Monday, November 29, 2010

Boo Tie Shoo Foo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I’m cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Friday indeed!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How I spent my Thanksgiving

How was your Thanksgiving? I hope you were surrounded by friends, family, the rich aroma of good food and the joy of love and laughter.

How was my Thanksgiving, in a country that doesn’t observe this particular holiday? I have to tell you: for a people who do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the Chinese certainly know how to give an expat things to be thankful for. I’ll start at the very beginning…

The first part of the day was spent in conversation with my brother Woody in Colorado, and his lovely partner, Liz. Come to think of it, Thanksgiving marks the event that finally brought Woody and I close: the death of our father, two years ago. Woody and I were not raised together and although we have known about each other for years, our family is so fractured that we have not kept up with one another at all. We met up at our father’s memorial service in July of 2009 and had a long heart to heart conversation; we’ve been in touch ever since. At that memorial service is when I met Liz for the first time, and since then she and I have become like sisters: talking and/or emailing nearly every day and learning from one another. Liz and Woody are two of my staunchest supporters in this China adventure… there! Another thing I have to be thankful for!

Liz, Woody and I spent over two hours on Skype Thanksgiving morning, and when my beloved Gabriel chimed in we conference called, and included Darrell, my son. That was the first time Woody and Darrell had talked since 1995 – see how fractured this family is? It sounded like they got along very well. It made my heart sing to hear these guys converse; the genuine liking and curiosity for one another shone right through. Another thing to be thankful for: family coming together after years apart.

Soon enough we all had other things to do: it was getting late in Colorado and Woody and Liz had to go to sleep, Darrell had to finish getting his kitchen ready because he was hosting Thanksgiving for Jenn and Garrett this year, and I… was STARVING! It was 2:00PM when I finally got off the computer and I hadn’t eaten anything all day! Besides that, I had decided to prepare as traditional a Thanksgiving meal as I could in China and I had invited Sam and even the detestable Victor over; they were due at 5:30.

I rushed to the kitchen and cut the head and feet off my chicken. It should have been a turkey, but there are no turkeys to be found in China, at least not of the poultry variety. I do have some students that qualify for the title however, it would be improper to roast them and they wouldn’t fit in my oven anyway.

But I digress… again!

Here, all poultry is sold with head and feet still attached so that it can easily be recognized as an authentic bird, not a mock-up of some kind of meat passing for fowl. Whereas that sounds comforting to know that you are actually kept in the loop of your fowl purchases, I am still a little uncomfortable cutting heads and feet from the portions intended for consumption. I’d just as soon buy a bird in a pretty package, all dressed up and with the innards tucked into a discreet, removable white bag. Yes, I see I’m still a little spoiled.

Next came the chore of spitting and roasting what should become the piece de resistance of my meal. As I’ve not used that particular function of my oven yet, I have to confess that me and the chicken danced around the kitchen a bit. It is a bit difficult to spit a flaccid, tough-skinned bird that has been oiled down. It seemed like the bird objected to being spitted and roasted while I strenuously insisted on it. I won and the bird went in the oven, turning round and round, making full use of the rotisserie function of my delightful little oven.

Now for a mad dash to the farmer’s market that is just off campus. I needed a few more potatoes for mashing, some corn on the cob and some of those wonderful tasting green beans that are currently in season. I also wanted a red bell pepper to mix with my pickled cucumber to make a relish for deviled eggs, and I needed some eggs to devil. Finally, a stop at the supermarket for a nice bottle of white wine to go with the dinner and I’m on my way home.

I have to confess: I enjoy cooking. And, in the environment I have to work with, I don’t do too bad a job of it. The single electronic hot plate I have to cook with decides it is done cooking whether you want it to be or not, so hard-boiling eggs and keeping the fire on under potatoes until they are done is really quite the challenge. Add to that the fact that I actually needed 4 hot plates – one for the potatoes, one for corn, one for eggs and one for steaming green beans, and I only had one, made it a logistical nightmare! Finally, factor in the granite countertops that chill everything you set on them, the additional nightmare of keeping everything warm while everything else cooks made me really rise to the challenge!

Quick check on the phone: Sam has responded to the invitation and will be here; Victor has not responded at all, one way or the other. Time check: 3:45. I have a little under two hours to pull this whole meal together, or embarrass myself completely. Of course I could still end up embarrassed if something doesn’t turn out right.

But everything was perfect! Sam loved the deviled eggs and adored the mashed potatoes; he had never tasted either before. He is not much of a meat eater so the roast chicken did not earn many raves (from him. I thought it turned out rather tasty for my first effort at roasting). I even had time to bake brownies for dessert, and he really liked those, too.

Sure, I’m a good cook and yes, the meal went without a hitch. But that’s not what made my Thanksgiving spectacular. What really made the day was all of the emails from my friends in the States, the conversation with my family and my students sending me text messages to wish me a happy holiday and telling me to not be sad because I was far away from my family. The phone chimed every few minutes with just such a message all afternoon and evening. In total, there were 43 messages full of care, well wishes and thoughtfulness. I answered every single one of them.

At 7:30, Stephanie and Martin, two of my Freshman students came by to invite me out for a drink (of tea). As Sam was wrapping up his visit, their arrival was particularly timely. I had no qualms whatsoever about abandoning my dirty kitchen and joining these delightful kids for a nice, hot pitcher of tea and some fun conversation. We got back just before curfew at 10:00PM.

The detestable Victor never manifested himself at all.

Do I have a lot to be thankful for, or what?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Blog Entry

I’d be remiss if I didn’t write you a little something for Thanksgiving, seeing as I went overboard on the Veteran’s Day post. But… Veterans are so worth it, aren’t they?

So is Thanksgiving. It is in that spirit that I rush this post. Just in case you log in and want something to read, but also because my collaborator will be celebrating Thanksgiving with his kith and kin and thus will not be available to post this for me.

I will not be celebrating Thanksgiving with kith or kin this year. I’ve opted to be thousands of miles from any kith or kin I have and furthermore, China does not even have a holiday that approximates Thanksgiving. Thus they are thirsty for any knowledge of this holiday; all they really know is that Americans eat turkey on that day. I am truly put upon to explain to my students about the spirit of Thanksgiving: how people came to the New World and 2/3 of them died within the first year (that would be 1620). How it was the Natives (the Wampanoag Tribe) who helped the Pale Faces survive that first year by showing them what could and could not be eaten in the New World. How, even though the Pale Faces wanted to have this wonderful feast to thank the Natives, they didn’t have enough food so the Natives produced food from their own supplies and a feast was had. That feast consisted of corn, nuts, venison, squash and beans - nothing like what we consider a traditional Thanksgiving dinner today.

I daresay that, if you were to serve your guests the above listed menu, you just might be thankful you don’t end up in the hospital with broken bones and a severe concussion. Your kith might only leave the house in a huff, but your kin is liable to pound on you judiciously. Because I care deeply about you, I recommend you stick to what is commonly known as a traditional menu: turkey and all the trimmings.

Interesting factoid: the Wampanoag usually ate their meals while sitting down on the ground, but in the interest of not clashing cultures, they sat at the tables with their hosts. The Wampanoag women joined their men at the table, but the Pilgrims refused to bend tradition: their womenfolk stood behind their men as the men ate. Women ate what was left.

Now you guys know why women are so intent of serving leftovers: it is a throwback to those good ol’days when we had to stand back and watch you eat all the good stuff. You have thus been cursed with being served leftovers until women stop being in charge of the kitchen. Depending on your feelings about leftovers, that is a good or a bad thing.

Back to Thanksgiving. One of my favorite questions to ask, usually as you have a mouthful of mashed potatoes, is: what are you thankful for?

Just because there is nary a kith or a kin of mine in sight, that does not mean that I’ve ceased to be thankful. Quite to the contrary: I am more grateful and more sincerely thankful for the bounty in my life than perhaps I’ve ever been. True I have virtually no material goods to my name and what would appear to be only minimal creature comforts but, my friends… how I’m rich!

· Every time I log into my email account and see that one of you has sent me something.
· Every time I step in front of the classroom to teach these kids who are so eager to learn.
· Every time I log into Skype and talk with my precious grandson.
· Every time I reach into my pocket and there is money for me to spend.
· Every time I wake up feeling healthy and vital.
· Every time I have not only the privilege of good food, but the choice of what I will eat.
· Every time I lay down in a warm, comfortable bed.
· Every time I have the strength and the courage to do a good deed.
· Every time I enjoy a friend’s company, even long-distance.
· Every time I hear my daughter’s slightly cautious ‘Hello?’ on the phone

I realize my riches. And my list of things to be thankful for goes on and on. It is indeed too long for me to list here.

