natalie, slightly scattered

everything in between

Because You are Who I Call When I Flush Men’s Numbers Down the Toilet

She was the girl with the really cool shirt and the amazing hair. That was how I knew her in eighth grade. I was the girl who got her onto the JV soccer team and talked obsessively about her gerbils. That was how she knew me in ninth. We sat next to each other in Honors English. That was how we became friends in tenth.

But first, back to soccer. To this day I know I’m the reason she made the JV team while the rest of us were stuck on the freshman squad. We were paired against each other during the one-on-one part of try outs, and while my view towards soccer was always, “If you really want the ball, take the ball,” Courtney’s attitude was more along the lines of a mother bear guarding her cubs, “Nothing you can do will make me give you this ball.” I distinctly remember the JV coach watching us (Courtney had her eye on the ball). When she made JV, I knew why.

And now, back to Honors English, which is where it really all began (though the foundation had been laid – only true friends know about the gerbils, as, alas, I don’t talk about them anymore – naysayers, it’s been at least three years). Our English classroom was supposed to be in Room 104, but at the last moment was switched to the upper classmen campus, and as fate would have it, neither Courtney nor I received the memo and wound up outside Room 104 at the same time. We walked to the correct classroom and took seats next to one another.

Since I couldn’t remember if we hated the class or our teacher (I remember hating something) Courtney refreshed me:

“I distinctly remember hating all of the books (like every single one) and only enjoying the discussions because you and I just liked to be difficult and play devil’s advocate. So I think we liked DeLisle, in the sense that we liked giving him a hard time. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end, we make a formidable team.”

Oh yes, it was the books we hated. No one should ever have to suffer the injustice of Beowulf, GrendelTo Kill a Mockingbird, or The Catcher in the Rye all in the span of five months. Though I have since become a devoted fan of the classic by Salinger, I think we should leave Beowulf to the Brits. I have also forever been scarred since the reading of Bananafish. DeLisle was out to corrupt our innocence.

Somewhere between reading great literary classics and coming to loathe old English, Courtney decided I was funny (or maybe I just provide numerous opportunities for people to laugh at me) and we realized that we both like to bake.

My memory seems to be failing me, so once more I prompted Courtney, “Do you remember the first time we hung out?” and received the reply, “And you told me about the death of your hamster? Or was it a gerbil?”

Gerbils, Courtney. As in plural. That’s why it was so traumatic. That was why I still talked about it.

That and I had apparently missed out on the acquisition of some essential social skills most kids gain between the fifth and ninth grade (I caught up, but it was a few years later). Courtney loved me through it.

Since the second time we hung out was almost as bad as the first, it was a miracle we made it to a third, but neither of us can recall what exactly we did, because we most likely did some variation of what we have done ever since. Paint our nails, listen to music, bake, go for a walk, plan our lives together (Fuggliners) and eat.

We really like to eat.

Courtney is one of my solid rocks. She is an absolute inspiration to me, and though she may not know it, one of the people who inspires and drives me. I admire her strength and determination. Once she’s decided she is going to do something, it gets done.

I have been blessed in life to have many good friendships, but Courtney knows me in a way my other friends do not. There is a candor and frankness in our friendship that I have been hard pressed to find with other people. Whenever we are together, we just laugh. Before I moved to China, Courtney was the friend who took the time to write me a letter to open upon my arrival, because she knew exactly what I would need to hear at that moment:

My dearest Natalie,
Breathe.

She has been giving me some variation of that advice ever since (and before, if we’re being honest). Courtney is who I call / email / text if I ever need advice regarding a boy (meaning, if I say hi to one, I call Courtney). She has been the recipient of many (well, not that many) drunk texts and emails, the former usually going something like, “Courtneeeey, I’m drunk!” because I was the last of my friends to drink and was always rather proud of it when I reached a state of inebriation. The latter, “This is a venting email after a few shots.”

She is who I call when I need my own advice repeated back to me, “What you really should do is be just as busy,” or when I need advice in general.

She is the friend who came over the night before I moved to China and rearranged my suitcases so that everything I wanted to pack would fit. The one who bought me chapstick because she knew I wouldn’t remember any yet cannot live without it.

The one who, when I emailed, “I tore his business card up and flushed it down the toilet, because, you know, friends do that,” responded with, “Tearing up his business card was definitely the most logical thing to do. And the toilet? Nice touch.”

The friend who has acquired half of my closet. The one who loves me despite the fact that I announced that the purple dress she was wearing made her ass look fantastic. In front of her entire extended family. On Thanksgiving.

The one I was so happy to see I tackled on the lawn when she came to play a Frisbee tournament at my university during college.

The friend with whom I exchange letters.

The friend who woke up early to meet me at Starbucks at 7 AM so that we would have a half hour together before I had to get to work.

The first person I told about my first kiss.

The one who was there the night I got my second.

One of six people who attended the only house party I ever threw.

Who worked with me at the restaurant, and who I taught how to waitress.

The person to witness my adverse reaction to Benadryl when her cats nearly killed me.

The friend with whom I went on a quest for Mason jars and spent one Christmas season baking endless amounts of peppermint bark.

The friend who has known since the age of sixteen that she will one day be my bridesmaid.

With whom I aspire to own neighboring houses built into the side of a mountain, a bed and breakfast, and a cow named Betsy.

The friend who understands when I am being irrational and who talks me through it.

The friend I always meet at Polar Cub.

The one I cannot imagine my life without.

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{Photo older than original sin}

How to Not Get a Massage or Take a Taxi in Beijing

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We met in the bathroom on a retreat, during the fall semester of my senior year. She liked my hair, I adored her style – it was the start of a friendship destined to last. Ours is a foundation built on random encounters at Mass, mutual affirmation, and one failed attempt to go to a Sugarland concert. Despite the fact that we never managed to hang out, I had no hesitation in saying yes when we ran into each other before I left for China, and she asked if she could come visit.

