A Broad Abroad

It was daylight, but not for much longer.

Dipping in and out of the shadows, I made my way through the bustling crowds towards my destination. I was at the boundary of a seedier neighborhood, one I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around when the alleys grew darker. I was one woman, alone, abroad.

The women behind the windows looked…bored. One blonde was tapping away at her cell phone. Another examined her long, acrylic nails with heavy eyes. Or maybe it was her eye shadow that was making her expression look so still. They were wearing bikinis. It was October.

A movement in my periphery startled me. My head turned, and I immediately made eye contact with the woman in the window a few feet away. She was not wearing pants. Or a shirt. As she stared back at me, a finger slowly dipped into her cleavage. She scratched, idly, and I continued on my way.

Amsterdam. Truly, a romantic city. Canals, gabled facades, and the sharp ding-ding of bicycle bells.

It was my fifth and last day in the city, and I was making my final rounds. Getting items to take home. Getting. Not buying. See, the Iamsterdam city card I bought but never used allowed me to pick up gifts for free at certain points around the city. I had plotted a general, ambling loop.

This was my last day. I went for a long walk.

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You see, I like free stuff. It’s like a lingering vestige of my college career.

So I picked up a cute little Heineken beer glass, a gift bag from De Bijenkorf, and went on a free canal cruise. The sun finally peeked out from behind the gray. I stopped for lunch in Chinatown, which is how I accidentally cut through the Red Light district. The neighborhood is full of eateries, coffee shops, and bars. There are, like the rest of Amsterdam, old buildings. Cobbled streets. Trees. Like my night stroll through Pigalle, I didn’t see anything terribly scandalous. Besides the women in the windows, idly thumbing at their hemlines (if they had any). But their apathy was more humorous than anything else.

When I emerged from my late meal–ordered and paid for in a mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English–pinks and reds splashed up against the nearby buildings. Evening had begun. The women in the windows were awash in the red lights that lit up the neighborhood, slouching against the window frames.

People looked without looking.

I went back to my hostel, and slept.

Crack Me Open Like A Chili Crab

One fool-proof way to figure out if you have a paper cut is to eat chili crab.

Because the only way to eat chili crab is with your hands. It’s messy–no way around it. You’ll need to be in a finger-licking sort of mood. I understand that. But when you feel like maybe you can leave your lovely box of latex gloves at home (there’s a time and a place), eat chili crab.

Worth the pile of used, dirty napkins? Hm. I dare say so.  Because if wrenching apart a hard-shelled crab isn’t doing it for you, hungry or not, then the sauce-gravy is plen-ty tasty on its very own. Truly. Grab a little bread and go dipping. I went on the infamous food tour with Tony Tan of Betel Box Hostel fame (25-30 Singaporean dishes, one evening, minimum eight people). Two couples had backed out at the last minute, so there remained the six of us: me, my two Singaporean friends, an American couple (Frances and Dan), and a chef-to-be from the UK (John). History, culture, and food. My faves. East Asian Studies major with a history-religion concentration, remember? I salivate over this stuff.

Good thing, too.

I have over 150 photos to share with you. I don’t know most of their names, but I’ll update the list whenever I figure it out. Probably. Maybe.

I hope you’re hungry, because you’re about to experience hunger-jealousy. I sometimes time eating lunch with watching food/travel channel shows–otherwise I just sit there feeling sorry for myself.

There’s more. I just haven’t got the eye focus to find the pictures of chicken feet, nasi lemak, roti prata (DELICIOUS WITH SUGAR which is apparently a kid thing), rojak, wanton mee (also a must have–I had it my first afternoon at Maxwell) and what have you. Just experienced 24 hours of traveltraveltravel. Yowza. How do people cross the ocean multiple times a year? It’s a doozy.

ALSO. On BOTH FLIGHTS (SIN -> BEIJING, BEJIING -> USA) I sat next to who amounted to a male model. WHY WERE THEY SO GOOD LOOKING ON SIX AND TWELVE HOUR FLIGHTS RESPECTIVELY? The second time it happened I was just like ‘But of course,’ because I was rocking my safari vest with my bright red Sichuan University t-shirt. I was not rocking make-up nor contacts. Glasses and static-y hair ruled the day.

