Sunday, March 1, 2015

How to Impress Your Beloved’s Asian Mom

This is a requested follow-up to my Valentine’s day post.  I had several friends comment on how they have been affected by what I call the Gen0 (immigrant) or Gen1 Chinese-American upbringing of “Study study study, no, no…Yale, Harvard, Princeton” then entering college, followed immediately by, “Where is husband?”.  Several of the more confused of those “affected” individuals are the current boyfriends or suitors of the Chinese-American women.  These individuals seem baffled by the Stockholm-syndrome-like relationships many young, unmarried Chinese-American women have with their seemingly harshly worded, scrutinizing, and all-self-sacrificing mothers.  As promised, here’s my best take on some observations and advice.  For those men trying to put a ring on it but finding the potential future mother-in-law to be unwoo-able, commit this to memory.  There’ll be a quiz later.  And remember, anything below an A- is basically failing.

  1. Babies, babies, babies.  There is nothing more that a Chinese-American mom wants for her daughter than babies.  You should express your absolute desire and unconditional support for 1-3 children, especially if your beloved is 28 or older.  (1) will greatly mitigate the need of (2)-(10) on this list and scales according to age and your beloved’s enthusiasm for children: the higher the age, or the lower your partner’s enthusiasm, the more you should weight (1).  
  2. Insurance policies: Health insurance, car insurance, home insurance, renter’s insurance, flooding insurance, earthquake insurance, tornado insurance, sandstorm insurance.  Be prepared for a high level of risk aversion from your partner’s mom and address it head-on, “Yes, roof came off during a heavy rain?  We’ve got insurance for that.  Chance of robbery?  We’ve got insurance for that.  In fact, we’ve got insurance on the insurance policies.”
  3. Discuss your savings plan for your non-existent children’s college tuition.  Discuss how you’ve done the research on your local town for average SAT scores and entries into the top 10.   Have contingency plans for moving if the schools are not up to par, and buy your home based on the education system.  This conversation is appropriate during any setting, at any time.
  4. Unquestioning, completely faithful eating.  Ever done the trust fall?  Be prepared to do so at the dinner table once your beloved’s mother prepares food.  Try everything.  Pick a few that you really enjoy and dig in.  Don’t know what’s in that stir-fry?  Not sure which animal (or animal part you’re eating)?  Push all questioning thoughts out of your mind, pick up your chopsticks, and make sure to compliment the chef.
  5. Show a fascination with the Chinese language, but butcher it completely.  There is nothing more adorable than the foreign guy in the room innocently missing the pin yin so that he ends up saying, “Your horse is very beautiful” instead of “Your mother is very beautiful”.
  6. If your beloved’s father sits you down at dinner and says, “The man is the head of the body.  He must be in control of his household,” and your beloved’s mother turns to scream with anger, “But the neck controls the head!” change the subject and discuss education systems for your non-existent children.
  7. Discuss your willingness and excitement to travel back to the motherland once a year.
  8. Research what hot, new item is the Chinese obsession but designed and invented in the U.S. (for the past few years, this means most Apple products).
  9. Show your absolutely attentiveness to the health of your beloved’s grandparents.  If her grandparents are living with them, walk them down the stairs.  Pull out their chair for them at the dinner table.  Make hot tea and serve it.  Fuss over their health, and don’t let them drink cold water.
  10. Express your indignation and confusion over the big fuss on this article.

In the end, keep in mind that your beloved’s mother is a big part of her life.  The relationship between mother and daughter is a mixture between teacher and student, caretaker and child, disciplinarian and disciplined.  Most importantly of all, Chinese mothers want to know her daughter is being treated with kindness, care, and respect.  If you can properly show that, feel free to toss everything above out.

Okay, got it all?  Have I missed anything?  If so, please respond below in the comments sections!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Story of the Sausage (Part II): Agent Hunting, Agent Judging, and will “Mr. Fan” please raise your hand?

