Sunday, January 30, 2011

Warorot Market

There's a type of loneliness that lends itself to meeting new people. It's part of the contract when you sign up for international living: moments and days when a person is flanked by no one, walking hand in hand with just the outside air, mind sharing conversation with Maker, marveling at people and places with unknown stories. It’s the disappearance of daily babble that awakens the sensitivity toward listening and watching.

I can think of no better example than yesterday. It started with a 4 a.m. alarm and a 5 a.m. trip to Warorot Market, a place whose early morning colors and flavors are appreciated only by locals and a few bleary-eyed foreigners with cameras in hand. My friend and I were classified by the latter. After a few hours, we had expended our energy and parted ways. The rest of the day yielded to whatever happened along. I had no loyalty, whatsoever.

A two-hour Thai massage downtown led me to justify a meal at my favorite Chiang Mai restaurant due to my proximity. I caught a songtao to the city gate, and when I stepped into the back cab, there was a young Buddhist monk sitting opposite me, barefoot with a shaved head and dressed in a bright orange tunic. Some monks keep to themselves, but he was one with a quick smile and an immediate question. “Where are you from?” he grinned, his youthful curiosity making him look even younger than I first believed. I answered, “America,” and then countered with the same question. “Vietnam,” he said, “but I live here now. My father is Vietnam and my mother is Chiang Mai.” We continued our conversation until he jumped out of the back to continue his barefoot walk to the temple grounds.

There were no more small tables left open by the time I arrived at the restaurant, so I was seated at a larger table occupied by a couple who seemed to be around 10 years my senior. I made the move into conversation -- after all, we were sharing eating space and condiments. Once they found out that I teach in China, they told with me that they, too, are returning there. They will both be in language school in Sichuan. People who do what we do and why we do it have an internal ability to recognize each other, and we unspeakingly knew that we were family at that table. We finished our meals with reciprocated blessings toward each other.

As I counted out my bills at the counter, I spoke with the Israeli lady who owns the restaurant. She knows exactly when we (ELIC) show up every year; she counts on it. Her English is ribboned with a Middle Eastern accent, and I love how she shrugs her shoulders when she talks. She wants to retire soon and move back to Jerusalem; she says that she’s tired. I asked if that would mean the end of her place in Chiang Mai. She assured me that her partner would keep it open and running.

As I walked out to the busy street, I caught a songtao back to my hotel. A few stops later, the driver picked up two Asian men with greying hair. I glanced over at them and could tell that they weren’t Thai: too formally dressed. They weren’t Chinese, either: their voices were quieter. I looked at their waistlines and figured that by the severity of how high they had pulled their trousers, they were Japanese. And I was right. Their English was very basic, so I kept it simple. “What city in Japan? Tokyo?” I asked. “No, Nagoya,” said the more proficient of the two. My eyes lit up. “I lived in Nagoya!” Their eyes widened and they replied with the standard, “Ohhhhwwww?” which rises in pitch and is undoubtedly Japanese. We traded some brief sentences about the former company that employed me there, and they recognized the name immediately. They even knew the small city of Handa in which I had worked.

The songtao dropped me off, first, so I said farewell to them in Japanese and returned to my room. Once reclined in the bed, my body released itself to the retro effects of such an early morning coupled with a Thai massage in which my muscles were pulled in directions that wouldn’t register on a compass. As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered that the night prior, I had asked for moments in which to be a good ambassador of my faith. Despite a day that guaranteed little companionship, my request was answered through unexpected appointments with a host of strangers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

changing lenses

Putting things away until my return in three weeks, I noticed a massive encrustant of ice around the outer pane of my bedroom window. Maybe I should've cursed the shoddy insulation; maybe I should've used it as an excuse to be even more anxious to fly toward warmer temperatures. But for the few moments that I was standing in my bedroom, poised behind a camera and tripod, all I saw was frozen poetry.

P.S. - And in case you're wondering if I threw the big piece out the window (last photo), NO, I didn't. I put it in the blender and made an Orange Julius.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Tuesday night in Daowai

My favorite part of Harbin, for reasons that only a camera can explain:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

the power of cookies, part deux

I met up with a former student yesterday for lunch, and the fierce cold forced us to go to a familiar restaurant just a few steps away. It's a place that I visit frequently. The staff know me and are always kind.

To thank them for their hospitality, I took them some Christmas cookies about two weeks ago. They were genuinely surprised and pleased when I dropped in and handed them a wrapped plate stacked full of homemade sweets.

As we were having lunch yesterday, one of the servers came up and put a steaming pizza on the table, compliments of the house. I guess it was my turn to be surprised.

Later that evening, I received a call from the head of my department, a woman who is friendly enough in person but who has a very unpredictable disposition. Even after 2.5 years of working with her, I still can't figure her out. She often calls only when a foreign teacher is needed to judge a contest.

I answered the phone and was startled to hear her instant gratitude and praises for the cookies that I dropped off a few days ago to the department. She wasn't in the office at the time of my visit, so I left the goodies with an assistant. Several hours later - almost at 9 pm - she rang me up and was over the moon. I admit that I was a little perplexed why simple cookies would prompt such attention. I honestly didn't think it was that big of a deal. It seems I was mistaken, and I realized that when she said, "You are the first foreign teacher to ever do such a thing for our department!"

She then began asking me how I made the cookies, and when I confirmed that I baked them in an oven, she exclaimed, "You have an oven for cooking?"

"Yes," I responded.

"Oh," she said excitedly, "I'm getting an oven for my new apartment but I don't know how to use it that well." (Chinese rely on mostly stir-frying and steaming; ovens are entirely western and "exotic.")

Then she asked, "But how do you get some of those ingredients? We can't find them here in China."

I chuckled and said, "They're more available than I thought. Between the import stores and the internet, I usually get what I need. And my mom sends me some items that I request."

"Your mom sends you things from America?" she asked, her voice rising in compounded disbelief.

Oh yeah, if I ask for certain things that I can't get here.

I decided to make use of the opportunity to build a relationship with her, so I invited her over for some baking lessons. I expected her normal nebulous response. Instead, she gasped, "REALLY? I'd love to! When do you leave for Thailand? I can come over before you go!" soon as I finish grading finals and submitting reports, I will have my department boss over for cookie tutoring. I sincerely hope it opens a door that has, until this point, remain closed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Jan 1, 2011

So an American, an Indian and a Chinese guy go to the frozen river to take photos of the ice swimmers. Somehow, the American and the Chinese guy end up singing along to "All My Exes Live in Texas," by George Strait in the ride back home.

This was one of my favorite New Year mornings ever.