Personal space

I haven’t even left Houston but I am already falling victim to the Indian “push and shove”.  It happened once, I let it slide.  The second time,  I got my best “Auntie, I am no longer intimidated by your kind” stance, with shoulders square, standing tall.  The notions of territory, personal space, are already fading.  But I am on my turf for a few more minutes, and although I know you want to be first on the plane, just because you want to be first on the plane, in front of me, before me, and will want to deplane first, once again, in front of me, we will both take off, land and wait for our luggage together.  I may even get my bags before yours, and there is nothing you can do about it.  But you would have been in front of me, and that makes you happy!  I am fine with that.

Our plane is delayed 30 minutes.  So people push even more.  I never understood the psychology of aiport lines, or any public lines.  But I know enough to realize that it is a very cultural concept.  And airport lines are a good illustration of the world I am flying into.  There are some people who are considered more important than others and won’t let anyone be mistaken on the issue.  Then there are the others, who will sometimes try and cheat their way up the ladder.  Personally, I do not get a feeling of accomplishment being seated first.  It’s either too hot or too cold on planes, and once you are in your seat, people watching, my favorite activity, is pretty much over.

This is a flight from Houston to Frankfurt, but I would gauge about half the passengers are Indian.  Where do they come from? Where do they live? Since when do we have so many Indians in Texas??  So many babies, so many aunties in sarees, so many Infosys backbacks.

I am grinning ear to ear.  I am going “home”.

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To pee or not to pee

That is not the only question. The problem is where to pee. And how to pee.  And if front of whom to pee. And what happens after you’re done peeing.  And I am not even talking about poo yet!

Oh, how sweet/disgusting it is to see on Facebook all the updates about Junior mastering the multitude of potty training stages!  How much money is spent on advertising the variety of leak-proof diapers (nappies for you Aussies) to mothers who use the convenience of a Diaper Genie?  Or advertisement for bleach if the above mentioned stages turned into a “miss”?  We are a society obsessed with bodily fluids and trying to convince itself that we, miraculously, don’t do “that”.  We judge people on their body hygiene.  We have invented new appropriate ways to cough (inside the crook of your elbow please) to avoid the spread of germs.  The only body excretion we are not ashamed of is sneezing.  Gesundheit.

When you move out of the comfort zone that the Western world is to us, you realize that we have moved ourselves so high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we believe our s… does not stink anymore.  Get over it people.  If you want to have fun in India, you’d better get used to a few drops of human urine on your shoes.  And if you thought we had escaped the world of toilet unpleasantries after leaving India, wrong!  That applies to China too. 

One of the first things anyone notices when arriving in India is men peeing everywhere.  It is a source of great amusement to tourists, and great shame to many Indians. On our way back from Pondicherry, after an hour of wiggling on the backseat waiting for a decent place “to go”, I asked our temporary driver for help.  Within minutes he found me a rather clean restroom.  Twenty minutes later he stopped the car on the side of the road. And peed.  Ya think he could have used the facilities after me? Nope.  You think he washed his hands before coming back to the car? Nope again.  On our second day, a kid standing on a busy sidewalk on Immadihalli road didn’t aim his weewee properly and I became a target.  And the relieving oneself on the sidewalk is not restricted to urine: in the villages, it is appropriate for kids to use it for everything.  We have it on video.  

Sandra was in the kitchen once and called me downstairs.  Madam? Yes.  I am sorry.  What?  I need to use the toilet.  Ok fine.  Where is the servant toilet? Huh? Yes, the servant toilet? Oh.  We have a room in the back but we don’t have the key, it’s Sathya’s room.  Use that one (pointing at “our” bathroom).  Madam are you sure? Yes, go!  Then we had a brief chat over the fact that she also didn’t need to ask permission to drink or eat something.  After that, she kept a bottle of water in a corner on the kitchen counter.  That was Sandra’s water!

