How To Not Eat Dog In China or 为什么在中国不能吃狗肉

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I ate my way through China. Before I left, I had heard from many people that I should be prepared for some of the food to make me sick and that under no circumstances should  I eat street food. “But,” I thought, “Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are always eating street food and they love it.” And after 6 weeks of eating on the street and never having gotten sick (perhaps I should wait for the blood tests to get back before I swear by that…) I must say I’m happy that I listened to the strangers on TV rather than the perfectly reasonable people I know in real life.

One of the suggestions I had received was to only eat in hotels. We had catering provided in almost all the hotels we stayed in. Some of it was good but a lot of it was mediocre, like a whited-down version of Chinese food. The other issue with the catering was that to rely on it meant I would nearly be chained to the hotel and I was more interested in exploring these new places.

I can see how one would be turned off by some of the street food at first. I was lucky enough to have a Mandarin speaker there to translate much of the time which made me more confident that I wasn’t going to end up with dog on my plate. Speaking of dog, the good (or possibly bad) thing about dog meat in China is that they see nothing wrong with eating it so they don’t try to hide it.

The reason I even bring up the issue of dog meat is that when people warned me about street food in China, one of their main concerns was that I would somehow accidentally eat some. Honestly, I didn’t come across it often and found it easy to avoid. I understand there is some hypocrisy in finding one kind of meat revolting and another kind finger-licking good but for me, there is a difference. People have personal connections with dogs that they don’t have with other animals. A dog will excitedly greet you at the door, affectionately rest its head on your lap and even loyally stay by your side when it knows you are sick. I’ve just never seen a chicken do any of those things.

I would hate for any of the fears that were expressed to me to keep people from being adventurous with the food they try. I had so many delicious things. The inexpensiveness of it made it easy to sample many different dishes and fill up on local specialties for a couple dollars a day. One meal in particular, in Nanning, where 10 of us each had noodle soup and split vegetable dumplings, came to 27 yuan, that’s…are you sitting down?….about $4. For 10 people. FOUR DOLLARS!

Cheap and delicious dumplings in Nanning

 

Like I said, dog meat was easy to avoid and there is one simple, sure-fire way to avoid it: learn how to say that you don’t want it. I’m a big believer in trying to learn a few important words and phrases in the language of the country in which I’m traveling, even if that language is as difficult as Mandarin. These days, there are enough resources, including free ones on the internet, that it is an easy thing to do. Learning phrases like, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “You’re welcome”, “Excuse me”, and “Do you speak English?” can make a world of difference in your tarvel experience. That being said, for the first two weeks I had the phrases for “Excuse me” and “You’re  welcome” confused. In my defense, they sound kind of similar. But that meant that for a couple weeks I was bumping into people and following it up with, “You’re welcome!” I’m sure that did not do much for the American image abroad.

Besides those basic phrases, there was one that I made sure to have in my arsenal, “I don’t want dog meat.” or in Mandarin, “Wo bu yao guo rou.” You can even hear the tones here. I also made sure to learn the “dog” character, 狗, so I could identify it on menus. It’s that easy, folks.

In every city we were in, it was easy to find markets or single vendors selling dumplings (I think I consumed about 873 dumplings in 6 weeks, all of them delicious), sticky buns, roasted chestnuts, soup, roasted sweet potatoes, grilled meat, fish and bread… The mantra became the dirtier the better. I remember one specific time in Wenzhou when some of us hopped on a bike taxi and asked our driver to take us to some street food. Instead he took us to a restaurant where we could see tablecloths through the window. “Tablecloths?!” we said, “What kind of people do you take us for?!” Instead, we found a restaurant across the street that was much more our style, that is to say, dirty. We actually sat next to the fish that was about to become our stew. We had the most delicious sweet and sour pork, like nothing I have ever had stateside and a steak dish with ginger, soy, cilantro and spring onions that I have desperately been trying to recreate since I’ve been home. Afterward, one of the dancers and I got $1 manicures. A prostitute came in to the salon to use some make-up and told me I had a beautiful nose. So all-in-all, it rounded out to be a lovely evening.

Lisa sitting next to Splashy, whose number was up.

