Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What 30 years of life and 1 world taught me

"When are you coming back to live in the US?" a question that I am asked frequently. Everyone's way of asking, "When will you find a stable job, marry a handsome man, put a mortgage on a house with a white picket fence, own a golden retriever, raise 2 children, etc. When will you stop this life of uncertainty and escape from the real world?" Questions that I can't comprehend. I am not trying to escape anything, nor am I postponing the 'real world.' To me, this life is "normal."
Just because I don't have a permanent address, doesn't mean I am lost. Just because I'm alone, doesn't mean I'm lonely. Just because I live in a city of 7 million people with constant noise and clatter, doesn't mean I'm not at peace. Just because I am without many Western conveniences and a stable job earning a lot of money, doesn't mean I'm not happy.

 I'm almost 30 and well... truth is... I couldn't be happier. I'm in a more positive and self aware state. The experiences I have lived through and years of battling with myself have brought me here. Years spent trying to accept myself and befriend this person inside. Years of focusing on what I can't do or what I don't have. The negativity, shame, unworthiness, self-pity, and anxiety have been some of my best teachers. They have helped me grow and have sent me on a quest for something more - for love, justice, peace, and wisdom. They have taught me to take control of my life. Instead of focusing on what I can't do or what I don't have, I appreciate more and more what I can do and what I have. Accepting this person that I am, instead of trying to change them into a person they aren't.
I have learned more in these past 3 years of traveling and living abroad than I ever had from any text book, any TV show, any corporate job, or any university professor. All it took was one step out of my comfort zone and one giant leap of faith that has made me feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable. The challenges only get easier, the time only gets shorter, and the distance is no obstacle. My journey, which started into the world, has turned into a journey of self discovery.  Years spent searching for "something" that has been there this whole time. From the top of the Rocky Mountains, to diving below the waters in the Caribbean. From the steps of a Buddhist temple to trekking through the Himalayans. Deep within the Amazon jungle, or to the bottom of the world's deepest canyon. Places that have absolutely moved me and brought me so much happiness in that moment... These places that have helped me discover something. Happiness isn't something that we search for. It isn't on the top of a mountain, or on the bottom of the sea. It isn't something that we find outside of ourselves or even from other people. It's something we find within, and it's there when you are ready for it. Happiness is a choice that only we have the power to make.
My experiences and the people that I have met along the way teach me more and more what it means to be human. Traveling deepens my understanding that we are all one. We may be people of different nationalities, gender, religions, or economic status. However, we shouldn't let those things separate us. We are all human beings who have the same wants, needs, and desires. We all ride the ups and downs; from joy to despair, to pleasure and pain. Maybe it's true we have more similarities than differences. Human journey is a quest; a search for knowledge and comfort. We are all in this together, why should we make it harder for one another?
So I will be celebrating my 30th birthday in China. An age I never imagined turning, in a country I never imagined living in. My heart, my tour guide, has landed me in a place over 7,000 miles from family and friends and a safe, comfortable life. A safe easy life that wouldn't provide my mind and soul with the challenges they need to grow.  Like mentioned before, China is a place that confuses me, frustrates me, excites me, and inspires me all in a single day. I feel myself undergoing changes daily.  Thank you China.
 I am a truth seeker who loves to learn. There is no such thing as too many questions, and if there was, I wouldn't care. Traveling teaches you many things. However, I am finding the more I learn, the less I know. So 30 years of life and 18 countries later, I have found that the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing at all...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Myanmar (Burma)

Some compare it to Thailand in the sixties. I've never experienced the 60's nor have I been to Thailand, but I like this analogy. Myanmar is full of charm and authenticity, and is not quite changed by modern development and tourism. Despite all the hardship, the people are happy, kind, and considerate. They are also very passionate and inquisitive, and want to be a part of our world as much as we want to be a part of theirs. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, opened its doors to tourism in 2010. Before then it was named an "outpost of tyranny" by the government of George W. Bush.
Salena & I at Shwedagon Paya in Yangon
 We began our journey through Myanmar in the capital city of Yangon. Before even leaving the airport I was already confused. What is that whitish yellowish stuff all over the faces of the women and children?  And why does it look like the men have been sucking blood for the past few hours? Well I soon learned the stuff on their faces is thanaka, a beauty secret of Myanmar women. It is a long wood cutting that they mix with water to create this mixture which is multipurpose (from preventing skin acne to a natural sunscreen.) As for the vampires... it is from betle nut, which is from the nut of the areca nut wrapped with tobacco in the betel leaf.  Everyday, at least once a day, I was confused about something. Why do some cars have steering wheels on the left side and some on the right? What exactly is "lucky money"? (what all the shopkeepers say when trying to get you to by their goods. Why is the time difference not hourly, but instead half hourly. Why do all the men wear skirts? Why are the women not allowed to touch certain things (some of the Buddhas in certain temples, strands of Buddhas hair, the Golden Rock, etc.) Most importantly, why is there a 14 foot alive python just chilling in the temple?

at the Shwedagon Paya
Yangon is probably one of the best capital cities I have seen. It is underdeveloped (so no McDonald's, few skyscrapers, etc.) The place has a certain charm to it with it's colorful streets and open-air markets.  Due to lack of time, we only planned for one day there in which we spent at the Shwedagon Paya (paya means 'holy one', a religious monument) It is said to be built on a hill where Buddha relics have been found, including eight hairs of the Buddha.