She returned the favor to me once.  We were coming back from a long drive, probably from Pura, and my bladder was ruling my life, as it often does.  We stopped at her house, and, once again, wiggling like a worm in front of her entire family, I asked how I could fix that problem! She pointed to a door in front of her house and said “But Madam, it is an Indian toilet”.  I replied something to the effect that it could be German for all I cared, all I needed was a hole in the ground.  I was relieved (pun intended) that she had a closed-off room.  Most of India’s population still has to use the outdoors, and women often have to wait for nightfall if  they expect a bit of privacy.

I have no problem with what the French call “chiottes turques”, or “Turkish toilet”, aka the porcelain platform on which you squat.  E. was less happy with those facilities.  In France, those have a flush.  In India, no.  In all Indian bathrooms, there is a faucet next to the toilet, from which you run water into a little bucket nicely provided to you, and use to flush.  Voilà!  All Indian bathrooms also have a spray mounted on a hose, the exact same spray that we Americans have mounted on our kitchen sinks.  We rinse the sink, they rinse, well, something else!  More hygienic I was told.  Toilet paper?  Only if you’re lucky.  You only forget once to put tissues in your purse.  And you also always carry antibacterial wipes.  What does one do with the soiled TP, if it is available?  In the Western world, we flush it.  In the non-Western world, you don’t, or your pipes will be clogged very quickly.  So you throw it in the trash bin (sometimes) provided, and hope that someone will empty soon.  Ask my nose and it will tell you that it doesn’t happen often enough in China. 

To be fair, in China, I have only been to Shanghai and Beijing, I have no experience of the villages.  So far, the number of men we have seen peeing in the streets is: zero. However, public urination is apparently not always frowned upon.  There we are, the two of us, all proud to have figured out the Beijing subway.  We are sitting in the train.  It is crowded but not packed.  In front of us, there is a little boy, about 4 years old, with his pants down to his ankles.  My first though was that he had had “an accident” and was getting a change of pants. But no.  Grandmother was holding what looked like a bottle of Snapple and Kiddo was peeing inside (hopefully) it.  I guess we should have been happy that he wasn’t peeing in the train.  I knew that in China, toddlers wear pants that are open in the back so they just have to squat.  I have seen the pants, not the squatting.  Yet!

One of the first things anyone notices when arriving in China is people spitting everywhere.  It is a source of great amusement to tourists, but not of great shame to locals.  I don’t mean the “I have something stuck in my teeth” spitting.  I am referring to “help me I am about to die of black lung” spitting.  Which, when you consider Beijing pollution, may very well be the case. 

We have tweaked our “points game”: businessmen in freshly pressed Armani suits spitting across the street has become our new “minus one”.

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Very unhealthy

It’s awful, simply awful.  I am talking about pollution in Beijing.  Of course I had read about it and we were prepared for it, having bought a full artillery of protective masks.  We have the daily masks, the heavy masks, the masks that make you look like you came out of a war movie.  It is a war indeed.  And we are already victims of the soup.  That’s what we call the smog: the soup.  You can literally see the smog.  It looks like morning fog, but never goes away.  The horizon is blanketed in this grey layer of deadly particles.  Sometimes it’s even misleading: the sky will be blue but the app on your phone that tells you about the pollution level has a nasty warning such as this:


This is what happened a few of days ago when we went to the Temple of Heaven with E.’s colleague and his family.  It was a beautiful day, and we had a great time.  We had been wearing our masks until we met them and decided to be polite and not look like freaks and spent the day happily breathing in micro particles that settled in our lungs and will never come out. The masks are not the flimsy paper ones I sometimes wore on scooter rides in India. To be efficient, they need to have a plastic seal to “glue” the thing on your face (goodbye make up!) and a valve to let the air in and out.  It’s uncomfortable and you look like a paranoid mutant.  We also bought little devices that I call “nose tampons” that you stick inside your nostrils to filter the darn particles.  That means you have to breathe exclusively through your nose.  The ones I bought are too small and I am not sure I trust them enough to buy the bigger size. 