As I posted in this previous blog piece, I’ve been flirting with sending my manuscript out to a number of literary agents after the fulfilling journey of writing.  I’ve been told this process can be seemingly opaque, difficult, and riddled with punches to the face. The last thing a writer wants to learn is that when all the writing is done, it's time to put on the marketing hat. While I’ve received helpful and interesting feedback from some agents, I recently received the following response:

Dear Mr. Fan,
Many thanks for contacting me about your work. After consideration, I regret to say that your project is not right for my list at this time.
As you know, any reader’s response to a particular book is highly subjective and it is entirely possible that another literary agent might find that your work more closely aligns with their interests.
Please accept my best wishes as you continue your search for representation.
Best regards,

Now, I know my name, “Pan Pan Fan”, is gender-neutral and therefore gender confusing, but being called “Mr. Fan” is what I’d experienced mostly in the business world.  There, during my day (and sometimes weekend) job, I’m often addressed with “Mr.” when I’m first contacted by someone external (who is clearly taking a bet that a Director in Business Development in a tech job in Silicon Valley must safely be a man).  At this, I scoff as the internet age has made these assumptions wholly unacceptable.  A quick search through Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook would lead the searcher of “Pan Pan Fan” to a round-faced, long-haired and (probably) smiling Asian woman.  

What was more irritating, however, in this situation with the agent was that in the whole four paragraphs of my query (pitch, theme, marketing, and bio), I clearly identified myself as a woman.  So this leads me to some assumptions and conclusions based on his assumption:
  • He didn’t bother to read anything,
  • He fired back a quick response after scouring the first sentence for any indication that I brought with me a market of several million blog followers (and found none),
  • He assumed a novel written about famine and mysterious corporate murder using a male protagonist must clearly be written by a man,
  • He has terrible attention to detail, or
  • He just can’t read.

The first time I was addressed as “Mr. Fan” in an email related to work, I was sympathetic.  “Oh dear,” I thought, “our Japanese customers will be so embarrassed when they find out how high my voice is!”  Now, after countless mis-addresses, I just use this as a filter for tossing out resumes (“Dear Mr. Fan, Please find enclosed my resume for the job posting…” - um, delete.) and an assessment on attention to detail.  Maybe Sheryl Sandberg has something witty to reply to my agent email, like, “Lean in to your email, bro, and stop making an a** of yourself and your agency.”
* * * * *

Do you have a story of your own that’s similar?  Post in the comments section below!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine’s Day Special: Dating an Engineer & Dating for Ambitious Women

Part 1: Dating an Engineer

Nearly 3 years ago, I moved from London to the world’s tech center for a job and to escape the rain.  Silicon Valley is everything the stereotypes make of it: start-ups originating from someone’s conversation late one night on the couch, horror stories of failed pitches to venture capitalists, and even crazier stories of companies that had made it.  Of course, one of the most notable features of the Valley is the high ratio of Engineer:Non-Engineer.  The place is seething with engineers.  You can’t escape from it.  Even on 4 hour bike rides that carried me to what would seem like the countryside (say, Half-moon Bay or Pescadero), I often heard conversations like this one at the local coffee shop in a town of 3,000 people:

“A ram access takes 60 nanoseconds, and I don’t have that kind of time!”, or
“I have to load up those ring buffers and flush them…”, or
“Kernel networking is no joke.”

Now, as a woman in my late-twenties, I thought I’d move to the Valley for my career.  Having been romantically unsuccessful in previous cities that have been noted for their plethora of young, single adults  (ahem, London, New York City), the last thing I thought I’d find was a relationship in a place that inspired this movie about a guy who falls in love with his computer.  This is why when I found myself - three weeks after having moved to California - on a date with an eccentric, lovable software engineer and his 3 male friends playing Street Fighter II (he had double-booked seeing me with “video arcade day”), I couldn’t help but appreciate the zany irony life decided to throw at me.

Two and a half years later, I will share with you all the following tips from what I’ve learned after dating an engineer:
  1. Say exactly what you mean.  Now, I know plenty of male friends who would argue this relates to all men, but I would argue that you need to be especially precise with engineers.  Here’s a joke I often refer to: A wife sends her engineering husband to the store and says, “Get a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, get six.”  The engineer comes home with 6 gallons of milk to a surprised wife who says, “What have you done?”  He replies, “There were eggs.” 
  2. Context switching can be especially challenging in conversations.  I’ve nearly pushed my boyfriend into panic attacks with conversations when I move from the weather to the car to work to my friend Suzie and back to the weather again. 
  3. Romantic ideas or events - such as dates - will require some additional guidance and clarity.  In my relationship, I’ve learned it’s not because he doesn’t care.  Most times, it’s because he is caught up trying to sort out all the details, and of course, perfecting them.  In addition, if you’re like me and enjoy surprises, you’ll have to get over the fact that you need to be explicit about it (see Tip 1)
  4. Where there's boys’ nights, there will be tech talk.  There’s actually no way to get around this one, so you’re on own here.
  5. Consistency is key.  One of my male friends is constantly confused about the “mixed” messages women he dates give to him.  When I asked him to give some examples he said: “Well, one moment she says she wants to spend more time together, and then next moment she says, ‘It seems like you want more time alone, so it’s up to you!’  Well, what does she want?! Yes or no?” To which I replied, “That’s obviously a trap, and the answer is always ‘It depends’."
  6. Be careful of what you ask, as the answer might be brutal.  Most engineers I’ve met have to be very precise in their professional lives, and that carries into their personal lives.  Luckily, having been together for a long while now, my boyfriend can usually tell when the question is rhetorical and the expected answer is comfort versus a real opinion.  For example, one of our recent conversations: “Have I been high maintenance lately?” I asked one evening after a particularly stressful day at work.  I looked to him, and I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.  He deliberated for some seconds.  Then, suddenly, he pushed his face close to mine, squinted one eye and stared me down and replied, “It’s a trap!  It’s a trap!”
  7. Behind all the technical discussions, facts, intellectual chat, there’s probably a shy, lovely person who doesn’t quite know how to “shoot the shit”.  Be patient, and you’ll probably be surprised at the fun eccentricities and quirks and, in turn, really learn to love them in your relationship.

