Sunday, August 25, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Down the Yulong River

Vol. II, No. 6

The Yulong River in Yangshuo, China
A woman picked us up from the Guilin airport, and I breathed a sigh of relief. You don't often find women driving taxis, but when you do, they seem to be the cream of the crop, gender and ethnic stereotypes notwithstanding. At the very least, they tend to be more understanding than their male counterparts, and that's just what my husband and I needed. Our baby had decided she was no longer interested in being restrained; she was loudly and tearfully making this point particularly clear. Luckily for her, there was nothing to restrain her.

'Auntie,' as we called the driver, helped us heave our luggage into the trunk of her car, locked us in the backseat, and without further adieu, put her foot straight down to the medal. At 120km/hr, we sped out of the Guilin airport and onto the highway. The baby was still crying, and occasionally Auntie would observe her through the rearview mirror. Whenever she did this, she sped up. Without a carseat or seatbelts, and at this speed, I figured we'd either get to our destination quickly, or die trying. Forty-five minutes later, and a half hour less than it could've been, we arrived in the little town of Yangshuo.

The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, China
Yangshuo is very unusual. It's physically breathtaking, the site of such beauty that some claim it's the site of the mythical Shangri-la. Lush farmland surrounds skyscrapers of limestone peaks, called "karst." The peaks were formed over many, many years, as the bedrock washed away and the limestone stuck around. What's left is a shrunken, boutique-y version of a majestic mountain range. If you put the Himalayas in a dryer on the highest setting, out would tumble Yangshuo. Naturally, it's the rock-climbing capital of the world. Bound by the Li River and many other idyllic little tributaries, it's also a destination for thrill seekers. (Cue in some parental naiveté; details to come.)

So, in not very much time at all, the three of us arrived in Yangshuo. Auntie screeched to a halt, emptied her trunk of our contents, and sped off as quickly as she came. Our first order of business, after checking into a hotel, was to book up some adventure. We'd just spent the better part of a fortnight exploring Shanghai; now it was time for some green, some mud, and some sweat.

The raft dock waits for passengers
Our hotel was set on the banks of the Yulong River, the "Dragon" River. Standing on the northern bank of this Dragon, we observed as wiry men in straw hats navigated long, flat bamboo rafts downstream. Each raft had a couple passengers; each passenger had a giant water gun. Obviously, our decision was made; we would go Venetian rafting, Chinese style!

Upstream at the dock where dozens of rafts lay waiting for their next passenger, we hired a tanned and muscular middle-aged man who offered us two life jackets, rather than three, and waved off our requests for a water gun, as well as a third life jacket. There were other babies going on this rafting adventure, but not many. I mean, there was just one other one. And that baby was not squirming.

Uncertain yet boarding the bamboo raft
Anyway, we boarded the raft, took turns holding the baby as tightly as we could, and immediately wished we had done anything but take a squirming baby rafting. What we had thought was just a gentle cruise down the Dragon River was actually a gentle cruise peppered with the occasional rapid. Now these rapids were far from dangerous, but each time we hit one, our raft listed from side to side, just enough that we were sure we'd tip over. Our navigator, to his credit, did not allow this to happen, but he did seem to take great pleasure in assisting the raft's dramatic list to the right, and then to the left.
Straw-hatted Venetian-style Chinese rafters

Up ahead were dozens more of these rapids, and about two more hours of rafting. I had to get off. The baby had begun to cry, and I wasn't far behind.

"Here. Stop? Please?" I said.

"No," he replied. "Snakes."

We'd been warned about snakes in the surrounding farmland, but at that particular moment, I was more concerned with drowning than with snakes, so I insisted. He insisted back while manning another rapid, and eventually dropped us off on the banks of a nearby township. We'd have to make our own way back the two or three miles to our hotel, but that was just fine by us. It never felt so good to be on two feet, even if we had anguine companions. A few days later, we'd raft again, but alone, taking turns without the baby.

And herein a word about adventuring with a child. There were many times my husband and I struggled to get the balance right: the balance of giving our baby an extraordinary experience, or putting her in a potentially bad situation. As you'll discover in the coming posts, we do finally manage to strike that balance. Incredibly, an unusual iPhone app helped, as well as toning down our 冒险, our "adventure," to accommodate a little one. More to come!

- Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook. Her book is available now for pre-order on Amazon. Click here to pre-order. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Parent or Pursuit?

Vol. II, No. 5

"Ladies and Gentle-things, welcome to China Southern Airlines flight to Guilin."