Don Henley (of the Eagles) has a song titled My Thanksgiving. It is a great song; thoughtful and reflective on a life well lived. I strongly urge you to take a listen to it; it is on YouTube. For me it is very hard to pick the most significant lyrics from this song, but with regard to Thanksgiving the ones that sum up my feelings the best are:

For every moment of joy
Every hour of fear
For every winding road that brought me here
For every breath, for every day of living
This is my Thanksgiving

What are you thankful for?

I wish you and yours a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Two Year Anniversary

This past week the English Club on campus celebrated its two-year anniversary. A big do was held in the Student Auditorium, and my invitation to this shindig arrived via engraved invitation. More specifically: Grace pecked on my window until I responded to her intrusion on my time and dwelling, and she handed me the invitation to the party.

NOTE: the students can no longer just slide my windows open and look into my apartment because I’ve rigged them so that they now lock. The windows, not the students. It is all part of my malicious little gambit to retain a measure of privacy in my life.

Nevertheless, Grace lived up to her name: she was very gracious in presenting me this invitation. Fortunately, I was presentable when she came by. Even more fortunately, she only stayed a minute. Can you tell I still get irritated by these seemingly innocuous intrusions on my life and the students’ apparent impression that I live to serve?

The day of the party, Grace and Jinkey, another student of mine came by my apartment at noon to inform me that I would take part in a game played during this party, and they wanted to tell me the rules. As I was currently logged into Skype and deep in a game of Battleship with my adorable grandson, I declined to listen to the rules and introduced them to my grandson instead. Again they left, but this time promised to return after class that day.

Good! Now I know to expect students coming by!

This time I was ready for them: hair combed, makeup on, jewelry set, nothing else going on. I was thoroughly prepared to give them my undivided attention and absorb these rules I had to learn before the game.

They were very straightforward: I give simple commands – sit down, stand up, turn left, turn right – to 8 or so volunteer players who are then supposed to do the opposite of what I say. There would be two rounds played at the end of which the two winners would be awarded prizes. It seemed like a weird version of Simon Says; easy enough to do. What they did NOT tell me is that this party was actually a gala type affair, with all manner of teachers invited, as well as students from other colleges, and that this game would take place at the Student Union hall, onstage, in front of everyone!

Figuring I was just going to a party, I didn’t bother too much with my appearance; I thought casual would be acceptable. As soon as I learned I was to step onstage and have a white-hot spotlight on me, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I should have done more with my appearance! On the plus side, I finally learned that there is a Student Union hall, and now I know where it is. I just never stop learning things!

My self-satisfaction, coupled with my impending humiliation did nothing to dampen my spirits or cause me to not enjoy the show. And what a show! There was dancing, singing, skits… all put on by the students. Very little of it was in English, but there was enough that I could catch the gist of things. Before the show started the teachers in the audience were introduced, including me. And then the kids commenced to dazzle and entertain.

I honestly don’t know where they get it from. These kids are talented and they love to be onstage. They are hams and turkeys: funny, touching, sweet and MAN! Can that kid from the Music Department sing? I didn’t even know we had a music department, let alone a kid with such a voice! As with regular variety shows where the stars get flowers and Teddy bears, this guy claimed an armful of accolades before he even finished his song. He got so much stuff he had to set it all down onstage to finish his number. To watch him scoop a double armload of tribute at the end of his performance was hilarious. We clapped uproariously.

Soon enough it was my turn onstage. With much ceremony and fanfare – none of it on my part, the student body welcomed me and the MC - One of my students also named Grace, resplendent in a purple, sequined gown, introduced the game while she coached me through my little stint: “Say Hello” she stage-whispered. “Encourage them to come up” she muttered after soliciting for volunteers in Chinese. Once we had enough volunteers, the game began. Grace showed me where to stand and made sure my mike was working fine, and then off we went.

Contrary to my commands, the game players sat when I told them to stand, stood when I told them to sit, kept their arms down when I told them to raise them and raised their arms when I told them to lower them. It almost felt like a regular day in class. If a student actually followed instructions they were disqualified. As the number of volunteers dwindled I gave the commands faster and faster: “Turn left, turn right, stand up sit down, sit down, stand up, turn left, turn left, turn left, turn right!”

It was that sudden switch from turning left to turning right that did everyone in. Soon enough the last two alert persons – one from each round, collected their prize and melted back into the audience. I slunk off stage as soon as graciously possible and went back to my seat.

As best I could tell, there was no adult or faculty leadership behind that three-hour show: the kids did it all themselves. I have to think about how these kids manage such feats as this gala, even while living the life they live. Dorms that are not climate controlled, 6 persons to a room, not much more personal space than the bunk they sleep in, sharing virtually everything they own, no hot water in the communal bathrooms for their showers. They are in class from 8 in the morning until 5:30 at night, after which they scramble to a dinner bought at vendor stalls or in local restaurants; the ones who are broke go to the canteen. They have only a few hours between the end of class and curfew to study, build and maintain a social life, find some sort of entertainment such as playing cards or basketball, and then hit the rack… only to get up and do it all again the next day.

My hat is off to them. Not only for enduring the life they live, but for putting on such a great show.

Tingling in my Jaws

Sing to the tune of Strangers in the Night, Frank Sinatra’s version (is there any other?)

Tingling in my jaws
Such a strange feeling,
Tingling in my jaws
Staring at the ceiling
Wondering if I am
In cardiac distress???

Lately I’ve had the strangest sensation: an odd tingling in my jaws that won’t go away. It is especially prevalent in the morning, but sometimes gets worse as the day wears on. I’m a bit scared by it, as you can understand if you’ve ever had something suddenly change in the way your body acts that you can’t explain.

It just so happens that I know women have different indications of a heart attack than men do, and pain or tingling in the jaws is one symptom of cardiac distress that women experience. That is why I wonder if I’m not going into some sort of cardiac distress, or if I’m having other heart problems.

Which causes me to think: what if I’m in my apartment and its 2 in the morning, and I do in fact have a heart attack?

For one, I’ve already shared with you that I do not know how to contact emergency services. For two, the dorm gates are locked at 10PM on weeknights, and at 11 on weekend nights. If I do have a medical emergency and had to summon help and, by some miracle I’m able to make someone understand over the phone that I’m having a heart attack, how would paramedics get to me with me behind these locked gates?

Hopscotch thought: what if there’s a fire in the dorm at night, when the gates are locked and everyone is asleep? With temperatures plummeting, there is a prevalence of space heaters in the dorms and no sprinkler system or fire alarms anywhere in the building (there are fire extinguishers). We have not had a fire drill since the dorm filled up in late September, when the Freshmen hit campus, or since I’ve been here, Would these kids know what to do? It is very likely a tragedy could unfold. Imagine this dorm, full of girls and one lone language teacher, all trapped behind a locked gate.

For you history buffs: I recall to you the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory incident of 1911. For you who are not familiar with that incident, let me tell you about it. The factory occupied the 8th and 9th floors of a building. The owners of this factory, which produced women’s blouses (at that time called shirtwaists) got in the habit of locking the doors so that the workers would not sneak out to the fire escapes or down to the alley to smoke. Thus everyone there was locked in for their full 9 hour shift.

A careless machine operator flicked a cigarette into the trash, igniting the scraps of material therein. A fire broke out and panic ensued as hundreds of women ran for the doors, which were locked. Fire fighting equipment could not reach that high, so they told the women to jump out the windows into the nets the fire fighters held to catch them. The women started pitching themselves out the windows, whether firemen were ready to catch them or not. The death toll of that incident peaked at 146. You can read about this tragedy here:

The Triangle Shirtwaist incident is considered to be the worst industrial accident of the century, and indeed it brought about the legislation in America that no exit or fire door may be locked or blocked when a building is occupied. Later laws dwell on the imperative of clearly showing the way to the closest exit; that is why there are lighted ‘EXIT’ signs everywhere in commercial and industrial buildings.

