Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beijing Acrobats

I found a hotel in a good part of town checked in and head out. I took a metro and a taxi to the artist district. A whole section of town blocked off just for art. Galleries, sculpture gardens and coffee shops all crumbled together in a mass. It was a very grey dreary day and barely anyone was out. Most of the galleries and shops were closed and those that were open usually didn’t have a sign saying so. I wandered the warehouses, my hiking shoes sounding like heels beneath the echos. The art was good but nothing dared me to be unique. I settled in at a café and, the crime of a good book, allowed myself to be completely self absorbed and not in China.

The next day, just across the street, I ate breakfast in a dumpling house. I found this perfect table and the hot pipe on the wall fit just right into the crook of my back warming me up. Their Jasmine tea was perfect and in a big pot, the dumplings were cheap and amazing, and no one watched me as I sat and ate and read. I ate there for 3 more meals.

I went to the famous/infamous (?) silk market and got tossed around some more with pearls and heels. I went to the Xidan market and watched pretty Chinese girls fight over pink bunny t-shirts. Korean style is very chic right now.

At night I bought a ticket to the famous Beijing Acrobats show. I think I was the only person to go alone to the show in its history. Whatever. I had on my knee high black boots I had bought that day and a whole bag of popcorn to myself. Even better, the theater wasn’t crowded so I gave the popcorn its own seat. We made out a little. It was nice.

The show was unreal. The things people do with their body makes you feel like a waste of space. I saw 6 motorocycles speed around upside down inside a cage on stage without ever hitting each other.

On the way home, a taxi driver asked me where I was from. When I told him America he popped in a cd that started to play the National Anthem.
Monday, January 23, 2012

The Chinese Wedding

Morning of the wedding, rolled out of bed, grabbed the guitar and Suki and I started to practice. We left just enough time to throw on our dresses and run down the hotel hall to Muzi’s room. Muzi’s room was decorated from ceiling to floor with balloons, sweets and relatives. Muzi was being poked and prodded by make up and hairbrushes in the bathroom. My make up artist decided to give me all ice like make up. Baby pink lipstick, soft blue eye-shadow—beautiful colors for someone with fair skin. On me it looked like a latina drag queen. The hairstylist choked when she was my hair. She started by trying to brush it and blow dry it and I saw that if I didn’t stop her my hair would be one big electrified poof.

We heard a knock at the door and it was our cue to start the bridesmaid games. The groomsmen knock and we say “you can’t come in unless you do what we say!” We made them: make up a song about Muzi, tell us 5 of Muzi’s nicknames, give us money, and do the dance from swan lake. When all was done, Muzi’s fiancé symbolically put on Muzi’s shoes on her and they head to the wedding. Oh wait, not before Muzi checked a few of her slides she would presenting at a science conference the next day.

The wedding was grand. There were 280 guests and millions of flowers. Although the ceremony was in Mandarin, the sentiment was obvious. I am so honored to be a part of it. People took turns making toasts to Muzi on the stage. When her dad started to choke and tear up during his, Muzi left her now husband and ran to his side hugging him. That’s when I lost it. Our song went fine. I’ll post it if I get the confidence to do so. It’s one thing to sing in front of 280 people who don’t speak English. It’s quite another to post it online. We’ll see.
Our job as bridesmaids was to stand behind Muzi and fill her wine cup so she can toast to ever single table. We filled her up with juice so she would remember the day. And it was such a day.

There were 5 courses of various Chinese delicious dishes and by the end of the day I could no longer feel my feet. We said goodbye to all of the guests, Muzi left to pack for her science conference in Rome THE NEXT DAY, and I head back to the hotel room to sleep off the excitement.
Saturday, January 21, 2012

The night before the wedding

And although last night played out like a long single note, I had to change gears and get my ass on the fast train to Beijing. Beijing is so crammed with cars and people that the last digits on the car license plate dictate on what days the car is allowed to drive.

I met Muzi who was as calm as jade, and just two days before HER wedding she took me to a department store to get ME shoes. We ate these sticks with little crab apple type fruit on them dipped in melted sugar. I stuck my nose in a few tins of green tea.

We met Muzi’s family for a special and symbolic wedding night dinner. It was Muzi and her parents, Muzi’s fiancé and his parents and…me. Even though only Muzi and her Fiance spoke English everyone hugged me and laughed at my, now honed, larger-than-life sign language.