 

Splashy stew amongst other delicious dishes

 

The thing is, I never get Chinese food at home. I find it heavy and greasy. I found the food in China to be much different, lighter and fresher. I was often wathcing them make it right in front of me. A great example of that was a Uighur restaurant we found in Foshan. Uighurs are a Turkic people from the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. They are Muslim so their food is halal. They are known for their lamb kabobs and homemade noodles. I was able to watch the amazing process of making the noodles and I have a video here. The noodles were so tender and soaked up the delicious sauce they sat in. We tried a few different dishes but I really loved a very simple dish of noodles with eggplant, green beans and a light sauce heavily flavored with cumin. We loved it so much went back to the restaurant the next night and they didn’t even serve alcohol which is SAYING SOMETHING for his group. If you are traveling in China I would highly recommend trying some of the Uighur cuisine.

Uighur noodle dish

 

I could honestly go on and on about different dishes and meals I had while in China. I tend to be a bit evangelistic about food in general but I was particularly happy, and honestly, surprised at how much I liked nearly everything I had. There is one thing I can not leave out, though, and that is The Most Delicious Banana In The World. I know that food tastes best when it’s perfectly ripened and picked fresh. I’ve tasted it for myself. Being that bananas are grown in the tropics and shipped long distances to us in the states, we probably don’t even know what a really good banana tastes like. I certainly didn’t till I had one in China. We were touring some gardens in Foshan and one of the girls spotted a cluster of bananas. She climbed up the tree and threw a few down. Sweet mother of baby Jesus in the manger they were delicious. They were so….banana-y. I never suspected bananas had so much flavor. Every person that took a bite had the same initial blasé response (How good could it be? It’s a banana.) which turned into wonder and amazement. Every banana I’ve had since has just been a disappointment.

So the moral of the story is, if you see a banana tree, grab yourself a banana and enjoy. And if you’re traveling in another country, or anywhere, or heck, even in your hometown, be adventurous with what you eat. You might just find The Most Delicious Something of your own.

Or you might get a tapeworm.

The Most Delicious Banana In The World

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Beifreakingjing

Beijing was the last stop on tour and I had been looking forward to it since I learned I was going to China. First of all, it’s Beifreakingjing….the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Hutong neighborhoods…. In addition to that, I had the ridiculous luck of being able to catch up with some old friends there. “In a classic example of bad planning” as Time Out Beijing put it, Riverdance was in Beijing at the very same time we were. I had some friends who were on the tour, including my dear friend, Aislinn, from New Zealand. We hadn’t seen each other in almost four years. When you have a friend who lives as far away as New Zealand you basically resign yourself to hardly ever seeing them. But, as the fates would have it we ended up in Beijing at the same time. Unfortunately, the Riverdance kids were shooting a DVD. Well, that part was not unfortunate but the 14 hour workdays they had made it hard to find time to catch up.

We arrived at our hotel in Beijing quite late because of a delayed flight to find that there was no internet. I was trying to meet up with the Riverdance crew but all I had to go one was an email from the day before saying they might be at an Irish Bar (of course) that night. We decided to chance it so we threw our stuff down and headed to the bar. When we got there, I didn’t see any of my friends. Then I spotted someone I recognized from friends’ facebook photos. I figured he was my best bet for contacting them so I proceeded to introduce myself in a super creepy way.

Me: “Hi. I’m Katie. I used to sing in Riverdance and I recognize you from some friends’ photos on facebook (translation: I am your stalker). Do you know if X,Y, or Z are coming here tonight?”

Stunned Riverdancer: “Uh….I don’t think so. Most everyone’s gone home anyway.”

Me: “Ok. The internet in our hotel isn’t working. If I write a note for them would you deliver it?”

S.R. “Um….who are you again?”

We laughed about it later but seriously, who does that? Someone who’s desperate to see their friends, I guess.

It worked to our advantage that it wasn’t a big night anyway because the next day a group of us woke up at the crack of dawn (8!) to do a 7 mile hike of the Great Wall. Luckily, I was still able to squeeze in a couple nights with them.

But enough about me, let’s talk about Beijing. I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked to explore Beijing but I still found it to be a really, really cool city. Lindsey, the aforementioned tour manager/translator, lived there for 4 years and took us to some great restaurants, neighborhoods and markets.