Part 2: Dating Experience - from One Ambitious Gal to Another
I grew up in a stereotypical Chinese-American household with a step-cousin and step-sister of similar age to me.  When we were teenagers, none of us were allowed to date because we were expected to focus on our schoolwork and extracurricular activities.  Dating was secondary, and it was also considered a needless distraction from our “priorities”.   We each took our family's advice seriously and put our heads in the sand, worked really hard, and ended up doing fairly well academically.  Then suddenly, when we came back from our respective colleges during a family holiday, we were faced with prying questions of:
"Why no boyfriend?”
“Where is boyfriend?”
“Why you bring female friend home?  Why no boy?  Next year, we want to see boyfriend.”  
Suddenly, after spending 18+ years prioritizing work and education, we were expected to find a boyfriend just like that. To make matters worse, it wasn’t as if the pressures and challenges of remaining a career-driven woman were excused.  So as you can imagine, all three young ladies of the Cheng-Ding household grew up to be fairly independent, highly driven, Type-A ambitious women for whom dating was a slightly nebulous and confusing new territory (and should be saved for later stories).

Since our early twenties, we’ve each learned quite a bit from our romantic adventures, but this leads me to the next set of advice: Dating for Ambitious Women.
  1. Finding a partner is not like climbing the career ladder, getting a degree, or completing an Ironman.  It just isn’t.  There’s no linear path, and there’s no real way you can control your surroundings. You don’t get to succeed by working really hard at it.  Sorry to say, but dating is uncontrollable, oftentimes irrational, and definitely not a reflection of your success or worth.
  2. Avoid the null set.  I’ve heard friends say the equivalence of the following when describing their ideal partner: “Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, traveled the world, really successful in his career, wants children, willing to be a stay-at-home dad, wealthy, kind, and romantic.”  I’m really sorry to say, but you’ve just described the null-set to me.  No one like this exists, and finding someone who doesn’t fit all those builds isn’t “settling”, it’s being realistic.  Pick a few top priorities (a few, not half a dozen) and ignore the rest.  
  3. Learn to let go.  This one reminds me a little of (1).  When I was younger, I often achieved things people said were impossible for me by sheer stubbornness.  I applied the same fervor and ambition toward certain relationships that just didn’t work, and one day, I realized that banging my head against a brick wall wasn’t going to move it an inch.  
  4. Smart men like smart women.  Period.  Throughout the past 10 years, I’ve heard countless times (and have even been a perpetrator) that men don’t like smart women.  I simply disagree based on fact alone.  I would say most of my male friends here in the Bay Area are insanely proud that their girlfriends are “smart and successful”.  If your relationship falls apart because of your success, don’t put it on yourself and say, “It was because he was intimidated.”  No, it was more likely he is a moron.
  1. What relaxes you after a hard day?  Find that in a partner.  Before I had more dating experience, I thought I wanted a partner that could keep pace with me.  But the reality is, I needed someone who admires and enjoys my pace of life but could at the same time support me.  This meant slowing things down.  Keeping things calm.  Weathering the stress and not being worked up with it.
  1. Learning to be vulnerable grows relationships.  Vulnerability is hard for everyone.  But, if you’ve gotten to where you are in life from playing the “tough gal” role, being vulnerable can seem like a flaw.  What I’ve learned over time, though, is that you’ve got to ask for help and let other people take care of you.  Otherwise, it’s not a genuine relationship.
  1. Stop looking at the next step, and start enjoying your relationship today.  I’ve always had a hard time getting to point B without trying to figure out where point C will be.  Relationships, however, really test this tendency.  In dating, maybe there is the next step; maybe there isn’t, but if you keep thinking of “what next?” you might miss big clues that are right in front of you.  