We went to a restaurant that had the “best Peking Duck in Peking.” It looked like a hotel. Each room opened into a private dining area. Our room had a large circular table, a large lazy susan, and menus as big as encyclopedias. The tea was never empty. We ordered: duck heart, bamboo, duck feet with a mustard that screamed through my nose, pea shoots, duck bone soup and three whole ducks.

The ducks had been roasting all day. The chef cut them in front of us. The skin on the chest, the choicest part of the duck, was cut into little slivers and served to the VIP (Muzi’s father) with a side of sugar. The skin was passed around. You dipped one side into the sugar, and placed it on your mouth and let it melt. It was like communion—just as holy anyway. Then the duck was put onto a pancake with sauce, scallions and cucumbers. There was so much to eat. I really liked the duck heart which was smoky and tasted similar to chicken liver. The duck feet was crunchy and cold and nubbly and I chewed and swallowed as fast as I could.

The whole bridal party was staying on one floor of a nice hotel near the venue. No one wanted to risk the Beijing traffic interfering with the ceremony. The following day was the rehearsal. We had another huge lunch and head to the venue. The hall was magnificent and palatial. Whole teams worked together to set the table, create the flower centerpieces and set up the stage. Tables had candies, roasted chesnuts, wine, and cigarettes for the guests. A large blow up photo of Muzi and her Fiance at the Washington D.C. Cherry Blossom festival was the background of the stage. We practiced our line up. Muzi was led down the aisle in her jeans and UGGs by her father. But then the song came on—The Rose by Bette Midler and I started to cry. What would I do at the actual wedding?!

At night the other two bridesmaids and I piled into the hotel bathroom and did facemasks “to make our skin prepared for the make up tomorrow.” Everyone calls me “cute” in this country. Because my eyes are big “like a baby!”
Suki (another bridesmaid) and I would be playing the guitar and singing a song dedicated to Muzi and her Fiance at the wedding. In front of 280 people! We combined my song-I’m Yours~John Mayer and her Chinese song and learned the chords and practiced all night until our fingers went numb and we were scared we would fall asleep on the stage.
Friday, January 20, 2012

Jazz in Shanghai

My first day alone in China was spent with an entire morning buried underneath the covers begging the heat to turn on so I could peek outside. I finally dared myself to tiptoe out of bed and to do something Chinese. I started by eating dumplings…again.

I decided to explore the famous Shanghai Pearl Market.

Four stories high, the pearl market was vast and glittering. I knew nothing about pearls. Had never even seen anyone in my family wearing them. So I started slow, asking each store for a bit more information about pearls so I could make an educated decision. I went around the entire store once, trying things on and feeling the pearls. I made several purchases for friends and family and picked out a 3 stranded pearl necklace with a Jade (the diamond of china) clasp for myself to wear at the wedding. It’s beautiful.

I was meeting a friend, Emma, for dinner. Emma and I met in college and she has since moved to Shanghai to teach English. We met at a bar and I got to order the first salad I have had in 6 months. And after two round of lychee martinis called it a night, said goodbye to Emma and head home.

The next day I was determined to make more of myself and time. I went to the Soft Fabric market to pick up my coat and dress fitted to me exactly. Took the metro to the famous Yuan Garden where I walked among gargoyles and paid too much money for a hand painted fan. I walked nearly across the city looking into fruit shops, laundry hanging above the streets out of windows and at men clinking beer bottles in steamy little restaurants. I went into a boutique alley lit from above with Christmas lights. There were lots of little photography shops and I went into a DIY teddy bear making gallery/restaurant.

I stopped at a restaurant called “Communism.” The walls were red and yellow and Mau was omnipresent. I chose from a wine from the Wine Democracy list and made friends with a few Australians that sat to my right. They were playing the Wind Cries Mary and I felt warm.

Warm enough to take a metro to the Peace Hotel I had been days earlier. Warm enough to pay the $20 for an entrance fee and sit at the bar and order a dirty martini (gin-with a splash of vermouth and tobasco). I sat like I didn’t have traveling clothes on and hiking shoes, but like I had a long red dress and Richard Gere across the room. The “Old Jazz Band” was so cute and old that I laughed out loud. They played strictly by the notes and charmed a room of Old Chinese with real money. No smiles allowed.

