Saturday, December 29, 2007

Zhu Ni Shengri Kuaile

“Happy Holidays, Happy Holidays! While the merry bells keep ringing, Happy Holidays to you.”
-Andy Williams

Some people prefer saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” around this time of year and I can’t blame them. However, “Happy Holidays” has its merits. It encompasses many holidays at once and it tells you to appreciate every one of them. When someone says it to you, they are saying, “Hey pal, eat a lot of turkey on Thanksgiving, drink some champagne on New Year’s, I hope Santa treats you well, and (most importantly) be sure to sit back and relax on Chris’s birthday.” And on that note….

Today is the 29-year anniversary of my parents hitting the jackpot at St. Agnes Hospital at Broad and Snyder (in South Philly). It’s also the 11-year anniversary of yours truly turning 18 in San Francisco (the day the Eagles lost to the 49ers in a muddy playoff game); and the 8-year anniversary of my turning 21 at the Connor Club and celebrating with my family and friends.

Another way I like to think of today: school Christmas break used to have a one-day hiatus, December 29, when all students had to go to school just so they would stay “in the swing of things” and not get too lazy during their time-off. But after 1978, it was decided that this should be a public holiday in honor of yours truly and therefore….no school.

My ex-girlfriend thought I was commitment-phobic, but I can tell you this is not true. I am committed -- to getting older, one day at a time, and one year at a time. With that in mind, I am committed to turning 30 next year. Being 29 makes me “practically 30” so bring it on.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Nick is alive and well in the Far East ---
It’s on like Donkey Kong when it comes to Christmas here. Decorations and holiday music are everywhere. In fact, as we speak, I’m sitting in a Starbucks listening to Nat King Cole sing about roasting chestnuts. Like the modernity of China, this surprised me.

I figured some people would know what Christmas was and perhaps even celebrate it, but I was wrong. They’re into it here, not quite like we are, but they dig it. I get the sense that they know it’s a big deal and a reason to give presents, but they don’t really know why. It’s a step in the right direction as twenty years ago, the Holiday was probably unheard of.

I hope everyone is enjoyed their Christmas with family. And, on that note, I'd like to send a shout-out to mine:

Sheng dan kuai le (Merry Christmas) Mom, Dad, Bernadette, Brendan and Edward!!

Monday, December 24, 2007

“Spot the Teacher: Part Deux”

Who wants to use ‘itinerary’ in a sentence?
I had difficulty getting someone to volunteer this information in my English class today. But, after their teacher sat on the floor of the classroom patiently waiting for a spell, one brave soul stepped up to the plate and hit a ground-rule double with: “It is good to have itinerary when you travel on a trip.” Anyone who’s had to learn English as a second language knows this is a good sentence at the low-intermediate level.

Like most of my classes, this one has been a joy to teach. So folks, without further ado, I give you the Level 5 Wednesday night class at my English school. Can you spot the teacher?

p.s. – When the class started four weeks ago, I had five students (3 chicks, 2 dudes), but word quickly spread that there was a special “South Philly” accent class and this is what happened….

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sort of like “Where’s Waldo?” --- Sort of.

It’s time for some fun here at Wildeast. How about a game of “Spot the teacher!” Yesterday, in a classroom in the Puxi neighborhood of Shanghai, two Germans, a French woman, and two Americans learned to say the following in Chinese: “There are two rivers in my town and they both have a bridge going over them. One is large and one is small.” Everyone who partook in this event is in the picture. Can you spot the teacher?

On a side note, I just want to say that I’m really digging the Chinese classes, not just because they are incredibly challenging, but because I got lucky. Our classmates are terrific and our teacher (or "laoshi," in Chinese) makes our lessons fun and interesting. Greta is not picking up the material as quickly as me, but she is patient and persistent so I try to help her as much as I can. It’s sort of my good deed for the holidays – sort of.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hark, someone hit the shuffle button by accident

A funny thing happened to me today at the gym. Actually, two funny things happened and both of them were firsts. For the first time this holiday season, I heard “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” And for the first time in my life, I heard it followed by “California Knows How to Party” by Dr. Dre.