Now, go out there and enjoy the beautiful day with friends, family, or your loved one.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Story of the Sausage (Part 1)

Few people want to know how the sausage is made. But for those of us who are crazy enough to get into this business of sausage-making, it’s nice to know that there’s others just as crazy as we are.

To you, I write.
* * * * *

Recipe Step One: Observe and Synthesize; Taste Everything, Spit Nothing Out

As some of you may know, I’ve been slowly chipping away at writing a novel. This past winter, I finally reached a draft that I felt comfortable sharing with others. Since conception to manuscript sharing, exactly 4.5 years have passed, but if you were to ask me how long I’ve really been working at it, I’d say (as so many cliched love stories begin) I’ve been wanting to write this novel for as long as I can remember.

My first attempt of novel writing happened when I was eleven years old. I wanted to write a story about a young girl preparing for a piano competition and reconciling her childhood with her parent’s expectations of her. I wrote the first chapter and then never picked it up again. My second attempt was sometime in college, and all I had were four characters and some vague idea of how those characters’ love lives would intersect with understanding their pasts. It never moved past a few notes scribbled in a notebook. Then, sometime when I was living in New York City as a young professional who hated my job, I wanted to find a way to synthesize and process the information overload that was happening on a daily basis (well explained by this NYTimes article). I came up with this first scene somewhere on 54th Street and 3rd Avenue:

A young man in a large city is waking up on a sunny morning. He lies in bed with his eyes open in his large bedroom apartment surrounded by tall windows, where he’s baked hot from the sun. Then suddenly he pulls open the drawer of his bedside dresser, picks up a loaded gun, and puts it in his mouth. A moment of deliberation passes, and the young man takes the gun from his mouth, puts it back in his dresser, gets dressed and walks out his apartment door.

125,000 words later working off that first image, it’s unclear to me where the idea came from. But, in hindsight I imagine it was looking up at all those tall buildings with big windows and wondering what the people were doing inside. That’s how it began: a simple question which led to a premise, which led to a problem, which led to an entire world that unraveled in my head which I desperately wanted to dump onto paper. All around me, there was so much excitement and life, and I wanted to lose none of it. The conversations I heard snippets of, the love stories, the interaction between human and human, human and surrounding...I stood on the shores of a world of information which crashed onto my eyes and ears, and I could not help but want to describe it all to someone else, to confirm it happened, it’s happening, all around us and everywhere, the world is moving. The world is moving.

And in years later, to look back and when the memory is impossible to draw upon, to look at the hints of little words on paper and say, “Yes, I remember when the world moved that way.”

It was in that way of having the ideas swirling and mixing - without my control - bursting over and prying into other activities that I could not help but begin the story. It’s not clear who the master is: the writer or the story. I’ve heard accounts of both happening to people, but in my case, it was a constant battle of self-control; teasing those images into words; placing the words into a coherent story; and finally, putting the eyes onto the dragon (so they say), to try and bring it to life.

* * * * *
Recipe Step Two: Put in a Pot and Boil; Strain; Find New Ingredients if Necessary

A good friend once asked me why I was so determined to finish this story. It was cutting into all my weekends and empty hours late at night before sleep. I was giving up other hobbies and time with friends to work on this thing with no clear outcome, and worst of all, it was borderline narcissistic (“Sorry guys, gotta spend the weekend alone.”; “Can’t make it out this time, have stuff to do.”; “Do you think this works in the story, does that, what are your impressions?”). At the time, I couldn’t find a rational reason to give her, so I used the following analogy which still stands: for me, finishing this novel was kind of like an overdue pregnancy (I imagine). It was getting uncomfortable, and I needed to get it out.

The reason was that simple.

But the process was not.

It’s one thing for observation and the story to take on a life of its own, but it’s another for the process to as well. In hindsight, I had very little control over the process other than making sure I sat at my desk 2 hours a night, working on it regardless of what my state of mind was. There were good days of productive storytelling when I felt elated and satisfied. I felt powerful and in control of my own narrative. There were other days it felt as if the whole thing were a waste, that nothing had a clear purpose and I was recklessly throwing hours down the drain (“I could have done this instead, done that, seen her, talked to him”).

