Birds, Flowers, Totoro

Xiao Mao here greeting you from beautiful Suzhou!

I've been quite busy settling in to my lovely new apartment to post much, but next week we should have internet in our own home and then I can provide you with photos. For now, let me tell you about an adventure I just had.

It started because of a patio. My apartment has a spacious patio in the back which I intend to fill with lovely plants. Lucian is not the only one who likes those things, you know. As with everything in China, I figured the best place to buy plants would be the wholesale houseplant market. It has an interesting name, too: Suzhou Huaniao Shichang, the Suzhou flower and bird market. This name is not just for poetic effect.

I knew I had arrived at the Huaniao Shichang when I turned the corner and found myself staring at 100 houseplants. Going off the street and into the building, I found a maze of benches stacked with potted greenery. Overhead was hung with tarps where roofs should have been, so I knew that I had entered a courtyard but how large a courtyard was impossible to determine. Visibility terminated after 5 meters in a mass of leaves.

I wandered around in silent excitement, unable to make sense of such overwhelming variety. Cacti, bromeliads, aloe and other succulents, hanging devil's ivy, mimosa which closed its leaves at the brush of a hand. A dwarf pomegranate tree with green fruit. Sellers shouted prices at me until I found myself with a companion: an asparagus fern. Fern and I followed the maze until it lead us to a dark, tight, and noisy corridor stacked floor to plastic tarp with cages. If I knew as much about birds as I do about plants, I still couldn't do justice to the variety of creatures I saw in the space of a few meters.

But it was not only birds. Somehow I found myself staring at an open-top tank full of dwarf hamsters each the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. I lowered my hand inside and touched the head of one hamster with the tip of my fingernail. Looking up, I saw rabbits of every shape and size. Including a white rabbit the size of a Maine Coon.

Down Puppy Alley, I rounded Turtle Corner and Cicada Square on my way to Goldfish Avenue. And then a startling sight caught my eye: an actual shop building, very small of course, but with a roof and closed glass doors. Was I still inside the courtyard? I have no idea. Outside this shop was a brochure stand and on that brochure was something that really caught my eye: Totoro!

You all know what I'm talking about, right?

And underneath that Totoro was a photograph of some sort of furry animal which looked remarkably similar. The name of this store is the Suzhou Totoro Store. I am not kidding.

Of course I went inside. Don't try to tell my you wouldn't. I suppose a chinchilla is basically a real-life Totoro. One of them was even sitting inside of a chinchilla-shaped container. Now that I have a chance to check, the real Chinese name for chinchilla is mao si shu, which I guess means "silky-fur mouse." But the owners of that shop were thorough in their literature, which assured me that "Totoros are well-behaved" and "Totoros are clean pets."

I didn't buy one, despite how fat and round and magical they seemed.

Shower experiece

Xiao Mao here. Today I was bathed by an old Chinese lady in a public shower.

I realize this deserves some context so here you are:
I've been working out at the school's swimming pool for about half a year and especially enjoying their public showers. The shower in our dorm has many problems I won't get into, and while it can do the job, I'd prefer that it doesn't.

Being in the wide-open locker-room shower means I have a chance to observe cultural differences in even this seemingly-universal act. You can take for granted that many things about bathing are the same in China. They use soap and water, for example. Toddlers here also put up a fight when the sponge gets too close. Chinese women don't shave their armpits but then again, neither do I. But the most noticeable difference is the back scrubbing.

Everyone, young and old, women and (Donald informs me) men, scrubs each others backs. I didn't pay it much attention until today. I was just starting to soap up when an old lady comes over to me and starts speaking too quickly for me to understand. I realize from her gestures that she is offering to scrub my back, and I tell her, "Mei shi," "That's okay," but she insists, so I bend over, put my hands on the ledge and brace myself.

First, she squeezes all the soap and most of the water out of my rag. Then she starts scrubbing, bearing down with all her weight and rubbing until my skin turns pink. I'd heard from other expats that you can go to the spa for this service and that it hurts. But it actually felt quite nice. My arms and legs, especially, felt tingly and refreshed afterwards. I thanked her and offered to return the favor, but she wouldn't hear of it. Certainly she knew I had no idea how to do it proper. In fact I wonder what was going through her head before she offered to scrub me?

"That poor foreign girl. Doesn't she know she needs to scrub her skin harder if she wants it to be _____ (insert your favorite Chinese Skin Virtue, ex: smooth, white, elastic)."

Another day, another adventure. You can even have adventures in the shower, it seems.

10 Great Things About China

[Donald here]

First a disclaimer: China is a big place, and different cities are often ridiculously different from one another. But some things cut across regional boundaries. Here are 10 great things (for expats) in China:

Collapse )

I was wrong; it was worth it

Xiao Mao here. This is a personal entry which is not at all about China, it's about art. Up to you if you want to read it.