The evening after we hiked the Great Wall, she took us to Rumi, a Persian restaurant in the Chaoyang district. As much as I loved the Chinese food I’d been having, it was nice to be in a city with something besides Chinese food, Mc Donalds and KFC. Rumi totally hit the spot. We all went overboard ordering stews, kabobs, salads, hummus, FETA CHEESE! It was more than we were used to spending on a meal, way more. My 80 RMB bill came with some sticker shock. I had been used to 10 here for dumplings, 10 there for some grilled meat. But 80 RMB is about 12 dollars and 12 dollars for a fantastic meal in one of the world’s capital cities is not bad.

The next day I went with some folks to investigate the San Li Tun market. We had to be at the theater for soundcheck at 2 so time was limited. This is going to sound extremely shallow, but the thing I regret most about my time in Beijing is that I didn’t get more time to shop. I would have liked a solid day to spend in the markets. My goodness, the DEALS you could get and after five weeks, I was a well seasoned haggler.

Haggling was something I wasn’t comfortable with at first but in China you haggle for nearly everything. I went from being skittish about it to lusting after the rush I got when procuring a good deal. You know that feeling you get when you buy something at Loemann’s and it gives you the “you saved this much off the retail price” thing at the end? Or when you find a BCBG dress at TJ Maxx for $40 that was originally $220 (Is this just me??)? Well, it’s better than that because you made it happen. Every time I would show someone something I bought I would have to explain, with pride, what I bargained it down from. “I talked them down from 220 to 80!”

They obviously inflate the prices to fit this game, and do so even more for whiteys. This is one of the reasons you need a whole day to shop. The haggling  process can take a while. Let me share with you  what I found to be the key to haggling well – The Walkaway. They will start high, then you go ridiculously low. You both creep towards to middle and if you get to the absolute highest price you will accept and they deny you, walk away. Most of the time, they will follow you and give it to you for that price. This is key. If you sit there and continually argue with them, they won’t take you as seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Americans get more and more heated about a price without doing The Walkaway. One man I heard was so mad that he stormed off, the shop worker waited a beat and tried to catch up with him to give it to him for his asking price but he’d already made it out the door. He inadvertantly did The Walkaway and didn’t even know it.

After the show that night, we went to see some of Lindsey’s friends play at Mao Livehouse, a cool, laid back bar in the Gu Lou neighborhood. One our way to the show we spotted a Mexican restaurant, Amigo. Upon further examination, it looked like proper Mexican food, corn tortillas, fajitas, chilaquiles, MORE CHEESE, and a 15 yuan special on Mojitos we couldn’t pass up. I must admit, I didn’t eat a whole lot of Chinese food in Beijing. I very much welcomed the variety of options. Plus, I was nursing a serious dairy deficiency that needed to be filled. 

The next day I was able to meet up with another old friend of mine from my grade school days, Wes Smith, his wife Kasha and their adorable baby daughter, Berkley. But not after some difficulty.  We picked a subway station to meet outside of, a very specific one, the A exit of a certain line. Unbeknownst to us there were two A exits. How does that make sense? So after 30 minutes of waiting, I decided I had to find a way to call him. I  stopped someone walking out of the station with, “Ni hao….um…can I use your phone?” with the thumb-pinky phone thingy at my ear. The first person I stopped actually let me. It turned out Wes was inside the station looking for me. Easy fix! Except that when I went in, he wasn’t there. And when I came back outside, he wasn’t there either. Again, I stopped someone else to use their phone and not only was he obliging, he waited around while I tried to get ahold of him again which took a few calls. It left me thinking, if a Chinese tourist was in the same predicament as myself, standing outside a subway station in New York saying, “Hello!” then whatever “Can I use your phone?” is in Mandarin with the phone gesture thing at their head, would anyone actually stop?

After all that rigamaroll, we finally met up and went for a nice lunch at a Buddhist restaurant near the Lama Temple. Wes and Kasha seem to really love Beijing. Kasha teaches at an international school and while Wes was working and is thinking of going into teaching himself, right now he’s able to stay at home with Berkley. The cost of living there has afforded them the opportunity for one of them to stay home and also to have inexpensive care for Berkley when they need it.

Afterwards we walked around the Guanshuyuan Hutong. Hutongs are older neighborhoods in Beijing connected by narrow lanes and alley ways. Many of the homes are in the courtyard style with four buildings built around a courtyard. Some buildings still lack modern amenities, including bathrooms. There are communal bathrooms instead. Since the Cultural Revolution, many hutongs have been destroyed in favor of wider lanes and more modern apartment buildings. But some still remain and are actually protected.