My red dress fantasy became more real with the more martinis I ordered. The next band came on and they were smooth. So smooth they lubricated the air. They were a young band from New York in Shanghai to live like Artists—but not the starving kind. I listened to them play and the Bangladeshi rice paddies seemed so far away. It was the kind of band that got the bartenders pouring in rhythm. I smiled when they started to rap Outkast. Wrinkles next to me didn’t get it.

During the break I met all the members. Listened to their short stories and large egos. When I listen to jazz, snapping fingers and nodding heads isn’t good enough for me. I asked the man next to me if he wanted to dance. And in Shanghai, at the peace hotel, I swang and swung and swooned.

The band closed up to a now empty room at midnight. The bartenders left their shifts and we all sat around a long table drinking free whiskey from the bar. I talked particularly closely to the saxophone player. He played like a young Charlie Parker and his kiss was almost as good as his playing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day of Dumplings

Kiira and I woke up in a frenzy. It was Kiira’s last day in China and we were in one of those LET’S SEE THE WHOLE WORLD IN ONE DAY kind of moods. We packaged our bodies in clothes and grabbed some soup dumplings on the way to the metro.

Dumplings are hand-made and stuffed with pork or vegetables. They steam them and will often fry one side to make it crispy. Soup dumplings are dumplings filled with a pork mixture and a thin broth. When you bite into one, it explodes all over face and takes with it a layer of your skin. The only reason you do not scream in pain is due to embarrassment. I learned to take a little bite, sip some soup out, and then pop the whole thing into my mouth.

We went to Xiandi, the place where communism in China was born. Where radical young men and women…letsgetreal, men and men, got together in underground places to drool over Marx and write little red words in books. I saw where they first drafted important documents. Where they declared capitalism as the greatest evil. Of course now it’s next to a StarbucksNikeMcDonalds where you can get a light hightop no foam with a side of fries.

Then we went to this underground museum of old communist propaganda. It was in an apartment complex and the man who collected tickets was very very happy to explain all of the artwork to us. “See here! Truman with the big red nose! He’s saving the ugly old Korean. It says Americans are stupid!”

Most posters show Mau as a god like sun rising over the east to protect and nurture. I could not take any photos because there were guards everywhere.
For lunch we ate more dumplings, this time filled with red bean paste!

We saw an old Buddhist temple nestled between the skyscrapers. A massive Buddha made entirely of silver sits underneath an unbelievable temple made entirely of intricately carved teak wood. It was mesmorizing.

We rushed back to the hostel because Kiira’s friend was picking us up for dinner. He took us to Old Shanghai which was lit up in celebration of the New Year. This year is the Year of the Dragon. My year.

We ordered more dumplings for dinner. Soup dumplings with crab. There was a long long line to wait for them but they were worth it. I starting a little bit to look like a dumpling.

Then we went to walk along the Bund to watch the lovers look at the advertisements reflecting off the water and to watch the balloon candles float into the sky and explode in the stratosphere.

Zai Jian,
Sunday, January 15, 2012

First day in Shanghai

I woke up in China. I smelled the Chinese air and washed my face in the Chinese water and went downstairs to have some Chinese breakfast. Which meant bacon. Delicious non muslim bacon. I sat with a latte and read and wrote and waited for Kiira, a friend working in Nanjing to meet me at the hostel.

I was expecting her, but she was the last person I thought to see walk through the hostel doors in Shanghai. But she did, and me and the Blonde Baltimore Kiira went off on an adventure into the city.

We stopped into a delicious little place to have a quick lunch of rice, tofu, tomato and egg all scrambled together in a light and fresh but filling dish. We went to the Shanghai museum and saw a “knife with four holes”, a “blade with three notches” and a myriad of other age old treasures with English tags more amusing than their objects.

Like it’s literal English translations, Shanghai is a city which looks like it took an architects “make it look futuristic—modern, cutting edge” very, very literally. The skyscrapers are topped with flying saucers. Subways look like portals. The effect is mesmerizing and completely dwarfing. And I grew up in New York City. I was born in the Cup O’Noodles in sign in Time Square. But Shanghai is the kind of city that you look up and feel like you could fall backwards.