A more recent incident happened this week at a high rise in Shanghai. This residential building was undergoing renovations when (it appears) a worker dripped welding slag onto some flammable building materials nearby. Fire broke out, and again fire fighters were powerless to get the blaze under control The death toll from this fire currently stands at 58, with several people still in critical condition and many others still unaccounted for. You can read about this incident here:

This article specifically states that residents are not trained in fire evacuation, nor is there a fire evacuation plan for high-rise apartment buildings in general. There is such a plan for commercial buildings, and commercial buildings have fire sprinkler systems installed. Tenants – and it appears college students are on their own.

Again I despair over the lack of orientation on this campus. Not just for myself, but for the students who would most likely end up panicking and hurting themselves in the general melee during an emergency. And what of those locked gates?

This is clearly something I can do to help the kids stay safe. I will approach Sam with the idea that we need to have a fire drill at least once a quarter so that these kids know what to do if a fire does consume one of these dorm buildings. I can also voice my concerns about the locked dorm gates and maybe see that curfew is monitored some other way. I can ask Sam how to contact emergency services and ask him to teach me how to say that help is needed in Chinese.

As for the tingling in my jaws? It turned out to be nothing serious. A routine supplement that I had been taking in the States appears to no longer be effective here in China, and the overdose of said supplement was manifesting itself by making my jaws tingle madly, and causing my hair to start fall out in clumps. As a former thyroid patient I know that if my hair goes limp and starts falling out, something is knocking my hormone levels out of balance, and such was the case with this supplement. A few days after I stopped taking it, my hair stopped falling out and the tingling sensation in my jaws went away.

While men do tend to experience the shooting chest pains and the numbness in the left arm, women tend to experience discomfort in their upper body regions and what appears to be gastrointestinal discomfort. Jaw pain or discomfort is specifically indicative of heart trouble in women. You should stay in tune with how your body feels and acts, so that if something changes or starts acting different, you can pay immediate attention to what your body is trying to tell you and get help immediately, if needed.

I urge you to get familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack and stroke by reading up on them at

Banana Meets Sex

Before you get up in arms about this, I will tell you that this is not an entry about porn. I have a student whose English name is Banana, and I am very concerned about her.

When the semester started, Banana and her cohorts, Edith and Claudia were regular attendees and participants in class. They got there on time, minded the lesson and did everything they could to participate. Then, one day, I saw Banana outside the classroom. I did not recognize her! Such a shocking transformation…

This young girl was wearing a low cut blouse that revealed a lot of cleavage, a short, tight mini skirt, towering high heels and enough makeup to repair the façade of the Chrysler building: cat’s eye eyeliner, pale foundation and ‘come on’ ruby red lipstick. Her hair was teased up in a fashion much too mature for her young face. The ensemble was completed by… yes, a beaded purse that swung casually from her wrist.

Where could my student, who is not more than 20 years old, be going in that get up?

I would be incredibly naïve to declare that I am unaware that teenagers and young adults explore their sexual nature. While certainly Chinese girls are a bit more modest and clearly not as aggressive sexually as American girls – or Western girls in general, I have to admit some Chinese girls are giving Western girls a run for their money in that department.

As the semester wore on I started noticing other girls that had every indication that sex had become their favorite pastime. Delta had hickeys all over her neck and Kara withdrew from class activities and spent more time looking at her cell phone than at the board. Jennifer simply quit coming to class after showing up one day, reeking of alcohol. No notes from the office explaining why Jennifer is missing class, and her fellow students are not talking about her either.

From watching Chinese movies and talking with my Chinese friends I know that there are hotels that rent rooms by the hour. What I didn’t know is that our neighborhood is rife with just such hotels. I found out just how prevalent those hotels are while walking with Lavender one evening. She had come over to cook dinner with me, and after enjoying a sumptuous, 4-course meal we decided to go walk some of it off with a stroll through the neighborhood. Up one street and down the other, there was a hotel, and a restaurant. A hotel and a restaurant. The further we got into the neighborhood, the more hotels there were and the fewer restaurants.

I actually did not know they were hotels. They are not advertised as such. I just saw doors that were wide open, and a bed, visible in the foyer. I had to ask Lavender what those were all about: surely no self-respecting family would put a bed right there, by the front door that hangs wide open!

Lavender told me that the bed was actually advertisement that the establishment was a hotel offering rooms by the hour. OK, so maybe I am a bit naïve. College campus, kids with money to spend, far from home for the first time and away from their parents’ watchful eye, hotels immediately available… I should have figured.

While the light of understanding dawned in my innocent head, Lo and Behold: here comes one of my students, Delta – she of the hickeys, hand in hand with a boy. It just so happens we were in a particularly remote alley, 4 or 5 removed from where all of the food vendor stalls are. It looked like she did not want to go: dragging her heels and pulling her hand back. So caught up in her drama was she that she did not notice Lavender and I, or maybe she didn’t expect to see her English teacher down this particular alley. When she did look up, an expression of shock crossed her face. What could I do but say “Hi Delta!” and keep on going?

Delta stopped in her tracks, which caused the boy who was dragging (?) her to stop and turn to her. Delta hung her head and, out of the corner of my eye I saw her push against the boy’s chest. Whatever might be transpiring between them, her body language and actions clearly said she wanted no part in it. Whether she turned around and left the boy or finally went with him I do not know.

I am concerned about these girls, but is there a call for action on my part? Normally I would say yes, but this time I hesitate. For one, there is the language barrier. How could we have a decent conversation about unprotected sex or the virtues of abstaining when I don’t speak enough Chinese to be clearly understood, and they don’t understand enough English for me to get my point across?

Another reason I’m hesitant to launch into a lecture on morality is culture. The tide is changing so rapidly in China, and every self-respecting boy and girl wants to ride that wave. While the wave is not exactly ‘Be as Promiscuous as Possible”, there certainly is an indication that there is as much a feeling of ‘The Love Generation’ here as there was in the ‘60s in America. In the face of such a wave, one gets out of the way or drowns. Another aspect of the differing culture mores is that, while sex can be openly discussed in America, in China that is still not the case… not matter how these kids carry on. And certainly, no discussion would be held with a foreign, unmarried teacher.

Am I a coward, or sensible? Good question, and I think the answer is: ‘A little bit of both’. In America, I might chance a discussion, something to the effect of “What’s going on? It is affecting your grades. I can see you have changed in the past two months…” and go from there. Here, I do not have much of a relationship with these kids. I do care about them, but my responsibility to them ends when the class session is over.

Or does it?

Recently there was an article in China Daily about more and more women being infertile. A lot of that can be attributed to abortions which are not only legal here, but commonly practiced. Another disturbing article I read was about the growing acceptance of unwed mothers and teenaged pregnancies. Finally, the number of people testing HIV positive in China has skyrocketed in the past 5 years. Very disturbing trends. Could I be doing something to help stem this tide? Should I? Would my efforts have any impact?

Banana recently showed up to class late, wearing a blond wig and her ‘street’ get up. Delta cut off her beautiful long hair and now sports a bowl cut – the better to show off her neck markings. Kara has withdrawn even more. I haven’t seen Jennifer in weeks. It makes me wince to think of what these young girls are doing to themselves and their future.

What should I do?

Monday, November 15, 2010

And Who is Going to Pay for That?

With the arrival of colder temperatures, I grow more and more concerned about warmth. The classrooms are not heated at all – I’ll be teaching in my parka in the dead of winter! My apartment, for all that it is very clammy because of concrete walls and the wet weather, is actually fairly well insulated: the temperature has not dropped below 64 degrees Fahrenheit in weeks. I have to confess that I am a wimp when it comes to cold. I like to be comfortable.

But still: 64 is a little bit cold. I’ve already broken out the thermal underwear and flannels. The question remains: who is going to pay for all of the heat my fragile self will need to keep warm this winter?

The University puts an extra 200Yuan in my paycheck each month for utilities. Here’s the way it works: if I spend less than that allowance on utilities, the balance goes into my bank account. If I ‘spend’ over that amount, I am required to pay for what I used beyond what my allowance covers. As this is my first winter here, I wonder how much cold I can tolerate within my budget limits and what I can do about keeping warm using a minimum of utilities.
Or, conversely: how much utilities actually cost and how much climate comfort I can afford for myself.

The obvious answer is: Why, as much money as you have, silly! But I don’t want to spend my entire paycheck on utilities. I don’t think anyone would.

I do have a few reference points. I have not exceeded my utilities allowance yet, even when I ran the air conditioner a few days and nights while it was hot outside. The closest I got was 178Yuan, and that was when I was being wasteful, and when I was sitting at home all of the time.

