On Whining and Complaining Overseas

First of all, I feel guilty even making a blog entry with such a title, because I understand what a unique experience we’re having here in China. It seems like not a day goes by that someone from home doesn’t remind us about how lucky we are to be in China, traveling, or how they envy our experience. Also, people from China think it’s great that we’re spending an entire year here (many of them even look disappointed, asking, “Only one year?”) and express the sentiment that they would love to travel to a Western country like the United States, but because of the expense involved and their family obligations here at home, they claim that such a trip would be “impossible.” So I understand that we’re undertaking something that many people only dream of doing–a traveling expedition romanticized in books and movies such as Eat, Pray, Love. But can I just take a few moments to be honest and say that most days, we don’t feel like glamorous globe-trotters? There are many days when we feel like we’re just hanging on until July 5, 2012–the day (according to our visa) that we must return to American soil–right after Independence Day, ironically enough. Rather than boring you with a list of complaints (to which many of you, I’m sure, would roll your eyes and think, “Wow….it must be so difficult to take a year off of your normal lives and travel the world; oh, I really pity you.”), I will spin this into a list of things that we will not take for granted once we return to the good ol’ U.S.A.

1. I will never again take for granted having a hot shower. Even as I sit and type this morning, workers are drilling and hammering in the next room over, in their fourth attempt this week to repair our water heater. When we first moved here, our water heater was often hit or miss–we would get a scalding hot shower or a freezing cold shower. About two weeks ago, the scalding hot completely stopped and we only got freezing cold. I started showering just every other day, and Justin started just washing his hair in the bathroom sink. Our apartment is already very cold first thing in the morning. Our wall unit air conditioner/heater is in our bedroom, and really never manages to push heat or air out into the rest of the apartment. Now that the weather outside has been starting to get really chilly (usually about 50 degrees Farhenheit and rainy), it is a really difficult task to wake up in the morning, push open the bedroom door and step out into the chilly apartment beyond, and ALSO, take a cold shower. Definitely wakes me up, though! I’m just hoping that this time these guys will be able to fix our water heater for good. The only other option, I’ve been told, is to gather up our belongings and move to an empty apartment on the fifth floor (which we’ve visited, and we are not very impressed by the layer of dust and grime on every surface, and the living room wall that has been completely engulfed in mold). Aside from the fact that moving all of the furniture down the stairs would be a difficult task, I am hoping that we can just stay here and have hot water. I’m I asking for too much?

2. I will never again take for granted the ability to go to a restaurant and order exactly what I want to eat. Several times a week, when Justin and I are feeling a little adventurous, we’ll look at the menu at the school cafeteria (which is written entirely in Chinese characters, with no pictures to help), and we’ll just point to some random dish and order it. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by what we get, and make a note to order it again…and sometimes we are not so lucky. However, the cafeteria meals generally run from 75 cents to $1.50 a plate, so we don’t feel too guilty if we end up leaving our plate of mystery meat on the table untouched. However, there are other times when we enter the cafeteria after a long and tiring day, feeling short of patience and simply wanting a heaping plate of fried rice and chicken (just like they serve in the food courts in the malls at home). We know how to order this dish in Chinese (yes, even me!), yet somehow, inexplicably, we will often end up getting served the wrong dish. One time we ended up getting a plate of steamed white rice, covered in a dark gravy and a mysterious, bitter stalky vegetable. One time, instead of little cubes of chicken, we got cubes of white fish (which was actually a pleasant surprise, but whenever we’ve tried to order fish with fried rice since then, all we’ve received are squid tentacles). It makes me think of the Bible verse that is something along the lines of, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a snake?” In China, quite literally, if you order a slice of bread, you may end up receiving a plate of snakes instead. And it does no good complaining about it. Justin has tried time and time again to explain the problem with the food we receive, and generally the ladies he complains to will look concerned but confused. Then, when they can stand it no longer, they will turn their heads with mouths covered and start laughing at Justin’s use of Chinese. Last week we were upset because we went to a restaurant that had giant posters outside advertising that they served fried food. They had pictures of fried shrimp and onion rings and all sorts of my favorites, so we went inside. Of course, when we tried to order these things, they were out of stock at the moment, but they did convince us to order a 100 yuan ($15) steak dinner. When the dinner arrived, the meat was raw and bleeding. They had also served an egg next to it, sunny-side up, which was so undercooked that the egg white wasn’t actually white–it was completely transparent and running all over the plate. I’m always pretty willing to try new things, but without a doubt, I took one look at this dinner and said, “I can’t eat this.” We looked up the phrase in our Mandarin book for, “I don’t want it cooked rare,” and we also looked up the word for “reheat.” Justin pronounced it to the waiter upon his return, and when the waiter looked confused, he showed him the Chinese characters right out of the book. The waiter seemed to understand, took my plate, and returned five minutes later and set it down before me, all of the food looking exactly the same (the egg white, looking perhaps a little more white). When we said it to him again, he brought a whole fleet of waitresses over, hoping that they could assist. They took one look at Justin and completely dissolved into giggles before he even had the chance to say anything. In America, this would be an outrage! We would have had the restaurant manager at our table, apologizing profusely and offering to placate us with complimentary desserts and free dinners. Here, everyone looked at us questioningly as if they had no idea why we refused to eat our supper. We might have liked to just walk out without eating or paying; however, this particular restaurant required us to pay in full before we received our meal–very sneaky. At least we know one restaurant in town to cross off our list.

