Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On the border...

(as always, click to embiggen)

I was born and raised in San Diego, California, about a half hour from the Mexican border. When I was growing up, it was entirely possible to ignore the border, if you were a typical White kid like I was. Tijuana, the sprawling, messy city on the other side, was a place that a lot of the time, White San Diego seemed to pretend wasn't there, engaging in an act of civic denial.

Or, Tijuana was there, but it was "The Other," the place where you went to engage in transgressive behavior, to get drunk, gamble, go to donkey shows, do things you wouldn't do at home.

Or, Tijuana was a problem. The poverty. The sewage spills. The migrants who crossed illegally. And later, the drug wars. Something you guarded against, built walls to keep out.

Of course, there was always another side. Latino families with roots on both sides of the borders, who crossed back and forth all the time. People who lived in one city and worked in the other. It was easy to cross, before 9/11. You'd go for a couple of hours. Eat some street tacos. Buy tequila. Do a little shopping. Go to the bullfights if you were into that kind of thing. Maybe drive down to Puerto Nuevo for lobster, and beans, rice and tortillas.

I remember one time when I was in college, and I was driving a friend home around 11 at night, and somehow missed his exit.

"Let's go to Mexico," he mumbled, half-asleep.

"Okay," I said, and we did (I had the presence of mind to stop and buy Mexican car insurance before we crossed).

9/11 changed that. Even more, the drug wars put an end to that casual crossing. The violence devastated the tourist economy in Baja California. People were afraid to visit. And many residents were afraid to go out at night.

But in recent years, Tijuana has made a comeback. The cartel violence has died down. The city is a hotbed of electronics assembly and manufacturing.  TJ has become known for its culinary and cultural scene. There's increasing talk of the "San Diego/Baja Mega-region."

And since I'd recently moved back to my old home town San Diego, I decided it was past time for me to revisit Tijuana. Some friends and I signed up for a market tour with an atypical tour company, Turista Libre*, founded and run by an American journalist who lives in TJ. We would visit several markets via an old school bus. It seemed like a great way to get reacquainted with Tijuana, which to be honest, I'd never known all that well to begin with.

We took the trolley to the border, something I'd done in the past, but so long ago that I barely remembered the process.

Nowadays, at least, though there are physical barriers aplenty between the US and Mexico, the "border" is not always clearcut.

Crossing on foot is easy. You might even say, "pedestrian." You head up a path that feels almost like an afterthought. Sadly, there's nothing on the US side that suggests anything neighborly. What it feels like is that you're entering a prison.

Don't worry, your ad here can be seen by over 8 million people a year! 

But it's easy enough to get in. 

And here we are!

Looking back toward the US

We walked a bit, to a parking lot where our battered school bus waited, loaded up on pan dulce and Nescafe and headed up into the hills, to our first destination: La Villa Swap meet. Heading up there, you see a lot of housing that borders on shanties, little homes and businesses in crumbling disrepair, graffiti, everywhere. What you might have pictured Tijuana to be. 

The swap meet itself? 

I don't have any photos that capture the scale of this thing, and the truth is, when you see it, you can't really tell just how big it is, how far it goes, how many little side streets it spills into. It just never ends. You'll find:

Clothes. Oh so many clothes. Clothes, shoes and bags. DVDs. Stereos. Drum kits. 

Food of all sorts. And snacks. Tacos. Gorditas. Churros. Huaraches. 

(this stuff)

And all kinds of furniture.
(I have no explanation for the bowling balls)

Used tools, engine parts,  whatever all this is...

Tires. Car parts.

 (this place lets you use their bathroom for a quarter)

And musicians. And friendly people in general.

Our next stop was to the oldest market in Tijuana. Given that Tijuana is a new city, it's not very old: the Hidalgo Market opened at this location in 1984. This is a place where you'll find all kinds of food products, piñatas, kitchenware and pottery. Also, a rather upscale coffee stand, where the barista told me all about the beans and encouraged me to smell them.

Our last stop was on Avenida Revolución. Back in the day, Revolución was the epicenter of Tourist Tijuana, where you'd have your photo taken with the donkey painted like a zebra, get plastered at bars that served underaged college students and buy all manner of tacky souvenirs: gigantic sombreros and cheap maracas and cartoon mescal worms.

Many if not most of those places are out of business now, leaving Revolución quiet, almost deserted, at least on a Sunday afternoon.

But in the place of those tacky tourist shops, new and interesting things are appearing: Small, local businesses selling edgy T-shirts, hand-made accessories, and art. I happened upon a little food court tucked on the other side of a tunnel-like passage of shuttered stalls, where they had hummus, portabello burgers, and craft beer, among other things, with distressed wood tables and the kind of vibe you'd expect to find in in any middle-class hipster neighborhood.

Yes, I tried the beer. And it was good.

After all that, it was time to return to the border…where there were still approximately 900 pedestrians in line waiting to cross -- a wait that could take as long as three hours. 

We circumvented the worst of this by paying $6 a person to get onto an old airport shuttle bus, that for some reason was allowed to go to the head of the pedestrian line, where after about 55 minutes or so, we were able to debark and finally, head into US Customs.

Which is nothing like US Customs at any airport I've experienced. It's small and dimly lit and grimy, sort of like the worst small-town Greyhound station you've ever seen, and although I'm sure most of the CBP staffing it are fine folks, we encountered one guy who screamed at people in the wrong line and another who was just kind of an asshole. The rest were perfunctory and and not particularly friendly. The best I can say is that once we were actually in the Customs area, it didn't take very long to get through. But the fact that it routinely takes pedestrians hours to cross is a national embarrassment. Frequent border-crossers apply for the Sentri Global Entry or Ready-Pass programs, and I plan to do that ASAP.

Because I plan to return to Tijuana and Baja soon, and I hope to visit often. I like living on the border.


*If you're interested in visiting Tijuana, I recommend Turista Libre to get acquainted with the city. I'm signing up for the craft beer tour, for sure! 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Things seen in China...

Sometimes I think I should have learned photography. I like taking pictures, having that frame to put around the world. It's a lot easier, at times, to share experiences of other places through photos than it is to write about them.

I have a semi-respectable camera but I really enjoy taking pictures with my smartphone. I like being able to edit and post on the fly, also that the phone is less obtrusive than a DSLR. The main reason I want to upgrade my phone at this point is for a better camera (I mean, does anyone actually use their smartphone to talk?)

Anyway, here are a few images taken on my trip to China last month. The purpose of the trip was visiting craft breweries there, but I did manage to do a few other things, apart from trying Chinese IPAs. In all instances, click to embiggen...

This is a blurry night shot done with that outdated smartphone, but I was so taken by the scene. Rather than having tables or blankets, a lot of vendors in this hip Kunming district were selling their wares out of the backs of cars and vans. All the better to outrun the chengguan if need be, the much hated "urban management" police force in charge of cracking down on illegal street vendors and other petty crimes. They have a reputation for brutality and excess, and even if you aren't crazy about illegal street vendors (who can be a real nuisance), hardly anyone roots for the chengguan.

Yeah, I know, I know. I have a thing about weird signs.

I was primarily seeking out "craft" beer from microbreweries. While this hardly fit the "craft" category, it was a pretty decent German lager. And, yellow.

The "vampire" trend in Beijing started a few years ago, and to my surprise is still hanging on. This is a bar on a very trendy hutong (alley) that's been around for a while.

A couple of Kunming fashion statements (and yes, the sign below really does translate to "smelly socks" -- someone has a sense of humor!)

Sure, they look innocent enough during the day...

Run away! RUN AWAY!!!!!

 You can find peaceful places in China if you look…

So. Much. Good. Food. The snaps below are all from Dali, in Yunnan.

I would so ride this.

Shanghai may be one of the most modern cities in the world, but in the older sections, this is how they do the scaffolding. In a lot of the newer ones, too…

Things seen in Beijing...

I always find these tranquil snapshots in the middle of Beijing.

But these old neighborhoods are almost gone now…

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Long Time No See!

Cara Lopez Lee and I met through an online author network and bonded over our love of China, Mexico, and writing. This month she’s celebrating the 2014 edition of They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away, (Conundrum Press, Oct 7 2014). 

It’s about Cara’s nine years in Alaska, where she landed in a love triangle with two alcoholics, and the year she ran away to trek around the world alone. During that journey, she made her first visit to China and discovered that a Chinese phrasebook is pretty much useless unless you speak Chinese. In honor of her book’s re-release, I’ve invited her to The Paper Tiger to share her dogged attempts to become multilingual. Enjoy! 

Long Time, No See!

After a year of Mandarin lessons and a year-and-a-half of Cantonese lessons, I can say “Where’s the bathroom?” in both languages, but don’t know what to do if the person answering does anything besides point. In Cantonese, right is “yao” and left is “dzaw”—don’t ask me the tones because Cantonese officially has either six or nine tones, but I hear 16. Problem is, if someone answers, “Down the hall to the left,” I’d hear, “Blah-blah-blah left.” Actually I’d hear “Mut-mut-mut left,” because “mut” means “blah” in Cantonese. After a few left turns, I’d end up where I started, where there’s only one thing I could say to the person who gave me directions: “Ho noi mo gin!” (Long time, no see!)

