No, No, Nanjing


Last weekend John, Liam and I visited the city of Nanjing. The capital of our province (Jiangsu), it is about an hour away by bullet train. It is known for its mausoleums (it has the only tomb of a Ming emperor outside Beijing, as well as the tomb of Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China), its 600-year-old city wall (one of the few the communists didn’t tear down) and, of course, the Rape of Nanking (the horrific massacre by the invading Japanese of approximately 300,000 people in one month in 1937).

The kids were taking a field trip all day Friday so we left Thursday evening after school. In a harbinger of things to come, our cab driver did not have the faintest idea where our hostel was, even with the address in Pinyin. He had to stop and ask people for directions (I called Alexis and asked her to search for it online). Eventually we found it, but in all our time in Nanjing, we never once had a cab driver who was able to get to our hostel without asking for help!

When we walked into the lobby a woman said to us, “How many tapes would you like to buy?” We stared at her in surprise until she consulted with some other women in Chinese and then rephrased herself to say, “Do you have a reservation?” (!!!) We did indeed have a reservation, for three single rooms for $10 each per night. She informed us that they no longer had those rooms available, but we could share a room with a queen-sized bed and a single bed for the same price. Being laidback people, we agreed. It was a very nice room—the only problem was that it was freezing! Unfortunately, I am so used to being cold that it didn’t occur to me to ask the front desk’s help with turning on the heat until Saturday night. When I asked, they opened a drawer in the front desk, which turned out to be full of remote controls for each room’s heat. They located my room’s, came upstairs, and turned it on. Why don’t they just do that automatically, you ask? Good question!

After we dropped off our bags we decided to go out and check out the city. We asked the women at the front desk where we should go, and they suggested 1912. I recognized that as the clubbing street (the one in Wuxi has the same name. It has the craziest night clubs I have ever seen, ever. In fact, let’s take a little break to appreciate them:

P1050216I call this one “Reno Honeymoon Suite Circa 1983.”


Anyway,  none of us wanted to go dancing, so we asked for another suggestion. They conferred for a long time, and I was getting impatient, so when I caught the words “Shanghai Lu” (Shanghai Street), I said, “Shanghai Lu? Sounds great.” So we went outside and hailed a cab, and told him to take us to Shanghai Lu.

He brought us downtown to a neighborhood that looked like it might be busy during the day but was pretty dead at night. He dropped us off right outside an expat bar, which wasn’t exactly what we had had in mind—we were in the mood to walk around somewhere lively. But since we couldn’t explain that to the driver, we got out and went for a walk. Since it was a Chinese city, it was easy to follow the neon, so after a few turns we found ourselves in front of a giant screen at a major intersection with huge luxury stores like Burberry and Rolls Royce. We walked around for a while, but there wasn’t much going on, so we decided to get some rest and get an early start the next day.

The next morning we asked the ladies at the front desk how to get to the memorial to the massacre. They told us a bus number, and we caught it very easily across the street. The bus cost 2 yuan (6 yuan to a dollar). The ride took about half an hour, through a bustling city (minus tall buildings—they are in a different part of Nanjing). Once we got to our stop I had to ask a few people where the memorial was before we found it. Once we spotted it, it was unmistakable.


The Rape of Nanking doesn’t mean much to most people in the West. I wrote both my graduate and undergraduate dissertations on World War II and if I hadn’t read a book on the subject before I came to China I would only have been able to tell you that the Japanese killed a lot of people when they came to Nanjing.

The details are so much worse than I could have imagined.

I don’t really want to go into them here—it’s just too sad—but imagine lakes disappearing because they are completely filled with bodies, and women of all ages—and I do mean all ages, from childhood on—being raped. (If you take into account the fact that I am holding back the worst parts, you will have some idea of how bad it was.)

The museum was incredibly well done. It reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Museum in DC. In addition to telling the story of the massacre (and the entire war), it had extensive grounds with gardens (some of the flowers were donated by Japanese people) and numerous spaces for reflection and remembering the victims. The foreigners who were living in Nanjing at the time and who risked their lives to (successfully) save people were honored at length. After Vietnam, it was really nice to see images of Americans heroically saving lives. (One of the Americans, Minnie Vautrin, a female missionary from Illinois, was so traumatized by what she saw during the massacre that she later committed suicide.)