What I learned was that observation and synthesis had been the easier part of the two. To observe, you just have to stay quiet, find the stillness, and allow the experiences to dive into and out of you like pouring water into a sponge and then squeezing it out. On the other hand, writing, making the connection between the senses and the brain and painting it onto paper through a finite number of words that could be arranged in a finite number of ways to describe all of those indescribable things is impossible to do perfectly. So ironically as a writer, you live constantly with the nagging feeling of being inarticulate, of missing just that many words from your vocabulary, of never quite reaching the height of the real experience. If someone hasn’t said it yet, I’ll say it now: writing a novel is a Sisyphean task.

And yet...and yet...

I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in 2012 in about 5 months. It was the first real window of time I had, and I sat down painstakingly and did it without shame or a care of who might read it. I just wrote everything that came to mind; wrote it without reading it the next day, plunging the plot forward without looking back, jumped recklessly into the pages about Henry’s Smith’s life like I had nothing else to lose and I was being chased at the same time. 120,000 words later, it was all out there, and I wanted nothing else but to keep it hidden. I was even too embarrassed to read it through when I was done. I remember that moment exactly, sitting in my parent’s house in Connecticut, putting the final sentence on the page, and then running up to my old childhood bedroom and sitting there for a long time on the carpet whispering: “It’s finished.” I said, “It’s finished.” Then I walked back downstairs, told my parents of my new career plans (“I’d like to go back to London and then to California”), and it was like that, anticlimactic, forgotten, moved on.

But it came back. I tried opening it in 2013 but was discouraged at how poorly I felt it was written and could not face myself. Oh, the cliches! The poor characterization! The over-dramatization...and something was missing. Something was missing, and the smell that permeated from the pages was fear.

The past is sometimes an ugly thing, even if the past happened before you were born. I had always known that the past lives on through generations for we inherit time that’s not reconciled. “Of course,” I realized, “I was meant to make this about something that I had not wanted to write about directly.” Where is this land that you come from, try to understand, connect the pieces of the distant stories?

China. China was the missing piece.

I had convinced myself that I could write a story that captured my present observations by ignoring the past which clung to me in the same way the empty fear clung to the pages of the first manuscript draft. And so, it was time to revisit it again. Made stronger by the knowledge the first draft could be done, I began writing again. 

The second draft is really a beginning, and if you asked me, the second draft is the most painful: you see the mistakes you made, come to terms with the shortcomings of your own writing, and own those problems with the dreadful understanding you must improve. I went in with a meat cleaver, and having had the distance from it, I was happy to carve out the little bit that was still useful and begin all over again, slowly, painstakingly, patiently. What kept me going was that I knew I was getting better, and the writing was one small step closer to representing what I had wanted it to be - that ethereal moment when the idea comes (wordlessly) as the representation of experience.

It took 8 months of painful self-criticism and honesty. But like anything else, we can’t improve without accepting our weaknesses. We’ve all got to start from some place, and starting from a place that needs improvement isn’t a bad idea.

In hindsight, for me, the only good part of second draft is that it led to the third draft where the fun begins. I won’t give too much away for those who haven’t had this experience yet, but I’ll just say this: if there’s no place to have a little fun, to read back on your words and smile at the gymnastics and artistry, no one would ever finish this damn journey. The third draft is where the people stop being ideas and become real people, where the characters direct themselves (she would never say that; scratch that out...he’d act this way, of course), and where the lines for cutting are more clearly marked (nix that, erase it, get rid of the extra). Enjoy it. Once you’ve gotten this far, you deserve to be proud. 

Then, of course, what next?
* * * * *

Recipe Part Three: Garnish, Tasters, and Sharing. Re-Cook if Necessary.

In my time meeting other ambitious novelist to-be’s, I’ve found a few different, non-exclusive types that care about publication:
  1. The Narcissistic Writer: Believes one’s words are the high words from above and so the masses must read it.
  2. The Wayward Writer: Really doesn’t want to have a normal job and thinks writing novels is a sweet gig because the writer can write whatever he/she wants. To be honest, since moving to the Bay Area, the Wayward Writer has been replaced by The Wayward Start-up.
  3. The Economically Deluded Writer: There’s a lot of money to be made in this vocation made clear by the likes of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey and that silly novel about a lady traveling to different countries to deal with her failed marriage.
  4. The Sharer: Really wants to talk about one’s own experience to everyone for no other reason than getting self-gratification (kind of like therapy but in front of crowds).
  5. The Idealistic Artist: There’s something to be experienced in the writing that enriches not only the writer but those who read it. Categorized by one of my favorite quotes, “Art should disturb the undisturbed and comfort the disturbed”. It may be the truth; it may not be the truth. Who cares, as long as it reaches out to people.
If I could categorize myself, I’d *like* to put my own writing at 70% (5), 20% (4), 5% (1), 3% (2) and 2% (3). But this is only the author’s side of the equation - this is what I’d like to put out there, the reasons I want to put it out there. What about the other side of the equation, the reader’s? Why should any reader read this?

