Why I struggle to write chinese (reason #14)

My handwriting can be described as ‘school boy’ at best. Not in any way what I would think of as feminine. The grace and elegance I once tried to cultivate in other areas of my life have somehow eluded me when it comes to my pen.

This is of course nothing unique to me, when you consider it in light of my generation of techies. Where once school marms spent hours on the proper instruction of penmanship, I remember being set behind computer programs like “Mavis Beacon.” I scrambled to punch in numbers for an imaginary conveyor belt of food item prices, and fumble for the correct keys while trying to out-type an imaginary opponent in a virtual race-car that ran on words per minute instead of gasoline.

Needless to say, learning to type took over the time that would have been spent in the practice of attractive penmanship.  It’s more than that though. My typing speed outstripped my handwriting in those early years before adolescence, and now I find it ever so tedious to use a pen and paper – which means I avoid all practice. When it comes to writing out thoughts and stories – a pen is out of the question. Thinking is  easier when not hindered by the medium being used to record it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend more time studying Chinese.  With the study of Chinese comes of course the study of the characters. Oh China, how you do torture me!  When I was studying French at least I could spell out the word, even if I hadn’t a clue what it meant. If I wanted to do more than just pronounce it I could easily look up anything in a dictionary. Chinese, on the other hand, seems very much a binary kind of language. You either know it or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, ya ain’t gonna fool no one.

You really do start from the bottom with Chinese. Although learning to read has always been difficult this is an entirely different planet. You either know it or you don’t. No sounding it out like a pussy. To it’s credit, once you’ve learned the first 500 basic symbols, there aren’t going to be too many more unknown words to you. Unlike in English, you’re much less likely to stumble across random words like sesquipedalian and poppysmic. Linguistic creativity is an art the Chinese language doesn’t look highly upon.

“You think Chinese is hard!!” my mandarin teacher told us once in class.

“You make English sooooo dIIficult!! Why so complicated!? Chandelier, giraffe?! All these extra words. In Chinese, we don’t have chANdelEAr. We use ‘fancy lamp’. And Giraffe!! What is girAAffe? We just have ‘long-necked deer’. So simple! You only need to learn first set of characters, and you know all language”.

It’s true. I never once sat in Chinese and thought ‘Dang. I wish they’d make it simple like English.’ It is all rather straightforward. That is, if you’ve got the rote memorization thing down.  That is a skill I, as a physicist, eschewed in my undergraduate career. Unfortunately. It’s also a skill that is no longer cultivated in American schools, and as a result…  I have a lot of practice to do.

So if you’ll excuse me…  I need to go memorize a list of characters.

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Filed under language school, life in china

The Trial of Toiletry Purchasing

For the last couple of weeks every time I get into bed my body begins to itch violently from extreme dryness. Last night, before I could fall asleep, I filled my last lucid thoughts of how delicious it would feel to have a bath in a tub of olive oil.  The green grassy smell and the soothing quality of the ointment.

I’ve used handfuls of lotion lately but it doesn’t seem to help.  I’ve found the dryness of my skin is considerably worse after I’ve been in the chlorinated pool and hot tub.  No matter how I shower afterward to remove the chlorine, or the amount of lotion I lather on, I cannot find reprieve.

There is a scrub at my parent’s house that I would die to have here – I think it’s sugar  in a rich oily base.  There it seemed a bit excessive but here it would be perfect.

“So go out and get something,” you say.  I would, I’ve looked. But all the toiletry bottles only have  descriptions in Chinese. There is sometimes a two-word phrase on a bottle of whatever that gives the most basic sign of what it might be – conditioner, shampoo – but in general the mystery is so deep when it comes to personal hygiene products that it’s quite baffling.

I wanted a leave in conditioner for my hair, as it too is suffering, but I always find that ones that contain alcohol always do more damage. Good luck figuring that out on an ingredients label!

Next time you’re standing in the shower look at a bottle of shampoo and think how hard it might be to figure out if it was all printed in Chinese characters!

I ended up getting a brand I recognized of something-or-other, that was in a bottle I remembered seeing in the states, but who knows what it really was. Perhaps “hair straightener, guaranteed to strip all moisture out of hair and leave it stick straight”?