The next day, our last day in Beijing, my band mate Eamonn and  I visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Like many uber-touristy sites, we found the headphone tour to be the best bet. Because we are total cheapskates, we just bought one and shared it. I listened and relayed the info to Eamonn.  

The Forbidden City is named as such because for nearly 500 years, from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, it was, well, forbidden. It is a palace complex that was home to the emperor, his family and servants (who were mostly eunuchs so they wouldn’t touch the ladies, ouch!). It was the seat of government in China and also a place for ceremonies.

I won’t lie, I haven’t retained much of the information I heard that day. I do remember that the middle, stone pathway was only to be used by the emperor but now tourists take photos on it all day long, tourists like this guy:

I can only imagine the emperors are rolling in their graves right now. I will direct you to Wikipedia if you would like to know more. Here are some photos snapped that day.

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Forbidden City

 

Tiananmen Square

 

Later we met up with another friend of mine from high school, Jason Fetz, and his girlfriend, Laura, who are both teaching English in Changchun, which is about a 6 hour train ride north east of Beijing. They just happen to have been flying out of Beijing to Thailand the next day. Coincidence? Probably. But still, a pretty cool one. We went for Peking Duck, seeing as we were in Peking, and let me tell you, crispy duck dipped in sugar may sound gross  but it is fabulously delicious.

That night Jason, Laura, Wes and Kasha were all able to make it to the show. I must say it was pretty surreal and very special to have old friends see me perform in Beijing. Oh and remember how I told you Chinese audiences are rather restrained? Well, I found the one thing that makes them break into raucous applause, the Beijing Olympics Song, especially when I sang the verse in Mandarin. By the way, doesn’t it sound like Sarah Brightman is doing an over-the-top impression of herself? I mean, I thought I had a good Sarah Brightman impression but Sarah Brightman has outdone me. I’m going to have to work on that. But I digress… The song was put in the encore in Beijing as a special touch. Holy crap. They went nuts. I’ve never been in front of people who were more excited to hear me sing something. I even laughed into the microphone the first time we did it because I was so taken aback. It’s hard to take it personally, though, as the cheers seemed more for the song than anything else. So the performances in Beijing ended on a very high note, with old friends there and an exuberant audience.

That night we wrapped things up at the Irish bar (of course) to celebrate the last night of the tour, as well as a few birthdays. Jason and Laura celebrated with us. Jason recounts the night’s events here in a much funnier way than I ever could.

I hope I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to go back to Beijing. I would love to go when the weather is warm and spend more time exploring the city without any (or many) obligations. I would be willing to travel in someone’s suitcase. I will pay the overweight fee, or lose 80 pounds, which ever makes more sense at the time. Contact me directly if you think this sounds like something you’d be interested in.

The Great Wall

We only had one day off in Beijing and I was determined to use it to see The Great Wall. The most popular spot to visit the wall near Beijing is Badaling. After hearing about it from some of the troupe who had been there before, namely that there are American fast food chains there, I decided I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to risk seeing the Golden Arches or Colonel Sanders while taking in one of the great wonders of the world. Also, I wanted to be able to hike from one point to another as opposed to having one spot to wander around. 

After a little more research, I found a 7 mile hike between Jinshanling and Simitai. I read that the hike would take 4 hours because there are many ridiculously steep steps to traverse. This was just what I was looking for. I wanted it to be long. I wanted it to hurt. I wanted it to be seared into my brain so deeply that even when I’m 85 and senile and talking to lampshades, I’ll be talking to them about this awesome day when I hiked the Great Wall.

The problem, I thought, was going to be convincing other people to do this with me. It was early February and hovering around freezing in Beijing. I could understand why people wouldn’t want to venture out for that long in that kind of weather. But luckily 7 others decided to join me in the end.

I believe there are busses that will take you to those destinations, though perhaps only during the warmer months, but we were having a hard time finding them. With so little time to plan (we got in at about 10 the night before and headed straight to an Irish Bar (quelle suprise) to meet some cast members of Riverdance (no, there was not a dance-off)), we decided to give in a hire a couple taxis. Taxis are extremely cheap in China, even in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. If you are short on time and have a few people with you, it’s not a bad option. It was two hours there and back, and I believe it was about 800 or 900 RMB which it about 120 dollars, divided by four that’s $30 a piece to get to and from the Great Wall. Not bad.