It leads to the following tricky questions as publication is really a big market-matching problem: who reads novels anymore when we’ve got social media, click bait, instagram, flickr, 5 minute news? What do people want to read? How do readers find the the right writer for them if they have to navigate through a diluted self-publishing market or eat what the opaque publishing industry force feeds them? How have readers changed? And how will writing have to change to address this (or should it)?

As I have completed the first two parts of my journey - observation followed by writing - I’m beginning the third part of the journey, publication. I hope to take you, those who are interested, along with me (for perhaps you’re also a writer wanting to connect to another on this whole crazy business).

So here’s where I am. In the past two weeks, I have applied to roughly 15 literary agencies and have received disappointing but interesting feedback: “Your writing is sophisticated, the story sounds interesting, but it’s dense.” Or, “This is just not mainstream enough for us to represent.” In many ways, this feedback has opened up more questions than it’s answered and ultimately leads to the quandary many writers face today: To beg at the doors of publishing houses and literary agents (to find what they think is marketable/profitable) or to face the challenges of self-publication through ebooks? I call this the “new problem”. The next quandary is: To change one’s writing so that it can be read by a wider audience, or to keep it with the original form and accept that it’ll be a highly truthful, but personal experience? I call this the “age-old problem” as every artist will have to answer for herself at some point, and even harder, will have to distinguish between being artistically truthful and plain-old confusing.
* * * * *

This is the first installment of “The Story of the Sausage” (which perhaps should be named instead, “The Hair of the Dog”). I’m writing again after a few weeks off to hunt for publication opportunities. Of course, perhaps more importantly, I’m seeing this - in itself - as a journey and a story worth telling.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beijing and Delhi: An absence of space

For the previous entry, please see: "The Hustle: Delhi"

Beijing population: 19.6 million.  New Delhi population: 17.1 million

We thought we had learned and adjusted to the crowds in China, but then we arrived in New Delhi.  It’s hard to wave someone away when you can understand them.  A stranger will open his mouth and English words come out, and immediately, you turn your face and that’s enough to give away that yes, you do understand that “he’s here to help show you the city!  Bring you to the best shop in town!  To the best food!  The best drinks!...don’t walk that way because you’ll end up in the slums, come with me, no come over here...don’t walk in that direction, why don’t you stop in for a bit?...” and on and on.

Delhi followed us around blocks and down streets.  We struggled to enter into a McDonald’s just to catch our breath in air conditioning and all around us, India lived on top of herself, layer upon layer.  Unlike Beijing, whose intimidation was a little old lady waving a 2-yuan water bottle for us to buy, Delhi’s streets followed us.  We could no longer cram through crowds and wedge through cars; the crowds noted us, the foreign tourists, and we continued onward, our heads down and filled with purpose: to the McDonald’s we must go!  
* * * * *
(Two weeks earlier) A key skill in learning how to get around in China is to push your way through nearly anything: push your way through a long line, push your way through a busy intersection and remember to disregard all traffic laws, push your way through objects and people using a car, a motorbike, a moped, roller skates, bicycle, and basically follow the only rule that wherever there are others, it’s absolutely critical to wedge yourself into all available space until you’re practically barreling someone over but not quite, because that would be considered aggression.

For those visiting for the first time, this kind of frantic invasion of personal space - that is, people will get into an area in a personal space you never knew existed until suddenly, you find yourself being nearly blinded by a person smaller than you holding an umbrella on a hot, sunny day - is absolutely unbearable.

At first, my company had difficulties dealing with the frantic invasions.  Walking down the street with him, I would suddenly find myself about a dozen people ahead, with my company carefully trying to avoid running into others and their personal spaces.  This meant we traveled anywhere very slowly, with me walking a few steps ahead, and with my company trailing behind as people swarmed in front of him.

