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a home away from home

The Third Weekend…

I have been in China just over a 2 and half weeks and am finally feeling like the place that they have put me in, this spacious apartment, on the second floor in a compound full of similar buildings in a city I had never heard of before this job offer, this random, but warming place, is starting feel like a home. I don’t think it will ever be home home. It’s too empty. There is only one person in it. And I guess that could be a home to someone who was okay with single occupancy. And that might have been alright when I was of the single occupancy mind. But I am not that now. So a home away from home will do and I will make the best of these rooms and their four walls. I will adorn, I will garden, I will masturbate in every crevice. Kidding. I just have to keep you on your toes, right?

Because sometimes your school gifts you big boxes of pomelos pomegranates

Because sometimes your school gifts you big boxes of pomelos pomegranates

Jiaxing is a lovely city of 7 million, which is considerably small for China and ridiculously big for most other parts of this weekend amusement park filled planet. Last weekend I walked around and explored the sites and by sites I refer to things I found via google maps that looked mildly historical and possibly entertaining. Being a smaller Chinese city means that it is more accessible by foot. I have set up my phone so that it can pay for the City Bikes…but just because a system is set up, does not mean I have any clue as to how to operate it. I tried a few times to set of the city’s two wheeled jalopies free, scanning the QR code from different angles, staring at the bicycle like a concerned parent, whispering a muted curse into it’s hypothetical ear and then moving on before a Westside Story-esque fight broke out. I ventured towards my destinations, the “sites” of Jiaxing, through through clusters of malls and overpasses, through glares and gawks, passed “waigerens and laowais”, through beeps and snot rockets and stenches and fragrances. The first on my list was a temple that shot up like a magnified wart near the side of one of the rivers, a cluster of smaller structures and towers, white and brown and moldy.

my office

my office

The temple was currently inaccessible due to a ceremony going on within. I leaned up against the ancient welcoming post and peered in as the monks within the first inner shrine chanted, played instruments that echoed generations long dead, encircled by thick tornadoes of fragrant and blooming incense. After the ceremony I entered. The pictures say what I have no words to say. So I exited. Another temple down the way. This one, with a large inner courtyard. It was dedicated to a fallen General who had saved the Song Dynasty and was poisoned. More pictures.

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More walking. The city’s greenness, almost obnoxious, with its abundance, but so welcoming and so unexpected. I walked through several of the touristy, made to look as if they were ancient sections of a long forgotten and abandoned Chinese water town, that lined one of the canals. Historical Disneyfication and commodification. Though, we do the same thing to actual history. The BC version of it, Barkerville, cashes in on that every summer. And why not? You learn a little, an impression is made and context is given to faded words and histories. It makes the past tangible and kinetic. I guess, in this particular instant, you learn nothing if you cannot read the Chinese signs. All I can surmise from areas such as these is that at some point something like this might have existed somewhere around here. I read that last sentence. Trust me, I got this.

shrimp pork dumplings from my local RT Market

shrimp pork dumplings from my local RT Market

I walk through a park lined with beautiful trees that rise like Tolken spires or war spears, their tips piercing the blue vastness that expands to horizons on all sides. The path ends at a wooden pagoda at the Beijing to Hangzhou Grand Canal. I have seen this canal in both Suzhou and Hangzhou. It felt as if I was reconnected with a cousin that my mother had told me about and who I had met at I point in my life where I didn’t tie anything down to memories. There wasn’t much to say, but still I felt I had a duty to stop and view it with wonderment and curiosity. It definitely was and is a technical marvel, the longest man made canal in the world and it was created over 700 years ago.

sounds interesting. tastes boring.

sounds interesting. tastes boring.

Before leaving the extensive greenway, I stop on a small island, accessible by a gate to have a glimpse over South West Lake. I peer down on it from an ancient bridge. Jiaxing is beautiful. I needed this. Having left things and people I didn’t want to leave behind, nature was a comfort to the barren feels inside.

At the edge of the park, old men, dressed like the Chinese version of Grumpy Old Men play polo on two, official looking polo courts. I stop, watch and snap a few pictures. People really take leisure time seriously and really do spend it with their friends, families and loved ones. It’s really quite nice.

Fishing on the canal

Fishing on the canal

I stop into the house of a local resident who was one of the first people to translate Shakespeare into Chinese. He is long gone, but his house still stands, amongst modern constructions, byways and shlubbly dressed guards who wander aimlessly too and fro like poorly programmed baddies in an old school PC Shoot ‘Em Up . Today was a lot of walking. I peer through a small breach of a large, corroding fence that surrounds the Catholic Church that was partially destroyed by the Red Guard. It’s a beautiful structure is haunting; partially in part due to it’s dilapidated state. Renovations are on the table, right beside gay rights ;). Durian milk shake. Not sure about that. Kind of tastes like what, I imagine, an onion milkshake would taste like.

