Friday, February 29, 2008

One reason you should bring a translator to the hair salon...

is that there's always a possibility that when you attempt to say something like, "I want my hair just like that lady's, but without the bangs <sign language was required since "bangs" has not yet worked its way into my Chinese lexicon>>," you'll still end up looking like this:

(I'm not smiling because I really don't think I like them yet.)

Now that I'm sporting the same bangs I painstakingly grew out in the third grade, I've noticed that I nevertheless fit in very well with my Asian peers. Almost every cute, stylish school girl in Tianjin must've asked their hairdressers for the very same do. I guess this is as close as I'll get to "going native."

Actually, once I recovered from the initial shock of looking 15 again, I began to realize that many of the world's foremost role models are also jumping on the bang-wagon. If Jessica Simpson can pull them off, surely I can too, right?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ma and Pa Larsen Visit China: Part 4- Tianjin

Tianjin, our new "hometown," provided us with a lot of fun in a more relaxed environment; it felt more like home here, well, because it is home. In this kind of nurturing atmosphere, grandmas can do what they do best: take care of your kids.

Ancient Culture Street, one of the first places we visited, is a walking street through numerous shops and vendors. You can find everything from traditional musical instruments to chopsticks to artwork here, and believe me we bought all of the above. These streets and alleyways surround a small temple towards the back, which we have never visited. (Consistent to most Chinese temples today, making a profit off of these cultural sites would make any upright Confucian more upset than Pee-Wee getting his bike stolen.)

G-ma, G-pa, Tiffany, Didi and I enjoyed a New Year light show at the Children's Amusement Park. (If you look closely at this display, you'll see dinosaurs wishing us "Happy New Year." I've stopped asking "why" here because it is the most futile question of them all, here in China). I'm not quite sure what Ellie is doing here- maybe reenacting a scene from the "Thriller" video? Cebu City, anyone?

Here we are at Din Tai Fung, a New York Times Top Ten World Restaurant! The workers have perfected the delectable xiaolongbao steamed bun- that's why we went there. YUMMY!

Though Tianjin is the third most populated Chinese city, I wasn't the only one who found the city's surprisingly calming atmosphere extremely relaxing. This was maybe the highlight of the city, that is when there weren't any firecrackers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ma and Pa Larsen Visit China: Part 3- Fireworks


Probably the most memorable part of our first Chinese New Year in China is the constant stream of fireworks that were shot off through the entire celebration. While the skies were filled with bright colors and patterns in every direction, our ears were filled with pain and agony from the variety of noises, which made sleeping a formidable task.

China MYTHBUSTERS: the Chinese invented fireworks= FACT

The firework of choice for the Chinese must be those long strings of fast shooting 1000+ red firecrackers you sometimes see in the movies. I suppose these guys are most effective at scaring away annoying and unwanted spirits that may mess with you and your family's chi. Our friends warned us that we wouldn't sleep that night (and nights following), so we joined the neighborhood with some antics of our own; it was all in the name of "Protecting and Strengthening the Family."

You know the fireworks that your city displays high in the sky for the 4th of July? You know, the ones that burst into all those surprisingly fun colors? My dad bought a box of 48 of them on two separate occasions:

China MYTHBUSTERS: People here are responsible enough to create a safe zone away from people and buildings when shooting holiday fireworks so they don't ricochet off people and buildings=MYTH

Our kids slept right through the chaos after they finally fell asleep sometime after midnight even though those pesky red fireballs blasted debris at our bedroom windows. For me, it was difficult to sleep because even the short breaks between the fireworks were filled with piercing car alarms that the explosives set off. We celebrated these less-than-satisfying moments noticing the headlights flashing in-sync with the car alarms, which beamed through our curtains, too.

The shenanigans stopped around 2am when Tiffany and I finally got some shuteye. We woke up on New Years morning to layers of beautiful red firecracker debris covering the grounds of our courtyard like a fresh winter's snow. Then, before I thought of taking a picture of our morning surprise, the building ayis had our most of our festive snow efficiently swept up in garbage bags: they only left small piles on the grass and under bushes like this one:

Notwithstanding all the annoyances, New Years was really fun and exciting to experience. I mean, where else do you get a firework show for 5 days straight visible from your bedroom? Where else can you actually participate in the holiday pyrotechnics and not go to jail?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ma and Pa Larsen Visit China: Part 2- Trains

After visiting the Great Wall for our second day festivities, we headed for Tianjin via the uncompromising Chinese railway system (but only after squeezing in some more shopping).

The Beijing Railway Station
(Bryce- this is the place where the emotional father-son "high-five" was filmed at the end of Zhang Yimou's 2002 film Together)

I think the journey from Beijing to Tianjin was by far the most troublesome part of the vacation. When most Chinese roam the railways, they magically fit all their belongings into a small shoulder bag so it fits in the overhead compartment, making travel easy. When we Americans hit the tracks, we manage 2 sleeping/floppy children, 5 bulky suitcases, 5 backpacks, and a semi-collapsible double stroller. We fill the oversize luggage compartments in two different cars.

Though fitting our baggage in the train was embarrassing and troublesome enough, the worst part was actually getting to and from the train itself. Luckily in Beijing, there was a nice old man (a retired Party member) who followed us across the street and insisted to help us carry our luggage. Of course we were skeptical at first, but we could sense no guile in the old man; the Chinese are often very accommodating and willing to assist the helpless (with two children in a country that only permits one, we usually fit into this category--in their eyes at least). I think it was this man's vulnerability that gradually broke us down to accept his generosity: he was 80-years-old, nearly blind (he made me read signs for him), and was carrying our hefty suitcase; so at least he wouldn't have made it very far if he ran with our stuff.