I consoled myself with the fact that most conditioners do about the same thing, it’s more how you use them.  When have you ever read a bottle that says something you don’t want?  “Moisturizing curls”, “silky smooth”, “weather repair” – in the end you realize it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not really the bottle of hair relaxer.

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Filed under china, life in china, shopping

Translating Your Money’s Worth

If you wish to save money, I’d suggest a job in China (one with a salary paid at western rates).  Expenses in China are relatively low – if you know where to buy and how to manage things.

You can get lodging for about 100-200 euros a month (I think that these places must not have western style toilets and the like… but if you WANT to live cheap… ).  Transportation is also quite cheap – 20 cents on the subway will get you wherever you want, except the airport, which is a comparatively extravagant at 2.50.  And if you aren’t above native fair, a tasty all-in-one dinner of noodles and vegetables can be found for an easy dollar(or less).  (All prices rounded and converted, for the readers convenience).

There are, of course ways to make life more expensive, but even if you frequent Starbucks the prices are cheaper than the same drink in Europe. But if you know where to shop, a months worth of food can be financed on 100 kuai – or 10 euros.  (Again, I round a little, for convenience. The above prices are generally given in euros, as it is about a 10/1 conversion. Add 20% for a USD).

If you want to buy western products and live off western style food, it will be more expensive, naturally, but not necessarily that much more than a typical allowance in the states.  Western products can often be twice the price as the same item found in europe or the US, but if you can use a local brand, life turns out to be quite cheap – and those indulgences that make life sweeter. You can eat dinner at a nice restaurant for $20, where the same meal could easily be 50 bucks back home.

Price Difference:

If you hand a 100 Kuai (~10 euro) note over at a grocery store, the cashier will sometimes check up to 3 marks of qualification to make sure of its legitimacy.  The note won’t even be excepted, but with some grumbling, by a taxi driver in the later hours of the evening (the 100 RMB note is the most commonly counterfeit bill).

An interesting situation arises when you start to become more familiar with the currency. As a merchant one would never look twice at a $20 note in the US – it’s too small for counterfeiters to make a meaningful profit on, and is relatively safe from that perspective. Twenty bucks is still a small enough currency to be quite missed, but not mourned, were it to be lost (depending, of course, one one’s own salary).  Comparatively, a 100 RMB is 1/10th the yearly salary of a well positioned professional Chinese, in a western company.

When I think about this, I begin to feel a bit differently about the note than just its immediate conversion value. I value a 20 dollar bill, and am sorry when it’s gone, but this is a larger amount of money than a 100 Kuai, and the 100 Kuai seems even more important.

It’s similar to when you learn a second language – at a certain point you stop translating words literally, and begin to have a feel for them in their own right. You stop using equivalence in your head, (“Ein bisschien = a little”) but start to feel the meaning of the word in its own language. I no doubt have a deflated sense of worth for the RMB than most Chinese, but I have started to notice a valuation of the money in it’s own right, separate from that of its USD equivalency.

Before I leave this note, I realize I should be more specific in the words I use for Chinese currency.  Kuai is the local Chinese measure word for ‘a dollar’ (“Ni you liang kuai ma” = “Do you have 2 RMB”), however the official term is the Yuan, and the more ‘financial’ term is the RMB (short for Renmenbi). Kaui = dollar, mao = dime, etc.

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Sugar, Tahini Paste, and Honey


The extent of baking in China - steamed dumplings

I could never find Tahini paste at the grocery store in Minneapolis.  There was one time, where I found it at a store far from where I normally shopped (and was amazed at how expensive it was), but never did I succeed in finding it at the Rainbow down the street.


I found it today.  It was next to the honey.  Perhaps that is where I was amiss before.  I was never to think it should be kept near the honey, jam and peanut butter. (If you’re not the ‘chef’ type, you may not be aware that Tahini paste, something made from mashing sesame seeds, is often used as a seasoning in things like humus and other eastern dishes.  Generally nothing at all to do with the toppings of ones morning toast.)

This is often a problem I find.  I think it is likely a result of having people stock shelves that don’t read English. There comes a product they can only make out from it’s label or shape and not knowing directly what it is or may be used for, they place it near other products that are shaped similarly and have similar pictures or writing. As it happens, the tahini paste was in a bottle very similar to the honey next to it. Even I, a native English speaker, had to take a second look to make sure it was what I thought it was, because it seemed to fit in so nicely.