Stefani (Germany), Salena, and I in the town of Kyaiktiyo
 The following day we took a 5 hour bus ride to Kyaiktiyo, home of the gravity-defying Golden Rock. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar, and is said that this giant, gold leaf covered boulder is topped by a stupa (a strand of Buddhas hair). How this rock has managed to survive a number of earthquakes adds special value
the Golden Rock in Kyaiktiyo
Thousands of pilgrims come daily to see this rock, which makes the experience more interesting.  Everyone crams (monks in their red robes, villagers with their colorful head wraps carrying their babies in a sling, and Westerners with a camera in hand) on the back of a flat bed pick up truck (12 rows, 6 people to each row- when really there is only room for 4) making an hour long ride up to the top of the mountain. The men (no women are allowed to touch the rock) say a prayer and then stick a gold leaf to the side of the rock.

a monk lighting incense at the Golden rock
Here we met Tim, from Seattle who is traveling the world for 2 years. We ended up traveling with this lad for the remainder of our time in Myanmar. By the end of our trip we all agreed it felt like we have known each other since we were kids.
On the back of a "tuk tuk" with our long last friend Tim
 From there the 3 of us took a 15 hour bus ride to Inle Lake, stopping for 3 hours in Bago, for a bus transfer. In Bago, a driver took us to see a number of pagodas in the city. Our last stop was at driver's house to see his wife and other ladies working there rolling cigarettes. They work from 6 am to 6 pm rolling about 1,400 cigarettes a day. All of the women sleep on the same wooden plank that they spend all day sitting on. What a neat experience for us all, considering in 10 years likely this place will be a factory with a $10 entrance fee.

Salena learning how to roll cigarettes. We bought 40 cigs from her for 80 cents.
Notice the thanaka on the woman's face

 During our tour of this city, we stopped at a temple which was home to a 14 foot python, and of course I had so many questions. Since no one had the English to tell us, I read online that the head monk believes it's his reincarnated daughter. This only leaves me even more confused since monks aren't allowed to... well, ya know.

Yes, folks that python is alive
sitting Buddhas inside a temple

 After a 12 hour bus ride of restless sleep and feeling nauseous, we arrived at 4am at Inle Lake. I was ready to spend a few days at this peaceful, relaxing place. The first day we cycled around the lush countryside to a small village with a small canal that that provides access to the lake (the lake is only accessible by boat.)
fishermen at the lake paddling & steering the boat with their leg!
The following day, Salena, Tim, and I joined a lovely couple from Switzerland on a boat where we spent the day visiting different floating villages, floating gardens, floating markets, and (of course) more temples around the lake.  We watched a number of people weaving, blacksmithing (is this a word?) and making beautiful jewelry.
fishermen posing in front of the sunset
At one of places there were a few of the Paudang women weaving clothing and selling their handcrafted items. They belong to a tribe residing on the border of Thailand and are bused in to Inle just for the tourists. It is an ancient tradition for this group of people to fit young girls with brass neck rings. After awhile, they can no longer take them off as they are unable to support the weight of their own heads. It was an interesting, yet, somewhat strange experience. I felt like I was visiting a human zoo again, but the ladies would often stop what they were doing to pose for our photos.
The "Long Neck" lady - over 45 years of having this around her neck
From Inle Lake, it was a 6 hour bus ride to our next destination, Bagan. The scenery wasn't anything spectacular; relatively flat with an ocassional field lined with palm trees and rivers full of locals washing their clothing. Every so often we would pass by speakers blowing the sound of Burmese music sung by people holding a jar out trying to earn some money (Again, confused. Do people actually stop driving along the highway to give a tip?) For me, the bus rides are more about that sense of freedom and peace; going on a bus to a place I have never been to/nor know nothing about... over 6,000 miles from home....with over 40 strangers who don't speak my language.

Sunrise in Bagan
sunset in Bagan
The bus arrived at 5pm that night, and "taxis" await at the "bus station." Now, in this time warped country when I say taxis I mean horse and buggies. We stayed at May Kha Lar Guest House, which was nice but a bit noisy. The town of Bagan itself didn't impress me; it was just too dusty and noisy for my liking. However, most tourists come to this place to visit the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which stretches 41 sq. km. across central Myanmar consisting of over 4,000 Buddhist temples, some of which date back to the 1100's.  It is the largest and densest population of Buddhist temples in the world. In the once grand city, these brick and stucco religious structures are all that remain from years of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect. After a week of traveling and visiting temples, I was starting to becoming desensitized.. After visiting 10 the novelty soon wares off. However, this place was really something different, and special. Temples older than anything in my own country, and well, the oldest place that I have ever been to.

