China's Papparazzi

China’s Papparazzi

A few weeks ago there was a humorous video going around the interwebs about what it’s like to be an Asian in America. The premise is that Asians get asked all the time where they are from, even if they were born and raised in America. While the original video was meant to be a joke, there were a lot of posts on my Facebook feed about it that were a little more serious. A lot of people talked about how annoying it is to be asked all the time where they or their family are from. Believe me, I know how annoying this is because every foreigner living in China gets the same treatment, along with foreigners in just about every country I’ve ever visited. Granted, in the Asian vs. Whities scenario it is caused by looking different, but even if it is your accent that tips people off that you do not belong, you will be asked about where you are from (even if you have been living in America for 30 years). Ask any Aussie or Brit you meet in the states, they’ll tell you I’m right.

For my Asian friends out there, you may find it funny that it is not just the usual questioning that we foreigners receive in Asia. In China, I have often felt like an animal in the zoo. Chinese people are constantly taking pictures of us foreigners as though we’re some kind of oddity that they cannot wait to show to their friends. The above picture was taken when my friend and I were essentially mobbed by camera-wielding tourists in Beijing whilst we sat on a cafe patio having a coffee. Yes, Beijing, one of the biggest, most developed cities in China, where there is a larger concentration of foreigners than in my hometown of Shenyang. One would think I would not be an oddity there, but that is just not so.

In addition to having my picture taken, people ask to touch my hair and sometimes feel up my arms (because they are hairy and Chinese women’s are not).  And, as illustrated in the video, they will say anything they know about my place of origin once they know where it is I am from. They will also do the thing where they say what their first guesses were about where I’m from (usually Russia or Germany). The most uncomfortable part about the confrontations are that they usually tell me that I am beautiful at some point and then start pointing out all of the specific things they like about my face. As it is not considered polite to say “thank you” for such compliments in China, I am always at a loss for words and feel even more rude for saying nothing. Also, I don’t really enjoy being told that I have a big nose, even if it is meant to be a compliment.

My point is not that your complaints are not valid, but that it happens everywhere. People are curious about other people who look different than them. Yes, it’s annoying. And, yes, I can see how it could come across as racist, especially in a country as obsessed with being politically correct as America is, but obviously the people asking are not in your shoes. They do not realize that you are asked this every single day. They are just curious and most likely think they are actually making you feel more comfortable, not less.

Golden Gate, originally uploaded by bexadler.
I know we’ve had our differences in the past. I spent my teenage years complaining about how boring life was around you; talking about how we had nothing in common; how all I wanted in the world was to get away from you. In the past few years, however, I have really come to appreciate so much about you. Not just because I miss you, but because I have finally been able to see you through other people’s eyes.
When I was traveling through Australia, I would always get to talking to Aussies about how fantastic their country was. I loved all the awesome, “weird” animals they had. I loved the sunshine and the laid back attitude most people seemed to have. More often than not, they would look at me with a puzzled expression on their faces and say, “But you’re from California!”
Apparently we have cool, weird animals too, namely skunks, raccoons, bears, deer, rattle snakes, road runners, even squirrels. Yes, they were impressed by squirrels. AND California has the infamous Yosemite, a rock climber’s paradise and a destination for more than 4 million visitors per year.
As I have traveled around, this has happened again and again, not just in Australia. Being able to see what other people appreciated about my home state helped me to start to appreciate it too. But then, THEN, I stayed away long enough and traveled widely enough that I learned how truly lucky I have been in my life. So, California, here is a short list of all of the things I love (and miss) about you.
I love your diversity. I love that you translate signs into other languages even though the majority of your people speak English. I love that people of all colors sit together on the bus and it is not weird. I love your cyclists and hippies. Even your vegans!
I love your natural wonders. You’ve got deserts, and mountains, and coasts. I love your blue skies, your ocean views, your rivers, your lakes. I love that I can camp, hike, run, cycle, kayak, climb, ski, and even hang glide to my heart’s content. I love that there will always be somebody not only willing, but eager, to do all of those things with me.
I love your produce. I love that we can grow things almost year-round. Tomatoes, avocados, oranges, peaches, almonds, corn, strawberries: all available, fresh-picked, on the side of the road.
I love that I can drink your water from the faucet. I love that I can carry around my Nalgene and refill it at drinking fountains around town for free.
I love that you have mild winters and hot summers. I love that I can get a mimosa at 10 a.m. and that’s not weird. I love your wines. I love your cheese.
I love so many things about you; so many things that I did not know I would miss and grow nostalgic for. I am so grateful to be from such a wonderfully diverse state, both in terms of people and in terms of landscapes. I wouldn’t be happy to have come from anywhere else.
I miss you so much and look forward to being home again one day. Until then, I will be satisfied with looking through old photos and listening to Joni Mitchell’s “California” when I’m feeling homesick for you.
Seal of My Chinese Name, originally uploaded by bexadler.