Liz could not have come at a better moment. Anyone who has lived abroad knows that there comes a point where you almost begin to forget that you had a life back home. You miss your family and friends, but you’ve spent so much time and energy creating a life in your new location that the life you left behind starts to feel like a distant memory. Liz’s arrival was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of everything at home that’s waiting for me upon my return. A reality check that it’s OK to not fully stock my kitchen here, because I won’t be here forever. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being around people from home until I laughed more in one week with Liz than I have in five months. Liz’s visit reminded me that China is not permanent, and that I came here with a purpose. She gave me the motivation to work towards achieving the goals I had set, and to remember that my time here has a deadline attached.

Beijing is a fast moving, international city; it can suck you in, and as the common story goes, before you even know it you’ve been here three years. So many people I meet tell me that they came here for a year, but just couldn’t seem to “get out.” The longer I have been abroad the more I have come to realize – I am not a wanderer. I have roots, they are firmly planted, and while I always want to grow, I cannot be torn away from what’s important to me. That can be hard to remember when you’re adrift in a sea of transplants, people who have moved and put down the most fragile of roots as a manner of survival. It is hard to ever truly feel settled in a place where a common topic of conversation is how long you want to stay.

I don’t yet have the answer to that question, and I’m not sure that I ever really will. I think I will just wake up one day and realize it’s time to go home, that this chapter is over and I am ready for the next phase of my life to begin. That time is not now, and I constantly debate with myself when it will come. For the moment all I can do is live my life here to the fullest, taking advantage of every opportunity, and remembering that once I leave I may never return. It’s a life of Resident Limbo; because while I am not a tourist, I am not a citizen either.

I Am Not a Tourist is a complex that happens to people living in Resident Limbo. A few examples:

I Am Not a Tourist

…I know how to barter with the illegal black cabs, as I know the approximate cost of a legitimate cab ride to almost anywhere I want to go.

…I know how to get to the grocery store!

…I understand the value of the currency, and can bargain well at the market instead of converting everything to dollars in my head and declaring it cheap.

Unfortunately Liz did not fly all this way to go to the grocery store, which meant that for a week I was resigned to playing the part of tourist, albeit one who at least understands the subway system. As it turned out, I didn’t know much about being a tourist in this city where I have come to reside, because being a tourist is so very different from figuring out where to buy forks and knives. Apart from knowing where we should go, I didn’t know much about how to get there, because I am resident enough that I don’t usually frequent those places. I know where I like to go, and I know how to get there. I don’t spend my days wandering through places like Tian’anmen Square; I have to do laundry.

Being with Liz gave me a chance to really explore Beijing. Sure, I know a noodle shop that would make Anthony Bourdain jealous, but I haven’t necessarily taken advantage of the sights that are within my reach, because I live here. On Saturday afternoons I’m more likely to be meeting up with friends for coffee and then off to dinner somewhere than I am to be exploring the Forbidden City (though really, if you ever do go, I would not recommend making your visit on a Saturday). Liz’s visit gave me some badly needed perspective, and helped me to go from Resident Limbo to Resident Tourist, a whole other category indeed.

The following is the complete itinerary of our tour through Beijing, as promised to you, Elizabeth Rooney.

Sunday

I took Liz out for her first meal in China, a crucial make-it-or-break-it moment, as traditional Chinese food is unlike anything most Westerners have ever seen. We went to my favorite restaurant, which my roommate and I refer to as “Our Place,” because we cannot read the Chinese character’s that denote its name. Here I introduced Liz to some of my favorite dishes in China.

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Moving clockwise, and starting at the bottom left, are as follows:  cucumbers with garlic in vinegar, peanuts in vinegar with garlic & cilantro, dry chip potatoes, dry fried green beans, kung pao chicken, and fried rice.

Monday

I was absolutely adamant that Liz have Beijing style noodles, but it turns out that I don’t know where to get them, which was how we ended up walking around Sanlitun for an hour in search of an elusive noodle house, only to wind up eating at Yashow Market. The dining options at the markets are the Chinese equivalent to a shopping mall food court. Having not lost any of my snobbish tendencies towards food while in China, I like these establishments about as much as I enjoy eating at a food court in America, which is to say, not at all. When Liz finally admitted that she was really hungry I gave in to defeat, and it was there that she had a bowl of noodles with cucumber slices, bean sprouts, and a dollop of bean curd (better than it sounds / looks – the bowl on the left).

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From there we spent the afternoon shopping around Yashow, an absolute must for any tourist who is looking to score a fake handbag, the latest Chinese fashion, or some cool China trinkets. After shopping we went to The Bookworm, Beijing’s resident hipster / coffee shop hangout.???????????????????????????????

For dinner I took Liz to “Tony’s,” another local spot of mine. Tony’s is obviously not the name of a restaurant in the heart of Beijing, but is instead my own moniker, because the owner introduced himself as Tony when we first met, and furthermore, he speaks English, the main reason for my faithful patronage. There I introduced Liz to a number of things that I would not have ordered five months ago. Liz bravely tried a century egg, a Chinese delicacy where an egg is boiled and then buried underground until the yolk turns black and the white becomes a gelatinous brown substance, which is about as appealing as it sounds.

Her favorite dish was the pork, which is served in strips over a bed of Chinese onion, then wrapped in thin sheets of tofu, which I was first introduced to by Chinese friends of mine. It’s important while in China to go out with people who know the cuisine, because ordering by sight recognition won’t get you very far, and you’ll miss out on some of the tastier dishes.

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Tuesday

Noodles for breakfast!