Delicious hot pot

Delicious hot pot

Marking, marking, marking, teaching, teaching, teaching. Planning, planning. Dinners with bosses. Presents for teacher day. Pillow of my face. Originally I was like, this is so strange to own a pillow with my own image on it. It’s grown on me. I’ve had more than a few naps on it. I fear I am going to wake up from a nice slumber and feeling a bit disoriented, come face to face, eye to eye, with pillow Ira, his facial expression slightly altered from what I remember it to have been. In that regard, pillow Ira is not to be trusted.

Mark, mark, buy some stuff on Taobao. BOX comes from Canada! Only took a month. Coffee from Canada. Candies. Break bodum. DAMN. Order another off Taobao. To explain, Taobao is the place to get anything ever online in China. It’s better than Amazon and doesn’t generally charge for shipping and it usually shows up in a few days, unless it’s ginormous. I am obsessed.

big box of treats

big box of treats

Yesterday night, I went to see Planet of the War of the World of the City of the Planet Again of the Apes. It was fun and it was great to hang out with my new teacher friends. Went to Moon River after and my bike lock key broke. Nevermind. Had some drinks, 45 minute walk home. Rinse, repeat and return. Today I went to museums. Words. Sometimes no. Pictures. Yes. Those. More soon. Right after I get through this Tower of Babel of papers.

Mooncake full of meat. Yum!

Mooncake full of meat. Yum!

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A Lone Journey to China

The long, halogen lights hang at odd angles like the miscellaneous items in a horder’s house. A child in red plaid screams about “APPLES!” and attempts a jump kick. My face feels like it has cried forever. My eyes are currently dry. My head feels like the lights, without order. It’s been an hour since I have seen Ruby. An hour since I held her in my arms and she held me in her arms. An hour into ten plus months away from her, from my family, from everything I know.

I feel empty. I don’t want to leave. “Are you excited?” “No.”

To clarify what is going on, for those in the not know, my partner and I had planned to go to China, to teach, to live together in Jiaxing, a city with a lego factory, some famous candy and 30 minutes from Shanghai. But my partner, Ruby, realized that teaching isn’t her passion. Why waste a year doing something that doesn’t fulfill you? Working towards where don’t necessarily want to be, doing something that doesn’t ignite your soul? And so, with a lot of thought put into it, as she always does, she decided not to come. I am happy for her. I am so happy she has found a great job. A place to live. I do not resent her decision at all. She is so brave, in her actions and her words. Meticulous in constructing her thoughts into sentences. She is so strong. She inspires and teaches me and tells me, to take an extra second, think.

I am in constant, unfiltered awe of her. I could go on, but that is a different, more personal (and infinitely more smooshy) letter.

So I am here, alone, at the Vancouver Airport awaiting a flight to Hong Kong, then Shanghai and then a car ride to Jiaxing. My reasoning for going is because, well, it was too late not to go. I am a certified teacher who landed a great job at British Columbian Offshore High School. Kids who graduate from this school graduate with a Dogwood Diploma, a B.C. recognized secondary degree. If I didn’t show up, they wouldn’t be able to replace me. They tried. They really tried. B.C. is having a teacher renaissance and there are numerous positions opening up in Vancouver and beyond. So why go to China to teach? Why suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Visa stipulations and being stared at and photographed without your permission, when you can teach in beautiful B.C., with sit down toilets aplenty and foods from all over the planet. Oh yeah, and the whole nature and clean air thing. So yeah, no one able to fill my vacancy.

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I could still have just not gone. Sorry folks, but I can’t come. Here’s a lesson for you kiddies, it’s called abandonment. Like I have just done, the world will do to you time and time again. Get use to it. It will be the greatest lesson you could ever learn and this is the best way to teach you it…. So I could have bit my thumb and jumped ship. That means 4 classes full of English students do not graduate on time. As an educator, as a human, as a creature with a beating heart, I could not do that. I could not leave them hanging. I could not abandon them. They need me. And if it’s bad, I leave. If it’s bad, I come home. If this feeling of ache, of internal avalanches and a mind full of doom and gloom and Charlie Brown adult voices accompanied by the mournful, humming of Tom Wait doesn’t pass, I don’t ask, I don’t plead, I leave. My sanity is more important than any job. My emotional well-being is essential to my teaching, to my personal hygiene and to my will power that forces me every morning to put on pants and not slip into a rat onesie. If I am not stable, am not a rock, do not eat three meals a day and drink the right amount of liquids, I am sporadic, I am despicable, I am sputtering and rambling, I am climbing unsafe ladders and eating unrefrigerated meats.

Where is the rhyme and reason behind all this? Behind this journey? Behind a piece of luggage that is a few kilograms over? Behind these random tubes of light? I hope to find out or at least convince myself of some form of divine reason, which would involve first convincing myself that there is a divine anything.

I am now in Hong Kong airport, the random bulbs have been replaced with a domed ceiling comprised of grey, nacho chip, shaped tiles. I am hungry. I have an hour until I board my final flight to Shanghai. None of my items are lost yet. My only travel damage is a cracked computer that seems to still be functioning. Superficial damage. I have superficial damages and I still function as well. My CPU is overheating and could use some more RAM, but it’s still puttering onwards. The setting sun through Hong Kong’s haze looks like the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. Instead of war machines, 747s and mountains.

 

My new, Ruby designed, art.

My new, Ruby designed, art. Oh and my Tinea Versicolor.

I love you all. I will keep you updated with words.

Thank you to all of you who saw me before I left. You are all so special to me.

If you are ever in the neighborhood, don’t be shy, come on by!

Love, appreciating moments, your China bound friend/lover/family member…

Ira J Cooper

The Time I Got Stuck In Several Countries: Part 1 – Russia

Trams!

Trams!

This is the story I have retold the most in my life. And for good reason. It kind of sounds made up, yet not really epic enough to be worth the time imagining it. Maybe I should let you, the fearless reader, decide whether or not it is a tale worth continually spinning.

In 2008, I traveled to the small medieval town of Brno, in the Czech Republic. Now, if you’ve never heard of Brno, you’re probably far from alone. It’s a university town, in the West. Why in anyone’s name would I decide to make Brno, non-descript Brno, my first destination ever to travel to in Europe. I had no part in the decision making process. I acted in a play and the play was recorded and submitted to a festival in Brno. So I was in Brno. There I was. Like a dog after a bath. I raced all over experiencing firsts. Monumental firsts! Such as riding a train for the first time. As passengers sat looking at mobile devices or gossip magazines or dozing off, drool and mushed fleshed smeared against the windows, the most beautiful, living landscape wooshed by, only replaced with more beautiful scenery. I was shocked. I had not the experience of doing a daily commute abroad, so could not comprehend how people were able to refrain from constantly staring out of the window at the natural masterpieces. The train felt like a revelation. The passengers felt like a Tuesday.

Adventures through Czech Lands - walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

Adventures through Czech Lands – walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

The play ended and the options were endless. A friend and I traveled through the Czech lands, utilizing the infant couchsurfer project, finding amazing hosts throughout the country. An Irish dancer in Olomouc, a mechanic and his family living in a small town outside of Ceske Budejovice. We ended up in the capital. He left. I stayed. Stayed and taught English for four months. A contract ends and freedom once again is attained. I decide to explore my Jewish cultural heritage. Though I felt very little connection to my faith, I was interested in my history, interested in seeing the places where thousands and millions of my supposed extended family were imprisoned and slaughtered. There was other histories as well. And I was interested in them too. The stones of walls and cobbled streets narrated aloud. I travel along a zig zagging line across Eastern Europe on several chugging bullets. I see parts of Poland, the dark undertones of The Holocaust seep into every observable space. I continue on. I almost visit Belarus (a story), but end up in the Ukraine instead atop a tin roof, with one of the leading members of the Ukrainian Gay Rights Movement. We watched the sun ride over onion shaped domes and steeples. With Visa clutched tightly, I enter Russia. I spend time with family friends in Moscow and move onto to stay with a couchsurfer in the beautiful and ancient city of St. Petersburg.

Train to Russia

Train to Russia

On the day my Visa expires I hug my couchsurfing host goodbye and board a bus heading to Estonia. The bus, once a thing of beauty, sturdy as a mechanized colt, now emitted the sounds of a starving stomach, a machine on its deathbed. It breaks down and takes an hour to fix. We reach the boarder in the pitch soot sky of the next day’s morning. We are all made to exit the bus and walk through passport inspection and security. I haven’t noticed the time yet. There are no clocks on the walls. I hand a guard my passport. He squints to make out the dates on my visa. We stand still as steles. The line no longer moves as the guard calls upon someone else, another guard, who I can only presume is his superior officer. Broken English leaks from his mouth in a monotone fashion:

“I am sorry. Your Visa is no longer. You cannot leave.”