The landscape became more and more mountainous as we drove further north from Beijing. After a couple hours I was scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the wall. At first glance, it looked treacherous, like perhaps-we-made-a-mistake-and-we-should-just-take-a-few-photos-and-turn-back treacherous. I was beginning to fear a mutiny but I learned quickly that it was not part of our hike.

Not part of our hike. Phew!

 

After being dropped off we quickly made our way to the wall. We had gotten kind of a late start (remember the Irish bar from the last night?) and we figured the sun was going to set around 6, leaving us about 5 hours. We couldn’t have asked for a better day considering the time of year. It was about 40 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

As we were walking through the park to the wall, we noticed some other people had joined us. A woman came up to me, speaking very good English, explaining that they were local farmers. Her name was Shirley. She explained that they were going to join us on our hike of the Great Wall, that they were going to “help” us. “Help us what?”, I asked. “Help you climb!” Hmmmm…I was not interested in anyone helping me climb but I thought they wouldn’t be with us for long. How naive of me.

It just so happened there was one farmer for every one of us. Coincidence? Of course not. As they assisted us up particularly steep paths and offered to take photos of us, they were also attempting to endear themselves to us. Shirley kept saying, “You’re so nice! I’m so glad I’m your farmer! Can I take your photo? So pretty! You know, my corn crop was very bad this year…..” You get the idea.

About 20 minutes in we were trying to hatch a plan on how to lose them. One of the dancers, Nessa, whose farmer seemed to be the oldest there, decided she was going to try to make a run for it. Oh, silly tourist…these people have obviously been doing this their whole lives giving them freakishly strong legs such that, even at 70 years old, Irish dancers can’t out run them.

Nessa trying to escape her farmer

 

After the failed getaway attempt, I asked Shirley how long, exactly, they were planning on helping us. “The whole way!” she replied. At this point it had become clear that the only way to gain our freedom was to buy it. Oh yes, I have failed to mention till now that they just happened to be carrying huge bags full of souvenirs. I gathered the troops and explained that unless we bought their crap, they were going to be attached to us for the next 4 hours. Everyone agreed to buy something so we engaged in the customary haggling process, bought some souvenirs and left the farmers behind. I am now proud owner of a “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt.

Farmers and Tourists

 

After we left the farmers, we didn’t see a soul till we got to Simitai. We had the wall to ourselves. It was almost surreal. If you’re ever thinking of visiting the Great Wall I would highly recommend this hike. There are passages that are incredibly steep that will leave you huffing and puffing and your thighs burning but they aren’t impossible.
While it was difficult, someone who is reasonably in shape could do.  There are patches in the middle that haven’t been well kept up but there was nothing that seemed dangerous.

As I was walking, I would force myself to stop and try to be very conscious of what I was doing. “You’re on the Great frigging Wall of China. Take this in!” It’s like I was afraid I wouldn’t fully realize the beauty and grandeur around me and I’m not sure one can, though there is probably a permanently, fully-conscious Buddhist monk out there who would disagree with me. But it was beautiful and it was grand and it did hurt and I will always remember it and the lovely people I was able to share it with, even Shirley.


One Day in Shanghai

I was only able to have one day to explore Shanghai with the rehearsals, run throughs and sound checking that needed to happen for the first gigs. The hotel and theater we were in are in an area called Pudong New Center. The “new” bit of the name is there because just 30 years ago this was boggy farmland. Now it’s the financial center of Shanghai with towering skyscrapers including the tallest building in China.

Pudong New Center

 

But there’s also a hint of middle America. There are chain restaurants, strip malls, “American” things and the two aforementioned Irish bars are in Pudong. There is an ill-named area near the theater called “Originality Street” with establishments as original as Starbucks, Papa John’s and a recreation of the Munich Hofbrau Haus. I trust you’ve picked up on the irony. 

Then there are all the apartment and condo buildings. As you can imagine, in a city of nearly 20 million people, you would kind of have to live on top of one another, and they do. Picture a stereotypical, new condo building in suburban America, make it 10 times as big and then put 12 of them in a block. Then do that with another design again and again and again till there’s a sea of them.