3. Never again will I take for granted the passive homeless person, content to simply stand on a street corner and hold a sign. Okay, this may sound like a strange one. In Tallahassee, I grew accustomed to (and maybe even a bit jaded toward) the enormous homeless community in our city. We’ve all had an experience in which we feel generous, and give a homeless man a $10 or $20 bill in the hopes that he’ll be able to eat a warm meal, only to watch him immediately run to the liquor store with it or use it to purchase a carton of cigarettes. It’s caused me to be a bit distrustful of the homeless community as a whole, and justify myself in being ungenerous by saying, “They would just misuse whatever money I gave them anyway.” But I at least appreciate now how passive homeless people in Tallahassee were. Not all of them were stationary; some of them would occasionally approach me and tell me a far-fetched story about how they lost all of their money, but if I told them that I had no cash with me (which was usually true–in the U.S. I was a debit-card-for-everything kind of girl), then they would leave me alone and try the next person. The beggars in China are much more aggressive about collecting money. They seem to think that persistence is the only way to gain anything, and they also seem to think that foreigners are veritable gold mines. Oftentimes Justin and I will see a beggar walking up to people waiting at the bus stop and ask each one in turn for money, extending an outstretched hand. They generally move along quickly from person to person; however, when they catch sight of Justin and me, we become their target. The more Justin and I shake our heads “no,” the angrier and more insistent they become that we spare them some change, shaking their open palms mere inches from our faces. Occasionally, these homeless ladies will latch onto my arm so tightly that Justin will have to help me pry them off. If Justin and I happen to have some change in our pockets, we share it gladly. However, rule number one of standing on a dark city street corner is to NEVER get out your wallet and start flashing around the money that you’re carrying around inside of it. I would never want to tempt one of these beggars to grab my wallet and run, taking with it my debit card, copy of my passport, etc. However, these beggars will not take “no” for an answer. The only way to escape them is to walk (and sometimes run) away. Justin and I have found ourselves (more than once!) speed walking, on the brink of running, down the sidewalk, with a little beggar lady running and yelling after us for blocks, seeking safety in the first large shop that we find. We’ve found that if we choose a store or restaurant to hide in that is too small, the beggar lady will find us and walk right in to continue entreating us for money. The patrons of the shop generally turn a blind eye to what would be illegal solicitation in the United States. I once had a lady follow me into McDonald’s and try to sell me a pair of socks, thrusting them in my face while I ate my double cheeseburger! But at least she was trying to sell me something rather than simply begging. A few nights ago, Justin and I were eating in Old Uncle (a popular Chinese fast food chain here). A lady walked in and started begging from the people sitting and eating meals with their families. She moved along quickly from table to table until she spotted us, and then positively camped out by our sides. Again, we were very hesitant to get our wallets out in front of this lady and give her an open opportunity to grab them (as we’ve learned from experience, these ladies may look old and slow, but when they get determined, they can run pretty fast). No matter how many times we said “no” and tried to ignore her, she kept right on entreating us, even grabbing my arm and shaking it when she started feeling really desperate. Justin was upset that the manager of Old Uncle wasn’t telling her to leave, but maybe all Chinese people secretly feel that the foreigners have got plenty to spare and should share it. I finally handed her my plate of untouched chicken and said in English, “You want something? Why don’t you take this?” She looked aghast, as if I had deeply offended her. I thought she might not even take it, but after a few moments of contemplation, she reached out and took the dish, giving me a murderous glare as an employee of Old Uncle finally came to my aid and escorted her out the door. I felt guilty for the remainder of my meal. I couldn’t shake the image of that old lady looking as if she had been betrayed. I couldn’t help feeling that I had owed her more than my plate of chicken. The sermon that we heard a few weeks ago at SCF couldn’t have been more timely, as we seem to run into homeless people every single day. Maybe I should follow the advice of that pastor and start being more generous to the beggars. After all, they probably do not have the same intents and motives as the American beggars, who have the support of government funded social programs like welfare and community homeless shelters. There is nothing like that in place in China, so it may very well be that these ladies who beg are just trying to feed themselves and get by. In any case, after that experience at Old Uncle, I don’t think I can stand to say “no” anymore. I will have to make a point of carrying a 5 yuan bill or some coins in my pocket from now on when I venture downtown.

