Sunday, October 31, 2010

Metro: The Store of my Dreams!

Yesterday was such lovely weather, I decided it would be a good idea to set out in search of Metro again. Before leaving the house – in high spirits, I might add, I consulted with the website I use to verify which bus to take to this alleged shopping Mecca and how many stops I should count before expecting to get there.

Got it: Metro is on Xu Dong Road (pronounced Shoe Dong), #48. That would be 18 stops on bus 402, thank you and have a nice day. I shut down the computer, made sure I had everything needed for a day out and grabbed a Chinese hamburger at one of the street vendors for breakfast. Please do not lecture me about the evils of fast food for breakfast until I tell you about Chinese hamburgers, which consists of a home-baked roll stuffed with stewed meat and fresh vegetables, prepared right there in front of you. YUM!

Thus sated I began the interminable journey into town by boarding bus 202 – standing room only, of course. Not that I minded standing, but not when the bus itself is standing still. When the traffic did not move for over 10 minutes I decided to get off the bus and walk around the traffic jam. Surely I would get to the train station much quicker on foot than by staying in stalled traffic.

And I did. After only 15 minutes of walking in which I shamelessly wove through the parking lot this road of nightmares has become, the road was perfectly clear and I soon boarded another bus that would take me to the train station, where I would make my connection to bus 402. Except for my shoes being once again muddy, things were really going well and I took that as a sign that I would finally meet with success in finding the elusive Metro store.

I saw many things of interest while riding bus 402 that, normally, I would get off and investigate but today my goal was specific: Metro. I was not getting off the bus until I got to the 18th stop, and I was not going home until I found that store. So, I made a mental note to investigate all of the interesting things I saw today at a later date.

Eighteen stops later I debark. I am now in a construction zone – again! Construction everywhere! Nevertheless I gauge by the fact that this bus dropped me off in front of building number 92 that Metro must be down the road a little ways. I start walking…

And find the Home Store! Interesting… I decided to check it out, as it was on the way. The Home Store is a lot like Home Depot: they sell furniture, household things, complete kitchens, hardware and DYI supplies. They also sell appliances, so naturally I checked out that department to see if they had ovens. They had quite a nice one for 698 Yuan… but again things did not feel right in my gut. It just did not feel like MY oven. Besides, I didn’t bring enough money with me to plunk down that kind of cash.

However I did find pipe insulation, which was a good thing seeing as my hot water pipes are not only exposed, they are not insulated, and run along an outside wall – the North wall of my apartment, to be specific. Ever the maintenance tech, I’m thinking I should insulate my pipes before winter really gets here; otherwise I’m going to be hard-pressed to stay clean and sanitary with only cold water. A few Yuan spent on pipe insulation and I leave the Home Store and keep walking.

The next thing I run into is a shopping plaza with a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Another interesting development: maybe I’ll find some duct tape for my insulation project, and I need some stuff for my class room. Off I go, into Wal-Mart. It was nice, it was interesting and I did find some of the things I needed. Again a few Yuan well spent and again, off I go.

By this time I decided I was hungry and, as though conjured up from my foreigner’s mind, there stands a Pizza Hut. I decided to partake, being as it has been so long since my last slice of pizza, and since my last meal. The gracious hostess seated me in a nook where I heard gentle murmurs of conversation… in English! There were more foreigners in Wuhan! In America this might have been rude but I’m not in America, so I just walked right up to those foreigners, introduced myself and gave them my contact information. Then I asked if they knew where Metro was.

They told me it was down several blocks and I should consider taking a taxi, as the ‘blocks’ were rather long. Instead I decided to get back on bus 402 and go one more stop. Surely the bus can take me there as well as a taxi, right? I finish my pizza, pay the bill and, once again fueled for adventure, I go back to the bus stop.

One more stop is exactly what it took. Unfortunately I rode bus 402 for 2 more stops and had to double back. No problem: at least I found The Elusive Metro (in my mind, it had been elevated to Capitals status).

Metro! Like a mirage it shimmers before me! Metro! The store everyone talks about but no one seems to know how to get to! Metro! I stand before your portals with a shopping cart, poised to see what you have to offer. But first, a bathroom break, in the bathrooms conveniently provided next to the entrance.

I don’t know if I can convey to you the joy of Metro. Under its corrugated roof I found so many things I have been looking for since I came here: butter, cheese, fresh meats, ‘foreigner foods’ and YES! MY OVEN! My oven is here!

I will return to Metro on Monday afternoon to purchase what has got to be the most precious, the most darling, the most beautiful oven in the world. It is stainless steel with a black face and a glass door. It will roast a whole chicken, bake a dozen cookies and broil a piece of meat… not all at the same time, but it has all of those capabilities. It will look perfect next to my microwave on the shelf. The best part is it will only cost me 399 Yuan!

I literally floated through the store with a dopey grin on my face. My Oven!!! Soon I will have my oven. And then, things will be alright. I barely registered the fact that Metro also sells all manner of butter, cheeses, actual milk, an assortment of crusty breads, and boasts a fine meat selection, to say nothing of Western dry and canned goods. Knowing that I would not be able to shop decently and get things home on the crowded weekend bus, I put off shopping but…

I definitively decided Metro was the store for me when I found GASP! Paper Towels! I had to buy them right then and there, crowded bus or no. Come tomorrow, when I buy my oven, I will have 2 additions that have been seriously lacking in my kitchen.

Yes, Sophia: Metro really does exist. And, everything you heard about it is true!

Oven Lust

Naturally I need to not go on wild shopping sprees while living here. Not only is that counter to the idea of living the minimalist life I’m trying to embrace, but imagine trying to move again! And this time, with more stuff! No, the list of acquisitions needs to remain small. I was hoping to not even have a list, but since being here I’ve realized I will have to buy a few things.

Like a heater. The heaters in my apartment are woefully inadequate; I can tell just by looking at them. They are mini heat pumps, one in each main room whose air handlers are situated high on the wall, approximately 30cm from the ceiling. Being as heat rises, how efficient are these things going to be? Especially if you consider the walls are 20cm thick concrete and the windows are single-paned. The walls alone sap the apartment of any heat inside.

Another appliance I will have to furnish for myself is an iron. Whereas usually there is a proliferation of cleaners who would ‘do’ my clothes for next to nothing in China, in this neighborhood of dust and diesel fumes we can’t even spell clean, let alone have a cleaner to iron my work clothes for me.

An appliance I did not have to buy is a blow dryer. That was one I had anticipated shopping for; strangely enough, there was one furnished with the apartment. Maybe I should not anticipate things so much…

I never really expected this, but I miss my toaster oven. Knowing that the standard Chinese kitchen does not come so equipped, while I was in the States I had originally planned to ship my toaster oven over and just use a transformer to convert power for it. But my oven proved too cumbersome and I reasoned: how often do I use it anyway? Funny how you never know how useful an oven is until you don’t have one.

I have a microwave oven, but it is just not the same. Not when you are faced with a steady diet of fried foods from the wok and soggy, overly soft, sweet bread from the local bakery. In short: when you wake up dreaming about brownies, the only thing you can really conclude is that you miss having an oven.

All that changed for me on the day I got a phone call from a friend. There was going to be a birthday celebration and she confided that, rather than buy a cake, she was going to bake one.

WAIT A MINUTE!!! Ovens do not exists in China! How… I actually spluttered this part… How are you going to BAKE a cake???

Come to find out ovens can be bought in China. Very nice ovens that bake, broil and roast whole chickens, all while looking very efficient and modern in these traditional Chinese kitchens. And it just so happens Della has one.

Since that day I have been possessed with oven lust. I long to purchase the oven of my dreams, and when I’m in my own kitchen I glance longingly at the space my oven will one day occupy. Part of the reason I took that very long walk (when I ended up in the mud puddle) was because there are several appliance stores along that stretch of road that might… just MIGHT have my oven.

I have been to Carrefour – a quarter way across town; Walmart – halfway across town; and every appliance store in between. I have found ovens, but they are not quite of the caliber I’m dreaming of. I have been to Chicone’s – a high-end department store, and Renrenle – a low-end department store; even they cannot seem to satisfy.

I conclude my only hope for finding my oven will be at Metro, the elusive, German-owned major store chain. I’ve set out to find Metro on 4 different occasions and each time I was thwarted. Even though the Metro website tells me exactly which bus to take in order to arrive at its welcoming portals, somehow I cannot seem to find the place. Maybe the store is just a myth and the website one of those prank sites… but then I think: No, that is where Della bought her oven. Surely Metro must exist somewhere in this town!

I know it is wrong of me to put all of my hopes into one basket. Maybe, if I make it to Metro and get a good jolt of disappointment at not finding MY oven, I’ll go to Wal-Mart and settle for one of theirs. Wal-Mart actually does have a fairly interesting ‘convertible’ oven, in which the chicken roasts standing up, and then you pivot the roasting element from the side of the oven to the top and turn it into a broiler.

Sigh! If I HAVE to make do…

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rolling up the Welcome Mat

Part of the problem and frustration of being a sitting duck in my apartment is the fact that I am available to whomever wishes to knock on my door. I’ve touched on that before, now let’s explore the topic in detail.

For guys, a surprise knock on the door is no big deal: they just slap a ball cap on their head and answer the door. For women it is so much more involved: hair and make up must be done, clothing and supportive undergarments must be worn. It is a bit like when the paparazzi catch stars without their makeup and make a big deal out of it for women to answer the door in a state of unreadiness. To avoid ‘bad press’, or, in my case bad representation, the particulars of my situation dictate that I must be ready for company at all times.

I’m not presuming I am of the caliber of Angelina Jolie or Halle Berry, but my students expect a certain amount of ‘presence’ when they see me, because that is what they are used to. And, as a role model on campus I am compelled to present myself well. However, I do not like the idea of having to sit around the house with perfect hair and make up in case a student decides to show up. To say nothing of having snacks available, as it is the custom in China to greet your guests with some sort of food and drink to make them feel welcome. And, custom is, if you open your door you are welcoming a guest.