It is always a trick to figure out a new grocery store. Like the Chinese alphabet, there is not always an obvious way with which to categorize items. Tahini, for instance, might go near the spice rack with other  seasonings.  Or perhaps with ethnic foods. One never does know, even at a traditional store in the middle of Minneapolis.

I remember once reading a book about a boy who gets stranded out in the woods after a plane crash, and he describes how he finally succeeds in hunting a certain type of ground fowl.  Instead of trying to recognize their color and feathers the way we superficially would try and find a human being in the forest, he learns to search for their shape and outline.  I will have to be prudent of this technique when I go shopping for something similarly obscure.

Or maybe not so obscure.

Sugar, for instance, I would look for in a baking isle.  This doesn’t exist in most Chinese supermarkets, and certainly not the one in the basement of my own building. The closest china gets to a traditional  baked item is a little muffin like bun that is steamed.

I once saw some baking mixes – cakes and brownies kind of thing – next to the bags of rice. There is a reasonable population of expats that live in this building, so I think the supermarket in the basement tries to somewhat cater to the market. But the sugar wasn’t in sight.

Interestingly enough I quite randomly found, for who would think to look there, frosting (the kind that Pillsbury produces in those little cylindrical jars) in an isle next to teas and coffees. Sugar wasn’t next to frosting either.  It turned out it was in its own section, next to soup mixes and fish seasonings and, get this, giant bags of MSG (again, they both look quite similar both being white crystals, and come in the same clear plastic bags).

Interestingly enough there was an enormous selection of sugars! Tablespoon sized mono-crystal sugar, almost syrupy thick brown sugar, raw sugar, large clumps of small sugary crystals, and dozens of different brands of normal granulated white sugar, all in similarly sized packets and going at the same prices.  It was a great surprise to me, once I did find it. I’d been looking for sugar the day before and had succeeded in finding only those individual packets or cubes with coffee and tea stuffs.

(Having decided on sugar cubes, thinking they must be useful ways to prevent the need of an extra spoon, later realized that the downfall is… quite obviously …. Sugar cubes are quantized, and so one cannot take but a pre-determined serving sized dose, no matter the smallness of ones cup of tea that is in need of sweetening. So be forewarned, if you have ventured to read this far, that although charming, you might find yourself wanting to sweeten a very small amount of tea, with a very large amount of sugar.  I’ll close my parentheses now).

When you move to a new place, there’s always a learning curve associated with figuring out where the nearest Target is, and where to find your usual items in the local grocery store. As of course you would expect, this curve exists when you move overseas.  It’s sometimes a bit more entertaining – if you’ll give yourself the chance to see it that way.

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Filed under food, life in china

China’s Diabolical Weather Scheme

Remember that movie (was it  X-Men?  Or another comic-book movie?) where the villain is controlling the weather — sending horrific hurricanes and scary snow storms to a city that has attempted to defy his power?

It all sounds a bit science-fiction-y, but yesterday China ended a 3+ month drought with it’s very own seeded snowfall.

I haven’t yet written my  laments about how incredibly dry this city is. I go to bed itching all over – in spite of the fact that I’ve practically bathed in body lotion.

It really was an amazing show. The night before everything you could feel the moisture in the air, then when the city woke up the next day there was a layer of 3-4 inches of snow, and steady flakes coming down, quite literally out of the blue.

This artificial snow fall (which was the first precipitation of any kind since the end of October) ended (or was part of?) the worst dry spell some parts of this region in China have seen in 60 years.

But Do Not Fear! China is working on perfecting their weather control capabilities! Zhang Qiang, head of the municipal artificial weather intervention office, (I want that title!) said his team has been seeding clouds with rockets containing the silver iodide material the last couple days, using (and get this!) Anti-Aircraft guns. I knew there was a peaceful use for those things. Just imagine what they could do with nuclear war heads!

You can see an official news article on the topic here.  The article also notes that it was a controversy to use this step  — last year the city was a veritable mess over the uncontrollable man-induced snowfall.

Beijing isn’t a city you want to get stuck with a lot of snow because there’s no infrastructure to deal with it (Think NYC in those blizzards).  Last year in the governments attempt to stop the drought caused it to snow almost continuously for weeks (ask the locals about the account and they start shaking in their boots over the stress and confusion it brings back).