I have to have a plan. Here it is:

Insulate: I can’t do anything much about the concrete walls, but I can certainly insulate the single-paned windows. To that end I plan on covering them, either with plastic or with… shower curtains! Shower curtains are lively and colorful, and they are thicker than the plastic sheeting available at the various stores. As my windows are coated and I can’t look outside with the windows closed anyway, why not cover them with lovely, colorful shower curtains?

Of course, that does affect the amount of light I get in the apartment, so there is another utility expenditure…

Lights: all lighting is kept to a minimum, and whatever lighting I do have is fluorescent. Not to say that I live like a mole in semi darkness, but why leave a lamp burning in the living room when my time is nearly all spent in the bedroom? And speaking of space…

I keep the door to the bedroom closed in order to trap heat in that room. Not to say that I hate my living room – I don’t; I just seldom spend any time there. Therefore I’m not concerned with that space’s temperature as I am with the temperature in the space I actively use. To that end…

I bought a wonderful parabolic space heater. It looks just like a portable, oscillating fan except it packs 1,000 Watts of heat! I can set it to turn its wonderful little heating head, or keep it focused right on me as I sit at my desk, writing to you. I have done a trial run with my heater and found it to be most effective with maximum heat on and turning back and forth to spread the heat around the room.

Before I make use of my wonderful space heater, I will make ample use of my hot water bottle. Yes, even now I sit, old-maidenish with my hot water bottle in my lap, writing to you. I read somewhere that, dollar for dollar, the electric kettle is the best appliance for the money. I simply use my electric kettle to boil the water to fill my hot water bottle and put said bottle in my lap to keep my abdomen, legs and hands warm. When the bottle cools down I pour the water back into the kettle and reheat it. That works well as long as I’m wearing…

Fuzzy slippers: I bought a pair of fake-fur lined, soled house slippers to wear. The floors being concrete under the laminate, any other house shoe just let the cold pass right through them. These fuzzy booties keep not only my feet but also my ankles warm, extra protection to go along with…

Wooly socks: While shopping at Chicony’s a few weeks back I found the most enticing pair of woolen socks in the world. They are the color of apricots and, by some mercy do in fact stretch enough to cover my feet and reach beyond my ankles. Simply tucking my thermal underwear into the socks and putting the hot water bottle on my lap virtually guarantees my lower extremities all of the warmth I can stand. Of course, if my feet do get cold while I sit and type, I can simply remove my fuzzy slippers and put my feet directly on the hot water bottle, after putting the hot water bottle on a box to keep it insulated from that cold, cold floor.

Incidentally, sleeping with the hot water bottle is also quite comfortable. Matter of fact, my bed was so warm when I did a trial run that I did not sleep well that night.

So far, I’m really being economical about utility usage. I don’t foresee having to use my space heater except in the direst of cold, and I don’t plan on using the heaters that came with the apartment at all as they are incredibly inefficient – I think I already wrote about that. But what about taking a shower? I am not looking forward to disrobing in a cold bathroom to shower, especially with my hot water tank running out of hot water mid-shower. Therefore…

Washing hair: Wash hair separately from washing body. I lean over the bathtub while fully clothed and wet my hair, and then turn the water off to lather. Turn water back on to rinse, and then it is off while I use conditioner on my hair. Turn water on one final time to rinse that, and hair washing is over, with the satisfaction of having used only as much water as I actually need.

Bathing is a different matter. Bathing entails running a shallow bath and washing, and then using the flexible showerhead to rinse off. However bathing will have the added expense of using the heat lamps above the tub. I really cannot talk myself into shivering through getting clean.

What can I do to stay warm while conserving utilities beyond these precautionary measures?

My dear friend Ann offered up a very valuable suggestion: make heating packs. Sew some rice into a wash cloth to form a packet and heat the packets up in the microwave. They are the equivalent of those nifty chemically activated heat packs you can find in any store’s sports section. Put one in each of my gloves before heading out the door to keep my hands extra warm. Hold on to them while in the classroom so that I can still write on the board, all while keeping my hands toasty warm.

Finally: foreseeing I would not find shoes in my size here, before I left the States I bought my winter shoes and boots. I deliberately selected a half size larger than I normally wear so that I can wear an extra pair of socks to keep my feet warm while out and about.

It has been cold enough to wear these larger shoes, but not so cold that I need to wear two pair of socks. So these shoes are unusually large and ungainly, and yesterday they caused me to trip and fall (again!), scratching my knees up so badly through my jeans that I now have a lovely patch of road rash on each knee. Quite painful, really. Neither knee had completely healed from the last fall I took a few weeks back, when I ended up in the mud puddle (see ‘Would You Like Those with Mud or Dust entry, earlier in this blog). I think my knees are fed up with being scratched and bruised.

But this is not about my clown shoes or my bruised and abraded knees. It is about conserving utilities and keeping warm. So I’ll leave you to contemplate these ideas and I’ll turn off my computer now, to conserve electricity.

Jackie Chan: The Man That Does it All!

Many of you know Jackie Chan, that lovable, martial arts – fastest moves since Bruce Lee – clown that played in the Rush Hour trio of movies. What you may not know about Jackie Chan is that… well, let me just tell you about him.

Mr. Chan has been incredibly prolific. His movie career spans nearly 50 years – he has made over 100 movies. To say nothing of his singing career: he sings many title tracks to the movies he stars in, and he sings beautifully. He also teaches martial arts, writes directs and produces movies and works with up and coming singers.

But that’s not all. At the peak of his fame, Mr. Chan looked around at all the antiques and all of the cars he had collected and wondered what they were all about in the face of so many people in his native China, starving and lacking in education. So he sold his entire collection and used the proceeds – and a great deal of his personal wealth to start the Jackie Chan Foundation, which helps fund schools and feed poor people in rural China.

As though that weren’t enough, he started and currently runs another foundation called Jackie Chan Kids, to encourage and inspire kids worldwide to seek education. He has a cartoon series titled the same name. All of the proceeds go to help educate children worldwide.

All of this while making movies and singing his heart out on CD after CD and in movie after movie. One wonders how he has time for making movies while doing all of this philanthropic work. Or do you wonder how he has time for philanthropy while making all of those movies and CDs? And how does he find time to stay so fit and train so many others in martial arts?

I don’t know. And really, this entry is not just about the accomplishments of Mr. Chan, although they are impressive. In fact, if you want to hear just how impressive his vocals alone are, simply go to YouTube and search for a song called Ai le jiu suan (type it in just like that). Take a listen to him sing; I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

One thing you may absolutely not know about Mr. Chan is that he also does product endorsements – like he wasn’t busy enough already. Seriously: in China, you can see Jackie’s smiling face on billboards, buses, in grocery stores and department stores, selling anything from razors to shampoo to cameras.

What is especially remarkable about that is that, in China, a ‘personality’ is personally held liable if the product turns out to be harmful to the public.

Who remembers that devastating crisis of 2008, when baby formula was tainted with melamine – a chemical additive used in the manufacture of PVC, sending over 300 babies to the hospital and several of them to their graves? This tragedy rocked the country like the Tylenol poisoning rocked America, back in the late ‘70s. The makers of the formula put melamine in it to boost protein levels in the milk so that, when food inspectors tested the milk it showed appropriate levels of all nutrients. When the babies drank the formula they were immediately sickened, grew kidney stones and showed toxic levels of melamine in their blood. Criminal liability ensued and just recently, two of that company’s directors were sentenced to life in jail.

Incidentally, a father whose baby died as a result of melamine poisoning has been an outspoken advocate for food safety, especially baby food. He was recently convicted of disturbing the peace and sent to jail for two years. The melamine tragedy just keeps on going, sadly.

Fortunately, 297 babies recovered fully and are now thriving toddlers. The rest of China still shivers when thinking about this event.

That makes this law – the one where the endorser is held personally liable even more dangerous for the personalities that endorse products. Matter of fact, many Stars have stopped endorsing any products at all.

But not the Venerable Mr. Chan. And why is this so remarkable? It means that Mr. Chan is personally guaranteeing the public’s safety when that product is used. It means that he, as opposed to so many of his fellow actors and singers, takes the time to investigate the integrity of the product he endorses. He gets directly involved with anything he lends his name to and that is a condition of his endorsing a product. He is a holdout, an icon of trust and a harbinger of safety and comfort in this country. Jackie Chan is so trusted in China that whatever he endorses sells like hotcakes.

