I should be packing but instead I am thinking too much. My house is a mess, the furniture has all been sold, the apartment rented to another family, the airplane tickets purchased and the dog's paperwork in progress. I am having a moving sale tomorrow and the packers come on Thursday to take our things away which will leave us living out of suitcases for longer than is comfortable.
I confess that when the new job in Portland was confirmed, I felt more reluctance to leave China than I had anticipated. But as my expat friend Anna put it, maybe a person doesn't realize how deeply a place has become "home" until it is time to leave. Despite my confirmed antipathy toward the Chinese government, I am desperately sad to leave my community here. Living here has been a wonderful experience of community and friendship that I think must be truly rare in this day and age.
Despite that, I have become quite enthusiastic about the return to Portland. I am so looking forward to Multnomah Days, 4th of July, blueberries, pony rides, summer camp, friends, new school, a Sauvie Island corn maze, and Christmas at home. I am going to get a tree, a real, live tree, and decorate my house. It is going to be cozy. I can't wait.
Saturday night we had a going away party that highlighted how things have changed since we arrived in Qingdao three and a half years ago. I felt so completely alone when I moved to Qingdao, and my first few stilted interactions with the expat community left me wondering if coming to China was a huge and terrible mistake. It was December, bleak, snowing, and we were living in a hotel room, entertaining ourselves with Chinese TV and swims in the too cold pool.
Fast forward a few years and my back garden is packed full with friends from around the world. They are Chinese and American, Israeli, Slovakian and Romanian, French, Italian, British and Aussie. These people have completely changed my relationship with the world, and the world map on my floor now inspires games about our friends and where they are from.
So thank you, friends for so much more than coming for BBQ and beer, Chinese style, and I will get back to packing now and stop thinking so much.
I hear him outside the gates when he comes to offer his services: He yells in a practiced, resonant, piercing voice, "剪刀 Jiǎndāo 刀 Dāo 磨快 Mó kuài." Scissors. Knife. Make sharp.
I open my kitchen window and lean out and he trolls for business on his bicycle. "我有 Wǒ yǒu," I say, as he slows, turns, and recognizes me. He parks his bike in the shade of the flowering cherry tree as I bring him my kitchen knives.
"今天没有剪刀 Jīntiān méiyǒu jiǎndāo?" he asks. No scissors today?
"有 yǒu," I reply as I return to the house to get my scissors, leaving my knives in his hands.
Knife sharpening is a family business. Three years ago when I moved to JinHai GuangChang I met his father, an leathered man of indeterminate age, his fingernails mangled from years of minor sharpening accidents, his hands scarred. The father smiled deeply, like an inhalation, and I noted that the scars seemed to be relics of inexperience. There are no fresh scars, scars were from his youth.
Now the son has taken over the business and I inquire about his father's health. "不错 Bùcuò," he replies, beaming over this polite chatter from the foreigner. "他很累 Tā hěn lèi." He is very tired.
I linger outside, enjoying the warm spring day and the scent of the blossoms. He wonders why I am taking his photograph, but he does not protest. He doesn't know that these are our last days in China, that perhaps this is the last time he will sharpen my blades. He cranks the sharpening wheel with one hand while holding the blade steady with the other. He whets the blade to a fine edge on a stone, lubricating it with spit from time to time. He tests the blades, then returns them to me for inspection.
"很快 Hěn kuài," he says, and I agree. The blades are very sharp.
Finished, he re-packs his kit onto his bike. Bench, grinding wheel, and stones all back in their place on the back of his bicycle. As he rides away, he begins his chant again.
"剪刀 Jiǎndāo 刀 Dāo 磨快 Mó kuài." Scissors. Knife. Make sharp.
***On this eve of making final plans for our family for this summer, I have realized that despite the challenges, I do love many things about living in China. Much of what I love is what lies immediately outside my windows. "From my kitchen" is a tribute to the special parts of my life that lie immediately outside my home.**
I was joking a few days ago that one of my favorite things about living in China is that I can throw my trash out of the window. I love the convenience, sure, but what I really love is the sheer red-neck-ness of it. Finished a case of beer? Open the window and toss that box out! Filled a bag of garbage? Out it goes!