They don’t have snowplows here, so instead they get whole troops of men to go out on the highway with large boards,  and by staggering them out across the lanes, they scoop up the snow with the boards and slowly clear the highways.

Thankfully, for the sake of the traffic, the roads were busy enough all evening to keep any significant snow from sticking to the roads.

As soon as I woke up I could see dozens of little men running around with brooms, or shovels or any improvised tool clearing snow from walkways, and later from any imaginably dangerous horizontal surface (I even saw men on the roofs of the buildings across from me, cleaning off what might cause a leak later).

Overall, the drought looks to be a bit of a bigger mess than the snow that had to be cleared yesterday afternoon.  The winter wheat crop seems to be almost non-existent. If you are a betting man, I’d short grain, as it looks like China may be going out on the market to supplement it’s own desperately lacking supply.

See this article on the dire circumstances that we’re facing here.


Filed under life in china, man made weather

“Don’t Step on the WC”

The term “WC” has such a lovely British air, but if we were in the Island Nation this sign undoubtedly would start with a cordial and most polite “Please.” (The first Chinese character 请 is equal, but since most of us are not reading the Chinese, I’ll focus on the English part.)

When I walked into the stall, it took me a while to figure out the notice (this is not too uncommon a situation when it comes to warnings) . Of course you can’t see in the picture, but this was a western style toilet (with a proper seat). It was only later that I realized that they might have had issues because a local Chinese visitor might be confused by the style of toilet – imagine the situation that prompted the sign!  The majority of public toilets are porcelain basins submerged in the ground, which you squat over more like a horizontal floor mounted urinal.

It is usually not a problem finding a restroom – toilets are generally a shared commodity because the old style Chinese homes didn’t necessarily have their own.  It was commonly shared between the small community that lived in a courtyard hutong (a circle of one story family rooms around a central courtyard area), or a larger public bathroom that serviced a little neighborhood. For this reason, the small public bathroom is something you’ll find all over the city, born from this style of living, and if you’re desperate it will do.

I’ll close this with a piece of advice — always carry your own tissue – you’re unlikely to find any when you’re out and about. And this may sound a little dirty to the westerner, but the tissue is to be discarded in a little waste basket in the corner of the stall, not flushed down the toilet. In more modern buildings, it is likely not an issue. However in the older parts of town, the pipes are smaller, and more given to get clogged and backed up. For this reason, you’ll always find a little waste basket in your stall, filled with … well… used tissues. Often in newer buildings as well, even though it’s probably no longer an issue.  I guess once you’ve gotten into the habit it’s a hard one to break.

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Thank you kindly, but…


What is a polite way of declining someone when they ask for your phone number? It takes a lot of guts to walk up to a stranger and put yourself out there – but what does one say, especially when their pretext for approaching you isn’t explicitly for a date…

“Maybe you email me next time you come to this coffee shop, and I’ll help you with Chinese and Chinese culture?”

The unfortunate thing is not just that I don’t plan on emailing him, but what happens when I show up at this coffee shop again (and dang it, it was just what I’d been looking for – a decent place to do a little studying) and he happens to be there – somewhat along the lines of,

“You didn’t email. But how lucky we meet again!”

Am I to relinquish my newfound study spot as well?

Of course, the obvious course is to just politely let him know I’m not available. “Thank you for your offer to help me with my Chinese characters (they are so homely looking, I know), but I have a boyfriend”. One is given the impression of an abrupt and unfair change in the conversation, explicitly for the sake of hurting his feelings.

It is simply providential that as I write this, I receive an email from him (yes, I gave him my real email – I wouldn’t give my phone number, even if I had one. At least this way I can keep my coffee shop, and prevent further awkward moments).

“Today is too lucky for me to meet you. You are so beautiful that I am
attracted by you deeply. But, you know, it is hard for Chinese people
to say hello to one stranger. Today I make it. @-@.”

At least now I can legitimately tell him (as he puts it clearly as being in pursuit of more than just a little language tutoring) that I appreciate his kindness, (and salute his bravery), but I am indefinitely otherwise engaged.


Back to practicing my characters.


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The Battlefield that is Bejing at New Years

It started on the first of February, with what sounds like artillery a few kilometers out. Then coming to a head on the 2nd it was if the city exploded.