We went to the soft fabric market. In the middle of an industrial park, the “Shanghai Soft Fabric Market” was grey and 7 stories high. Each vendor had a stall and each stall had a style. Cashmere coats or wool dresses or silk suits, pashmina scarves, leather bags. The real stuff. You could get measured and have a complete outfit made for you overnight. It’s Chinese magic or
Idon’twanttothinkaboutwhatkindoflabor. Kiira and I were fitted for Cashmere coats. I ordered a black one modeled after an Armani Jacket Ah-thankyou. I had a wool navy dress made. And am officially ready to take over the Madison Avenue of Bangladesh.

When we got weary, we sipped on bubble tea-a concoction so sweet it would make Indian Cha taste bitter. It literally gave me heart palpitations.

At night we walked along the famous Bund strip. A clean brick strip with bright lights and sweets and smells and all sorts of good wholesome things. Chinese music was playing on loudspeakers and young men and women danced in the streets. I felt like I was in a propaganda clip waiting for Mau to rise over the buildings like the sun.

We went to a sweet market and picked out chewy sweets filled with red bean paste or black sesame. They also sold flattened pigs heads and pickled and assorted feet. We took our sweets to the Peace Hotel. A hotel made during the height of the Art Deco era. It was lavish and all kinds of sexy. We walked around and saw a dimly lit jazz bar filled with swanky people doing swanky things and I promised myself I would go there before I left Shanghai.

But tonight we were so heavy so we pulled up a chair at the bar downstairs in the hostel, ordered a round of beers and let them rock us to sleep.

Zai Jian,
Saturday, January 14, 2012

I arrived in China

I got to the airport three hours early. I could smell the beauracracy wafting out from behind the raised ticket booths. Lines made up lines around the China Eastern Airport. I made myself loud and clear but china eastern had not rebooked a flight for me, I was on standby. I made a friend. Then I got in. The connecting flight was no longer the same day so I would stay the night in a hotel in Kunming.

Frustration is adhesive and good leverage to start talking. I made friends with two girls from Canada who would be staying overnight in the hotel with me on their way to Laos. They just finished their MD residency and were taking the summer to travel the world. After the flight we found the shuttle to take us to the hotel, waited at reception for 1 hour, convinced the manager, no I could not double room with a random (probably male) stranger from the plane, got my room key and went up. The Canadian girls and I went out into the cold night exploring fruit stands and saying hi the stray…pug dogs. A man told me to get on his motorcycle. I declined.

We couldn’t find any food stalls open so we ordered room service and ate our bowls of noodles and watched fun Chinese game shows and bonded like a bunch of girls in a foreign country.

I arrived in Beijing and found Muzi with a large glittery purple sign that said “Chelsea!” We hugged and jumped in a circle for a bit and she gave me her mom’s big down jacket so I would never have to set foot in the bitter Beijing air without being properly swaddled. She also brought my bridesmaids dress which I tried on in a bathroom stall.

She fed me a Chinese noodle lunch and I was off again heading toward Shanghai on the fastest train in the world. The world went by so fast it made my eyes hurt. What should have been a 10 hour train ride to Shanghai took only 5 hours. When I reached my station the train warned me to “not leave any passengers behind or take any passengers by mistake.”

My hostel was voted the best in the world by Lonely Planet Guide. My double room had a pitched ceiling with intricate molding and rickety old wooden floors.
It was 10pm but I was starving. I followed a visibly smoky scent down the block and into a bare Chinese restaurant. The menu had pictures so I pointed and waited. My first night in Shanghai, alone at 10pm, I ate a big skillet of sizzling beef.

My hostel had a bar downstairs and I shared a scotch with some other travelers, ate some roasted chestnuts out of a brown paper bag and went to sleep.

Zai Jian,
Friday, January 13, 2012

The French Nuns

My last day in Dhaka before heading to Bejing. Or so I thought. I had a million things I had to do. First of which was getting into an auto and going across town to find a cloister of nuns who make exquisite embroidery. The auto crossed the city and took me to a part of Dhaka I had never been before. Weaving through a residential area the auto stopped in front of a large gate where “Saletian Sisters” was printed on a tiny indiscriminate plaque on the door. I knocked on the large steel gate and a little French nun peeked over.

“Heello?” Her voice wavered in french mixed with Bangla but mostly old person’s accent.