I like both songs and together they work better than you might think, but it definitely caught me off-guard and emphasized the fact that I need to have a talk with the manager there. “Uh, Jack, you might want to switch-up the play list a bit. Maybe throw Santana’s Black Magic Woman in before the Dre song, maybe give the listener a little warning that we’re veering out of Christmas land before we get to Compton.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eight Hours in Nanjing - 2nd and Final Chapter

I interrupt some patrons of this dining establishment to ask them where the sites are. “Uh, duibuqi, uh, qing wen, uh.....,” and then I point to my Chinese writing and show them my map. A couple inside is helpful and I am able to locate three of the four sites. Outside, I ask two girls in their 20s for similar help, hoping I can verify the answers I received inside. Or, better yet, maybe they’ll they want to show the lost American around their metropolis.

This hope is in vain, but they do enjoy laughing at me and pointing down a street when I show them one of the sites I’m looking for. I walk down this street, but the only thing I see is a couple cabs. “Ahhh, o.k., I dig it.” I get in the cab and greet the cab driver, “Nihao!” and point to the words for Nanjing Holocaust Museum. He seems to know where it is, but doesn’t want to take me there. At the time, I thought it was because it was so close to where we were, but I would later discover the real reason (renovation).

I point to my second option, Ming Xiao Ling (MXL), and he agrees to take me there. Now, at this point, all I know about MXL is that it’s a famous ancient tomb. There are some well-known, ornate mausoleums there. Beyond that, I know nothing. There could be a building with artifacts. I could be getting sold. It could be a temple. Regardless, my true instincts tell me what I’m about to see is tranquil, surreal.

The driver drops me in front of a large, pristine park called Zhongshan. I buy the 80 kuai ($11) entrance ticket and proceed through a gate. I walk a bit and am greeted by a fork in the road and a unique set of signs (like a lot of the stuff in this story, it’s in the slideshow). The right part of the fork is a pathway (“The Sacred Path”) guided by trees and unique stone animal sculptures. I walk down the pathway and take a few pictures of the sculptures. Then, I notice three Chinese girls walking about 50 yards ahead of me.

The roughly paved trail slices through shallow trees and cuts along a pond. There’s a small patio alongside the pond. Here, I envision Mr. Miyagi practicing his karate every morning at sunrise while Daniel-sen paints the fence; it’s serene and peaceful, an accurate depiction of my mindset at the moment, and so I ask the girls to take my picture. Then, they ask a logical question and we exchange names. It is my pleasure to be in the company of Michelle, Iris, and Isabel.

They are from Qingdao, the city where the famous national beer of China is brewed (about halfway between Beijing and Shanghai along China’s east coast). They work in a hotel and met about a year ago. Their ten-day holiday is taking them to various parts of China and they were in Shanghai a few days prior.

We explore the vast expanse that encompasses the MXL tomb for about an hour before making our way to a “bus/train.” Picture a tramcar disguised like a train and you’ll get an idea for what we’re dealing with here. The thing has wheels and an exhaust pipe, but it’s decorated to be a train. It is celebrating Halloween 365 days a year without the candy and shuttles people around to the various areas of Zhongshan Park, which I’m beginning to realize is huge.

On “trainy”, we chat it up with two older couples from San Francisco. They were born in China and spent their younger days here. Now, they are taking a three-week trip back to the old country. One of their children lives in Chicago. It’s comforting to meet them and talk about familiar cities. As it turns out, we would cross paths several times later in the day. On our last encounter, we take a picture together and exchange e-mail addresses to pretend we will keep in touch.

After the ten-minute trip, we find ourselves in a small museum which houses wax sculptures of China’s past leaders. It’s a solemn building and the statues are striking in their decorated detail. Names of soldiers who died in a war are inscribed along the walls. It’s overwhelming as there are some 30,000 names listed everywhere.

After the museum, we make our way to a series of small temples. Before entering, we light incense and make a wish. This is a common ritual and the incense is left to burn in a small encasement while the candles that light the incense drip almost endlessly. As a result, melted wax cakes the bed of the metal holder.