That night, back in our new apartment, I told E. I had a tickle in my throat and wondered if I was getting a cold.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your view, that tickle is still there, with now a scratchy throat added to the mix.  The good news is that I am not getting a cold (good since I don’t want to spend my vacation miserable), but I am experiencing the effects of pollution and allergies.  I have been here a week only. 

We bought a couple of air purifiers for the apartment that should be delivered today.  The mega kind.  Not the wussy machines that swallow pet dander like we have in the US.  Those catch over 99% of those nasty deadly particles.  Because it’s not enough that the pollution exists outside, it creeps inside your homes as well.  I don’t know how.  Maybe it comes in through the air conditioning units, and through small gaps in the windows.  So if you think that staying home will protect you against the ill effects of pollution, you’re only partially right.

We like Biejing a lot.  But the pollution is the reason why in 6 months, we are moving south to Shanghai. 

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Searching for pandas

Never mind The Cultural Revolution.  Never mind human rights abuses and dictatorship.  When you stumble upon the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, while looking for scorpions on a stick to munch on during your evening walk, you are awed.  You are in one of the most famous places on the globe.  Breathe, smile, take it all in, it is truly exceptional.  At night, it is really pretty, all lit up with red and white lights.  It is currently a national holiday, so there are more decorations I assume than on a regular day.  It is not as crowded as I would have assumed.  The mood is very cheerful, everybody is trying to snap a selfie in front on Mao’s portrait.  We did too!  I was pleasantly surprised at the fact that people were casual and relaxed.  There were a few guards but no obvious heavy security was noticeable.  I had been to the USSR in 1983, while is was still ruled by a heavy Communist hand.  The line on the Red Square leading to the Lenin mausoleum was long and dark.  People were somber and serious as if Lenin had died the week before.  Fast forward 32 years, and the world is a different place.  A little girl was sitting on her father’s shoulders, surrounded by 3 or 4 family members and started to cry, probably tired. I looked at her, waved and smiled.  Her face slowly uncrumpled, she smiled back, and then said in perfect American English “Good morning, how are you?  I am fine, thank you, how are you?  I am fine.”  We all laughed.

Beijing is not one bit what I expected. I had Cold War Era imagery in my mind, blue uniforms everywhere and people walking with their heads down.  But this is as modern and Western as New York.  Maybe even cleaner than New York.  I am aware that not all of China, nor Beijing are like that.  As mentioned before, it is currently a national holiday week.  A mandatory week of vacation to celebrate National Day, imagine that!  The Communist regime started 70 years ago, so the city is nicely decorated to commemorate. We live in the equivalent of the Wall Street area, a block away for E.’s office.  It is deserted.  I mean there isn’t a soul in the streets.  A city of 30 million and through the window I see maybe one or two people.  Even when going for walks around here, there is nobody to bump into you or invade your personal space like I had readied myself for.  E. says there was a zombie apocalypse! On my second day, we found a nice little park close to here, thanks to Google maps (censored here).  A peaceful area, very clean, with a beautiful pagoda sitting on a hill, and plenty of opportunities for people watching, one of my favorite activities.  So what did we see?

  • A little girl and her family fishing in the pond. And taking home a plastic container full of (stolen?) goldfish!
  • A Chinese woman grabbing a tree branch above her head and doing ab exercises.
  • A young white man doing something that looked to me like Tai Chi mixed with brain seizures. It may be a form of Tai Chi I have not seen on TV before.
  • Some older men playing dominoes on a rock, with money laying around.
  • Tucked in a corner, several ping pong tables, with people of all ages playing.
  • A few lovebirds.