I’ll speak more of my woes and adventures in a different, dedicated post. This should just be about the food, because by golly Singapore has a LOT of it. I only disliked the oyster-omelette. I tried a minimum 26 Singaporean signature dishes in my six days in Singapore. What.

And Christmas dinner is coming up.

Thank goodness it’s sweater weather. Hide the food baby just a little while longer.

Oh, The Troubles You’ll Have!

I would liken my current facial expression to that of the infamous Grumpy Cat.

In other words: me no happy.

In other words: sometimes, traveling can be the most frustrating thing.

When I get angry or upset, I have an awful habit of bursting into tears. I was upset in an elevator today. Luckily, I only had one of the ever-present China cameras as witness. Today has been a collection of the little things, mistakes and backtracking and the occasional moment of incompetence (mostly not by me, thank you). This is technically the first time I’ve traveled outside of America by myself. I’m figuring it out along the way, and with that comes trial and error. Mostly error, and mostly frustration.

I woke up at 6am, got to the airport by 6:50am, left Singapore by 9:30am, landed in Beijing by 3:24pm, and will leave for America by 9:00pm.

Oh, whoops. Better go line up.

LATER GATORS.

Sizzle Sizzle, Singapore

Low of 86 F LOLOLOLOLOLOLS~

I feel like I’m breathing a wet blanket, but without the hypothetical asphyxiation. Yegads–the humidity! I’m not used to anything above 70F, which makes me a complete weather wimp. Snow is way cold, and direct sunlight is a right pain in the ass. I like both, but mostly when I’m indoors. See? Wimp.

I am currently battling a food coma.

By the time I got out of Changi Airport (beautiful–I can understand why it’s the world’s best airport because THERE’S AN EFFING SLIDE), it was a little after 5PM. I was hungry. My friend drove me to her place on the East Coast of Singapore to drop off my stuff (I had a few moments of heart-stopping shock because I forgot they drive on the left side of the road here), and then we were off to dinner(s).

Chicken rice. Laksa. Dark chocolate ice cream, six-layer chocolate cake bar, dark chocolate milk served as a Christmas ornament, flour-less chocolate cake. Melon ice cream. 肉干. And I’m about to be fed something else at nearly midnight, dressed in pajama shorts and an oversized tee. I cannot wait, but I do worry for my waist line. It’s only been half a day.

(Update: I have eaten the surprise food, and it is called otah. It is fish meat and spices wrapped in a banana leaf. This particular one was made by my friend’s roomate’s Malaysian neighbor and it has actual fish chunks of deliciousness. Next up: grapes.).

Singapore, you have much to offer. I look forward to eating you.

Except for the durians. I can wait.

See Ya, Shanghai. See Ya Soon, Singapore!

I may have…gotten to the airport early. Earlier than anticipated.

I woke up with the rest of my classmates to say goodbye to them at 4AM. By the time I finished up packing and hailed a cab, it was 5:15AM. An hour later, Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Because it was only 6AM, the cavernous airport was pretty empty. I couldn’t find any staff to help me check my bags for a good fifteen minutes, but eventually they checked and I had my ticket. Customs was a breeze with only one woman ahead of me, as was security. I didn’t even get flustered when I struggled to remove my laptop from my bulging backpack, because there was no one behind me.

In a flash, I was through security and walking aimlessly around my gate.

I bought barbecue potato chips, peanut M&Ms, and blue Gatorade because I am weak, weak, weak. And hungry. And no way in hell was I going to pay 50 RMB for a bowl of noodles, not after the cab ride over emptied my wallet (220 RMB, jfc) and not after I was accustomed to 10 RMB bowls of noodles.

The wifi here is pretty shady. You need to re-enter the wifi password approximately every 9 minutes and 12 seconds, and you can’t enter your VPN without internet connection. It made my Skype call with the fambam a struggle, but, y’know, it was worth it. They got the Christmas tree today! Yea-yuhh~

The waiting area is full now. I’m guarding my seat jealously, even though I could go for a trip to the restroom. No, you will not take over my socket, sir.

Maybe in twenty minutes. Thirty, if I clench.

God, I need a nap.

Server Aunties In Their Auntie Ways

Customer is king in America. You can demand the shit out of your server, poor soul, and they’ll do it with a smile. They will if they want to keep their job, anyways, because if you don’t smile at a particular customer then your manager will Hear About It. I remember I came into work one day bummed about a parking ticket or maybe an earlier conversation, and as usual I took over the front of house and the customers within it. I, admittedly, could’ve smiled at the customers at Table 1. But I spoke politely, and kept their waters filled. I thought it to be enough. When I collected their signed receipt, I saw that they had left a handwritten message:

Your service is terrible.