Inside, we are greeted by several large golden Buddha statues. Again, everything is peaceful and several monks are around, some meditating, some observing their foreign visitors, and mostly keeping to themselves.

We climb stairs upon stairs to reach a tower (Linggu Pagoda) that has been within eye-shot since we left “trainy.” There are eight floors and we climb more stairs to reach the top. It reminds me of climbing the stairs at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The effort steals your lungs but it is worthwhile as there is beautiful scenery waiting from the heights.

Linggu Pagoda places itself about ¾ of the way up a mountain and the eighth floor overlooks the entire park. The view is gripping. The trees are caught in a one-month time capsule as they retain the height of their fall colors. I gaze down and admire their mesmerizing tops. They almost appear like liquid, like you could jump into them and go swimming. We take several pictures and I try to leave a slice of myself in the moment.

But, like a slice of tiramisu, all good things must come to an end and so we make our way back down the stairs. If climbing them was tiring, then descending them is dizzying. We wander around the bottom of the tower before the girls start planning our next jaunt.

They are looking for another sight. I’m not sure what it is and, like the rest of the day, I don’t really care. So far, I’ve had a great time following them around. Large portions of our day have consisted of them chatting in their hometown dialect while I gaze around, looking to take cool pictures. I’m an obedient lapdog and they are glad to have me. And I am more than happy to be in the company of three endearing females who just bought a pack of crackers and can make sense of the crazy speaking and writing all around.

Some confusion strikes as they look for the next sight on their list. These girls have an outline and they remind me of the girls I traveled with in Berlin in September. They too had an agenda and nothing was going to come between them and seeing cool, historic stuff. After a few double-takes down a gravel path, we enter an open-air pavilion with a grass seating area and lifted stage.

There are fountains separating the seating area from the stage and it is timed with pop music. As Eric Clapton or Whitney Houston pick up the pace, the streams from the fountains shoot higher and higher into the air. The scene on the lawn looks like something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There are white pigeons all around the grass and I underestimate what’s about to happen next. The girls begin dispensing the crackers and feeding time is on.

The birds flock to the girls in one dive. Before I know it, they’re surrounded and I’m caught in a quick flashback - twelve years old, down the Jersey shore, watching seagulls soar down the beach to get to the dinner we just left them at the shoreline. I snap out of it and realize that the birds are actually landing on Iris and Michelle now, trying to get at the crackers.

This doesn’t bother the girls at all; in fact, they are amused by it. I take several pictures and partake in the action myself, feeding the birds from my hand while a few land on my arms. For the moment, I feel like Ace Ventura, “Come to me, jungle friends!”

The birds hang out with us for ten minutes or so and I notice that their loyalty is directly proportional to our supply of crackers. When our bag is empty, they move on and so do we. Twilight is now conquering the sky and the sobering thought of the day’s end invades my mind.

“The Birds” incident stands as a fitting end to our tour of the grounds. It’s about 5:00 now and my train leaves at 8:00. The girls invite me to dinner with them and it takes us about an hour on the bus before we find our way into downtown Nanjing. We mosey along a strip of shops and restaurants, tasting some dessert cakes. One of these cakes is green with a mushy texture that reminds me of chocolate chip cookie dough, but tastes more like a gingerbread cookie.

Isabel’s new mission takes us to one particular restaurant that serves a certain type of food you can only find in Nanjing. So, basically, I’m about to experience what any China-native would go through the first time they tried a cheese steak in Philly. I think about this, chuckle, and tell the girls to order me Nanjing’s version of the “wiz-without.”

My legs are weary and it feels good to relax in the restaurant’s chair. After a few minutes, we’re dining on some interesting, exotic foods coupled with the non-exotic and comforting vegetable fried-rice. I can feel myself winding down. My bowl has glass noodles and some dark meat in it. I chow down on the noodles as my fellow travelers anxiously wait for me to try the dark stuff. I eat some of it and they ask, “So, what do you think?”

I get it. I just ate something strange. “Ah, it was ok, not my favorite. Why? What was it?”

“It is blood and liver of a duck.”