It had been enough to make us smile, 'gentle-things', but not laugh. Neither of us was in the mood; we'd been up all night. Two days earlier, the baby had come down with a cold. I know: big deal. Babies get colds, and parents who write about babies getting colds should be locked up, right?

Right. So, let me make it clear that that is not what this post is about, although you're going to have to bear with me a moment while it seems like that's what this post is about.

Anyway, two days earlier, the baby came down with a cold. At first, it really was no big deal. But then, suddenly, she took a turn for the worse. She got sick in the streets where my husband spoke not a single word of Chinese, and I spoke about enough to order a parking meter for lunch. So, to our rescue came a leathery and wrinkled old woman, pulling a folded hanky out of her breast pocket to wipe the baby's face. While my husband and the old woman tended to the baby, I rushed the nearest foreign-looking woman to ask in English for the name of a hospital. The woman was French, and spoke very little English, but one look at my panicked face as I said, "Help, baby?" and she understood I needed a telephone number and some directions.

Meeting new friends in Shanghai
Armed with these, my husband and I took the baby home to our apartment in the French Concession. We didn't need the hospital just yet. Anyway, by this point, she'd calmed down. We certainly hadn't, but she had. Back at home, we canvassed our possessions to discover we'd brought very little with us from New York for emergencies. Later, there would be time to kick ourselves. For now, it was decided that I'd go shopping while my husband kept vigil over the baby as she slept.

In China, there are two types of pharmacies: Chinese and western. Chinese pharmacies sell some western medicine, but mostly Chinese medicine. Western pharmacies sell some Chinese medicine, but mostly western medicine. This time, I was not looking for an adventure; I just wanted the brands I was accustomed to.

So for the next two hours, I ran from Shanghai neighborhood to Shanghai neighborhood, asking anyone I came across where a western pharmacy might be. I ran west along Huaihai Zhonglu, north on Chongle, west again on Huashan, finally finding a Spanish-speaking woman who took me to a Chinese pharmacist who was willing to sell me local medicine, but he didn't have any Tylenol or Panadol. I was growing frantic, and I was angry with myself. But I'll get to that part in a moment.

Thanking the Spanish woman and the Chinese pharmacist, I left the shop and made my way back east, breathlessly running through the streets, stopping now and again along the way to try again to ask for directions to a western pharmacy. Finally, I found someone who knew the way.

"Yes, there is one a few kilometers from here but it closes in," the woman said as she looked at her watch, "twelve minutes."

She drew me a map, and I ran. And ran and ran. Eventually, a taxi pulled astride and I got in, explaining as best I could in Mandarin that I had a 急, an emergency, and needed to get to this address, the one I pointed to on the map. With exactly two minutes to spare, I arrived.

At the pharmacy, I explained the situation, as best I could anyway: baby, sick, emergency, need medicine, need thermometer. I probably don't need to recount the amount of effort both the pharmacist and I went to in order to translate each of these items, so I'll just tell you that it took awhile. Especially when the pharmacist carefully explained the correct dosage for the medicine I'd have to administer to the baby.

Back at home, and five hundred dollars later (slight overkill on account of guilt, which I'll get to), I checked on the baby. She was sleeping. Although she didn't need a hospital anymore, did she really need this trip, this adventure? It all seemed frivolous, despite the things I'd told myself before we'd left.

Which brings me, belatedly, to my point.

I never thought I'd have kids. I never even thought I'd get married. After leaving banking, I'd hoped to become a war correspondent. What man, I'd argued to myself, would fall in love with a female war correspondent? And what child wants that sort of woman as a mother? Before I'd met my husband, right before as a matter of fact, I'd tried to book a ticket to Kabul, Afghanistan. Back then, I'd been pretty committed to my dream, and I didn't think there was more than one path to a dream. I thought that you had to commit fully to pursuing something, or not commit at all. Sometimes I still think this. Sometimes I still wonder what would have happened if I had committed my entire life, and never fallen in love. But, I did choose love, the evidence of which was lying in a crib, waiting for me to come home to fix her.

So as we stayed awake that night and watched over the baby, I asked myself once again: how important was my dream to me? How important was adventure and travel now that I had a child? Should we turn tail and leave it behind for the safety of home? Luckily, my husband is pragmatic. He knew the baby would be fine; the medicine had already begun to work on her. But for me, the debate going on inside my head was about more than this particular trip. It was about what sort of woman I wanted to become.