I stand, backpack still strapped to me, sweat stained, knees knocking, body burning. I stand for two hours. I am finally allowed to take a seat in a waiting room that reminds me of my childhood pediatrician’s office. I can see into another office space, where a woman types away on an old typewriter. Maybe it was a computer, but I see it in my mind as a typewriter, so that’s what it shall be. I have already pleaded in English to any passerby, telling them my tale of an unlucky experience with a rickety bus. The faces whizz by, not all too concerned with my gibberish, my babbling. I whip out my electronic translator and attempt to make a sentence. I think I am saying:

 

“My grandmother was kicked out of Russia one hundred years ago and now you are imprisoning me in it. Please, please let me go.”

Could anyone understand my butchering of the Mother tongue? At first, no. People went about their menial tasks like good Communist worker ants. Then I see the woman at the typewriter through the door. The old typewriter has stopped clanging. She is frozen in a still frame. She wears a pastel dress that looks very itchy. She is a still frame except for the tears streaming down her reddened cheeks. Yet there is nothing she can do, so she breaks from the trance and continues to type. I feel her. There is nothing that I can do either.

An officer approaches me and explains my crimes once more. I am frustrated and tired and really don’t need another explanation. The officer tells me I will be boarding a bus.

Great.

Where to?

St. Petersburg.

That is the last place I wished to go now. And yet, that was what was happening. My frustrations no longer could be contained. Be damned with the consequences of voicing my objections to the regime stoolies. What could they do? Throw me in jail?….Yes! But if I get caught wandering the streets of Saint P without a legit visa, I’ll be in the same spot. I air this concern with them. It gives them a good chuckle. I yell. I curse. I am now sitting on a tourist bus. A tourist bus heading to Saint P. It drops me off in a part of the large city that I don’t know. Think Ira. What are you going to do? I find the subway system and descend into the arterial tubes bellow the city. Somehow, I remember the directions to my couchsurfer’s home. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I don’t wish to disturb her, but my options are limited.

I pensively knock. There is an audible stir from within. The door creaks ajar and she stands there, hand behind her head, stretching, scratching.

“I am so sorry…..”

I unfolded my blanketed story. My former host stands there, looking lost, eyes mostly closed, body rocking. Yet her pause was one of consideration. Her solution was swift and to the point:

“Let’s have Port.”

“Um. But…”

“No but. Offices aren’t open yet. Only thing open is Port.”

I couldn’t argue. Port, port and more port. A call to the Canadian embassy provided no answers, but asked if I found some later to pass them on to this fine governing body, so that they can take credit from what I have learned from this plain shit-storm experience. Thank you tax dollars. As useless as national pride.

I bought a new train ticket and did a bit of snooping around for information on what my next move would be. Rumor has it that there is a phone somewhere in the St. Pete’s airport that you can call and contact a guy who you can bribe to leave the country. It was worth a shot. After six hours of searching the airport for the Where’s Waldo Phone and having some of the best damn sushi I had ever had (which threw me off, as the sushi maker was blonde haired and blue eyed), I found the mythical phone. Wheezing, an extended cough greeted me.

“Hi, my visa expired, I would like to get an extension so that I can leave Russia.”

“You buy plane ticket…”

“I bought a train ticket…”

“No….you buy plane ticket.”

“But I have already spent money on a train and bus ticket”

“You buy plane ticket”

“….THESE ARE STUPID RULES”

“These are student rules? THESE ARE RUSSIA RULES!”

And he hangs up. And I stand there. And my blood boils. And my eyes well. And I hold it in. And I pick up the phone. It was a red phone, like the emergency phone that Commissioner Gordon would use to contact Batman with. I pick up the phone and I call him back. I have no idea who this man is. I have no idea if he is also having a bad day. He is just following orders. Well…not really, as what he is doing is bribery, but….still. He’s just trying to make a buck.

“50 dollars”

50 bucks to be exact. 50 bucks for a visa extension. I looked it as 50 bucks for freedom. I am sure many others who do not have freedom would pay way more for it. And he was my only option. He told me that I needed a plane ticket and fast. I was original set to be in Estonia two days ago via bus, but couldn’t find a flight there. Instead, I flew to Tallinn, the capital of Finland. It was a ferry ride away to get back on track.

As I crossed the tarmac, the sun falling behind the outlines of shady watchtowers, I breathe deep for the first time in a few days. A final double peace sign photo op at the top of the stairs, then I duck into the plane. That duck was supposed to be like a Mario duck, leading me to safety. Mario’s not real and nor was my perceived safety.

Better times in Russia

Better times in Russia