We walk a lot.  We just wander around, looking for nothing in particular.  We found the Russian section of town.  At first I was surprised at how big it is, then remember the close relationship between China and the USSR/Russia.  We walked into a pharmacy where I mimed to the lady that I wanted earplugs.  She understood me right away, starting talking loudly, gestured inserting the earplugs in her ears, and talked again whispering.  We all laughed, I had gotten the message across.  Unfortunately, she didn’t have any.

The weather has been in my favor.  Beautiful blue skies, rather warm temperatures but blood curdling wind on my first day.  The real estate agent who handed us the key to our apartment told me it is exceptional weather, in other words, don’t get used to that!  And the pollution level is low, so no need to wear a protective breathing mask.  But we need to find me a helmet for the scooter.  Because, yes, we have a scooter.  And it’s a good thing that the people of Beijing have left the city so “we” can learn how to ride an electric scooter.  It’s a different beast than the Italian made Vespa we had a Bangalore.  I miss the Vespa.  I miss the dirt roads.  Here, well, imagine riding a scooter in Manhattan and you have a pretty good idea of our surroundings.  It’s still super fun.  We found Wa Er Ma.  It’s Chinese for Walmart.  I promise, we were not looking for it, it was just there!  So we went in.  A lot of the products are the Walmart brands: MainStays, Equate, or True Value.  The soy sauce aisle is the size of an American cereal aisle, and I am not exaggerating.  The size of the alcohol section also makes me believe that booze is widely consumed here.  Of course they sell some strange looking Chinese things, alongside typical American fare.  Chicken feet, pigs feet, octopus of all sizes, fish with or without heads, frog legs the size of a small dog.  Maybe dog too, who knows!  We bought drinks.  It’s not easy finding low calorie drinks. 

I wanted to see the giant pandas.  I wanted to go to the Beijing zoo.  Taking the subway is rather easy, everything is marked in Chinese and in English.  Most of the time.  Around our neighborhood, it’s easy.  Venture a bit into town and English becomes optional.  Without difficulty, we found the subway to the zoo.  But not the zoo.  To be specific, we did found the zoo exit, but could not find the entrance.  We kept asking and people were sending us back into the subway.  We stood in line to get a ticket which we thought would let us go inside the zoo, but no, she sent us back outside, ticketless.  We stood in line at a window that showed the prices for the zoo admittance only, and the zoo admittance with the Panda House.  But no, we were in the wrong line again.  A few feet away, we saw hundreds of people waiting to buy their ticket.  So that’s where all the people are on this holiday! The line – scratch that – the pack of people, hunger and heat got the best of us.  We had lunch at a Yoshinoya, a Japanese restaurant, where I, by mistake, ordered Indian food.  Then we took a cab home.

I did not see the giant pandas.

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Welcome to Beijing

3:47 am.  I am wide awake.  Jet lag.  Welcome to Beijing!

I landed last night, after the longest flight I have ever taken.  Thirteen hours and forty minutes, beating my previous 12-hour flight.  I made it in one piece, after being shaken like a martini due to heavy turbulences.  All the baggage was here, and my hubby was waiting for me, beaming.  I didn’t care about cultural taboos and gave him a huge hug and a big kiss.  Then, look for a taxi we did.  Language is a barrier.  The Great Fire Wall is another.  E. was showing the address of our hotel to the driver, using Google maps.  The driver can not access Google since it is blocked in China.  That led to a few minutes of confusion, attracting 3 other drivers to our rescue.  I was tired, happy, and didn’t care.  It takes about 40 minutes to reach the serviced apartment where E. has been staying for a few weeks.  It was already dark and raining.  There was nothing to see, nothing “Chinese”, nothing unusual.  We could have been in Germany, with Chinese signs and expensive cars.  We passed the Bentley and Rolls Royce showrooms.  Nothing looked different.  It was not until we reached downtown that I started seeing “fun” things, namely their little tuk-tuks.  They probably have another name, but it’s the same concept: a scooter pulling people with an awning over their heads.  They are so much smaller than in India, I am not sure the two of us would fit in it, I will let you know!  The drivers, as well as people riding bicycles were covered in rain ponchos, and the pillion rider was often carrying an open umbrella.  That, you do not see in India, where they simply stop on the side of the road and wait for the rain to stop.