The above is called “losing face”: either mo min or diu gaa. I prefer mo min, because diu pronounced with the wrong tone means, “fuck,” though I doubt diu gaa translates “fuck-face.” I don’t mind losing face, but I’d rather not get punched in it.

I first visited China in 1999, during my solo trek around the world. On that trip, I learned such Mandarin phrases as “Ni hou!” (Hello!)“Duo shao qian?” (How much is it?), and “Xie xie” (Thank you). As a beginner traveler, I fell into the trap of believing that, when in doubt, I could mime whatever I needed. Untrue, as I discovered when looking for my bus from Lijiang to Dali. Unable to read signs, I ran from bus to bus holding up my ticket and pleading “Dali?…Dali?...Dali?” The drivers stared blankly. Panicked, I felt a weird temptation to try Spanish, the only other language I knew. Good thing an old man read my ticket and led me by the hand to my bus, or I might never have made it home to write my memoir.

Seven years later, I started researching a novel inspired by my Chinese-Mexican ancestry. I wanted to find the village of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, who was born in China. Until the 1970s, Toisan county was where most Chinese-Americans traced their roots. To prepare, I wanted to learn Cantonese. Toisanese is the local dialect, but I live in Denver, where I thought finding a Cantonese instructor would be easier. No such luck. Everyone insisted Mandarin would be more useful, so I surrendered and found a Mandarin tutor.

Mandarin is hard.

A year later, I only knew a handful of phrases, like, “I’m an American.” Shit, they could tell that by looking at me. So I hired a translator to help me find my ancestral village. Fiona Zhu, or Zhu Zhu, proved invaluable. My favorite great-uncle had told me my great-grandfather’s village was Gong Hao, but Zhu Zhu discovered that Gong Hao was a district containing eleven villages. So we embarked on a hunt.

On my previous trip to China, I often thought people were angry, because Mandarin tones sometimes sound harsh. Cantonese and Toisanese sound more musical. A comedian once said Cantonese speakers sound like they’re falling off a cliff: “mut-mut-mut-aaaaaaah!” Still, Cantonese can sound angry too if you don’t understand. At one point in Gong Hao, shouting people surrounded us.

“Are they angry?” I asked.

Zhu Zhu chuckled. “No. So nice, everybody wants to help find your family!”

Ultimately, someone directed us to a 99-year-old man in the village of Git Non, who we nicknamed Old Mr. Ma. He spoke Toisanese. My translator did not. The interview went something like this:

“My great-grandfather was born in Gong Hao 120 years ago,” I said, “so I’d like to learn what life was like here long ago.” My translator relayed this to his granddaughter in Cantonese, who relayed this to her grandfather in Toisanese, whose answer made the same trip in reverse.

Five minutes later, Zhu Zhu said, “He wants to know your grandpa’s name.”

“Ma Bing Sum, but he left before you were born, so you wouldn’t have known him.”

Chinese people are big on family history, so Mr. Ma refused to give up so easily. I told him Ma Bing Sum was born in Gong Hao around 1888 and moved to America in the early 1900s. Then I showed him a letter my uncle once wrote my great-grandfather. Mr. Ma grew excited, “Ho Ho Ho!” My great-grandfather was from this very village! Mr. Ma had met him during a couple of his visits home. He verified that Ma Bing Sum had lived in El Paso with a Mexican wife. He opened the village’s red book of ancestors to a page naming Ma Bing Sum and his eldest three sons. Across the path from Old Mr. Ma’s house stood the humble home where my great-grandfather was born. Down the street stood the huge house he built with money he made in America.

“Your grandpa was the richest man in town,” Zhu Zhu said. This village was full of my distant cousins. “They say you are family.”

I had tears in my eyes, but I did not lose face.

Two days later we did a full interview. One thing Mr. Ma shared was that long ago in Git Non, teens approaching marriageable age moved out of their parents’ homes and into two communal homes: one for boys, one for girls. Those homes now appear in my novel.

Two years later I returned for Qing Ming, a Chinese version of “Day of the Dead” when people clean and decorate family graves and feed their ancestors. The Ma family served a roast pig, which now makes an undignified appearance in my novel. The next day we celebrated Mr. Ma’s 101st birthday. Everyone chuckled with delight when I said Cantonese phrases Zhu Zhu taught me, like M’Goi (thank you) and ho ho mei, (delicious).