We’ve all met immigrants in America who have chosen to take on an Americanized version of their name. “Hi, my name’s Matt,” they say, and we look at them like, “Really?” If you’re rude like me, you even say, “No it’s not. What’s your real name?” And they are forced to tell me, and I then repeat it back to them while they grimace. They always argue that nobody can pronounce it correctly so they’d rather just not use their real name. It’s easier, they say. But for me, I don’t see how it is easier. People always want to know your real name.

It is for this reason that I have always resisted taking on a different name while abroad. When I was living in Turkey, several of my friends suggested that I start going by a Turkish name to make it easier to introduce myself to people. I responded by saying that nobody would believe that I was a Başak or an Özge. I felt like it would create more questions than just having to say my name twice or having to spell it out so people could sound it out for themselves. And, personally, I like the way my name sounds with an accent added to it. You don’t have to pronounce it right, it’s more charming with a rolled R or an accent on the E’s. More to the point, I just really didn’t like the idea of using a name that was not my own. Even in high school, when I was taking French classes, I refused to take on a French persona just for fun.

When I moved to China, however, I finally gave into the pressure to choose a new name. I had read in “Dreaming in Chinese” that having a Chinese name was a sign to the Chinese that you are planning to stick around awhile and so they are more willing to become friends with you. Most foreigners are sort of drifters here, so learning Chinese and choosing a Chinese name show that you are interested in more than just a short stint in China. Plus, I thought it would be a good way to break the ice with my students, who all had chosen English names. I figured that if I had a Chinese name, they would feel like we were the same somehow.

But how to choose a new name, especially when I didn’t know a word of Chinese? Easy: let my students do it. For their first assignment, I had my students write down their Chinese names and tell me why their parents had chosen it (there is always a story that goes with a Chinese name). I also asked them to tell me their English name and why they chose it. Then I had them each select a name for me and tell me why they thought it would be a good name for me. I had given them a presentation about myself to help them come up with some ideas. The only requirement was that they had to choose a name that had characters simple enough for me to hopefully learn to write them correctly.

I got many suggestions that tried to use the syllables in my real name (贝咔, Bei Ka), and many suggestions that included the time of year when I arrived here (春, Spring), while others included the place where I am living (沈, Shen). Then I looked through the names and chose a few that I liked. I tried a couple out on different Chinese friends of mine to see what they thought. Originally I had planned to go with the name An Chun Mei (peace安, spring 春, beauty/America 美) , but one of my friends told me it sounded like a prostitute’s name, so that was out.

In the end, I fell in love with the idea of using the name Bei Xing (北星, north star).  I liked this name because it had an X in it and it reminded me of my nickname at home (Bex). I also liked that the north star holds so much symbolic meaning in the western world. As I said, all Chinese names have a story that goes with them, and I liked that mine would give me the opportunity to explain what the north star means to northern hemisphere dwellers from the west. I also liked the super sappy idea that the north star is the star that guides you home so if my name was North Star then no matter where I was in the world, I could say I was home (I know you are rolling your eyes, and I don’t care).

However, some of my Chinese friends said this name was a little weird because it had a direction in it (north), which they said isn’t really used in names. This made me hesitate at first, but then I remembered that my students are walking around with English names like Fish, Sheep, Lemon, and Fantasy. Those are certainly weird names to a native English speaker, and so I can have a name that is weird to a native Chinese speaker. What really sealed it for me though was a Chinese astronomist I met in Beijing, named Yudong (昱东, Bright Light from the East – or Eastern Sunrise). When he wrote his name for me, I said, “Your name has a direction in it? My friends told me that is weird.” I then explained about trying to choose a name. He said he didn’t think it was weird, but that he thought it was actually really cool. His only suggestion was that I choose Bei Chen (北辰) instead, which is the formal name of the north star (the Chinese version of Polaris). Good enough. I was in.

Alas, I almost never get to use this name. Just as I had suspected, every time I tell a Chinese person my name, they look at me with a puzzled expression and say, “Dui, but what’s your real name?” And I have to go through the hullabaloo of pronouncing Rebecca six times before I say again, “You can just call me Bei Chen.” I know it’s rude, but it really is easier. I guess now I finally understand how immigrants in America feel.

*Dui = correct/right/yes

Grass there shall be, originally uploaded by bexadler.

Shenyang is a city in a constant state of flux. One feels as though the city is under construction year-round from dawn til dusk. When I first arrived I thought this was because Shenyang is a newish city and is still in the developing stages. Ha! How naïve I was.

My first indication that something was awry in Shenyang came during May of last year. One morning I walked out of my apartment complex and was shocked at the transformation that had taken place overnight. Suddenly there were trees, shrubs, and grass everywhere. I racked my brain trying to come up with an explanation. Had spring really come overnight? Had I really not noticed all of the trees just because they were not green during winter? Is that possible?

My answer came a few days later while I was waiting for a bus. There I was, standing in the dirt next to the bus stop with everyone else, when a flatbed truck rolls up. Out hops four or five workers. From the truck another worker throws down rolls of sod. The workers lay out the sod, pat it down, and hop back into the truck. Et voila! Now we get to stand in the lovely grass while we wait.

After the grass incident, I started to notice that all of the trees had wooden rods propping them up and IV bags of fertilizer attached to their trunks. Obviously, they were new too. So I hadn’t imagined the sudden change of season. It literally happened overnight. The Chinese were like “Cut! That’s a wrap. Time for spring!”

Likewise, when they decided it was time for winter, they began pulling out all of the grass, yanking out all of the newly planted trees, and laying down new sidewalks. Alas, Shenyang will never be complete. In spring they will continue to tear out all the sidewalks and put down grass and plant trees. Then in autumn they will tear out all the trees and grass and put the sidewalks back in. It’s craziness, but, hey, it gives people jobs and keeps the GDP in tact. To me this is a huge waste of resources, both human and natural. It is also almost so ridiculous that it’s unbelievable (who could make this stuff up?!). I always get the same reaction when I tell people at home about these kinds of things: “You’re joking, right?” I only wish I were. Anyway, because of the disbelief among my friends, I have been trying to document the scene change this year with pictures. You have no idea how excited I get when I capture the workers actually installing the trees and grass. It’s like I’ve won the lottery. Unfortunately, I almost always have only my iPhone with me so they aren’t great quality, but I think people will get the idea.

Coyote, originally uploaded by bexadler.

Today I was lamenting the fact that there are no cute little creatures around Shenyang. I began making a list of all the animals I miss seeing on my runs back home and even mentioned skunks. I mean, really? I had a skunk hiss at me once on an evening run in Sacramento and I was in panic mode for at least another quarter-mile. If anything, I should be grateful that, in addition to all of the regular nuisances that exist in Shenyang, at least I don’t have to deal with animals, vermin, and bugs too.

*Picture above is of a coyote in Death Valley, not a skunk, obviously. I didn’t have very many creature pictures on hand. 😦

Monkey and Prayer Flags, originally uploaded by bexadler.

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article in The New York Times about “thin places,” which are places where the space between heaven and earth is said to be thinnest. Many of these places are famous religious places, where people feel more at peace than in their regular days. What I liked about this article, though, was that the author argued that thin places can exist anywhere and at anytime. They do not necessarily have to be related to something spiritual or to a religion. Instead, thin places are different for all people. The thing that is the same about them is the feeling that comes over you when you find yours, he writes. But you won’t know it until you find it.

I feel like I spent most of my life looking for such a place. When I was a child, I was a part of a very strict religion, but I always felt like I was part of a charade. I would sit in churches and temples and look around at all of the people praying and totally on board with everything going on and I would think, “Is there something wrong with me? I just don’t get it.” For years, before I finally left the church, I refused to say prayers in church or give talks during sacrament because I felt like such a fraud and I worried that saying a prayer or saying things in church that I didn’t believe in would somehow give me bad karma. Alas, I never did find a “thin place” in any of those churches or temples when I was younger and I had almost completely forgotten about those experiences until I read this article because the article reminded me of a moment when I did finally have that feeling. It happened in Kathmandu, Nepal, just a few months ago.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu, it felt just like any other big city in Asia – crowded, dirty, and polluted. Unlike other Asian cities though, it grew on me almost immediately. I attribute this to the friendliness of the people in Nepal, but I also enjoyed the quaint alleyways and delicious food I had been missing so much in my home in China. For the first couple of days I just explored the city and looked for information about going hiking in the Himalayas because I was waiting on my friend Mathieu to arrive from Switzerland and didn’t want to do all of the touristy things a second time. On my third day there, I was supposed to go to the airport to meet Mathieu, but he missed his flight and so would not be arriving until the next day. Having extra time on my hands, I decided to make my way to Swayambhunath, colloquially known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that hang around it all day.

On my first night a couple of Aussies had told me it was easy to walk there, even though the hoteliers kept telling me it was necessary to take a taxi. I decided to believe the Aussies and got up early for the walk to avoid the heat. It took about 45 minutes for me to walk there, in part because of a detour (I have no sense of direction whatsoever), so the Aussies were correct. Walking there was no big deal, although you have to walk through a lot of filthy streets and past a bunch of stall owners trying to sell all manner of wares. The further I got from the tourist center though, the more people just left me alone, mostly because, it seemed, none of them spoke any English.

Swayambhunath is a Buddhist temple that sits atop a large hill. I knew I had arrived when I saw all of the little sellers carts selling random tourist kitsch. In addition to trying to avoid them, I was trying to steer clear of the monkeys, who were quite aggressive. One even started stalking me when it saw me opening my backpack. I assume he thought there was food in there. All the way up the 300 or so steps to the top, there were people selling things. As it was still my first days in Nepal a couple of them even managed to get me to stop and look. and one convinced me to buy a little carved wooden elephant for about 50 cents.

When I got to the top the hubbub was in full force. There were people doing their morning religious practices, getting marked with ochre on their foreheads, others circling the stupa in the clockwise direction to turn the prayer wheels. There were bells ringing, sellers hawking goods all around the square, and, of course, monkeys and pigeons everywhere. It was the last place on earth I would have thought I would have had a peaceful moment. But a peaceful moment, I did have.

I turned a corner and saw some steps leading down to another part of the temple complex. Sitting there was a man selling memory cards and batteries for cameras, and a monkey resting in the sunshine. Looking out, I could see Kathmandu lost among the haze of smog hanging over the city. After a few steps though, I was by myself with nothing to look at but the view and some prayer flags swaying in the breeze. I took a picture of the prayer flags and then stood there for a moment to admire the view. Standing there, watching the prayer flags, I suddenly felt completely at peace. I waited there a minute or two longer hoping the moment wouldn’t be fleeting, and as I was standing there I remember thinking, “So this is why so many people make the pilgrimage to Nepal.”