At 5am we climbed to the top of a temple for sunrise. We thought it would be neat to see these temples for the first time being revealed one by one with the rising of the sun. Dozens of tourists watch the morning fog amongst the soft glow of the orange sky expose enough light to see ancient temples as far as the eye can see. It was one of the most serene and calming sights that I have seen in a long time.
For $300 you can take a hot air balloon ride over these temples (we did not do this)
We spent the next few days here visiting these temples. Each of them holds it's own uniqueness; from the different architecture, colorful murals, Buddhas, and spiritual meanings. Bagan is a place that I left thinking.. 'how did I never hear of this place before?!'
a child monk praying at a temple
From Bagan we took the train (which looked like something from WW2) to Mandalay. We didn't intend to stay here very long here, since noone that we met along the way had anything good to say about this place. I instantly understood why; a sprawling city of dusty streets, traffic, construction, and a bit of a "Chinese feel" (due to heavy Chinese investment in recent years.) The first day we took a tour inside and outside the city mostly visiting... yes you guessed it, more temples. Half of Myanmars monks reside in and around Mandalay.
The first part of our tour was a visit to a monastery that is home to over 1,500 monks. We were scheduled to get there just in time to watch them eat their 10:15 lunch (awesome.. i thought) Well, it would have been if it weren't for the hundreds of other tourists surrounding the cafeteria taking pictures with their long lens camera practically in the faces of the monks as they eat. I felt like I was at a human zoo. I ventured off by myself away from the cafeteria and a monk started talking to me. Even with his broken English, it was very interesting to talk to him. I asked him many questions about Buddhism, and he had a few about the American culture as well. For example, he wanted to know what "rolly polly, holy moly" meant. I wasn't really sure how to respond to this, as I was a little bit shocked that this was his first question about the American culture, so I asked where he heard this. He responded, "in a Justin Beiber song that I heard yesterday."
At a temple
The monk kept encouraging me to ask him questions about his life. He told me about his daily routine: 4 am- wake up, followed by a 2 hour long meditation. Then all the monks walk the streets together in a line collecting donated food from houses and other businesses. His 10:15 lunch consists of beans, veggies, chicken, or fish (no beef) After lunch he studies Buddhism with his teacher, who wrote the book, Buddhism and Democracy. Pretty much the remainder of his day he spends either studying or meditating.
Little monks collecting food in the morning
For me, the highlight of Mandalay was the sunset in Amarapura, which is famed for U Bein's Bridge. It is over 200 years old and is the world's longest teak bridge at 1.2 km. Yet, another serene, peaceful, and photogenic sunset.
sunset at U Bein's Bridge (this view is also on the cover of the Southeast Asia Lonely Planet)

From Mandalay we (now a team of 4 with our new addition Paddy, from Ireland) headed to Pyin Oo Lwin. It took us about 2 hours in a car to get there.
Paddy blending in quite well with the monks
On our way, we passed an accident where a truck had flipped over. As it looked somewhat bad, fortunately everyone was okay. Most everyone driving by stopped to see what was going on and if everyone was okay.  I say most everyone because I mean, everyone but the police (they turned their heads briefly, but they just continued to drive on by.) Pyin Ooo Lwin is a smaller place located in the foothills of the northern Shan State. We chose to spend a few days here relaxing (at a waterfall and walking around the botanical gardens) before returning back to hustling bustling China.
Anisakan Falls
The overall highlight of my trip was having the opportunity to talk with so many monks. Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world (89% of the people are Buddhist) I enjoy learning about Buddhism, and there is no better way then to learn first hand from monks in a monastery. Buddhism in China is much different. The monks in China want to come to Myanmar as they look at it as a place of freedom, since they are not allowed to practice religion in Communist China.
A morning visit with a few monks - They are not allowed to touch girls
(which explains the somewhat awkwardness in this picture)
This country will always hold a very special place in my heart. The whole time here I felt at "home", even in this very poor, strange land. We met a number of people who were just so kind and generous, without asking anything in return. As more and more tourists come through this place, the hospitality of many of these people will ware off. Sad but true, as more tourists go through this country, Myanmar will likely lose much of it's charm and authenticity. I feel very fortunate to have gone to a place that has not yet been changed by modern development or tourism.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Life as a foreigner in China

We all say goodbye to a life full of comforts and conveniences – Hugging all those around us that never had or never will have enough courage to do just this.  As we board that plane full of people with black hair and slanted eyes, we begin to doubt whether or not we EVEN have enough courage for this. Sitting, waiting patiently ….. a voice comes on the intercom speaking words with no meaning to us. We settle in and get as comfortable as possible and prepare for that 16 hour flight that lies ahead….

I hated to bother this man during his meditation but I really wanted a melon.
Each of us have different reasons for coming to China, whether it be to learn Chinese, to teach English, to experience the Eastern world or to escape the Western world,  to escape our old lives or to start a new one.  We come from tons of different countries, speak different native languages, and represent different walks of life.  However, in China, we are all lumped together and looked upon as one single entity, with one thing in common; We are “laowei’s.” 