That does it, I thought. I’m learning Cantonese and I’m coming back. Mr. Ma won’t understand me, but his family will. I can also return to Guangzhou and Hong Kong where my uncle grew up, and speak the language he spoke. What’s more, I want my novel to feel realistic, and language is culture. I renewed my search for a Cantonese tutor: “I don’t care if Mandarin is more sensible!” I found Jing Jing, a twenty-something tutor from Guangzhou.

Sometimes Jing Jing’s lessons reveal a generation gap. She worked hard to teach me “Hang gai, Tai hei, Sik fan,” meaning, “Go shopping, see a show, eat”—the Chinese version of “Go to the mall.” She assures me this is “very popular,” though I doubt my great-grandfather said it in the 1910s. Then again, she also taught me the common greeting,“Sik dzaw fan mei ah?” which never goes out of style. It means, “Have you eaten yet?” or literally, “Have you eaten rice?” a reminder that rice is central to Chinese culture. Jing Jing explained that, upon meeting someone, it’s polite to say, “Please give me your advice.” I’m eager to make this request of my Chinese cousins.

There’s something about a foreigner speaking our language that warms the soul. It says this relationship means so much that I wish to build a bridge between us.

The last time I saw Old Mr. Ma he was waving from his doorway on his 101st birthday, saying, “Bye-bye!” a popular farewell in modern China. I had given him sweets, a card, and a red balloon. He was most tickled by that balloon, not because he’s feeble-minded—we had discussed profound concepts, including how he values the family closeness of village life, which is why he never sought his fortune in America—no, he loved the balloon simply because he’s a joyful person.

I hope I get to tell him, “Ho Noi Mo Gin!”—“Long Time No See.” If he’s no longer around, I’ll ask where his grave is so I can leave an offering. Hopefully by then I’ll know how to ask for directions.

About the Author:
Cara Lopez Lee’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, and she’s a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. She married her husband at an active volcano in Costa Rica. They live in Denver. You can buy Cara’s memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands, at Conundrum Press, IndieBound, or Amazon. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Getting from here to there...

I am sometimes not sure why I'm so addicted to traveling in China, because truthfully, it isn't always easy. Maybe because what it always is, is interesting.

A couple of days ago, I traveled with a friend by Da Ba Che -- Big Bus -- from Kunming to Dali. It takes about five hours or so, two hours less than the train. Note to self: What it saves in time, it makes up for in added discomfort and occasional terror.

You get on this thing and are immediately bombarded with a safety video instructing you to wear your seatbelt, not to smoke on the bus, and for reasons which are unclear to me, don't drop luggage on your baby. This repeats every 15 minutes or so. All well and good except half the seats don't have seat belts, or arm rests in some cases. The highways are very narrow, crowded with big trucks, close enough that you could reach out the window and touch one in the next lane.

At one point, we made a sharp turn, and my friend Richard went flying out of his seat, landing in the aisle. Both of us were so shocked by this that we didn't quite know how to react. This was topped a few minutes later when another bus nearly merged into us, our driver had to swerve and then he fell out of his seat. I guess he wasn't paying any attention to the safety video.

When the safety video wasn't playing, we watched strange Chinese comedies about a magical cellphone and another where a schoolteacher pretends to be a playboy's girlfriend for a visit to his parents, who run a martial arts school, for reasons that are unclear to me. Also, music videos. Like, "My Heart Will Go On," which is pretty much unavoidable in China, years after the film. As Celine Dion sang the chorus, a young couple behind us started singing along. Until it was interrupted by the safety video again. Wear your seatbelt. Don't smoke. And don't drop luggage on your baby.

We had one traffic jam, where lanes were closed due to construction. The barriers are bright colored plastic that look like the components of a child's fort, nothing that would actually stop a car. Meanwhile, we're barreling up a series of mountains, into greener and greener country dotted with Bai villages -- traditional whitewashed houses with gray roofs. Round mandala-like paintings under the eaves, like Amish barn signs. On the long walls, murals, some elaborate scenes of traditional subjects, dancers and musicians gathered around a bonfire, dotted with a series of small blazes, white geese taking flight around them. Others have paintings of dinosaurs. One village's murals are entirely different varieties of mushrooms. This part of Yunnan province is famous for its mushrooms, I'm told.

After this ride, I resolved to avoid the Da Ba in the future and take the train instead, even if it's two hours longer. But I expect I'll be going this way again, and soon, I hope. Because when you get there, it looks like this…