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I took Liz to the noodle bar right outside my apartment, where we dined with the locals and garnered many odd looks. It’s not a place that foreigners usually (if ever) frequent. You quickly get over Western cleanliness standards if you want to eat the best food in China. My survival tip is this:  if a long line of Chinese people are always waiting to eat somewhere it probably won’t kill me, even if the dishes are washed through a rather dubious looking method. The noodles are made on the spot, and served in a piping hot broth garnished with cilantro and meat shavings.

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From there we went to the Lama Temple, where the air is perfumed with incense as worshippers come to pray and pay homage to Buddha. The main tourist attraction is the 75 foot tall Buddha in the last hall. Carved from one piece of sandalwood, it has to be seen to be believed (so most of you will have to take my word on this – it’s awe-inspiring).

The rain ruined the rest of our plans for the afternoon, so we improvised with Starbucks and Cold Stone, then headed back to Yashow Market for foot massages.

Tip:  Go to a real massage parlor, the ones in the market are not all that great, nor are they any cheaper.

We rounded out the evening with dinner at a famous dumpling house in Sanyuanqiao, where Liz was less than impressed with some of Beijing’s best dumplings.

Wednesday

Decidedly over Chinese food for breakfast (as well as lunch and dinner) and wondering how I manage to do it (I made the conscious decision to move to China, so it was part of the deal) Liz was really excited when we went to the ever popular Tavalin Bagels for breakfast.

The forecast was still calling for rain, but we decided to hope for the best, ditched our umbrellas, and headed to The Forbidden City, also known as The Imperial Palace, where it started to downpour before we’d even gotten through the main gate. Here Liz was a tourist attraction in her own right, being tall and blonde. Most of the Chinese that are at the Forbidden City any day of the week are not Beijingers; they are tourists from the rest of China, and when you get outside the main cities, foreigners become about as rare as pandas, meaning you’re likely to get a lot of looks, stares, and requests for photographs.

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Hot Facts:  “The Forbidden City is the largest palace in the world, as well as the best preserved, and offers the most complete collection of imperial architecture in China” (Fodor’s).

It didn’t just rain while we were at The Forbidden City, it down poured. We were quickly drenched, which at first made for some great photo opportunities, but after an hour we looked like we had taken showers with our clothes on. The Chinese, who apparently pay attention to the weather forecast, were all extremely confused by our lack of umbrellas, and kept pointing to theirs, as if this was any help to us. Yes, I KNOW I’M WET. I don’t know exactly how to say that, but I was able to convey that it had not escaped my notice that we were soaked. Since we had little other option we embraced our predicament, and decided that touring an ancient palace in the rain is the way to do it.

Tip:  Watch out for pairs of women who approach you and are very friendly (almost too much so). They will speak English, ask where you are going, and perhaps suggest that you go for traditional “Chinese tea.” DO NOT DO THIS. It is called tea housing, and is a very popular tourist gimmick. I know people who have had it happen to them. They will take you to a tea house, pretend to be your best friend, rack up a ¥2,000 bill, and leave you to pay. Liz and I were approached by three separate pairs of women.

After leaving the palace we walked back to the subway, then it was on to the Pearl Market, another one of Beijing’s famous shopping complexes. This market is famous for electronics and jewelry. Definitely haggle here. The rule of thumb is that if you are a foreigner they will raise the price by as much as six times the normal cost. Bargain bargain bargain! Someone tried to sell me shoes for ¥750 a few weeks ago (which I bought for ¥90, and even then I think I could have haggled a little more).

Tip:  If you do buy pearls, make sure the vender scratches it to prove that it is legitimate (real pearls don’t scratch).

As previously mentioned, Liz was over Chinese food, and a tad distrustful in my taste after the dumpling fiasco the evening before, which was why she was less than enthusiastic when I insisted that we go for hot pot.

Beixingqiao, also known as Ghost Street, is an absolute must for any visitor to Beijing, and it’s one of my favorite areas. The entire strip is lit by lanterns strung between the buildings and the trees, and you can get any manner of Chinese food you crave. Here the vendors all speak enough English to hawk their wares, and will try to tempt you inside the doors of their establishment. “Hello! English menu!” is a common refrain. I knew what I was looking for, and didn’t find it until almost the very end of the strip, at which point I’m pretty sure Liz thought I was crazy, but she soon became a convert.

Hot pot is a fantastic style of dining from the Sichuan province of China, and is traditionally very spicy. I wasn’t a huge fan of spice before coming to China, but I now notice its absence whenever I eat anything where it is lacking. Hot pot can come either spicy or plain, and I recommend that you get the spicy broth, it’s nothing that the average palate can’t handle, and the plain broth is rather bland. The Chinese order any number of things to cook in hot pot (duck stomach, anyone?) but I usually stick to the more traditional options. Lamb, sweet potato, mushrooms, and tofu are some of my favorite things to eat this way. I’m not a huge fan of tofu, but it is absolutely delicious in hot pot. My favorite part of the whole thing is probably the sesame sauce which you dunk everything in after it’s been cooked. As Liz aptly put it, hot pot is more of an experience than just a meal. Chinese friends told me that if you invite someone to your home for hot pot then that person is a true friend, because you will only serve hot pot to the people who are closest to you.

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After dinner I insisted that we walk to Nanlouguxiang, a preserved hutong that has been turned into a happening nightlife area. Hutongs are an endangered cultural relic as the government continues to tear them down in favor of new high rises. Epicenters of culture, they are emblems of real Chinese culture amid the hustle and bustle of this ever ambitious city. Traditionally places of residence, a few of the hutongs have been turned into hot spots with bars and shops, such as Nanlouguxiang. This spot is cool, however, because it doesn’t cater just to foreigners, but to local Chinese as well. Whereas Sanlitun is more a mix of clubs, high-end bars and fancy restaurants, Nanlouguxiang is for all of Beijing’s displaced hipsters.

