’t understand a thing about renting a car, do they, Al? Yeah, kids these days, Bob.

This was the point where my mental didn’t-you-know-you’re-an-idiot voice kicked in—that helpful little voice that clearly highlights all your failures, even when they’ve already been brought to your attention. I heard several helpful messages from my little friend, such as “Well, Amy, EVERYbody knows that you have to reserve a rental car in advance.” And, “You should’ve thought about this a bit sooner.” Sigh. Yes, yes, I know. Colossal failure.

The situation looked rather bleak. If we couldn’t get a rental car we would be stuck in Auckland for another day because we’d already missed all the busses and there wasn’t a train where we were going. (This is something we will discuss later.)

After comparison pricing every agency up and down the street, Stephen and I realized we were going to have to get a 7 day rental, which would cancel out the one-way fee. By doing a 7-day rental we would have a car for all of our North Island adventures and would be able to get a fresh car when we arrived at the South Island to get us from Picton to Nelson. It was the best of a bad situation. Yes, yes, brought on by our own lack of planning. We were clear on that.

So we plunked down a credit card for a cool half grand and went to see our valiant steed, err, vehicle. Behold! A Sunny Nissan! Choice of all poor overseas English teachers traveling in expensive Western countries who after having lived in China for the last 6 months refuse to ride a bus around a prime road trip nation! Drive, Sunny, drive! Onwards to the horizon! Yee-haw!

. . . and though we were really not that pleased about the price involved, I think this is an accurate reflection of our feelings as we pulled out of Auckland, heading for State Highway 1.

*A somewhat subjective statement based on the then current contents of my bank account.

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Travel

Getting to Know You: Auckland

In Auckland we had the pleasure of staying with some of Stephen’s friends. They rent a beautiful house on the outskirts of Auckland which was like living in a forest. The first night we arrived we’d planned to go out, but upon arriving at the house we both fell asleep and slept like the dead. It had been a long trip. I woke up around 9:30 PM to find that our hostess had kindly ordered in some pizza. Dinner and some browsing of the Kiwi TV offerings and then I happily went back to bed.

We only had about 2 ½ days in Auckland, but I think we tried to make the best of them. In the morning we saw the downtown, especially around the harbor, and then took the ferry to Davenport, a charming little town on the other side of the water.

A fish and chips shop was our first port of call. We took it down to the park on the shore and watched the foraging of the beady-eyed seagulls. Though I am not a huge fish fan, I must admit it tasted really good. We ate our chips with Wattie’s Tomato Sauce, the famous local brand. (Stephen informed that that the term “ketchup” would only be used at McDonalds. Well, excuuuse me!)

Feeling replete, we went to climb Mt. Victoria, though I felt the “Mt.” was being used in a somewhat generous sense—a smallish hill really. The views from the top were fantastic though and I suppose it was then that I really began to appreciate that blue New Zealand sky. Even in the photos it was amazing.

In the late afternoon we went to Mission Bay, which was a lovely drive from the downtown. We gorged on creamy, smooth ice cream from Mӧvenpick, a Swiss brand. We sucked the bottom of our cones, trying to prevent getting ice cream all over our hands, and I positioned myself carefully so as to prevent getting ice cream in my hair. Then we went to see the hilltop Rose Garden, catching a stunning sunset. We’d hoped to catch the sunset at Mt. Eden also, but were a little too late, so we settled for a quick trip around the giant crater. In the evening, I fulfilled one of those lingering life to-do’s by watching “The Shining.” Honestly, the book was way scarier.

Day two in Auckland featured a lot of old friend visiting. We had lunch with a Chinese friend of Stephen’s. She and her husband and two children are now New Zealand residents. The children spoke a charming childish Mandarin; I was enchanted. We crossed the Harbor Bridge to have lunch at a Malaysian restaurant. After lunch they kindly drove us all the way back to downtown and dropped us off at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in the interestingly named Auckland Domain—a large park-like area. We were just in time to catch the Maori cultural show—an enjoyable, lighthearted, but professional show. The museum itself was excellent. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserved. It was very interesting to learn about New Zealand involvement within British Empire, WWI, WII, and beyond. Unfortunately by the end I was practically running through the exhibits.

We strolled through the domain and hit up a convenience store or “dairy” for water and snacks. We continued on to the neighborhood of Parnell, observing some lawn bowling on the way. Lawn bowling, really? Parnell is a posh little area, all wine bars and expensive boutiques. We met another friend of Stephen’s at a one of those aforementioned wine bars. And not just any friend—a Bradley Cooper double! Really! I almost wondered if there was something Stephen hadn’t told me . . . The friend’s girlfriend spoke a New Zealand dialect that I had the hardest time understanding. I felt like I understood two words out of ten. We followed our wine with dinner at a Turkish restaurant and ended the day with another flat white.

I can’t say that I saw everything in Auckland and of course wish I’d had time to see more, but I left with an impression of green hills, wind, water, and lots of beautiful blue sky.

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Cultural Differences, Food, Travel

In which we arrive in Auckland

Arriving in Auckland, one of my fondest memories was going into the convenience store to get some water. We meant to just grab a bottle of water and go, but we were positively arrested by the sight of hundreds of products that we hadn’t seen in what seemed like years. There were soft drinks, snacks, chocolates, chips—oh my! The surest way to an expats heart is through his/her stomach! We’ll walk a hundred miles for Twix.

And not just food, but the marvel of English newspapers and magazines. I’ve often pondered my lust for magazines when I am abroad. Though I’m hardly an avid reader at home, I develop a serious craving as soon as they are no longer easily available. Every Chinese language newsstand is a reminder of this hole in my life. Sniff, sniff.

Stephen and I exclaimed our way through the convenience store, I’m sure much to the surprise and then amusement of the staff. We checked our greed, reminding ourselves that this would not be the only convenience store we encountered in New Zealand. Scanning our stack of free tourist pamphlets and brochures, we caught the Airport Express bus to downtown Auckland. The ride was enjoyable as Stephen excitedly pointed out familiar places in the passing scenery and filled me in on his time living in Auckland.

First impression of downtown Auckland was favorable. Not a New York or Los Angeles, but a respectably urban downtown. A nice hilly quality in some parts. We hauled our luggage to the Britomart luggage lockers, causing me to already regret my packing choices. Stephen called his friend we were going to stay with and we settled down in a café to wait for her.

Amusing experience #2 was attempting to order coffee at the café. The menu didn’t look anything like an American or even British menu. I was presented with the choice of a short black, long black, flat white, or cappuccino. Uhhh. I asked Stephen for clarification, but a coffee-drinker he is not. No help there. Becoming quickly aware that I was, indeed, not in Kansas anymore, I humbled myself and asked the girl behind the counter what a flat white was. She must have not been asked that before, because her explanation was not very helpful. Sooo, like coffee and milk? Okay. But what’s the difference between that and a latte? Uhhhh. Blink, blink. Not wanting to be an irritating foreigner, I decided to take my chances with the flat white. I also couldn’t resist ordering an apricot “slice,” which I suppose Americans would call an apricot “bar”. Apricots! Wah! Me no see long time! We realized quickly that the availability of fresh summer fruits was going to be one of the unexpected benefits of visiting New Zealand at this time.

I sipped my coffee and nibbled on my apricot slice and thought that things seemed to be getting off on a good foot.

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