We come to China for different reasons, have different experiences while living here, and leave this place with different lessons learned. However, I am sure there are many things we can all agree on.
A legless man just trying to make some money
 China will fight you, test you, and push you to a new level with yourself.  You will see something that you have never seen before (not just with this country, but with yourself) Just when you think you “get it”, you realize you aren’t even close. You will lose your patience, but end up with more. It will build you up just to knock you down. This place may confuse you and frustrate you, but never fails to amaze you. Those moments that just take your breath away (or maybe that's just because of the bad pollution.) You will become sick and tired. And you will be sick and tired of always being sick and tired. Trying to apply Western thinking to this Chinese city will only make your head hurt.  Some things will never be understood no matter how much time you spend here. A whole continent that seems to only ask questions but give no answers. 
Trying to earn some money any way they can
A view of Kunming (unfortunately this is not from my apartment)
  Our lives don’t make sense to them, and their lives don’t make sense to us. Our lives are different, and that's the beauty of it.   This place tests your strength, courage, and patience. It will help you discover just how open your mind really is.  Time spent here living, learning, and growing. We all ask the question to ourselves at least once, “what the hell am I doing here?” Or those, “Oh, China.” or “China, you win.” moments.
Is this a necessary way of smoking a cigarette?

We all have different experiences, ranging from appalling to exquisite. For some of us, it is too much. For others, it is not enough.  This place will impact each and every one of us in different ways. China teaches us all different life lessons, whatever it is we need to learn at that time. 
Dog? Rabbit? What could it be?
  There are many things here that are bothersome, some people bothered more than others. The crowds. The chaos. The congestion. The pollution. People pushing their way onto the bus, or not waiting in line for anything. People who park their cars where it is convenient for them, even if it means parking someone in or creating a traffic jam. Cars will often go down a one way street and then (obviously) get stuck if a car is coming at them from the other direction. Both remain there beeping until someone decides to do something about it.
Yet another interesting day at the market
Apparently road laws aren't enforced around here. Every time at the intersection, I just shake my head as I watch the unruly street life happening. Crossing guards flinging their arms and blowing the whistle, being ignored by all. Red lights and stops signs are apparently optional. Look left, right, then left again doesn’t apply either. 

All those things that bother me one day I find myself doing the next, like driving on the wrong side of the road, or joining in with those crowds of e-bikes that go through the red lights (as long as I’m 3 people deep I should be fine).  How could I be mad when I’m stared at or have photos taken of me when I do the same to them.  The only difference being that my photo will eventually end up in my China scrapbook. Their photo of me will end up in the hands of their friends telling them of a nonexistent relationship they have with this foreigner.

My new toy!
 This place has one surprise after another. Not a week goes by where there isn’t something interesting that comes my way; whether it’s something seen or something heard. For example, smoking is allowed everywhere (which okay, that isn’t surprising) but in the chest X-ray room at the hospital? Really? Or in an elevator? Some of the shit they eat here is still shocking to me (ranging from dog to grasshoppers) . If it isn't the animal/insect itself, then it’s the parts from them (feet, tongue, ear) There are those things that just don’t phase me anymore, like the little boy peeing on the sidewalk and the frequent smell of urine.  Waiting 2 hours for your “appointment.” (I'm not surprised) Slurping noodles. Old men (and women) hawking a loogie on the sidewalk. Squatter toilets.

Lunch is served

China is a place where no matter what you look like there is still someone who looks a little more ridiculous than you. The lady with curlers in her hair. The teenager with 2 different shoes on. Plaid top and stripe pants. A couple with matching outfits [On girl - "This love." On boy - "will last forever.] The men proudly carrying their girlfriends pink purse. Or men carrying their own purse (or is it a murse?) Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, like when you hear all their crazy superstitions. Or when a friend tells you that he is more evolved than you are. “We have less hair than you. That means we are more evolved than you. Yeah that’s because you were still monkeys when we were human.” When asked his source for this information, he replies, "school."

Meet Linda. She is 3, but she is  going to Harvard when she is 18 to study medicine.
Oh the pressures of being an only child.
  Anyone can make it in this land as long as you remember a few things; Don’t call Taiwan a country. Or bring up Tibet. Don’t tell them that the Dalai Lama should be more respected. Leave your shoes at the door. Always carry tissue paper. If a massage costs more than $20, you may want to be sure it’s not a “special massage.” There is no Facebook in China; be okay with it! There are more interesting things to occupy your time with here.  Never put a Chinese in a situation where it may destroy their “face.” (dignity/prestige)  Accept everything they offer; like cigarettes even after you tell them over and over that you don’t smoke (store them in your purse and give them away later). . Live by some of their favorite sayings, like, “You can’t set the table without alcohol.”