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We got there late in the evening on a Wednesday, so things had died down, but Liz was still able to buy a tea pot and haunt all of the funky little shops selling any number of oddities.

Thursday

We started the morning off with coffee (Starbucks, how I adore thee) then headed off to Tian’anmen Square to hang out for a bit.

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Tian’anmen, as most people know, is where absolutely nothing happened in June of 1989. At least that’s the official story over here, but security is still very strict and heavily enforced within the square (by which I mean guards are posted at intervals throughout, and it’s not odd to see a group of men in uniform marching past).

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Here we were once again a tourist attraction of our own, and pretty much invited attention by sitting down on a ledge. After about an hour of photographs with random passerby’s we decided to call it quits, and headed to Wangfujing to see the Catholic Church and grab lunch.

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The evening was spent at the home of the eleven year old girl I tutor, where Liz was able to enjoy an authentic meal with a Chinese family. Thankfully they didn’t serve her anything completely wacky, a special treat which they seem to reserve for me each week.

Friday

Liz was able to get a taste of being a kindergarten teacher in China, which is to say that she absolutely fell in love with the kids. They are the cutest things ever. We had unintentionally coordinated so that we were wearing the colors of the American flag, but it somehow seemed fitting as we taught them such classics as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” which they all call “The Eensey Weensy Spider” despite my best efforts. I blame their former English teacher.

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That little munchkin pictured is Edwin, who I previously referred to as Harry, until he told last week that he prefers Edwin. I tried to explain that Harry is a better name than Edwin (or at least more modern) but he would have none of it, so Edwin it is. He’s four, and really clever. One day I was asking everyone in his class their Chinese name, and he stood up and said, “Wo de zhong wen ming zi shi xi gua.” Or, “My Chinese name is watermelon.” Needless to say, I lost control of the class at that point.

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Outside the gate at my school.

Friday afternoon we went to Houhai, a very popular destination in Beijing. Comprised of a lake and the surrounding hutongs and restaurants, Houhai is a happening area at night. Here Liz was finally able to get her ride in a rickshaw, something she had been hoping to do all week. The driver originally wanted ¥180 per person for what ended up being about a fifteen minute ride, but we were able to negotiate it down to ¥50 for the both of us.

Tip:  When bargaining, just walk away if the price is not what you want. Do not stand there and argue. State your price, look at them for a minute, and if they refuse to drop theirs start walking. If their price is too high they will immediately shout after you (and in some instances, chase you) and you can usually agree on a price that leaves both parties satisfied.

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Our driver was phenomenal.

Along the way we stopped to tour a 700 year old hutong courtyard house.

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The entrance to the house.

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The courtyard.

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The lake that gives the area its name, Houhai (literally Rear Sea).

Saturday

THE GREAT WALL

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Not wanting to spend our Saturday on the Great Wall with a thousand other tourists, Liz and I opted go with the Beijing Hikers, an excellent company that provides guided tours to some of Beijing’s remote locations. A big bonus is that they keep the group size relatively small and take you to places that won’t be swarming with hoards of tourists. We signed up with a lovely chap named Thomas, with whom my conversation went something like this:

Thomas:  “Beijing Hikers.”

Me:  “Hi, my friend and I are interested in hiking the Great Wall tomorrow, do you have a tour going?”

Thomas:  “Sure do!”

Me:  “Awesome, what’s the day entail?”

Thomas:  “We’ll meet at the Lido Hotel at eight, and from there take a bus two hours to the mountains, where we will hike to an unrestored section of the wall. From there we’ll hike to a village, and finish the day with a lunch prepared by locals.”

Me:  “Sounds good. Is there anything we should bring?”

Thomas:  Sunblock, a long sleeve shirt, pants… We’ll provide you with a chocolate bar, a banana, and all the water you can drink.

Me:  “A banana!”

Thomas:  “You sound really excited about that banana.”

Me:  “My friend really likes bananas. What kind of shoes, do we need hiking boots?”

Thomas:  “Those are great.”

Me:  “We only have sneakers. But don’t worry, we won’t hold the group up. We’re in shape.”

Did Thomas need to know that we are in shape? Was it in any way relevant to sneakers? No. I have no recollection of what Thomas said because Liz was laughing so hard that I had to get off the phone before I lost it. We wore sneakers, and we were absolutely fine. However, one of us did manage to hold the group up…

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The first person to scoot their butt down the Great Wall. Steeper than it looks.

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Gazing out of a watchtower. The hike up was tough, the view was worth it.

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On top of the watchtower.

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One of the watchtowers.

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It was really foggy the day we went (fog, not smog) but it added an ethereal quality.

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The village.

We finished with lunch, where true to Chinese custom our hosts provided more than we could have ever hoped to eat.  Out of a table of all boys except for the two of us, Liz and I did America proud by eating the most. After we got back from the hike we decided to chill for a bit, then it was onto Sanlitun for dinner, where we rounded out the day with Mexican food at Cantina Agave.

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We didn’t mean to coordinate, but it happened, and we were OK with it. Girls actually coordinate here all the time, except by that I mean they were the EXACT same outfit. It’s like Twin Day from when you were in elementary school, except real life. A little odd the first time you see it done.

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If you ever get to Beijing and are jonesing for Mexican (stranger things have happened) this is the place.

Sunday

By our last day together we could not believe that the week had gone by so fast. It was almost complete, except that I had yet to take Liz for a massage, something she had been asking to do since Monday. Having pretty much completely given up on Chinese food, we went to Tavalin Bagels again for breakfast, then spent a few hours shopping around Yashow and grabbing last minute gifts. Then we headed to Wangfujing for Mass at the Wangfujing Cathedral, alternatively known as St. Joseph’s and the East Church. Mass was a little hard to understand, because, bless the priest, his accent was so thick that we caught maybe every other word.

