Malaysia Spring Break (Chinese New Year)
Well, it has been so long since either of us posted to our blog, i feel obliged to say something about our recent trip to Malaysia for Chinese New Year. Kuala Lumpur was a trip: small city, very green and lush, no mosquitoes issues (YES!), and the malls were amazing. Yes, sad but true, we spent both days in KL just going from mall to mall, shopping, checking out children’s museums, and eating yummy spicy gravy saucey goupey food… oh, and the Petronas Towers were really surprisingly gorgeous and pretty, not just tall.
KL bookended our trip to the island of Langkawi, about 45 minutes flight up the coast, basically on the Thailand border. The island itself was lovely, with lots of jungle and wilderness, and surprisingly little development, despite being the #1 tourist destination in the country. Our first hotel was a bust however, a older property, on a crummy backpacker haven beach called Pelangi. We made the most of it, but it felt a lot like being in Tijuana or some other border town… Cristina and I had dinner one night out in the town, and had the pleasure of walking the length of the main strip, dodging open sewer holes every 25ft or so… literally. When we found a restaurant to sit down at, we couldn’t stop laughing at the surrounding crowd of mostly white, young, unshowered backpackers—reminded me of myself 20 years ago; what I couldn’t figure out is how they could afford to be in this town, which despite being pretty darn low-end, was still pretty pricy when it came to food… i fondly remember having $1 meals back when I travelled with my buddy Adam Dawes through South East Asia in 1993, but at these restaurants the cheapest in and out was going to be $10 or so.
After 2 nights in Pelangi we were inspired and moved to another property, called the Andaman, on the opposite side of the island, 30 minutes from the nearest town. This place was cheaper actually than our first hotel, but absolutely fantastic/gorgeous, with a private beach, a great swimming pool, and a family friendly room set up with 2 trunk beds in the room (family of 2+2 expected in every room i guess). The weather all week was absolutely perfect, not too humid, in the mid 80s, with blue skies and a few puffy white cumulus clouds. We snuck in a Mangrove boat tour, swam on some little offshore islands, and generally had a totally chill time. Fun watching the kids spend 10 hours in one day in the pool, going up and down the slide in the pool over and over and over and over and over again. Wonder if they will remember this vacation, or only the photos of themselves with gleeful smiles on their faces.
We saw a bunch of monkeys in the wilderness, that was cool too…
And Cristina adds:
Malaysia is a Muslim country, and while we didn’t do anything cultural in KL, like visit the Islamic Arts museum, just going to the big, rich, trendy malls actually gave us a very full cultural experience. KL has a lot of wealth from oil (the PETRO in Petronas), so there seems an endless amount of malls. So logically we spent a lot of time in them. The food court a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, the kid’s dinosaur museum very modern and interactive, the people an endless parade of Malaysian social and religious profiles. Young couples on holiday fasinated me: women in black veil and shroud, with delicate henna tattoos covering their hands and feet, peeking out of designer shoes, or dressed in very smart fashionable clothes with muslim twist: caps on men, women with elaborately trimmed shawls. I liked seeing teenage girls with blingy head scarves and tight jeans. Most of the Malay women had head scarves elegantly wrapped just so, with some jeweled pin to secure it. It always matched and accented the rest of their clothes. Occasionally, a little hair would peak out. Sometimes women had an pre-wrapped scarf with a little visor on their head.
Forest and I debated whether or not the veil was any more oppressive then wearing a bra or shaving for men in the West. I thought that when the men or women were traveling without the opposite sex, their manner seemed extremely modest and serious. Except for the wacky Malay teenage boys with their crazy trendy urban dress and silly behavior. But when women were with men, they definitely seemed more animated, happy, comfortable and proud.
We also though it interesting to see so many “she-males.” I guess in a culture with very strict mores about gender roles, it’s easier to get away with just switching to the other side completely rather than be a swishy guy. The she-males often worked in women’s retail stores in all their glamorous glory.