We traveled to the Great Wall on our third day in Beijing, and this involved a slightly complicated tour bus affair.  My company and I took a taxi with a white man tax surcharge and arrived, after much hustling from our taxi driver, to a queue that wrapped itself under a bridge and around a building.  The queue became increasingly aggressive the closer my company and I got to the actual buses, and when we arrived within 5 meters of the buses, chaos began.  People rushed into the street to find whatever open space they could and crushed themselves near the doors of the buses.  Once the doors opened, small children clambered into them as parents pushed their way through on top of one another shouting for their kids.  I joined this mob frenzy, fearing that all that waiting in line would come to nothing if we weren't equally aggressive in fitting ourselves into the small door opening with 15 other Chinese people trying to push in at once.  We would never make it to the Great Wall being polite and saying, “Excuse me and thank you.”

I looked back.  My company was about 5 individuals behind me, but seeing me successfully crawl onto the bus, he too, realizing his size advantage, pushed himself in and said, “You separated a mother from her child!”  [as I am reading this to him, my company interrupts by correcting me: “You DID separate a mother from her child!  I was using you as a wedge and pushed myself through because I was wider than everyone else!”]

Ten minutes later, a ticket agent was walking up and down the aisles, and taking one look at my company began shouting in Mandarin: “Whose foreigner is this?!  Whose foreigner is this?!”  “He’s mine!” - I shouted back.

It took about five days into the trip before my company began to part the crowds using his height and large camera monopod, which he wielded before him like a sword.  Western chivalry of taking turns and waiting and keeping a small distance between yourself and another does not exist in the masses here.  In every tourist site, after every temple, after tightly squeezed entrances or exits, we forget about our personal sense of space one little step at a time.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hustle: Delhi in Two Days

The Hustle: Delhi in Two Days
For the Previous Entry, Please See "The Hustle: China" 
(more photos to come)

Our second day in Delhi, I found my feet again.  I threatened our auto driver.  I also lied through my teeth, “I’m a lawyer from New York City, and I don’t want you to take us around Delhi for ‘The Backdoor Tour of Delhi’; I don’t want you to go South to go North; I want you to go straight and take the second exit at the roundabout, and if you don’t go straight to our hotel for the rate on this rate-sheet, we’re not paying you.”  

A day earlier, my company and I had shamefully returned to our cold, air conditioned hotel lobby sporting a layer of sweat that stuck our clothes firmly onto our bodies.  “We cannot be in Delhi and hide in our hotel all day,” I had hissed.
“No, no we can’t.”  My company’s forehead was lined with beads of sweat.
“Do you want to go out there?”
“No, no I don’t.”
“What are we going to do?  We need to look at the map, but don’t open it in front of the tour guide promoter or else he’s doing to hassle us into buying a tour again.”

15 minutes earlier
“Sir!  Sir!  Listen to me, sir, if you do not listen to me and take a lift, you will end up in a very poor and bad area.  There are many beggars here.  The people will throw shit at your feet!”   -- unknown man #1.

Our first trip out of the hotel had lasted 10 minutes.  We had walked the wrong direction trying to find Connaught Market and ended up bright eyed and confused with our maps in our hands, and my Company being exhaustingly over-friendly, attracted hustler after hustler who followed us for blocks, incessantly trying to get us to come to his shop, sit in his auto, or buy his goods.  As I had angrily muttered under my breath, “D---, stop it [talking]”, the men had left me alone and focused on the more welcoming of the pair.  When I had protested aloud, I had been given the hand and told, “Ma’am, please.”  Fortunately, we had managed to make one full circle and found our way back to the hotel, dejected, unworldly, and thoroughly intimidated by the hectic fray of life that lived on top of itself and in layers, wedged into every crevice of every space beyond the guarded gates.

So there we were, back at our hotel, thoroughly failing as tourists and avoiding the tourism desk (Before our educational 10 minute exploration into the slums, I had asked the hotel concierge for the direction to Connaught Market. It was the concierge who directed us to the tourism office inside the hotel, who then tried to direct us to take a tour with the hotel that involved cramming an entire week of visiting India into a single day for a fee an order of magnitude above market value).

We stood near the elevators, hiding, looking at ours maps.  We had taken a left instead of a right, and we were going to fix that error and go back out there, and most importantly of all, we were going to make it to Connaught Market regardless of the number of men I would have to wave off (and even if this meant my Company would be silenced and muzzled).  I was militant, and my Company knew better than to argue, so we stood there practicing breathing in and out deeply, gave ourselves a pep talk, and fiercely walked out the door.  The guards watched us and smiled.  Inside they were saying, “Those poor, foreign fools.  How long shall we bet before they come back again?”