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After Mass we headed over to the strip where vendors sell every edible oddity that you could possibly imagine. Scorpions? Sheep testicles? This vendor knows only one word in English, and he gleefully shouts, “Testicles!” whenever any woman walks past. We took the safe route, and had dumplings, which were pretty good, but the food here is not the best, in my “I live in China and am not a tourist” opinion. However, it’s a lot of fun and definitely should not be missed. I like going just for the atmosphere, as well as the sugar glazed fruit on a stick, which you can get any time of year here, but which is traditionally only sold in the winter.

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Liz loved the pineapple, which is also my favorite.

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Dumplings.

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That would be starfish, sea urchin, shark (not sure exactly how one would go about eating that on a stick) squid, and on the bottom here, tarantula, centipede, and snake, among other things.

After we were finished we went and got ice cream at McDonalds, something I eat far too often here. Then it was onto the last thing on our list:  massages. While Liz was excited at the prospect, I was less than thrilled with the idea of some stranger rubbing their hands all over my body, but I decided that I would chalk it up to experience and take one for the team. I had no idea where to go, but luckily some friends of mine did, which was how we wound up at Dongfangliang Massage in Sanlitun. They don’t speak English at Dongfangliang. We don’t speak Chinese. After they communicated that it would be two men performing the massages, and checking to make sure that we were OK with that, they left us in the room with a garment akin to what you wear when you go to the dermatologist. After looking at it for five minutes, Liz and I decided that we didn’t want to put it on, but at this point we were already in various stages of undress. We opened the door a crack and showed them the garment while trying our best to look confused. A minute later the masseuse came back with another garment, but this time it was a shorts set. Still convinced that this wasn’t what one is supposed to wear for a massage, Liz and I opened the door once more, now genuinely confused. At this point, everyone was confused. The masseuse returned yet again, this time with blankets, which Liz and I assumed he meant for us to wrap ourselves in. So we disrobed and swaddled. We would have done many a maternity ward nurse proud we were wrapped so tight. No way a masseuse was getting his hands in there! Come and see if you can find my shoulder, boys!

I should mention that this process, which probably takes the normal person about two minutes, took us twenty. After finally lying down on the beds the men came in, and this was where we all learned that Liz is exceptionally ticklish. To the point where her massage had to stop intermittently, and I was told to tell her to calm down and relax. They had figured out I speak a little Chinese, probably from my attempts at small talk, because I found it crucial that we know the names and ages of our masseuses. I’m not sure my attempts at communication made the situation any better, however, because at random intervals we both kept bursting out laughing and they had to stop. At times we were all laughing, communication barrier be damned, wasn’t this funny, these two white girls are nuts! We’re convinced that’s what they were thinking.

After finally getting through the body massage we had the foot massage, which went much smoother, except for the fact that Liz is also ticklish on her feet. I’m pretty sure we were all relieved when the massages were done, and not in the general way that people normally feel after a massage.

After beating it out of there (our masseuses waited by the door to wave us off) we went for dinner, after which it started to downpour. Taxis are exceptionally hard to come by in the rain in Beijing, so we started walking in a direction where I was fairly confident taxis congregate. We managed to find one, but it was a black cab, which are notoriously expensive and usually unwilling to negotiate, especially in the rain. Luckily this guy was young and bored, and after bargaining with him for a few minutes I got him to agree to my price by telling him in Chinese, “We’re pretty.”

We were in his cab for about five minutes when I remarked to Liz that he had a nice car, and all of a sudden he said, “Thank you.” He spoke English! I always find this very exciting, so I started to pepper him with questions.

“Where do you work? Why are you driving a cab at night?” At this point I should mention that the last black cab I took, the driver was working weekends and holidays to make extra money because his wife was pregnant. So naturally I decided that all men who are driving black cabs must have pregnant wives at home, prompting me to remark, “You must have a woman in your life!”

Well, turned out that no, he didn’t. Not really sure where to go from there, I told him that I liked the music he was playing on the radio, and asked if he normally listens to American music.

Cab Driver:  “I really American music.”

Me:  “Me too! So do you live around here?”

Cab Driver:  “Right up the street.”

Me:  “Oh, we’re practically neighbors! Do you like the restaurants in this area?”

At this point he had a grin on his face and was shooting looks back to Liz, and I realized, a bit too late, I was hitting on the cab driver. However unintentionally, that is absolutely how it was coming across. I couldn’t wait till we got up the street. I don’t remember what else I said, but it didn’t get much better. Needless to say, I was quite relieved when we finally got to my apartment, where we pretty much went to bed so we could get up early the next morning and get Liz to the airport.

If you’ve read it all this way, congratulations. I wasn’t aware that I would have so much to write, but that week had to have been one of the best of my life. I don’t remember many other times when I have laughed so hard or so much, and it was incredible to spend the week with someone who I know will be a lifelong friend. Here’s to you, Liz, and the many memories we are going to make.

What I Want Every Girl to Know

No boy should ever make you cry. But if one does, know that you are crying because you care, and caring is the heart of your femininity. Guard your heart, but don’t lose your ability to care.

Don’t give in to the ways of the world; you were made for a greater purpose.

Don’t cheapen yourself for the thrill of the moment. Demand respect, because you deserve it. Don’t settle for anything less.

It’s OK to let a man hold open the door but agree to split the bill at dinner.

Don’t assume you aren’t worth the best, because you were made in a perfect image. Respect and love your body. It’s the only one you’ve got. Your biggest “flaws” are most likely only visible to you. Don’t point out what you dislike about yourself to others. It’s very likely they don’t see you that way.

Challenge yourself to walk past a mirror and not glance at your reflection. Don’t wear so much makeup. Remember that you are a soul, you have a body. The true light and essence of an individual always shines through.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself, and be true to you. Respect whatever decisions you make. Please no one else against your own moral code. You’re the one you have to wake up and be with everyday, and you want to like her.

