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

Signs of Life

From August to December of 2013 the author of “Normal” Life suffered a severe case of Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Semester which resulted in the cessation of all blogging activities. The origins of this survivable, but extremely demoralizing condition were complex and there were a number of contributing factors. The patient suffering under this terrible horrible condition was fortunately removed from the environment for a period of two months and appeared to recover, but reentry in the original environment may or may not cause a relapse. The impact of certain changes to the professional and social landscape has yet to be determined. Doctors will be monitoring closely. Expect regular updates.

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Be water, my (expat) friend

It’s unusual for me to want to reblog someone else’s work, but I was just scrolling through my Reader and this post just, you know, hit me where I am. No need for anxious queries. I am not contemplating anything drastic. However, the past semester is making me question where I will be in Xi’an next year, which opens up the mental maelstrom of “what then?” Expat Lingo’s post captures so well this moment of indecision that I thought I’d go ahead and share.

Expat Lingo

Be water, my friend (Bruce Lee) _ expatlingo.com

There comes a time when all expats must face the music and decide whether to stay or go, and if they go, where to go. This hot mess of a decision is complicated by all sorts of things like employers, families, visas, money and heart-strings.

When the decisions get tough, it helps to turn to a power beyond ourselves. For some this might be a heavenly being*. I, however, have settled on Bruce Lee.

Lee was a fount of inspirational quotes, including this one:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Strictly speaking, Lee was talking about the practice of martial arts. His words, however…

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China

In the Big “League” Now

At a slightly later age than the norm I have finally reached the Ivy League. Apartments, that is. This name seems appropriate in that my complex is directly across the street from Xi’an Jiaotong University, which is a Tier 1 Chinese university. Ivy League, indeed.

The apartment was passed down to me by my predecessor. Shortly after I was hired in May I received a flood of photos in my email inbox and several request for a decision about whether the lease should be renewed. On the basis of photos and verbal assurances alone, I accepted. By carrying over the lease I also had the side benefit of moving into an almost entirely furnished apartment. With the arrival of my boxes from Zhuhai I felt I managed to sidestep most of the fitting-out-of-the-apartment phase.

The thing that tickled me about the apartment initially wouldn’t even warrant a raised eyebrow from a local—it’s on the 30th floor. Oooooo. I think I would have to move to New York City for that to be even somewhat commonplace. However in Xi’an from my perch my view is littered with buildings of a similar height or even taller.

There are, of course, elevators in my building and the ride to my floor does not actually take very long. Though there are days when I must control my desire to pace around like some caged animal. Forgetting something upstairs has a heavier psychological burden than it does in real minutes wasted. And once I am upstairs going down seems like much more trouble than it really is. There’s been many a day when I’ve pondered whether I can survive without my next meal due to the perceived trial of going downstairs. Have there been studies about this condition? It is just me?

My apartment is really far larger than a single gal like me needs. Which means that my clothes and shoes and scarves and books have a huge space in which is disperse and seemingly multiply. The different areas of the apartment have garnered very specific functions in my mind. The “dining room” is my staging area, meaning it’s covered in various bottles, books, and bags. The covered balcony is the sun room and/or morning reading room. The large sectional sofa is the functional center of the apartment and has three zones. The left-hand side is the guitar zone, the corner is for semi-reclining reading, and the right side is for watching TV. The second bedroom is the “office,” which I forcibly put myself in when it is time for some dedicated working. (I spend far too much time enjoying the various sofa zones.) The bedroom I initially didn’t like very much. It was all sharp corners and tight walkways, but one evening spent dragging and pushing and pulling the furniture around got me an arrangement that I like.

Living on the 30th floor I have had few pest problems, unlike last year when I lived on the second floor and had a higher number of mouse and cockroach encounters than I was altogether comfortable with. On the downside windy days mean sleepless nights as all my doors and windows rattle horribly and the wind whistles through them. As far as general city living issues, there is also a lot of light and noise pollution, even at night. There are two buildings being constructed right across from me and work never seems to stop.

On the positive side, every evening is like a communal concert. If I leave the windows open I will enjoy a number of public “performances” from residents practicing their various musical instruments. There are at least two pianists, I think, as well as a saxophonist and some traditional flute-like instrument. I also get to listen to the “bells” of the senior high school below me and be amused by their morning exercises that are broadcast starting around 7 AM.