Jimmy, my roommate, and I for Halloween

So go get a foot massage, have some street food (even if it makes you sick), have some hot water, go to the park and dance and sing awhile, take an umbrella and spin it around, play badminton, fly a kite, sing a song at karaoke, do Kung Fu, ride the bus going anywhere and get off when you arrive there... China is a place that disgusts you, amazes you, confuses you, and inspires you all in the same day. It sends you on a roller-coaster of emotions. However, you realize in those moments of serenity that what you’re doing is pretty f'n awesome.
Taken from the van while waiting in traffic  since
someone thought it was a good idea to place the market on the most traveled road to Dong Chuan
Turning this 2 way road just barely wide enough for it to be a 1 way road

In Dong Chuan - of course every beautiful scenery deserves a jumping photo.

 Everyone knows when there time is up, whether it be 10 days or 10 years.  Many people here come and go, leaving behind a place while taking it with them forever.  Some love it here, and some hate it here. Or love it and hate it here at the same time. It’s not until the moment we stop looking at this place the way we want to see it, that when it is fully loved for the way it is. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this country is just that: You can’t fully love something for the way it is until you let go of the way you want to see it. We can’t change a country, but a country will most certainly change us.

 Welcome to China. The place where “one in a million” means there are still 1,300 people like you.  All you need to remember to bring is an open mind and heart. Oh, and lots of patience!  

With all this being said, I would like to inform everyone that I have decided to sign for an additional 6 months (I will be here until at least August) I haven't had my fill of this place yet- every day is something new and exciting, and I'm not ready to leave it behind. For the first time in my life I have a job that I actually look forward to going to. I live in one of the most beautiful provinces in China that I have barely begun to explore. These are just a few reasons for staying.    I have a 3 week vacation (either May or June) so I'm looking forward to seeing everyone then :)  
Just look at these kids. How could I not LOVE my job?
Also, I know I convinced some of you to download "WeChat"  (I've been promising myself to get better at staying in touch) I find this program a great way to stay in touch. If you download it, my ID is jamiebru . I'm looking forward to Voice chatting with everyone on that! 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Made in China

Yet, another long overdue blog. This one is quite lengthy, but hopefully it’s worth the read. It’s a bit of a comparison between my experience in El Salvador and my experience here in China.

The people: It’s hard to really compare the people. It’s not just comparing culture, it is comparing villagers and city folk.  No matter the culture, there are still huge differences between the two. Some similarities I have found: Like Salvadorians, the Chinese also think it’s okay to call someone fat. It is not offensive. Some Chinese are even on a “diet” to become fatter. In both places, they just feed and feed you. “You hardly ate anything,” they will tell you after you just finished two plates of food. They always insist you eat more, then afterwards they will call you fat. They don’t consider it offensive to  ask how much something cost, how much you make for a living, or how much you weigh.

In El Salvador I was the zoo exhibit, the alien, the one who got asked all the questions. While there, I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out where they are coming from.  Trying to understand how the looks of me could be THAT fascinating. Or what is so interesting about some of my household items. I felt like I spent most of my time there answering their foolish questions like, “In your land, do you have lightning?” “What do you eat if you don’t eat tortillas?” and “Do husbands cheat on their wives?” The roles have switched, I am here, learning about the Chinese culture, and am more intrigued by their thoughts and actions then I ever was with the Salvadorians. They are superstitious about everything. For example; the number 4 (which in Mandarin, also sounds like death) Often, there is no fourth floor in a hotel. They do not give presents in quantities of 4.  If a baby cries for no reason, the Chinese believe that there must be ghosts close by and the child is disturbed by ghosts. The list could go on…..

But yet, on their wedding day, the husband and wife are at the entrance together greeting their guests together while holding a tray of cigarettes or candy. Apparently that’s not bad luck.

Safety and Security: In San Salvador, you don’t dare step outside your house past dark. During my time there I saw 2 dead bodies (gang related deaths by gun shots) and I was held at gunpoint once. We’d receive at least a biweekly email reminding us of the precautions we need to take while traveling in the country. I feared for my life every time I got on the bus.

From a place with one of the highest homicide rate per capita in the world to a place where I have yet to see a gun.  In China, there are always groups of people on the street, no matter where or what time of the day.   The only concern about walking home at 2:00 in the morning is giving into the temptation to buying the mystery meat on the stick sold by the street vendors. Rat, horse, dog, whatever it may be it all tastes oh so yummy after a night out.

Western Comforts: One thing that I didn't have much of in El Salvador were Western comforts. There is a pretty large expat population in Kunming, so there is always someone around who you can find yourself relating to on a cultural level. There is usually an opportunity to meet up with other foreigners in the city and be entertained. The extent of entertainment in El Sal were soccer games on Saturdays, softball games on Wednesday, and nightly chats over cups of coffee with my neighbors. All of us having to take turns holding the antenna so that we could watch TV on occasion.