Oh, yeah, one more thing compelling us to stay in the Malaysian Mall: the best bookstore in the world: Kinokuniya, a Japanese “Borders”, in KL caters to Chinese, Malay and English speaking customers. I didn’t get nearly enough time in there, but it had the best selection of graphic novels and comics, which I’ve happily gotten the boys hooked on. I highly recommend Lulu.
My Mandarin Rocks!!!
Feb 4, 2009 – Cristina
I don’t look at our blog that much, since many blogs are blocked here in China, including ours. I can only access it at Forest’s office. But reviewing it recently, it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged in a long time about our language skills. Since so many family members have marvelled at our astounding fluency, I felt no compelling need to boast about it in writing. But today I do feel like bragging.
My Mandarin ROCKS!!!!
Allow me to qualify. It rocks to anyone who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, it rocks to anyone who needs help bargaining prices, it rocks to the Chinese who only expect foreigners to be able to say “ni hao” (hello). Hell, my “ni hao” accent is so good that Chinese compliment my Mandarin prowess based on that alone. Which often invites trouble, because when locals start jabbering in Chinese after giving me props on my basic proficiency, I feel like such a turd following up with a lame “shenme???” (what, or, huhhh?).
I’ve studied twice a week for 2 hours a session privately with a Beijinger since I moved here 17 months ago. Only conversation, not writing or reading. I can navigate typical situations quite well: Taxis, shopping, shooting the shit, housekeepers, restaurants, etc. My comprehension suffers due to lack of non-English speaking Chinese buddies to practice with. Outside of the classroom, I do have excellent conversations while getting foot massages with Forest or some friends: I get a captive audience of 2 or more young Chinese with lots of questions about me, happy to share general info about their own lives, where they come from, what they think of Beijing. Chinese people don’t take offense to personal questions, so it makes for interesting exchanges. Sometimes the miscommunication leads to hearty laughs on both sides.
Chinese folks don’t expect foreigners to speak much Chinese, but they don’t hold back their amusement when you mangle words. And when the wrong tones obscure your meaning a little, even if the context seems perfectly clear, people will often stare like you landed from Mars. I still have a hard time with the word for English, which sounds a lot like the word for sing, so I guess I don’t blame someone for being befuddled when a perfect stranger approaches them asking “Do you say sing?” But given that I am clearly a Westerner, would it be such a stretch to guess what I’m asking? Maybe they think I’m auditioning them for American Idol.
Forest befriended an Argentinian fluent in English and Chinese. He offered extremely valuable wisdom: if you speak quickly enough, people will gather your meaning even if your tones are wrong. Which has been a really useful tactic since my Chinese is basically toneless. Luckily, I have managed to memorize a decent amount of vocabulary. But another weird thing happens sometimes–people expect me to speak in English, so they don’t listen for familiar Chinese words–they try to comprehend my funky Mandarin as if it was English, racking their brain to place such strange vocabulary. It happens to me the other way too. But so many Chinese people speak good English that it happens less.
Considering that we may not be in China for more then a half year, the returns on my time invested in learning Chinese are diminishing. If we stay for more then another year, logically I would progress into reading and writing to gain basic literacy. That way, I could become bold enough to go to a really local restaurant without pictures on the menu, and could maybe read the propaganda banners around town. I am always on the verge of quitting classes. And then I learn one new word or form of grammar that sheds a light on one interaction or another, and it becomes worthwhile.
Carlos gets an hour a day in school, and he can write and read some. This also means he gets to appreciate the depth, poetry and ancient beauty in Mandarin that is lost to me. He understands a lot of what our housekeepers say to him, although he seems to get the Anhui accent more then the Shandong accent…don’t know how he would do with Beijingers. But Carlos being Carlos, we hear nary a word from him, unless we are in the next room with our ear to a glass at the wall. We often wonder if we should have put him in a more rigorous program, but I figure that if he really wants to speak Chinese someday, he’ll have a little key in the back of his brain that will help him unlock it. He’ll know it’s possible. Caetano only speaks a bizarre pidgin style Mandarin-English hybrid, but learns little kindergarten level words and songs. And a couple of good insults. Not really what I envisioned, but we all get what we need.