A final story of note in regards to living in a tall building: you may be at the mercy of mischievous youngsters. On several occasions I have gotten into the elevator only to see the work of a childish hand—every single floor button pushed on the panel, from 1 to 33. You see it in the movies and you laugh—but just wait until you experience it!

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**Note on the slideshow: I must admit that theses are actually the photos from my predecessor. Looks much the same, just minus some the framed paintings and rugs.

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Breaking Radio Silence

I’ve been in Xi’an for approximately 8 weeks.

For approximately 8 weeks I’ve been thinking about how I should be blogging. Blogging for my, like, 20 avid readers. And all those random web searches. Well, not them. No, I don’t owe them anything.

But there’s been a problem. A long-lasting eight-week problem.

It’s not what you might think. No, not writer’s block.

No. I know exactly what I would like to say.

I just don’t know HOW to say it.

It’s a question of tone. I don’t know what tone to take. There are many options.

I could be humorous. Making light of everything that’s been going on or not going on. This is common for expat-type blogs. Life abroad is so great! I never ever regret leaving America. Homesick? Never!

I could dig out the ‘ol silver lining. Things haven’t been so hot lately, but—hey!—at least I found some raspberry jam!

I could be academic. In the five weeks since the subject has been in Xi’an he/she has experienced some of the traditional stages of culture shock.

I could be spiritual. Thank you, Jesus, for helping me through these first challenging weeks of my exciting new adventure in China.

I could be emotional. ( )

I could do any of these. I could do all of these. I have weighed the pros and cons of each and have come to no clear decision.

On top of the tone problem there is the problem of how you—the reader—will respond to each of those tones.

To the humorous tone you might be slightly amused. Laugh out loud, shake your head and think you are actually missing out on something great. Which would be more than slightly misleading.

To the silver lining I’m more worried I might not be able to carry it off convincingly and the emotion would bleed through, leaving you with a somewhat unsettled feeling. What exactly is she trying to say here?

To the academic you’d probably be bored. And that’s not really my goal. I might wish that it be understood as a subtle cry for help, but I don’t think that anyone has been analyzing my writing style enough to detect such a disturbing digression from the norm.

To the spiritual you might nod approval or disgust. In either case I will feel slightly dishonest.

To the emotional you might respond in any number of ways. You might be shocked. I can’t believe she wrote that! You might be contemptuous. Oh, please! Get over yourself! You might be amused. Someone’s regressing. You might pity me. Which isn’t what I want. You might have some helpful suggestions for me. Which I’ve probably already heard.

Believe me, I’ve thought about this.

So the question then becomes am I writing for you or am I writing for me?

I wish I could say that I write solely for myself, but it’s not true. I journal for myself, yes, but blogging is essentially public. And I am forced to realize that I am far too concerned with your possible reaction and response to my writing. I wouldn’t want anyone to be displeased with me. I wouldn’t want anyone to be angry with me. Or—God forbid—anyone to think less of me. End of the world.

Yet despite my concern—my fear even—I have this intense need to communicate—to share in a public space, to communicate with other human beings, to offer my experiences in as dispassionate and un-hyped a form as possible for your review and critique hoping—desperately—that when the tale is told there will be agreement from my public, my readers, my friends, that my experiences are real, my feelings valid, and my responses reasonable.

Which would be tremendously appreciated as I am sort of falling apart here.

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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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Top of the Morning

I was awoken to the sound of someone knocking on my door. I listened for a minute to try to verify if it was really my door being knocked on. Yes, unfortunately it was. And I’ve learned that they are really persistent. Ignoring them might not be in my best interests. So, in my hearts-as-strawberries pajamas and otherwise mused state I open the door to a person from the management office, a maintenance man, and the upstairs neighborhood. They want to check if my ceiling is still leaking. Nope, not leaking anymore. They discuss among themselves for a moment and I try not to look conspicuous. The management girl says several sentences of which I don’t understand a word. I apologize and tell her that I don’t understand. She nods. They file out. I close the door. Glad that I can be a source of momentary amusement for the inhabitants of the Ivy League Apartment complex. Top of the morning to you all!

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