This is another aspect of my recent rebellion: I have decided over this past weekend to not make myself so available to the students. After all, it is not part of my job and there is nothing that compels me to do so. A friend had suggested that I post visiting hours and posting visiting hours sounds like a good idea, but I think maybe it conveys the impression that I welcome visitors for at least part of the night. That is not necessarily the case: What if I’m not feeling well? What if I'm already in my jammies (because they are substantially warmer than my street clothes) and do not have make up on or my hair done? What if I'm doing something like blogging or watching a movie or eating my dinner? What if I don’t have snacks? What if my house is not in shape to receive company?

I always used to tell my daughter that I do not live in suspended animation until she needed something from me; I actually have interests and activities that I pursue, completely independent of her. Same situation here, don't you think?

There was a group of girls - not the Cookie Cutters - who were enraptured by the fact that my apartment was air conditioned (this was in the summer, of course). Their dorms are not climate controlled at all and they do not even have hot water to bathe in. We had gone out and spent the day together, and as a natural extension to that I invited them in for a light snack. Next thing you know they are in the kitchen doing my dishes, going through my things, prowling through the whole house, and saying how they could come over every night and watch movies and study. And then they said how poorly they sleep in their dorms because of the lack of air conditioning... Definitely time to nip that one in the bud.

Of course, I realize I can't have it both ways: either I give up a measure of privacy and allow the students to help me get around town, or I give up the students' help and maintain the sanctity of my home. After a short debate with myself, I've decided on the latter. I can surely learn how to cope and survive around town alone and thus preserve a measure of privacy in my life. Furthermore, now that the school year has taken off and the students are more and more involved in their activities around campus, they are less and less available to spend a weekend day showing me around Wuhan. Besides: the bloom is off the rose; we've been working together for 8 weeks now. They are more familiar with me and do not feel as compelled to satisfy their curiosity about me by hanging out so much. Of course, coming by my apartment is a convenient middle ground... depending on whose side you look at. Certainly not mine.

No, I think I should discourage the practice altogether. The students should not have the liberty to just come up and knock on my door. I think I will encourage them to send a text message to see if I'm available to meet with them, and we can meet at some neutral place on campus during daylight hours: a library, the park or some such. For my more endearing students, going to a local eatery would be acceptable. My home is my home, not a crash pad... as it may well turn out to be if I continue to allow this practice.

What do you think?

I Have a Box

It is an unassuming thing: white and measuring approximately 20” by 14” by 10”. There is some tape holding it closed, and various markings on it. It is a bit heavy, and a tad beat up from all of its travels.

It is my very first care package.

Sam happened to be visiting with me when he got the call that I had a package waiting. He was thrilled at my excitement and so happy to be the bearer of such good news he forgot to tell me exactly when and where and how to rendezvous with this package, only vaguely gesturing toward the campus’ entrance gate.

I had been expecting this package. Marjorie and I had colluded on it. I needed some pharmaceuticals that I’ve found are not available in China and ordered them online, to be sent to her house. She then added a few things of her own and found out that the cost of mailing a box to China is prohibitive. We split the postage and she let me know when she shipped it and when it should arrive.

Receiving a package or a letter in China is a bit different than in the States, as I’m sure I informed you. In this instance, my parcel was not delivered by courier but by the Post office, and it was dropped off at the main gate. There is a small building to the right of the entrance gate that signs for all incoming packages and then phone calls are made to the proper recipients to come pick them up. I was ready to pick my package up the minute I found out it was waiting for me, but Sam instructed me to wait until the afternoon.

I didn’t know about that small building wherein the packages lie.

At 4:00PM I sent Sam a text message asking if now were a good time to go get my package; he responded to the affirmative. With all of the glee of a small child at Christmas I set out to a nearby store that advertised it was an outlet for ChinaPost. I asked about my package and they looked at me like my nose was on upside down. They directed me to the post office, again vaguely gesturing up the street.

By now it had started raining, and I had forgotten my umbrella. No matter, my smile was my umbrella as I trudged though the mud to the next friendly store that advertised itself as an outlet for China Post and asked them where I’m supposed to go pick up a package. I should inform you that my Chinese has not substantially improved in the two months I’ve been here, and I still can’t manage the local dialect so again I got looks like I was possessed.

Finally a kind student helped me out by indicating that the post office is in fact across the major road. By now I’m a little unsettled and not exactly happy I’m getting rained on, smile or not. Arriving at the post office I ask about receiving a package only to be informed I never had to leave campus to receive it. Reversing my course through the rain and the mud, and mildly cursing Sam for not being more detailed in his explanation on how to receive packages, I trudged back to campus.

Serendipity saves me a lot of trouble around here, I’ve found out. It just so happens that the Postal Clerk I talked with had called ahead to let the campus mail clerk know I was on my way. She flagged me down as I entered the gate, otherwise I would never have known about the small building wherein packages lie. The clerk ceremoniously indicated which box I should pick up and take home with me.

As though I wouldn’t recognize a Parcel Post box, sealed with priority tape. As though I wouldn’t recognize the huge address label Marjorie printed out from her computer and affixed to the top of it. As though I didn’t hear the choir of angels singing at me when my eyes lit upon it. As though I really needed her to show me my box. Now I’m happy with Sam, the Post Office and the whole world again. I have my box.

You can imagine my excitement – not at receiving the items I had ordered, but at seeing what Marjorie had padded my order with. All I knew to expect was Oreos. I barely got my front door open for all my excitement, and stared reverently at this wonder, this unassuming container that had so recently been in the presence of my best friend and was now in my company.

The staring lasted all of about 5 seconds, and then I ripped into it. The tape hindered my animal efforts to liberate the contents so I ran to the kitchen for a knife and unceremoniously cut the offending binding. I was literally holding my breath until I touched the first packing peanuts concealing my treasures. One by one they emerged as I pawed through stryrofoam: a bar of chocolate, the promised Oreos – 2 bags!; a bag of Dove candies, a box of breakfast bars, a monster bottle of Listerine – the biggest money could buy. And the stuff I had ordered – but that was academic; I knew that stuff was going to be in there.

I sat down on my hideous couch, cradling my bottle of Listerine, with tears running down my face. My friend remembered I love Listerine. Running my fingers over the chocolates I imagined her standing in the candy aisle at Wal-Mart, trying to decide what might please me the most. I pictured her heading toward the checkout with all of these things she would never buy for herself (except the breakfast bars and the Listerine), trying to decide if she had bought enough stuff to send me. I imagined her at the checkout, a small smile playing on her lovely face as she paid for the things she knew would bring a smile to my face.

Oh, my friends: if you know of anyone who is far from home, either by their own decision or on order of a Supreme Commander – i.e. our Service Men and Women, please send them a care package. It doesn’t really matter what you put in it, it is the ‘care’ that matters. The idea that someone ‘back home’ is thinking of them. The idea that, no matter what they’re doing in a foreign country, they matter to those they left behind. The fact that, even though they are isolated they are thought of and loved and missed.

I stuffed an entire Oreo cookie in my mouth and drooled chocolate crumbles to mingle with my tears. Nice visual, right? Finally getting up from the couch I decided to leave my treasures on the coffee table all night, so that I could behold them every time I walked through the living room. And I passed through the living room often that day on my way to get tissue to wipe my tears with.

Later that night I found myself pawing through the packing peanuts one more time because I just couldn’t believe Marjorie would send a whole package and not include at least a card. Come to find out, there was one final gift in this care package Marjorie so lovingly prepared: a news article detailing her as a role model for men and women everywhere. Marjorie is in fact a Weight Watchers top 100 role model, and is currently enjoying a bit of fame for it. We had talked about it on the phone; she knew I wanted to share in her great success and thoughtfully included this article. I kicked myself for nearly having missed it, and then settled down to read the whole thing.

Marjorie, you are not just a Weight Watchers’ role model, you are a model friend and human being. You have taught me many things over the years, but now you’ve added a most important lesson: the value of caring.

What’s Missing?

As I approach the full two-month mark of living here I take stock of things: what I still miss, what I take for granted, what I’ve gotten used to, what I wish would change.

The last one is easy: living on campus. Admittedly it would be much easier to appreciate the college experience if I were actually part of the college scene, and I’m not. I just live with it, and being confined to my apartment after dark unless I have an escort is the topic of a whole other blog. So we’ll leave this one right here and pick up on it later – but not too much later. The next entry will deal with this subject, as a matter of fact.

What have I gotten used to? Food that is either unutterably bland or overpoweringly spicy, and only sometimes hits a pleasant mid-range. My diminutive kitchen where the countertops are not even 4 feet high. I’ve gotten used to cooking on an electronic hot plate, a chore that has gotten a little easier since I bought a stainless steel pot. Now I don’t have to cook everything in my wok, which is a good thing because it is not easy to make soup in a wok. More on kitchen stuff later as well.

I take for granted that, anytime I step out of the confines of my apartment, and any time I leave the safety of the campus I will be surrounded by Chinese people. I am in China and that is part of what I came here for. I was actually truly shocked when I saw some foreigners while visiting a temple – more on that later, too.

What do I miss? Truthfully, not much. My life has not radically changed, even though I am on the other side of the globe. I do miss the good people I used to work with, but I am in touch with the best of them, and gratefully so. I can watch movies in English, chat with my family daily, I have my faithful companion – my laptop, and some good books to read. Food is no longer a problem. I don’t miss driving even though I have not driven anything bigger than the occasional shopping cart in over 3 months. One thing I do miss terribly is interacting with my friends, as opposed to just talking with them online.

What’s missing?

I didn’t realize until the other day – the day of my fateful walk where I ended up making a spectacle of myself in a mud puddle.

About 30 minutes prior to planting myself in murky water, I heard emergency sirens. They actually shocked me out of the thoughts I was having about how to formulate that entry. That was the first time I’d heard sirens since I’ve been here, I realized with shock as I watched the fire trucks go by. My first thought after amazement was that I hope whatever emergency they were responding to would be only minor. They weren’t in any kind of a hurry in spite of their sirens; but then they really couldn’t afford to be with traffic being what it is on this stretch of road.