Just recently, Hollywood let Jackie Chan demonstrate his acting chops in the movie Karate Kid 2010. That story allows this incredibly talented, experienced, thoughtful, deeply sensitive and dedicated man to show just how he can reach an audience. If you have not yet seen this movie, I strongly encourage you to – if only to see Jackie Chan do something more than joke and throw his fists at lightning speed.

It is almost a shame that he is such a hero, going quietly about his way, doing good with everything he’s got… and all he’s known for throughout most of America is Rush Hour. Why, he’s a role model and hardly anyone thinks of him that way!

But then, America doesn’t get to see this in him.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Tribute to Veterans

Intellectually, everyone understands that Veteran’s Day is to honor and salute the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. But, it takes a veteran to understand what it really means to be a Veteran, doesn’t it?

Being as I’ve never served in the Armed Forces, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to put myself on the same level as a veteran. In no way do I deserve that honor. However, there are some similarities between Veterans’ experiences and mine:

· Being far away from home. Veterans have a mission and they have a sense of kinship with their fellow soldiers, but each one of them experiences being far away from home in a very personal way. Who do they miss: a wife or fiancée, maybe a child or two (or the chance to witness their child be born), their glory days in High School, their mother and father, their car, their home? The food, the weather, smells, sights and sounds of home? Many of these things, I experience, too.
· Being alone. Even though there is a sense of community within a command, there is still a profound sense of being alone in facing their ordeal – it is a very personal experience. I too deal with being alone in facing being a foreign language teacher, even though there are many who do it alongside me.
· Being scared. Veterans had to deal with their fear in the face of the unknown, in the face of the enemy, in the face of death. They had to be strong and face these fears, and deal with them while doing their job. I too have to face my fears and deal with them while doing this job I’ve taken on, but certainly not to the caliber of Veterans who have seen combat.
· Finding small triumphs that make life bearable. If you listen to a Veteran speak, he or she will seldom, if ever, talk about the horror they witnessed or the negative things they had to deal with. Instead they like to talk about their small triumphs, such as figuring out a way to make a savory meal out of dehydrated food, or how they managed to entertain themselves in spite of abysmal living conditions and the terror that gnawed at them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is just human nature to find the positive in any situation, after all. If you’ve been reading this blog, you will find that I too use humor as a defense mechanism, downplay the bad and gloat over small triumphs.
· Once they return, having difficulty assimilating themselves back into the life they left behind. After strange sights in foreign lands, maybe even witnessing unspeakable acts many Veterans have a hard time resuming the life they had left behind, once they return to it. Yet it is expected of them to simply come back and pick up where they left off - being fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends, neighbors, fellows at Church… just as they always were. I do not know anything about this as I’ve not yet returned. However, it is said that even Peace Corps volunteers are so profoundly changed that they cannot go back to the life they lived before serving. I anticipate my return to the States – even for a visit, to show me that this adventure of mine will have the same effect.

Again, please do not misunderstand me: in no way am I comparing myself to the Service Men and Women who have fought for everything America stands for. The idea is simply for me to illustrate that I understand Veterans so much better now.

Many Veterans I know are profound, compassionate and artistic. They tend to want to see and create beauty and harmony around them, after witnessing discord and ugliness for a time during their lives. Many are intellectually gifted after witnessing firsthand the senselessness of violence. Many are quiet and introverted, knowing that they could never expose the depth of their feelings to the average civilian – ye average Joe just wouldn’t get it. Many are tender and loving, as they understand hatred and harshness in a way no civilian can.

Devoted father and gifted with an ear for music, this fine, upstanding young Veteran startles nearly comically at loud noises. This man has seen combat and heard one too many artillery shells explode close to his camp. He will probably never be able to hear a sudden, loud noise without remembering the gritty feel of sand abrading his face and the intense heat of the desert. My friend, I salute you.

There is a certain refined gentleman I know who cultivates vegetables and likes to read in the comfort of his study. But, if pressed to it, he would tell about savoring a pizza cooked in a salvaged toaster oven, and how his fellow soldiers would come over and borrow his oven. He never bartered or gained from having the only oven in camp; he shared freely and willingly. My friend, I am honored to know you.

Mild mannered and light-hearted, profoundly in love with his wife… to see him, you would think he is just an average Civil Servant: middle aged, children grown, counting the years until he can retire and draw his pension. No one knows that his basement is a workshop wherein he creates objects of stunning beauty and functionality. Marrying the two concepts together, he generously gifts his family and adorns his home with the creations his mind dreams up. My friend, your beauty humbles me.

And the list goes on. Their names live in my mind and their eyes burn in my memory. Eyes that give a glimpse of what they’ve seen and what they hide, what they carry inside them and how they balance their current life so gracefully against memories and feelings they might not ever get over.

A Veteran is not just a person who fought for America. A Veteran is a culmination of achievement, courage, overcoming and strength. A Veteran embodies everything that is good and right about being human, and never once do they gloat or brag about it. A Veteran is someone who doesn’t ask anyone for reimbursement for everything they sacrificed, most of which is invisible to the naked eye or the untrained heart.

So, if you feel inconvenienced by rerouted traffic because of that Veteran’s Day parade, or because the bank and Post Office are closed, please don’t think of Veterans with scorn, derision and incomprehension. Take a minute to think of Veterans as the embodiment of what we civilians have yet to learn and understand. Give them their due this one day, even though they deserve accolades and tributes every day.

Even though they deserve accolades and tributes every day, they wouldn’t expect or accept them… and THAT is the essence of being a Veteran.

Victor’s Birthday Party

Yesterday was Victor’s birthday. To my great surprise, he came knocking on my door to inform me of that, and to invite me to his party. In my mind, that made up for the perceived snub of earlier this week when he and Sam went drinking without me, and was the perfect antidote to my peevish feelings, which I unfortunately subjected you to in my last post. My apologies for that, by the way.

The party started at 6:30 and all of his students were invited. They had come by the previous evening and decorated his apartment with balloons, garlands and lights. It looked really quite festive and promised a good time.

Victor came by my place again just after 6:00 to ask if I was ready to make my appearance as there were already some students there, preparing food. I quickly prepared a plate of treats and headed next door. As promised, the evening was quite fun: it started off well and only got better.

There was a gorgeous, 3-tiered cake, of which I was served a more than generous slice. The cake formed a centerpiece of assorted finger foods, everything from cookies and crackers to fruit. Everyone sang happy birthday, and then there was music and dancing.

Oh, how I danced! I danced the whole 3 hours! All of the girls wanted me to teach them how to dance, so I showed them some basic moves. Some of the girls were naturals, and others couldn’t quite get the moves down but had fun anyway. How delightful! There were only a few guys there and hardly any of them danced; only Tristan danced with his girlfriend. The other guys claimed they were too shy. They drank beer instead.

And Victor? He ate, drank, danced, cut up and served the cake. It was his party after all, he kind of had to do all of those things. It appears he was having a great time.

If this were a visual story – something like a movie, the camera would freeze-frame on Victor and a narrator would start talking about him. Imagine that as I narrate.

From the day I met him, Victor struck me as a very arrogant man. Standoffish, certainly, but also arrogant in banking his previous experience as a teacher against my novice status and the fact that he has lived in Wuhan for 4 years as opposed to my recent arrival. There has been no attempt on his part to help acclimate me to either the city or to teaching, nor has there been any show of solidarity toward me. Rather, he made it perfectly clear that he had his life and this gig at this college was only something so he could relax and take it easy from all of the other, more demanding aspects of his life. In short, Victor threw up barriers before even ascertaining there was a need for them.

However, he is perfectly OK with blasting music in his apartment so loud I can hear it in my apartment, even with the windows and doors closed. Fortunately, he is only on campus on the days he teaches, from Wednesday to Friday. My opinion on his arrogance is formed partly by his apparent opinion that everyone should listen to Michael Jackson everyday and by his attitude toward me.

Ok, let’s go back to the party, shall we?

I suspect it was only because I live right next door and would have heard the party that Victor invited me. No, I’m not being whiny and peevish again. Here’s the reason I say that: as a birthday gift, I suggested taking him out to lunch. He stated he had already had some lunch, but suggested we go tomorrow. He confirmed our lunch arrangements while I helped him clean up after the party.