Gossip is like poison. Don’t give it to your friends, and don’t take it.

Never do something against your values for a boy. Ever. If he is asking you to do something you are not OK with he does NOT love you.

Cherish your friendships.

Get outside. Get off Facebook. Stop comparing your life to the one everyone else leads online and go out and live it.

Befriend an old person. They’ve lived longer. They’re wiser.

Your parents managed to clothe, feed, and shelter you. Give them some credit.

Smile to a stranger, and always hold the door for others.

Do not look down on those whose jobs you would consider beneath you. No one is beneath you, and you are above no one. Do not mistake fortunate life circumstances for your own greatness. Remain humble.

Pray.

Do not be afraid to dream, and do not listen to those who say no. Surround yourself with positive people; they will end up influencing your thinking.

Read the news. You live in this world, you should know what goes on in it.

Pick up a hobby that’s just for you. You’re never too old to learn something new.

Walk and get fresh air every day. Take your headphones out and let your thoughts wander. Do not be afraid to be by yourself, without any distractions. No music, no phone. Your brain needs peace and quiet to think and process. You’ll be amazed at what ideas come your way.

Buy flowers for yourself.

Be patient with those who don’t understand you; a time will come when you are in their situation.

Be modest. The male mind was designed to be sparked by a little intrigue. Others will respect you when they can see you respect yourself.

Work out. Your body was made to sweat.

Eat chocolate. It tastes good.

Tell the people you love that you love them openly and often. No one ever tires of hearing that they are loved.

Realize that no boy can fulfill all of your desires, and that the perfect one does not exist. He will be flawed, as you are. Learn to love people despite their flaws.

Do not ever wait around on a boy. Your time is valuable, and you have a life to live.

You will never be happy with someone else until you are happy with yourself. Do what makes you happy.

Challenge yourself. It’s the only way you’ll ever grow.

Paint your toes. Painted toes are pretty.

Eat fruit.

Never be ashamed of who you were made to be. You’re the only one of you this world will ever see. What you have to say is important, because it’s you who is saying it.

Don’t be afraid to tell someone no, or to set boundaries with those who make you uncomfortable.

Sing in the rain, run barefoot through the grass, take time to marvel at the beauty in nature.

When you do look in the mirror, smile.

Don’t try to look sexy. Beauty is worth ten of sexy everyday.

Hold your head high and greet the world with confidence. This is your world, your time, your now or never.

Go out there and show em’ what you’ve got.

Will Work for Bagels

I have been in China four months, two weeks, and two days (to be precise). I have eaten dumplings, noodles, and all manner of things I would rather not recall. I have made a best friend (the kind that you know will last a lifetime) painted my bedroom, and scrubbed the dust out of my apartment until my hands hurt, only to have it reappear a day later. I have received two packages from home, sent five letters, and exchanged hundreds of emails.

I have been on three dates, found the best bagel shop in Beijing, and now tutor the employees for credit. I have drunk enough Starbucks coffee to personally cover the cost of a nice dinner for the CEO (if he eats it in China, that is). I have found the grocery store that sells cheese, and done a happy dance when coming across a familiar product. I have been stared at enough that I will likely go home with a minor celebrity complex.

I have been driven to the Great Wall in the back of a black Mercedes, and to a rose garden on the top of a mountain. I have become friends with the family at my breakfast stand after all attempts at language failed, and I snorted at them to signify that I would like the pork dumpling. I have been asked if I am single and interested in dating their son. I have watched aghast as small children (and on one occasion, an adult) go to the bathroom on the street, and now I walk right past it. I never assume it is dog poop.

I have learned how to give directions in Chinese to the taxi drivers, and how to say, “I don’t understand,” very well. I have become friends with the owner of a restaurant, and spent an evening conversing and drinking with a group of old Chinese men.

I have given money and food to the homeless, and come to seriously question what it means to give, and to assess my own blessings. I have conversed with a crippled beggar who told me he was a Christian, heard some of the best sermons of my life, and actually read my Bible.

I have gone to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and spent one lazy afternoon wandering down a hutong.

I have eaten Peking duck, been taught how to make dumplings, and become friends with the chef at my school, who caters to my love of noodles and dislike of fat, even though he has repeatedly tried to convince me that I should eat it.

I have forgotten I am in China, and wondered why I am surrounded by so many Asians. I have stopped to marvel at the sights before me, and come to love taxi rides at night. I have been squashed on the subway, and scrutinized on the bus.

China feels like the most natural place for me to be, even though it will never truly be home. Whenever I forget that I am white and think I am starting to blend in, I spot another foreigner from half a mile away. One person once thought I was Chinese, for one second.

I have walked in the rain because I am so happy just to feel it, and acquired an oven.

I have witnessed dust storms, and been so cold I thought I would never get warm.

I have been sad from missing family and friends, and exuberant with all of life’s possibilities.

I have been astounded by the generosity, warmth, and graciousness of the Chinese people, and I have fallen in love with the children I teach.

In My Dream World

Normally I take my time to plan out and write my blog posts. I first write them down on paper, longhand, because I feel like I can better collect my thoughts when my hand is holding the pen. I like the flow, as if the words are coming down my arm from my brain, ink stains on paper the evidence of my thoughts. The same argument could be made for typing I am sure, but to me it is not the same. The pen feels like an extension of my hand, while the keyboard feels foreign, requiring taps instead of a gentle caress. The paper is very important as well; I like the feel of its smooth surface beneath my hand, the way an entire page can suddenly come to life with my words. It doesn’t look quite the same filling an endless blank space on my computer screen, the font impersonal, the permanence seemingly less so, even though what we put on the Internet is doomed to last forever, and my words on paper are mine alone.

