I am here in Dalian, China, a small city of, according to friend C, 6.5 million people (from the US we'd heard 8-9 million, but really, by the time you get to that number, it's kind of splitting hairs). C and S and their daughters have been living/working here for about 2 1/4 years, and are going to be heading back to the US at the tail end of June, and so I got my visit in just under the wire.
First off, it is bloody cold here. Like, even wearing my new Patagonia down sleeping bag, plus long underwear, knee-high (faux) fur boots, Smartwool ski socks, jeans, a tank, a long-sleeved T, a calf-length sweater, fleece-lined wool mittens, an extra-long scarf twisted around my neck and face, and a hat, I was still shivering, even climbing the steep stairs of the Wall. Cold. Nose off brass monkey cold.
Inside their luxuriously posh 29th-30th-floor penthouse apartment it is, blessedly, warm. I can be quite comfortable in normal Smartwool socks, no long underwear, and the sleeping bag hanging over on the coat rack.
Anyway, C has been working hard helping Intel start up a chip plant in China, and we met her for lunch today (quite a fine soup I had), whereas S has been the Intel wife, hanging out with all the other Intel wives, and taking lessons in Mandarin, which has really paid off! I am pretty much flabbergasted by how much Mandarin S uses, and how comfortable she is in this utterly un-Western society. We shop at markets for veggies and fruit which are another flabbergasting thing: there are tons of both, and where are they coming from? There are, in fact, lots of hot houses along the peninsula between Dandong (which is about a 3-hour drive away and directly across the river from North Korea) and Dalian, which is on the tip of the peninsula. I can only assume that at least some of the masses of pears, apples, longan, bananas, pineapple, tomatoes, carrots, lettuces, onions, garlic, and dozens of other things both recognizable and not--way more than we find in US supermarkets, even the fancy ones--are grown in those hundreds of greenhouses.
Quickly, what I've done so far has been:
1. Hike some of the Great Wall at Dandong
2. Eat at a North Korean restaurant, also in Dandong, run by the children of high officials in the North Korean Government so that they can improve their Mandarin.
2a. Look, from a lounge near the top of our Dandong hotel, through a conveniently-placed telescope, to the drabness that is North Korea during the day, and the almost complete (and completely opposite of Dandong) blackness that is North Korea after sunset. We saw one van driving from NK into Dandong when we were out walking along the river, and were avidly speculative about what it might mean.
3. Go to four different offices (three of them police, one immigration), taking 2 1/2 hours, to register as a tourist staying in a private home for four days (this was three more offices than had been necessary for the last visitors).
4. Go with S to pick up cashmere sweaters that she'd had made to size (from spools of yarn!), and observed her pointing out discrepancies and requesting changes, all in Mandarin.
5. Buy a gift for my grandmother in an amazing, huge mall--a mall somewhat like the bowels of Pike Place Market but on opium and steroids--a mall reached from the street by, essentially, pushing through an unmarked, nondescript weighted plastic butcher's curtain that spills you into steamy Asian mayhem.
6. Buy yards of fabric and order shirts to be tailored for a friend back in the US, from a sample I brought with me.
6a. Eat hot pot for dinner where you get to cook everything at your table--why do we not go out for that more often at home?
6b. Have an I N T E N S E massage, where C and I were both in the same room--essentially, a couple's massage (but quite normal here, and not exclusive to couples, or even people who know each other at all)
7. Hike to a Buddhist temple, up a steep gorge peppered with pagodas, next to a frozen cataract, with two of the other Intel wives and the dog of one.
8. Eat a delicious dinner of, essentially, gyoza (I'll get the proper Chinese name later, if I remember to do so--jiao zi, says C) made by the maid of C&S (they also employ a driver, who is a really nice young man who takes really good care of us--both driving, and talking when S isn't quite sure she's made herself clear), with some Intel friends, and with fresh strawberries (!) and (my contribution) molten chocolate to dip them in for dessert.
I am SO HAPPY to be here. I keep saying it, and it keeps being true, every time I turn around. I love that I am getting to live a week in my friends' shoes (not really, as they're all MUCH smaller than mine), and that they are showing me places that they haven't been to here in their current home town. And I just love these people so much--yesterday S and I went to pick up the girls after school and after their ballet lessons, after A's, but during P's. A (who is 5) was running around playing in another dance room outside the classroom when we arrived and went to chat with other mothers; all of a sudden, the sweetest thing ever happened--there were pounding feet, then A slammed into my back and flung her arms around my waist in a huge hug. Did I mention that I am SO HAPPY to be here?
On the morrow I walk with the girls to their school bus (with S), then I have an appointment with their Chinese doctor, because my back is giving me pains after the flights and all the time in the van from Dalian to Dandong and back again. I may get some acupunture; maybe some more massage. I'm really looking forward to it. Tomorrow night I'm making us lentil soup, just like at home in Seattle.
I like my life.