Thursday, September 18, 2008

Broken eggs

My newest goal: Bringing eggs home (in a clear plastic bag) from the wet market a mile away without breaking a single egg.

I manage to break an egg every single time, whether I walk or use my bike.
I buy my fruits and vegetables at this market of little booths--including one egg booth, so I have a pretty decent load to carry. I always put the eggs on top.

We don't own a car and won't buy one while we are living in China. (Lots of reasons for this.)
So we walk or use the bus or taxis. (I could take a taxi home--it would only cost $1, but it really isn't far.)

Maybe I should order one of those backpacking plastic eggholders.

Eggs and how I buy them.

I choose out eggs from a good sized crate full of eggs. I choose from the crate of normal chicken eggs. Then I hold them over a light--Hm--explaining time here. There is a flat horizontal board in the front of the egg booth (at first I assumed it was part of the structure of the tilted table) and egg sized holes are cut out. I flip a switch, turn on a light bulb and check each egg--I'm not sure for what I'm checking and perhaps I don't want to know, but I see other people doing this and I assume if it looks wrong on the inside, it is a bad egg. (I wonder if I'll see (recognize) a bad egg while I'm here)
I place each egg in a plastic netted basket-about 8 inches in diameter. After I hand the plastic basket to the lady, she gently places the egg in a thin bag--like the ones in the veggie section at the store and weighs them. I look at the scale to see how much it costs, because even though I can count in Chinese, it can be hard to understand what they are saying. And I pay. It costs about $1 for 8 eggs.

After I get home, and throw away the egg I broke, I wash the eggs--I always suds them up before I put them away--because, well trust me, they need to be washed.

Trivia--eggs are not refrigerated in most countries.

Today has the worst pollution I've seen here so far. The high humidity makes the large particulates extremely visible: brown-gray, essence of fog, visibility --about 200 meters because I can see (through the haze) the neighboring building and can (kind of) see a silhouette of a skycraper across the way. My eyes feel gritty just biking to and from the market.

It is intriguing how our diet changes so much from one country to the next. In Iceland eggs were extremely expensive and it was a special treat if I made scrambled eggs. (Powdered eggs from the states were cheaper than fresh eggs.) Here, eggs are one of the cheapest food products available.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moon Festival

Happy Moon Festival.
This evening is the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. This important holiday is also called the Lantern Festival. We ate mooncakes. We got together with friends, ate, and watched the brilliant, full harvest moon.

Here are some of my kids with their lanterns (not lit--I'm not brave enough to use candles inside fabric lanterns) and masks which they received at a spectacular event ("Mid-Autumn Festival Reception of Chinese Traditional Operas" organized by the government of Guangdong Province) we attended a few nights ago.

This is as close as I'll come to posting photos of my family online.
I have no idea why they received masks in their gift bags, because I don't think it is part of the celebration. But perhaps it is.

Step outside tonight and look at your moon. I hope your autumn moon is as bright as ours.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Noticing Details

New places are an opportunity to see fascinating details. But it takes time to see the details.

Each of us notices different details because of our life experiences and who we are. Same with our characters.

I receive a huge onslaught on my senses the first day, (and the first week) when I enter a foreign country. I mostly notice big things, with a few small details that catch my eye. As I adjust I notice more details. My first day here in China--through the mental haze of jetlag--I noticed things like all the green and flowers; some cool architecture in some old, sagging brick buildings towered over by skyscrapers; the cars and taxis zipping in out of traffic--normal big city traffic. I noticed the river we crossed and the yellow apartment building. (Why are we always in a yellow house or building?) I noticed the huge empty feel of an empty apartment, void of everything except basic furniture.

Now I notice different details: things like the pollen falling from the palm trees; a tree with vines growing downward out of the limbs whose vine tips are a lighter color, and if they find soil they will become roots and eventually trees; the gardeners dipping small buckets hanging off 4 foot long poles into water in a wheelbarrow lined with plastic to water hanging plants; the men walking on hanging scaffolding under the bridge--doing repairs; the narrow passageways in some of the markets with the uneven, ancient stone and dirt walkways; the cage-like metal bars around apartment building decks; the laundry hanging outside of windows--inside these cages; green onion cookies (!); bamboo scaffolding that climbs up and up tall skyscrapers.

Photo is of a narrow street in downtown Guangzhou, near Shamian Island. I didn't get a photo of the passageways--but in them I felt like I stepped back 1000 years in time.

The characters in my WIP are entering a new environment. They will notice more details, just as I notice more, as they grow accustomed to a new place. I’m trying to capture the essence of a new place and a new experience. They’ll notice more and more details and understand more of the language with each chapter. The trick is to make their experience feel authentic to my readers.

I love looking for details. Sometimes I wander with my camera and take photos so I can remember things when I'm bombarded by too many details.

Are there any books which use details extremely well? Do you have any favorite books that show characters becoming familiar with an unfamiliar place?

I think details noticed are an essential part of the character voice. Books with a strong voice, tend to have a character who sees details in a way unique to that character and this flavors the entire story.

(Note--I can only see and reply to my blogger. I don't have access to the LJ feed, so if you have a comment please come to or send me an email.)

Lost in a taxi

There are different types of lost. Sometimes we don't know where we are. And other times we don't know where we are going. I think the worst type of lost is when we have no clue we are lost.