It’s an appropriate end to the day - a dish unlike any other for Eight Hours in Nanjing unlike any other.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hot flashes

My heater is moody. It is emotional and makes irrational decisions. Sometimes it blows out hot air, sometimes it’s cold, but no matter what -- it’s always short with me. I still love it though, even if it does keep me up half the night with its drafty breath (and make me want to steal the awesome hand dryer from the bathroom at work and figure out a way to make it run all night).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In other news

The DVD player is fixed. I didn’t want to tell you it was broken because I did not want you to worry about us. Our kind, elderly landlords arrived earlier today with an elderly crony to fix it. After that failed miserably, they left and came back twenty minutes later with some sort of DVD player repairman, (i.e., someone who is young and knows Chinese). He called his repairman buddy and, before I knew it, Greta was running to the store to pick up some beer. We were suddenly hosting our first party, outnumbered 2.5-to-1 by the Chinese, and celebrating a sight for sore eyes – Stewie Griffin on our television set.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Eight hours in Nanjing - Episode I

The city of Nanjing sits about 175 miles northwest of Shanghai and with roughly 5 million inhabitants, it is average by Chinese standards. I went there yesterday, armed with nothing more than four phrases written in Chinese (historical sites) and a couple notes on when the trains should be leaving (from and to Shanghai). No maps or guides, no purchased tickets, no itineraries – just a wherewithal to see the city I read 200 pages about three months prior (The Rape of Nanking; well-written and sobering).

I take the subway line #2 to the train station and am blanketed by the smell of warm pee and the sights of excessive amounts of people coming to and from. I think the trains are in the building next to me. A sign with some Chinese characters and “ticket office” adorns the front of a separate building. The ticket room is smoky, but bright, and there are seven lines, each with a neon sign above it written in Chinese characters. I look to the schedules and posters on the wall, but there is no comfort to be found as everything is in Chinese.

With no English anywhere in sight, I go with the universal language – “pick the shortest line.” It works. After waiting a few minutes, I get to the front of the line and the clerk glances at me with a rushed face, like the last thing he needs is this startled foreigner on the other side of the glass. I agree with him. And I point to the Chinese characters for “Nanjing” and then write “9:45,” the time I think the train leaves. He nods and types on his computer, then gives me the 93rmb (about $13) ticket, and points up.

Now I have a ticket, but I’m not sure where to go. Anyone resembling a train station employee gets my ticket in their face along with a hopeful look that they can point me in the right direction. This gets me nowhere. I see some travelers going into a building across the street. It looks like a safe bet and it is. The clerk at the entrance stamps my ticket and I’m in. I put my bag through some sort of x-ray machine, but I do not have to get naked like you do at the airports these days.

I see signs with my train number (D414) pointing to a waiting room, where I meet the rest of my fellow cattle who are making the trek to Nanjing. I sit and try to figure out what my ticket says using my pocket Mandarin guide, when the girl next to me says, “Do you need help?”

“Where do I start?” runs through my head. But the words come out more like, “Yes.”

“You stand-up, you no seat,” she says while pointing to her ticket, which clearly shows a car and seat number, something that is absent from mine. Because the train is full and I booked my ticket so soon before leaving, I have to stand for the duration of the trip. At this point, I feel thankful that I even got on the train at all.

This train must have been one of the fastest I’ve ridden. It’s modern and comfortable, even if you don’t have a chair. The bad news of having to stand is balanced by the good news that comes with the conductor’s announcement: the train’s next and only stop is Nanjing. I’m on an express and it takes us less than two hours to get there. “Standing” isn’t so bad, especially since I sit on the floor most of the trip next to a couple other Chinese guys.

We arrive in Nanjing and my first priority is to buy my return ticket on the 8:09pm to Shanghai for that night. There are several older women selling city maps and I purchase one for four kuai (about $0.50). Most of the writing is in Chinese, but I’m still thankful to have it. Then I navigate the subway system (which is thankfully similar to Shanghai’s) and get off at a stop that looks like it might be their version of Walnut-Locust or Grand & State.

When I get above ground for the first time, I see I guessed well. There are tall buildings everywhere and a bunch of advertisements, one of which bears the likenesses of Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups. I collect my thoughts while eating KFC.