Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chinese Confession I – The Countdown and a Salty Situation

Does anyone remember what it was like to be a little kid on Christmas Eve? All of the excitement and anticipation for the following day – and the prospect of all of those presents, food, and fun – made it completely impossible to sleep? For hours you would just lay there in bed, knowing that the limited efforts to go to sleep were completely in vain. You couldn’t possibly sleep if you wanted to, or even if you had to. If you do, then you might have an idea of what I’m going through right now, though to a relatively minor extent – a state that is getting progressively more agonizing with each passing day.

I finally updated my myspace profile. I added a countdown. I don’t really like this particular one because it merely counts down to 12:01am on August 28th. My plane doesn’t take off until around 6:30am. That a difference of 6 ½ hours. That’s an eternity in my book.

I updated my facebook profile. I added a countdown there. I like this one. It counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until 6:30am on August 28th. Such an acute attention to a detail even as slight as the seconds on a timer should indicate how ridiculously anxious I am to leave. If you click on it, it runs in real time. I also added a map of the earth with all of the places I’ve lived (red), visited (blue), and want to visit (green). My red zones feature Colorado, France and (I practically blocked this one from my memory) Utah. Right now China is a big green mass in the middle of Asia. I can’t wait until I can turn it red.

The fact that I’m going to China in just over a month is still just a bit past the horizon. I’m already wondering what kind of ridiculous, cultural, linguistic, or even cooking mistakes I’m going to make. Will it be like when I was in France? I have several memories that I can now look back upon and laugh, especially the very first meal I ate in my very first apartment there.

When I arrived in France, everything was new, despite the fact that things were actually decades or even centuries old. Manosque, a tiny town nestled in the Alps just northwest of the Riviera, was the first place I would live. I felt like such a foreigner. The language was different, the city was different, the surroundings were different, the weather was different, even the air smelled different. But I kept my chin up; I was excited. For so long I had been dreaming of going to a far away land, some place beyond the known and even understood.

And I was hungry. Very, very hungry. I arrived at my apartment and met my colleague, Seth, with whom I would spend the next 2 ½ months – the person who would have the biggest impact on my entire two years in France as he helped me cope and adjust. He was nice enough to offer to make dinner for me, which was rather fortunate because I was only capable of making ramen and peanut butter sandwiches – two items that, incidentally, are virtually impossible to make in a country without ramen or peanut butter. Oh yeah, I also was quite good at making Jello, but that literally is impossible to find in France. Since I was incapable of making anything, he volunteered to whip up some spaghetti for me. I sat there, still in awe and slight culture shock at the prospect of twenty two more months in such a foreign place. We chatted casually as he boiled the noodles and mixed up some sauce.

Once the spaghetti was ready, I dished up and began to eat. Of course, a good plate of spaghetti is hardly complete without any parmesan cheese. Fortunately for me, there was a familiar, cylindrical container sitting there in the middle of table, which I recognized instantaneously as being parmesan cheese. I twisted the cap and pour it all over my spaghetti. I really do love parmesan cheese, so I made sure I got plenty of it. Finally satisfied, I set it down and began to eat.

I took a bite, and chewed it without paying much attention. My mind was racing with all of the things I was being exposed to. I took another bite, my mind still racing. I took a third bite, and something seemed to awake me from my state of mental surrealism.

“Wow, this spaghetti is salty!” I thought to myself. I forced myself to swallow the bite, and looked down at my plate.

“Should I take another bite? Should I say something? I just met this guy. How is he going to take it if I complain that his spaghetti is too salty?” I thought to myself. By no means do I want to get things off on a bad foot. What was I to do?

Finally, without much more thought, I casually said, “This spaghetti is a bit salty.”

As I looked up at him standing by the stove, he grinned somewhat awkwardly and responded saying, “Yeah, you put a lot of salt on that.”

“Salt?” I replied, turning to the container of parmesan cheese set before me. I turned it slightly and saw, for the first time, the image of a blue whale that would be all too familiar in the future, with the titled “Baleine” and “sel” on it.

My French was terrible. I had no idea what “Baleine” was, nor did I have any idea what “Sel” was. For all I knew, it was a brand of parmesan cheese. How wrong I was.

“Ohhhh.” I said. “I thought that was parmesan cheese!” So there I sat, in a moment of awkward silence, staring at my beyond-excessively salty spaghetti.

“You don’t have to finish eating it if you don’t want to. I don’t want you getting sick.” he said.

Fortunately, we promptly laughed about the whole strange situation. As I am a terribly unobservant person, I didn’t notice the very strange look that was on his face as he watched me dump gobs and gobs of salt all over my spaghetti. He didn’t want to say anything for fear that I might freak out and scream, “Okay! So I like salt! Is that such a big deal?!”

