Life in a fish bowl, towards my “15 Minutes of Fame” and other observations…

I’ve settled in to my new life and routine in Xi’an. I moved into my stunning new apartment on April 8. My thirty boxes of household goods arrived from Beijing a few days later. I had everything unpacked and set up by the following week. I even made an IKEA run to augment my belongings because, well, how does one get my on a mere 30 boxes of “stuff”? My new guest bedroom has been outfitted with a gorgeous king-size bed so I had to buy all new bedding. Now that I had a functional kitchen with storage, I could finally buy the basic requisite items for a useful kitchen. I still have to buy a dining room set for the room next to the dining room with the table that only seats four. I want to be able to accommodate a larger crowd. But the bottom line is, I am now able to host anyone who just happens to be visiting Xi’an.  

I have also settled into a new routine at work. My new job is more challenging than the one I left behind. In Beijing, I only taught intermediate and advanced students. Here, I also have beginning and elementary students. These two levels require a more thoughtful and calculated methodology with more careful use of language choice (“grading”) than more advanced English language learners. This branch of EF has far more beginning students than the Wudaokou branch. Although there are plenty of university students, there are also many more housewives and others who are decidedly older than your typical grad student. Some people actually look around my age (Gasp!) I also have more extra-curricular duties including a “Q/A Corner” whereby I sit in the front reception area and make myself available to any student who has any questions about, well, anything. 

Switching offices has certainly reinvigorated how I go about teaching. Many of the ways I was used to teaching aren’t done here so I’ve had to revamp and reformat all of the classes I had grown accustomed to teaching over the last year. It’s good to stir the pot now and again. 

I’ve been in Xi’an for four weeks and I’m now able to make some observations and comparisons and contrasts with Beijing. As I indicated in my first posting as well as with the title of this posting, I get much more looks by passersby wherever I go. It is the ” life in a fishbowl” effect of having to be the focus of unwanted, albeit, short-lived attention. Still, the crowds are unending here so there’s always plenty of people to gawk at me. I’ve developed that strange sense of awareness people get when they “feel” the stares of people, even from behind.  Some have suggested I simply stare down those who insist on looking me with more than a passing glance. That seems somewhat hostile and provocative for no reason other than to get in a stranger’s face. I just effect an indifferent or placid countenance and leave it at that. The fact is, there are very few westerners walking around Xi’an so it’s easy to see why I get second looks. Nonetheless, no one gives me the proverbial “dirty look” and people are always friendly towards me. 

Even though the population of Xi’an is about a third that of Beijing, it certainly doesn’t feel like it most of the time. Most likely that’s due to working in an office building attached to the largest mall in Xi’an. On weekends the crowds in the mall are simply staggering in number. Everyday, there are crowds milling around outside the mall awaiting its daily opening at 10 am(see photo.) Unlike American malls, this one isn’t anchored by a handful of major department stores. Nor is there much variety among shops. There really aren’t specialty stores here. There are no Home Depots or Bed, Bath and Beyond type stores. The overwhelming majority of stores in this mall are devoted to clothing and again, few specialize. They all are somewhat generic. On one of the two basement levels you will find an inordinate number (and boy, do I mean, inordinate.) of nail salons, all lined up and down the warren of shopping lanes, all doing a rather brisk business at all hours of the day. How one decides to choose one nail salon over the other is utterly lost to this observer. 

Around the corner from this mega-mall is another mall. This one is mostly underground. It goes for over two city blocks as determined from its above ground front entrance and back entrance, two full city blocks apart. It’s almost mind-numbing in the sameness of clothing stores for most of those two blocks and yet, the underground corridors are jam-packed with people. What’s perhaps more interesting about malls is the fact that there is serious “mall culture” here, unlike in America, where they are a fast dying breed. I would opine only on anecdotal observation, but it seems to me that the Chinese have a very strong, group-oriented culture and like to be with other crowds of people.  People go out to shop, eat and people-watch. It’s definitely a “thing” in China as I saw the same dynamic in Beijing. 

