Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Happy New Year

For those that remember the videos I posted last year around Chinese New Year, rest assured that the scene was similar this year in Yantai over the last few days. I do not have the cable to upload pictures and videos. It is in transit on the way to Yantai. So, if you want an idea of what the fireworks were like, check-out the blog post from last year.

To sum it up verbally, the fireworks have been pretty much non-stop for the past three days. On New Year's Eve, which was two days ago, my neighbor invited me to a local restaurant to eat dinner with his family - his wife, two daughters and their friends, and his parents-in-law. The only people drinking "yellow wine" at the table were me, him, and his father-in-law. I have no idea why the Chinese drink this stuff. It's basically the equivalent of sitting down to a steak dinner and drinking whiskey at the same time. I like steak and whiskey, but you have to separate the two, right?.

The food was terrific. There were about ten different dishes and among them were bluefish, broccoli, diced pork, and fried squid. I like the Chinese style of eating - a giant spinning glass on top of the table so you can grab a little bit of everything.

After dinner, we did what I had been waiting to do all night: Light some fireworks. Last year, I was only a witness to the mayhem. This year, thanks to the previous dwellers at my apartment, I would be a participant. When I moved in last week, I noticed a dozen red balls with funny Chinese writing in one of the closets. Each had a long thin fuse attached to the top and I couldn't wait to light them up to see what they did.

So, I walked across the street to the middle of a parking lot, lit the fuse and took off running. About ten seconds later, this thing exploded with a loud boom, sending green sparks across the street, while setting off about ten car alarms. Then I knew what I was dealing with. Essentially, these are the same fireworks you see around July 4th, but I don't have the piece that shoots them into the sky. Instead, I just light them on the ground.

I lit off four more that night and two started small brush fires that I had to stomp out. Of course, everytime one went off, it just blended in with the scenery. For miles around, thousands of Yantainese were doing the same, with the crescendo arriving around midnight. Around 1am, the noise finally subsided enough to fall asleep. But that only lasted until 5:30. Yeah, that's right- 5:30 a.m.

Last night, on our way home from dinner, my colleague and I noticed a lull in the action. It was only 10 o'clock, but the madness had calmed. So, we fired off one of the red bad boys, jostling the neighborhood. Two blocks away, we heard a car alarm go off and laughed. After all, when in Rome, er, Yantai.....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Actually, not Catholic

I just edited the previous post to say "Christians" instead of Catholics. I confused the translation for the two words, which lead to my rare attendance at a non-Cathlolic mass this morning. In becoming friends with the family next door this week, they invited me to join them at mass.

At 8am, we met outside our building and caught a bus to the church. Within a minute of arriving, I knew it wasn't a Catholic mass. First off, the church was not named after a saint. Instead, it was named the Fulai Church. Second, there was a lot more singing than I'm used to and no priest. To kick things off, they opened their celebration with four consecutive songs. This was followed by a man in a suit giving a lecture and more singing. Fireworks and firecrackers rang outside, a sign of the ongoing New Year Celebration.

In between translating what I could in my mind, I began guessing which religion this was - Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Protestant? I am extremely unfamiliar with the other branches of Christianity. This seemed Baptist to me, solely for the reason of a guy in a suit lecturing.

I also learned the word for "pray," which we did a fair amount of over the two hour service. At one point, the congregation shook hands and briefly chatted with each other. It was a bit like the sign of peace, but lasted longer and occurred twice in five minutes. The woman beside me told me the things she appreciated in life, but the best I could do was smile and say "Thank you."

Towards the end, I correctly translated the phrase "If this is your first time attending our church, please come to the front." I joined a group of other first-timers and we were awarded with a CD and two small booklets, which I will spend the next six months translating. After the service, we were asked to complete an information card.

I gave them my name and number and explained to the pastor that I had never attended a service like this. It was then that I discovered they were Lutheran. When you know the language well, the distinction is clear. When you don't, well, that's just further confirmation that you're not in Kansas anymore.

Christians, Apartment Filth, and Other Observations from Yantai

Chinese New Year is tomorrow and my first week in Yantai is just about up. In disclaiming that surreal has become normal, the week was average by most accounts. I did not work and, therefore, did not have to wake up for anything in particular. I arrived on Monday night to a spacious but filthy apartment. The feeling of relief from arriving at the new apartment was replaced by disgust. I laid my head on the pillow and pulled a blanket over my legs, a sense of exhaustion waving over me. After a few minutes, another sense took over. Dust and must were surrounding me. I was sleeping on them, disrupting their months of stable serenity in the vacant apartment.

Over the course of the next two days, I washed everything – pillowcases, sofa cushions, towels, sheets…you name it. After the first load of laundry, which included the sofa cushions, I noticed the sofa was not actually the light grey I thought it was but a soft tan. I don’t remember the last time I mopped, dusted, and swept like this, probably because I never have. Each day I’d conquer a new room, replacing buckets of soap water after they turned black. In Shanghai, your “problem” of cleaning can be avoided by hiring a cleaning lady for $2 an hour. But, in Yantai, such practice is not customary. It’s one of the few subtle differences I noticed between the two towns.

