Thursday, June 28, 2007


Realize that for the next few months you will be reading the words of a maverick blogger whose dicey chronicles must be smuggled past the Chinese government’s hawk-eyed censors. Om Away from Home is totally inaccessible from here, forcing me to enlist Andy as my intermediary (he will post what I send via email).

To put it mildly, Shanghai is testing my patience, my politesse, and most of all, my deodorant. There is nothing as foul as humid heat in an urban cesspool. To venture outdoors is to voluntarily swim through a miasma of diesel fumes, sewage, rotting vegetables, and communal sweat, a fetor that makes it hard to keep nausea at bay.

Cirque has housed us, seemingly experimentally, in a brand new Sheraton Residence Hotel in Pudong, a developing district on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River. Puxi, the western bank, is home to the glittering skyline of old Shanghai and its cultural, commercial, and entertainment centers. There is a massive and targeted effort underway to promote Pudong as a financial hub and encourage its ascension, but in my opinion, it has a ways to go. Living in the lavish Pudong Sheraton is like bobbing in a pod of luxury on a sea of slime, and it’s more than a little discomfiting. The Sheraton is so new, in fact, that it is fraught with both over-the-top service and those tiny dysfunctions that make living here rather paradoxical. A chandelier and three plasma TVs, yet a non-flushing toilet and frighteningly faulty elevators… I am reminded of my trip to Russia in 2003 – everything a gilded peel on substandard fruit.

Taking only one step out of my hotel, I am greeted not only by a furnace blast of hot air, but by obvious poverty – bare feet and over-laden rusty bicycles. To me, a bicycle means freedom, wind-in-my-hair mobility and a rugged image, but here in Shanghai, it implies not quite being “with it” yet. “It” being a car, that is. I recently read a Sierra Club Magazine article about the demise of the bicycle, considered for so long to be an institution of the Chinese city. While we Westerners find bicycle travel to be utterly quaint and a tradition that should most definitely be upheld, the Chinese are scrambling for their own piece of the automotive pie. In 1995, according to the article, 60% of commuters peddled everywhere, while in 2004, the number had dropped to 27%! I must admit, in the current heat I am much more likely to jump in a cab, which costs about $2.00 anywhere you want to go, than join the masses of bikers with damp towels draped over their heads or wearing the scary full-face visors that resemble welders’ masks. Still, I’m considering buying a bike here, since Cirque could not transport ours into the country (you need a bike license, requiring a receipt of purchase in China). They cost only around $30, and it could at least get me through the hot streets a little faster than on my sweaty sandaled feet. We’ll see…

I am looking hard for the charms of Shanghai, as I know they will be come apparent to me eventually, inevitably. So far, I am enamored of the old-fashioned practice of walking with a parasol. And I enjoy the drama of the thunderstorms we experience periodically. And I have found (thank goodness!) a beautiful French bakery selling fresh bread with real crust (a rarity in Asia). Entering the bakery, I was met with the call of its two attendants, who proudly shouted my way, “Banjo!” (bonjour).

More to come, more to come, but for now I’ve got a premiere to focus on – Cirque du Soleil’s first appearance in mainland China. Big party to follow, too!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The majority of people take permanent residency for granted. They have mailboxes, parking spots, library cards, and establishments where they are known as "regulars." To me, though, this kind of familiarity is an attractive novelty, and I'm spending my week getting to know my new neighborhood, trying to wrap my mind around the idea of being a San Franciscan. To that end, I just trudged up the insane steepness of Fillmore Street from the Marina up to Pacific Heights. For those who don't know golden-gated metropolis very well, its hills are formidable - strenuous for legs and car engines alike. Who in their right mind decided it would be clever to build at such an angle that a walker requires stairs to scale the sidewalk?!

My self-inflicted punishing climb, though, was not in vain, as I was met at the peak by the most satisfying Bay Area caffeine dispensary, Peet's Coffee & Tea. It's a treat, really, one that I miss while on tour and that I realize might say a thing or two about either my mature and refined tastes or my coffee snobbery. They seem to have a classical-music-only policy that's much appreciated when I'm trying to do serious things like write a blog read by tens(!) of loyal followers. I love the roasty-rich strength of Peet's beans, their unsweetened soy milk and bitter dash of pure cocoa powder that makes adding sugar seem an absolute crime.

