Saturday, December 25, 2010

Parties 2 and 3

After the raging success of the first party for the students, I was looking forward to a nice, streamlined time with my second group of sophomores at 5PM, after which I would welcome my first group of freshmen, all tuckered out from their gym competition at 7PM.

Famous last words! These sophomores are the group that I can’t seem to get a grip on in the classroom. They are the ones who are on their cell phones constantly, who are reading books or doing other classes’ work, whose attendance is the worst. This is a wild and hungry bunch!

When I say wild and hungry, I mean exactly that. I was in the kitchen preparing steamed buns and they were in the living room tearing into the snacks. Tearing into them, putting them in their pockets and purses for later consumption, taking pictures of themselves and each other eating them. I was actually shocked to see several of the girls pose with a snack in their mouth and someone nibbling the other end of the snack, as though they were kissing. Do they have any idea how provocative their behavior and those poses were? Or are they really that innocent?

I couldn’t say for sure, but the girls sure did giggle. I figured: it is their party, let them have their fun!

Fun? Oh, fun! And just how was I supposed to entice these girls to play a sedate game like Hot Potato when they were already playing Let’s Pose for Playboy???

Clearly I was out of my league here. I went back into the kitchen and steamed more buns. This is a hungry bunch, remember?

I had gone to Metro and bought bulk packages of frozen buns, the better to feed them with. It was a really cost-effective measure and, had the girls shown some restraint, there would have been enough food for 3 parties. That was actually the plan. As it was, this group inhaled 120 steamed buns and still managed to consume all of the other snacks provided. I was in awe of their verve, and of their appetite. I also want to point out that this is the only group that did not bring a cake or anything else, as the other groups had. Not that anything was expected of them; it is just noteworthy that this group came to party, and the other groups came to share.

OK, so now I had to do something with them; I’ve done all of the steaming of buns I could afford to do without leaving the next group of revelers with nothing to eat. Just as I emerged from the kitchen the freshmen showed up, so the sophomores left on their own. No chance to present Cookie Caravaning to them, and I intuit they would not have been interested anyway.

There was a quick flurry of clean up – Tulip, Yolanda and Hester helped. And then the freshman party started.

I went back into the kitchen and started steaming more buns. Also, I made another bowl of fruit salad. The music was playing and the kids were entertaining themselves, so all is well. Two or three of the girls offered to help me; I put them to chopping up fruit for the salad. The buns steamed merrily away.

This was also a hungry bunch, and they had good reason: they had just finished their gym competition. It was my pleasure to feed them the little bit I had for them, and they also brought a cake to share. I did not have any compunction about this group eating 120 steamed buns and most of the snacks because they had been working out since 2PM. For a while, there was only the sound of munching, and that suited me just fine.

As it turns out, it seems I had developed a case of bronchitis or pneumonia sometime over the last week; I’m not sure which. In any case I had gone to the campus doctor on Tuesday and she had prescribed antibiotics and a traditional herbal medicine. Neither of them had started working yet and I was feeling… well, not exactly in a party mood.

One of the kids popped into the kitchen to ask if they could watch Ice Age. It seems they had been through my DVD collection and found it. I was happy to set the TV up for them and turn the movie on, even though I felt like a bad Mommy for parking the kids in front of the TV and an even worse hostess for not entertaining my guests. I was definitely not in a party mood. Besides, Party #2 had taken the wind out of my sails; I was still reeling about how those girls behaved.

And maybe, just maybe I was beginning to be a little partied out. Therefore I concluded: Ice Age is good.

I went in the kitchen and steamed more buns.

I finished up in the kitchen just about 15 minutes before the movie ended, and we did play Hot Potato for a while. Somehow I ended up with the ‘potato’ 3 times, and sang until my voice gave out. I even debuted a song I wrote, The Waiguoren Rap (look for the lyrics in an upcoming post!) The kids were delighted by it, but couldn’t help but notice that I was flagging.

They gracefully took their leave after sharing the cake that they brought. Again some of the kids stayed over and helped clean up; again I did not mention the Cookie Caravan idea. It seemed superfluous to this group who had been up since 6 that morning and had had classes all day, a gym competition in the evening and the party afterward. My guess is they were just as tired as I was. We parted company after many well wishes and cautions about bundling up and keeping warm: the temperatures were supposed to plummet overnight.

Again the warmth fled with the kids, and I turned out the lights.

The First of Four Parties

Because I have nearly 100 students and an apartment not nearly big enough to accommodate all of them at once, I decided having 4 separate Christmas parties – one for each class would be the way to go. The first party was on Monday night.

Of course, there was some schedule shifting to be done: originally, the group whose party took place on Monday were scheduled for Tuesday, and the one of the freshman classes couldn’t make their Monday party because they were training for a gym competition, to take place on Wednesday. I found out about all of this on Sunday, when the kids came over to help decorate the house for Christmas.

In agony I pulled out my planner and juggled schedules until it was resolved that the sophomores would have their party on Monday instead of Tuesday, the freshmen would have their party after the gym competition on Wednesday, after the other group of sophomores had theirs (from 5 to 7 PM), and the last group would have their party on Thursday. No party on Tuesday, and mercifully I would be done hosting parties after Thursday.

Whew!

We have to remember my agenda: I was going to show these kids the joy of giving and sharing in the manner traditional to A. my family and B. what goes on around and during Christmas in the States. I kept that idea firmly in my mind, even as the kids showed up, full of merriment.

And with their arms full of gifts. Small things, mostly hand made. Cards full of sentiment, a hand-made poster, greeting cards designed by them. Sueveniere gave me her Santa hat; Jinkey, an apple, Orange an all-day sucker. Lily had taken up a collection and bought a beautiful cake and a huge bouquet of pink carnations. I was bowled over.

I served them fruit salad and snacks, and then we played games. Hot Potato: whoever got caught holding the ‘potato’ when I shouted ‘Stop!’ had to perform for the rest of the group. Most sang songs but some danced and others recited poetry. We did a version of the Can Can, rather difficult in the living room that now seemed too small to hold all the cheer and warmth (it actually did get so warm in the place that we had to open the door). We sang songs together: Winter in my Heart and We Wish you a Merry Christmas (see the videos on Flickr).

At one point as they sang together, I looked around the room. I was going to teach them about sharing and giving? I, who live alone, am going to teach these kids, who, by necessity, share everything, to share? I, who only hosts this party, was going to teach these kids how to give?

Who do I think I am?

These kids know more about sharing and giving than I could possibly teach them. I looked at their Christmas offerings to me: the store-bought trinkets and the hand-made gifts, and thought: “How arrogant of me to think that they don’t know how to give! They are already so generous, both with their heart and with their efforts.” As the kids sang together, smiling at one another and at me, I had an epiphany.

You don’t mess with success.

They may not call it the Christmas spirit, but they know what it is about. They don’t practice it just in December; they do it all year ‘round. And it is a beautiful sight to behold. Even more wonderful to be the target of their generosity, as I have been since I’ve been here. My birthday party in the park, the warm welcome and the openness, the hand holding and the cuddling, the many invitations on outings and to dinners which I was not allowed to pay for my own meal. Even the invasions into my personal time and private space, annoying as it is, is a symbol of their welcome and their positive feeling toward me.

There may be things I have to teach these kids, but sharing, caring and giving is not among them. They are teaching me how to do that.

Toward the end of the party, they asked me to say a few words, after which they would take their leave. I told them of my current thoughts: I may well be called their teacher, but it is they who have taught me the greater lesson. I will never forget them for helping me see how rich and beautiful they truly are.

I also told them that I will not be their teacher next semester. By administrative decision, Victor will be taking my classes and I will take his students on. The idea is to diversify the kids’ exposure to the school’s foreign teachers. While on the surface that idea sounds great, I have to confess that these are MY kids. I’m being perfectly selfish when I say I don’t want Victor to have my guys.

They are equally adamant that they remain my students. They don’t want Victor. I’m touched (and yes, a bit proud). Nevertheless I told them: “We may be done being teacher and student, but we are certainly not done being friends.” And I mean it.

As the party broke up, some of the girls stayed over and helped me clean the house up. Such Sweethearts! One of them, Janny, remembered my Cookie Caravan story and wanted to go deliver some cookies. We bundled up some leftover snacks and some fruit into baggies and headed for the campus police office.

In their eagerness they took off running while I still had to put my jacket on and lock the house up, and they gave away the treats before I got there. When I came walking up to them, Jinkey was doubling back, a look of perfect glee on her face. She was delighted at the expression on the policeman’s face when he asked what this giving was all about, and when the kids explained why they did that, the policemen all clapped and smiled. When I finally made it there, they shook my hand and wished me a heartfelt Merry Christmas, with huge smiles all around.

That’s the Cookie Caravan effect! And both the students and the policemen felt it! My Christmas wish came true after all.

After bowling over the campus police, the girls and I parted ways. They walked back to their dorm, arm in arm and chattering like magpies. I went back to my apartment.

As I unlocked the door and stepped inside, it seemed all the warmth had gone with the kids.

Cookie Caravan

A young mother trudges through the December cold, with her two small children in tow. She is a desperate woman on this evening of the 24th day of the month. Tomorrow is Christmas, and she has nothing to put under the tree for her young ones, save the paltry gifts from the Angel Tree. “Paltry they may be these gifts, but that is all there will be for Christmas”, she reflects bitterly as the trio walks on.

She holds a plate of fresh baked goods. They help keep her ungloved hands warm against the biting wind. Her children have the benefit of thick coats and hats and gloves, but she is clad only in a thin jacket, jeans and sneakers. No boots on her feet, no hat on her head. She hopes she will not develop a headache from the cold before the night’s errands are run.

