Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Oh, I Get it Now!"

How curious are you about day to day life here in Nanjing, China? 

My perception of what goes on has been fertile ground to spew and blog and capture the essence of my experience as an ex-pat from the middle of the USA. As one day leads to the next I try and keep my eyes wide open. I don't want to become complacent as I "Embrace the New Normal in Nanjing".  If I did, Cricket's Voice would stop chirping, you would stop reading and I wouldn't have a collection of inner thoughts to recall in upcoming years. Because of that I feel obligated to wear a Blog-worthy Detective Hat at all times. Of course this is just fantasy but let me WOW you with it's features:

Imagine this...

  • Picture a light colored pith helmet keeping the direct hot sunlight off of my fair head and fair skin. I love the fact that it helps hide that I am a blonde blue-eyed creature.*
  • Behind a shimmering crystal in the forehead of my helmet hides a hidden camera which captures significant images with just a purposeful blink of my right eye. Snapshots are always in focus and the lens automatically zooms IN and OUT with a wiggle of my nose.  
  • My ear piece and microphone were pricey but a feature I was willing to pay extra for.  
  • I find myself saying "Roger, that!" from time to time, just to test it out. I don't speak but a few choppy "Chinglish" sentences while I'm out there, so you see it's good to test it now and then.
  • The wireless device embedded in the crook of my left elbow has internet service and I can Google Translate if necessary or look up anything on the world wide web. [Except for the 'embedded in the crook of my left elbow' part, I could be describing an I-phone 4, right?]

Yes, my Blog-worthy Detective Hat is just wishful thinking and I agree, pretty silly, especially in a local eatery or bustling street.  My point being that I am using all of the tools I can, whenever I can, to bring my readership, the inside skinny on how things are going a world away from most of you.  I can hear your gratitude - ::::crickets::::

Here is my tale~

At first blush everything in our new home town was NEW and DIFFERENT and ODD. Now we are more than three months into the adventure of a lifetime and many things have switched from

 "THAT'S ODD"                 to                 "OH, I GET IT NOW!"

Here's an example. Our home state of Michigan is one of a few states in the USA that has a refundable bottle and can deposit (10 cents) on soft drink beverages and beer.  Empties are rinsed out and taken back to the store for 10 cents each and trucked off to a recycling center instead of a landfill.  Add to this the prevalence of curbside or recycling depots and the result is significantly less roadside trash.  Michiganders feel more 'green' and less 'trashy' & seeing beverage cans & bottles strewn about is rare. We have a lot of shoreline to be concerned about.

[Michigan offers more than 11,000 inland lakes and 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, including 1,000 miles of the finest blue ribbon trout mainstreams in the country. We have 3,000 miles of freshwater shoreline (more than any other state) - and more total shoreline than any other state, except Alaska. Our two peninsulas touch four of the five Great Lakes, which contain 80 percent of the nation's fresh water and 14 percent of the world's fresh water. In Michigan you're never more than six miles from a river or stream, and never more than 85 miles from one of the Great Lakes.] - Department of Natural Resources

Imagine my surprise when we arrived in China and noted that cans, glass and cardboard were just tossed away.  After all, there are 1,339,724,852 ** people in China and that can add up to a lot of trash. How ODD that they didn't recycle, I thought.  So I began depositing refuse into a trash can like the natives, feeling good old Puritan guilt with each toss. It was odd to me until I put on that detective hat and started paying attention.  Throughout the city streets were vehicles stacked with cardboard, metal and plastic bottles.  Most are pedal-bikes and how they maneuver through busy streets and cross crazy intersections is an art.  The Chinese DO recycle.  It's the less fortunate who do the collecting, sorting, smashing and hauling.  They take their finds to recycling centers around the city and get paid a very small sum for their cargo. Our moving boxes, all ninety-one of them, were emptied one by one as we put our house together.  Once dragged to the curb they were snatched up within an hour by someone who sought their value.   What was once in the "THAT'S ODD" column jumped immediately into the "OH, I GET IT!" column.  Recyclables are a source of income for some people.

Because the level of income is quite low in China every resource is conserved.  You won't find a light on that doesn't have a very important purpose. All bulbs are the squiggly-wiggly energy efficient ones and some cast the oddest blue light I've ever read by. Electricity costs money and money does not flow like the Yangtze river does here.   It is not unusual for scooters, cars and buses (yes, I said BUSES) to drive down the street with the headlights OFF at night!  So dangerous to my way of thinking, that's for sure. Is risking one's life (and others) worth the few pennies of electrical charge necessary to have your path safely illuminated? I'm all about safety and watching out for the other guy, sadly this one remains in the "THAT'S ODD" column. I consider people a worthy asset and not expendable.

Imagine my surprise when someone 'called me out' when I rinsed out a pickle jar in their presence.  "Well, that is very 'Chinese' of you," they said.  I laughed, because I had no real need for the jar, it just looked like it might be useful someday for something.  And so my pile began to slowly grow as we finished off the contents of lidded glass jars.   The jar thing reminds me of my Dad's & Grandfather's workbench area.  Lots of pickle and jam jars were filled with this, that or the other thing.  Baby food jars were suspended from a wood beam having had their lids nailed tightly to the rafter. They held similar "you just never know when you might need one of these" treasures; nails, thumbtacks, screws, wire nuts.
Some of my "You just Never Know" Jars

Then there is clothing.  The Big Guy had an oxford shirt that had seen better days.  In the States I would have thrown it in the Salvation Army donation pile but here in Nanjing, China, I kept it...just in case.  