Here in China, I don’t spend much time alone. Part of me misses those feelings of isolation. I had time to think, process, and go on a little journey with myself. I struggled, I grew, and at the time I didn’t understand, but looking back at it, now I understand. I don’t regret any of those nights in darkness sitting alone (well if you don’t count the tarantulas, scorpions, mice, frogs, bats, etc.) with a pen in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

It’s comfortable here in China (well for the most part). My diet consists of food other than rice and beans. People actually go to the bathroom inside a building, and not along the side of their houses. I can be around Western people and Western comforts as much as I want. There is usually something going on, and even when I start to feel slightly bored, I just go outside and people watch. The people (from local minority groups dressed in their colorful traditional clothing to business men frantically trying to get to work on time), there is always something to see.

However there is something about the simple life in El Salvador that I miss.  There’s something comforting about planting your food, killing your own animals, and knowing what you are eating. The only job to the people in my community was just that. They worked in the fields all day so they can provide food on the table for their family.  Because food is the only thing they need to survive, everything else that money provides is only luxury (and in their eyes, unnecessary.) It was nice to be around people who had no money in the pockets, yet still so content, stress-free, complaint free,and happy.  Their only worry being was if their crops were getting enough water.

Fashion: If the residents of this city moved to a city in the US, they would be confused for  homosexuals. The men, with their stylish hair that spikes up a bit then falls to one side, with a red tint to it (from their best attempt to dye it blonde) The men carrying their Gucci male bag on one arm with their other arm wrapped around the neck of their male friend. If they aren’t carrying their own “murse,” then they are proudly carrying their girlfriends pink purse. It is very common to see woman holding hands with each other or locking arms at the elbow. For a place that isn’t accepting of homosexuality, it is just a bit shocking to see. Or perhaps it’s me coming from a culture where we need at least a 10 inch space bubble. It may be a bit shocking for an American to see, but it’s still so nice to see the affection and friendliness.

One of the biggest fashion statements here are glasses. Well, not just any ordinary glasses. Glasses without the lenses in them, just the frame. The larger and more colorful the frame, the more fashionable. Matching outfits (especially amongst couples) is very popular too. Some of the outfits even make a sentence, for example, “This love will….” (on the girl) “last forever” (on the guy)

Even the toddlers have their own style.  Let me introduce you to the “open crotch pants” (a replacement for diapers) (still trying to get a picture; but for the meantime, google image it!) Pants with the back part completely cut out, with their butts showing making it easier to pop a squat anywhere you want. At first I thought the pants were ripped and the parents were too poor to afford new ones until I saw these kids walking around my school (one of the most expensive in Kunming), and noticed how the pants are made just like that.

Bathrooms: While on that note, I have to say I prefer the bathrooms in El Salvador, even if they were outside, full of cockroaches and essentially peeing in a hole in the ground. Here the bathrooms are a squat “toilet” on the floor. Some foreigners prefer it to the toilet, and find it more sanitary since you really shouldn't be sitting on a toilet seat in a public place anyway. However, most of these Chinese toilets don’t have splash guards, always leaving the ankles a little wet. Yuk. I can deal with the cockroaches and flies in the outhouse if that means my ankles will stay pee-free 

Food:  Here in China, typically in family style restaurants, everyone is served a bowl of white rice, and the other dishes are placed on the spinning round table which is then shared by everyone. Rice is their staple food (where in El Salvador it is the tortilla), so if you don’t have rice with your meal you haven’t eaten. Peanut butter and jelly is just a snack, and to just about everyone else in the world, excluding Americans, it is the most unheard of thing to mix the two.
Proper Chinese etiquette number 1: don’t stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl. To them, it signifies burning essence, which is done in this manner at a funeral.
At a restaurant in China, they usually hand you one menu even if you are a party of 4. At times, they even wait at the table until you are ready to order. Whereas, the comedors in El Salvador usually only offer about 5 items (beans, tortilla, eggs, plantains, and coffee) all of which I end up ordering since it only costs $1.75.

Transportation:  I miss riding in the back of a pickup in El Salvador with 40 of my fellow villagers. Slowly creeping up the dirt path to my village admiring the volcanoes, lakes, and El Salvador’s beautiful lush green country side.
 However, China has introduced me to electric scooters.  Walking out my door, and paying a lady a few dollars to take me where I want to go. It’s often a game here. It’s a war zone out there. Traffic jams no longer consist of a group of cows and chickens crossing the road. Weaving in and out of traffic, cars beeping and moving every which way. I even saw a car driving nonchalantly on the sidewalk the other day. People making their best attempt to get where they need to be in a timely fashion. Riding on the back of a scooter or driving my bicycle, whatever my mode of transportation may be, once reaching my destination I always get such an adrenaline rush. Success! I won the game.  After completing Peace Corps, I thought, now if I can do that, I can do anything. Since moving to China that has changed. If I can survive biking around a Chinese city, then I can do anything!

Another plus side to China is I can get wherever I want to be whenever I want to go. Unlike El Salvador, if I missed the 7:00 am pickup I had to wait until early afternoon to get out of the village. Some days transportation didn’t even come; which signified someone was shot in a gang related death, and my pick-up drivers were too afraid to drive that day.