When I knocked on his door today at the appointed time, ready to take him to lunch, I got no answer. “That’s odd” I thought… “I’ll give him a few more minutes to get back from class…” even though class had ended 20 minutes prior. When I went knocking again some time later, I heard him moving around in his apartment, but he did not answer the door. Now I’m starting to get a sense of deja vu. At 1:00, a full hour after our appointed time to lunch, I knocked for the third time and last time; still no answer.

The déjà vu feeling was right on the mark: let’s just say this is not the first time this has happened to me (as I whined about in the previous post). I know when I’m being snubbed. I went on with the rest of my day, fairly unperturbed at Victor’s seeming rudeness. I considered it par for the course, really. I’ve been treated to this exact same behavior from men in America, Germany, and now in China by a man from South Africa.

Sometimes it seems that many people read or expect something more than what is being offered, doesn’t it? My intent was only to celebrate Victor’s birthday by treating him to a lunch at a restaurant I’m sure he didn’t know a thing about. How am I sure? Because of a humorous story one of my students told me about him asking his students where he could get good food. It seems he was tired of eating at this one particular restaurant up the road. The restaurant I was going to take him to is tucked away in the neighborhood near campus, not on the main street. Even Sam didn’t know about that particular eatery when I took him there, and he has been teaching at this school for 6 years.

What did Victor make of my intentions? I have no right to presume what he thought, but his actions indicate that he felt he had to throw a barrier up, and quickly.

Later this evening, some students came by to ask for help with a speech that would be given in a competition later this month. First they stopped by Victor’s apartment – the speech-giver is Victor’s student, after all. He apparently sent the girls to my place, and I was happy to help them (but not necessarily happy that my apartment was being intruded on again). While the girls were here, Victor came by with a soccer ball in his hand and apologized to me for missing the scheduled lunch. He said he just came home from class and passed out, and now he was going to play soccer (while his student was in my apartment, beseeching me for help!). I knew he did not just pass out because I had heard him moving around in his apartment, but graciously did not mention that. Neither did I see a point in extending another lunch invitation because I noted that he did not suggest we try another day, and his body language literally screamed ‘stay away from me!’ At least now I know not to hold my breath waiting for him to help me with anything.

But if there were any point to it, I would have told him: “Relax, Victor, it was just a lunch. I wasn’t offering to bear your children.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

“I Went Drinking with Victor!”

Well, I didn’t go out drinking with Victor. I was told this by Sam this morning as I headed off to class, when he handed me my questionnaire for the Chinese census. Yay! I’ve been ‘censused’ twice this year!

Sam’s declaration gave me pause. Sam, my sponsor, and Victor, my fellow foreign teacher, the only two English speakers on campus and in this part of Wuhan, went out last night… and I wasn’t invited? What’s wrong with this picture?

OK. Before I go on with this, let me declare that in no way do I expect everyone to like me or want to be around me. I’m well aware that there are people all over the world that go out together and don’t check in with me or invite me to go. I’m perfectly OK with that. But, in this closed community, where I spend the majority of my time alone, sequestered in my apartment… the only two people who might provide some relief for my isolation - indeed have expressed concern over it, go out together and don’t invite me?

Let’s think about this. I’ve talked to Sam and Victor both about my frustration at being held prisoner due to being female in a world where females are not supposed to go out alone. They have both expressed concern over it; Victor has even gone so far as to mention that perhaps he should take me around and show me some places where I might make friends. Thus, in my mind, they are both aware of my isolation.

I’m guessing that, being as women can’t go out alone after dark or smoke in public, they probably can’t drink in public, either. Being as Sam and Victor were drinking, they might not have extended an invitation to me because I wouldn’t have been able to partake anyway. That is considerate. But they both know I’m alone, and maybe they could have come by my apartment to have a drink or two? Not that I’m an avid drinker, but they both know I am capable of having a drink; they both witnessed me partaking of beer at that luncheon we had when the school year first started. It would have been hard for them to miss me drinking: I was sitting right between them.

There is also the small factor of age and gender difference. I have at least 10 years on Victor, and I’m old enough to be Sam’s mother. There’s a really good chance that, socially, we would not fit because of our age gap. And, I’m just not a guy. When guys go out drinking, they don’t necessarily want a girl tagging along. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t invited. I can accept that… but shouldn’t we try, first? I just might be a lot of fun to be around.

I keep wondering about this. OK, so they went out together and I wasn’t invited. There is no law that says Sophia must be invited on all outings. But considering my near complete lack of social contact, and their having expressed concern over that, might it not have been a consideration? Maybe not: those who have drinking on their minds seldom make room for anything or anyone else. I can accept that.

What I really don’t understand is why Sam would tell me about it. In the spirit of friendship? To include me, even after the fact? As a confidence? To let me know he wasn’t on his toes to teach today? Did he not think that it would hurt me?

It did hurt me. I instantly felt like that poor child who finds out everyone in the neighborhood went to a party and she's the only one that didn’t get to go. That feeling is intensified because of my near complete isolation here, and the knowledge that Sam and Victor are the closest I come to the possibility of having any social contact in this remote place (besides my computer and all the friends I talk with in the States, that is). Of course, Sam doesn’t know a thing about my background, therefore he couldn’t know it would hurt me. But still, wouldn’t it cross his mind that talking to someone about a deliberate exclusion of that someone would somehow affect him or her?

Honestly, I am really nonplussed over this.

I guess that it doesn’t help that this type of situation has been going on all of my life. More often that I care to count I have felt left out… because of actually being left out. I don’t know why I get left out. Is there something fundamentally un-friendable about me? Am I sending out signals that convey ‘do not disturb’? Is there something I’m doing or not doing that makes people walk a wide path around me?

I have invited Sam to lunch twice and both times he has accepted, and he seemed to enjoy my company. I have knocked on Victor’s door, offered him home made soup and helped him with his drain, so it is not like I never reach out to him, either.

I don’t know.

As I mentioned in the Continuum III post, I came here to try to find the answer to this question. It seems I am no closer to finding it now than I have been in my near half-century on this earth. How can I learn to be social if I’m not invited anywhere or included in anything? Do I always have to forge my own path, and risk rejection – which, incidentally has also been plentiful in my life?

I just don’t know.

In the meantime, the catty part of me hopes both Sam and Victor have nasty hangovers. Serves them right for going out and drinking.

The little girl who just wants to go to the party like everyone else is crying.

I’ll leave you to figure out who is predominant right now.

Shelin Passed!

Loyal readers of this blog will remember the student I mentioned a few posts back – in Bad Day or Awakening, whose mother was dissuading her from taking the IELTS test by telling her daughter that her English was not good enough. Occasional readers now have a point of reference and can go back and read that post so that this one will make sense.

That student’s name is Shelin. She is a beautiful, intelligent woman with very specific goals: she wishes to go to Graduate School in Hong Kong so that she can seek a career in the travel industry. Specifically she wants to work on cruise ships. Shelin has no desire to marry and have children; instead she wishes to see how far her own accomplishments can take her. She is the epitome of young Chinese women today. She realizes she has choices and chances, and she wants to take advantage of every one of them.

Perhaps her lack of desire to marry and have a child scared her mother into convincing Shelin her English was not good enough to aspire to such a life.

All over China this conundrum exists. ‘Traditional’ parents despair over the fact that their children are marrying later and postponing having children, if they even have a child at all. Grown children, although well aware that they embody the hopes and dreams and future security of their parents, still seek to establish themselves and pursue their own dreams. This is a huge problem, one that was not foreseen when the one-child policy was enacted in 1979.

A little bit of background: during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when the Chinese were forced to abandon a bourgeois lifestyle and live in communes to produce food and develop industry, the leaders of this country noted that feeding the masses would be progressively more difficult if the population kept growing at the rate it was then growing. With only 7% of the world’s arable land feeding 20% of the world’s population, they foresaw disaster looming. It took 21 years to hit upon a solution to this dilemma: each family should only produce one child. Thus the one-child policy was born (pardon the pun).

As we now know, this policy has also revealed itself to be a disaster. With many families preferring a male heir to carry on the family name, baby girls were either killed at or shortly after birth, or, with the advent of amneosynthesis, aborted so that the parents could try again to get their coveted male child. To counter that, the Chinese government then outlawed amneosynthesis for the purpose of abortion and instituted what is called the Spring Thunder Project, a plan that pays dividends and gives incentives to parents of baby girls.

Over the years, parents have come to realize that having a girl child is actually better social security for them than a male child. Not only does the female not take her husband’s name when marrying in China, but there is now the option of according the grandchild its mother’s name. It is not a popular choice, I grant you, but at least this way the parents of baby girls have the hope that their name will live on. Another reason that having a daughter is better than having a son: females are more apt to care for elderly parents than are males.