That young mother was me, years ago. My family was so desperately poor we were forced to live off welfare benefits. The shame of cashing in food stamps, the unformed hatred for those that had money and could shop at leisure for their children, affording anything their tykes wanted… I’ve eaten from that tree. The fruit is bitter and the taste is strong and long lasting. The only way to counter it is to fill your mouth, your heart and your life with sweetness.

The government endowed my family of three with a ridiculously large amount of funds to buy food with. The monthly welfare check was not nearly enough money to afford clothing and other of life’s necessities, let alone Christmas gifts, but we always had food. I will never complain of that, and I am thankful that my children did not go to bed hungry on Christmas Eve, or any other day. But how do foodstamps help adorn a barren Christmas tree?

The only logical thing to do was to take the kids’ minds off what they couldn’t and wouldn’t have. The only way to do that was to highlight the plight of others who do not even have it as good as we do. My kids and I gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve and started baking. Chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies… we spent the entire afternoon baking, singing songs and telling stories together. The kids snuck their fair share of fresh baked goods and I munched a few, too.

At nightfall we donned our coats and delivered plates full of cookies to the police station, the fire department and the hospital emergency room. We thanked these emergency services personnel for their yearlong service and for working on Christmas Eve, away from their family and keeping us safe.

My friends, you should have seen the dumbfounded looks we got! So unexpected was our appearance on the various doorsteps, so unusual was our message and so heartfelt and sincerely were our efforts received that the kids were just thrilled! They fought to see who would give away the next plate of treats and they argued about which song should be sung at the next destination. I daresay they did not feel the cold at all that night and, come time for bed the glow on their little faces, born of the joy of giving, carried them into dreamland without so much as a longing, wishful look at the barren Christmas tree.

Thus a tradition was born, later dubbed the Cookie Caravan. My daughter gets the credit for this innovative name, even though at first it was mainly my son’s friends who joined us.

You see, so popular was this tradition, so anticipated the joy, that the next year, the kids told all of their friends that that is what we do on Christmas Eve. Their friends thought that was such a cool idea they wanted to participate. The Cookie Caravan grew from one lone, desperate woman with two children into a gleeful event with several parents and their children joining us in the baking, the singing, the giving.

When Darrell and Jennifer grew away from home, they did not forget the best part of Christmas: the Cookie Caravan. Now even more people are on board with it. At last count the Caravan comprised of no less than seven cars full of people! My kids and their families, their friends and their families, their parents and once, even a set of grandparents.

When Jennifer married and moved to California she started a contingent of the Cookie Caravan, West Coast Division. Meanwhile, Darrell and I continued in the DFW area.

What will happen to the Caravan, now that I’m in China?

It continues, of course. Darrell and Jennifer will host the baking and lead the giving. The tradition started because of them; it is only right that they continue it. And me?

I am a teacher. Years ago I taught my children the joy and the importance of giving. Now, in this country that only sees Christmas as a commercial opportunity I mean to bring the message of giving to my students. We will have a Christmas party, but in the midst of that party we will leave and deliver cookies to the campus police, to the dorm monitors, to the street vendors who prepare our food and to the bus drivers who take us where we need to go. I can’t wait to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they behold the shock and awe of those we bestow our gifts on.

“Mommy, I want to be a fireman when I grow up!”
“Why is that, Sweetheart?”
“Because they are so nice and they help people.”
“That’s a wonderful reason to be a fireman! Mama loves you… Goodnight, sweet dreams!”
“I love you too, Mommy!”

What a coincidence: it just so happens one of the gifts from the Angel Tree was a fireman’s hat.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Orange Nailed It




Before you think that I got so bored I started throwing fruit around and finally hit a bull’s eye, let me inform you that Orange is one of my students in my sophomore English Major class. I’ll tell you what she nailed in a few.

My efforts center on trying to find out what the kids know about Christmas. Their final exam question was: What is your idea (understanding) of Christmas? I got some very revealing answers.

A lot of the kids know about Jesus, and that Christmas heralds the day of Jesus’ birth. Some are fervently moved by the Spirit, such as Anna and Julin; others just view the subject as academic. They have no roots in Christianity, only knowledge of it.

I did learn that, in China it is traditional to give an apple as a gift. It symbolizes the wish on the part of the giver for health, prosperity and long life for the recipient. I did not know that, and that is perhaps the most beautiful enumeration I heard all day, save one: Orange’s. But I’m still not ready to reveal what she said.

One very surprising answer came from Ray, my most wayward student. He only comes to class half the time, but when he is there his English is stellar. I suspect he is bored with my antics and, because his level of English far surpasses that of his fellow students, he does not want to wait around as they hem or haw while giving an answer to a simple question.

However, he did show up for his final and he had an excellent answer to the question. He is the only one that advanced the theory that, when Christianity was founded, many of the pagan holidays were incorporated into Christianity to ease the transition from paganism. Thus the Winter Solstice celebration became the birth of Jesus. Again, his view, like so many other students, is purely academic. The spirit of Christmas is completely overlooked in this historically correct but spiritually devoid answer. In fact, he didn’t even say what his idea of Christmas is. He just quoted what he researched on the Internet.

But Orange… she made me cry. This cripplingly shy wisp of a girl, deeply focused and highly intellectual just blew me away with her answer. With all of the other students I listened critically, she forced me to listen with my heart. Among other things, she said:

Many people think that Christmas is about Jesus or about shopping, but I think Christmas is about giving from your heart. You must feel that the gift you are giving is the only gift you can give, so that you can give with sincerity.

This poor child looked stricken as the tears streamed down my face. I’m not sure if she thought she had done something wrong or if she was concerned that I had suddenly taken ill but I know my tears shocked her. After she was finished with her carefully rehearsed answer I told her the reason I was crying: her words mirror my sentiment. Her halting speech reflected my beliefs exactly.

I threw my arms around her and drew her to me; it was the most natural thing in the world to hug this precious child who understands what Christmas is all about. After this genuine bonding, during which I felt her fearful shivering subside, I asked permission to share her views with the rest of the class, next time we meet. She is honored to have her words and thoughts presented to the group, and quite relieved that she will not be the one presenting them.

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. Isaiah 11-6.

Could this little child be the one to lead her class mates to a new understanding of Christmas? Could her thoughts and words help marry the commercialism of Chinese Christmas with the spirituality of the Season in the minds and hearts of her fellow students?

We’ll soon find out: this group meets again tomorrow.

The Christmas Story that has Never Been Told

I just read a news article that says Hollywood is not going to present a slew of Christmas movies this year. In part because of the market saturation of last year that caused Tim Burton’s new Christmas movie to be released before Halloween, and in part because… well, because there are just no new stories to tell.

I beg to differ. Oh, sure there’s been plenty of stories about coming home for Christmas and discovering the true meaning of Christmas… but, what about bringing Christmas home for the Holidays?

See, I live in a country that has only recently discovered Christmas. And unfortunately the only spirit of Christmas the Chinese know is its commercial appeal. The more upscale shopping areas have trees up and there are some decorations even in the smaller shop windows around campus, but when I quiz my students about what Christmas means, they are clueless. The more meretricious ones understand it is about getting (and sometimes giving) presents. But what about the spirit of Christmas?

For me, Christmas is a Holiday of the Heart. It is about compassion and about giving. It is about letting the most unappreciated know that their efforts are not in vain. It is about that look of dumbfounded surprise on someone’s face who never expected to be recognized or given a gift when they are given a gift. A gift from the heart.

Of course I am aware that to most in America, Christmas is a Christian celebration of rebirth and of hope. I cannot impart this story here; the Chinese are simply not ready for it. Nor is it legally allowed. But I can tell my students about the caring and the sharing. And on the way to doing that, I will be sharing what Christmas means to me with people I’ve come to care a great deal about: my students and this community.

And you, my dear Readers. I will chronicle my efforts over the next few blog posts so you can see for yourself how this project of mine is going. I will upload pictures and video to my Flickr page so you can not only read the accounting but see the smiles and hear the laughter for yourself. That is my Christmas gift to you.

However, I must admit that this is a very daunting project for me. I’m swimming against a monumental tide here. I am one person. I have about 100 students and I hope to single-handedly make a difference in this community, at least for one day. Some of my students might not want to participate. Others might be so enthusiastic that they run away with the idea and I run out of resources (read: money). It could be a veritable stampede of goodwill, or a dud of a deal.

I won’t know until I try.

My first step is to get an understanding of what these kids perceive Christmas to be about. That is their final exam question: What is your understanding of Christmas? I will let you know what their answers are.

Well! What do you know! I CAN write a short blog post!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wuhan Ministry of Education Presents:



Every year at Christmas, the Wuhan Ministry of Education presents a gala show exclusively for the foreign teachers. That show was tonight, and what a show it was! I’m so excited about it still, that I had to sit down and tell you all about it.

First I have to tell you: I didn’t know anything about there being a show. It if hadn’t been for Carrie Ann inviting me, I would have spent the evening in my apartment, singing ‘Counting Flowers on the Wall’ (the Statler Brothers’ classic) and playing solitaire. You would think someone would have told me. Thank you, Carrie Ann!

The Maple Leaf School, staffed nearly exclusively with Canadian expats, had arranged for a bus so that everyone could ride together and not worry about having to take public transportation. Carrie Ann suggested we meet for dinner, and then I could ride the bus with them, an offer I gratefully accepted. The bus was due to leave her neighborhood at 5:40 PM; fortunately I made it there just in time to meet the group. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for dinner. That was no big deal; neither one of us were terribly hungry at that time anyway.

I wondered why the tour bus would leave so early if the show starts at 7:30. I soon found the answer: even in the swanky neighborhood most foreign teachers live in, traffic is horrendous! It took us nearly two hours to get to the concert hall.

While still stuck in traffic, nobody got mad or impatient, but everyone needed a bathroom. The school’s secretary, a lovely woman fluent in Chinese, asked the bus driver to pull over and several of the guys made a break for the public restroom. Carrie Ann decided: what’s good for the goose was good for the gander – or, in this case the reverse being true, and she also dashed off the bus! The rest of the women, me included, decided to wait until we reached the concert hall or until our back teeth started floating, whichever came first.