The area’s a bit soulless, to be truthful so I wanted to get across the river to the older part of town and explore some neighborhoods there. When in a new city, I am quite content to walk around for hours, people watching and window shopping, without a particular destination. I headed to the former French Concession neighborhood to do just that. As soon as the taxi dropped me off there, I was glad I made it. The French handed the area back over the China in 1943 but it retains a French character with European style residences, charming boutiques and little cafes. The streets are lines with trees called London Planes adding to the charm and atmosphere of the neighborhood.

I did have one destination in mind, though, and that was Yang’s Fried Dumplings.  It was about a 3 mile walk closer to the city center and by the time I got there I was starving.Yang’s is on a little lane, full of food vendors, that cuts through the upscale shops, hotels of (what I believe is) the Huangpu neighborhood. It’s easy to spot right away because there’s usually a long line of people out front. They’re famous for their soup dumplings and a box of four costs a whopping 60 cents. Now, I’m not going to lie, this spot was plucked straight from the No Reservations Shanghai episode and Bourdain did not steer me wrong.
I ordered and waited, watching the dumplings being made then fried. The whole operation happens right in front of you. The dumplings are made and then given to a woman at the front window who fries them with sesame seeds and oil, scoops them up and hands them to you in a paper carton.

They were steaming hot so I left them to cool for as long as I could possibly stand it which, honestly, wasn’t that long. There’s a specific way you are supposed to eat them and I’m glad I saw Bourdain do it first. You bite the top off then slurp out the broth, which inevitably ends up looking very ungraceful because the broth is so frigging delicious that you’re just trying to get every last bit out. I had it running down my chin onto my jacket and purse. I couldn’t bear to let that go to waste so I actually wiped it with my fingers and proceeded to lick them. I know. Gross. But I am confident you would have done the same had you tasted the broth. I even drank what broth ended up in the carton. It must have been a sight. The dumplings themselves were delicious too, part of them being crispy from being fried and part being chewy and tender. In the middle was a delicious pork meatball.

After that I hopped into a taxi to head to the Old Town neighborhood, which as you can imagine, is the oldest part of town. That day I added another thing to my List Of Things I Would Never Ever Like To Do, right beneath swimming with sharks and sinking in quicksand, and that thing is driving in China. It’s total and complete mayhem especially in a downtown area like Shanghai. It makes driving in the city of Detroit look like the picture of traffic obedience. I can’t say we stayed in one lane for very long, or that we were ever truly in only one lane at a time, or that we were ever truly on one side of the road at a time. I found it was an experience best handled with my eyes closed or at least looking up, admiring the many skyscrapers and neon signs.

My guidebook said to avoid Old Town on the weekend unless you don’t mind crowds. I went on a Sunday. I would go a little further and say, don’t visit Old Town on the weekends unless you really, really love crowds and people touching you and bumping into you and taking your photo if you’re not Chinese. That’s right, not being Chinese means I get my photo taken a lot here. It’s much worse for the blonds. I’ve heard horror stories from a couple blond cast mates going to the Great Wall last year and having their hair touched constantly. For now, I’ve just been really owning it, throwing up a peace sign, posing, asking them to tag me on facebook.

Despite the crowds and the kitsch, I’m glad I went. The buildings were beautiful and I was able to hit my first temple, the City God Temple. I can’t say it was a very spiritual experience as it was ridiculously crowded and I didn’t even know which faith or spiritual practice it was built for upon entering (I now know it’s Taoist. Thanks, Wikipedia).

Worshippers burning sticks at the City God Temple

 

It was beautiful and it was interesting to see people pray or worship even though I felt like a bit of a voyeur. But I know that’s how I’m going to feel with the Chinese the whole time I’m here. I have no hope of communicating with them apart from some desperate hand gestures. I’m traveling around with a pack of Westerners with little personal contact with any Chinese. Combine that with the inevitable culture shock and I realize that I’m going to feel like an outsider looking in the whole time I’m here, taking photos and never penetrating the surface. So I take pictures of them and they take pictures of me. It’s an arrangement that seems to be working out so far.

When In Rome, Still Try To Find An Irish Bar

I’ve been in Shanghai for nearly three days now and I wish I had some interesting things to tell you about this city but I haven’t really been able to explore it and I’m a bit ashamed of the things I have seen.  The first few days have consisted of rehearsals, battling jet lag, rehearsals, recovering from New Years Eve, rehearsals and The World’s Longest and Worst Souncheck Ever.  There is some new material for the band, including my songs, and this is the first time everyone has been able to sit down and rehearse together which means I’ve spent a lot of q.t. in conference room 6 of the Grand Metro Park Jiayou Hotel. These guys are pros so the rehearsals have gone really smoothly. The same can not be said for yesterday’s soundcheck.