One manifestation of the one-child policy is that now, there is a dearth of marriageable girls and all of the males of marriage age are scrambling to find a bride and bring honor to their family. Add to that the fact that women have more options and choices than ever before, and even fewer marriages are taking place in this highly populous country.

Now we come back to Shelin, the embodiment of her parents’ hopes and dreams. They are ‘Traditional Chinese’: they want their daughter to marry and they want a grandchild. Shelin resists the idea. They are at loggerheads about it.

So you can imagine that, when I met Shelin’s parents I expected a certain amount of venom for helping their daughter go contrary to their dreams. What I got instead was a warm and generous reception. I just keep on being surprised in my dealings here!

Shelin’s parents are both doctors. They live in a fine home with many luxuries. The first time I visited there the maid was cleaning house while Mom and Grandfather cooked dinner. Dad was away at a conference in Beijing and I did not get to meet him. The dinner was plentiful and tasty, and I was given the leftovers to take home.

Imagine my surprise, a few days later when I boiled that leftover chicken to make soup with and fished the chicken’s head and feet out of the pot! I nearly squealed in horror, and then giggled at the idea that I might have encountered that chicken head while dining with Shelin and her family. What would my reaction have been? I can’t even imagine.

Now that Shelin passed her test, her parents felt compelled to treat me to a meal in a fine restaurant, to thank me for tutoring their daughter into passing this exam. Unfortunately I did not know we were going to eat in a fine restaurant, so I set off to Shelin’s house wearing blue jeans and a random sweater… and of course, muddy shoes. In spite of my bum’s attire, they kept with their plan of fine dining instead of treating me to a bowl of noodles at a vendor’s stall – which would have been perfectly acceptable and more than was necessary.

What a sumptuous meal we had! There was roast beef and roast donkey (not bad tasting), dumplings, a pork and egg dish, raw vegetables, salad, a fine soup made of pork bones and lotus root. Deep-fried pumpkin stuffed with red bean paste, followed by sliced watermelon rounded out the menu. We drank tea and watermelon juice and tried to communicate over the language barrier. Shelin became our interpreter and our cell phones, equipped with translation software, saw hefty use during those three hours. Shelin’s father paid over 400Yuan for that meal. I nearly fell out of my chair at the cost of it.

After dinner they invited me to see their new apartment, as yet unfinished. It overlooks the Yangtze River, and you can see Hankou, the ‘happening’ part of Wuhan from their 11-th floor balcony. They confided that they are not going to move there anytime soon as they are already comfortable in the apartment they currently inhabit, which is very close to the hospital where they both work. I did not have the vocabulary to ask why they have this new apartment, and I still wonder why. An investment, maybe?

All while this merriment was going on, I was trying to figure out how to gift Shelin’s parents the humble bottle of wine I had brought them. I had originally thought to just set it on their mantle with the rest of their wine bottles, but I never entered their house. Finally, while in the car driving home, I asked Shelin how best to give them this gift. She said I should just give it to them, so I did. They refused it.

Apparently it is acceptable to refuse a gift in China, especially seeing as it is also acceptable to ask about how much money one makes. That was one of the dinner table questions I fielded and in Dad’s opinion, I do not make near enough money for my skill level. That was why they were compelled to refuse my gift and ply me with leftovers and gifts of their own.

It is difficult for me to accept all of this goodwill and veneration. How could I possibly pay them back or return the gesture, other than learning Chinese really quickly so we can have decent conversation?

Any suggestions?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Foreigners! Foreigners EVERYWHERE!

As you may recall, whilst partaking of pizza in my search for Metro I met some foreigners. It seems there is a Canadian/International school called Maple Leaf somewhere in Wuhan, and they hire all kinds of Canadian people. Of course, the only two I met were Terran and Christy. But I am bolstered by the idea that I am not quite the only foreigner (besides Victor, my colleague) in this city.

What I haven’t disclosed to you is that Optic Valley was also full of foreigners. Well, not exactly FULL of foreigners, but there are more certainly foreigners running around in that corner of Wuhan than my corner. I have withheld that information from you for a reason, which I will soon divulge. But first, a little bit of background:

While living in America I worked what most people call the Swing shift – from 2:30 in the afternoon until 11:00 o’clock at night. This is a work schedule tailor-made for me, a night owl who likes to sleep in. And while I genuinely enjoyed spending time with my work mates and sometimes shared very deep conversations with several of them, the bottom line is we were work mates and after the clock struck that time they went their way and I went mine.

In essence this was not a bad arrangement. I, the painfully introverted one, had just enough contact with people during the week to carry me though the weekend and, come time to resume the work week I was again ready and eager to meet up with my crew. However, it niggled in the back of my mind that I essentially had no other life than work and solitary pursuits. Over time, that really started bothering me.

True enough I had friends outside of work. Wonderful, patient, understanding friends. But the stress and pressure and demands of my working life robbed me of any desire to be around friends during my free time. I needed both my days off just to regain my balance and recharge my batteries for the oncoming week’s demands. Bless my friends who are so understanding and for pretty much leaving me alone!

Alone. That is what I’ve been here. You see, I anticipated having fellow foreigner teachers and fellow English teachers here at the school to socialize a bit with. I was looking forward to occasionally inviting people over and playing Scrabble or other games, or going out for a meal, or having people to go sightseeing with. With the absence of intensity that my job in America brought, I felt I could handle a bit of socializing while still being my introverted self. And, if you remember from the Continuum III post a while back, that is one of the things I came here to find out: see if I was capable of being a bit social.

Instead, I’ve had a bevy of students with whom communication is sometimes a challenge. A point to contend with is that the students’ English is not at the level that one can have a solid, fulfilling conversation with. To say nothing about the fact that the students are about 25 years younger than I am and their focus and interests are decidedly different than mine, or of many grownups.

My other chance at socializing, besides my students or other teachers would be to learn Chinese really, REALLY quickly so that I could have conversation with Chinese people. Although it might have been possible, it hasn’t happened in the last 3 months I’ve been here.

I now see how it is possible for a person to go insane from lack of human contact and social interaction. Especially these past three months, when I’ve been essentially confined to my apartment unless I was fulfilling some school function. And even though I did venture out during this period and have been around people, there as been virtually no social contact.

If you’re interested in reading a case study of this topic written during the 1800’s, I urge you to read the essay titled The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which beautifully illustrates the concept of insanity, brought on by isolation. You can simply google either the title or the author and it will pop right up for you to read.

At this point, I pay tribute to everyone who has been faithfully corresponding with me, to everyone who has downloaded Skype and chatted with me, to everyone who has been following this blog and letting me know how they feel about these adventures of mine. Please let me take a moment to thank you for staying in touch, for putting up with my long, rambling emails and for wading through my even longer blog posts. You have been a lifeline of sanity for me in a world otherwise devoid of social contact. This is said with no facetiousness whatsoever: I am perfectly sincere in thanking you for keeping me sane.

Now I can tell you why meeting foreigners at Optic Valley was such a milestone. First: I found out many of them feel just as disoriented and disconnected as I do. Second: all of us ‘expats’ need this social contact, no matter how comfortable we feel amongst Chinese people or with the Chinese language. Third: we share a sense of kinship that is difficult to explain to someone who has never felt so disconnected.

Enter Carrie Ann, a lovely woman from Canada who has been teaching in various foreign countries for the past 8 years. She is very blasé about things as she flits around from country to country, free as a bird. She is younger than I am with no thoughts of retirement being just over the horizon… unlike me.

And then there is Becky, whom I met very briefly on the way to Optic Valley. Becky has lived in Wuhan for 6 years and says she loves it here… conclusively proving that I must indeed be missing something about this city. She seems a bit more down to earth than Carrie Ann.We exchanged contact information just as my bus got to its stop so we didn’t get to talk very much, but I intend to call her next weekend to see if she is free to meet for a meal.

Finally there is Wilfred and his wife who are from the Ivory Coast in Africa. They are both polyglots, speaking English, French and Chinese. They are both students at the Hubei Province University. I have to confess that Wilfred makes me a bit uncomfortable; he seems a bit more forward than I’m prepared to deal with – and more than his wife seems to like him to be. However, with them I do have the chance to practice my French skills. We’ll have to see what happens.