Have I told you before that Wuhan bus drivers are unusually skilled? They are all excellent drivers but sometimes need navigators. Our bus driver got lost on the way to the concert hall and in fact did a three-point U-turn – while talking on his cell phone, no less! - on a two lane road because he found out he was going in the wrong direction.

The bus driver is not to blame: the concert hall was tucked away behind a wall and was only accessible through a one-way, arched portal. Once inside he dropped us off and then took on the challenge of parking his bus. We made it in the door with just minutes to spare, found our seats and a moment or two later, the stage filled up with musicians clad in formal wear.

The evening started off with selections from Vivaldi and Bach –two of my favorites. From there the show only got better. It included some traditional Chinese elements, such as Beijing Opera and a traditional Chinese instrument ensemble, some dances performed by the Wuhan Academy of Dance, a saxophone solo beautifully rendered by the department head of the Wuhan Academy of Music. A lovely Chinese chanteuse sang her heart out while behind her small children danced in colorful costumes.

By far the most captivating act was the Chinese Acrobatics team. Two young men thrilled the audience by engaging in and holding impossible poses. At one point, one of them acrobats leaned backward until his knees were bent to a 90 degree angle. His feet were on the floor and the rest of his body was parallel to the floor. His partner uncurled himself from the first acrobat’s lap until just his head rested on those knees and the rest of his body was also parallel to the floor. The only connection the two men had was the head/knee connection and one firm grip with their right hands.

Their segment lasted 6 minutes and 34 seconds precisely. That is what my video camera reports… I did tape it. For what reason, I’m not sure. To be frank, I have to report that that segment was what all of us were talking about after the show was over and we were safely back on the bus.

Well, that and the fact that we were hungry.

After those thoroughly enjoyable 2 hours, the house lights came on and all of the performers posed for pictures. I share the best one with you.

While making my exit I looked around at all of the expats. There was an entire audience full! Where do they all work? How come, in all of my exploration of the city I’ve seen and met so few of them? I don’t have the answer to that one, but next weekend, a restaurant called Aloha’s will have a traditional Christmas dinner, I’ll be sure to meet more people there.

Although Carrie Ann is perfectly amenable to company and quite the accomplished hostess, it is not fair of me to burden her exclusively with my social needs. Meeting other people would probably be one way to resolve that problem. Regardless, I do enjoy her company and thank her for sharing this superb night out with me.

A footnote: as the bus pulled out of the concert hall enclave I felt a glimmer of familiarity, looking out the bus window. Within 5 minutes I realized we were just down the road from Shelin’s house (the student I tutored for the IELTS test, whose parents took me out for a sumptuous dinner as a thank you for helping their daughter). I was just a few kilometers from home! Rather than ride this chartered bus all the way back to Carrie Ann’s house and then having to take a taxi back to my campus, I asked if it would offend anyone if I got off the bus at the train station. No one minded and I was able to catch the last bus back home. I snagged a roasted chicken at the restaurant that was still open, thus taking care of the dinner my stomach was clamoring for.

It was as though it were meant to be!

George is Getting Married!

No, not the George I met at the zoo just last week, and not my friend and co-conspirator George in the States, who is already married to the lovely and charming Chris, my favorite bibliophile. No, this is my friend George who lives in Xi’an. He is a tour guide and part time English teacher; indeed his English is flawless.

When he called me yesterday to tell me his wedding is this Saturday I nearly choked! I had seen him in October when I went to Xi’an for National Holiday. Poor thing! He meant to treat me to a nice dinner at a barbeque restaurant. In fact, the restaurant was wonderful and the food absolutely delicious, but they don’t accept credit cards there and poor George was forced to ask me if I could help pay for the meal. What are friends for? I made up the difference for the cash he was lacking. You would think that, after such a move, he would have told me about his upcoming nuptials… but I don’t think they were planned at that time.

In China there is a difference between getting married and having a wedding. Because there is no recognized religion here, getting married is simply a matter of registering your union with the proper authorities. No church ceremony is required to finalize things.

The wedding is what most people want though: they want to proclaim their new status as husband and wife publicly. And they have a unique way of doing it. Read on…

On the day of the wedding, the bride and her attendants hole up at her parents’ house. Whether she wears white or another color is a matter of conjecture however, here the West is having an influence and more and more, wedding dresses are white.

The groom and his party are to come to the bride’s house and the groom asks permission from the bride’s parents to enter the home. After answering a few questions, the groom is allowed in. This shows respect for the bride’s home and her parents. After that is when the fun and games start. The bride’s attendants do everything they can to keep the groom from reaching the bride: they block his path, they take his jacket, his shoes, his hat if he’s wearing one. The groom’s party is to parry the advances of the bride’s attendants, all the while helping to advance the procession into the inner room where the bride waits. This shows the groom’s determination to win the woman he loves, no matter what befalls him.

Once the groom makes it to the bridal chamber, he will find that she is not ready. Her shoes are not on, her purse is lost, something happened to her flowers. The groom’s party must pay the bride’s attendants to help finish getting the bride ready. Don’t worry, this is all part of the game! This stage simply demonstrates that the groom will be patient with his wife, and will not deprive her of her friends after marriage. Once the bride is finally ready, she and her man head toward the apartment door. Again they are met by the bride’s parents, who give the groom money to take care of her properly. Of course, if the groom does not successfully convince the bride or the attendants to allow the wedding, no money changes hands and the parents keep their cash (and their daughter).

But let’s assume all goes well and the happy couple gets to leave the apartment. They are of course followed by the entire wedding party, and they get in their phalanx of cars. Next stop: the nicest restaurant in town! Now is when the fun really starts.

After eating, the MC calls the bride and groom to the front of the room, and invites the audience to talk about what they know of the bride or the groom. This is when humorous anecdotes are shared and much laughter ensues. This stage demonstrates that the bride and groom are human beings, with follies, shame and mistakes to their name. The longer this session goes on, the bawdier the stories! As the young couple’s moments are highlighted, candy and other sweets are passed around.

To mark the end of the wedding the newlyweds pour champagne for everyone. This symbolizes that, even though they are devoted to one another, they still serve their friends and family… but now, they do it together.

Nowhere during this ritual is God invoked, and there is little in the way of reverence. In fact, the more irreverent this whole affair, the better! There are no vows publicly exchanged and no promises made. It is understood that their commitment is for a lifetime. The purpose of this whole shebang is to celebrate a young couple’s happiness with the ones they love.

George understands that I cannot possibly make it to his village to take part in his wedding, although I sorely wish I could be there to witness his wedding firsthand. We compromised: I will call him at 11:00AM, just after he ‘captures’ his bride and they are on their way to the banquet. I am honored to be a part of my friend’s special day!

Do you think I know too many people named George?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Three Months, No Whimper

Of course, I’ve done plenty of whimpering up until now but, as I plan for my first Christmas here, I noticed that my three month anniversary went by without so much as a mention. To be perfectly fair, the three-month mark hit on Thanksgiving and I was busy celebrating that holiday, so I couldn’t exactly also celebrate my 3-month anniversary.

And really, the only reason it is remarkable is because I’ve been told that most foreign teachers decide that they can’t hack living in China and by the 3 month mark, they are packing it in and dead-heading for home, wherever that might be. It is said that if the teacher makes it past that time he or she is in it for the duration.

All in all, up until just recently, that was also my predominant thought. Packing it in and making a graceful exit, that is. But now… let’s just see where things stand, shall we?

I’ve expanded my knowledge of the bus system and have ventured even further out than Sam or my students thought I would have dared to on my own. With the help of that (sometimes not so) trusty website and having acquired a bus itinerary, riding the buses is actually kind of a snap. Ergo, I conclude the bus system no longer terrifies me and getting around is not a problem. Of course, there are still buses I have not ridden, places I have not been and areas of the city to explore.

I have to admit: I am not necessarily a fan of Wuhan culinary specialties. Although I do like ‘Hot Dry Noodles’ – a noodle dish that is served with a brown sauce and various toppings, for the most part, I do not like the overly spicy cuisine, or fare that tastes like dirt. Thus, doing my own cooking has become the norm and experimentation in the kitchen has become an adventure in itself. A rather fun, albeit challenging adventure. So far, most everything I’ve produced is acceptable if not tasty. Of course, it helps that I now know how and where to shop for food. Let’s not forget how handy that little oven of mine is, either!

I am on track with my financial goals: in the three months I’ve been earning money here, I have managed to save 2,000Yuan each month on the average. That sounds impressive until I remember that that is only half my paycheck and I have virtually no living expenses. In my defense: I did have extra expenditures such as buying a heater and my oven, and taking that trip to Xi’an over the October National Celebration holiday. And now, here comes Christmas. I resolve to save more money in the coming year, now that I’ve learned how to be more frugal.

Am I more frugal or less wasteful? Good question, and I’m not sure how much of one and how much of the other plays a factor in this aspect. I think I could make the distinction in this manner: I am more frugal in my needs and less wasteful in my habits.

That lesson was sharply driven home when I was preparing my Thanksgiving dinner. In planning my meal I reasoned I had to go to Metro, that fabled store that has all those wonderful ‘foreigner’ goods. Not just for a bird to roast but because there, I could buy Del Monte brand canned corn. And I did – 38Yuan for 2 cans of corn. On the way home, toting my bloated grocery bag and moaning over my empty wallet I realized that corn is currently in season and I could have bought fresh corn on the cob for 2 Yuan apiece at the local farmers’ market. Believe it or not, that was a pivotal moment for me: a pointed lesson in spending that I’ll not soon forget. Now I do all of my produce shopping at the farmers’ market. I spend less money and have fresh goods. I have not been back to Metro since that canned corn incident.