Last night we took a taxi to my older kids' school. It was a back-to-school night where we rush around and listen to all the teachers talk for ten minutes or so. In our case it meant three school schedules (3 kids on this campus) and two parents, so we planned to skip some classes. (Isn't this every kids dream--skip the classes they don't want to attend.)

How did we get lost? The school is in a new area of the city, 45 minutes away. (Guangzhou has about 8-9 million people, so it is a big city.) We drove with some other parents so we could split the fare.

They told the driver where to go--since they speak Chinese. We drove and drove. It is a long way and for a long time the route looked familiar, but then it didn't. The driver slowed down, rolled down his window and while driving at the pace of a bicyclist he asked where Science Park (the technology park where the school is at) is. We wandered more. He asked some people standing under an overpass. We started making phone calls. Of course he didn't have a map and the standard map doesn't go out this far. And we'd left the one decent map at home. He rolled down his window and talked to another driver while we waited at an intersection. We circled some more and he asked more people. The taxi driver was at least in the right section of town, but had no idea where he was or where to go. The 15th or maybe 20th person he asked (in another 30 minutes of driving) knew where Science Park is. We arrived 30 minutes late after 1 1/2 hours in the taxi. At least taxis are cheap here and he didn't charge the full fare which would have been about $20. It should have cost $10--if he'd driven there correctly.

The other couple we went with had arranged for a ride home earlier in the day, since taxi drivers tend to get lost and can't find the school. (This happened to me last time I was at the school. It took me 45 minutes to get a driver--the guards at the entrance called and it took them several calls to get a driver who knew where the school was.)

The funny thing--I wasn't stressed. Five years ago I would have been super stressed. I figured the worst thing would be missing the evening. (I am stressed about other things--like the MFA packet I'm sending to Margaret next week.)

I sometimes get lost when I write. It doesn't stress me like it used to. I know that sometimes a character needs to wander and find out where she is going. I'll revise out the wanderings later. Other times I don't know where I am in the story and that can mean stepping back and looking at the plot, getting to know my characters better and if I'm really lost, asking my writing friends for directions.

We need to be brave and explore our stories and our neighborhoods. And when we get lost--for we will get lost--remember that all will end well. After all, getting lost is part of living.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Not giving up

Persistence is necessary in both writing and in living in a new country.
Not giving up when things don't go the way we expect. Trying again and again and again. Sometimes trying a different approach.

Living in a new place means trying and sometimes failing. Learning the language. Or enough language for survival. Learning to navigate the streets and discovering where to shop. Not finding what one wants, and searching, knowing the product is somewhere.

Recently, we've been searching for a music store where I could buy a piano. (Our piano was destroyed in the Finland to Iceland move.) I'd love to buy another top quality upright, but with all our moving we wanted a good electronic piano.

We asked people where music stores are and got a vague answer--but enough of an answer to make it worth the hunt. A week ago we went searching for the music store. We went to the mall where it was supposed to be and walked through the most upscale mall here. (Think fancy NYC shopping mixed with the Orient. I saw all the expensive labels I'd only heard of before, plus fancy dried, packaged caterpillars and tea rooms.)

We tried again this past Saturday.
This is what we found as we wandered near a metro stop through winding narrow passages in an underground mall filled with tiny shops no larger than 5 feet by 8 feet.

A Moomin shop! I had to take a photo. For those who have never heard of Moomins, they are all over Finland, made popular by the childrens books by Tove Jansson and are translated into many languages. There is a Moomin shop in Helsinki. Moomins are about the last thing I expected to find in China.

And then we walked across the street.
We entered a modern mall. The mall is similar to what one would find a a big city in the US--seven or eight stories tall, with everything from electronics to clothing to furniture to books to a grocery store.
I've never seen the slanted moving sidewalks (like in airports, but steeply tilted) in the US, but they are in every mall overseas I've been in. The grocery carts have special stops on the wheels so the carts won't roll away while on these sidewalks.

We wandered around a couple blocks in each direction, hoping to find the music store.
We saw this entrance to a park.

Lots and lots of people, but no one to ask.
No one speaks English.

We flagged a taxi and headed home.
We'd ask again, another person.
We would try again.
Another day.

But on our way back we saw a music store.
"Ting. Ting," (stop) we tell the driver.
We climb out, hoping there are pianos in the store.

Tons of pianos and all types of instruments, just like in a US music store. And luck was with us. A university student who speaks English works in the store on Saturdays ! :)

I took photos of some cool traditional Chinese instruments.

I could have looked longer at the guzheng. They are beautiful. Carvings, inlays, fine workmanship. They've been played for over 2000 years. They sound awesome.

Here are some pipas, essentially a type of lute. The next photo is of Chinese flutes.

After looking at everything in the store (music stores are as much fun as book stores) I chose a piano.
I had eyed the wooden pianos, sorely tempted. But we ended up buying a Yamaha--a super nice one--with a full size keyboard, weighted keys, touch sensitive, great tone. Not the same as my old piano--a great upright with amazing sound and wonderful response to my touch--but extremely nice for an electronic model, as nice as they come.

The interesting thing, in writing as well as in life, thwarted expectations and being forced to explore paths we didn't first see gives new experiences to us and the characters in our stories.

Next Saturday--back to the music store.
I'm going to buy a guzheng and schedule lessons.