Minnie Vautrin

Minnie Vautrin

After we finished the museum it was mid-afternoon and we were starving, so we went to the first restaurant we could find. Unfortunately, it did not have a picture menu, so I ended up having a conversation like this:

“Do you have dumplings?”




“Not too spicy.”

(I can say dumplings, chicken, pork, beef, rice, noodles, cola, beer, tea, coffee, water, fruit, and the names of a few fruits… Not a very impressive food vocabulary for someone who eats out at least once a day in China, but hey, it’s a lot more than all my friends can say…)

She ended up bringing us a chicken and peanut dish that was actually very good, so clearly I am brilliant.

After lunch we decided to try to find the Confucian temple area that is sort of the Nanjing equivalent of Quincy Market. I had emailed myself some information about Nanjing which fortunately had the names of places in characters, so I was able to show someone the name of the temple at a subway station and she pointed out the stop that we needed to go to on a map. Once we got to the stop, the same technique got us to the temple. (I know how to say left turn, right turn, intersection, etc.)

The Confucian Temple area, from the other side of the river

The Confucian Temple area, from the other side of the river

The area was very touristy but it was nice to see so many people (despite being a larger city on paper, with over 6 million people to Nanjing’s 5 million, Wuxi does not feel nearly so busy). We paid (an exorbitant) 30 yuan to go into the temple, which was rather cheesy. You could pay 2 yuan to ring the temple bell; the courtyard was full of Disney-like figures; and there was some sort of pay-as-you-listen concert going on in one of the halls. After visiting dozens of superior temples in Thailand for free, I was not impressed.


After the temple we walked around and admired (or, rather, did not admire) shop windows. The ugliness of clothes in Chinese stores never fails to amaze me. I just don’t get it—how can a whole country have such bad taste? It’s good for me, I guess—I haven’t been tempted to buy any new clothes!

We thought it might be nice to sit somewhere with a view and have a snack (getting a cup of coffee here is not really a thing, except at Starbucks. People also don’t linger over meals—they eat and run. So it’s hard to figure out where to go if you just want to pay to hang out somewhere pleasant). We walked up a staircase to a restaurant that overlooked the plaza only to discover that it was a hot pot place—not exactly snack material. Hot pot is also really hard to order at because they give you a page full of meats and vegetables (in Chinese) for you to check off. So your waiter has to speak very good English in order to translate it all, or you have to speak very good Chinese to explain what you want. In this case, the waiter very helpfully found us the menu in English—and then after we only checked a few things he proceeded to read it to us! “Spare ribs?” “No.” “Mushrooms?” “No.” “Chicken?” Finally I said, “I can read English!” And he went away. He was very nice, though!

After dinner we decided to see if we could find a traditional Chinese theater I had read about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any information about it except the name. I asked a man about it and he said that it was very, very far. That was rather discouraging, so we decided to see if we could find a movie theater and see a movie in English. Some women in the subway station directed us to a stop where we found an absolutely giant mall with an unbelievable number of shops. I think it might be as big as the Mall of America. It took us a long time to find the movie theater (even with help), and when we got there the English-language movies (the Oz and Die Hard sequels and that giant movie) were not very exciting to us and the prices were just as high as in the States (surprising in a country where you can buy a pirated DVD for $1.50), so we decided to save our money and find something else to do.

When we left the mall we were surprised to realize that we recognized where we were—we were at the corner with the fancy stores that we had walked to the night before. So we decided to find that expat bar where the cab had dropped us off and play some cards.

The bar, Blue Sky, had a very cozy atmosphere. They also had a lot of treats you can’t usually get in China, like popcorn. Liam and John taught me to play the card game they are currently obsessed with, Rummy 500. It’s very addicting, so we played until about 1:00am, at which point we found it virtually impossible to get a cab. Taxis in Wuxi display a little green light when they are open and a little red light when they are occupied, but for some reason taxis in Nanjing do exactly the opposite. Almost every taxi passing us was green, and even when they were red, they wouldn’t stop. After about twenty minutes we were getting pretty desperate. We started walking up the street, towards another group of people. I’m slightly ashamed to say that we basically stole a cab from them (just by virtue of being downstream), but since it’s China, I’m sure they would have done the same to us.