What about my teaching? You know… the whole reason I came here? My job? Oh, yeah! Teaching! Well, let’s see: I can now write a blackboard full of stuff and not break the chalk. That is an accomplishment in itself. When I first started teaching I didn’t dare use a whole, new piece of chalk because it would invariably break. Also, it does not feel as if my arm is going to fall off after writing a few words on the board. My arm muscles must have gotten stronger.

I still do not see myself as the be-all and end-all of teaching English. Although my students enjoy my class for the most part, I find that I’m doing way more talking than they are… and they’re supposed to do the talking! I‘ve resorted to teaching them song lyrics that we sing together. Mainly I seem to teach more about culture than about the language. I still have work to do here.

With regard to socializing. I do seem to be more social than I was before, but I think that has a lot to do with the crashing loneliness I live with. I’m starving for human interaction and so I find myself reaching out to the students to fill that void. I can’t thank all of my friends who fill my email inbox up with news and tidbits; I honestly think those emails have a lot to do with helping preserve my sanity. Not that the students are bad company necessarily, it is just that their interests and mine are sometimes not even in the same ballpark, let alone the same league.

In short, I guess you could say that I’ve learned how to exist here. Now it is time to learn how to live. There’s only one barrier to that: learning to communicate better.

I guess it is time to resume my language studies.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It is Worse Than I Thought!

My Little Chinese Mommy was sick and could not come to class one day. Not that she is more important that any other student, but because I ran into Lilly while getting some breakfast off campus after class and Lilly invited me to their dorm to visit, I went to the dorm.

I have been curious about dorm life since I got here. Some students had told me about the conditions in the dorms: 6 students to a room, no climate control, no hot water – even for bathing. No privacy. No luxuries such as washing machines or even a Laundromat on campus. Each student washes his or her clothes by hand. No dryers either, by the way: I can give actual testimony of that because I see the laundry hanging from the dorm windows.

My friends, I was shocked and appalled! To say it was worse than I thought is like saying it is a bit cold in Iceland.

The floors are concrete, uneven and unadorned by any finish, paint or rug. The walls are institutional green halfway up and the rest of the way, they are a fading yellow. The ceiling is painted white and that paint is peeling in large, threatening chunks. It looked like, at any minute, a sheet of paint and a layer of concrete might fall on my head.

And that was just the lobby. I tried to hide my shock as Lilly asked permission of the dorm mother for me to go upstairs and visit. The dorm mother granted said permission and I signed the log. We headed toward the stairs.

To the left of the staircase stands a hot water dispenser, with some large thermos bottles on the floor nearby. The floor is wet here and the hot water dispenser drips water from its calcified spout. Of course by staircase I am being generous. It was not a staircase as you and I might identify it – with balustrades and grace and promise leading upward. It was formed concrete, unpainted and uninviting. No hand rail. We went upstairs.

On the second floor Lilly turned right and walked on ahead. I stopped in dumbfounded amazement.

Have you seen the History Channel’s presentation of Alcatraz Prison? The prison that, at one time, housed such infamous criminals as The Birdman and Al Capone? Did you get the same eerie sensation as the camera walked down the deserted hall, marked by cell doors on each side, that there was some sense of prevailing doom within those walls?

This hallway looks exactly like a prison hall in Alcatraz. The same formerly bright green paint on the lower half, the same cream color on the top half. The green paint is peeling and large patches of dank concrete peek through. The floor looks even more uneven than does the lobby floor for here the light is dimmer and the pockets of moisture stand out in stark relief.

Only every third overhead light works, lending an even gloomier cast to this dismal hallway. And, the lights are low intensity neon that lend a bluish, B-movie look to everything. Every 10 feet or so on each side of the corridor is a pale yellow metal door, held closed by a sliding hasp. Within the door, mounted at eye level is a blocked, barred window.

Lilly urges me on, startling me out of my shock. She knocks on the 4th door on the right: Janny’s room. A hollow ringing echoes up and down the hallway as her knuckles rap. Presumably a voice from inside welcomes us in; Lilly opens the door and stands back for me to enter.

In a space smaller the bedroom in my apartment are 6 bunks, arranged 3 to a side. One lower bunk, two top bunks and one desk with 3 stools in front of it. One desk for 3 students. The bunk overhanging the desk can only be accessed by climbing the only available ladder and climbing onto the bunk that abuts it.

The bunks themselves consist of a metal frame and a wooden pallet covered by a thin mattress. Maybe even not so much a mattress as a pad. They are narrower than a twin-sized bed, and shorter. Each bunk has mosquito netting around it, lending them the illusion of individual space. There is an electrical outlet for each bunk, presumably to plug in a heating pad. One girl on the lower bunk, Linda, had her computer plugged in. The other five bunk’s outlets have nothing plugged in them.

The floor continues its motif of drab, uneven concrete and the walls, what are visible of them, are plastered white. The ceiling is also white. At the end of the room is a sliding glass door that leads to the common bathroom. A tiled vanity houses various cosmetics; presumably everybody stores their health and beauty aids with no regard as to who owns what. A small, tiled enclosure leads to what I suspect is the privy. That I can tell there is no shower, and no door on the privy. Beyond the bathroom area is a window leading to the great outdoors.

My Chinese Mommy was so moved that I came to visit her. She and the other students in the room told me, in awed tones, that no teacher had ever visited their dorm before. They were honored that I did and wanted to make the most of the occasion, offering me a stool at the desk, playing some music for me, showing me who’s bunk was whose, and who had more books. They offered me food from their pitiful stash: an orange, a drink, a snack cake. They pulled out little art projects they had done and were going to hang in their room. They had already adorned every available inch of wall space and most of the ceiling with ribbons, posters, magazine cutouts and pictures of home, presumably to make the room more hospitable.

Lilly then asked if I wanted to see her room. How could I refuse?

I visited 4 dorm rooms that day. In each room I was more humbled. These girls (and presumably the boys too) live in atrocious conditions. They have fewer comforts than prisoners in America, and yet they are not mean or dispirited about it. They have less privacy than military personnel but they do not complain. They have less personal space than an elementary school child but they think nothing of it. They bear their living conditions with such grace and cheer that I…

I am ashamed of myself for ever having looked around my apartment and whined and puled. Compared to how these kids live, I live in a mansion! I have hot water and climate control and more space and comfort than I actually need while, over my head and all over campus, kids tell each other good night in whispers because they don’t need to yell across any space.

What a wake up call! I’m grateful for my tile, and for my laminate flooring. I’m grateful for my excess of space and my supply of appliances. I’m grateful for my fully outfitted bathroom and for my full sized kitchen. I’m grateful for the generous space I occupy with no sharing involved. I’m grateful for my furniture and for my privacy.

No wonder these kids like to drop in on me and visit.

Tulip




Sometimes in the byways and pathways of your life you meet a person who sincerely impresses you. Tulip is such a person for me.

Tulip is a student in my sophomore Business English class, and the first thing that makes her stand out is that she is the best and brightest student in that class. Another outstanding attribute is that she is ravishingly beautiful. But the most outstanding quality this young woman possesses is her remarkable poise and regal bearing.

Tulip carries herself in such a manner that you might believe she is royalty. This posturing and these mannerisms are no sham where she is concerned. She is truly that balanced, mature and self-possessed. It could be the result of the port-wine colored stain covering ½ of her face.

Tulip is a victim of Capillary Vascular Malformation, a condition that causes such stains. This condition is sometimes remedied through neurosurgery and more recently with laser surgery. The success rate of these surgeries is about 80%, meaning that up to 80% of the stain can be eradicated, but the stain never completely goes away. Sometimes, as the sufferer ages, the stain intensifies and develops bumps and lesions. These stains can appear anywhere on the body and are present from birth on; about 20% of sufferers bear stains on their face. One remarkable feature of facial stains is that they generally affect only one side of the face.

That makes life rough on Tulip for two reasons, the first being that she is a girl. Traditionally females are less valued in Chinese society than males and until recently female infanticide was the norm for families desiring a male heir. Enter the Spring Blossom Project, which I will talk about in just a few moments.

The second strike against Tulip is that in China, any type of handicap or disfigurement generally leads to abandonment of the child, even nowadays. Just today I read in ChinaDaily about a boy who had been abandoned because he was mentally challenged. Such practices are considered socially acceptable here. Each couple has only one chance to produce a viable heir; for that heir to be somehow defective is intolerable and a source of shame, usually for the mother. The father does not produce bad genes… one of those gender inequity situations that are so rampant here. Abandoning a ‘defective’ child gives the parents license to produce another one if they have the courage and the money to, or at least absolves them of the shame and stigma of having defective genes.

There is a new awareness dawning in China, both about the value of girls and about the psychological impact of abandoning a child. The first is indicated by the societal concern that there is now, a mere thirty years after the inception of the one-child policy, a dearth of marriageable girls, compounded by the fact that female offspring are more likely to care for elderly parents. The second is shown in studies of orphaned children and their psychological adjustment to foster care versus actual adoption.

I don’t want to get too in-depth here (although the research is fascinating – at least to me), but I do want to touch on one more improvement of Chinese society: the Spring Blossom project. Stunned by the rate of female fetus abortions and the ratio of live female births versus male births, the Chinese government started the Spring Blossom Foundation to provide parents with incentives to bear and raise females. Such incentives include financial assistance for education, and enrichment programs such as dance and music for the child, as well as psychological assistance for the parents and the families so desiring of a male heir.

It seems that the Spring Blossom project is effective: the ratio of live male to female births has evened out – more or less in China. There are now only 1.14 male births for every female birth; a substantially improved ratio over a mere 15 years ago when the male/female birth ratio was nearly 2.5 to 1.