I believe this is the only show of its kind that’s completely live with no tracks underneath the dancers and musicians. Now, I don’t see much wrong with tracking the dancers, though the singing is a different story (I’m talking to you, ‘Celtic Women’). It can be difficult to make dozens of step dancers sound really clean and not like a pack of elephants.  Plus, you can’t fake dancing. They’re obviously doing it right in front of your eyes. But because these dancers are individually miced, a good soundcheck crucial.

I had heard a few horror stories of working with Chinese crews and those did not prepare me for the absolute shit-show that was this soundcheck. Let me say that I have found all of the Chinese people that I have encountered to be perfectly lovely and gracious, if it’s not too ridiculous for me to make a blanket statement like that. The problem is not necessarily with them personally. We’re dealing with communism, or communism light, or communism with a splash of capitalism or whatever is going on here. The bottom line is that it seems a lot of the people working at the theater never really wanted to be sound technicians and were never really trained, they were just given the job. And there are a lot of them doing a lot of nothing. When we wanted to have something as simple as a stage door unlocked it took about an hour.It had nothing to do with the language barrier either, we had translators on hand for the whole thing. When any problem arose, it took about 6 guys to stand around and talk about it, well, presumably, they could have been talking about what they were having for dinner for all I know. I’m not sure why someone didn’t just go get the key. When they finally did it was so easy. But it took our French stage director, who is very good at his job, threatening death before anything happened (“I want zee got damn door open now or I am killink zomebody!!!!). 

When it came to something being seriously wrong, like a faulty cable into a monitor, forget about it. Our soundman, Stouv, who is himself a colorful Frenchman and is  also excellent at his job, just took matters into his own hands. He ran down onto the stage, cutting through the 13 Chinese men talking about the faulty cord, unplugged it, found another and voila! problem solved, momentarily at least. Stouv had patched all the monitors himself while the theater staff were busy talking about patching monitors. While he was fixing the chord situation, we noticed someone in the sound booth. It turns out that person was repatching the monitors for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he actually wanted something to do. When Stouv got back in the booth to continue the check, a screech emitted from the monitors that left our ears ringing for the rest of the night. But that’s ok, because I don’t need to hear to sing, do I? What was that?

So that’s how the soundcheck went for the most part. Something would go wrong, there would be a lot of talking in Mandarin and waiting, Stouv would run down to the stage, there would be a lot of yelling and explatives in French and a lot of sitting around and waiting by the band. This went on for hours. I’m not kidding. HOURS. And this was a nice theater. New and state of the art. I mean, look:

Eventually things got sorted out, for the most part. I’m just hoping every theater isn’t like this because it eats up a lot of time.

Besides the inside of this hotel and the theater, there are a few things I’ve seen. But they are embarrassing. Truly. The first two nights were spent in Irish pubs. I know, I know, I know. Having travelled with Irish musicians and dancers before, I have found that they love to hang out in the local Irish bar. Luckily for them, they are everywhere. For such a small country, Ireland’s Celticy tentacles reach far and wide. I had a friend from Riverdance, who lives in New Zealand, take a vacation with her boyfriend to this really remote island in Indonesia named Gili Trawangen. They were going to get away from civilization for a week, get away from everthing they knew.  Except, when they got there, there was an Irish bar on the island. You just can’t get away from them.

There’s an Irish bar only a few blocks from our hotel. The first night we were in town a bunch of us just wanted to stay awake till a reasonable hour to try to adjust to the time. So the quickest and dirtiest way to do that was the nearest Irish bar. We ended up at yet another Irish bar for New Years Eve but in fairnness, we were aiming for another club but it happened to be under construction when we got there. Solution? Flee to the nearest Irish bar. I rang in New Year’s in a cab, on the way there, watching fireworks from the rear window and watching the lanterns they light on the New Year’s ascend. 

Lanterns floating in the night sky

 

After the Irish bar, we made our way across the street to a 4am bar. And this one gets even more embarrassing. It was called “The American Bar”. Oh god. I know. Next thing you know I’ll be eating at McDonald’s yelling “Why does no one speak English in this country??!!”