More interesting facts of Chinese: 
  * They go to the hospital for everything. Someone asked me if I will go to the hospital after complaining about a few zits that appeared overnight.
 * They can be pretty pushy. It’s no wonder why. There are so many of them, so whether you are walking, driving, or taking the bus, you need to push your way in there. If you don’t you will never get where you are going. Drivers in Chinese cities are probably some of the best drivers in the world.  With their lightning fast reflexes, they can stop on a coin if a pedestrian gets in their way
The elderly are quite interesting. You will see them early in the morning at the nearby park doing their morning exercises, which consists of walking backwards, clapping their hands, hitting or massaging body parts. According to CTM (Chinese Traditional Medicine), massaging the correct pressure points with increase blood flow throughout the body with in turn brings vital nutrients and helps your body get rid of extra toxins. It’s all part of maintaining that “qi” what the Chinese believe to be the active principle forming part of any living thing (aka, “life energy” or “energy flow”)
-     *  The Chinese are actually taught in school that they evolved from a different species than the rest of the world
 *  Chinese love flying kites, playing badminton and ping pong (hands down the most popular sport here)
 *   As you know, Chinese are only allowed to have one child. So that means only one thing; that one child is spoiled to pieces, and is also filled with pressure to be the best in everything! Monday-violin lessons, Tuesday-English class, Wednesday-Kung Fu, and so on and so on. They are involved in everything and high expectations are set for them. I feel bad when they come to class, and tell me… “teacher, no homework please, no sleep last night.” Meanwhile their parents are giving me a hard time for not assigning more homework.   So that means, they will often spoil their dogs too. Occasionally, you’ll see dogs dressed in sweaters, head bow ties, and booties. It is quite silly to see. Yet, no leashes. This means crossing a busy intersection with their owner and no leash.

-   *  They are all about “face” here. Looking good, and holding strong to their dignity.  Losing face, saving face, and giving face is very important and while hanging out with my Chinese friends in a group I am always a bit conscientious about this. (Trying to not to say something to them or doing something that will humiliate them in front of other people) What I may think of as a sarcastic joke to a Western friend may not be taking as lightly from a Chinese. Anything from ordering 8 plates of food for 2 people (to show off their wealth, or rather their parents wealth), or cooking 8 plates of food for 2 people, they just want to “look good.” Losing your temper, putting someone on the spot, or failing to accord proper respect can cause a loss of face. One’s status in dictates how one treats others and is treated by others. Saying “no” can cause loss of face and disrupt. So like in El Salvador, I must accept every offer.

Traffic jams that consist of more than a group of cows. Walking these busy Chinese streets full of unfamiliar faces. I look up the tall buildings around of Chinese flashing characters; none of which I understand. I look in the restaurants of people slurping their noodles. A sea of dark haired, slanted eyed people. I look around for a familiar face; instead I am getting stared at by these unfamiliar faces. In my village in El Sal everyone knew my name and I knew theirs. In this jammed pack city in China, I doubt I’ll ever cross paths with the same person again (excluding on “foreign street”, and other Western bars.) Both places have their good points and bad points, but it all works out. Although completely different, both are amazing experiences that I will take with me for the rest of my life. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I took a moment from my day

It’s hard to believe I have been here for nearly 3 months. I can’t believe how quickly time moves here. I guess that's how it goes living in a Chinese city. Coming from a village of 700 people to a city of 7 million of course it'll take some time to adjust to the hustle and bustle of life in a Chinese city. Traffic jams consist of more than just a group of cows. Where you no longer wake up in the morning to roosters crowing but instead to the sounds of construction work going on. There are bad points and there are good points (mainly good points), but I’m finding it all works out. Everything is all part of my experience here. I can't believe I am in China. I still feel like I'm walking around in the never ending Chinatown district in New York City. I haven't had much time to really process my move here, so on a recent day off, I took the day to do just this.

 First, I took a walk around a nearby lake admiring everything around me. A group of ladies dancing around with a colorful fan in one hand. Their bodies moving around so delicately. Just a few feet from them an elderly lady sits alone on the bench singing opera as other ladies listen while knitting a pair of socks. A man sitting below a tree meditating. A group of people practicing Thai Chi. Others scattered throughout doing their morning exercises under a line of cherry blossom trees (exercises like walking backwards, or standing and just hitting themselves – ( I guess it’s a way to get the qi [energy] flow going throughout their bodies), clapping their hands, swaying their arms back and forth, and other random exercises. A man propped upside down on a bench. Maybe a form of Yoga?