Tulip’s life may well have been spared by a combination of her parents’ genuine love for her and the Spring Blossom project. I’ve been given to understand that the bounty afforded parents by the Spring Blossom project is fairly substantial and, Tulip’s family being rural, they would have benefited handsomely from that extra money.
I intuit her parents have a deep love for this stunning creature they’ve produced, and rightly so. In a nation of beautiful women, she truly stands out. In a society that prizes intelligence, she is endowed with a supreme ability to absorb knowledge. Tulip fairly glows when she mentions her mother and her beautiful eyes just light up when she talks about going home for the upcoming Spring Festival holiday. I don’t think there is any shortage of positive emotion for Tulip at home, as I sense there is for certain other students of mine.

I wonder: what made this young woman into the regal, poised being that she is? Was it all the taunts she surely suffered as a disfigured child? Could it be her parents did have some violent arguments about her disposal during her youth? Maybe other family members were cruel to her and she had to bear it all in silence and shame. Maybe it is just her character and her destiny to be as she is.

I have to admit I am a bit intimidated by her. It is not often that one encounters a person who is so down-to-earth and yet so ethereal, so real and yet so illusory, so lacking in artifice that their poise and centeredness is a natural to them as breathing. Tulip so embodies the female essence that sometimes I forget that she is just a girl of 20, with her whole life ahead of her and only has rudimentary experience in navigating the adult world.

But oh, my! When she discovers herself… watch out, world!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Day at the Zoo: the Nightmare Continues




So, here we are, refreshed somewhat and ready to take in the show, right? It is a circus type act where various animals perform under the direction of their trainer. I’m being exceedingly generous when I say ‘direction’. You’ll soon see why.

As I approached the circular dome where the performance is put on, I could hear loud, pumping music emanating from within. That struck me as rather odd: wouldn’t such volume discomfit the animals? I needn’t have worried: the animals were in such a terrible state that for them to be discomfited would have been a step up.

Nearly every seat was taken and all of the patrons eyed the ring with undisguised anticipation. As yet there was nothing going on in the ring so everyone hushed as the foreigner with startling blond hair walked by. I have to confess I had a moment’s apprehension as I walked in; I imagined…

See our dancing BEARS! Behold our counting DOGS! Witness our prancing DEER! And here our ELEPHANTS will balance on a ball! Now our FOREIGNER will do tricks! At which point I parade out in a tutu holding lit sparklers in my hands and a rose between my teeth. I then start spinning on my head; somehow the lit sparklers end up between my toes. The lights are turned out for maximum effect.

Hysterical laughter threatened to burst forth… and that was the last time I felt like laughing for the rest of the day.

Out came the bears, accompanied by their trainers. The trainers wore red jumpsuits with gold piping on the sides; the bears wore choke collars. I’m not kidding: choke collars. These collars were so tight they clearly delineated where the bear’s head ends and where the body begins. When the bears were not performing, they were clawing at their necks. At least the bears got treats… but maybe that was torture in itself: imagine trying to swallow while wearing a choke collar.

I thought the bears might be the worst of it, but no! There was more yet to come. But at least the bears got treats.

Along came a collie – at least it looked healthy and clean. It was made to jump through hoops. The only sad part is that it got whipped to do so. When it tried to turn away from the hoop, the trainer whipped him. The poor animal cringed and did as it was bid to. Its partner, a small white dog was made to walk on its forelegs. When it dropped back on all fours after just a few steps on its front paws, the trainer grabbed it by its rump and yanked its back legs off the ground. The dog dropped down again and again with the yanking. Over the din of the music I heard the dog whimper. Fortunately the poor puppy only had to do one lap around the ring.

And now I see how the wolf probably broke his paw.

I’m not crying yet, but I’m pretty well disgusted: both at the way the trainers treated the animals and at the laughter from the audience. How they were not shocked into silence is a mystery to me. Aren’t they seeing the same abuse of animals that I’m witnessing?

By the time the goat came out with a small capuchin monkey on its back and was whipped into climbing a narrow ladder and made to cross a leather bridge that looked about the thickness of a razor strop, I was wishing I had PETA on speed dial. The goat was made to sit on a small raised platform mounted on the strap while the monkey positioned itself on the goat’s head. The goat now had to turn around and walk back to the midpoint of the strap and get on its head and spin with the monkey clinging on its back. Both animals were clearly terrified: they kept cringing as the whip pelted their flanks and their entire demeanor screamed ‘FEAR’ as they looked at their trainer.

I’m near tears, but it wasn’t until the cats came parading out that the dam burst. These aren’t simple tears that roll down your cheek unbidden as you think of or behold something sad either. I’m actually crying.

My friends, there is nothing sadder than a Bengal tiger who cringes before a whip. I honestly don’t remember what this cat was supposed to do, but I do remember thinking that that tiger could rip that person’s head off, IF the tiger remembered his true nature. Apparently the beast had been so mistreated that he forgot all about being a big cat and instead cowered in front of the whip. He didn’t even raise a paw in self-defense. He just saw the whip and cringed. Once the trainer backed off and lowered the whip, the tiger performed. None of the cats roared or evinced any typical jungle animal behavior; one might say they were so cowed that they have forgotten their might. How much beating does one have to do to such an animal to get it to act like that?

And still the show goes on. And still my tears flow.

The lion decides to not perform either, so he runs around to the back of the enclosure and tries to run to his cage backstage. Unfortunately, access to backstage is barred so the trainer immediately catches him and whips him, and then forces him back up on his aluminum podium where he is to stand on his hind legs and wave at the audience, along with the other cats.

The crowd goes wild. Applause rings through the house and the trainer takes his bows. He has done nothing to earn. I’d like to whip him like he whips those cats. I’d like to shove his whip down his throat. Still I’m crying. Let’s bring out the final act: the elephant.

Mercifully the elephant did not get whipped very much. On the other hand, with the thickness of elephant skin maybe whipping would not be effective. There’s other ways to humiliate elephants, though… like making them dance, making them balance on a ball, making them spin round and round. The elephant was the least mistreated animal of the show.

Two observations I make, after reviewing what I’ve written. The first being that I use the word ‘cringe’ a lot. Fact is, there was a lot of cringing going on, and a lot of beating. I’ve searched my brain and my thesaurus in vain for a different word to use and could find none. I apologize for the monotony, but I do urge you to be thankful that you did not witness all that cringing; you’re just reading about it.

Second observation: normally I do not care much for organizations like PETA. Their singular focus seems a bit wacky sometimes and maybe just more than a bit overboard, but in this case I can see their use. If PETA had witnessed this show there would have been outrage followed by action. I only had outrage and tears at my disposal.

The only good thing that happened at the zoo was the new friends I made: George (named after YOU, George – I christened him so because he did not have an English name.) and his lovely fiancĂ©e, YoYo.

A Day at the Zoo




There should never be any tears spilled at the zoo, unless they are the tears of a small child, overwrought by the excitement of it all and overcome by exhaustion. Such children would be comforted by his or her parents and would probably fall asleep on the way home, with cotton candy still sticking to his chubby little cheeks and most likely with a toy still clutched in his dimpled little hand. He would sleep as though cradled by angels, appearing quite angelic himself.

I cried at the zoo, and I am not a small child, nor did I have cotton candy. However, I was both overcome and overwrought. But let me start at the beginning…

So, this weekend I went to the zoo… Wait! Back up even further!

Immediately after waking I gingerly stepped into the shower and stood still as I washed because Liz told me I should never jump in the shower for fear of breaking a hip. Sound advice. Within 2 hours of waking I was outdoors. A rare feat for me; usually I take my time heading out. But I really wanted to get to the zoo in plenty of time to enjoy it.

Sometimes the online bus directory I use to help me get around is not necessarily reliable. It told me to take but 202 for 4 stops and then ride bus 203 for another 4 stops. The zoo would then appear in front of me, as if by magic. Well: I counted 4 stops and got off bus 202, but I ended up in a somewhat desolate area by the 8-lane freeway. There were no bus stop markings whatsoever, and ahead loomed a very elegant suspension bridge. It looked like I might have to cross it on foot. I asked the only other passenger that had debarked with me; she told me no other buses stop there and in fact, that location was not even a bus stop. Sigh! In for a penny, in for a pound, I figure: bring on the adventure! I started walking.

Not an auspicious beginning to a fun day out.

Luckily, I only walked a short way before a passing cab driver faked engine trouble until I walked up and he drove me the rest of the way to the zoo. Cab drivers are not allowed to pick people up just anywhere, you know. That’s why he had to fake engine trouble. I’m grateful he did; it would have been a long walk otherwise. I paid the driver and, full of anticipation I entered the zoo enclave – after buying my ticket and beating the beggars and the trinket salespeople away. I swear: being a foreigner guarantees you a cloud of hangers-on! The first glance around the park showed me a lovely lake where black swans paddled majestically. Originally, that was the picture I was going to attach to this entry.

I’m going to be really optimistic here and say that the park is undergoing renovations. Actually, the park itself is lovely, but the animal enclosures are depressing. Just as houses here are built of solid concrete, so are the animal pens. Concrete floors, walls and ceilings with bars or glass out front for easy viewing of the captive inside. Fortunately the weather was very nice and I didn’t have to see many animals penned up in their concrete prisons. Instead they were in their open-air concrete prisons: concrete floor and heavy duty bars all around.

Now I’m really worried. Even more so because spectators are beating on the bars with their hands and with keys or bottles and making strange, loud noises, trying to elicit some reaction from the animals penned up inside. Nearly all of the animals appeared asleep, or just sat there, staring and dispirited. I don’t blame them. If all I had was cold concrete floors, no simulation of my natural habitat, no food or water and no toys to stimulate any kind of activity, I think I would be dispirited and sleep all the time too.

First there were the monkeys – normally a lively bunch, but these monkeys were quiet and lackadaisical. Have you ever seen a lackadaisical monkey? It is a very sad sight. That was the first of many sad sights I beheld that day.