But tonight I am going right to the screen. I do not have enough time for my normal process. I cannot sit here spending hours writing down the ideas that form in my head, my brain two sentences ahead of my pen. Tonight I do not have the time for such a luxury, because tonight I am supposed to be packing for China. In my dream world, I was packed hours ago. In reality, I haven’t even started, it’s 6:33 pm, and I am soon going downstairs to make farfalle carbonara and watch a movie with my family. I want to pretend things are normal, and ignore the fact that in 36 hours I am getting on a plane, leaving all that I know and love behind for one year.

I am excited, but I am at the part of the process where the emotions come on strong. I haven’t yet cried, but as I went shopping with my mother today, the last time for a year, tears started to well up in my eyes, and I couldn’t look at her. It was ironic that this moment almost brought me to tears, because my mother and I don’t even like shopping. Which is actually why we ended up at the mall the Saturday before I am supposed to fly out of the country – I don’t have any clothes. This is mostly because I like to pretend I have outgrown them, then give them to my friend Courtney, who looks fabulous in everything, but particularly this pair of white pants that she doesn’t wear all that often. Her boyfriend Eric would do well to make a request that he see her in them.

I digress (this happens a lot – see the title of the blog). So I’m at the mall, trying not to cry, which would just be a total disgrace, because a) I don’t remember the last time I cried in public, and b) I was in yoga pants, a tank top that probably has holes in it, and an oversize sweatshirt with my hair up in the bandana (it’s making a comeback) so I would just be that girl. Not the refined shed-a-little-tear-but-doesn’t-she-look-lovely type, no, the wow, she must really be having a bad day type. The, there she is bawling and she couldn’t even put herself together for the occasion, type. I did not need to impose this sight upon the other patrons of the Bridgewater Commons. I am always looking out for the best interest of the public.

Thankfully the desire to cry evaporated as soon as I left the mall, and I was able to regain my composure enough to make it home and get upstairs. I am now sitting in my room, looking at piles of things that are not supposed to be going into my suitcase, and wondering how this happened, as I cleaned everything up yesterday. I am trying not to panic at the fact that I have about five things I would like to do tomorrow (none which involve packing) and I really don’t have time to get it all done, unless I stay up all night, at which point I will get sick and have a miserable flight. This is what it’s like inside my brain right now. So I am going to put on some music (thank you Grooveshark) straighten up these piles, and approach things from a calm and rational perspective.

Did I mention before that I have a dream world?

The Great ALDO Redemption

aldo

Three weeks ago I sent the president of Aldo a rather long letter detailing the unfortunate experience I had with a pair of Aldo boots. A week after the letter was mailed to the Montreal headquarters, I received an email from the director of the Customer Contact Center.

She wanted to talk.

We spoke on the phone yesterday, during which time she expressed her regret at the [previous] lack of customer service, and her desire to restore my trust and loyalty in their brand. I was prepared for this, and told her that a new pair of boots should suffice. I do not believe that my experience with the boot was indicitive of the overall quality of Aldo’s products, but the exception instead of the rule.

I like Aldo shoes. It’s what prompted me to write the letter in the first place. I want to be able to buy their shoes again, and with a $150.00 credit, I soon will. But more than that, I am now satisfied that they stand behind their product, even if it takes sending a letter to the president to make them do so.

Happy Chinese New Year

One of My Finer Moments

I never like the songs that play as the credits roll at the end of a movie. A few examples:  Celine Dion crooning at the end of Titanic about her heart going on and on, except Jack had died, so no one really cared what her heart would do. The Lion King. Excellent movie. All of you Disney naysayers can just go to the land where dream squashers and negative people go to die. But really. Someone tell me how Elton John bleeding emotion for feeling the love tonight has anything to do with jungle animals.

Because it doesn’t.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you, because this isn’t actually about the credit song selections of Hollywood. Well, not really. This is about a couch. A couch that took up residence for two years at 50 Robinson Street, where I lived with my friends during college. A brown leather, extremely comfortable, couch.

It was the nap couch, the homework couch, the movie couch, the late-night chat couch. But more than anything, it was the make out couch. At one point or another, every girl in our house had a boyfriend. With only one single bedroom and five girls, there wasn’t much space for privacy. Which meant that if a couple was going to hang out at our house for the evening, they were going to end up on the couch.

Our house was tiny. The couch was in the living room, right next to the kitchen. The only thing separating one room from the other was a thin sheet of plaster a hundred years old. Even if you had the privacy of the living room, other people were never more than a few feet away. If the lights were out and a movie was on, we all knew what you were doing.

A favorite game of ours was to act like we had never been in that situation when it was someone else on the couch. We would trade knowing glances over breakfast, and whisper in the hallway:

“What time did she come into the room to go to bed last night?”

“I bet she’s so tired today!”

“I can’t believe they stayed up so late again. That’s the third time this week!”

The couch occupant knew that she was a conversation topic, and would act indifferent until it was another couple on the couch, at which point she would assume all innocence and eagerly join in the banter.

The nights when the rest of us were relegated elsewhere, we would usually congregate in the kitchen. Sometimes there would be reservations made for the couch, “I’m having my boyfriend over Friday night.” Nothing more needed to be said; we all understood.

On those nights, the door between the kitchen and the living room became a divide – if you were in the kitchen you were safe, but beyond that door it became enemy territory. We would snicker and tease, and wonder how she could possibly want to kiss him. One such evening, I happened to be in the kitchen doing homework, while the couple that had the most couch time occupied their favorite spot. The only sound coming from behind the door was the song to the credits, playing on what seemed like an endless loop. I fail to believe that anyone enjoys listening to the credit score on repeat, unless they are otherwise engaged.

I needed something to drown out the noise from only a few feet away, so I decided to put on some music.

The obvious selection was to play Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing.

Full volume.

On repeat.