Well, shoot.

I’m sure it was meant to wound my delicate, delicate feelings. Maybe they knew the receipts were viewed at the end of the day by the restaurant manager. That was all right, though, because during my shifts I was–official in all but name–the manager. Their complaint stopped with me if I wanted it so, although I did share the news with my coworker. We exchanged raised eyebrows, because our service was on point. They didn’t leave a tip, of course, even though they ate all of their galbi and side dishes.

See, here’s the thing about American customer service: you need to smile, and you need to know how to apologize. You need to know how to work for your tips, because a college student cannot survive on minimum wage alone.

You don’t tip in China. It’s fabulous, really, except when servers let courtesy fall to the wayside without such an incentive. Instead, the focus is on efficiency. I’ve gotten spoiled with how fast I get served my food in China. In America, the sweet spot of waiting times is 12 minutes. Any longer and the customer is impatient. Any shorter and the customer is suspicious.

Also, servers can pretty much tell you whatever the hell they want.

You’re going to eat all of that?

I think the smaller size is better for you.

Oh, you drink a lot of tea.

Sure, I’ll get you your soy milk. (Proceeds to “forget” for the fifth visit in a row)

And today: You shouldn’t pay part of the bill in coins–it’s really inconvenient. You pay coins at supermarkets, not restaurants! Honestly. I didn’t bring you a jar of pennies, did I? A jar of pennies is a pain in the ass and overly provocative. Our bill was 158 RMB, and we only paid 8 RMB in coins.

Maybe they don’t worry about offending me because I can’t withhold tip out of spite. Or maybe it isn’t offensive at all to dole out “advice” to strangers. It’s certainly happened to me back in the States (Auntie, it’s called leftovers).

Whatever the case, I often don’t get smiles unless I offer one of my own first. American hospitality, according to an Englishman who plays golf with my dad, is apparently notorious for being, well, hospitable. Those American waitresses! So friendly.

I’d rather have both efficiency and friendliness, but if I had to choose one and the food’s delicious I’d take efficiency. Friendliness can soothe the impatience of waiting, and I’ve made good friends here during waits with nice waitresses. But for the most part, when I’m hungry everything else (including friendship) can wait.

Food first.

Let’s Get Barbecued

I’ve been in Shanghai for ten hours, and I am already oh-so-enchanted with this city. It could have been the delicious 烤鸭 (roasted duck) and 叉烧 (char siu, or pork) with rice. It could have been the air, sharp and invigorating and clear. It could have been all of the lights, the holiday lights brightening up Nanjing Street. It could have been the donuts from Donut King (多乐星), with the white chocolate cranberry, the old-fashioned, the strawberry sprinkles.

I’ve been here less than half a day and from what I’ve seen…jinkies, Scooby Doo.

It’s so intriguingly…Western. I see 外国人 by the dozens. The architecture is the real give-away, I think. The windows and the roof-lines and the facades. There are planters full of pansies. I think I even saw a wall of cabbage. Cabbage.

I crossed the street without having to rush. Sure, sure, a car honked at me, tried to cut me off in my own crosswalk–but I gave him my firmest No face and continued unimpeded. No almost-squashed toes! Even though cars move dangerously fast through the streets (so much faster than in Chengdu, Congested City), I crossed Nanjing Street with relative ease.

I found myself making snap comparisons between Chengdu and Shanghai. Shanghai has less trash littering the gutters. Shanghai has more of a downtown feel. Shanghai has space to walk around and interact with the city. Shanghai moves faster. Shanghai has more foreigners. Shanghai has different colored taxis. Shanghai has more modern-looking high-rises. Shanghai has a big-ass rhinoceros sculpture.

I am, admittedly, star-struck.

Is this what love feels like? Is this what betrayal feels like? I feel too giddy for it to be anything else. But.

My admiration for Shanghai differs from Chengdu. It’s a different sort of burn. I love Chengdu with the slow burn of an old, steady love. Chengdu was my home once–just yesterday. The glow in my heart for Shanghai burns brightly, hotly. It explodes into heat, sparks erupting from a disturbed log of red-hot embers. It is piqued interest. It is new, exciting, and shiny.