There was an elephant who begged us for food. Literally: he was facing us and would open his mouth, and then use his trunk to point to his gaping maw. Had I known that all of the animals were starving and those vendors outside were selling zoo-approved food pellets, I would have bought a case of them. All of the animals appeared to be starving! As it was I had just a few food pellets at my disposal and did my best to lob them into the enclosure. The poor, starving elephant snuffled each morsel up: he didn’t miss a one. Even more disturbing: the other elephant in the enclosure was rocking back and forth and anyone who watches Animal Planet knows that elephants rock when they are in distress. Was he hungry? Thirsty? In pain? Emotionally bereft? All of the above? I couldn’t tell but I’m guessing this was no day at the zoo for him.

The heartbreak continued: the wolf with the broken paw in a dank, damp, dark enclosure. He cringed when we walked up to him and slunk off to hide. I wondered how his paw could have gotten broken – I got my answer later. The Tibetan yak with his pelt matted and burdocked. His enclosure was not even swamped out and the flies buzzed around him madly. The camel with both humps flopped over, and sores on the underside of them where flies nested. We saw that because the poor camel kept dropping to his knees and then laying down with his lips skinned back as though near death. His poor, bruised knees made a horrible ‘thunking’ sound on the concrete and it appeared he was suffering from mange, if camels can actually contract the mange. Then there were giraffes that did not move at all. Their pen looked like the recreation yard in a prison: all that was missing was a basketball hoop. It seemed sadistic that there were brightly painted, smiling giraffes on the wall but the actual giraffes could have done with a dose of counseling to cure their depression.

Two of the saddest exhibits were the big cats and the pandas. The big cats had nothing in their pens: no food, no water, nothing. They lay on the concrete, asleep. King of the Jungle I just didn’t see. More like defamed, dethroned, humiliated and incarcerated king. Heartbreaking. I was full of hope for the panda exhibit though. After all, the panda is the national symbol of China; surely their enclosures would reflect that.

Not so much. Even though pandas are very social animals, they were kept in separate enclosures and couldn’t even see each other. Both pandas were dirty and listless. One was awake and peeling bamboo, the other was asleep on a wooden pallet. I just can’t imagine why…

The last straw was the circus type show. But I’ll write about that in the next post because this one is long (and depressing) enough. I really want to get graphic about this show so that you can see the true horror of it, and why it drove me to tears.

So… make a dash for the bathrooms and meet me at the concession stand. I’ll try to buy some more food pellets so we can feed these poor animals something, OK? Then we’ll go to the show together.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Honor System

Who remembers the good ole’days, back in grade school when school lunches, library books, even paste and crayons were dispensed on the honor system? What about having a line of credit at the corner grocery, in the days before ‘Line of Credit’ became a corporate term that you get charged interest for and sometimes taxed on?

Ah, the honor system! Where each person was relied upon to do the right thing, pay their own way, take only what they need, and leave the rest for the next person or the rightful owner. What happened to the honor system?

It migrated to China. Or, maybe it has been here for centuries like so many other culturally iconic behaviors. Here a man’s word is his bond and a handshake is a deal-maker. You know, just like it used to be in the States before corporate greed and petty theft took over.

Just a moment to talk about greed and theft. I am by no means saying that all of the reports of corruption and embezzlement coming out of China are false. There is plenty of greed here, and lust for riches, as well as corruption and bad deeds. A lot of that happens at higher levels of society – in government circles or in business, when there is actual profit to be made.

But at the people’s level… the street vendors and the bus riders and the hole in the wall shop owners. Here is where you still see the honor system in place and functioning beautifully.

It is not uncommon that a street vendor will simply tell you to make your own change from the box of money he has openly laying on his cart while he fixes your food. He or she may well cast an eye in your direction to make sure you don’t take a single Fen (1/10th of a Yuan) more than you’re supposed to, but I’ve not experienced that any time I’ve been to a food vendor stall. From what I’ve seen, the food vendor keeps his eyes on preparing your food and the customers take only the amount of change they’re entitled to.

Same with the ticket takers on the bus. Some of the bus lines are not government run, so a bus card will not pay your fare: you must pay 2 Yuan in cash. This ticket taker has as big a stack of bills as he or she can wrap their hands around, even some 100 Yuan notes – the largest denomination of currency available to the people. I can’t speak for every single Chinese person, but it appears that nobody has ever thought to club these ticket takers over the head and grab their money and run. Even on government-run buses, when a passenger does not have the benefit of a bus card he or she will drop the full 2 Yuan fare into the collection device without fail or trying to cheat by folding up a one-Yuan bill and pretending it is actually 2 Yuan.

The hole-in-the-wall shop owners presumably don’t even deal with banks. They keep their cash right there in their establishment. By day their wad of money is kept in a type of hip pack and worn; by night… who knows? It might be buried in jars among their inventory. Again it appears that no one ever thought of simply cutting the strap off of that hip pack and running with the cash.

Just the other day, at the farmer’s market, I did not have enough small change to pay for my 9.8Yuan purchase so I had to give the merchant a 100Yuan note. Being as it was fairly early in the day and she could not make change… she just told me to give her the 7Yuan I did have in small money and bring the rest back next time. Honor System! I love you!

Living under the honor system is like a blast from the past: something I only dimly remember from my childhood, and mostly have only read about in books. I have always wanted to experience living like this. What an absolute pleasure to finally do so!

But, I’m sad to report that tide is turning. Quietly, but maliciously, like a cancer growing. I see the signs already showing: anti-theft devices at store doors and on merchandise, lockers for people to put their big bags in so they don’t carry them into stores, video surveillance cameras.

Every time I go out with some of my students they constantly remind me to keep my bag secure and keep a good hold of it. Most times people hold their cell phones in their hand while riding the bus so that it doesn’t get stolen. Nobody ever shows any money (other than their bus fare) out in public. Men’s pants fronts have odd rectangles showing in front because they carry their wallet in their front pants pocket rather than their back pocket.

Lately, reports of violence are ramping up. Sometimes I actually read about a kidnapping, hostage standoff ending badly or the occasional murder or two. Of course, the hostage taker or murderer uses a knife as private citizens are not allowed to have guns. This is the type of desperate crime the regular Joe might perpetrate when pushed to the edge of an already abysmal life. Or regular Lee, if you want to distinguish Chinese regular people from American ones.

There is a disquieting undertone lurking around here. As uncomfortable as the pollution levels as just as toxic, the seeming paranoia of being a victim of theft is infiltrating this once harmonious society. It is sad to see women hiding their good watch after stealing a quick glance at it, always making sure no one is looking directly at them. It is sad to see people finger their money while it is still in their pocket so they can try to pull out only the smallest bill needed for their transaction. It is sad to see that some street vendors actually do collect their money and make change for you, rather than just leave their box of money on their table.

But there is still a measure of the honor system left. For as long as it lingers, I intend to enjoy it. I like riding the bus and watching people pay the right fare every time. I like patronizing the street vendors who trust enough to leave their box of money right there in the open. I like not having to separate my money into specific denominations and stuffing my various pockets with a few small bills so that all the pickpockets get from me is chump change.

I want to keep living like this. Not with my head in the sand, but enjoying a throwback to the time when people believed in honor. Until I get robbed or pick-pocketed, I’m guessing I will.

My Word but She’s Blonde!

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I color my hair. Those who know me really well know that I’ve been doing so since I started going gray at the tender age of 24 – I suppose that is the price of single parenthood, combined with genetics. Some of you may even know that I’ve had my share of dyeing disasters too: like the time I went too red and it looked like my head was on fire. Or the time that the dyes had a chemical reaction with the lead in the pipes in that old house I was living in and turned my hair a frightful black.

I do not look good with dark black hair, nor do I enjoy my salt-and-pepper look. OK, never mind! It is just sheer vanity that keeps me coloring my hair. I’ll admit it.

Matter of fact, I never realized how deep this streak of vanity ran until I was contemplating moving to China. Oh, I knew there were hair salons here, but the question was: could they dye and perm my hair properly after being used to only working on Chinese hair? There is a difference in the texture and resilience, you know.

I had thought that maybe, if I bought a wig before I left the States… you know, just in case? For anyone who has ever had to outlive a bad cut, a perm gone wrong or a frightful dye job, you know what I mean. Your head is the first thing people see and (supposedly) what most people focus on; in my case even more so because I’m so tall. Wearing a bad cut or color just does things to you: makes you want to wear a pillowcase over your head, for instance, and claim you just can’t get rid of that Halloween feeling. Or maybe wear a hat, if your hair can all be tucked under it and you look good nearly bald.

I just couldn’t get my nerve up to try dyeing my hair myself (as I had done for years) because of the water quality here, and the dye job I had done just before leaving the States was growing out to the point of being noticeable. I had decided against buying the wig – didn’t want to give into that level of vanity. So now I have to go have my hair done.

First obstacle: language barrier. I do not have the language skills needed to correctly say what I want done to my hair. Solution: bring along a friend/student who also wanted to get her hair done. Lucky for her: she’s Chinese and there is no dilemma about how to do her hair. Even more lucky: she backed out at the last minute on having her hair done… but she still went to the salon with me.

Next obstacle: the stylist working on non-Chinese hair. Nothing I could do about that, and I was rather comforted when he admitted that he had to find the proper mix of chemicals for my hair because he had never worked on ‘ethnic’ hair before. How I wish I could have told him that my hair takes color very quickly!

Third obstacle: becoming the star of the circus. Not much I could do about that as many people stopped by to watch the foreigner get her hair done.