I do so hate those songs they play during the credits.

dream

Motivation

The Closet Creeper and a Visit to the Doctor

Sometimes I do not know when to stop talking. Those who know me well would likely say, “Only sometimes, Natalie?”

I’m a very vocal person, which has its pro’s and con’s.

Plus Side:     You always know what I’m thinking.

Down Side:  You always know what I’m thinking.

I have been called blunt, rude, hilarious, and awkward. I have never been referred to as a creeper, but the truth is that sometimes, I am a complete creep.

While it is not fair, one is generally only referred to as a creeper if one is:

  • Of the male variety
  • Unattractive
  • Overly persistent in giving unwanted attention (think: Bar Scene, North America)
  • Sporting a penchant for trench coats.

Since I am not:

  • A male
  • Decide for yourself
  • Of the persuasion to hit on women
  • The trench coat wearing type…

I usually just get called weird when I go into full on creeper mode. Which is why I propose this alternative description of a creep:

Someone who knows / remembers details about your life when you:
a) Never told them
b) Don’t know them

Unfortunately, my actions have fallen into both of these categories on numerous prior occasions. Still, that’s not quite the crux of it just yet. The real mark of a creeper is:

Even if the other person does not appear to be enjoying themselves / your conversation, you just can’t seem to bring yourself to stop.

Case in point, last night. We all remember The Wart. Long story short, up until last night, I still had the wart. I had begun to think of it as its own entity, my body its host. When the dermatologist appointments proved futile, I began attacking it with the vigor of a reigning monarch against an invading army.

This sucker was going down if I had to cut it out of my foot myself (which I tried, repeatedly). But before I get too sidetracked, I have already devoted an entire post to the wart, and this is actually about my creeper tendencies.

To recap:  me, creeping, wart, failed self-imposed attempts at surgery.

I decided that it was time to go see a podiatrist. Bringing out the big guns. Podiatrists deal strictly with feet (and really, I’m fascinated – how does one feel a calling to this?) No matter. I needed one, and so my mother, ever helpful, led me to Dr. T.

I had actually been to see Dr. T once before, but had failed to save his number. I typed some variation of his very Greek last name into Google, and received quite a few hits in return. God help me, I actually clicked on some of them, and promptly learned way more than I should know about Dr. T, other than that he may harbor a foot fetish. Let me say one more time: Podiatry. Feet, all day long. This one was easy to deduce.

I will justify my actions by stating that I was bored at work. And it’s not like I learned anything inappropriate about Dr. T. I was just able to glean that he and his ex-wife have joint custody of the kids. Two boys.

No big, because in theory, Dr. T would never need to know I know this.

In Reality

Monday, 5:52 PM:  I’m late. I can tell the front desk ladies are non-too-pleased with me. I feign ignorance and smile politely.

5:55:  I am led to a chair and instructed to remove my shoes and socks. My feet are sweaty. Mid winter, socks, boots; don’t pretend like you haven’t been there people.

5:56:  I really should have gotten a pedicure. This is just abominable.

5:57:  I should have removed the errant hairs from my big toe.

6:02:  I walk to the front of the office to retrieve a magazine. Barefoot. See: Wart. Walking around barefoot is probably why I am in this predicament in the first place. The front desk ladies glance at my feet and look at my oddly. Apparently walking around barefoot is not acceptable behavior at the podiatrists.

6:04:  I’ve barely gotten to flip through the pages when the doctor decides to join me. But I do manage to notice the shirtless picture of Tim McGraw, on page 74 in this week’s issue of People. Tim McGraw has weird nipples.

6:05:   I tell the good doctor that I am soon leaving for China, and would like to be departing sans wart. He inspects my right foot, then my left. I don’t think he has a foot fetish. Either that or he hides it very well. Which once more begs the question: why podiatry?

6:06:  BONUS! Turns out that odd little thing I couldn’t identify on my left foot is ANOTHER wart.

6:07:  He calls in the nurse practitioner, and at this point I lose track of time. It is explained to me that we are going to numb, scrape and cauterize my feet. In other words, we are going to stick long needles into them, use a scalpel on them, and burn them. We are going to annihilate these little suckers.

Two needles were procured, at which point I grabbed the arm of the nurse practitioner and implored, “You have children, can I hold your hand?” I’m pretty sure I left childhood behind at least six years ago, but she kindly obliged. Thank God, because it hurts like hell to make sure I don’t feel anything.

My feet sufficiently numbed, the nurse practitioner leaves, and Dr. T whips out a small blow torch.

Time for small talk.

Most normal people would ask… I don’t know what most normal people would ask, because I’m me, and so I asked,

“How are your sons?”

Dr. T never told me that he has sons. I only know this because I read his court documents. It was still fine, he probably didn’t think anything of it, assumed he had told me at another time. But what do I do?

I miss this logical reasoning, and my brain goes straight to:

YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW HE HAS ANY SONS.

So I follow with the wonderful, “You never told me you have sons, I only know because I typed your name into Google.”

Shut up, Natalie. Just shut up.

This is what I’m thinking. I actually have this thought. But no. Once it starts, I can’t seem to stop, so I continue, “I had to type your name into Google because I hadn’t saved your number. You’d be amazed what you can find out about someone on Google.”

At this point some working part of my brain has caught up to my mouth, and is telling me to abandon my current course of action. Which means I delve into a long list of all the websites you can use to find information on people, and how last week I found myself on Spokeo, which should really be called Spookeo, because it’s so spooky, and how I’m so good at researching people because that’s what I did for two years at my internship during college.

Verbal. Diarrhea.

Then Dr. T says that there are probably documents online that he would rather not be there (i.e. the court document detailing his joint custody) and I try to play this off by saying that I hadn’t seen anything like that and he shouldn’t worry.

He just looked at me, which my brain finally processed as, “Time for a new conversation topic!”

“So are podiatrists real doctors?”

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