She took me inside to a dark 3 story house. 8 nuns live there in simplicity since the 1960’s. There were crosses all over the wall and candles and smelled like old people. Upstairs was a large table surrounded by bangla girls leaning over their tiny perfect stiches forming vast tapestries. They took me to the table, opened the nearby cabinets and embroidery of different scenes and size poured out. Scenes of a hut on a river with women sifting through rice on the shore, a woman sitting under a tree combing her sister’s hair, flowers with stitching so fine you couldn’t see the edges. It was beautiful. I had made a little design of my own, showed the nuns and it will be made for me in April!

I said goodbye to the nuns and I hopped back into an auto, bounced and puttered across the city again to pick up my China Visa at the Chinese Embassy. Little did I know, today the closing time was 12:00pm. I arrived at 12:05. My hands were red and throbbing from the amount of pounding I did on the large steel gate. Maybe with enough pressure, my little hands would bore through?

Someone finally came over.
“Ma’am That’s not working.”

He pointed in the direction of a window to another entrance to the embassy.

“You came late. You cannot get your passport.”

I started to hyperventilate.

“But my sister, she’s getting married tomorrow.” Again.

“No tension!” They promised. And said to come back at 3.

Took another auto into the office, another auto to pick up my visa at 3, went to North End Coffee to soak in some caffeine then took a rickshaw to Nelo’s to get my hair cut.

I had to get my hair cut for Muzi’s wedding and figured the Bangladeshi’s would have a better job with my head than the Chinese.

4 women surrounded me clucking as they pulled and tugged my hair. My hair was a mess. My curls were revolted with all the plane rides and hotel beds and revolted by twisting themselves into a nest. The women did an impressive job and 3 snips later I have beautiful wedding ready hair.

I had time so I decided to explore the multi-story beauty complex I was in. On the top floor was Siam Oasis. The kind of place so serene it makes you shiver. I was escorted to the couch where I was asked about my pleasures and explained the menu of choices. I chose “java” a medium-strong massage. Then I picked my oil from a selection of smells. I was brought to a room out of a magazine with burning oils, and candles and massage table with fine sheets and a shower in the corner with multiple jets. A woman came in and for an hour she worked out all my muscles including those I didn’t even know I had.

I think I crave massages so much in Bangladesh beause of the lack of human touch. I’m not even talking about physical intimacy. Just a hug, or a tap on the shoulder. Nada. And it gets to this Brooklyn-Italian who accentuates her points by nudging the person she is talking to.

After the massage was done I was served green tea and got to take a shower in the cold, but jetty shower. I had dinner with Neelu at a fancy Indian restaurant and returned to the hotel ready to pack up my things and head to the airport for my 3am flight to China.

When I get there this is no one from the airline and barely anyone in general. Just me, my backpack and the mosquitoes that marched toward me, single file.

An hour passed and an airline representative came to inform us our flight had been cancelled. A group of us closed in on him making him repeat the cancellation over and over. In the pack was an elder Bangladeshi man and his younger daughter, both of whom had American passports and were pushy. I loved them. We bonded over our 3am dissatisfaction and swapped stories. When I told them I was working in Gaibandha they asked if I knew Shefa.

“Yes of course! I live with her!”

“She’s my neice!”

They insisted I come to stay with them. At 3am we crossed the city, once again, and took the elevator up the 18 stories he and his family owned. They showed me my room.

I had to step over the servants sleeping on the floor. I had several Eureka experiences because, it was 4am, and I was on an 18 story rooftop in Bangladesh. Something about height, rooftops or mountains, that clear me to the core.

Asalam Walaikum,
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

So Much Love

I am so blessed to have so many friends and so much family and so many friends that are family, overseas thinking of me, writing me, skyping me, and sharing their life over the ocean.

This week I got two packages, one from my aunt and the other from my friends Ben and Milana. They made me cry.

Ben and Milana assembled a Christmas themed present: A stocking stuffed with gifts included: my favorite type of hair tie, gum!, cute little penguin, snacky snacks, christmas lights, LIGHT UP YOYO, book and movies I've been meeting to read/watch, and a USB drive filled with music Ben assembled. An absolute perfect perfect christmas miracle.

My aunt gave me a travel themed package because I can't seem to stay in one place these days. The package includes: Deliciousness from Trader Joes, STARBUCKS INSTANT COFFEE, all sorts of upscale travel sized products that you absolutely cannot find here, toiletry bags WHICH I NEEDED, and urban decay eyeshadow!!

I AM SO HAPPY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!