The man helped us up and down crowded stairways all the way to the train itself (not handicap, or stroller, accessible at all). I suspect his standing in the Party allowed him to go that far without a ticket--he even rallied a few other young officers in uniform to help us! Once he made sure that we got all situated, he purposely left before we could express any thanks or snap a memorable photo. Though we sincerely appreciated his thoughtful gesture, we mostly counted our blessings that Beijing did not have the storms that bombarded Southern China that very week, stranding hundreds of thousands of people as they waited days to catch a train home for the holidays.

On the train, I had the glorious privilege as "keeper of the tickets," which caused some panic when I couldn't find our 4th ticket as the train started moving. Even though they knew I had four tickets when we got on the train, the workers said I had to buy a new ticket (plus a lost ticket fee) before exiting the train or the ticket-checkers wouldn't let me get out of the Tianjin station. After a prolonged and futile search, we decided that we would buy another lousy ticket. As we approached Tianjin, I found the missing ticket hiding between the lining and shell of my jacket (how did that get there?)!!! And can you believe that the ticket-checkers didn't even check my tickets when exiting the station??!!! I think I'm willing to pass the "keeper of the tickets" title to Tiffany, at least until the end of coat-wearing season.

We traveled much lighter on our return to Beijing. In my opinion, the biggest help was ditching the double stroller in Tianjin, which was the most difficult item to get up and down the stairways that plague every Chinese railway station. (If you look closely you can see Didi chillin in my sweet backpack.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ma and Pa Larsen Visit China: Part 1

In our desperation for visitors, my Mom and Dad came to see us for an exciting two-week vacation (as you probably gathered from our Great Wall post)! Their visit overlapped with Chinese New Year celebrations, which enhanced their overseas experience in some ways, and made more trouble in other ways. We had a wonderful time playing tour guide, interpreter, bargaining adviser, and logistics coordinator for an unforgettable winter holiday with my parents. [WARNING: If you don't like cheesy (but heartfelt) sentiments, skip the next sentence.] Tiffany and I both agree: the best part of the vacation was being with family again.

On our first full day together, we hit the infamous Silk Street Market early in the morning for some sweet deals. I don't mind bragging the fact that Tiffany is a brilliant bargainer. The Chinese, I've noticed, have an innate ability to mentally break people in any situation where bartering is remotely tolerated (next time you share a driveway with a Chinese at a garage sale, you'll see what I mean); and with Tiffany's 50% Chinese heritage, she's no exception. After 6 months in the Motherland, Tiffany has fine-tuned her previously dormant superpowers to retain unfounded savings. The Larsen grandkids can also thank Tiffany for all the goodies Grandma and Grandpa brought back to Minnesota for them, because I'm sure they were able to fit many more surprises into their budget than expected (let's just say that with Tiffany's help, they could fit more bargains in their budget than in their suitcases).

While my mom rested in the afternoon, my dad and I hopped on the subway to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (outer courts) for some quick photos. The Great Hall of the People (China's congressional hall) is also located in this area, due West of the Square, as well as Mao's Mausoleum towards the center. Every time I visit this massive site, I am deeply impressed as I imagine the rich history from centuries past. When visiting, you also can't help but wonder about the events that the Square will hold in the future; nobody can know the exact socio-political situation of future China, but whatever happens, these historic venues will inevitably be directly involved.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Great Wall

After welcoming Mom and Dad Larsen to China, we rented a van (and driver) to take us to the Great Wall, almost 2 hours outside of Beijing. This world wonder was much more spectacular than I had expected, though I'm not quite sure why. I'm positive that the beautiful weather, transparent blue skies (rare in the city), and the remarkable vacancy of tourists added to the experience tremendously. In fact, during the three hours of exploring, we only saw three families on the entire wall!!! (Being alone on the Wall is extremely rare. Normally, thousands of people stomp around the wall on a daily basis; lucky for us, everyone was traveling in preparation for the New Years festival tomorrow.) Being the only ones willing to protect China during the holidays, I'm just grateful that no ancient Mongol armies approached us because I wouldn't want that ruining my vacation.

As we rode the cable car up the steep mountain side approaching the Wall, I was deeply impressed that anybody could have made such a remarkable project without modern technology; the Wall somehow follows the tallest peaks and steepest drop-offs. Suddenly (though this is no new epiphany), I realized that the workers must have dragged the burdensome stone bricks and all their building materials up the mountain before they could even begin construction. As I carefully scanned the serene location, I noticed that the wall continues on the farthest mountain peaks, and, it also wasn't one single wall but a network of walls that connected together in multiple places.

China MYTHBUSTERS: You can see the Great Wall from space= MYTH!!! Though this wall truly is great, it is impossible to see it from space. If you measure the greatness of a myth by how many people really believe it as fact, this myth would be among the greatest.

After helping grandma, grandpa, and the kids on the cable car down, Tiffany and I marched some distance across the wall towards the famous Great Wall toboggan track (we bought expensive tickets to slide down the mountain in youthful glee). We arrived there fairly exhausted, and were greeted by locked doors. All the workers had gone home early to celebrate New Years. Instead of resting our weary legs in an exhilarating sled ride, we walked down the side of the mountain where we found my mom frantically searching her phrasebook for a way to say something like: "rescue my injured son off the wall" because they had anticipated us much earlier, of course. Fortunately, there was a nice path, and it was shorter than we first anticipated.