The humid air hit us immediately, the cold of the air conditioning clung to us as a nauseating cold sweat.  By the time we got to the corner intersection, approximately 100 yards away from the hotel gate, we were approached by pedicab drivers and autos.  The ones who recognized us were thrilled: “Clearly, the tourists have realized they cannot reach their destination by foot.  There are too many barriers between here and Connaught Market - a dozen conversations, poverty, a family on the street with a pet monkey, and beggars.”

“Sir, sir!  A ride sir?  Where are you from?  America?  Hello!” - unknown pedicab driver #10
And on the main street, walking stride by stride alongside us, “Hello, sir, I am not selling you anything.  Where are you from?”  - unknown man #2
“Sir, are you lost?  Would you like me to direct you to a tourist company.  There is a very good one I know of.  The others will overcharge you.” - unknown man #3

We barely made it a block past our hotel when we were finally approached by a man who did not want to sell us anything, but instead, offered a kind gesture that we were - indeed - on the right path and just needed to continue walking about 400 meters to the roundabout ahead.  He explained he always wanted to travel to America and wished us a fine visit to Delhi.  After he left our company, we were met by less welcoming escorts, including one man insisting that he show my Company his wound, which attracted the attention of another man, who insisted that he could direct us to a nicer spot, which then attracted the attention of an auto driver, who insisted he could take us to the market easily.  For several blocks, my Company ignored the driver and the other man and kept looking back at the beggar, and then without warning, he suddenly shouted louder than all three other men surrounding us, “No, I don’t want to see your wound!  You need to be taken to a hospital or a doctor!  You need someone who knows what they’re doing to take you!  I have no idea what I’m doing!  I can’t help you!”  The traffic screamed at us.  We had made it to the intersection of the roundabout.  We turned from both our escorts and realizing we were across the street from the market, we measured our success at leaving our hotel and getting close enough to our destination; not knowing how to cross the traffic, we promptly returned toward the hotel, stopping by a nearby bar where we ordered four drinks each.

In Lodhi Gardens, I craved a cold lime soda.  The redness of the old mosque gave away the green parrots that rested against it, and couples sat around benches or strolled along the park gardens in the evening heat.  Earlier that day, our second day in Delhi, we had met up with the rest of our India travel group, L-- and I---, and we were escorted by a friend of I---’s, M---, who lived in Delhi.  Suddenly the impossible streets tucked themselves away into a background that M--- waved off with her hand or scolded in Hindi.  After M--- had arrived, we had filled ourselves with a South Indian meal at noon and had taken the auto, which we avoided so vehemently the day before, to the Park.

We climbed through the old mosques and gazed at the beautifully deteriorating paintings inside them.  In the darkened silhouettes of openings that served as lookout windows, we saw feathered or furry visitors of the old tomb sites and the buried royal family.   The planted flowers which lined the pathway to Sheesh Gumbad danced wild with the green landscape.  

A stroll through the gardens reminded us of our thirst, and our group left the remains of sultans and dynasties to head toward a tea shop, where we satisfied the romantic heat with lime sodas and lassi.  The city had unraveled itself into a sense-mirage of silks and pashmina, cinnamon and cumin, jasmine and lotus soaps.  

Wandering through the hip, young alleyways with the busy restaurants and cafes of the neighborhood, I felt under dressed: the young Indian men and women were far more fashionable with their Seven jeans, Converses and Gucci bags.  No one said hello to us.  No one paid attention to us.  I looked across the street from our cafe, and I realized the Delhi of the previous day was still there, but that somehow we had crossed an invisible barrier that allowed us access to the other sides of Delhi, the highly educated, the young and rich, the traveled, the old money.  There was still an entire family sleeping and cooking on the street, but somehow, we were now apart of this other world which operated on top of or alongside or beneath everything else which we had experienced the day before.   We weren’t sure which one to believe, but we saved the digestion of all this for another night; for now, we were busy being inundated by colors and smells.

M---, I--- and L--- left my Company and me at a well-known restaurant in the area called The Big Chill which played Rihanna on the radio, and we talked about politics and inevitably ended with my yelling, “It’s my turn to talk now!”.  At the close of the evening, we flagged an auto to bring us home.  After some negotiating on our end (we demanded to see the taxi fare rate sheet and to have the man turn on the meter, which he at first said was “broken” until we stepped out of the auto which was when the odometer was suddenly, mysteriously “fixed”), we finally decided to get in. This is when I threatened the man.  When we arrived at our hotel, security demanded to see the man’s rate sheet to make sure he did not overcharge us.  I turned to the guard and said, “Don’t worry, we have it handled.”  Feeling guilty, my Company gave the driver a 50% tip, and in India, this would not be his last time doing so.