After they passed by and the noise of the sirens dwindled down, I reflected on this experience. Paltry? maybe, and perhaps not even worth writing about. Still…

I recall hearing sirens at all hours of the day or night in America. Not constantly, of course, but it was literally a daily occurrence for me to hear that particular wail that presages some human drama unfolding. What about you? Do you hear the wail of sirens more often than you’d care to?

Is there no human drama here? Or does it have to be really dramatic in order to bring out the sirens?

The Chinese are a folk who are used to enduring. They take care of themselves and each other as best they can. Calling the authorities remains, in the minds of most, an exercise in folly being as it was not so long ago that manifestations of authority meant nothing good or helpful.

I recall that incident when I saw that woman pinwheeling after being hit by the taxi. If I had been alone to manage that incident, the thought crossed my mind that I don’t even know how to ‘dial 911’ in China. I wouldn’t know how to summon the authorities if I needed them. If my kitchen caught on fire I would have to run out of my apartment screaming. If I had a heart attack I would be out of luck.

Why more sirens in America than here? Is there more misery in America? Why?

Is it because everyone knows help is just a phone call away? Is it because there is more violence in America, more disease, more guns, more cars? Or is it because there is more protection in America, more rigid adherence to the law, more help available, more shelter under Lady Justice’s umbrella?

Does anyone have an opinion?

I hope that, wherever those fire trucks were headed they got there in time to salvage the situation and rescue whomever needed to be rescued.

I have realized I like living in a place where hearing sirens is not the norm.

Monday, October 25, 2010

English Corner

Part of my duties as Foreign Teacher is to assist and occasionally participate in English Corner activities. That is when the students of English gather, usually in the park behind my apartment, and discuss all things English. Issues they are having with learning or understanding, books they’ve read, movies they’ve watched.

With the advent of Victor and I, the focus of this group has been to interview us and find out all about where we come from, our culture, our families… in short, everything that can be asked is asked of us.

Because the event takes place after dark and it is unseemly for women to be out alone after dark, I must be escorted to this event, even though it takes place in the park directly behind my apartment.

When English Corner night rolls around, there is a student or a pair of students at my door, ready to escort me there. Usually I am flanked by two students who carefully hold onto my arms as we walk the 50 meters to where the gathering is held. I answer questions until either my voice gives out (as it did last time I participated) or the event is over. I am then escorted back to my apartment by the same two students who took the privilege onto themselves to get me there. Sometimes I even have time to look up at the moon and stars before I’m indoors again.

The first few times I was delighted to participate in English Corner, but it has since gotten on my nerves that I am compelled by tradition to stay in my apartment after dark unless I have an escort. Then, like a prisoner on furlough I am brought out, paraded, questioned and escorted back to my cell.

With mounting frustration I stand by my window each night and watch as life goes by. I think of Victor who, through the miracle of genetics can come and go as he pleases while I, contractually compelled to set a good example for the students, am condemned to stay indoors after nightfall. And night falls around 5:30PM nowadays.

You know, I’ve been told I’m not anatomically correct for a lot of things before: jobs, schooling, even buying parts for my car at AutoZone… but never have I been told that I am not anatomically correct to walk around at night alone.

It is not the students’ fault. They are only abiding with tradition. I am also abiding with tradition, but I’ve had about all of the abiding I’m going to stand for.

I staged a rebellion. It just so happened that English Corner was going to meet the very night I face-planted in a mud puddle. By the time I got home from that – before dark, of course, all I wanted was a bath, some neosporin on my scrapes and some food. I certainly did not want to mingle with 50 or more students whose intent was to soak up particulars of my life, no matter how nice or cute or courteous those students are. I thought: Let Victor handle English Corner by himself tonight.

That doesn’t mean that my door didn’t get pounded on 4 different times by 4 different groups of students who wanted me to join. “Sorry”, I thought rebelliously, “this prisoner is staging a sit-down protest.”

I did a lot of thinking that night, sitting in my darkened apartment. I have always been highly independent and have always come and gone as I please. This is the first time in my life – outside of my long-gone childhood that someone has dictated to me. It is really not sitting well. I did not come to China to be homebound every night. I resent that my computer is my best friend, even though it really is quite the friend and keeps me in touch with my friends on either side of the ocean.

I resent being a sitting duck to any student who wishes to come by and visit. And they do. And if I don’t answer the door, they knock on the window. This is the curse of living on campus. That means that, every night I must be ready to receive and entertain company. Nothing in my contract says that that is a part of my job, but being trapped here and the culture being what it is puts me in that position.

But whose fault it is, really? What exactly compels me to stay in, night after night? My contract says I must set a good example for the students and not flout tradition. If the idea is for me to not set a bad example by meandering around the students alone after nightfall, why not stay out until the students are confined to their dorm and then come back?

I talked it over with Sam and Victor the very next day. More specifically they came to check on me, and that’s when we talked.

Victor is in agreement that we should share English Corner duties: he’s on one week, I’m on the next. That is a fair compromise. He also expressed his concern for the fact that I am literally homebound and experiencing nothing but what it feels like to be a sitting duck. He offered to take me around, show me the sights and generally introduce me to Wuhan after night – something I’ve never seen. I really appreciate him for that degree of thoughtfulness.

Sam came by while Victor was still here. I asked if it would be acceptable that I come back after the students are tucked away and he said that would be perfectly fine. He even confided that he thought I was quite the homebody, staying in night after night. After I explained my conundrum he understood better why I was so frustrated. Finally he said our participation in English Corner is voluntary, not obligatory.

That is all I needed! My plan is now to stay on campus the three days I have class and go out and live the other 4 evenings, returning after the students are safely in bed.

I feel much better, now.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Would You Like Those with Dust or Mud?

This is another one of those titles that won’t tell you what this entry is about. Quite frankly, I felt that, if I titled another entry about my shoes, you might roll your eyes and groan, and this blog is not supposed to cause that reaction. It is supposed to be enticing and provocative. But in fact, this entry is about my shoes.

I have 5 pair of black shoes and 1 pair of white shoes. I mainly wear black shoes because they go with everything. I can find them in my size – men’s sizes, of course. They are serviceable, durable, comfortable. And they show dirt like you wouldn’t believe.

The dirt is really what this entry is about, and how it affects my shoes. In this environment, the best I can hope for is to have muddy shoes or dusty shoes. I only have clean shoes once a day, when I clean them prior to putting them on. As soon as I step out the door I can count on my shoes turning into a disgrace. They lose their shine and suddenly look like I’ve salvaged them from a nearby dumpster.

I truly despair over my shoes. I like to present myself well and even though my personal grooming from hair to nails is spot-on, my clothes are clean and fit well, my accessories match what I’m wearing… my shoes are a disgrace. How can this be?

I’ve taken to studying the shoes of other people around here. Some women wear really high-end shoes, Loboutin’s or clever knock-offs thereof, or they resort to sporty Converses, or anything in between. A lot of women like to wear black patent leather pumps. Their shoes always look acceptable; the way I wish my shoes would look.

What is their secret? Do they have some sort of dust repellent built into the shoes that are made in China, as opposed to American shoes (what I wear), that do not have that feature? Is it because their shoes are colorful and mine are strictly black? Are their feet smaller and daintier than mine are and thus boast less dust per square centimeter?

And what about the mud? I cannot walk anywhere near mud without my shoes getting supremely muddy. Not just on the soles of them or maybe up the sides a little. No Sir! On my shoes, the toes are caked in mud! The heels have mud halfway up to the rim! The laces even collect their little bit of mud!

Meanwhile, Chinese women can fairly dance through mud and their shoes come out virtually spotless. Is it because my greater size and weight pushes me further down into the mud, causing it to cake on higher up the shoe? Is that why the toes of my shoes are soaked in mud – because my feet really dig into those mud puddles, whereas Chinese people are lighter than I am and glide right over those oh so prevalent mud puddles?

I had been meaning to write about this long before now, but for some reason held back. Maybe it was because the idea had not yet crystallized. Besides, there’s plenty else to write about as you, Dear Reader, can attest to. Now is when I tackle the subject.

Recently Wuhan has had a string of days where mild temperatures have prevailed and no precipitation has fallen at all. I decided to take advantage of that to go walking, even being brave enough to walk down the main road where all of the construction is going on. Yes, I expected dust and I was not disappointed. My shoes showed it and it was reflected in my voice later that night – in the fact that I could not talk without squeaking.

For once not caring about my shoes I walked on. But I have to confess this entry was formulating itself in the back of my mind as I crawled over pile after pile of construction debris that blocked the sidewalk. I must have walked 10 km that day; it just felt so good to have the sun at my back and the dust at my feet! I figured that, by the time I got home, I would have this entry ready to set to type.

I have to admit though: I am not in as good shape as I wish I were in. I don’t do half bad, all things considered: I can still walk great distances, I can still climb over rubble, I am still somewhat nimble when it comes to dodging cars. All of which were a part of my stroll that day.

My legs were tired. They were feeling the glow of use after not having been used in so long. That is the only explanation I can give for what happened next.

I was climbing over a significant pile of dirt and bricks, looking down at my dusty shoes and finally having the tone set for this entry I had been thinking of writing for so long. To my left, where a building used to stand was a water truck disgorging dirty water into the street; it was the end of the day and I suppose they had to empty their tanks. It was that former building’s brick and mortar I was climbing over.

I was feeling quite satisfied with myself, doing my impersonation of a mountain goat even though the ‘mountain’ was only about 2 feet high, when my right leg cramped up and gave way. Before I knew it I plunged face first into the only mud puddle the City of Wuhan had seen in a week. Mind you this was not a mild little half-inch puddle; remember I said that a construction truck was disgorging its tanks. Of filthy water. At the end of the day.