4. I will never again take for granted my friends. Justin and I miss our friends now more than anything. It has even inspired me to make up my own proverb: “Better to be bored with friends, than to be in the most exciting place in the world all alone.” When you’re with friends, you can just hang out at someone’s house, not even venturing out anywhere or doing anything in particular, and have a great time. We haven’t found anything like that yet in China. Justin and I are at least grateful to have each other here; we don’t think we’d be able to stand it if we were completely alone. Still, we tend to be short of patience with each other, simply for the fact that Justin doesn’t always understand how I’m feeling, and I don’t always understand him. That’s what we have guy friends and girl friends are for! Sometimes we can commiserate with each other about how we are longing for home, but other times it sets off a pointless argument. We’ll be in the school cafeteria eating dinner, and Justin will sigh and say, “I’m so tired of eating Chinese food all the time,” and I’ll snap back with, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? It was your idea to come here in the first place!” And there we’ll be, bickering in public, much to the amusement of the Chinese onlookers. But we always realize in the end that we’re only fighting because we’re frustrated and missing home–especially missing our friends. We’ve made friends with a few of the Chinese students here who can speak a bit of English, but we still have to speak clearly and slowly, often simplifying our words and phrases so that they understand us. You can never get into a deep topic of conversation, use any humorous sarcasm, or throw around expressions like “just chill out” without them getting very confused. Our friend Catherine (her self-given English name), who is the best at English out of all the students we’ve met, is very helpful whenever we have a problem and need her to translate, but as for just casually hanging out, she can be a bit bossy. She definitely likes to take the lead and tell us where we should go and what we should eat. More than once I’ve tried to order a coke to drink with my lunch, and she will interrupt and say, “Oh, but Rachel! So unhealthy! Maybe you should order orange juice instead!” I tried to point out later that the orange juice she’d ordered had just as many grams of sugar as the coke I was wanting, but to no avail. I always seem to have more (caffeine) headaches when Catherine is around.

We did make a friend named Kasia, who is from the U.K., and who seems to be the only other foreigner who lives in Huzhou. However, Kasia lives all the way on the other side of town, not really near an direct bus routes, so we’ve only gotten together a couple of times on weekends. She is very nice and always prompts us to be more adventurous (as any of you who saw my motorcycle pictures on Facebook can attest to). We’re both in the process of trying to locate more foreigners and start a little foreigners club in Huzhou, but so far we’ve had no luck. It really is an important task as we have a need for English conversation that grows more desperate by the week (especially Kasia, I think, since she is here all alone–unless you count the Chinese man who, because of the language barrier, she accidentally agreed to start dating, but that’s her story to tell, not mine). All I can say to my American friends at home is that I think my chronic problem of not returning phone calls will be permanently cured by the time I come home. I will never again take you for granted!

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