Our guidebook said that you should devote a full day to Purple Mountain, where the tombs of the Ming emperor and Sun Yat-Sen are located. Our hostel happened to be right up against the mountain, so in less than five minutes we were at an entrance to a path that led into the forest.


It was lovely to be in the woods for the first time in I don’t know how long. There were long stretches when we didn’t see any people, which was even lovelier.

Eventually our path met a long stone staircase that led up the mountain.


Lots of people were climbing it, and we soon joined them. We couldn’t see the top, so we kept expecting to reach the tombs and be finished. Everyone was panting and sweating. I took off my coat, then my sweater. Every time the staircase leveled off for a small landing we were disappointed. It turned out that the staircase went all the way to the top of the mountain, and—the real kicker—that the tombs were not at the top!

Liam later said that about nine other people were taking our picture while we were posing...

Liam later said that about nine other people were taking our picture while we were posing…

After the climb we were both hungry and exhausted. We decided to take a random bus and get off when we saw some restaurants. Unfortunately, this strategy brought us to a restaurant where we had the most unsatisfying meal of the trip. It had lots of pictures of food on the walls, but everything I pointed to, they didn’t have. Nobody liked what we ended up getting, so we had a lot of rice and vowed to find something better for dinner.

We decided to try one last time to see a tomb, and took a cab to the Ming emperor’s. Traffic was so terrible (it’s a very popular tourist attraction) that our taxi dropped us off down the street and we had to find it ourselves.

We bought our (approximately $10) tickets at the gate, then walked into the park. On either side of us were walkways guarded by stone statues. To the left were giant stone people, to the right giant stone animals (elephants, camels, etc). We decided to follow the people. We passed many flowering trees, and a creek. We saw views like this:


One large avenue lead to a very attractive building—which turned out to be a gift shop.

Farther down was the tomb itself, which I thought was pretty darn spectacular.


The grounds were very extensive.

P1050354 P1050360 P1050357

There was a lake, surrounded by “no swimming signs,” in which we counted no fewer than four swimmers. (It’s funny—people in the West seem to think of China as a totalitarian place where rule-breakers are severely punished, while in reality, nobody in China obeys the rules. People swim next to “no swimming” signs, drive the wrong way down one-way streets, laugh at police officers who tell them not to push their way onto subway cars, and pee wherever the hell they feel like it.)


Anyway, the grounds also had a field where people were picnicking, and even some amusement park rides. We were only there for about an hour and a half so we missed a lot of the sights. John said it was his favorite thing he’s seen in China so far, and I have to agree—it was so peaceful and so beautiful. It’s rare in a country of 1 billion people to get to appreciate nature.

When we left we decided to try to find a busy pedestrian area described in my guide. We tried to get a cab but it was impossible, so we decided to get on a bus.

Drivers in China are very impatient, so someone tried to go around our bus—and completely sideswiped it. So our driver stopped, got out, and yelled at the woman, and everyone on our bus got off and got onto another bus—except the three of us, since we had already climbed a mountain that day and didn’t mind sitting still for a while.

Eventually we got downtown. I was debating where we should get off when I saw a sign for the street we were looking for. So, almost totally randomly, we had ended up on a bus going to almost exactly the place we were headed to. Now that’s what I call great navigation skills!

I had read about this street in the book “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret, which I highly recommend. He attended the University of Nanjing in the early ‘80s, and one of his classmates later became a big shot in the local Communist party. If I remember correctly, he visited Las Vegas and returned to Nanjing determined to create something similar. And now, having visited his creation, I have to admit that he succeeded. (Think old Vegas, a la the Golden Nugget, as opposed to the Luxor—lots of neon.)

After dinner we ended up playing cards at Blue Sky again. I really like that place—none of the expat bars in Wuxi feels as much like a pub. I don’t understand why pubs are so hard to find in China. (Pubs, cheese, tampons, salons that do eyebrow waxing, pedicures, and attractive clothing of any kind. Life’s little mysteries, I guess.)

Sunday morning we checked out a section of the city’s 600-year-old city walls.


Nearly all the city walls in China were destroyed years ago, but not Nanjing’s. They are quite impressive—some of the rooms in them were so deep you could fit hundreds of soldiers. Many of them were empty, but some were used for exhibits. The English was humorously bad—to the point that I usually didn’t bother reading because it didn’t make any sense. I did learn, however, that the man who built the city walls once had a dream that he should help people wearing green, and so the next day he bought all the frogs from the local market and released them. And then a frog fairy gave him a magic bowl that made whatever he put into it multiply. And so he put gold into it and got very rich. (From that point on I couldn’t really follow the story, but once you’ve read about a frog fairy, you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.)

And that is the story of my weekend in Nanjing.

You’re welcome.





Unexplained Phnomena


It’s time for a little detour, folks. We’re going to talk about beauty.

I care about my appearance. I try to look good if I possibly can. And I know enough about fashion that people pay me to write about it.

But I also try to dress appropriately for wherever I am. In Southeast Asia, that means keeping your shoulders and thighs covered. Which sounds easy, but in practice I can’t find a way to do it that doesn’t result in my looking (or at least feeling) like a missionary.

It is almost impossible to find an attractive dress that is not stifling in tropical heat which meets those qualifications. Which is why I have now appeared in public numerous times in a dress covered with elephants. I hope my future teenage children will understand why I did it, and try to show me a little mercy, but I realize that’s a lot to ask.

The worst part is that I seem to be the only westerner here who even tries, so I look like the one sad old maid in a sea of Ke$has.

Another beauty-related topic that’s been on my mind a lot these days is skin color. I saw my first tube of skin-whitening cream my first day in Chiang Mai at the 7-Eleven (I was disgusted to see that big international brands like Ponds make them as well as local brands I’d never heard of). Since then, I’ve seen numerous billboards showing a man with a line down the middle of his face. On one side, he’s darker. On the other, he’s pale. Jacey, our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, told us that he wishes he were fairer. We told him that everyone in America wants to be tan, but it didn’t make an impression. (A slightly related aside: in Cambodia, they use US dollars for everything, but they won’t take bills that have even a tiny tear in them. I told them that nobody in the US would care—they would probably even take a bill that was torn completely in half—but they remained firm.) Anyway, it makes me so angry that these corporations are encouraging so many people to hate their appearance.

Now for a beauty tale that will leave your hair standing on end (which is a lot better than what it did to my hair while it was happening. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

I spent yesterday morning on my laptop in the hostel’s lounge, updating my blog, and booking my bus to Ho Chi Minh City and accommodations there. But I didn’t want to completely waste my last day in Cambodia, so at 1:30pm I decided I had better go out and see some sights.

I was slightly nervous that Andy (my tuk-tuk driver from the day before) might be waiting for me outside—he had stepped inside and waved at me earlier, and the thought that he might be counting on me to provide him with a good-paying tuk-tuk job (when I really felt like walking) was making me a little anxious. Fortunately, when I exited the hostel not only was he nowhere to be seen, there were no tuk-tuks there at all. (As I mentioned, Andy has tuk-tuk number seventeen for my hostel—so there are at least seventeen tuk-tuks that could be waiting there at any given time.)

I decided to make the most of my freedom and walk around the city. I was really starting to get the feel of it. Instead of avoiding eye contact with people, I looked at everyone and smiled. I still shook my head when they offered me rides, food, clothes, etc., but I did it with a positive attitude.

I saw some street signs pointing towards the Independence Monument—Phnom Penh’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, only, somewhat ironically, it celebrates Cambodia’s freedom from France—and decided to walk there. I found myself humming “Aux Champs-Elysees” as I walked, because it really did feel a bit like walking towards the Arc de Triomphe. There were government buildings on either side (including the busy folks at the Ministry of Corruption).

I was struck by the number of portraits of the king. There are a lot of pictures of the royal family in Thailand, but they are not usually three feet high and on the outside of buildings. Some of them were wreathed in black, which made me wonder if something had happened to the king, but then I remembered that black isn’t a funereal color in China, so maybe the black was just to show that he is a serious man. (I later asked a Cambodian who told me that the king had died in October. I felt really bad for not knowing that. Normally I would make sure to know that sort of thing before visiting a country—when I was in Argentina former president/first gent Nestor Kirchner had just died and I made a point to photograph the graffiti commemorating his life. I’m not sure if I even got a photo of the many images of the king (I wasn’t sure how the guards at all these buildings would feel about my taking one). The same Cambodian told me that king was loved by everyone.)

By the time I made it to the Independence Monument (which evokes Angkor Wat’s towers, only on a bigger scale) I was starving. I walked up and down streets looking for a restaurant that wasn’t totally empty (it was about 3:00pm), or of dubious cleanliness. When I was approaching desperate, I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with BB World, “Cambodia’s most well-known burger and fast food chain.” This, I had to try.

BB World was a large, welcoming space with high ceilings and an attractive spiral staircase leading to the second floor. The dominant color was red—red booths, red chairs, etc. It looked very much like an American fast food chain—only cleaner and with much better service. At the front were pictures of the various options (the burgers come with a tiny Cambodian flag stuck in them!). After they took my order and I paid, I was told to go wait at a table. Next to my table were sinks, soap, and paper towels for washing your hands. I was very impressed! (Unfortunately, the food was not so great. The fries were not tasty at all—and I don’t know what my burger was made of, but it definitely wasn’t beef.)

After I ate I wandered down one of the streets that flowed out from the Independence Monument. It was the nicest I had seen in Phnom Penh—it had several attractive stores (including a “Face Shop,” which I suspect is being sued for copyright infringement as we speak since it looks exactly like a Body Shop). There was even a Mango (international Spanish chain that I love but can’t afford in the US).

After I passed the Mango I noticed a sign for a salon that advertised waxing. I was immediately interested, since I learned long ago that I am hopeless at shaping my own eyebrows, which are probably my most prominent feature.

I was slightly nervous about letting people who couldn’t understand me change my appearance (I had a bad experience with a beauty school in Quebec ten years ago that left me with my first bob), but I figured with eyebrows, how bad could it really be? The worst thing they could do would be to make me look like Claudette Colbert, right?

Wrong! (This is an example of a literary technique known as “foreshadowing.”)

I walked into this place (called Hong Kong something-or-other), and an old man sitting next to the door greeted me and had me sit down in a chair in front of a mirror while he brought a young woman over. I explained (with some pointing) that I wanted my eyebrows waxed. There was conferring. Finally, she led me into a back corridor and up a dimly lit staircase into an even dimmer room with several narrow gurney-like things. A woman was lying on one having her face covered in some sort of goo by a very confident-looking woman. A much less confident woman was given me.

She indicated that I should lie down and relax while the wax heated up (I inferred most of this—nobody there could speak very good English), which I did. Eventually she came over and began touching my eyebrows in a way that felt reassuring—like she had done this before. Then she began pressing my right eyebrow so hard that it was painful. I actually wondered if she were using wax at all or some technique I wasn’t familiar with it. Then I felt her add a strip of cloth and pull it off. (You know something’s different when actually pulling the hair off doesn’t hurt nearly as much as putting the wax on. It felt as though she were trying to insert the wax into my skull.)

Then, all of a sudden, she was asking me a question. Did I want (points to top of eyebrow) and (points to bottom). I was confused. Was she asking if I wanted her to wax both the top and the bottom? It felt like she had already done both. I decided to look in a mirror to confirm.

I should pause for a moment to tell you that I don’t scare easily.

I looked like an alien. Or the victim of some type of horrific accident. Half of my right eyebrow was completely gone. A thin sliver that began halfway past my eye remained (and it wasn’t even neatly done). Photos don’t do it justice—you really have to see it in 3-D to see how bad it is (it made a grown man who had never seen me before shout “Holy shit!”)—but here you go anyway:


You’d be proud of me—I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry. I just said: “That’s really bad.” They indicated I should lie down again and I shook my head. I made them remove the remaining wax from my face while I stood up (towering over them, of course). I asked the woman who had done it if this was her first time, but she didn’t understand me. Then I politely walked out of the building, artfully arranging my bangs and wondering if I should get a haircut like Zooey Deschanel’s.