Shanghai is the new girl in school, and I want to be her friend. Desperately. But I have family now in Chengdu, so I know without a doubt where my first stop in China will be. Family comes first, right? That’s why I’ll be home in time for Christmas.

I’ll have two entire days to wear my Christmas sweater. It shall be glorious.

I Like You Like Strawberry Juice

I ate my favorite meals these last two days in preparation for my upcoming departure.

  • 红油水饺 – red oil dumplings
  • 花生奶 或 豆奶 – peanut or soy milk
  • 番茄炒蛋 – tomato and eggs
  • 茄子豆用 – eggplant and beans
  • 草莓果汁, 冰的 – strawberry juice, cold

These items appear to be quite vegetarian-friendly. They are. You may think, then, that I am vegetarian. I am not.

Wha-wha-wha-what now?

It’s true. I am a devoted meat-eater. I salivate over prime rib like nobody’s business. And yet, my favorite meals (excepting the dumplings) lack meat. I blame the use of garlic. I am helpless against its heady scent. The dumplings that I mentioned are quite meaty, as are most dumplings in China. It’s difficult to find completely vegetarian dumplings. Oftentimes, 麻婆豆腐 (mapo tofu) comes with ground meat. I don’t have a problem with that (tofu and meat together is a no-brainer for me), but it’s a mess for those who don’t eat meat.

The tomato and eggs as well as the eggplant dish come from my usual lunch place outside of 小北门 (Little North Gate). They are served on top of rice, served in a sizzling-hot bowl. You don’t touch the bowl. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the rice on the bottom crisps up a little. Then, when you eat it, parts of it gets stuck to your molars in all of its chewy-crunchy goodness. Yum? Yum.

I got take-out. I wanted to say goodbye to the faces I have come to know. The people who have smiled at me in recognition, who remembered my order. I don’t know their names, but I know their smiles.

I don’t think they know I was saying goodbye. I went around 12:30pm, which is of course the lunch rush. Usually I go around 1pm, to avoid the rush, but hell. I was hungry. So I missed the timing, and waved from afar as I left with my food.

People ask me what I’ll miss about my time in China. I tell them it’s the people. (It’s mostly the food, let’s be honest).

 

High Heels and Asian Leopards

First, a note on shoe fashion:

Insane. I say this with complete awe and an injection of disbelief. There are a lot of women here who get around on crazy-high heels. How do they do it? I’ve seen them hiking up Emeishan, running down rain-slick ramps, chasing after buses, navigating crosswalks. And yet, their ankles have yet to snap like brittle twigs. Well done, ladies.

Now: Asian leopards, or Asiapards for short. I’m referring to the brand of the suitcase I just bought. It is 24 inches of four-wheeled convenience. This is my first time using a luggage with four wheels, and I think I’m going to enjoy it. A lot. Remember that blue duffel I moaned and groaned about lugging around in the very beginning? Yeah. I lent it to a classmate. I bought the Asiapard instead because I have souvenirs and boots and textbooks to get home, and that shit ain’t light.

Regroup. Let’s see. I have one 24″ four-wheeler, one 22″ two-wheeler, and a ~19″ school backpack. I have vacuum-sealed my bulkier sweaters, because I’ll be in Singapore for a week of travel and it’s going to be the armpit of hell pretty darn hot. It will be–dare I say it?–shorts weather there. Chengdu is cold. Shanghai will probably be cold as well. I’m still brainstorming which clothes will make good transitions. I should brainstorm faster, because I’m leaving Chengdu tomorrow morning at 5:15am.

I’m packed. Sort of.

PFFFFF who am I kidding? Not me. Not my mother, certainly. (Hi, Mom!). Technically, I have my clothes, souvenirs, shoes, books, and documents packed and/or ready to go. I need to pack my toiletries and medicine, which I will do as soon as I finish procrastinating. I mean. It’s just two drawers full of stuff. I can do that.

It’s just. I have so many littles. What the hell do I do with the little things?

Stuff them in the nooks and crannies, sure.

I wish I didn’t have to check my bags.

I didn’t think I accumulated so much stuff. A coat, a sweater, two scarves, gloves, a pair of reindeer socks…

They’re going to fit…how?

Hm.

I always did like a good puzzle.

Corner pieces first.