Feathering the Nest
Mar 9, 2009 – Cristina
In the past, the term “developing country” just seemed to me a p.c. euphemism for “third world.” It indicated in an abstract way that the country’s economy was in flux but inching its way up to whatever.
But being in a developing country is cool, because you literally see everything developing with your own eyes. Before the olympics, construction crews clocked endless hours and the city underwent extreme makeover. Then everyone went home and the magnificent stadiums sit dormant until someone makes a plan for them. Then the world economy crashed and everyone pulled up on their reigns. A bunch of “luxury malls” that went up last year are sadly under-occupied.
The bubble may have burst, but there’s still water in the tub. Beijingers seem to still have faith in their own local economies—helped, I’m sure–by the national government’s commitment to a bazillion dollar stimulus package similar to Obama’s. A bike ride around my neighborhood reveals many projects literally in the works. The little dusty hutong neighborhoods haven’t ceased building, renovating, reinforcing structures, especially in our neck of the woods where the neighborhoods have room to grow. I wonder what these villages will become in 5 more years. New subway lines are slated, ground being cleared, old business fronts refurbished, shop signs becoming more permanent. And the next “lifestyle center” i.e. mall is pressing forward, albeit at a much slower speed then before.
I’m looking on a micro-level of course. Big company friends operate in a state of encroaching crisis. But personal economics work very differently here in China. Individuals are not as invested in the stock market. People do not consume using credit. If you want an expensive car, camera or coat, you pay cash. If you don’t have the cash, you don’t have those things. The people that are sweating it are the poor folks that work in factories making stuff that Westerners realize they don’t need anymore.
This weekend, the convention center held an expo on interior design and decorative finishes. The area was packed with cars.
Building your nest, whether it is an Olympic stadium, a 2 story house, or a place for kids to play in your community seems to be an important part of life and emotional balance. We’re all developing that way.
Mar 21, 2009
I’m sitting here in my 22nd floor room at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, looking out on the horizon where I see looming rain clouds approaching the city, a view that otherwise would reveal lovely Mount Fuji in the distance. I’ve been up since 6, but awake since 4am or so when my dreams became too vivid and i passed between the sleeping world into the present one. Today is Tokyo Marathon day.
The thought I’ve had all week while in tokyo is that “i’m a loaded weapon”—in so far that as i’ve done small 5km runs to stay loose throughout the week, i’ve felt each and every time like i was holding back on pulling the trigger. Months of training have gotten me very accustomed to 60 to 90 minute runs as the norm (10-17km or so), so doing just 5km has felt like taking a bite of a yummy piece of pie, but not being able to fully enjoy. It sounds overly self-confident to say it, but I really do feel like a race horse that is being held back from sprinting into a gallop.
Yesterday my friend and colleague in Tokyo, together with his wife and lovely baby daughter, took me out to the horse racetrack for the day; it is the first time i’ve ever been to the race track. The horses were so fast, i was amazed; it made me think of being a foot soldier in battle in the Andes, perhaps as a Inca, being chased down by those horses carrying men with spears and guns on their backs. The ferocity of those animals, all ripped and sculpted for the express purpose of running fast….
So while I don’t think of myself as a race stallion per say, i do feel like my training has gotten me as prepared physically as I am ever going to get at this point; and mentally, i feel very at peace and ready for the adventure of the day. As I listen to Bjork on my headphones here in my room, and peer down onto the street, i can see some of the other 35,000 souls who will be pounding the concrete with me this morning.