I decided not to let it break my stride. I wanted to see at least one more site in Phnom Penh. I followed signs to the Russian Market, but I found it to be too much for me (trash, chaos), so I decided to get a tuk-tuk and see something else. I had read in my guidebook that the silver pagoda with its emerald Buddha was the city’s top attraction (even though I had yet to find anyone who had heard of it), so I decided to try one more tuk-tuk driver. I found one who claimed to know what it was, but when we got to the right neighborhood (I was able to tell him it was near the royal palace) it became clear that he didn’t actually know. Then, when we discussed it more (“A wat with a big green Buddha?”), he realized that it was actually inside the palace grounds—which had just closed for the day. Since we had just driven through a beautiful neighborhood with some very attractive shops (which was quite unusual for Phnom Penh), I told him to let me out and I started walking, trying to find the streets we had walked down.

(Spoiler alert: I failed.)

Not that there was anything wrong with the neighborhoods I did walk through—they were more of what I was already used to. And walking is a slog in Phnom Penh because there are hardly any sidewalks; cars are parked on them, and motorbikes and tuk-tuks are whizzing by in the streets, so you have to hug the curb and pay close attention to what’s going on around you. Which I did for blocks and blocks and blocks. All with the handicap of being a one-browed freak.

Finally I headed back to the hostel to meet Stuart (who very nicely claimed that my eyebrow wasn’t that bad. I suggested he get his eyes checked) and go out to dinner with people from Couch Surfing. “People from Couch Surfing” turned out to be Dan, a Cambodian American guy from L.A. We ate at Chinese House, a gorgeous tapas place that I would never have been able to afford in the US (in Cambodia it was about $6-8 a dish and $5 a cocktail). We ended up shutting the place down. We got the waitresses’ life stories (one wants to go to fashion school but it’s very expensive. The other’s father lives in Lowell, MA—I promised to go eat at his restaurant when I go home. She immediately friended me on Facebook so we can keep in touch.) The waitresses asked where else I was going in Cambodia and I had to confess I was going to Vietnam the following day. It made me sad, actually. I wished I could tell them that I were going somewhere else in the country that they were obviously very proud of. Especially since I was really starting to feel at home in Phnom Penh.

Tomorrow: Vietnam!



Beach Bums

1987_10151229098786025_1029000181_n[2]There is something universal about beach towns. If it weren’t for the palm trees, the motorbikes, the “gentlemen’s clubs,” the numerous tailors who will make you a tuxedo in less than 24 hours, and, oh yeah, the elephants, I could have sworn I’d been here before.

I’m not sure why that is… maybe it’s the walking back from the beach all sandy to a room with a fan working overtime. The familiar feeling of–despite all your best efforts–getting burned by the sun. (I swear I wore a hat, Mom!) Maybe it’s the other tourists that make it seem familiar. (Though I have definitely heard some languages here I have never heard before. Isaure and I were seated at a table next to a very large group of very loud, entitled young men yesterday, and we found ourselves guessing in whispered French what country might have had the misfortune to have produced them. Turkey? Kazakhstan? Egypt? Then we saw them again last night, whipping through the town on motorbikes at speeds much too fast to be safe for pedestrians. I suppose it’s good for us as we get older to see people who make youth seem so unattractive.)

Our second day in Koh Chang was very much like the first, except with the addition of a much-improved Khalid. We went straight to the beach (pausing only for Isaure to buy a small inner tube—which sent her somersaulting under the water the moment she sat on it. Being Isaure, she came up laughing.)

We had brunch at one of the seaside resorts. Their restaurant looks like something out of a Club Med brochure—ocean front terrace with white cotton tablecloths and handmade-looking wooden chairs.

We took another walk down the shore, past rope-and-wood swings over the ocean, some sand castles, an enormous, beautiful tree that created almost a hut with it’s low-hanging branches and made me wish once again that I knew something about botany, a local landmark called Porn’s (apparently a common Thai name) which looks exactly like the jungle tree house in “Swiss Family Robinson” and is therefore the place I am most excited to eat dinner.

Back on our beach, we ate a quick lunch then went back in the water and swam and floated and talked and talked. Then we sat on our towels and watched the sun set over the water. In Chiang Mai we saw almost no stars—we couldn’t figure out if that was because of light pollution or pollution pollution—but from the beach we could see thousands and thousands. I found myself wondering if they were the same stars we could see in Boston (I thought they should be, since we were in the same hemisphere), but I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Khalid of course immediately pulled out his star-finding app, but the Big Dipper was not where it told us it should be. I spent the next few minutes turning in slow circles on the sand, trying to find stars that were not there.