It seems like there is a slower pace of life here. Maybe it is the fact that I didn’t have to work this week, but I doubt it. The people seem friendlier, more welcoming. The air - cleaner, colder and dryer than Shanghai - smells a bit more relaxed. And sometimes it smells like snow. Last winter, it snowed twice in Shanghai and they considered it a legendary season. This week, it’s snowed twice in Yantai. Granted, both brought less than an inch. But snow is snow and I am glad it’s regular again, expected.

A Sunday night sore throat morphed into a cold by Tuesday morning. Since I had the luxury of being able to relax, I let my body recover. Aside from cleaning, each day brought studying Chinese and watching the Wire, one of the most well-written shows I’ve ever seen. At some point, I also managed to sneak in a trip to the government building to handle visa formalities, my first chess game in eight years, three games of bowling, four games of pool, and a partridge in a pear tree.

I also made friends with the woman who runs the convenience store downstairs. She, in turn, introduced me to a family that lives in the next-door building. The father is from a different part of China, but the mother is from Yantai. She tells me her parents live across the street and I feel like I’m in South Philly for an instant. My new neighbors may not be Italian or Irish, but they are Christian.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Beginnings

I made it to Yantai in one piece yesterday. After watching the Eagles' game, I went home and tried to get some sleep but I was too restless, thinking about the game and the upcoming move. I ended up cleaning my apartment and running a few last-minute errands in the afternoon.

One of these errands was meeting up with my landlord to get my security deposit back. He kept asking if I needed help getting my stuff to the subway (to the airport). I consistently refused, but he would not give up. And, so, the last person I saw in Shanghai, was one of the people I knew the least. On our way to the subway, I said to him, "Other people probably think you're my father because you're helping me and we look the same, both real handsome."
"No, no, no. I don't have much hair," he replied.
"Ha ha, neither do I!"
Our conversation was a good one and I found myself wishing I'd spent more time with him. I can't really blame myself there though. I mean, how often do you hang out with your landlord?

My colleagues, Nora and James, greeted me at the airport on a frosty Yantai night. The weather here will be consistently colder, similar to Philadelphia and Chicago. Nora is Chinese, from the Sichuan province while James is from England. Nora is one of the owners and James is the manager, but he'll be leaving next month. After dropping some stuff off at the apartment, I grabbed a fried-rice dinner with James and another colleague, Jason (Delaware's finest, but he's a Baltimore fan).

And now it's 5:30 a.m. and I'm wide awake. I can't sleep, mainly because of a cold coming on and a musty smell in the apartment. But, I cannot complain. The place is much bigger than the one in Shanghai, with two bedrooms and a living room. In addition, the buildings are constructed differently so the insides are much warmer during the winter (than those in the south). So, even though I moved to a colder climate, the days of sleeping in sweatpants and a sweater while a space heater hums in the background seem to be over. All in all, the Yantai Experience is off to a solid start.

Monday, January 12, 2009

For the Birds

It’s 10 p.m. and I should be able to sleep. Waking up early in the morning usually means I can crash easy that night. But I toss and turn for several hours. There’s too much excitement stirring and circulating for the upcoming Eagles’ game.

Just before 2 a.m. kickoff time, I walk into the Big Bamboo and catch glazes from a table to the right. One of the patrons is wearing a Yankees cap. I throw out an “E”. Nothing. Then I throw out a louder “E.” Still nothing. After finding my buddy Scott (Bucks County’s finest) and gazing around for several minutes, it’s clear that I’m in Giants’ country. The bar is pretty boisterous after the opening kickoff. We hold the Giants to a field goal and I tell Scott we just need to get to the 4th quarter in one piece in order to win.

Samuel picks it off. The Giants get a safety. In the second quarter, we are winning 7-5 despite having 10 yards of offense. I notice that Mike Patterson is having a great game and point out that we have not made our run yet. Things look relatively good aside from the woman sitting a few seats down from us at the bar.

The Giants pick McNabb off at the 20 and she cheers wildly. Her voice sounds like a frustrated cat stuck in the muffler of a car. I mock-cheer for the Giants in retaliation and the fans do not like it.

At halftime, I can not call Philly friends or family because I’m too jealous of them, surrounded by each other soaking up the playoff brew. I need to talk to someone who’s equally pumped, but away from the action, someone who I’ve cheered the Birds with many times. Half-time calls for a call to cousin Jim. We relay equal sentiments. It would have been nice to score a touchdown at the end of the first half, but a lead is a lead is a lead.

Kevin Curtis and Sheldon Brown make the tackles of the game. Concurrently, the second half sees Scott pull ahead in our small drinking contest while the Birds keep it close and do as I hoped. Hang in there until the 4th quarter and pull away --- Lovely.

And now we face our old pre-realignment division rival, the Cardinals. They have a quarterback who’s beaten us in the conference championship before. But I’m confident in the Birds and their ability to win. At this point, after storming the Meadowlands and Big Bamboo, there’s no reason to feel otherwise.