I sit on a park bench to people watch for a moment. Business men carrying suitcases frantically trying to get to work on time. The “minority” women in their colorful traditional clothing, carrying their babies in a sling behind them, school children in their uniforms, boys in their taekwondo outfits. People walking their dogs dressed in a sweater and booties. (I guess when you are only allowed to have one child here, people will tend to spoil their dogs.) There’s just so much going on , and I could spend hours just people watching.  And I do just that. After a morning of people watching,  I hop on my bicycle to join the other bicyclists and families (dog included) on their scooters. I pass by a line of restaurants with flashing Chinese characters full of people inside digging their chopsticks into a bowl of oily noodles.  Vendors lining the street selling fruits, vegetables, dog, chicken feet, etc. People everywhere.
I pedal to a river, where I’m better able to escape the crowds and be at peace. I direct my focus on the river, allowing the craziness of this city to escape my mind. Even with people walking by, I do my best to block them out.  Their stares at me often last longer than a respectable amount of time. Maybe they are admiring the largeness of my eyes, the curliness of my hair, or my plump figure.  (Yes in China I am fat, which is much different than in El Salvador, where I often was forced to eat all time since they thought I looked like a sick, unhealthy, undernourished individual.) Perhaps they are wondering why I am alone, sitting, staring, and writing. Some take a look at me, then at the spot in the river where my mind found peace, expecting to find some strange creature or something. They don’t see what I see… they haven’t found what I found, and they carry on with their days.
I love China. Of course there are some things I’m still getting used to. But overall, I couldn’t be happier with my move here. The culture. The people. The new foods. The new friends. My soul and mind continue to grow with each day.  The euphoria and freedom I feel of being in a new place on the other side of the world. On my bike ride home, I take a few more moments to admire everything around me. Next month, or maybe even never week, everything will begin to appear normal.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Another country. Another journey...

Green Lake in the center of the city. These birds migrate from Siberia for the winter.
 After a long 26 hours of traveling I arrived in Kunming, Yunnan, China. If you ever decide to travel to China, do not travel during their Spring Festival/Chinese New Years. During this time it is the biggest migration of people, with millions of people traveling home to visit with family during their 10 days off from work. 

around a Buddhist temple
So far I have nothing but great impressions of this place. As it is a city of 6 million, it is so densely populated, so the city itself doesn't appear that large and it is relatively easy to navigate. It seems there are more people on scooters or bikes than cars, which helps minimize the air pollution and traffic. Even the garbage collectors ride bikes. Of course, many still wear those sars/pollution masks.

"Dumpster Bikes"
The language is seemingly impossible to learn. The writing (symbols) I will likely never learn, but I hope to take some classes to help me with some basic vocabulary for speaking and understanding. So far my vocabulary consists of, "I don't understand." "This one." "Thank you." and "Hello"

I like my job so far even though I haven't started teaching. I've been doing many observations, and I've decided there can't quite be anything cuter than small Chinese children learning English. There are about 15 other foreigners at this school, 10 of them being from England. 1 French guy, 1 Australian guy, and 3 Americans (Wisconsin, Seattle, Portland) My workload will be quite small to start off, only 11 hours a week with 6 office hours. So I will have plenty of time to work on my Chinese, explore the city, and the beautiful countryside.

Some co-workers and I up to the temple
 Kunming is the capital of the Yunnan province. So it's a big city, but just minutes to ample hiking, climbing, and beautiful countryside in the surrounding mountains. I went with some co-workers this past weekend on a hike up to a Buddhist temple. Of course, I had to respect that I couldn't take photos inside. I'll never forget the moment I walked into that temple. For someone who is intrigued by Buddhism, to enter a temple for the first time was quite moving and peaceful. The smell of the incense burning, the calm, the comfort, the giant gold Buddhas, the colors, the peace, the details, the cherry blossoms lined outside, etc.The overall affect was very appealing. Everything about the moment was perfect. It's moments like those that remind me why I do what I do....

I think it is safe to say I will like it here. The best part of it all is the weather is essentially perfect. It has been 73 and sunny since I've gotten here. Now that I am thinking about it, I don't even think I've seen a cloud here yet.

As much as I do love this place, obviously things haven't been "perfect" for me. The lack of language skills makes things a bit more difficult. I've gotten lost on my own. I've ordered food which was disgusting. (Generally, I like the food here, but when you are starving, and you walk into a restaurant and point to what someone else is having you just don't know what you'll be getting.) I've given in many times to go to McDonalds (a place I haven't gone to in years) for some comfort food (and a menu that isn't in symbols.) I've learned to laugh at myself as I know it is all just part of my journey here ... and with a city of 6 million, it isn't very likely I will run into the same people very often.

I'll finally be able to move into a place next week, so I can begin cooking for myself. It is with another English teacher from the UK. It is close to the lake, so it will be nice to escape the big city feel and relax in nature every now and then.

Chinese traditional toilet
 Some other things worth mentioning: The Chinese traditional toilet (see picture above), which of course is a step up from the "outdoor hole in the ground" or "just pee along side the house" bathrooms in El Salvador. At the hospital, the doctors were smoking. Not just that, but in the chest x-ray room. The only construction workers I have seen are women. Which is especially bizarre for me coming from El Salvador, where the men do all the working, and the woman stay home with the family.
PS-  Facebook and blogspot are blocked here in China. So when I am on a computer that has it unblocked, my time is very limited and the connection is quite slow.  Excuse me for any mistakes or confusion on this blog, I had to write it quite fast for that reason.
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