We are in a swanky place.  All nice and fancy and clean.  Really clean.  The room is rather small, but we are moving into our permanent place in two days, so it doesn’t matter.  I fell asleep pretty much right away.  I vaguely remember our dinner being delivered.  Sweet slumber.

Jet lag.  Bam.  There is nothing worse than being awake in a new city, with things to see and things to talk about, all alone. So I woke up my hubby!  He’s now installing a VPN, a magic box that allows us to jump over the Great Fire Wall of China, and access sites that are censored here.  After less than 8 hours in the country, I have encountered it three times: all Google, including mail and maps are off limits. Facebook as well, a forced Facebook break will do me good anyway.  And WordPress, which hosts this blog!  We got a voicemail from the fraud department at American Express.  Someone had used our card in China.  Duh!  So E. called.  They need to send a one-time password to the email on file.  A Gmail account.  Great!  Get on computer, try and access VPN.  I hear a call of victory “VPN from Taiwan, bingo”.  Retrieve password and settle fraud dispute.  The guy on the phone was Indian, so I yelled Jai Hind!

I nibbled on a couple of dim sum (Chinese dumplings) that had been delivered when I was asleep.  One was yummy, the other had bean paste in it, and I don’t care for that.  While E. was calling clients in the US, I took a shower.  I may regret it since I forgot that the water is not filtered and I rinsed my mouth.  Rookie mistake. 

In a few hours, after some more sleep and breakfast, we will go to the Forbidden City.  Cross that off my Bucket List.

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Readying for Beijing

Before moving to India, I studied like a grad student. From the time we decided on the job change, I read everything about India, or anything written by Indians. Literature, political commentary, movies, you name it, if I could get my hands on it, I would read it or watch it. I had another technique that amused E. quite a bit: when I would see people who looked Indian, at airports, in stores, at Barnes and Noble, I would approach them, apologize, and tell them we were about to move to Bangalore and was looking for any insight. It may be a bit unorthodox but I gathered some very valuable information along the way, and made people laugh and reminisce about their home country. Our Punjabi-Canadian ophthalmologist was a great source of information, but our ENT, although ethnically Indian, said he had never been there.

I should be doing the same about China. E. is already in Beijing, started his job which he likes a lot, found us an apartment and already bought an electric scooter! But I am not doing any research yet. My heart is still in Bangalore. I feel like I still have so much to learn about India, and have this unreasonable feeling that I would be “cheating” on my heart country if I were to do some studying about China. I have a few travel books on my nightstand, and did manage to finish Amy Tan’s last novel. Last night I checked if there were any fees to visit The Forbidden City since I will be there in a few days. Nothing more. Tonight, I will start “Family Matters” by Rohinton Mistry. Back to Indian lit.

This isn’t entirely true. E. and I have a history with China. First, my good ol’ American boy from the Midwest is fluent in Chinese. Yep! He took four years of Mandarin in the early 90’s while in college, and I can attest to the fact that he can hold a conversation with taxi drivers, and shame people who, at a wedding, were talking about us behind our back. That’s our first link to the country. More recently, starting in 2005, we had tried to adopt a little girl from China. The irony is that we didn’t qualify because of E.’s weight, a problem that is no longer one. However, I am now too old! Back then, I had read a lot about China. I realize now that it was 10 years ago, and the books I read were often published 10 years prior to that. I even dug out a very old French classic political reference “Quand la Chine s’éveillera, le monde tremblera” from Alain Peyrefitte (When China will awake, the world will shake). Therefore, what I learned is no longer up-to-date, or/and, was a bit biased due to the desire to get these children adopted into good (international) homes. I had spent many hours watching Chinese movies, and discovered the actress Gong Li. A lot of the books described the consequences of Mao’s policies. Today, from what I saw in Shanghai and what E. talks about, China seems to be on the cutting edge of capitalism. Go figure!