That meant enough water to soak me to the elbows (I did manage to catch myself before actually landing face-first into the puddle), in front of a crowd of people waiting for a bus. To say nothing of the construction crew and children walking home from school. My entire outfit was now covered with mud as I was on all 4’s trying to recover. The cramp intensified, causing me to roll over onto my left side in order to nurse it the cramp. Now my entire left side, from haunch to heel, is soaked. And I landed on discarded bricks and mortar, so I had scrapes everywhere that were starting to sting.

If I thought I was being stared at before, just walking down the street, imagine how this felt! What could I do but laugh? And still the stares: I guess that good, decent Chinese citizens who wouldn’t dream of bathing in mud puddles just don’t know how to handle a foreigner sitting in a mud puddle, laughing her fool head off.

I finally made it back onto my pins and started walking again. A more charitable little girl offered me a few tissues to clean the worst of the mud off my face and glasses where it had splashed up. What a sweetheart she was. I looked down at my shoes and… you guessed it: muddy. So I guess I CAN have my shoes both ways: muddy and dusty!

Now I know why this entry has been on my mind for a while now but somehow I held back on writing it.

Oxymorons Sans Paradoxes

And now, the promised oxymorons.

The Chinese are notably afraid of getting sick. Being sick in China is a very costly affair, and good health is considered paramount. A testimony of this is how many Chinese people will wear surgical masks while out and about to prevent airborne illnesses, especially in the winter.

One of the more glaring oxymorons to the ‘good health’ mentality is the prevalence of bodily functions in public: children voiding themselves, sputum flying, noses being picked. I would be remiss if I did not mention the condition of bathrooms again. And I’ve not even touched on the food vendor stalls, where meat, vegetables, rice and noodles are on display without the benefit of refrigeration of any kind. And they lay there for hours, summer or winter.

But what about in the kitchen? In the spirit of maintaining good health, any chef worth his salt in a Chinese kitchen will wash raw food before cooking it: vegetables and meat alike, it all gets its run and scrub under water. Usually cold water – that is all that is available in most kitchens.

And then he or she will lay that meat (or veggies) on an ancient wooden cutting board and chop it up with an equally old meat cleaver with a steel blade that has not seen a shine on it since circa 1949. Mind you, the blade is not exactly rusty, it is just so old that, like any steel blade, it has oxidized and turned black.

The wok, also steel and also black with age is then heated up and a generous portion of (perhaps) recycled oil is poured into it, and all of the food is fried in that same wok.

If the concern is health and cleanliness, how can one justify using recycled oil, steel implements and wooden cutting boards that are notorious for harboring bacteria? How is washing food (in cold water, mind you) supposed to prevent foodborne illnesses under those conditions?

I recently visited a friends’ house and we took turns in the kitchen. She was going to teach me how to cook Chinese food; in turn I was going to share a few Western recipes. I decided to demonstrate how to cook chicken and dumplings, and beef stew, mainly because the ingredients can be found in Chinese markets.

This woman had a panic attack because I did not wash the beef after I trimmed all of the fat from it! I just threw it into the pot to simmer and she kept stirring it, and expressing worry that I had not washed the meat. In fact, just to appease her I had to scoop the meat out and throw out perfectly good soup stock and use fresh water to start cooking all over again. Luckily she didn’t watch me cook the chicken.

It seems rather strange to me that she wouldn’t accept that heat would kill bacteria much more effectively than a quick run under cold water would. In fact, my unwashed beef was probably safer than anything she cooked – even though her cuisine was decidedly delicious and no one got sick.

I am aware of that old adage ‘When in Rome’, even though I am in China. I suppose it can be adapted to ‘When in China’ but, being a little pig-headed, I decided to take the issue up with my faithful friend Yalong, who happens to be this young woman’s fiance and who happens to speak very good English.

He was puzzled why I would question age-old cooking methods. Even after explaining the illogic of washing meat and then using a bacteria-laden cutting board and a steel bladed cleaver, he did not see the point of my argument. He conceded that I had a point, but in his opinion, maybe it wasn’t a valid point. He then – wisely – ducked out of the kitchen.

I certainly would not insult someone in their own home, let alone a chef in her own kitchen, but the illogic of Chinese cuisine still befuddles me. I simply cannot understand why, with Chinese people being so rational and intelligent, especially these two people, they would persist in cooking methods that are so potentially harmful.

Another interesting oxymoron is the fact that Chinese people are so afraid of their water supply that they will order bottled water. Most homes I’ve been in – mine included, have bottled water dispensers, and guests are traditionally offered hot water to signify that the water has been boiled to purify it. The bottled water has been boiled so as to prove it safe to drink.

But food is washed in cold tap water. Dishes are washed in cold tap water. Clothing is washed in cold tap water.

I don’t get it. But I’m not going to ask a woman who is fiercely skilled with a meat cleaver to explain it to me.

It might have to remain a mystery.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beating A Dead Horse

Any of you who have spent any time at all reading this blog know that, as a lone foreigner in Wuhan I get stared at, pawed at, pictured and pointed at. It is a matter of course and really, I should be used to it by now.

I’m not.

Some days I can handle it; some days it is more difficult to deal with. I mean really: imagine, everywhere you go and everything you do you are gawked at like a circus freak?

So, I’m going to dedicate an entire entry to this topic, and then I hope I will have it out of my system and I won’t need to trouble you with it again.

Admittedly I am no longer outright stared at on campus. The kids are used to seeing me around and they have reduced their curiosity to out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye looks. And actually, most are very friendly and greet me, if not by name then with a cheerful “Hello!” and that is perfectly acceptable. Welcome, even.

Also, along the street and shops just outside of campus things are going rather well. I’ve been here nearly two months now and people are used to seeing me. Shopkeepers are happy that I patronize their stores and children are no longer frightened by my appearance.

In short, to quote Sesame Street: ‘I’m the kind of people you meet in the neighborhood.”

But when I leave the immediate neighborhood and get on a bus… that’s when the circus starts. There is literally no end to the staring and sometimes the jeering. Like when I try to wedge myself into a seat that simply offers no legroom for the likes of me. People have literally leaned over seats to witness the fact that my long legs do not fit in the allotted space. People have stood there and pulled other people over to look, and pointed right at my wedged knees and laughed. Sometimes there is not enough headroom on the bus, like the double-decker buses, and that too is apparently quite the spectacle. I have to walk hunched over until I reach a more open area, or stand in the stairwell to the upper deck. Again, nudges, pointing, comments and outright laughter.

A belligerent ‘Yeah, what of it?’ bubbles on my lips but goes unuttered. I wouldn’t be understood anyway.

And that’s just the bus. Heaven forbid I should go walking around town or worse, eat in a restaurant.

Usually, if I go to a restaurant, there is a lot of staring and invariably, someone (or a few people) will take a picture of me. Without permission, of course. I can imagine what is said when they show that picture off: "Yeah, so I was in my favorite noodle restaurant having a bowl of noodles, and there was this FOREIGNER! And she was BIG! So big she almost didn't fit at the table! And she was eating noodles! Here, just look! She's using chopsticks and everything! And she's LEFT HANDED!" at which point the narrator - lucky individual who actually captured an elusive foreigner on their camera’s memory card, whips out the camera and shows off that one-in-a million shot.

Everyone in the family, from toothless grandfather to diaperless baby reverently stares at the camera and then passes it around. Some of the younger family members cannot wait to behold the sight, so they yank the camera out of some adults’ hand, maybe even knocking a glass of water over in their fervor. Many expressions of awe are pronounced, and some even jealously think: ”If only it could have been me to see the foreigner…”

It just so happened that my friend and I were having lunch when, from somewhere to my right I saw the flash of a camera. Instinctively I knew that my picture had again been taken, and my friend confirmed it. To his horror I whipped out my camera, but instead of pivoting and taking a picture of some random person as he thought I would, I took a picture of him, a Chinese man eating noodles, so I could send it to all of my friends and brag of what I saw. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I imagine Chinese families enjoy looking at the pictures they take of me.

Ok, that is a humorous reenactment of what I imagine happens with all of these pictures Chinese people take of me, and an accounting of my one-time rebellion against it. But seriously, folks…

All of the staring and touching and picture taking gets to me. It makes me uncomfortable and to the point where I don’t even want to leave the house. As it is, navigating the city is difficult and stressful enough. Sitting at a restaurant with its undersized tables is embarrassing enough. Do I have to be made to feel like a freak, too?

Have you ever seen The Elephant Man, with Anthony Hopkins as the doctor and the excellent John Hurt in the title role? Do you remember that pivotal scene when, once again an orderly profits from the misfortunate protagonist by charging people money to come gawp and laugh at him and the Elephant Man shouts out: “I’m not an animal! I am a man!”?

I never really understood how he felt until now.

Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Really, these two topics could also come under the header of Iconic Idiosyncrasies but they deserve a much closer look than that collection will allow. They have in fact merited their own entry. This is it.

I often daydream about being your tour guide as you visit China for the first time. I know where I would take you and I’ve studied some of the more significant history attached to all of the tourist spots so I can wow you with the depth of Chinese history and culture. Or maybe the depth of my knowledge… but I think it is more the former. I don’t like to show off, you know.

Invariably I wonder how you would see China: as a progressive society with a 5,000 year-old culture, trying to find its way into the modern world? Or would you only see the dirt and the drab – which is plentiful? I imagine, after sightseeing for a few days, and maybe being disgusted over some of the lesser qualities of my adopted home you would ask me: “Show me YOUR China. What do you love about this place?”

Before you ask me that question, you have to see the paradox.

Life in China is hard. For many Chinese, there is no hope of rising above their current station in life. When there are only 8 slices of pie and 2.2 billion people are reaching for them, you’ve got to figure some people are going to be left out. It is not a matter of ambition at all; it is just the way this society works, and the people have absolutely no illusion about it. Or about themselves.

There is no sense of entitlement here, and certainly the people do not operate under a belief of manifest destiny. They live their lives as their parents and grandparents before them lived, often using the same methods, from washing clothes and cooking food to larger concerns such as construction. Still: the women sweeping the street and the men laboring in construction are possessed of a dignity that is simply magnificent to behold.