Earlier that evening, tensions were getting stronger. Litter was visible throughout the streets from the explosions, and through the evening fireworks could be seen going off across the rooftops of the Hutongs, and reflected in the glass skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings. Just after midnight the background noise suddenly exploded into the foreground.

Pulling apart the blackout curtains just after midnight, I was amazed to see the entire city aglow. Car alarms could be heard up and down the streets, and the neon signs and monster LED displays that normally seemed so bright paled in the fluorescence of this new light.  This, my foreign friends, is New Years in Beijing.

Now standing at my window, I counted no less than 12 (possibly more) individual displays of pyromania, taking place in various parts of the city – none of which seemed to be from any kind of safe distance from built up structures or thoroughfares.

Over this holiday season (and it is truly a season, as fireworks have persisted throughout the day and night for the last week) a 5-star hotel burned down in Shenyang, a city further north of Beijing. A news article (see picture above) said that no fewer than 160 small fires were reported across the city over the New Year (how big is a ‘small’ fire exactly?). Apparently all this is just the price one pays for the excitement and reckless abandon everyone enjoys during the biggest of the Chinese festivals.

The amount of gunpowder that goes off during the week of New Year is simply amazing.  Fireworks aren’t just something for the night, or evening. Strings of firecrackers are set off early in the morning, and fireworks can be heard and faintly seen throughout the day.  For the last few days as we’ve walked around the city, we’ve seen red paper from firecrackers and powder burns from explosions everywhere.

While the rest of the world slowly chokes out fancy firework shows with regulation and pleas of humanitarian injustice (why spend thousands on fireworks when there are still starving in Africa?) China burns renewed with the celebrations of the Lunar New Year.

It’s quite astonishing every kind of colorful and explosive shell seems most permissible here. Fireworks that would be labeled “for professional use only”, and not even be for sale for most of us unless smuggled in from Mexico, Beijingers light and enjoy in the intersections of major roads (while cars merely pull to the side, or seemingly ignore them altogether). And this in the cement jungle that the second largest city in China.

Because of the holiday the traffic has improved tremendously.  Generally there is stop and go traffic generously spotted all around Beijing, from 7:30 in the morning to about 9 at night – the Ring roads, (the 2nd Ring rd. in particular) being the worst of it. Over New Year, however, there is a mass exit when everyone returns to their villages and families. The city becomes a ghost town for a week – and it’s wonderful.


If you don’t mind the cold, this could very well be the time to visit.  Except most of the normal markets and shops are closed, or close early.  If you’re a culture kind of person, and less of a shopper, think about planning this trip for next year.

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Filed under festivals, life in china, out and about

aaaaaaaand…. I’m back

To my dear friends and family who made clear their sorrow at the lapse in my writing — I’m back. Please forgive the intermission… If you weren’t already aware, I have recently moved back to China, with the intent of a more long term, but ultimately just as impermanent a stay as before. For the interest of those who might wonder what day-to-day is like in China, I’ll try my best to return to relating my thoughts on life as an ex-pat.



Filed under Uncategorized

May 24:2010

It’s kind of fun to be a celebrity.  I don’t know if it’d be enjoyable long term, but it’s fun for a change.  This afternoon I had a horrible hair day.  I had let it dry while I slept, which often makes it more curly than normal, and kind of pretty. However today it turned out to just be messy and in the way.  It really was a bad day though.  However, in spite of that, everyone seemed to still act as if I’d walked off a Hollywood movie set.  I went into the office to send a fax for mom, and Yinghua, our “English speaking secretary” (what it says under her job description on a sheet of paper I have of important iHep contacts) started speaking to the lady at the desk.  We were just waiting for the fax to go through, and I started looking at a magazine there on CERN.  I put it down, and when I looked up Yinghua said “We were just saying how beautiful you are” in the bashful almost embarrassed way so many Chinese girls have of saying things.  I hadn’t really been paying attention, but I looked over at the other secretary. She obviously didn’t speak Chinese, but she beamed with pride as if she’d been the first to discover a momentous fact.

There’s a certain liberty afforded you when you realize that you’ll be a novelty whether or not your hair is perfect.  The truth of the matter is, extremely few ex-pats make it as far west of Beijing as we are.  There are probably 6 westerners on campus, and I know 4 of them.  3 will leave in about a month and go back to Minnesota!