Winding Down our China Time
July 17, 2009
Our time here is winding down. We have moved out of our big American style house in the burbs. All of our stuff is being shipped to Seattle. Now we are staying in a super cool apartment/hotel downtown. When we moved to Beijing two years ago, we stayed here, so it feels like coming full circle. My nephew Lucas is with us, and the boys have been enjoying camps, swimming and cartoons. I love waking up and seeing my favorite park in the city, Tuanjiehu, ringed with high-rise apartments and construction cranes fading into the distance. At night before bed, I look down from the 25th story, spying on locals down below: groups of folks sit together on low stools, fanning themselves and swapping stories, workers laying concrete and operating backhoes into the late night, young adults going to or fro the bright lights of the businesses around the corner.
Walking through this neighborhood takes us past Chinese fast food vendors doing brisk business selling deep fried hotdogs or fresh peaches. Around the corner, a lively side street features an elegant Muslim chain restaurant serving cumin lamb and veal salad. Next door, kebabs to-go grill outdoors. Small eateries bust out plastic tables and chairs so locals can feast al fresco on peanuts, Tsingtao, kebabs or salty pork ribs. Small dogs get their stroll about. Meandering further on, we find ourselves in ever popular Sanlitun bar street, and the newest hippest shopping center: glitzy modern architecture and Western shops–Starbucks, Apple, Adidas—incandescent with commerce and colored glass. There’s room for local families to watch their kids play in the fountains, catch some big screen video art installation, sculpture and people watch. Migrant workers amble through, hardhats in hand, past Chinese yuppies, shopping bags in tow. Party people from all corners of the world parade along in too-sexy looks.
A different scene we find in the park across the street from our place. We cross a pedestrian bridge over about 13 lanes of traffic to quite a relatively pastoral world: a lake, park benches, rock gardens, bamboo forests and tree covered hills. There’s always a few people playing instruments. Yesterday a guy played lovely traditional melodies on his trumpet. An old man hooked up his harmonica to an amp. Often we hear classical wind or string instrument hauntingly drifting across the water. Towards one of the gates, the ubiquitous calligraphy artist scribes ephemeral poems with a huge brush using only water onto the concrete. Sometimes community leaders come out and lead people in song or dance. Lately it’s been pretty hot, so when we go out late afternoon or early evening, I find other families out with their little boys running around.
Our friends, the Javal family from Paris, have just arrived and we are really excited to be going on vacation for three weeks with them. Chengdu, Lhasa, Guilin and Hong Kong. Then, back to Beijing for one last goodbye.
Two years….not exactly a fling. This is tough.
Back in Seattle
Aug 22, 2009
Well, after almost exactly 2 years of wonder and adventure, we are back in the USA and I (forest) am back in Seattle, full circle in many regards, but completely heading in a different direction with a different perspective in most. The experience in China and Asia at large was absolutely fantastic and life changing for all of our family members, both my immediate family, and are many friends and relatives who took advantage of the opportunity and traveled to the region to visit us and share some travel.
For me, this last week has been physically painful, as I have tackled the unpacking of the 100+ boxes that arrived from storage and from shipping containers from China. There is *so* much stuff to deal with, and a nearly 30% or greater surplus volume that is generated by the packing materials themselves. Really overwhelming, but I’m committed to getting through most of it before Cristina and the kids arrive (they are in soCal visiting family for a few more weeks).
A general feeling of lightness/lack of focus tends to overcome me in the late afternoons and early evenings—perhaps a legacy of jetlag, perhaps a (reasonable to expect) sense of cultural dislocation and general disconnectedness from the routines of life, of which i have almost none right now… no constant at work, no constant at home. It is a wonderous time, the time before the storm and beginning of a new adventure for our family.
As a side comment: i’m pretty sure the word “ginormous” (as in giant-enormous) has passed the requisite popular culture vernacular threshold, and should be include din the oxford english dictionary/etc.; i hear people using it everywhere, several times this week alone, and it is a favorite of both of my children!