If you ask me “Show me YOUR China”, I would show you the people. The true embodiment of 5,000 years of living experience, cloaked in an unsurpassable dignity.

To me, that is the true and lasting beauty of China.

However, for as much as the Chinese people live as dignified a life as possible, there are stunning displays to the contrary. They throw their garbage out the window of their high-rise apartment and it accumulates on awnings and rooftops below. Walk any given street and you can see piles of garbage littering such rooftops. Also, there are no dumpsters, just pits where people throw their garbage in. That is to make it easier for people to sift through it in search of recyclables. In the summer, the stink will drive you to distraction.

Although there are so-called Western toilets available, especially in tourist areas, Eastern toilets still prevail. They are pretty much just a hole in the floor with two ‘foot steps’ flanking either side of it. To use it you place each foot on a step, drop your drawers and let go. The stench in these bathrooms is untenable, especially when you consider that wastebasket you’re supposed to put your used toilet tissue in that may or may not get emptied.

Personal hygiene is also questionable. On the occasions I’ve been invited into a Chinese home for more than a few days, I can’t help but make note that people shower or even sponge bathe only every few days – sometimes up to 5 days pass before the next shower. And although there are modern conveniences available to them such as washing machines and dryers, the laundry is still washed by hand in a small, plastic tub, beaten with a stick and hung up in a window or outside of a window for all to see. And that includes underwear.

Finally: there is a certain lawlessness in China that simply would not work anywhere else. Here, people meander in the streets among moving vehicles regardless of traffic crosswalks, drive with no regard to traffic laws, lanes or common courtesy, and disregard civility completely when using public transportation – pushing and shoving, jumping ahead in line. This is a particularly strange contrast to the China everyone, including me expects to see. China is supposed to be so regimented, right?

While walking down the street with a friend one day, I was horrified to hear the squeal of brakes and a scream. I turned just in time to see a woman get hit by a speeding taxi that was straddling 2 lanes. She pinwheeled through the air a few times before landing on the ground and somehow, miraculously, caught her baby before completely collapsing.

Immediately I ran to help her while yelling at my friend to call the police. He was uncertain of what to do, but followed me onto the street. By the time I made it to her the woman was already sitting up and cradling her crying baby, while beseeching us for a cell phone. I checked her out and found no blood, however her legs from the knees down were at a very awkward angle from where the taxi bumper had hit her. I didn’t dare palpate her there, but I suspected her knees had been broken.

By this time a crowd had gathered around us and someone proffered a cell phone. Visibly trembling she dialed a number and sobbed into it. While she talked into the gadget, I checked out the baby as well as I could and found no blood on him either. However, the poor tyke was crying, no doubt frightened by his mother’s tears. I did my best to cradle her to me and offer comfort while she cradled her child and comforted him, still trembling violently. I gave her water to drink, which she gratefully accepted and partook of.

The police showed up and soon a gurney appeared to load her on it. That’s when I made my exit, with my friend by my side.

Because I don’t know how these things work in China, I asked him what will happen to the woman now, and how that situation will be handled. He informed me that the taxi driver would pay all of the woman’s expenses: medical bills, living expenses, even lost salary if she was employed. But his next words horrified me.

He informed me that, if we hadn’t gotten involved so quickly, and especially now that the police were on the scene, the taxi driver would have simply driven off and left that woman and child in the middle of the road. Now that the police had become involved, he would be required to pay for everything.

I do not understand how such a dignified people can revert to such undignified behavior.

This is a bit long, and even though I love the title of this entry, I simply cannot include the oxymoron here. It will be the subject of the next blog… but this cool title stands.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More Chinese Idiosyncrasies

It seems that everywhere I look I see oddities. Not as in ‘carnival’ type oddities, just things that you wouldn’t see in America or in other parts of the world. In no particular order, I list more iconic idiosyncrasies of Chinese people.

Chinese People Marry Chinese, and That is That!: The Chinese are endogamic to a fault. While knowing a foreigner has a certain cachet and dating a foreigner is borderline acceptable, at least in the big cities, marrying a foreigner is strictly taboo. That includes another Asian person: from Laos to Kuala Lumpur, if you are hoping to marry a Chinese girl, you can just forget it. The family will absolutely disown any girl who marries outside of her race and culture, and the more traditional the family is, the more absolute the abandonment is. As the Chinese are very family oriented, most young women will not take a chance on marriage to a foreigner.

Also: there is a dearth of marriageable women in China due to the one-child policy instituted 30 years ago. The science of amniocentesis, coupled with parents’ strong desire for a male heir has caused many female fetuses to be aborted. Add to that the more recent explosion of women’s rights and their appearance in droves into the work force, more and more Chinese women are postponing marriage or foregoing the idea of marrying altogether in favor of pursuing a career. Which leaves a lot of young men without the chance of a partner. Still, traditional Chinese men will not marry a foreigner.

Murses and Purses: Men carry murses. For those of you not in the know, a murse is a man’s purse. Chinese men from all walks of life carry them. Efficient clutches for the business man, over the shoulder bags for the more stylish male, the ‘sling’ model – the strap crosses the chest and back while the bag hangs by the hip – for the up-and-comers. Murses come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and are huge in China. It is a poor man indeed who does not show his status and fashion sense by not sporting a murse.

Conversely, men in love will carry their women’s purse, even though they already sport a murse. The men simply add the purse to the same shoulder that bears the murse. Chinese men do not seem embarrassed to carry women’s purses while strolling with their wives or girlfriends; it seems more of a testimony to their testosterone. It kind of shouts: ‘I’m important enough for a murse, but sensitive enough for a purse!’ It also shouts ‘I have a woman!’ but not quite as loudly (see entry above for the significance of that.)

Belly Air Conditioning: It has been notably chilly and rainy this past week, but these last few days the temperature has again climbed into the high 70’s, and men are air-conditioning their bellies. They are fully clothed: shirt, pants, socks and shoes, but they pull their shirt up and show their belly, presumably to cool off. Generally these men are older and have a bit of a belly, but the practice is not limited to the old, the uneducated or the mah-jongg players who sit around on the curb. College kids (without girlfriends) do it, construction workers do it, just regular men walking down the street with their women do it. You know it is warm when you see exposed male bellies going down the street.

Pick your nose, not your teeth; It is perfectly acceptable in China to pick your nose in public or to actually bend over and blow your nose without the benefit of a Kleenex. At the dinner table or just walking down the street, if thine nose offends thee, pick it! Same goes for sputum: it is OK to simply hock a loogie wherever you are… but they do frown on that in restaurants. They prefer you spit directly into used dishes.

They also frown on you picking your teeth in restaurants – or on the street. The finer restaurants provide toothpicks, however the proper way to pick your teeth is to shield your mouth with one hand while discreetly picking underneath the shield with the other. Kind of like a covert mouth operation that everyone knows is going on, but no one wants to see. Last but not least, NEVER let a toothpick hang jauntily from the corner of your mouth, either at the table or while walking out of the restaurant. You will be sneered at as classless and uncouth.

Strangely enough, while picking your teeth out in the open is bad manners, it is OK to witness someone brushing their teeth. In the more familial neighborhoods of every city I’ve been in over here I’ve witnessed people with toothbrush in one hand and a cup of water in the other, performing their dental hygiene routine in front of whoever may be passing by on the street, and with no qualms whatsoever about it. Spitting at the nearby tree is how the routine if finished. Mouthwash is optional.

The table is dirty: when in the midst of eating you wonder what to do with that chicken bone you’ve just gnawed the meat from, the answer is: put it on the table. Do not look for a dish to put it in, and do not use one of the spare/as yet unused plates for waste. The Chinese consider the table unclean and acceptable for waste of any kind.

Conversely, if you should happen to inadvertently drop a morsel of food on the table, do not pick it up, even if you use your chopsticks to do so. Again, the table being considered unclean, that bite of food is now counted as inedible, even if it looks particularly tasty and appealing.

Potty training is a public act: one of the most radical differences between East and West, or maybe I should say China and the other parts of the world I’ve visited is the method of potty training children. It is not because I make it a habit to be around children, it is just that it is so publicly obvious what is going on. Potty training pants are nothing like in the West. In China, baby clothes have no crotch. The parents have the option of diapering their children, but more often than not, the baby’s nether regions are exposed because of the way the pants are designed.

Potty training starts as early as 3 months old when, at certain intervals, the parent holds the child’s legs open and dangles its exposed private parts over a trash can (at home) or a nearby tree (while out and about). The child’s back rests against the parent’s chest and the parent encourages the child to just let it rip. Sometimes just blowing on the ‘privates’ achieves results; other times whistling or dripping water ‘there’ works. As the child’s age increases, so do the intervals in which he/she is hoisted up, legs spread, to pee. After the child is old enough to vocalize his/her need to urinate, the squat is taught: the parent squats down in such a way that the squatting child is ‘spooned’, and the child is encouraged to void him/herself. I couldn’t tell you at what age the children pants become ‘crotched’, but I have seen children as old as 4 years (by appearance; I really don’t know their actual age) with these crotch-less pants.

I didn’t think this would go on this long, but the more I look around, the more I see that is just… iconic and idiosyncratic to the Chinese. I may have to write another one of these, someday.

Text Message

“Was it 78 degrees in Wuhan today, with a low of 59?”
“Why yes, yes it was! Why do you ask?”
“I now have Wuhan weather on my phone. Now I can see your weather every day so I won’t feel so far away from you.”

The above is a short text-message conversation my daughter had with me via Google chat last night. If anything has ever indicated her love for me, this short conversation was it.

My daughter and I have not had the best of relationships. What mother and daughter can say that their relationship is perfect? I can’t. There’s been pain and tears. At one time, I was ready to disown her. I thought she would never live the teachings I’ve spent my life pounding into her head.

She judiciously broke my heart a few times, but then healed it by redeeming acts perpetrated toward me. One of them was naming not one, but both her children in honor of me. She goes through these cycles where she thinks I am the root of all her woes, but then admits that I am a convenient scratching post. Sometimes I think I should guard myself against her… but how can I keep my guard up when both my arms reach out to embrace her?

Let me tell you about my daughter.

She is wife to a military man. That, in itself is not easy. If her husband has duty, she flies solo with kids, house, car and all issues that deal with household stuff. To say nothing of community, and the fact that, as a wife of a NonCom, she has the responsibility of the ‘junior wives’ – women married to soldiers who are subordinate to her husband. It is not easy to live in a military community, and it is not easy to ‘be there’ for all of the young women who are, for the most part, inexperienced at marriage, inexperienced at being away from home, inexperienced at being a mother.

On top of being a stay-at-home Mom – which incidentally, means she misses out of the greater world living experiences, she has nominated herself to be my secretary while I’m off gallivanting all over the place. She takes care of my mail and my affairs; she handles what correspondence I cannot handle from here, she dispatches others in the handling of my things.

She has created a beautiful home and she has goals for her family. To that end, she manages every aspect of her household: budget, meal planning, capital expenditures, the children’s education, entertainment, cleaning and laundry.

On top of that, she is perfectly aware of her own deficiencies, and she is tackling them with a vengeance. I won’t say what they are, but I will say that I am proud of her for going to battle with herself, and I’m pleased to report that she’s winning.

As if all of this weren’t enough, she’s decided to help other women overcome, or at least cope with some of the things she deals with as a wife, a woman and a mother. She co-authors a blog that talks about the difficulties of being a Mom, and how society beats women up for being imperfect when they should be perfect. To check out her blog, visit Two Moms in Sweatpants at

She’s really quite the powerhouse, isn’t she? At one time, I didn’t see this in her, but now I do. How could I miss it?

With everything she and I have been through, and with everything on her plate now… imagine my surprise at discovering that she has a need to feel close to me?

Sometimes I’m really slow on the uptake.

Even though she and I chat nearly every day, or at least send emails back and forth, she misses her Mom. She loves her Mom so much that she programmed her phone so that, no matter that I’m half a world away, just by looking at a hand-held, electronic device, she can feel close to me. Although each trip to the mailbox might bring her something else of mine to have to manage, she will do it with diligence even though, in her heart, she wishes she didn’t have to… because not having to would mean I am physically not so distant.

“I now have Wuhan weather on my phone. Now I can see your weather every day and I don’t feel so far away from you.”

“I love you too.”

I was too choked up to type any other reply.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sewer Gas

I always try to come up with catchy titles that will make you guess what in the world is running through my head when I write these blog entries. In the case of this entry, it is no mystery: I am writing about sewer gas. And not because I’m on a bathroom kick either! The toilet paper entry has nothing to do with why I’m writing about sewer gas now.

The newly arrived freshmen are why I’m writing about sewer gas. It is not that they stink like a sewer; it is because the dorm building I live in is now full of students. As opposed to when I first got here, when only about 1/3 of the building was occupied.

I live on the ground floor, and every time someone anywhere on the floors above me flushes the toilet I hear it… and smell it. This was at the height of the summer’s heat, when all of my windows hung open, and I would leave the bathroom door open to coax the breeze through my apartment. At first I thought the sewer stench was coming through the open window in my bathroom, but then logically it would also come through the kitchen window as they both faced the same direction, right? There was no stench in the kitchen, just the bathroom.

At the start of the day things were not really bad, but as the day wore on the smell became untenable. It would come and go throughout the day, and intensify after 5PM. After fervent cogitation I married the school’s teaching schedule to the stench: students have a 2 hour break in classes between 1PM and 3 PM; and classes let out for the day at 4:45 PM. During the break and after 5 is when the smell was the strongest.

Another nugget of information: my next door neighbor, Victor reported an invasion of mosquitoes in his apartment, and he was also plagued by a sewer gas stench. Two apartments, same smell, mosquitoes coming from somewhere, windows screened… what could it be?

In desperation I started closing all of my drain plugs: bathtub, sink and toilet bowl lid. No help. If anything, the problem intensified. I thought about taking the issue up with the maintenance man, but I decided against it for several reasons. The smell comes and goes, and it might not come at all when he is here to see about the problem. But more importantly: Chinese people are used to living with terrible smells. That sounds bad and I don’t mean it as a slam to the Chinese, but they would see this sewer gas problem as just one of the vagaries of life and not attempt to find the source and fix it. So I took it upon myself to do so. I had had enough of the stench, especially if I was to be confined to my apartment in the evening hours, when the smell was particularly bad (and the maintenance man was off work).

You know, how you track a smell by sniffing repeatedly? I can personally testify that sniffing out the origin of sewer gas is not a pleasant experience. But it only took a few dedicated sniffs to find the origin.

From the floor under my bathroom vanity juts an open drain line that measures about 3 centimeters in diameter, and it extends approximately 20 centimeters up. Into this open drain line drops a clear flexible tube that comprises the drain line for my bathroom sink, and it runs in a straight line downward.

Open sewer line. No P-trap. No brainer.

For those of you who don’t know, P-traps are a clever plumbing design meant to trap sewer gas. For some reason the gas cannot navigate the deep S-curve of the P-trap, thus drain lines with such a configuration do not emit such an awful smell.

Job 1: cap the open drain line. It just so happened that, the week prior I had bought two plastic containers to serve as condiment holders. They were not effective in that capacity, but it looked like their lids would serve nicely as a sewer line cap. Trying it out I found that that was in fact the case: the circumference of the lid is approximately ½ centimeter larger than the sewer line.

Next problem: cutting a hole for the sink drain line. Not such a problem after all! Starting with the vent hole pre-made in the lid itself, I measured and cut a 1.5centimeter circle out and forced the flexible tubing into it. Even though the hole I made was not perfectly round, the tubing fit into it nicely. Now I just needed to fashion a P-trap. Again, a chinch: the flexible tubing allowed any configuration desired, and a wire tie around 2 of the 3 loops of the tubing held it in place.

Would my repair stand the test?

With a few minor adjustments, it worked like a top. I gave my homemade sewer cap and P-trap configuration a one-week trial to see if the smell of sewer gas would dissipate, and then watched (sniffed) for more manifestations. There were none. I was satisfied that I had solved my sewer gas problem.

Now for Victor, who also had the stench plaguing his apartment. Victor is gone more than he is home; he has friends in another part of town and usually stays away unless he has an early class. It took me a few days to catch him at home, but when I did I asked him if he was still plagued with mosquitoes and a bad smell. I listened to him rant about it for a few minutes; he even confessed that he had cornered our advisor about it to no avail: Sam thought that Victor’s apartment smelled bad because Victor was never home.

I then told Victor about my discovery and subsequent fix. I also told him that the mosquitoes were breeding in the sewer line and coming up through that pipe. He sounded very skeptical until I invited him into my apartment and showed him what I was talking about: the jutting sewer line (mine now capped) and fashioning a P-trap.

Just the smell in my apartment convinced him. Or, I should say: the lack of smell in my apartment convinced him. In the spirit of generosity I gave him the lid from the other container I had bought and instructed him on how to cut a hole for the tubing, and then on how to make a P-trap. Victor was sincerely impressed and ran straight to his place to make a sewer line cap and a P-trap. On his way out, he grudgingly commended me on my good thinking.

Now he knows I’m not just a ‘girl next door’ type. Looks like I blew it again!

Toilet Paper: Everywhere But in the Toilet!

My first few visits to China clued me to the fact that here, toilet paper reigns supreme. You can go into a restaurant and see toilet paper on the dining tables – that is how you know you are in a fairly well to do joint. Two-ply toilet paper is used pretty much anywhere and for anything: as napkins, as a first aid supply, as facial tissue, as a quick clean up assistant.

Before moving here, I wondered about the use of toilet paper everywhere. Was it just more economical than paper towels? Easier to stock than Kleenex? A less complicated inventory item than paper napkins?

After moving here, my first few ventures into Chinese grocery stores still did not convince me of the significance of toilet paper. The mere fact that there was no other type of paper goods to be bought – no napkins, paper towels, facial tissues or the like – did not shock me out of my Western mindset that there must be a more durable form of paper goods available somewhere in this country. I just thought it was because I live in this tiny neck of the woods that only toilet paper was sold, with or without cardboard spindles. Five local stores where not even mouthwash is stocked: what else am I to think?

One of the grocery stores near campus actually stocks paper towel holders, with the legend written in English: Paper Towel Dispenser. I searched that store frantically for 30 minutes, looking for paper towels to fit that dispenser until I realized that the dispenser was meant to accommodate 2 rolls of toilet paper, side by side.

My trip to Carrefour is what finally convinced me to abandon any hope of finding any type of durable paper goods. In this megastore, where I could in fact find various types of mouthwash including Listerine, there was an entire aisle of paper goods: 24 different brands of toilet paper, packaged in various denominations. You could go for economy –8 rolls; for a low-key approach – 4 rolls; a long-term approach – 12 rolls; or the showoff’s selection – 24 rolls WITH cardboard spindle. That variety is for those who don’t care how much they spend. Finally there was the Jumbo Roll selection. The rolls weren’t oversized or double-thick, they were one and a half times the width of standard toilet paper, and you can buy them 8 or 12 rolls at a time; no cardboard spindle for extra economy.

Maybe that is what is meant to be put into the aforementioned paper towel dispenser.

I have gotten used to a life of toilet paper. I look for toilet paper on restaurant tables before I decide to eat at any certain establishment. Bonus points are accorded if the toilet paper is in a plastic, stand up variety dispenser with a cover and extra credit is given if a sheet of toilet paper is showing, but I will settle for a roll of paper on the table, with or without cardboard spindles (usually without).

Although I do have sharp pangs in the kitchen as I long for non-existent paper towels, I have adjusted to using toilet paper for what I would normally use a whole paper towel for: wiping down countertops, cleaning up spills, even wiping the excess oil up after seasoning my wok.

You would think that the prevalence of toilet paper would mean that, come privacy time, there would be abundant paper available, right?

Let me caution you right now: if you come to China, be prepared to provide your own toilet paper for any restroom excursions. In the finer establishments (and on certain trains) you will find one toilet paper dispenser, industrial sized, mounted on the wall somewhere by the door to the restroom, before you hit the stalls. There will usually be no paper in it. Do not look for paper or dispensers in the stalls, there will be none.

If you are so lucky as to find a centrally installed toilet paper dispenser in such places, remember that that paper is to serve both as toilet paper while using the facilities and as paper towels to dry your hands on after you are finished washing your hands. Please do not take too much of this paper, as one roll is supposed to accommodate all of that evening’s patrons. Proper etiquette is to take about 3 sheets into the stall with you, and then use another 3 or 4 sheets to dry your hands after washing them.

Finally: although there is a proliferation of toilet paper everywhere except in restroom stalls and its uses are many, under no circumstance are you to dispose of used toilet paper in the toilet when you are done performing that most intimate act. China’s sewer system is too delicate to withstand wads of soggy toilet paper clogging it. Instead you are to throw your used toilet paper in the trashcan provided in each stall. If there is no trashcan in the stall, it is perfectly acceptable to throw your used toilet paper in a corner, preferably the corner that already boasts the discarded paper of previous patrons. There is usually a custodian available to sweep up your discards after every few patrons. Usually.

Would someone please send me a care package with some paper towels and some more Wet Ones moist towelettes? To me, those are now worth more than gold.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stepping Out on my Own

I’ve touched upon the idea that I now have minimal issue with braving buses and navigating the city by myself but I have not told you about my very first outing by myself. Now is a good time to do that, seeing as it is chronologically apt.

I had read about and studied bus route #402. I was told that it hit all of the tourist hotspots like the Yellow Crane Tower and shopping districts, to say nothing of the waterfront route on the shore of the Yangtze River. I knew that the 402 started its route at the train station from my previous studies of that transportation hub, so it was a cinch to board it and see where it would take me.

I set out with a few Yuan in my pocket and a full bottle of ginger water – I’ve been hooked on it since Montezuma’s little party. I brought my faithful black bag in case I saw something interesting that begged me to buy it and my camera in case there was something picturesque. Oh, yeah: I brought my umbrella because it was already raining and I did anticipate walking around, at least a little.

I always make it a point to sit next to a window or as close to the driver as possible when I’m on a bus. I want to see what there is to see, and if something looks particularly interesting I can simply get off the bus and go explore it. Also, this is an excellent way to spot landmarks in case I get lost in the future. The only disadvantage to claiming a window seat is that is that my legs are so long that I have to wedge my knees into the seat ahead of me or sit side-saddle, infringing on the space of my seat mate. Most women don’t seem to mind, but the men tend to have an objection to my crowding them. Therefore I consider myself lucky if I can not only score a window seat, but one right by the back doors of the bus, where there is a little bit more leg room. Or, one of those seats positioned longways in the front of the bus where my rangy knees will have ample room to crowd the aisle. I did not get either type of seat on this outing.

A lovely young lady sat next to me on the bus and soon we were having a wonderful conversation because she speaks marvelous English. She did not mind my taking up her leg room; we even laughed about it a little bit. She is a native of Wuhan and, being as she is unemployed right now, offered to be my tour guide. I asked her where Wangfujing is, the major shopping district and she asked some young women sitting in front of us to signal me when to get off the bus, as she was not going to be riding that far. We exchanged contact information and she and her parents got off the bus just after crossing the Yangtze River bridge. Her parents, too shy to actually venture into speaking with the foreigner while on the bus waved at me enthusiastically from the safety of the sidewalk.

Looking out the window, I soon spied a Carrefour store. Carrefour is a French chain supermarket much akin to Wal-mart; one can buy pretty much anything there. It just so happens that I had been looking for Carrefour (and Wal-Mart, a much more elusive quarry in this city – more on that later) so I could satisfy my still burning need to associate myself with Western products until I made the transition wholly into Chinese shopping. Excitedly I jumped out of my cramped seat. Well, not exactly jumped; more like unwedged myself from my seat. As I exited the bus the two women who were supposed to follow instructions given them by my former seatmate admonished me that I was getting off the bus too early, but I told them I was looking for Carrefour and that was why I was getting off the bus. They relinquished the hold on my arm and regretfully let me go. They must have been really determined to fulfill their obligation.

What was I hoping to find at Carrefour? I still don’t know. Paper products would have been nice – that would be a blog entry in and of itself. I think maybe I just wanted to walk around and see what I could see. Shopping in Chinese stores is still a daunting process for me: the sales people that follow me everywhere, the products whose labels I cannot read but that must be vital to Chinese cuisine because of their sheer abundance, products and foods I’ve never seen or eaten before. Raw meats that just lay there out in the open, eggs that don’t come in cartons, cheese that is not cheese.

I should explain here that the Chinese consider cheese the grossest substance on earth, but the foreign stores do stock some varieties. At least, so I had heard.

Maybe I just really wanted a piece of cheese. Maybe finding some butter would have been nice, or bread that wasn’t overly soft and overly sweet, like the types sold in the local bakeries.

Of all the things I hoped or expected to find, I was most excited and happy about this particular item, and it had nothing to do with food. Well, maybe a little, but it wasn’t in the food section.

You see, I’ve been worried about my oral hygiene since I got here. I am a total Listerine freak, and have been for years. Due to weight considerations I had only packed 2 pint-sized bottles in my suitcase, and I was nearly out. There is no mouthwash in the local stores, let alone any Listerine. I had contemplated shipping myself a few bottles of Listerine before leaving the States in case I ran into this situation but had decided against it. Lately I’ve been thinking of getting my friends and family to put a bottle or two in a care package to me every so often. However, mailing Listerine has a few logistical problems – weight being one and quantity for two – you can only mail a quart of such liquids.

But I know mouthwash had to be available somewhere in this city, because on my previous trips to China I had seen Scope and other mouthwashes, although never Listerine. I really did not want to contemplate switching to a sugary tasting mouthwash after being a Listerine girl for so long, but I might not have a choice.

So, imagine my awe at finding Listerine at Carrefour! There, stocked on the bottom shelf under what I supposed were more popular mouthwashes! Granted it was the small pint-sized bottle, and granted it was prohibitively expensive… but it was LISTERINE! It even had Chinese writing on the label, right under the trusty Listerine name! Like a caveman approaching fire for the first time, I squatted down, reached a trembling hand out and touched a bottle. Fearing it might be a mirage, I quickly snatched a bottle and hugged to my chest. Still squatting, I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then grabbed another bottle. I then stood up quickly and quite nearly ran for the cashier. I half anticipated a saleswoman to call me out or worse: call security on me for taking too much Listerine. How terrible it would be to only be able to buy one bottle at a time!

I no longer cared about butter or cheese, meat or condiments. I had a taste of the West, one I was intimately familiar with, one I loved and had been hoping I would find a steady supply of. Food I could find at any grocery store, Listerine was a treasure. I paid the exhorbitant price of 32 Yuan per bottle and stashed them into my trusty black bag, and then clung to it as though it were my salvation as I scooted out of the store.

Listerine! My day was made.

Mid-Autumn Festival

The day after my birthday was Mid-Autumn Festival. I didn’t plan it this way; fact is this celebration has been in place for over 4,000 years in China. It just so happened that my birthday quite nearly coincided with this most important celebration.

Kind of makes me feel special.

Legend has it that in 2,000 BC the sky burned with the heat of the 10 suns that encircled it. The gods knew that something had to change, so they summoned Hou Yi, the famous archer down to Earth to shoot down 9 of those 10 suns that were scorching the Earth. One after the other Hou Yi loaded his red bow with a white-feathered arrow and shot down each sun, until only one remained.

The weather immediately turned cooler. Springs started bubbling, forming streams of cool, clear water for the humans and animals to enjoy. The volcanoes ceased their grumblings and spewings and trees and grass grew all over the earth.

Hou Yi was walking a path and saw a young woman carrying a water bucket full of water. He was thirsty from all of his shooting, so he asked her for a drink. She noticed his red bow and the last white-feathered arrow in his quiver and immediately knew she was serving the valiant Hou Yi. As he drinks she picks a flower and offers it to him as a token of thanks and respect. He in turn offers her the coat of a silver fox… and thus their love was born.

While Hou Yi is indeed blessed by the gods he is not immortal. So deep is his love for his wife Chang’e that he seeks immortality for them both. He appeals to the Queen Mother of the Kunlun Mountains, who presents him with an elixir that will make him and his beloved immortal. Queen Mother cautions him that both husband and wife must drink the elixir, otherwise only the one who does drink it will be immortal.

Hou Yi descends from the mountain with the vial of elixir and arrives home to tell his wife the good news: they will be lovers forever! They decide to drink the elixir together the next time the moon is full and bright.

However a wicked man hears of their good tidings and decides to drink the elixir himself so that he might become immortal. By the light of the full moon, while Hou Yi is on his way home from the hunt Feng Meng kills Hou Yi, and then rushes to the home where faithful wife Cheng’e awaits her beloved. He tells her Hou Yi is dead by his hand and tries to force her to give him the elixir. To spite him she drinks every drop herself.

Overcome with grief at being immortal without her husband, she chooses to live on the moon because it is close to earth, where Hou Yi’s mortal remains lie. The gods feel pity for Cheng’e and once per year, at the 8th full moon (lunar calendar) Hou Yi is resurrected so that the lovers can spend one night together.

The Chinese celebrate this holiday, called Mid-Autumn festival by enjoying moon cakes together and telling the story of Hou Ye and Cheng’e under the full harvest moon.

That is why moon cakes are all the rage at that time: they are a symbol of love, a successful harvest, the benevolence of the gods.

Unfortunately this year it rained on that day and night: no full moon to be seen. Still, plenty of moon cakes were consumed and families enjoyed togetherness. I got caught up on my emails… which is kind of like spending time with loved ones, right?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me!