The late-afternoon sun was burning through the windows, causing the wood furniture and hardwood floors in the room to flare up in a warm orange. I was taking a break from drawing. I sat at my desk sipping some of the tea I got at Longjing village, staring at the pale green liquid when up from the depths of my mind a thought bubbled:

I was wrong.
I is better now.

Two years ago, in despair of my work, I wrote an entry in my journal in hopes of encouraging myself. Here's the entry. I basically convinced myself that old piece of folk wisdom is true, the one about how it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. The satisfaction derived from art is in the process, not the product. It seemed true.

But as I sat there holding my cup of tea, looking up at the comic pages I taped to the wall next to my desk, I realized I had deceived myself in some way. Maybe the deception was ultimately necessary.

Two years before, I had told myself things wouldn't be any different when I had published work. But I was wrong. People I've never met have spontaneously emailed me and told me that my comic meant something to them. I thought to desire that kind of recognition was nothing more than vanity, but I was wrong. I am, after all, a primate. A social animal. I have a deep need to contribute to society, and not in a theoretical way. I crave proof that the contribution was real, that it actually affected someone. To receive this proof puts one's soul at peace in a way that I could not have understood before.

Two years ago I thought that no matter how bad I was at putting my imaginations onto paper, they were still satisfying in my head. This is not untrue; however, I also predicted that art would not be more enjoyable the more skilled I become.

I was wrong. It is better.

The drawings really do look like they did in my head. Sometimes it's even better than what I imagined. I had thought that was impossible. Frustrations are not as frequent or as crippling. And amazingly, it's easier to learn once you already know a lot.

But why should this be a surprise? My goal was always to produce a beautiful work. If I was content with my imagination, I would just sit around all day in a catatonic state. If anyone really believed that the end result wasn't important, why would we try so hard to improve?

The journey is good. I wasn't wrong about that. But the destination is even better.

Duck Story

Donald is currently on a school field trip to somewhere called Beidai. It used to have a zoo, but that burned down. There is an amusement park, but the school won't be visiting it. I really have no idea why they're going at all, except maybe to keep me and my neighbor Pin Pin bored and lonely for a few days.

Instead of just sitting around at home watching Revolutionary Girl Utena, I decided to go to Tai Yuan Jie and just have a look around. But one can't just have a look around in fashion street. I couldn't resist buying this shirt:

The gang's all there.

Somebody designs these T-shirts. Did you ever stop to think about that? I wish it was my job.

Anyway, not having change for the bus, I decided to take a cab home. About half the cabbies don't know where YuCai south campus is off the top of their heads, which is completely understandable since it's down an unlit street in the industrial district. But the poor guy I got today, he didn't even know where 21 Century Square was, the big landmark building of Hunnan district. We pulled out of Tai Yuan Street and headed out in what seemed to be a random direction. My flustered cabbie, a young guy, coulda just graduated high school, pulls out his cell phone and I hear him asking "Shi Zhi Guangchang zai nar?" "Where's 21 Century Square?" My face nearly hit the palm.

Once we entered a part of town which I didn't recognize whatsoever, he turns to me and asks how much I want to pay him. Because he can't use the meter anymore. Because he fucked up. Luckily I know that ride costs exactly 30 kuai, so that's what I told him.

I figured he had it under control once we got to Wal-Mart. I had my head in a book, but I heard the click click of the turn signal, so I thought he knew where he was going now. Except instead of turning left at Wal-Mart, at the last minute he inexplicably went straight. Guess he got cold feet? I must have had a look on my face, because he immediately turned the car around and said "It was left, wasn't it?"

But in the end I got home, so no big deal. Hopefully the next time that guy gets a customer going Century Square, he'll have a better idea where it is.

Yi Kuai


The international exchange rate places the Chinese Yuan's value at .15 of the US Dollar's. There's not a whole lot you can buy in America for 15 cents, but in China, 1 yuan can get you a lot:

-one-way bus fare
-bottle of water
-pound of spinach
-2 eggs
-cantaloupe on a stick
-grilled meat on a stick
-2 steamed buns

Economics is weird.

Also, I got a new teapot. It cost 130 yuan.

Spontaneous trip to Beijing

In China you have to be flexible. If you got angry about every time the water went off and the power blew out, you'd never have any time left over to enjoy a quiet cup of soymilk.

We heard yesterday that our water would be turned off for the weekend, starting Friday and ending Monday (realistically, Tuesday). Instead of moping around Shenyang for three progressively smellier days, we decided to hop a train to Beijing and have some fun.

See y'all Tuesday

What the hell, China?

China is infamous for its filthy toilets. I was talking to a Chinese teacher this afternoon who had recently been to Thailand. I asked her which country had cleaner toilets and she said, "Don't even ask. Don't ask about any country. I love my home but there's just some things we don't do well."

Personally, my rule about using public toilets goes like this: If the shit is "above sea level," I don't use it.

What can be done about this widely recognized problem? Obviously China needs to modernize its public water closets somehow. I was walking through the mall earlier today when I saw this sign, and rejoiced. Perhaps I should give the Chinese some credit. They are moving forward towards a throne for the 21st century!


You can imagine my dismay when I realized this was not, in fact, a national campaign to clean up China's porcelain shit holes, but was in fact a new restaurant coming soon.


A peak through the posters revealed the interior decoration is bathroom-themed, you sit on chairs shaped like toilets. My only guess is that it's some sort of all-you-can-eat buffet taken to the next level. An infinite buffet, if you will.

5 times the love

Xiao Mao here. Have you ever been shopping? Is America a capitalist country? America does not have Wu'ai.

Wu'ai literally means "Five Loves," referring to the fives loves which supposedly animated socialist man: Love of Country, Love of People, Love of Work (or School), Love of Science, and Love of Common Property. By the way, in China, watching your child take a dump on the sidewalk is a perfectly acceptable way to display your Love of Common Property.

In Shenyang, Wu'ai refers to a very special place to go shopping: Wu'ai Wholesale Goods Market. You could write novels where the characters never leave the confines of this place. I'm still not sure how many buildings it takes up. People are flooding out of the doors carrying trash bags loaded with wholesale junk, sometimes two people walk together, each carrying a handle. Your heart starts to race as you ascend the stairs to the front entrance of the shoe building. Behind you, a man with a hand trolley is shouting for you to get the fuck out of the way so that he can continue to replace the junk that is endlessly leaving the store as people buy, buy and buy.

Inside, the concrete walls are lit by florescent lights and it all looks like a giant cave filled with bats, only the bats are people. Dirt mixes with saliva and mucus beneath your feet. What can a shop be, in a place like this? Three walls enclosing a space the size of a closet, and one vendor with a folding chair. Stacks of cellophane-wrapped clothing wait in neat piles for someone to purchase them. There's no need for you to try these clothes on because there's someone just around the corner who will buy them without that time-wasting step. What logic there can be in a vendor's choice of products, you can't know. One middle-aged man has only two types of item in his shop: dress shirts for men and pink skater pants for teenage girls. Only a fool pays the first price offered to him.

But don't for a second think that clothes are the only thing served up at Wu'ai. No. Take a short walk out the door, past the street food vendors, and you can go to the Small Goods building, the caverns of which are filled with sanguine, glorious red. Red cards to send to your family, red good-luck charms to decorate the dashboard of your taxi, red bunny-rabbit plushies to welcome the new year. Red underwear to don on your wedding night. I once saw the most fantastic poster, red, of course, with a photo of two rabbits decked out in gold chains like Masta P, and between them a smaller photo of a Mercedes-Benz. The edges of the poster were lined with the heads of Mao Ze Dong. I didn't buy it, and I never found it again. Wu'ai is a mystical place, a maze where you will never, ever find the same store a second time.

Do you need to buy socks? There is an entire floor of one building dedicated to socks, completely separate from the building dedicated to shoes. If you need blankets, those can be found on the third floor of the sock building, but be warned: they are mostly red. If you need custom-made curtains for your windows, there are seamstresses on the forth floor who can fill your order within the hour. On the very top floor of the shoe building, like a quiet mountain retreat, is my favorite place: the stationary market. Here you can find pens, pencils, paper, binders and face-masks all decorated with cute animals speaking nonsense English. Though there may be 30 or 40 shops on this floor, I have been there so many times that I know the way to the shops which sell the particularly cute items.

I like to say that capitalist man also has 5 Loves: Love of Shoes, Love of Socks and Underwear, Love of Clothing, Love of Bedding, and Love of Small Goods.

In the area surrounding this massive complex of buildings I found something that solidified my impression of Wu'ai more than being inside of the market itself. I call them "Shop shops." Rows upon rows of shops selling manikins, hangers, steel fixtures and tables. Welders with torches blazing and carpenters with hammers pounding shop fixtures in the street. Around Wu'ai, a whole industry flourishes just selling things to shop-keepers. So I heard you like capitalism.

(no subject)

Today I learned some very useful Chinese:

Dào dàtuǐ de ge zi wàzi.

It means "thigh-high argyle socks"

Can't wait to deploy this baby at Wu ai.