yours, tiramisu

hard pills to swallow

My throat hurts a little. I don’t know if this is because of the air quality here or because I’m actually getting sick, but I’m desperately hoping it’s not the latter. I stopped taking my immunosuppressants today and started drinking lots of juices high in vitamin C, despite research proving chugging OJ a rather ineffective method for warding off illness. (Something about all the sugar in it makes it hard for your body to absorb the Vitamin C, if I remember correctly.)

Traveling and getting sick go hand in hand for me. It’s as if arriving somewhere new triggers my immune system to self-immolate. When I visited New York in 2021 I lost my voice after a few days. I spent my first week in Latin America making chicken noodle soup and nursing myself back to health. My immune system’s never been good to begin with, and when you add in jetlag, a new climate, and an array of foreign microbes, it’s no wonder I get sick every time I step on a plane.

I just got back from an overnight trip to 大连 (Dalian), a coastal city in the north. My time there was … mixed. Dalian is a world apart from the small town my grandparents call home: it’s big, clean, and very sleek. I enjoyed getting to see the “new” China, for lack of a better term. But many of these advancements make it difficult for foreigners to function properly.

Getting around has been frustrating. Since Google, Uber, and the like don’t work here, we have to use a whole new set of apps like WeChat, AliPay, Baidu Maps, and Meituan. These are cool but unfamiliar to us. Mom can’t use them because she’s a boomer, and for once my brother and I can’t help her because we can’t read anything. (As far as I can tell, most of these apps have no option to translate the UI into English.) Chinese (and Asian) web design is also pretty different from its Western counterpart, so we fumble around and make fools of ourselves frequently. This morning our delivery driver dropped off our rice noodle rolls in the Meituan locker and after finally finding them we couldn’t get them out for a good 10 minutes. Do you know how frustrating it is to look everywhere under the sun for your breakfast only to find it locked away behind a transparent locker that requires you to do something you can’t read? Cold rice noodles and porridge is the taste of defeat.

China’s made large strides towards being a cashless society. People use WeChat and AliPay for everything. Even the old grannies at the roadside market ask you to pay for your cucumbers by scanning their WeChat QR code. After scanning and entering the amount agreed upon, usually a speaker announces how much you’ve paid, at which point you’re free to leave. You can pay for anything this way: haircuts, taxi rides, groceries, meals. It’s seamless, versatile, and honestly pretty amazing.

The problem with this is that until very recently (I think) neither WeChat or AliPay accepted foreign credit cards as payment methods, so the only way you could use them to pay was if you had a Chinese bank account (which — don’t quote me — is also difficult to set up for foreigners). A lot of places don’t take cash anymore either (though thankfully it’s more accepted than I anticipated!), so Mom’s had to pay for a lot of things.

(Also, paying for things like this requires you to have a smartphone and a working data connection, the latter of which I do not have. I thought it’d be easy to get a cheap SIM card here with lots of data on it but surprisingly, that’s not been the case. The online eSIM options cost a lot for very little data.)

I’ve been thinking about the word soulless a lot recently, a word many of my Chinese-American friends (and even some Chinese born ones) use to describe big Chinese cities. I can certainly see where they’re coming from. Downtown Dalian was eerily empty at many times of day, and the fact that two of their top tourist attractions are sad copies of other cities is a bit weird. It makes me sad that these imitations (“homages” might be a nicer word to use) are all over China, a country with more than enough rich cultural heritage to go around.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Dalian soulless. What does it mean for a city to have a soul, anyway? And who’s the arbiter of that? I’m sure if I went to New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo looking for depravity and late stage capitalism I’d find it on every street corner too. I’m also sure that plenty of people that live in Dalian do find things they love about the city, people that know a lot more about the city than an American like me passing through.

There’s a lot we can learn from these big Chinese cities. The Dalian metro system is clean and timely. You have to go through a metal detector any time you want to take the subway or high-speed rail, which is a mild annoyance but one I’m happy to bear if it means giving up my right to involuntarily participate in mass shootings. Between the rail system, the subway, and the huge fleet of taxis, the mobility of an average citizen in Dalian is a lot better than one in any American city, I’d say.

(I know I keep going on and on about public transit. This will not be the last time. We’re starved of proper mobility in America, please understand.)

I’m also reminded again of why I don’t love traveling with my mom. I think the best way to put it is that she has low emotional IQ, or EQ. She snaps at us a lot when she’s frustrated, like today she yelled at us for“complaining” when we asked her a simple question about how to use Meituan. Or she’ll tell us to do X task then get mad why Y didn’t get done. Perhaps worst of all, she never apologizes or admits wrongdoing for anything, and sometimes gaslights me into thinking that things never happened at all.

Things are a lot better than when I was younger. When we took a road trip to Yellowstone in my middle school years Mom didn’t speak to me for a week. What for, I couldn’t tell you. None of her outbursts ever seem to suit the offense. My brother and I are pretty well-behaved kids, and I’ve never had any similar issues with my dad. The rage is also usually directed at me and not my brother, for reasons beyond my comprehension. I don’t think I’ll ever know why my mom is like this.

For as many years as I’ve had to get used to this treatment, I still don’t enjoy being yelled at. Mom will yell at me for something incredibly trivial and then act like nothing happened half an hour later. I’m not someone who gets over things easily (something you might know if you read my writing; overthinking is my preferred form of exercise) so getting yelled at usually ruins my day, even if it’s by someone who does it to me all the time. I try not to let it show, and now that I’m older I will sometimes fight back with a venom that surprises even me, but that doesn’t stop little Misu from retreating deep into his hermit crab shell when things like this happen, and he doesn’t tend to come out once he goes in there.

#china #english #family #life #travel #wordvomit