Across the street from my office is the gym I signed up with. It’s far superior to the one I belonged to in Beijing. It’s got far more equipment, a yoga and spinning room and unlike the gym in Beijing, private showers (see photos.) It’s also on the third floor instead of underground so I can look out at the traffic gridlock which is far more interesting than the non-view in the underground gym in Beijing. Instead of the ten dollars a month I paid there, this gym sets me back the princely sum of $17.00 a month. The monthly locker charge at the Bay Club in Marin is probably double that.  

I live two subway stops away from this very busy part of town. I live in the Qujiang District which is rather upscale and almost feels suburban. Here you will find wide sidewalks, wide open spaces lots of greenery and far fewer people. The landscape is dominated by row after row of towering apartment buildings, one of which I live in. My home is on the top floor of a 33 story building (see previous posting) with a commanding view. At first blush, all of these immense buildings, seemingly, as far as the eye can see creates a feeling of Soviet style gargantuan sameness and dreariness that assaults one’s visual sensibilities. But after a while, it begins to grow on you and starts to exude a type of “charm” in its own monolithic way. Therefore, I suppose, it’s fitting to apply what Joseph Stalin allegedly said (although this is still, hotly debated): “Quantity has a quality all its own.” I had actually thought it was Napoleon who said that in reference to his Grande Armée, but I can’t find any evidence he said that.

The cuisine here is definitely different than in Beijing but I haven’t eaten out enough to draw any real conclusions. A big part of the restaurant scene does involve skewered meats and in one restaurant I ate at, you buy them by the dozens at a time. In the last days of April our branch joined two others in a two-day, “Teacher Forum” that included a food outing at the famous Muslim Street which I wrote about when Sophie and Nancy were visiting back in October. The cuisine was very different than what I had in Beijing with more of an emphasis on vegetables. Eggplant and tofu dishes were standouts. The food scene here is as equally intense as in Beijing with an astounding array of comestibles. Muslim Street is one long food emporium. As part of the Teacher Forum, we were all divided into groups for a way too long “scavenger hunt” with clues to over a dozen places around the Old City which is defined by a tall wall that encases the central part of town. We then had to take a group photo with the location, as proof we found it (see photos below.) It was a great way to see some of the popular sights inside the old wall. Living where I do, it’s easy to forget this is actually a very big city with a large central business district. 

The air pollution in Xi’an isn’t any less than what I experienced in Beijing. In fact, I haven’t yet experienced a clear air day when I could get some great shots from my apartment. I have been told however, that the air during the summer is cleaner than in Beijing. It’s certainly not going to be less hot which I am most definitely not looking forward to. Scroll down and you can see a photo from my apartment that hints at the mountains that just about encircle Xi’an (part of the reason it’s so smoggy).

One major difference is the subway system. Here, there are three lines as opposed to the fifteen in Beijing.  There were plenty of times when I truly felt like the proverbial sardine when packed into a Beijing subway car. Although the stations here are no less packed with long lines at most times during the day, I haven’t yet been pressed up against fellow passengers, cheek to jowl. I wrote that before I had to ride the subway before 9am, to attend the Teacher Forum. I usually ride later in the morning, after rush-hour. Although not as packed sardine-like as in Beijing, riding the Xi’an subway during rush-hour was still the opposite of a Zen experience. if I had needed to applaud, I would have had to do it vertically rather than horizontally.

Turning to randoms thoughts…

Here’s a “thing”: The last time I imbibed marijuana was over a year ago (in America, of course and legally, because I had my, ahem, “medical” pot-card.) I can’t be certain due to memory issues (for obvious reasons) but I think that would mark the first time in 47 years (yikes!) that I have gone an entire year, “pot-free.” I first got high in 1969 (that’s what older brothers are for, after all.) and um, I um…what was I saying? I can say that not having access hasn’t bothered me in the least and there hasn’t been any type of adjustment required on my part. In fact, not having the pot munchies has been a boon for staying, if not slim, not bovine. Anyone remember the ultimate pot-munchie food, “Screaming Yellow Zonkers“? If so, you are of a “certain age.” Also, I haven’t been drinking more alcohol as an offset. I can therefore say, that after smoking pot everyday for 47 years, I can conclude that I haven’t found it the least bit addicting. I was hoping, however, that by no longer using, my dreadful memory would somehow be restored. I was hoping that by no longer using, my dreadful memory would somehow be restored. No such luck! 