I feel like I spent the rest of my trip chasing that moment, hoping it would reoccur. As I was walking through the Himalayas I would stop regularly to admire the prayer flags and I always found them beautiful, in part because they reminded me of that moment. But I never did recapture that feeling. However, even now, looking back on it I can remember that peaceful feeling I had there and am grateful I had it.

Taking in the View, originally uploaded by bexadler.

I am what most people might categorize as a traveler. In the past ten years I have spent more time away from home than in it. This is true. I love seeing the world through a different lens and experiencing new cultures for myself, rather than just reading about them in books. Also, true. I don’t own much in this world that can’t be carried on my back, and I would quickly drop $1,000 on a plane ticket, whereas I would have to seriously consider spending $25 to go see a doctor for my regular checkup. Yes, my priorities are weird to most people. Those who do not live a traveling life often do not get me. It is something I have fought with friends and family over for years. I think many of us traveler types do.

But here’s a little secret: I hate being lumped in with all of the other travelers. I read travel blogs here and there. Sometimes they are interesting, and often they give me new ideas for places to go or things to see, but for the most part they just really annoy me. Travelers have to be some of the most pretentious assholes on the planet. They post these fabulous travel photos and write with exclamation points and flowery words describing the beauty of all of the places they visit, as if they’ve never had a bad travel day in their lives. They try to convince everyone that travel is the only way to live life, in the same way that so many people have tried to convince me that I don’t need to travel to enjoy my life. For realsies, to me, they come across like evangelical Christians trying to convert the masses to their way of life. There seems to be no sense of reality among the traveler types.

So let’s get real. If you are a long-term traveler, I guarantee that many of your days are either frustrating or uneventful. It’s carrying your pack from buses to trains to hostels to subways to more buses in heat and rain and snow and mud and crowds. It’s no air conditioning, no sheets, food you don’t recognize, no electricity some days, not being able to find drinking water, and taking cold showers. It’s making new friends constantly, only to see them move on to a new city a few days later. It’s feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, joyful, angry, confused, and lost. It isn’t always full of fun and glamour, as the pictures may suggest. I get sweaty and tired and irritated all the time – just like I do at home. The one thing that makes it worthwhile for me is knowing that every day is going to be an adventure, which is something I like. But I know that lifestyle is not for everyone.

It seems that other travelers have forgotten this. They seem to want everyone to be just like them, even though they get irritated by non-travelers always wanting them to be “normal.” I read articles all the time imploring people to travel because it is the best thing they’ll ever do with their lives and on and on and on. I agree, travel has been AMAZING for me. I would not go back and change any of it. But there are people, like my best friends back home, and my little sister, for whom travel means taking a two-week vacation every year to go visit family, or go to Hawaii, or visit the Grand Canyon. And that is OK. It’s more than OK. They are happy with their lives and I often envy them for being able to be so content with their mortgages and pets and children.

For people who are considering long-term travel, yes, you should go. Without a doubt, I think that if you have been talking for years about taking a trip around the world or taking three months off to travel South America, you should absolutely do it. You will always wonder what it would have been like and you may never get the opportunity to do it later in your life. Do not worry about money, or your job, or your other responsibilities. They will all be waiting for you when you get back. I promise. But if travel is not your thing, don’t let these pretentious travel types make you think that you are missing out on something. If travel is not your thing, picking up a backpack and going to some godforsaken place where you don’t really want to be is not going to suddenly turn you into a traveler. Instead, it will most likely confirm for you that you are not a traveler. Embrace your two weeks of vacation and make them fun and glamorous, and call it a day. I’m pretty sure most people don’t need to stay in a flea-ridden hostel in India to say that they’ve lived.

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