All in all, it was not a bad experience and I certainly cannot fault the hair technician or the stylist for the way things turned out. After all, I’ve suffered through enough bad haircuts and dye jobs at the hands of well-meaning technicians to have learned to do the job myself, even while in the States. I don’t know what made me think things would be different here…

The dye only activated for about 20 minutes; maybe a tad bit longer. In any case, that is about 10 minutes too long for my baby-fine hair. I had a feeling, you know…

Strangely enough, there are not very many mirrors up in Chinese salons. On the other hand, the rinsing chairs are decidedly comfortable. It is actually not a chair per se so much as a table; one lays their full body down and your head is propped on a board. You only have to raise your head when the back of it is being washed or rinsed, and then the stylist supports your head for you. Strangely enough, I fit better on these rinsing tables than I did in the American salon chairs. I was always too long for those. I’d have figured that here, where everything from mop handles to couches is diminutive to my massive frame, I would have to contort myself to get my hair washed in a salon.

As the diligent color technician washed, rinsed, conditioned and rinsed my hair out I intuited by his hesitant manner that maybe the color was more than even he had bargained for. Nevertheless he was very diligent: washing, conditioning, massaging my scalp, maybe trying to erase some of the color…

For those of you who do not dabble in hair color, let me tell you: there’s color, and then there’s neon color. Color is complementary: it goes with your complexion, looks more or less natural and does not scream “I just escaped from a bottle and threw up all over her head!”

Neon color does exactly the opposite of coloring: it contrasts deeply with your complexion, looks more or less fake and does in fact scream “I just escaped from a bottle and threw up all over her head!” It adds the embarrassing taunt: “And I’m permanent: I’m going to stick around for months and months until your hair grows out so that EVERYONE can have a good look and laugh at you!”

I hate it when my head taunts me like that.

After the very comfortable wash and rinse session we were back in front of the mirror at the technician’s stall. I… uh…. Was… hmmmm.. shall we say I am exceedingly blond? Maybe the type that, if that color were natural I would have no visible eyebrows?

The poor stylist! He was concerned that he had done something wrong, had done a bad job, had gone overboard, was going to lose his job, was going to have his license to dye revoked indefinitely, was going to be decapitated. The poor guy just looked mortified! So, screaming in shock was not an option: I did not want the poor little guy to feel worse than he already did. I simply mildly commented that he did a very thorough job on my hair and it looks like the color will last for a very long time. THAT is an understatement.

OK, so the long and the short of it is: I’m now much more blond than I ever wanted to be, it is permanent color so it will stick around for a while, and I am now looking around for a satisfactory wig or maybe a hat. In the meantime I wear my hair with pride because after all, there’s not much I can do about it other than cut eyes out of a pillowcase and wear it.

But I can see it in the inscrutable Chinese faces: “My word but she’s blonde!”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Retraction!

A lot of the first impressions I had of Wuhan were not very favorable, I’ll admit. By graphically relaying what I saw to you, you might have gotten a bad impression of this city, so now I will set the record straight.

Let me be clear: many of the things I had previously reported still stand and are in fact reinforced by my wanderings about town. Other impressions I have conveyed surely deserve correction, if only because of the people I malign by having made the statements I made.

I have repeatedly told you that Wuhan is a very dirty city. That fact still stands. However, in making that statement I may have inadvertently conveyed to you that no one cares whether it is dirty or not. That is not the case at all. Everywhere you go you will see people sweeping the streets and sidewalks, picking up litter and cigarette butts. There seems to be a whole troop of sweepers and no matter what time of the day or night (that I’ve been out), or whether it is raining or sunny, these ardent sweepers are busily at it. They use oddly effective twig brooms and what appears to be homemade dust pans.

Unfortunately, their sweeping leads to the dust getting scattered around more than getting swept up, but I have to hand it to them: their immediate vicinity is neatly swept.

There are people who scrub the dirt from the walls. When mud splashes or when it rains and the inevitable mud makes its appearance, there is a legion of cleaners who busily wipe the mud and muck from wherever they are assigned to clean. They even wipe down the temporary walls that denote construction areas. The other day I saw no less than 7 construction workers scrubbing down a series of such panels that had mud all over them. These poor guys! As they got done with one panel our bus went splashing by and muddied it up again.

There are also people who wipe down dividers that separate bike lanes from regular traffic lanes. These are rather delicate wrought iron constructions, maybe ½ inch thick and a meter tall, painted white. They go on forever, too. I’ve seen a team of 3 or 4 women at a time tackle such markings during broad daylight while cars whiz by, kicking up dust. They use a small bucket of sudsy water, some rags and a brush. It seems one brushes the dust loose, one wipes the bars down and the other dries them. Theirs is also a never-ending chore.

Wait a minute: bike lane dividers? Where did those come from? Didn’t I previously report that there did not seem to be any lane markings? Ah, something else I must retract.

When I first got here I did not get out much. My limited view of Wuhan consisted of the area immediately around campus and for that area, I did accurately report that there are no lane markings and sidewalks are treated as just more road space. However, once you get out of this area and into the nicer parts of town…

There are in fact marked lanes, highway dividers (of the wrought iron kind mentioned above), bus lanes and bike lanes. There are also sidewalks with exceedingly high curbs to discourage automobile drivers from using the sidewalk as another traffic lane.

Which reminds me: I’ve talked badly about the drivers here, too.

While it is true that Wuhan drivers have atrocious skills and it is true that they cut each other off and try to gain whatever advantage they can over all the other drivers, in the more civilized areas of the city, most people actually do obey the stop lights. Mainly because there is either a uniformed policeman on hand to monitor traffic and issue immediate citations, or because the intersections are monitored by camera. It is apparently very expensive to settle a driving ticket in China, so many drivers play on the safe side and do not risk the penalty that burning a red light would bring.

Of course, some drivers have gotten clever and have masked their license plate with mud or a plastic bag so that they can burn red lights with impunity: the camera will only capture the image of a plastic bag or mud. That works very well until the driver is caught, and then the fines are doubled, so I’m told.

However, as previously reported, lane markings and pedestrian crossings are not necessarily observed. That statement still stands.

I have to confess: I still do not care too much for this city. While there seems to be a wealth of shopping opportunities, there is still not much in the way of culture or history here. I often wake up on my non-teaching days and wonder what I should go do or see. I’ve even checked on the Internet and found that there are only 11 noteworthy places for a tourist to visit; I’ve been to 9 of them. They were not spectacular.

Maybe I’ll go to the zoo tomorrow. The weather is supposed to be very nice and it will do me good to get out.

Made in China

Who has never read the label on something just bought, or has not turned over that trinket just given them and seen ‘Made in China’ discreetly placed somewhere on that item? Surely you’re aware that China is known as The World’s Factory; indeed China ranks first in the world for exported goods. There are lots of factories and lots of hole in the wall shops that produce goods. From Lenovo computers to the Apple I-Phone, all are made in China.

What of industrial waste and the environmental concerns, amidst all of this production? In this respect, China lags far behind. Its waterways are polluted and the air is actually considered toxic in some areas of the country. Many suffer from chronic lung distress and several communities develop virulent cancers at an alarming rate. There is a dawning awareness of these conditions and the connection between sickness and industry. The Chinese government is trying to clean things up and regulate pollution emitters as we speak.

I was aware of this when I decided to live here. One of the reasons I wanted to be here is because I had partaken of Environmental Safety and Health education when it was made available to me. I want to help clean things up here. Dredging rivers, picking up litter, educating the young… it is all part of my plan.

Of course, such a lifestyle starts at home. I make it a point to separate my recyclables and organic waste from regular trash. The campus makes no such distinction: trash disposal is done by depositing your combined waste into these nifty little huts. Every other day or so, someone comes by with a wheeled container with boxed sides and a shovel and shovels everything into the box. It is then taken to an area just off campus where it is spread over the ground. Recyclable materials are culled out and everything else is burned.

Recycling is the one thing that the Chinese are on board with. It is such a profitable venture that, at any trash collection area you will find people picking through the trash to fish out any plastic they can find. Usually these people are elderly and desperately poor; I think they actually make their living picking through the trash. It breaks my heart.

When I see someone (usually a woman) picking through our little trash hut just outside the dorm I always give her my recyclables. It is kind of a ballet: as I walk by the poor woman is startled out of the trash area by the noise. When she sees me she averts her eyes, but nods when I tell her to wait for me. I rush to my apartment where the recyclables are neatly stacked up and bagged by the front door. I then go and hand them to her. Only then will she meet my eyes, while clasping her hands together and pressing them to her forehead (a sign of respect in China). She thanks me profusely.

What is she thanking me for? My recyclables? The fact that I hand them to her rather than make her dig through the trash for them? The fact that I speak with her, smile at her, thank her for her efforts, treat her with respect?

I’ll tell you the truth: it hurts my heart to see the elderly dig through the trash. It hurts me to know that their life consists of digging through other people’s refuse. It hurts me to see them ignored or mocked by the younger generation who do not seem to realize that it could be their mother or father hoping for a nice, clean haul out of the trash pile. It hurts me to know that, although this country is doing its best to mend its polluting ways, the indigent elderly are the ones in the trenches, picking up every little thing.

The other day, while out walking I saw an old woman hold out her hand to a young man for the empty water bottle he was getting ready to throw away. He laughed at her and threw it on the ground. She looked after him, her expression inscrutable. I can only imagine the humiliation and impotent rage she must have felt. I was shocked beyond words at his callousness – not that I have that many Chinese words at my disposal to begin with.

But if I did… what could I have said to him? I wanted to shame him like he shamed her. But then I figured: he couldn’t have a sense of shame to begin with. If he did, he would not have treated that poor woman like that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Boo Tie Shoo Foo

No, it is not the latest creation from an inspired Chef; you will not find it on the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant. Bu tai shu fu (see pronunciation above) literally translates to ‘not very comfortable’. It is how the Chinese say they’re sick or in pain, or burdened by some psychological or mental dilemma.

I’ve noticed, in all of my wanderings and delvings into the language and culture here that hardly anything is expressed in actual negative terms. There is no actual word for ‘No’; Bu is the closest there is to a negation. ‘Bu’ precedes most any verb to indicate a negative. The sole exception is ‘mei’ (pronounced ‘may’) which precedes the verb ‘to have’. I do not know why ‘to have’ is negated by mei and all other verbs by bu.