I can’t even remember what I ate after that. Maybe it was a bowl of cereal; maybe it was just some M& Ms. I don’t think it really matters. What does matter was that we were able to have a sense of humor about things. I learned that lesson several times, and it’s one that I am definitely going to remember when I go to China. There are things that I’m not going to understand. There will be situations where I will have absolutely no idea how to act or what to do. There will be stores out there filled with products labeled in strange characters that I will be at even more of a loss to identify than I was with “Sel.” There will be stressful moments. I will need time to adjust. It may only take a week, or it may take 3 months. But having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at myself, and not taking things too seriously will definitely make a difference. So, I am quite sure I will have plenty of Cabbage Confessions of the Chinese variety to go for a while.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Chinese Confessions

(soon I will be able to post my own pictures, but for the time being, I'll just have to "borrow" some from other people)

For any of you who follow along with my cabbage confessions, you are probably well aware by now that I will be in Shanghai (and occasionally elsewhere) on August 28th through December 22nd. I've pretty much given up on any hope I may have superficially had at containing my enthusiasm about going. I've enjoyed writing my cabbage confessions so much that I am going to continue them while I am experiencing China. I'll try to keep them entertaining! However, rather than adopting yet another blogspot address for them, I will go ahead and post them here. I am justifying this, of course, by the fact that have cabbage in Chinese food, so that will be enough to keep the address for this blog relevant.

In the meantime, I have been thinking a lot about what am amazing opportunity this is going to be. I actually sat down and tried to put it into words, and I am going to include those here.

A strange feeling has come over me today. I feel more excited about future than I ever have. Last Friday night I had dinner at my Chinese teacher’s house with a bunch of her other Chinese students. While I was there, she gave me a photocopy of a couple chapters from a book about a westerner’s trip in China along a 3,100 mile long highway. These specific chapters were talking about his experience in Shanghai. I read some of it during my lunch break today. It was amazing! His descriptions were so vivid, and having studied Chinese history for the past semester and the language/culture for the past year, I could follow it very well. It’s simply breathtaking. If ever there was a perfect moment to go see Shanghai, this is that moment. It’s like seeing all of the following take place, in the same place, at the same time: the industrial revolution, New York city massive skyscraper development boom in the roaring 1920s and the massive influx of immigrants (with the only missing element being a statue of liberty), the silicon valley during the dot com boom of the 1990s, some of the most amazing architecture in the world being built right before your eyes right next to historical buildings, businesses from all over the world coming to one city to set up their operations in one of the most important cities of this century, and the vibrant, modern, cutting-edge, and ever-changing cosmopolitan life of the city. All of this is happening right now in Shanghai – home to 18 million people from all over the globe. Needless to say, if I didn’t have 55 – 60 hour work weeks and the last Harry Potter book to look forward to in 19 days, I would be going absolutely insane right now. This upcoming semester is going to be a truly amazing experience. The thought of having to wait is agonizing!

On another, but equally exciting note, I came across a fascinating article in the Bloomberg magazine today talking about careers for people in my position and age, those getting ready to graduate from college and enter the work force in the world of finance. I’ve spent the past 4 years in college trying to make all of the right moves, learn all of the most critical things for my future, and seize every worthy opportunity that presented itself – all this while working and paying for school by myself, doing art, and trying to maintain a social life. I won’t lie – I’m really satisfied and proud of what I have been able to accomplish up to this point. I have a well-developed (and constantly developing) knowledge about finance, investing, economics, and international business, along with knowledge of four languages. I have an unabashed passion for art, hard work, creativity in general, and math, and fairly impressive work experience to accompany it. I have worked like mad to get to this point, and I have had a lot of support from friends, family, and professors – and I have to give a large amount of credit to them for their encouragement and help. My main concern was about post-college life and trying to find a satisfying, rewarding, and intellectually stimulating career. In the Bloomberg article, entitled “The Graduates,” it said, “Wall Street and Silicon Valley are courting… graduates – kids with top grades, finance and math skills and a couple of languages – more heavily than any students since the days of the ‘90s dot-com explosion.”

When I read that sentence, everything clicked. Before, I had the feeling and the hope that I was doing all of the right things to have a good future. But now that I’ve read the news articles and actually seen what the Street is seeking most earnestly, I feel a profound satisfaction that my hopes are not in vain. And yes, even the amazing experience of studying in Shanghai for a semester is going to make that future that much brighter. Needless to say, I am thoroughly ecstatic and optimistic that the future will be bright. Not only will I get to do the things that I enjoy so much, but there is a major need for people who have that very ability.

I hope I don’t sound as if I am bragging or boasting. I just wanted to share my excitement about something that has me so excited.