My "co-pilot" and I
Once I'd become pregnant, I'd made a commitment to myself and my "co-pilot," as I'd called her before she was born, that I'd show her the world. That she and I would discover, adventure, and dream. It was my way of committing to myself while preparing for a lifetime of committing to motherhood. Would this trip to China end up making all that impossible?

As it turned out, it wouldn't. The next morning, with the baby firmly on the mend and bags stocked with emergency supplies, we boarded a flight to Guilin, bound for the countryside village of Yangshuo. Years earlier, I'd visited Yangshuo with my own mother, and it was to Yangshuo that it seemed important to return.

The plane took off, and the baby stood up on my lap, gazing at the passengers behind us. Waving to them, she laughed hysterically at her own private joke, and then fell fast asleep. So did I, only waking up hours later as we arrived.

Arriving in Yangshuo, China
"Fragrant passengers! Welcome to Guilin!" the flight attendant declared over the speaker.

Deeper into our adventure, I still wasn't sure we'd made the right decision to continue on. But I thought about some advice I'd been given from an adventurous Canadian friend with three young girls of her own: "If you want to travel with your kids, you have to commit to doing so. It'll be tough, but don't let the obstacles get you down. You have to persevere."

And so we did.

- Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Just to Communicate?

Vol. II, No. 4

These aren't my feet, but I wish they were!
I need to make a confession. Despite having left behind the world of banking and all its glitz, I still love a fine pair of shoes. Really love. I'm talking Prada heels (like these pictured at right), velcro army boots, or maybe red sequined Converse low-tops, which I wore to my wedding. So, naturally, when we arrived in Shanghai, I was either in heaven or hell, depending how you look at the circumstances of no longer being able to afford what one used to be able to afford.

So, anyway, whilst "window-shopping" one day (an idiotic term for a totally unfulfilling activity), a pair of shoes stopped me dead in my tracks. They were orange snakeskin loafers with a thick yellow fluorescent (yes! fluorescent!) gummy sole.

"How much?" I asked the saleslady.

She answered in Mandarin that they were about the equivalent of seventy-five dollars, adding, "But your feet are too big."

"I see," I said, not really seeing at all, and not appreciating her directness, but thrilled with the price. After all, I wear an American size 8, which is not exactly dainty, nor the opposite.

And here's where things got funny - for the rest of the day.

"Will bigger shoes arrive at your store in another shipment?" I asked, painstakingly translating individual word by individual word, using an app on my iPhone to trace Chinese characters onto a screen. But the saleslady just laughed at me; she'd understand none of the gibberish I'd spoken. Then she had an idea.

"Speak into my phone. I also have an app," she instructed. So I did, speaking into her phone slowly and clearly, asking again when the big shoes might arrive. It was a surreal moment, communicating with someone using two different languages, and two pieces of electronics, neither of us looking at each other, but instead at our phones.

"When will the last farm soften?" the app repeated back to us, and we both gave up, me in fits of laughter, the saleslady bewildered. I left behind the shop and my orange fluorescent shoes.

Later that afternoon, my husband and I ventured into downtown Shanghai for lunch. As you can
Seeking a restaurant in Shanghai
probably imagine, there was no shortage of restaurants in this bustling Chinese metropolis. But it was lunchtime, and there was definitely a shortage of seats. So we chose the only restaurant we could find that had a spare table, and I set about ordering for us.

"Please, I want to order a small parking meter for the baby," I said to the waiter. I'd tried to order a small bowl of rice, but I'd somehow managed to, well, not. Eventually, of course, I got my bowl of rice. Not many people successfully order small parking meters at Chinese restaurants.

Finally, the baby gets her rice

Of course, this probably all seems comical, and it was. Mostly. But by this time, we'd been in China for a week or so, and I was no clearer communicating than when we'd first arrived. I've studied Mandarin for a year, and I work for Sinovision, a Chinese television station. Could I really not order a bowl of rice?

It began to rain, hard, and we found our way to the underground, stepping over and into enormous puddles, drenching all three of us in the process. Back at home in the French Concession, I opened up my Chinese app and studied a few more characters, waiting for the rain to let up. Once it did, the glitter of the sparkling city had wilted, and in its place was a soggy, dripping early dusk that breathed a chilly wind that felt more like October than summer.