Does meeting all of these expats mean my devotion to my friends in America will lessen? Not one bit! There will still be rich emails flowing back and forth, genuine sentiment included. There will still be a blog for me to write and for you to read. I just hope that soon, some of those blog entries might include something along the lines of “I just got back from dinner with…”.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Up until now I had been a good University employee. Because of that rule that said women cannot go out unescorted at night, I either sat around and waited for an escort – at great personal expense, something I covered in previous entries. Or I stayed at home – also something I covered in previous entries.

This little rebellion of mine, the one that started on the day I planted myself in the mud in front of the whole neighborhood and then subsequently refused to participate in English Corner… this little rebellion of mine is not quite done, I fear.

As I look out my barred windows I see women walking on campus alone. Not many, I grant you but some. And I wonder: why am I staying at home night after night while it is OK for these women to walk around unescorted?

Probably because they are not contractually bound to a certain set of archaic rules.

But am I? Am I really? The idea is to be a good role model for the students; nothing says I have to stay at home all the time. And neither the campus nor the student body comprises the entire city of Wuhan. I can be out and about in the city and return after the students are safely tucked into their dorms. Sam even agreed to my suggestion about returning home after the students are in their dorm.

But what if I don’t want to stay out until after 11:00PM?

No, I’ve decided that it is perfectly OK for me to come home at 8 or 9PM. The buses stop running at 9PM, so, if necessary I can explain the situation to school officials… just before they fire me. It is worth a try, right?

Besides: if being a good role model means being an example of modern, progressive womanhood, then am I not setting a good example by being independent? That argument probably won’t fly if I’m ever called on the carpet about my being out after dark unescorted. I’ve decided to take my chances; I might never actually get called on the carpet about being out after dark alone.

Therefore, one breezy afternoon, I went out to Lu Xiang Square (pronounced Loo She-ang) just to have a look around. It is also known as Optic Valley for some reason I haven’t been able to find out. I had heard so much about it and wanted to see it for myself. As promised it was busy, thronging with people, full of things to see and do. Matter of fact, there is so much to see and do there that, by the time I was finished exploring a monstrously large mall and stepped outside again, night had fallen.

I was enchanted! There was a light show playing on one of the buildings. Another building, a geode with a plain glass facing by day turned into a giant television screen playing music videos at night. The square itself, a traffic circle with billowing tent awnings amidst landscaping floored me with its multicolored lights. And everywhere… EVERYWHERE there were people! This was Wuhan at night: something I had only glimpsed one time from a bus window, and guiltily at that. Now I was out, enjoying it.

I walked down a well-lit boulevard, taking in the night air and the scene, all while experiencing a sense of freedom I had not felt for months. The street vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalk impeded foot traffic, just as I remembered from previous night outings on prior visits to China. Artists put on their shows and people stopped to gape at them. Rare and exotic offerings from the various food stalls tempted my palate, but I was perfectly willing to stop short of sampling fried scorpions in order to find a nice restaurant to have a meal in.

Grandma’s Kitchen! Ah, now if that doesn’t sound like someplace you’d want to eat at on your first night of rule-breaking, I don’t know what would be. Drawn in by that irresistible name, I ate Western food for the first time since arriving here. Western food not prepared by me, that is. And it was quite delicious! It even felt a little bit naughty to eat sour cream again.

It was already going on 9 PM by the time I left the restaurant, and the air was a bit chilly. Also, the crowds were thinning; this was a weeknight after all. I decided to walk a little more and treat myself to a taxi ride home.

I should mention here that taxi fares are extremely reasonable in China: if the car doesn’t move due to traffic, neither does the meter. That time of night the traffic was not as snarled, so I was looking forward to a nice ride home and didn’t anticipate more than a 20Yuan fare. My guess was close: the actual fare was 21.60Yuan.

I arrived home just before 10PM. The taxi could not drive to the campus gate due to construction so I had to walk the small street that led back to campus from the main road, which wasn’t a problem. There were a few students out, but they were mostly male students. I only saw one female and she was in the company of her boyfriend and they were ahead of me, so they did not see me. See? I’m not setting a bad example for the female students!

That sense of freedom and elation stayed with me even after I turned the key, admitting myself back into my former prison. Not so much a prison, now that I can come and go at will! Maybe now I will start thinking of it as home.

At 10:30 the dorm monitor locked the gates to the building. Being as I was keyed up from my first nighttime outing, I was still in my living room when, a few minutes later, I heard banging and a desperate cry. It seems one of the students that lives in this dorm stayed out too late and got locked out. She was banging on the gates and yelling to be let in, even though it was after curfew.

Who is flouting rules now???

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hit My Stride

Some days, you wake up and everything works perfectly. Today is one of those days. Actually, this week has been one of those weeks.

I think I’ve finally hit my stride in the classroom.

I still have no resources, no guidance and no help but I think I’ve found a way to reach my kids and engage them, and keep them engaged. It was just a matter of time, really. That, and a few pretty severe anxiety dreams.

The first order of business was keeping a journal. I now have a journal for each of my 4 classes so that I can plan lessons, make notes and maintain some sort of continuity in what I’m doing with each group I teach. The second step was giving an honest assessment of my students in each class: not all Sophomores are on the same page and not all Freshmen need induction into the language. For example:

My Monday Sophomores are a very enthusiastic bunch. Some of them are quite the hams, enjoying acting and staging little skits. The assignment: reading body language. They were to plan a skit and act it out so that the rest of us could guess the outcome by reading their body language.

Chris is a wonderful actress! Her skit demonstrated not only how one can go from downtrodden to uplifted to righteous (all in 5 minutes or less, mind you), but also the importance of doing the right thing. Orange (I did not give her her English name; she came to class with it) always plays it so quiet and cool, but she really enjoys these games where she gets to demonstrate her superior intellect, something she should rightfully be proud of.

The key to all of these little games is that I can tie whatever appears to be nonsense I bring to the classroom to their future as businessmen and women. They are seeing that learning does not necessarily mean learning by rote; it can be fun and inventive and creative too. And they are so enjoying it! Especially now that they are over the shock of being assigned little games where they can put their personality into things. I hope I can continue to build this learning community with them, and carry it over into my other classes.

What a wonderful feeling to hit that groove and know you’re on the right path!

That student who turned up at my door: we have worked out a way to make the most of the tutoring sessions. Shelin has confided that her biggest difficulty is listening and understanding English; after a few sessions with her I had to disagree. Her biggest problem is self-confidence: her mother keeps telling her that she should not aspire to graduate school because her skills are so poor. If you start out with that kind of validation, how in the world can you aspire to anything good? No wonder this poor girl’s confidence was shaken!

Shelin is now conversing fluently in English. With a little bit of positive reinforcement that she well deserves because her English skills are anything but poor, she is now spouting English like a native! Well… that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but she is now most comfortable thinking and conversing in English and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she will do well on her test.

Unfortunately, she has passed word around to the rest of the student who are studying for that entrance exam, and now I have more students who are requesting individual tutoring. I have to draw a line somewhere; that somewhere is two extra students to tutor. I have learning of my own still to do.

Drawing that line between what I think the school wants me to do and what I am prepared to do is one of those things I had to learn. Fortunately the two are close: the school does not expect me to dedicate my life to teaching, and even taking on two students to tutor is more than expected. I’m really glad to hear that.

And what about getting around town? Here too I’m more comfortable. I have located retail outlets where I can shop more or less comfortably and I’m definitely more comfortable riding around town on the buses by myself. I’m starting to trust the little bit of Chinese I speak, and the more transactions I successfully negotiate on my own, the more confident I become.

Are you hearing the theme to the Mary Tyler Moore Show whispering in the background? “We’re going to make it after all!”

Do I belong in China? That’s still a question I do not have an answer for, being perfectly honest with myself (and with you).

I still can’t imagine myself being anywhere else. When I’m out and about and all I see are shiny black heads bobbing down the street (mounted of svelte, trim bodies, of course – they’re not just random little bobbing heads!) I do not feel strange at all. I try to recall what it feels like to drive a car, to hear only English everywhere I go, to see people of different complexions – in short: to be in America, and I can’t seem to. Maybe these few short months have I have completely acclimated to being here. But do I belong here? Only time will tell.

Time, and maybe going back to the States for a visit.

But for now, no more panic at being in charge of 4 classrooms. No more panic at finding food I’m comfortable eating. No more frustration at being hemmed into a life I didn’t envision when I was dreaming of living here.

I’ve hit my stride.