The only problem is, I'm not the only one who does it. Once I almost got hit by a giant watermelon rind someone chucked out from the 4th floor, and just the other day, my friend Kylie found a giant gold fish on the sidewalk, still twitching, that had somehow descended from a window above.
Amusing anectodes aside, the real problem is that nobody takes much care with trash, so trash is everywhere (though the groundskeepers do clean up several times a day, the sheer density of people here means that waste is constantly accumulating). I did not anticipate that one of the biggest irritations we would learn to live with, being new dog owners in China, is the abundance of trash on the ground. Pepper is in heaven snuffling about, finding disgusting/revolting/unsanitary/toxic/biological waste to eat.
And to be perfectly clear: when I toss trash, I am still tidy and mindful of my neighbors and neighborhood. I did not make the mess shown above!
We are thinking about leaving China this summer. Its high time I start taking note of the things I love about this quirky/infuriating place that I live and that Vivi calls home. This is the first installment.
I remember May Day when I was a kid, we would steal flowers from wherever they might be blooming, put them in little baskets or paper cones, then drop them on neighbor's front steps, ring the doorbell, and run. Kind of a sweet tradition if you're the one getting the flowers, kind of like garden vandalism if your flowers are being stolen.
The great thing about doing the May Day Ring-n-Run where we live is that there are no private gardens, so nobody's flowers are being stolen ("everybody's" flowers are!). The other great thing is that our apartment complex, despite its run-down look the rest of the year, is in May resplendent with flowering trees.Vivi, our friend Lola, and I picked an over-abundance of blossoms for our flower cones.
The not-so-great thing about doing the Ring-n-Run here is that the doors to most apartments do not have exterior door knobs (nothing to hang the cones on!) and that most apartments are in security buildings, so unless you get lucky and dash into the building as someone else is coming out, you risk revealing yourself just trying to get to the door.
One of the things I love best about my Qingdao community is how we are all from different parts of the world and we all have different cultural backgrounds to share. The Ring-n-Run was new to nearly everyone we left flowers for; Brits, Aussies, Romanians, Germans, Chinese...the only ones who knew what we were up to were the few Americans in the neighborhood.
The taxi driver shrugs as he explains, as if he wonders why I would even care. “The new mayor loves trees,” he says when I ask why sidewalks all over the city are torn up and workers are planting dozens upon dozens of trees, “so they plant trees.”
Back home, I consider my tiny slice of sea view as a vein pulses in my temple from the incessant pounding of a jackhammer just meters away. The song of the jackhammer is a sign of spring in China, a time for rebirth and apartment renovation. Today the throb of the hammer is accented by the syncopated pounding of a digger in my garden. It’s another sign of progress: trees will be planted and I will lose my sea view.
My neighbor gives me more details. “Every spring we Chinese like to plant trees,” she yells over the noise, then pauses for a moment as the jackhammer butts in. “This year the city will spend almost 100 million yuan on trees.” I do the math. That’s 15 million dollars.
Another, smaller noise grabs my attention, and I look down to see my dog Pepper cowering in a puddle of pee. The racket has frightened him into incontinence. House-training this puppy has not been easy; first the weeks of nightly fireworks leading up to Chinese New Year made him afraid to go outside, and now the backhoe and jackhammer have him peeing at my feet. Annoyed, I reach for the leash and we walk away from the bedlam.
Chinese tourists love our seaside, but foreigners tend to skip Qingdao altogether. It’s a bucolic city that boasts little besides beaches and the Tsingtao beer that bears the city’s historical name; it lacks Beijing’s history or Shanghai’s cosmopolitan buzz. Tourists like to visit the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center and view the illuminated Olympic rings at twilight, but the pedestrian promenade outside is for locals. Here elders gather at dawn for communal tai chi practice, at twilight couples spin and dip to vintage ballroom dance music. Dogs and children run free, fishermen mend their nets, mobile knife sharpeners advertise their services with a voice and a megaphone.