Here’s another “thing.” Last week I was informed about needing to go across town to some bureau and get something or another there that was related to a work permit for Xi’an. I had no idea of anything of what to expect other than being told I was going to be the  “first foreigner”, under some sort of new work permit system.  I was accompanied by one of the local ladies to interpret. We got to one of those very imposing government buildings which looks simultaneously innocuous and altogether sinister. We were ushered into a room with a handful of functionaries that were clearly important. We all sat while I was given the obligatory cup of tea and had a nice chat while sitting in overstuffed chairs. Suddenly it felt like I was Richard Nixon, circa 1972, with Chairman Mao, talking platitudes and compliments. We went out into the hallway where a series of photos were taken with me holding my new work permit card (see photos below taken from the government website!) 

It turns out that I am the very first foreigner in Xi’an to obtain the new work permit card (see photos)  issued as a result of nationwide reforms to the system of allowing foreign “experts” to work in China. So my obtaining a permit was a news story on the website of the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau. I think it’s fair to say that this is part of my 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised we’d all have in the future. In any case, this was a big deal as far as the locals were concerned. 

The last thing I want to say in this posting is that I plan to be back in America at the end of August, through the first week of September. The only date and location that is certain at this point is that I will be in Los Angeles for my niece, Meredith’s wedding on September 3. I certainly have mixed feelings about returning to the “scene of the crime,” i.e., the country where a maniac was appointed Czar (See, Ivan IV, aka:”Ivan the Terrible” for elucidation). Will I feel like “I’m home” or will I feel like a stranger in a strange land? Although it’s way to early to say it, I’ll say it anyway: “Watch this space.”

h/t: Rachel Maddow

Views from my apartment on the 33rd floor.

You can make out the vague outline of mountains in the distance from my apartment.

Apartment complexes, as far as the eye can see.


The crowd, outside the mall around 9:30. It doesn’t open until 10. There’s a pre-opening crowd, every single day!

…Later that day.

Some of the prohibited behaviors on the Xi’an subway. Remember, “no stall ban” permitted!

Also, “no busking.” I have no idea what that even means.

This one is the winner. Remember: no peeing or pooping on the subway. Thanks in advance!

Lunch at Muslim Street with other teachers at the “Teacher Forum.” Three teaching centers were represented.

The scavenger hunt around old Xi’an. This was our group.

The Bell Tower. One of the famous Xi’an landmarks.

Muslim Street. The last time I was here was in October when it was rainy and cold.

The reception area of English First.

My new colleagues. Crystle-Day and Lacey are from the East Bay (opposite San Francisco).

A couple of workshop classrooms.

The “Pink House” where we have informal student activities.

One of the I-Labs where students work on their own.

This is definitely an odd arrangement. It’s the mall restroom on our floor which we have to use. This is the men’s side nearest the entrance and the women’s side at the other side. In between is the sink area. The only thing separating what we’re doing is the semi-frosted glass door which has a tendency to not close when someone walks in and swings it wide-open. That’s bad enough but as I was standing there getting ready to do my business, one of the cleaning ladies casually opened the door…I suppose this is China’s answer to unisex bathrooms. At this point, does it matter which gender uses which?


My gym.

Yes, it’s a Victoria’s Secret runway show that plays endlessly.

The mall across the street from my office. Note “Good Feelings Fitness” which is where I work-out.

Nighttime, after work, outside the mall around 9pm

My new permit card. The first one issued to a foreigner in Xi’an. The photo of me was a “cut and paste” from my “booking photo” into Leavenworth.

I had to go all the way to China to get a story written about me. “Sad!”

Part of my “15 minutes of fame.”





1 thought on “Life in a fish bowl, towards my “15 Minutes of Fame” and other observations…

  1. LOL,Brian,I just couldn’t stop laughing reading the part about those prohibited behaviours signs on the Xi An’s subway. (Excuse my Pinyin, even as Chinese myself.) And it’s funny to see you in that news as the man who is standing next to you looks nothing like an expert at all to me, let alone foreign experts,which sounds like some spy in different countries in the movies. HAHAHAHA!!! And the name of your gym —Good feeling. Enjoy it! Stay in shape!

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