In the USA an unnamed male relative of mine went through a Gap boxer shorts with "Penguins Only" phase.  Each fashion season the Gap would feature boxers with penguins.  He had them all, for years.  The fondness didn't wear out when the waistlines gave out. 

 I became the steward of his "Penguins Only" boxer shorts... 

...  and with a hand on my heart I promised that he would see them again.I brought them with me to China. :0)    

While unpacking several boxes of fabric, I came across those coveted penguin boxers giving
me a quirky dose of Chinese recycling inspiration. I began playfully plotting....and...

Between the oxford shirt and the boxers I fashioned a quilt top made entirely from cast-offs,

thus preserving a favorite "Penguins Only" theme and keeping a promise.

A Promise of Penguins - July 2011

How very "Chinese" of me, right? 

I am beginning to appreciate what millions and millions of people in this country have learned out of necessity; look at something really close to see if it offers a useful alternative in it's cast-off state.  
 Moving from
 "THAT'S ODD"       to          "OH, I GET IT NOW!"

has had an impact on my resourcefulness here in Nanjing, China.  I'm not alone either.  The Big Guy brought home a tall box with red twine wrapped around it for the security of it's contents.  I offered him a pair of scissors to lop off the twine. He quickly said, "NO, I will untie it.  I want to save the string, I may need to use it for something down the road!"  I don't doubt that there will be a use for that string.

Now, what to do with my burgeoning jar collection... "Hey, Big Guy, rinse out that salsa jar and the parmesan cheese shaker and toss them in the soap suds, you just never know..."

Thanks for Reading,


..."Roger, that!"

Cricket Sports her Blog-Worthy Detective Hat

 *A creature so rare in the Middle Kingdom that little children tug at their parents and point at me. Older children say "Hay-Lo," in English and smile proudly. I give them my biggest teacher approval smile and say "Hello," back to them.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

"I Can Cook, Too!"

You've heard the stories, you know the rumors. If one lives in a country outside of the good old USA the domestic Help is often inexpensive enough to make it "necessary." 

Here's my tale ~

Our home came with a built-in  "Ayi". That's a term of fondness and respect, literally meaning "Auntie," and refers to hire able female domestic Help who will watch your children, clean your house, wash and iron your clothes, cook, walk your pet, & basically do whatever domestic chore you can come up with that isn't against the law.  Gardening and house repair is usually left to a male hired hand.  This is the first time this house has been rented to anyone, as our landlord and family lived here for about ten years. Some of their belongings remain in the garage, an upper loft and a staircase storage closet. The house is fully furnished, in an opulent Asian decor. Framed artwork, antiques from the Ming Dynasty, really god-awful regal dining room chairs, beds/desks/dressers, a never used built-in dishwasher, custom draperies and so forth made it instantly a home, not a blank canvas. So, although not my taste the style befits the region and quickly fit us like a comfortable slipper. We shuffled things about to our liking and brought our own bed from Michigan since sleeping on a mattress the comfort level of the dining table would not suit our aging spines.

Every floor in this villa (condominium) has rich dark-stained wood of one meter boards; finished and gorgeous. The steps to all the levels ( there are five) are dark wood.  Nanjing, being a growing city, has construction on every corner.  Hearing jack-hammers, diesel trucks and seeing cranes and scaffolding everywhere is truly, the norm. They build roads around the clock. With those improvements come what I fondly call, "Nanjing Gold Dust."  Surfaces inside and outside need a daily dousing to keep the dust and sneezing to a minimum.  I justified that all arrows were pointing and flashing toward needing hired Help, the sooner the better.
<and I'm guessing, dear readership, that you whole-heartedly agree...>

Yi Ayi cleaned like a tornado and because she worked for the landlords before us she knew the villa inside and out.  I'm quite sure she informed the landlord if I took down a picture, moved some furniture or left on a light. I was not bothered by her familiarity with our new home because she cleaned it so well. 

At the outset I asked her the following questions:

"Do you iron?  - NO.
 Do you do laundry? - NO.
 Do you cook?  - NO. 
 Will you stay with our dog while we are gone? - NO! NO!"

Okay, so now I knew where I stood.

Yi Ayi cleaned for us during the month of April, for 3 half-days least five neighboring ex-pats informed me that I was paying way too much for what she was and was NOT doing.  Who knew?  So I let her go - (try doing THAT in a language not your own!)

For the month of May and a portion of June we tip-toed through the Nanjing Gold Dust and tried to keep up with all of it.  I know I sound really privileged to most of you at this point, but as I've said before, "Everything is harder in China!" For example our  washing machine holds a maximum of two bath towels, OR 3 men's dress shirts, and line drying in 98% humidity require clothes to be hanging in the dusty breeze way longer than they were ever on our bodies! 