Yes, I do realize that being a true local involves more than hanging out in cafes, so I've become a walking fool, traversing the city despite its hills, often with a destination but sometimes with only the hope of finding a gem. Sporting my new red-leather mary janes (the shoes Andy says make me look Danish and somewhat dorky, but which I love), I walked the 2.5 miles from our apartment to a yoga studio in the Haight-Ashbury section of town. And then I walked back, passing through neighborhoods both ritzy and run-down, putting me through a yo-yo of emotion and reaction. While in reality I may have been unchanging, my fortune and my very position in society seemed to ebb and flow with the fortunes of the streets I walked down.

Up here in Pacific Heights, it's all about galleries, petite patisseries, lapdogs, and day spas; things I never dreamed of needing called from shop widows and taunted me with their exorbitance. Further downtown, though, I was met with the despair of San Francisco's homeless. Deep and unsettling. As a child, I was unable to handle the sorrow of the panhandlers we met on the way to see the Nutcracker ballet at SF Opera House. The disparities tear at me still, and I have yet to resolve that perilous question of whether reaching into my purse for change is naivete or compassion.

Knowing that I will be coming back to SF for a good chunk of time in the coming months, I'm trying to lay down at least a tenuous framework of a life here, being "planny" if you will (a term of my own invention meant to describe my particular brand of scheming). For one, I am by no means opposed to a stint of waitressing or barista-ing, especially if it involves working for a place like Alive!, the renowned yet unassuming raw-food restaurant on Lombard. With a menu consisting solely of uncooked vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, it is surprisingly scrumptious cuisine. Perhaps if I worked there I could learn to cook like that, though I guess "cook" is not quite the word since you'd never need a stove... maybe "culinate" (another of my word-creations) is more like it.

Speaking of vegetables, I was beyond excited to visit the popular Ferry Building Farmer's Market on Fisherman's Wharf this past weekend. I brought along my environmentally-friendly cloth shopping bag, prepared to stock up on beautiful, bountiful produce. I'm in the middle of two books on nutrition and food policy, both of which rally against the industrial agricultural model and its resultant corruption of our food system. I'm still passionate about this stuff that I studied in college... The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, and What to Eat by Marion Nestle got my mouth watering for quality produce and perhaps gave me a little self-righteous push to support local farms. To my awe and dismay, this market was as up-scale as one can get, food-wise, with rows of exclusive, organic specialty shops selling "artisan" this and "heirloom" that, all way out of my price range. I passed up the $6 bunch of asparagus and opted instead for a delectable hunk of San Francisco sourdough and one prize-worthy organic grapefruit. It may not replace Trader Joe's for my shopping needs, but becoming a local requires investigation, right?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Words to Relieve Pressure

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Crick in my Back, Thorn in My Side

I’m almost home, having flown clear across the Pacific, realizing halfway there that I’d flubbed my arrival time by three hours and my lovely, forgiving family would be awfully confused. Connecting through Seattle, I immediately felt shrunken, no longer a tall, blond head standing out from the crowd of petite Koreans, but a diminutive girl with a backpack like a giant tortoise shell. House on my back…

Speaking of my back, it’s been in a state of disrepair these past few weeks, aching in protest of the 81 shows we did in Seoul. Honestly, this left-lower back pain is nothing new, a vestige of gymnastics that is undoubtedly aggravated by contortion on a metal hoop (a difficult situation to explain on an insurance claim form). So, simply as a fact-finding mission, my Cirque physiotherapists recommended an MRI while in Seoul.

I must say, the Samsung Hospital is excellent (giving me all the more reason to think our own health care system leaves something to be desired), though the nurse had an absolute giggle fit about the fact that I have my navel pierced, a real shocker in Korea I guess. The nurses and attendants escort you everywhere, constantly checking and reassuring and bowing and such… patients need not fear the all-too-common abandonment in a desolate exam room. Fortunately, the scan showed my spine to be in excellent condition, save for some inflammation in “one of those ligaments” according to the doctor, who perhaps did not realize he had a biology major on his hands and dumbed things down accordingly. He recommended I rest, take “pills”, and “try some stretching exercises” (really… you don’t say…) I’m hoping it’s nothing a good rest, gentle yoga, some swimming, and some California air won’t fix.

Knowing I had a good twelve hours of sitting ahead of me, I called the airline and requested an aisle seat so that I could get up and do some of those prescribed stretches more often. At the same time, I requested a vegetarian meal and was told that all was in order. This morning, though, I was informed by an exceedingly polite flight attendant that there was a window seat with my name on it, plus a reservation for a Hindu vegetarian meal. I tried to remedy the situation, imagining myself squished into the wall, enveloped by a cloud of curry. In fact, I wasn’t far off, though the teeny-ness of the elderly Koreans sitting in my row, along with the mildness of the curry made the whole thing bearable.