Now let’s be honest, 4am bars are never, ever a good idea. Ever. That is a fact. When you layer that on top of being there with a group of Irish dancers, who are all for the most part in their early 20s and have the livers to prove it, then top that off with some Australians who are handing out free butterscotch Schnapps, well, then you have a real fiasco on your hands.

Why, Australian? Why??

 

Actually, it was a lot of fun. The real fiasco was the next day when we had to put on a show with 3 hours sleep. But I’ll only spend New Year’s in Shanghai once, right? Even though I spent it in the most American way possible. I promise from here on out, more China, less America.

Happy New Year!



China

I think I can say it’s official that I am going to China at the end of December for about 7 weeks. I sent in my info for my visa last week. I think it’s also pretty official that I will be spending March in France. Which means I can be officially excited. Which means I am SUPER F*@#ING EXCITED!!!!!

I’ve been trying not to be too excited since I got word that this was a possibility. To have fully unleashed my excitement and then have it taken away from me would have been too painful, made worse by the fact that I would be spending my winter, still temping, in the Official Worst Place To Spend Winter*, the Midwestern United States (Siberia might be a worthy contender for that title but I have never been there. If you have, please comment). You would probably have found me sitting in the corner of my room, searching flickr for photos of the wonderful places I should be visiting and crying into my hot toddy.

I have wanted to go to China since I was 5. I know I’m an over exaggerator but this is no over exaggeration. When I was 5, I saw the TV special, ‘Big Bird in China’. I was completely enthralled. While watching that show my wanderlust was born. I remember seeing one particular part, where Big Bird takes a boat down what I believe is the Li Jang River to find the Phoenix Bird, and saying to myself, “This must be the most beautiful place on earth. I have to get there.”

Here’s the scene:

I mean, who wouldn’t want to go there?? It’s absolutely enchanting.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to the Li Jang River. It seems to be pretty far from anywhere I will be. But as far as I know, the schedule isn’t completely set in stone. Perhaps with a couple days off I can get there. It would be nice to fully realize the dream.

I am looking forward to exploring the places we are visiting and reporting back.  Luckily, I have a few connections to people in China. In my travels, I’ve found it so helpful to have a local showing me around, avoiding tourist traps and taking me to places I never would have known of on my own. In addition, I have never been to a place that is as culturally different to the US as China. And I’ve heard from friends that sometimes the great language barrier that can exist there tends to make one feel kind of helpless.

So here is where you could be very helpful. If you know anyone in China, can I borrow them? Even for just a friendly email exchange? I need people. And tips. Lost of tips.

Here are the cities in which we are performing as of right now: Shanghai, Huizhou, Chongqing, Hefei, Changzhou, Taizhou, Wenzhou, Beijing and Yantai. Now, I’m pretty decent with geography. At work, when I’m not busy and when I’m not staring longingly at flickr images, I’m usually taking geography quizzes. But I haven’t heard of most of these cities. When I started looking them up I was surprised by their populations. Hefei? Almost 5 million people. Taizhou? Almost 6 million. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked considering China is a country of over 1.3 billion people, but it just amazes me that there are all these ginourmous cities that I’ve never even heard of.

Oh yeah, as to why I’m going….I will be singing with an Irish group. I don’t think the outfit has been named yet. It seems it will be a dance show with a live band and some songs thrown in there. We’ve touched on some songs we might be doing but I’m looking forward to working on that further with the musicians. It might seem a little odd that I’ve signed up for something when I don’t even know what it’s called or what I’ll be singing but the music directors, Kieran and Liz, are old friends of mine. I trust them and admire them as musicians so I’m happy to be working with them. But really, they had me at ‘free trip to China’.

I’m really happy to be singing again, as well. I remember how much I missed singing when I dropped out of a perfectly good masters program for classical voice and went to work at a ‘normal’ job in Chicago. There were many things I missed about it, but I was surprised at how much I missed the actual, physical act of singing. It had been nearly the first time in 10 years that I wasn’t singing almost everyday. I’m looking forward to having that in my life again.

While 2010 is shaping up to be a pretty good year, I’m going to focus on enjoying the rest of 2009. And I can do it a little more contentedly knowing I won’t be sitting in this cube in a few weeks.

* This is not actually official