The other side of this coin is, no matter what you do, you stand out.  When I was in France, it was something of a compliment to have someone not pick you out immediately as an American.  If you took just a couple extra minutes to dress in something besides jeans and a t-shirt  when you went to town, and looked respectable like the rest of the very classy city, people would treat you like something more than just an irritating American.  They appreciated when you didn’t stick out like a soar thumb.  That’ll never happen here.  I mean, I still like to dress nice, but there’s no point attempting to ‘fit in’.   The nice thing is, it’s not like in India.  When I went to the Taj Mahal I was harassed by other Indian tourists.  ‘May I take a picture with you?’ both men and women would ask.  “can a get a shot of you with my baby?”.  It was the worst side of being a celebrity.  It was kind of funny and cute at first, but after the crush and pleading of a couple hours, even unable to leave for more people asking for pictures, it got irritating.  If you started to say no, they plead, and put on a look as if you were taking the bread right out of their mouth.  This, coupled with the exhaustion of going shopping, made the whole experience just draining.  If you picked anything up to look at it, but then decided not to buy it, they would plead, and beg. I appreciate people working for their income, and not just begging on the street if they can help it, but the whole experience was just draining. “If you don’t buy it, my family will go hungry tonight” it felt like they were always implying.

Here, they like to haggle and barter as much as the next country with an emerging free market, but even this evening, as we were some of the last people out of the market, mom decided she really didn’t want such and such an item, after the girl had brought it out to look at it.  “I’m sorry, I just… it’s just not right.  I’m sorry –“ expecting the girl to beg and plead that she buy it, or offer a better price.  “No lady, that is okay” she smiled as if,  ‘sure, it’s a game to sell it to you, but if you don’t want the thing, ya just don’t want it’.

The courtesy makes it a much more pleasant experience.  People still stare at the two bazaar white ladies, and yes, even steal some pictures. But it is very much more rare that you feel harassed and irritated.

I’m really enjoying Beijing.  There are things I miss, of course, in some ways it is very very different, but in others, it’s a very pleasant society to visit and be a part of for a while.

I’d really planned on writing about the weekend and our trip to the Wall and Forbidden city, but I need to go to bed.  I’m trying to get up early and start work early, so I can get off early as well and have the late afternoon to go out with mom.

Today we went to the “Pearl Market” – which is something like one giant department store, but all different vendors inside.  They also sell just about everything.  On the 5th floor is supposedly heaps of pearls of all varieties and worth, but we didn’t make it up that far as we arrived just as it was being closed.  We walked around the first floor just a little, and got a couple gifts, but ended up leaving and walking out to find some dinner.  5 huge platters for just over 10 bucks.  I could get used to this!

Oh. Another quick little story before I fall asleep sitting up.

Mom and I chose a random restaurant on the second floor of some building.  It’s extremely hard to know if anything is particularly good, because you don’t even know what they’re advertizing.  They could be boasting the best dog meat in the city, and we’d walk in with just as much vigor. Well, in any case, we were seated and the menu’s and eventually food were brought out.  Next to us were a couple of men, having some heated discussion.  Not towards each other so much, as just very intense (also, rather loud).  The one younger man was very into his point, making forceful hand gestures and getting right up in the other guys face.  But as he finished whatever he was saying, he broke into a smile and relaxed, as if he’d been imitating some scene he’d seen, or telling a story of some intense moment he’d witnessed.  Mom and I had both noticed them and were kind of analyzing what type of conversation it was. Mom’d thought it was an argument at first, and was worried it might break into fist-to-cuffs, but I’d noticed him before he’d gotten upset, and sure enough, the moment passed.  We had just started going back to our own conversation, which had itself lulled for a moment, when the man turned to us and with the graceful gestures of a pleasant young gentlemen said “I’m sorry, excuse us” in broken English.  He apologized for getting a little too boisterous and hoped we’d not been too worried or alarmed (This second part was mostly in Chinese, but the translation was unmistakable).  Then went back to discussing, in an ever so slightly quieter a tone, whatever he’d been in the middle of discussing before.  Mom and I both turned back to each other – amazed that we’d been so obvious in our interest in  their conversation, as much as the response we’d garnered from them!

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