I went for a walk, admiring the eclectic fashion sense of, and I mean this, absolutely everyone. Fishnet stockings paired with a jersey singlet, funky haircuts shorn on a bias, someone wearing an army jacket with epaulets of lace. I stopped into a Japanese restaurant to pick up some take-out dinner. It was crowded. The line behind me was impatient. I tried to order udon, first in Mandarin, then in the five Japanese words that I remember from having lived in Tokyo. The counter chef only shrugged his shoulders. People behind me, even the ever-polite Japanese, were getting impatient. And I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'll tell you anyway: I started to cry.
Exploring the Bund in Shanghai

Biting my lip really, really hard, I pointed to some noodles, and put up two fingers. I paid my bill, hurried out the door, and cried in the rain that had begun again. This was ridiculous, I know, but everyone has ridiculous moments like these when traveling to a place you can't communicate effortlessly.

To comfort myself, I stopped into Mr Donut for a cruller. Nothing says comfort food like the cruller.

"Sir?" the guy behind the donut counter said to me. "Sir, are you okay?"

And that was all it took, being called 'Sir,' by someone trying his best to communicate on his turf in my language, to force me to get over myself.

Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow on Twitter and on her Facebook page.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Noodle Boy

At four o'clock in the morning in Shanghai, I was still wide-eyed. All three of us were. I gave up on sleep, and pulled two mugs from the cabinet. Instead of coffee, I filled them with red wine. When it comes to jet-lag, I'll do pretty much anything to get over it as quickly as possible. End to end, we sat on the sofa in our Airbnb apartment in the French Concession, sipping mugs of red wine.

Jet-lagged in Shanghai
"We did it. Can you believe it? We did it," I said, still kind of disbelieving the whole thing myself.

We were gone. We'd left our New York home, my home anyway, we'd left our jobs, we'd left our friends. We'd left behind a life, a livelihood.

My husband smiled and nodded in agreement. He'd wanted to do this for so long. I hadn't been so sure. What would come of all this?

The French Concession is a jungle of low-lying buildings, a warren of tiny streets nestled into more and tinier streets. Restaurants are tucked into basements; kitchen sinks are outside on the alleyways and shared by neighbors. It's a place where dawn creeps up on you. My husband and the baby went back to bed. The wine had worked for him, not for me. I stood at the open window, inhaling the smell of a city summer morning, and watched as Shanghai came to life.

Our apartment was on the second floor, and in between our building and the neighbor's were just a few feet and an alley. You could almost stretch your arms wide and touch both buildings with your fingertips. Across this little alley, I could see directly into my neighbor's apartment, a window into her morning routine. Rubbing her eyes, tousling her hair, she stretched and put the kettle on, and then stirred something in a pot. When she raised her arms to stretch, I noticed her t-shirt read, in all capitals: "New York City."

Dawn in the French Concession
The sun rose, peeking in only at angles that the neighboring buildings would allow. Outside, it grew noisy. Cyclists maneuvered through the warren of streets, jingling their bike bells as they went. A boy brushed his teeth in one of the outdoor sinks; a chatty pair of women prepared breakfast in another. Cutlery clinked, and old men spit vociferously. It was time to get up.

Later that day, we met The Noodle Boy. The Noodle Boy, whose name I never got, couldn't write his name for me because he couldn't write, at least that's what I gathered from our conversation of limited Mandarin and excessive gesturing. But what I did manage to discover about Noodle Boy is that he's Uyghur, one of a small minority of central Asians who's come to the big city of Shanghai to follow, possibly, a dream. Whether his path was born of necessity or dreams, I don't know and probably never will. But what I did learn was that Noodle Boy was very young to be running a noodle restaurant, yet very talented at just that.

"I am Muslim!" Noodle Boy said in English, by way of introducing himself in a word common to both of us. Relieved that we finally understood each other, he hugged me and asked me in Mandarin what I wanted to eat.

"Noodles," I said. "Your best noodles."

And Noodle Boy went straight to work.

Noodle shop in the French Concession

He mixed, kneaded, tossed, twirled, and spun, finally stripping out long strands of homemade spaghetti to throw into an outdoor pot of boiling water. In the back, an old woman, maybe his mother, fried an egg and sauteed fresh tomatoes. Into the pot all of it went. Out of the pot came "tomato egg noodle," which Noodle Boy assured me was his best. It was.

It's often said that everyone you meet, you meet for a reason. Who knows why we bump into someone, or why they become memorable to us. Who knows what chance meeting will forever change the course of our lives. Some forks in the road will lead to love, others to loss. Some to farewells, others to new beginnings. For the simple reason of pursuit, Noodle Boy is memorable to me. Just a teenager (so I'd gathered), he'd come a long way to pursue something. And I presume he'd left behind quite a lot to do just that.

-Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook