Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chinese New Year - Xiaoshan

Arriving in Esther's hometown of Xiaoshan (sh-yow shaan), about 45 minutes east of Hangzhou, i mention to her how much warmer it was than Beijing.  Generally the Hangzhou area is eight to twelve degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Beijing. Plus, i thought i was tough, that i could brave the cold because i grew up in Chicago where the wind chill takes you far below zero.

But somewhere in China there exists an imaginary line.  Above this line, homes have central heating, and below it, you can see your breath indoors during the winter. On Nov 15th, they turn on the central heating in Beijing. In Xiaoshan however, homes do not have this feature, presumably because it is "the south" and therefore does not get cold. In Esther's home, located in this balmy southern town, my clothing for the next three days would be:
  • Two pairs of socks
  • Pajama pants
  • Jeans
  • Long-sleeve undershirt
  • Sweatshirt
  • Thick winter coat
  • Hat and Scarf
  • Gloves, when practical, i.e. when not eating.
I was still cold even wearing all that. You start the morning off ok, still warm from bed.  After a few hours of bone-numbing cold, your core body temperature is so far down, it takes an hour to warm up.  Fortunately, Esther's bedroom has a heater, and we hibernated for 12 hours each night, watching movies, not wanting to face the cold, cruel world outside that room each morning. I ask why they don't get heaters for the rest of the house. She said her family didn't mind it, that they were really tough, li hai

But regardless of the cold, it was a really nice holiday.  I bonded with her parents, but more so with her mother who is simply more extroverted. I call her Wang Lei Ma Ma, literally Wang Lei's Mother.  (Esther's name is Wang Lei, Wang being their family name.)  I call her father Lao Wang, meaning Old Wang.  This is appropriate and respectful, but they also find it hilarious at the same time. I do not know why.

Her parents and family all speak a local dialect, which is basically unrecognizable from Mandarin. No one speaks English. They switch to Mandarin when talking with me, or when they think i'm paying attention.  Her mom speaks pretty clearly, but Lao Wang less so.  He likes to use unusual words to describe things, and in return, he sometimes gets blank stares or friendly nods. Esther explained to him that he should speak to me like i am 5 years old, but he doesn't understand that concept yet.

Esther has no brothers or sisters, but she has cousins who look out for her like brothers would. I'm sure they have names, but they were introduced to me as Da Ge and Xiao Ge Ge (big brother and little-big brother). I talked with them for almost an hour, discussing the best cities to buy fake watches (Guangzhou), how cold it was (very), and how great Esther is (super).  It was clear i had won their approval when Da Ge toasted me at lunch, "I look forward to drinking with you this time again next year."

I met another set of cousins, all three were men, and their names were Lao Da, Lao Er, and Lao San, meaning Oldest, Second Born, Third Born.  Esther explained this to me: in a family gathering, the position in the family is more important than personal identity. Also, they probably knew i'd forget their actual names almost instantly.

I ate multiple dinners and lunches with her extended family.  There was always a men's table and separate table for women and children.  I was received at the men's table, where cigarette smoking and baijiu drinking were the main activities.  I stuck to beer.

I didn't bring a camera on this trip, so i only took photos using my iPhone. Most really aren't worth sharing, but here's one good one:

Xiao Ge Ge, dressed in a winter jacket, wearing a scarf, pouring shots of baijiu, smoking a cigarette.  Classic.

After three nights in Xiaoshan, we left her parents house for Suzhou and Hangzhou.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Holiday Season

One New Year celebration down, one to go.  I spent two weeks back in the states in Chicago and Colorado.  Stateside was good, saw my whole family and a few friends in Chicago.  Whirlwind trips are hard though and I always leave wishing i could have done more, seen more friends, spent more "quality time" with everyone, but in the end, the only ones i really saw that much of were the rents. Don't mistake me, i love them infinity, they are wonderful parents in every way, but they already visited me in China for a month last year.  My siblings all have in-law families to whom they have obligations, so we all have approximately 10 hours together on whatever day we celebrate Christmas, which this year was the 23rd.

For Christmas, i once again came home with loads of presents, a whole separate bagful, for my nieces and nephews.  I like to think of myself as Santa-ish nowadays, and the similarities are many:
  1. I have a fluffy beard.
  2. I am jolly, or at least optimistic.
  3. I travel from across the world and arrive an hour before i left.
  4. I arrive with a whole bag of presents built by little people.
I earned the honor of being Santa this year, passing out the presents.  However, since i was dressed in a panda suit, i was known as Panda Claus.

Colorado was wonderful as always.  I spent two nights with my sister's family in Evergreen, a night in boulder with my college friends Will and Andrea, and the remaining three nights with Larkin in his mountain house of awesome, wonderful people.  Highlights include eating and drinking at the Great Divide, Mountain Sun, and Avery breweries, breakfast and a morning hike with Larkin, strolling pearl street, ultimate frisbee in Boulder, and, of course, New Years Eve. Those same panda pajamas were my costume for the "Black and White" party we attended.  

I would have gone snowboarding as a panda also, but, well, snowboarding wasn't worthwhile. Cuz pandas don't like cold. Also Colorado had one of the worst early ski seasons on record, so i didn't even bother with the $108 lift tickets.  Breckenridge was pretty wonderful anyway, even though none of the people i hoped would come, came. I had rented a place for anyone who could make it. I thought to myself, "if you rent it, they will come"... but in the end, i chilled by myself and a few random people i met along the way.  Fortunately, Breck is a really, really nice little town.  I didn't mind having some quiet time.  

So now i'm back in Beijing, just finishing up two weeks of work. We just got over one of the worst bouts of pollution in recent memory. Fortunately, i'm headed to Hangzhou for Chinese New Year (Jan 23rd) for a week with Esther.  It'll be my first CNY with a Chinese family, which should be, well, i don't know yet.  I'll... let you know?  Anyway, i cannot wait to see her, so it won't be anything but fantastic.

Oh, and here's a picture of the boarding gate, leaving San Francisco for Beijing.

"Now boarding seating area 1" sounds a lot like "Quick! Everybody run! There's only room for half of you on board!" in Chinese.