Still, I’m thinking of my next long flight to Shanghai and hoping to be dealt a kinder hand in the air travel game, one that allows for my restlessness and my need to do a good hamstring stretch now and again. My friend told me it helps to say you’re pregnant (and what, window seats are bad for fetuses?) but I have a hard enough time convincing people I’m not an unaccompanied minor when traveling, so I’m not sure that’s a good tactic. We’ll see. Until then, I’m keeping my feet on the soil of my home state and my mind on the revitalizing weeks ahead.

Results of the Fashion Shoot

Interestingly, they turned the hoop 90 degrees so that gravity appears to be misbehaving. I'm the one on the right with the giant white bow and the flouncy black dress. I must say it looks much better as a two-page spread, but this gives an idea at least.

Friday, June 1, 2007

It's Your Possible!

I should preface this entry by saying that in no way do I intend to ridicule the Korean people for their rather unorthodox application and interpretation of the English language. As I look back on the three months I've spent in this country, I find it pleasantly ironic that I was initially wild with frustration at my inability to communicate with Seoul-ites; in fact, I now consider the language barrier to be one of the most hilarious and winsome features of Korea.

Firstly, allow me to boast foolishly about my own acquired language skills. Basically, I understand and can reciprocate the ubiquitous “aneyhaseo!” and “aneghaseo” (hello and good bye, respectively) that are literally sung at you upon entering and exiting any kind of store. The unmistakable sing-song melody of these phrases has made me think of them, for all intents and purposes, as a short and cheery Korean national anthem. I’ve also mastered the extremely important “kamsa hamnida” (thank you) as well as “saranghae” (I love you), the catch phrase of many a Korean pop ballad. Korean pop ballad.

I do realize that my command of four phrases of their language doesn’t exactly give me license to critique Koreans’ English skills, but since I am so enamored of their English gaffes and gaucheries, they deserve a discussion on my blog. As a Scrabble enthusiast, a subscriber to’s “Word of the Day,” and one who listens to National Public Radio’s Sunday Puzzle, I consider myself somewhat of a wordsmith, so I was infuriated at my first exposure to the Koreans’ perversion of English on everything from t-shirts to restroom signs. I mean, does anybody check for grammar or spelling?! It could be likened to the countless Americans who get those trendy tattoos of Chinese characters and invariably claim that they mean “love” or “peace” or some other enlightened concept.
Soon, though, I realized that there was a hidden sweetness to the flubbed locution, as if I were reading a secret code; I was probably one of the only people around who could get the joke, find the humor. In fact, I have discovered many an uplifting phrase and inspirational message among the jumbled words, and I have come to read them almost like poetry. Maybe you will understand as I share a few of my favorites, though Microsoft Word will go nuts underlining everything in green…

• Take a balances in work and love! (Sage advice found on a cartoon-illustrated to-do list)

• I like languid afternoon window, PM 2:00 and you. (Greeting card message)

• Life is biscuit case. (Notebook cover... profound, n'est-ce pas?)

• Make yourself as a professional with good idea in your hand. It’s your possible! (My new red leather-bound notepad with pen included)

• For your well-being life. (The indication stamped on any food or product touted as healthy)

• Spring come rain fall. (The name of my favorite stationary store)

• Keep a green tree in your heart for free dream. (T-shirt)

• Birds are flying in the niceish forest. (On a lunch box painted with tiny doves)

• Kindly note: I don’t look for girl friend or sort of lover. I would like make new friend and broaden my horizons. (Korean businessman who approached after seeing me in a cafĂ©)

• Special food for the skin to eat to maintain our bodies lively. (Cosmetics company advertisement)

• Let's get out here, girl! May you being happy travel! (Passport carry-case)

• Our effort on little details will help you create peaceful, harmonious family life and share pleasant conversations. (Bakery wrapper)

You get the picture, huh? The real hub of cute, albeit erroneous English was the designer stationary shop, of which there were many. They feature a multitude of paper products, wallets, pins, trinkets, jewelry, teacups, and all manner of creative yet trivial things. Some of my favorite designers were Red Cloudy, Milimeter/Miligram, O-check Designs, Iconic Dream, and Monopoly. Even the names are adorable, and coupled with bright colors, childish illustrations, charming characters, and, of course, linguistic faux pas, I fell madly in love. Whether or not it was true, I got the feeling that many of the companies had been small, independent groups of artists and art students, as their products maintained a page-torn-out-of-the-coloring-book humble simplicity.