It just so happened that my birthday nearly coincided with the freshman graduation extravaganza: it was actually the day after. However, the same day we were to witness the graduation ceremony is when the remembrances and gifts started pouring in.

My guys from Dallas Plant Maintenance sent the most touching and elaborate tribute: a series of pictures of them gathered ‘round a cake, holding up letters that spelled out ‘Happy Birthday Sophia’. It was sent in a special application that played music. Marjorie also sent a perfectly fitting birthday card with a song that said exactly how I felt, sung to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’: Go on, now go! Bring me a cake! Don’t need no candle; there’s no wish I need to make!’ Marjorie could always pick ‘em. My kids didn’t forget me either: each sent a very touching email, and I talked with Jenn and my beloved Aftie for about 30 minutes. Of course, S.O. sent his tribute email and we managed a little bit of phone time too. That was really good.

With this outpouring of affection, no wonder I was welling up at the freshman graduation! And the day just kept getting better and better!

Sam informed me that the school was going to replace the computer in my apartment with an updated model; all I had to do was wait for them to download the English software and language pack to it. Waiting… that was a little bit of a problem because I was running just a little bit low on cash and I wanted to go into town and exchange some money. There was a holiday period coming up later this week and everything would be closed for the next 7 days; I didn’t want to actually run out of money. I probably wouldn’t have, but I don’t like cutting it so close, funds-wise.

When I told Sam my plans for the day he said I didn’t need to go out; the school was going to reimburse me my travel allowance early. Instead of waiting until the end of the semester as per our contract, they were going to compensate me for my flight and travel through China that day! Sam was right: I did not need to go to town. I got my new computer that afternoon.

Well remembered and with such outpourings of affection, a new computer to play with, and now flush with cash? Man! How much better could this day get?

As it turns out, the good things were not done happening yet. My colleague Victor, the other foreign language teacher offered up a nice card on his way out of town. Sam informed me there was going to be a variety show put on by the students and teachers of the school I could attend later that night. I had already seen the stage set up at one end of the soccer field and it looked quite professional; I was anticipating a really good show.

And it was a good show… but first I have to tell you about my students and their birthday surprise. Sam apparently let it leak out that the next day was my birthday; that was all my Cookie Cutter Girls needed. The news went around like wildfire and, come sundown, my Chinese Mommy and Dash came to get me. I thought we were going to the show – and we did. But first, a stop at the park behind my apartment, where about thirty of my students were waiting for me with a cake and gifts.

Man, I just can’t stop crying!

I gave a little speech, they clapped politely. And then they sat me down and handed me a cake cutting implement so I started serving this delicious looking cake all covered in gooey chocolate frosting. My taste buds were working overtime and I was really looking forward to enjoying this nice, creamy cake, but first I made sure everyone was served. Only after each student had a portion did I serve myself.

I didn’t know I was providing them with ammunition.

Yes, ammunition! For it is traditional in China to smear cake and frosting all over the ‘birthday girl’s’ face and neck! And then pelt chunks of cake at her! After the first student smeared my face I sat there in shock, wondering if this was my ‘Carrie’ moment where I get publicly humiliated and everyone laughs and points at me – for they were laughing and pointing. While still sitting there like a bump on a log, trying to comprehend this action, another student smeared my nose with cream and again they all laughed. ‘Carrie’ moment or not, I was going to get in on the action because by now, I could hear the kids all around, pelting each other with cake and dashing about. It was a veritable cake war and I was the first casualty, but I was going to take some of them down with me. After only 3 bites of this cake that was indeed delicious, I started pelting with the best of them.

Nailed a few of them pretty good, too! I never did catch the one that initially smeared my face though.

After a protracted battle and lots of laughter we washed up and proceeded to the gala show in an orderly manner, only barely managing to stifle our giggles. I sat with my Chinese Mommy, Dash and Lily (whose birthday it actually was) and enjoyed the show.

I did say that the kids got me a gift: a ‘pick your nose’ mug – a tall tea glass with a lid depicting a cartoon dog’s nose. I finally had a decent mug to brew tea in! I was laughed out and couldn’t cry anymore, even tears of happiness. The mug is cherished but did not get an outpouring of emotion.

The show was fantastic: lots of great music and funny skits. I got my Girls to dance with me and we had a great time. The gala ended with a massive fireworks display – what else? We are in China, after all! I didn’t think I would be able to sleep after all the excitement of this perfect day, but once I showered to make sure I was not taking a wad of frosting to bed with me, I slept like a log!

Happy birthday to me!

The Freshmen are Coming! The Freshmen are Coming!

For the first two weeks of campus life, things were relatively quiet and easy for me to manage. Quiet because we only had half our student body; easy to manage because I only had two classes per week and daily had only to score some food from somewhere. Of course, it was not easy to manage not sinking into depression, but I already wrote about that.

Of course, maybe there was a cycle going on at that time: it was quiet on campus so I felt compelled to sleep, I slept because I was depressed, I was depressed because there was nothing going on on campus… but I suppose that it is now a moot point.

And then, the day arrived when Freshmen, hailing from far and wide, were to report to campus. What an occasion! The street in front of the school, still under construction when I arrived 3 weeks prior, was finished just in time to accommodate the influx of people. The businesses and stores that were opening up along that small segment of road had triumphant laurels and specially woven garlands of flowers adorning them. They also set off firecrackers to celebrate their grand opening throughout the day and the din was maddening.

On campus the preparations were equally elaborate: tents were erected to shelter welcoming committees from the heat and to give the campus police someplace shady to process the new students and sign their parents in. Lines of Sophomores formed a type of gauntlet for their new proteges to run, and they directed the Newbies to the various tables they needed to visit. They danced and clapped in the heat of the day to a repeating soundtrack of Pachabel’s Canon in D Major, Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You, and music from various Chinese artists that I did not recognize. The elderly people who normally scrounge through the garbage in search of recyclables were in 7th heaven: the University provided all and sundry with a steady supply of bottled water and once the water was drunk, the bottles were simply handed over to a ‘scrounger’.

In short, everyone was enjoying the celebration, except for maybe the freshmen, which appeared overwhelmed, their parents who most likely had never left their remote farming village before now and appeared dazzled at all the noise and people, and me… I still had my sad face on.

Lavender to the rescue! Lavender is one of the students who sees to my welfare – not one of my Cookie Cutter Girls. She is a perfectly adorable dumpling of a girl with stunning eyes, a compelling smile and a sweetness that would throw a diabetic in a coma. She dragged me out of the house and, battling the influx of humanity, dragged me off campus. I thank Lavender for her seemingly cruel but very timely action; I would never have witnessed the gala of welcoming the freshmen had it not been for her. We enjoyed a day out and got back fairly late.

Nobody told me that the freshmen undergo 2 weeks of military training before actually starting their academic career. The celebration, banners, fireworks and dancing students all happened on Sunday; at 0600 Monday morning a sharp whistle blast caused me to leap straight out of bed. Presumably it caused everyone else to too, as testified by the near immediate cavalcade of stomping feet down the staircase adjoining my apartment. The freshmen were to be in formation just outside my bedroom window, in complete uniform, for the march to the exercise field where they would drill for 10 hours or more per day. Those first few days they did not form very well and I got to experience their drill sergeant yelling at them. Thus I started my days.

For the next 2 weeks I needed no alarm clock on Mondays or Wednesdays in order to get up and teach. I did not need an alarm clock on those days when I didn’t have to get up and teach, either. I had a very loud one, courtesy of the Chinese education system in general and the University in particular. That REALLY took care of my desire to sleep the clock ‘round.

Those students: what fortitude! What strength! They were drilled mercilessly, hour after hour, in the heat and in the rain until they could salute, march in step, stay in formation, shout salutations, and understand the values proscribed by their country and by this establishment of higher learning.

From my window I spied these poor children, for mere children is what they are at barely age 18. Some fresh off the farm, some lonely and homesick, all bewildered at the new life they were embarking on by virtue of their ability to pass an entrance exam. Some of the girls broke down and cried mid-drill, some of the boys just gave out and had to break rank and sit. From all appearances, nobody loved what was going on: having to wear cammo dress uniforms with red berets for the girls and green ones for the boys, simple canvas shoes that provided no foot comfort during the hours of marching and drilling; hungry, sweaty, homesick, lonely. It must have been difficult for these children to establish any kind of friendships during those first two weeks while the drill sergeant barked orders at them.

But they did it. Not only did they forge relationships, but during those two weeks these kids, as diverse a population as had they come from different nations because of China’s 58 different ethnicities, could march in step, understand and respond to commands, perform a gracious tai-chi routine, present arms while passing in review, and maintain formation until they were instructed to stand at ease.

How do I know? I was honored to be invited to their graduation. It was a very formal affair, with all of the school dignitaries seated on a dais bedecked with red velvet covered tables. And I wasn’t hidden in the back either: I was at the front table, front row seating to behold and admire this gala ceremony. I was introduced as a member of the school staff, just like all the other senior staffers and military personnel. These kids… they clapped at the introductions as though they were honored that we deigned to grace them with our presence. I was completely moved.

Matter of fact, I welled up more than once during that hour-long ceremony. I had so many emotions battling for center stage: witnessing a nation’s pride when the flag was hoisted, awe that these kids had mastered so much in so little time, feeling the summer’s last heat on my face and arms. Finally, a bubble of laughter as some poor marcher lost his or her shoe on the parade ground and it sat, dejected and abandoned, until a custodian kicked it off the track.

The last picture I took was of them throwing their caps in the air, after the dignitaries had left. It appears that they were instructed to maintain decorum until all the muckety-mucks were gone. After that, they reverted back to being children and indulged in a moment of simple pleasure and pure relief. What a joy to behold.

Because of their hat tossing I was sharply reminded of graduations in America, and the sense of relief American kids feel when the burden of academia has been successfully vanquished. Maybe the differences between China and America are not so great, I remember thinking… before welling up again.