Just like I had preconceptions about India described in my very first blog post, I have some about China. I am pretty much stuck on “The Joy Luck Club” as a model of what the country is like. I like Lisa See’s writing less. Most novels I read are about prostitution, the condition of women, poverty, abandoned women and infants, and the rise of communism. At the Fort Worth library, I had come across “The Last Days of Old Beijing”, a very interesting book written by Michael Meyer, an American living in Beijing, lamenting the destruction of the old fashioned dwelling to make room for skyscrapers. I read the Art of War. And I am fascinated with opium dens!

I have my tourist visa in hand, a suitcase almost ready, with respirators to survive the pollution and brand new sneakers, since mine are somewhere in a box in a warehouse between India and China. I will be a tourist in my new country, waiting eagerly for the day I will have a permanent visa.

No date yet, we are working on that.

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Keeping in touch

It’s been almost two months that we have been back in the States, but my heart is still in India. I got a new haircut, changed my hair color, updated my make-up and wardrobe, and got new glasses (*).  But my jewelry is mainly Indian.  We listen to Bollywood hits in the car.  Driving through the back roads of Marshall, TX on the beat of Aa Ante Amalapuram is culturally dissonant, yet tremedous fun.

My body is here, my friends and the kittens are here, but I grab onto any piece of India that I can grab. I have cooked several Indian dishes, and without fail, they were all a bust! When I see Indian people, like at the airport, I stupidly stand in front of them (at a safe distance, this is Texas after all!), smiling, waiting for them to recognize me as one of their own. It doesn’t work. I had never noticed Indian families in our neighborhood before. Either the demographics have changed, or my India Radar is more refined. Oh, the bliss of seeing an aunty slowly wobbling around, pushing a cart at Costco, with a dupatta around her shoulders!

We are in constant contact with a lot of people in Bangalore. Sathya regularly sends us text messages. He even sent a picture of the puppies! And one of a green dead snake he found on the road! We have talked to him also. He has had several short time jobs already. Our cook’s niece has a smartphone and we get frequent updates. S. got a part-time job cooking for a lady in Palm Meadows. The niece didn’t get the flight attendant job she wanted, under the false pretense that she has bad skin.   She sent me pictures of her aunt, uncle and cousins. Although S. was always a ray of sunshine, with a huge smile on her face, none of them are smiling on the pictures. It’s an Indian thing, they stop smiling the second you click a formal picture, and then start laughing again. I will get to see her smile again soon, hopefully.

And our maid calls once in a while. I love it. I love technology. I remember when out of town calls were prohibitively expensive, let alone international calls. Now a maid in India calls her friend in the US, from the comfort of her home. It is always a strange and cheerful conversation, and, unfortunately, we always get cut off after a couple of minutes.  Mam? Mam? Is K. How are you Mam? You breakfast mam? Sir good? Cats good? Miss you mam.

She called me one morning, it was around 6am her time, to tell me that she had had a dream that I was back in India. She was happy! I also get news from her family through her son, who is now proudly attending college about 2-3 hours from home. I can see on his WhatsApp picture that he’s growing a moustache I think. He’s becoming a man.

I have a 4×6 portrait of all of us right on my nightstand. I tell them goodnight before I fall asleep, reading Sudha Murthy and Times of India, and smile good morning to them all first thing when I wake up.

* Thanks to the dimwit optometrist at Lawrence and Mayo on Vartur. He was not my usual guy, and I knew, I just knew that something would go wrong. But Madam it will take a month to adjust to your new glasses. It’s funny how everything adjusts to you in this country. I was getting severe headaches so I went to the eye place around here. Not only was the prescription incorrect, he also sold me 6 months supply of the incorrect lenses.

Yet China is getting closer and closer, and E. is already there.

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