More specifically: there are no positive statements for a negative condition. ‘I’m broke’ translates to ‘I don’t have money’ in Chinese; ‘I’m unemployed’ becomes ‘I don’t have any work’; ‘I’m sad’ becomes ‘I’m not happy’.

If you think about it linguistically, that puts a positive spin on every possible condition. The expectation is to be on the sunny side of life – as it were; to express a negative state in positive terms signifies acceptance and even a certain expectation of that condition. And this pattern of speech has been in place and actively used by the Chinese for over 5,000 years.

Mind you, I am no historian or cultural anthropologist (although I’d love to be one) but I have to comment on this peoples’ utter desire to put a positive spin on everything. What is so wrong with just coming out and saying what is wrong? Why do they negate what should be perfectly acceptable? People get sick every so often; why not state that one is under the weather, rather than confess to not being comfortable?

I think it has a lot to do with expectation. Here, people expect good things to happen, good conditions to be maintained and good states of being to exist. If, for some reason that level of goodness cannot be maintained, somehow it is the fault of the sufferer. If you get sick, it is your fault: viruses are supposed to coexist harmoniously with all other organisms, including you. If you have no money it is your fault; every person is to be industrious. If you are sad, who’s to blame? Each person is to make their own happiness.

Kinda takes accountability to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

And that smiling acceptance doesn’t end there. I recall the story about the American salesman pitching an insurance policy to a Chinese restaurant owner. The restaurateur agreed with everything the salesman said, right down the line. Yes, it would be terrible if his kitchen burned up. Indeed, it would be frightening if he got sick and couldn’t provide for his family. Of course, if he died and his loved ones had no money it would be a sad state of affairs. The salesman, already relishing his fat commission, whipped out all the necessary forms for business, health and life insurance… but the establishment owner refused to sign anything.

Perplexed, the salesman walked away. I too have walked away from one Chinese conversant or the other shaking my head, wondering what went wrong.

Like when I tried to organize a blood drive here on campus. There is a desperate shortage of blood in the blood banks, and if you haven’t heard that tragedies occur with startling regularity in China – earthquakes, floods, fires, even desperately needed surgeries, quite frankly I have to wonder if you’ve decided to adopt a hermit lifestyle and remain out of touch. A university campus would be the best place to hold a blood drive – all that young, healthy juice of life running around, but somehow I just cannot seem to get anyone interested in the idea. That’s not to say that, when I broach the subject, people are not enthusiastic. When it comes to the actual doing though… that’s when the problem occurs.

The enthusiasm comes from the cultural more to agree with anything. Chinese people will smile, nod and agree with anything you say. Just when you think you’ve got them hooked, there is no follow-through. It is not you or your words or your ideas that they are not agreeing to, it is simply that what you are suggesting does not follow their way of life. This is not just Chinese versus foreigner either; it happens when Chinese people deal with other Chinese people. At least, so I’ve been told by my Chinese friends and more recently by some of my students. It is maddening, really.

But on the other hand: doesn’t the same kind of thing go on in America? Especially in the South? The genteel mannerisms of the South mirror the Chinese passion for positive spin. ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ for example: some women have taken that adage to heart and used it to elevate cattiness to an art form. It has even been satirized in movies and books: have a read at a gothic novel or a Jodie Picoult story, if you don’t believe me. Or, just watch a soap opera or two: women who pretend to get along when, really, all they want to do is scratch each other’s eyes out. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

And what about politician’s campaigns? A prime example of the smiling, nodding agreement that results in nothing!

When I first made my acquaintance with China, I was bowled over with the positive attitude and sense of accountability everyone here had. I think that that is one of the reasons I wanted to live here. Living and working among this young generation of people has shown me how dangerous it is to expect everything to be happy-happy and Oh, so gay!

Not that having a positive attitude is a bad thing, in itself. Pretending to have a positive attitude when you are broke and starving is counterproductive, though. There is only so far genteel politeness should carry you, after that, we’re down to the brass tacks Baby, and you’d better be calling it like it is. This younger generation of Chinese have learned that, and the culture is evolving because of it. I wonder how it will reflect in the language, in years to come.

I’m boo tie shoo foo. I think I’ll take some Nyquil and go to bed. Also, my desk chair makes my back hurt and I wonder how I will make Christmas special for everyone I love. Bu tai shu fu covers all of those things.

Black Friday

Did you go shopping the day after Thanksgiving? Were the stores crowded? I recall the times, in my former life when I had to leave the house 30 minutes early to get to work every Saturday in December because the mall was on the way and traffic was lined up for miles up the road from that exit. I don’t have to live with that anymore; here the stores, streets and malls are crowded year-round.

And are there malls? For pity’s sake: Lu Xiang Square, that popular tourists’ showplace boasts no less than three malls directly off the Square, each of them several stories tall, with shop after shop and food courts every so often. Here, shopping is no problem. The forth corner of Lu Xiang is occupied by a Ramada Business Hotel; 5-star if you’ve ever seen one. That’s just Lu Xiang Square; wait till I tell you about Wu Ma Lou (pronounced Woo Ma Low). A shopper’s paradise!

I did not shop on Black Friday. For me, Friday was genuinely black. The power had gone out sometime overnight; by the time I woke up around 8:00AM there was no electricity anywhere on campus.

My normal routine is to stumble to the kitchen and start the electric kettle for tea. While that heats I go to the bathroom for a good brushing of teeth and constitutional; on the way there I turn on the computer. On the way back through I log into my DSL account; by the time I make it back from the kitchen with my hot tea I’m ready to savor your emails and the daily news.

Only one problem with that: most of my morning routine requires electricity, and there was none that day! What’s a girl to do?

I went back to bed. Being as my apartment is maintaining a steady 61 degrees Fahrenheit –those darn concrete walls! The only warm place is under my thick quilt, with what heat remained in my hot water bottle. I read by ambient light until I couldn’t see anymore, and then I snoozed.

At noon I was awake again, and hungry. Still no electricity. A cold breakfast is better than no breakfast, so I had the last deviled egg from the night before, two pieces of Melba toast bought at Metro, a piece of cheese also from that fabled store, a glass of yoghurt and an apple. Oh, and a brownie. Satisfying, but cold.

Now, I’m cold.

I could have gotten dressed and gone out but to tell you the truth, sometime in the past 48 hours I had developed what felt like the onset of a nasty cold and just couldn’t see myself facing the great outdoors and all that dust. What water remained in the hot water heater was already tepid; getting cleaned up and ready to greet the world with only warm water did not send my into shivers of anticipation. Besides, I’m still incubating a virus. Remember that.

Back to bed with me. Now I’m not even reading because I’m tucking my cold hands between my only slightly warmer knees. Again I doze.

As it turns out, it really is a nasty cold. From the tickle in the back of my throat that no Hall’s will soothe to the ache in my muscles, this might be the worst cold I’ve had in a long time. With all that time to lie in bed and snooze and think, I reflect on the ever-loving bus system here in Wuhan. I know: strange thing to think about when you can’t quit coughing, right?

Here, many people wear face masks to keep from inhaling germs or dust. Commendable… but what about their hands? The Chinese are not noted for washing their hands much, even after bodily functions. Nobody performs any bodily functions on the bus (except for the occasional nose picking, but even that is going away). If one’s hands aren’t clean when they board the bus, and then they grip the bars and handles to hold on as the bus travels its circuitous route, where do the germs go?

That’s right: onto the next person’s hands. And that is how cold viruses are transmitted. I’ll bet that’s how I caught my cold.

It is a moot point now. I’m sick and there’s no heat except for under my comforter. I sleep until 5:00PM this time, and wake up ravenous.

Still no power. The ironic thing is that I had mashed potatoes, chicken, vegetables and all sorts of good stuff to eat in my fridge, but with no electricity for the microwave, I either have to eat it cold or go out for hot food.

There is electricity beyond the campus walls; I can see the neon of the KTV shining though my windows, and the steady stream of students going by with warm food tells me the food vendors are out. Using what might be the last of the tepid water in the water heater I wash my face, run a comb through my hair and head up the road, into light and life with the objective of securing a roasted chicken from the chicken restaurant. While on my way I figured I had better buy a flashlight because my three flickering candles would soon gutter out.

My whole outdoor adventure lasted 20 minutes: selecting and paying for a rechargeable flashlight and trying to find one that is battery powered instead (no luck), buying a hot chicken dinner and then braving the crowds back home. The crowds? It seems the weather was so beautiful that everybody turned out: the ‘civilians’ of the community around campus and all of the students who did not want to stay in their darkened dorms. I daresay the street was more crowded than I’d ever seen it. I slunk back home to eat dinner while it was still hot.

As I trudged back home I saw a familiar sight: a full-sized car trying to wedge its way between street vendors and pedestrians into the neighborhood behind campus. This time their way was blocked by electricians rolling out a large spool of wire, hopefully to supply our campus with power again. Needlessly, uselessly, the impatient driver leaned on his horn, as if sheer volume would give him priority. Each blast drove a spike into my throbbing head. I felt like kicking his tire as I walked past his car.

I don’t know what happened to our electrical feed, but I think some industrious handyman capped the wrong wire from the rat’s nest tangle that allegedly feeds our campus. Or it could have been cut because of the construction going on a quarter mile up the road.

The power came back on at 9:20, but by that time I had already eaten my dinner and was back in bed, still feeling miserable. I only got up to boil water for my hot water bottle, and I shivered as I waited for the kettle to finish its little chore.

The next time my eyes popped open, it was 7:14 the next morning. All the sleeping I did had done me a world of good; I felt full of energy and made plans to go play badminton and enjoy dinner with some friends. But I have to reflect that yesterday was one of the most depressing days I’ve spent since I’ve been here, sickness notwithstanding.

Black Friday indeed!