Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 19 -- Laser Tag Showdown

It took a long time for me to play my first game of laser tag. With my love of action movies, especially the bullet-riddled masterpieces of John Woo, laser tag was a perfect fit.

My company was sponsoring a laser tag match to reward the employees and say farewell to one of the departing English teachers, Anita (shown above). At first I didn't want to go. The venue was at Hongkou Football Stadium, which way far away from where I live.

But when Anita sent me a text asking whether I would come, I gave in. I didn't want to let down a friend who's so cool.

I have this problem: I'm chronically punctual. Usually, I'm anywhere from 15-30 minutes early for every occasion. It happened again for laser tag. I got to Planet Laser at 6:30pm, while the party wasn't due to start until 7:00pm. Even worse, I was the only English-speaking person there!

I was seriously sweating when sent a text message to Marie, a fellow English teacher from Australia. She had texted, saying she wasn't coming and that she hoped I had fun. I replied: "That's Mission: Impossible, but I'll try. I'm the only non-Chinese person here! :("

After an endless stream of Chinese staff, Anita finally showed up, along with Trent, another teacher from Australia. On a side note, I'll confess my jealousy of Australians and New Zealanders. The world loves Aussies and Kiwis. They can get working holiday visas for practially any country!

I've heard it's a case of reciprocation. We don't let anyone into America, so the rest of the world keeps us from staying too long. We can only work in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, and that's for less than 1 year. No wonder everyone else out-travels us.

An employee gathered us together and demonstrated how to play the game. Chest hits were worth 100 points, back hits were 150 points, and shoulder hits were 200 points. We wore these big flak jackets with sensors.

I was disappointed. I wanted to jump sideways, dive down, and roll across the floor shooting like I've seen in action movies. I couldn't do that when the jackets had lights the size of watermelons that could break. We only got one gun per person, so I couldn't bust out the two-fisted pistol action like in John Woo movies:

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Chow Yun-Fat looking badass in John Woo's Hardboiled

We were the Red Team and our opponents were the Green Team. When the siren sounded, we stormed into the shooting area. It was a dark maze of black walls, windows, and weird flashing lights. Feeling lazy, I positioned myself in a dark corner and played sniper, picking off everyone who walked by.

That's the cheap way to play laser tag. Eventually I got bored and went hunting for real. I pulled out all the SWAT-team moves I'd picked up from watching too many action movies:

--Run low to the ground

--Stand sideways when shooting

--Use available cover

--Peak around corners

--Match my eye movements with the sweep of my gun

I was creeping around when I saw my opportunity. A guy from the Green Team was standing in the middle of the doorway, with his back to me. It was too good to be true.

I checked both ways to make sure this wasn't some trap. Nobody. I snuck up behind him until I was within point-blank range. He was busy looking for enemies in front of him. I pumped ten shots into his back before he even knew I was there!

By the time he turned around and started shooting, I was already booking it and dove behind some walls. All that time in high school I spent playing Virtua Cop 2 finally paid off.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Hard Seat to Suzhou

I've finally gotten myself out of the Stone Age and bought a digital camera. It's so great, I don't know why I kept using disposable cameras for so long!

The great thing about Shanghai is that there's loads of interesting towns and cities nearby. Trains and buses that will go to most places at very low cost. My hard seat ticket to Suzhou was less than $2 USD!

Suzhou public transportation

There are four classes of comfort in Chinese trains:

Soft Sleeper
Hard Sleeper
Soft Seat
Hard Seat

The names are self-explanatory. Soft sleeper cabins are hotel-quality and cost about as much as a plane ticket. Hard seat cabins on long-distance trains can be a nightmare: crowded with dirty migrant workers eating, smoking, and playing cards, with no room to sit down.

Buying a train ticket can be a test of endurance. Long lines, noise, and ticket sellers trained in the Communist style of customer service: "Better a late train that's Communist than a train on time that's Capitalist."

The guidebooks recommend bypassing train stations altogether and buying tickets through hotels and hostels instead. Most of them have an in-house travel agency with English-speaking staff. There's a small service charge, but it's worth it for the convenience. Sometimes they have special contacts that can score tickets even during high season.

In addition, there are advanced-purchase offices that sell train tickets. This is the best option, since they're more conveniently located than the main train station, and have a lower service charge than a hotel. No English though, so bringing along a Chinese friend is a must. But sometimes these ticket offices are so well-hidden that even locals don't know about them! The one closest to my apartment is buried in the back of a tobacco shop. I used to wonder why I saw long lines there all the time!

It's also a good idea to buy an onward ticket or return ticket at the same time that you buy your initial ticket. Thanks to overpopulation, tickets get sold out fast on popular routes. That goes tenfold for Chinese holidays. The government only allows three 1-week vacations during the year: National Day (October), Spring Festival a.k.a. Chinese New Year (January or February), and Labor Day (May). This is the only time Chinese people can travel. They often to choose to go back to their hometown or travel to famous tourist sites. They don't have 2-week vacations they can take whenever, like America. So in high seasons, the tourist infrastructure is pressed to the limit.

Scalpers ("piao fanzi") make a fortune by buying up as many train tickets as they can for the holidays and reselling them at ridiculously high prices. They also do this for sports events and pop music concerts too. The most heartless scalpers buy up the wait-in-line numbers at hospitals and sell them to patients needing emergency care!

Since this was my first-ever trip into another part of China, I chose Suzhou ("su joe"). It's only an hour away from Shanghai by train. One of the most famous Chinese tourist blurbs goes, "In heaven, there is paradise. On Earth, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou." Suzhou if famous for its gardens and canals. Hangzhou is famous for West Lake, a huge lake that has cool old architecture.

When I polled my foreign friends and students, they unanimously recommended Hangzhou over Suzhou. The West Lake was big and had more stuff to see. They all thought Suzhou was too small, too boring, and not that great. While I thought it wasn't that bad, I definitely wouldn't stay there longer than a day.

I did like that the sky was clear and blue. The buildings didn't tower over me and block out the sky like they do in Shanghai. A lot of them had more traditional-looking roofs.



While I was wandering through the Garden of the Master of the Nets, I met Jessie, a girl from Beijing. When I told her I'd come to China without being able to speak Chinese, she gasped.

"You are so great!" she said. "You must be very brave to come to a country where you can't speak the language."

I brightened at that. Whenever I make a radical decision, i.e. to backpack through Europe, to teach English in China, I am never sure whether I'm being incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. The only way to find out is go for it.

Jessie from Beijing