Before arriving in Nanjing I thought that I might appreciate some Help a day or two a week. Then there was the cooking debacle.  I reasoned that watching hired Help shop in a local grocery store and cooking in my kitchen would be beneficial.  I could learn so much from how she selected groceries and how she prepared a meal without an oven. I'd come home in December, season a 'proper' wok from IKEA and "Bam!" wow the family with who knows what kind of delicacies!

Like magic, new Help graced my doorstep. -  Pei Ayi.  She is NOT afraid of dogs and is willing to take care of our pup while we are gone.  She irons!  She launders!  She cleans! She can cook, too!  She is patient with the language barrier. (Although she often enunciates and raises her voice so I might understand her native Mandarin more "C L E A R -LY" - why do we ALL do that?)  Pei Ayi putters about the five levels wet-mopping surfaces, cleaning 4 bathrooms, launders and irons. The place *=*sparkles*=*.  She's an ironing wizard, ironing white t-shirts, towels and what we used to call "unmentionables." Raise your hand if you remember that term....

Pei Ayi cooks two meals a week for us. It's been so helpful on the evenings we have Mandarin lessons here at our dining room table to pop up and heat up the 3 dishes she prepared earlier.
What a great benefit!  Last week I accompanied her on a shopping trip where she pushed the cart and picked out vegetables and meat for that evenings meal.  When she stopped at the chicken neck pile and tripe bins I gave the appropriate response, "Bu hao!," meaning "Not good!" complete with appropriate hand gesture, I might add. Walking down the kitchen utensil aisle I charaded the universal "whatever you want" gesture and she picked out a cleaver, dumpling ladle and a wok paddle. Any cook worth their rice will tell you that having the right kitchen tools will make a difference in the outcome.   "Stand back because this woman is a professional," I thought to myself. She was timid about the expenditure, but being the Fat Cat that I am, I'd part with $5/USD for all that! She skipped away happy and I was happy to provide her with what was going to benefit our loins. 

I carefully watch Pei Ayi's cooking techniques.  She prepares 3 dishes each afternoon, dicing the ingredients and placing them in a red hot, well-oiled wok. She flops that food throughout the wok over and over with her new magic paddle.  I sit on the counter like a kid watching my Mom frost a birthday cake.  
My well-seasoned Wok with Edamame

She uses about half of the meat and three times the oil I would, so that is eye-opening.

She cooks with lots of garlic,ginger root,chicken broth powder and I'm guessing MSG-monosodium glutamate.  Every grocery store I have been in has an entire aisle of different soy sauces, oils and vinegars. My pantry is beginning to blossom with a variety of each. Pei Ayi cooks the hour before she leaves.  I set the table with chopsticks and deep bowls before our lessons.  As our Mandarin lesson winds down I excuse myself, click the button on our 220 volt rice cooker and it's all Pei Ayi magic after that! 

It's a lovely life, isn't it? 

On Wednesday she took me over to the calendar and indicated that she couldn't come on Thursday but would be here on Friday.  Okay! This was truly a proud moment because I know the days of the week in Mandarin - (do I hear a "Wah-hoo!"?)
She had an appointment on Thursday that she couldn't miss and she indicated that she would be back on Friday. Returning on Friday she busily buzzed about, up the stairs and down.  When I walked in with my sweet Mandarin-speaking friend, Pei Ayi asked if she would interpret for her.  So the three of us "circled-up" and she spoke swiftly and sincerely.  I could tell that I was about to hear some god-awful news.

The interpretation went something like this:

"This is my last day here. 
They treat me really nice.
My grandmother is sick and dying and there is no one to take care of her.
It is up to me to care for my dying grandmother.
My mother has a bad knee and is very ill, she can't get around very well.
My grandmother is sick and dying and there is no one to take care of her.
They treat me really nice.
I like them.
This is my last day here."

I felt like I was punched in the stomach. This had come out of nowhere. There had been a rhythm to our weeks together. She was getting a fair wage that I had increased just days before. I bought her custom kitchen tools.  Hungry to know more about Chinese cuisine I was transfixed by her cooking prowess. Add to that the benefit of practicing my Mandarin and she her English and, well...

 I liked her, for Confucius sake!

Apparently, in the land of hired Help that simply is not enough. And just as she magically popped into our lives, Pei Ayi poofed into the air and pooped out. She will not benefit from our generous nature nor will we benefit from her HELP.

Pei Ayi Prepping to Cook

I think her dog ate her cookbook, too...

Thanks for Reading,


Have you read?~
Set in Mississippi in 1962 during the civil rights movement, the story chronicles the lives of three women, one white and two black, and how they came together to write a book about how "the help" coexisted with their well-to-do white employers.

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July

~Favorite Question of the Week ~
"Do they have a 4th of July in China?"  

 Happy 4th of July to my USA- Independence Day People!

Zeli made this Beautiful American Flag last year in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

We celebrated on July 2 with new friends,
Petra (Germany) and Gary (UK) at their
 lovely home in Nanjing, China. 
 Everyone Loves a Get-together with Good Food and Conversation!
~We were treated to a Fireworks Display~
~***God Bless America!***~