But today the walk won’t help Pepper to relax; the leisure crowd has been replaced with workers and machinery. On the nearby streets, the brick sidewalks have been torn up and are punctuated with deep pits waiting to receive trees; not mere saplings but fully grown 25-foot trees hoisted by cranes. Workers sling sledgehammers to pound new curb stones into place, and we are forced off the sidewalk and into the street where impatient drivers, delayed by the construction, honk madly but get nowhere.
Pepper and I return home via a quieter route and re-enter the garden. My neighbor sits as we left her, watching the progress.
“Won’t you be sad to lose your sea view?” I ask.
“Mei banfa.” she replies. “What can you do? They will probably die and be replaced with shrubs next year, anyway.”
Development happens quickly in China; sometimes it seems the buildings rise overnight, like mushrooms. Yesterday a sea view, today a forest.
I probably should have included instructions with the cookies I sent to school with Vivian to celebrate Valentine's Day:
Like fortune cookies, Valentine's Day is a holiday of the western world that is mostly a non-event in China, although the more commercial trappings of the day have been showing up in the shops for a couple of years. Among expats, Americans are one of the few nationalities that really even bother with Valentine's Day, which makes it a fun opportunity to share a little of our unique American culture with Vivian's classmates. You see, she is the only American among 15 classmates, so she's in a truly international environment.
I made a big batch of fortune cookies yesterday using this recipe and I can report that the recipe is great, the cookies came out thin and crispy, and the omission of butter from the recipe means that there are no greasy spots on the paper fortunes tucked inside. I doubled the recipe, which I definitely recommend for first-timers, because learning the folding technique takes some trial and error. Plus you need to taste-test a few along the way...
Hopefully today Vivian's American teacher will explain to the class the interesting phenomenon of the fortune cookie, the "Chinese" tradition that most Chinese (including my beloved housekeeper) have never even heard of, and how fortune cookies really have nothing to do with Valentine's Day.
We got a dog. The dog that we have been waiting six years to get, the one we have been waiting until we move back to Portland to get, the dog that we said we couldn't get because we are expats and we travel too much, we are too transient, and China is too unreliable of a place to get a dog.
We got the dog I thought we would never get: it is too hairy, too messy, sheds too much, is not smart enough, is too stubborn.
We got a dog in China: a place where I said I would never buy a dog. Animals are sick here, the breeders take the pups away from the mum too young, they live in cages and are generally ill treated. Or so they say.
We gave up all the excuses and got a dog. His name is Pepper. He is three months old, he is an Old English Sheepdog, and wherever we go next, he will come along.
Way back in June I posted this little teaser about a photo essay I shot at an outdoor community fitness center on one of Qingdao's many beaches. I love these fitness-obsessed old timers, and I love that my essay was published in Redstar Magazine this month. One of the shots from the essay even made the cover!
Sharing a bit of my community with my friends over at Communal Global!
I just have to tell you what Vivian did yesterday. We were planning a big neighborhood "goodbye to summer" barbeque, and Vivian came up with a stunningly good business idea. She had this packet of tattoos that we bought for 20 rmb. It contained 8 sheets of tattoos, far more than she could use in the immediate future. So she hatched an idea that she would recruit a business partner (preferably one a little bit older, one who knows how to apply tattoos) and sell tattoos to children at the party for 2 rmb each.
With the help of a strategically planted idea, she struck a deal with our 7-year old neighbor Lachy. Vivi would sell the tattoos and handle the money, and Lachy would apply the tattoos to the customers. After they paid me the 20 rmb I spent on the tattoos, they would split the proceeds 50-50.
The tattoo stand was a success. They sold out of tattoos and made 65 RMB. After paying me back 20 RMB, they each earned 22.5 RMB. That's a pretty good return on their investment, and a great reward for a couple hours of work.
I am crazy proud of my girl and her business idea. She totally made it happen for herself and learned a great big lesson about hatching ideas, putting ideas into action, working hard, and making money.