Tuesday, December 27, 2011

When the Meter Runs Out

Some with a philosophical bent tend to use that phrase as a metaphor for someone’s time among the living being up. Others use it as a ‘whistling past the graveyard’ expression: invoking the concept of death itself by any term that directly refers to death seems to imply they are ‘bringing it on’, as it were, so they opt for analogies. Those who think more pragmatically would interpret this phrase as: you have parked your car at the curb and now you must run back out and put more change in the meter. I wonder what it calls to mind for you?

In my case, I am referring to my electrical meter.

In all of my travels and all of my wanderings I’ve never heard of prepaid electricity… have you?

A few posts back (Heat!) I informed you that since living here I’ve not been charged for utilities. Presumably the developer of this area had not yet hired a management company so I was living here free of utility charges. I operated under that assumption because A. that’s what Sam told me and B. I used to have to sign a usage statement. I’ll get to that in a minute.

By sheer coincidence – well, not really. It was because the pavement had been dug up to finish running the gas lines that I had to adopt a new route in and out of the complex. Whereas before I was cutting across the complex, between the admin buildings and out to the main road, that avenue is now blocked so I take the road leading directly to/from my apartment to get to the main road. And there, in the building right next to mine, at the second stairwell entrance hangs a discreet sign: “Property Management LTD.”

Ok, so now we have a property manager. Since when? And have they started charging me for utilities yet? I don’t usually get informed of those things. The school manages such mundane things as utilities payment for me.

While living in the Concrete Bunker, around the 26th of each month Sam came around with a statement detailing our utility usage. Victor initialed by his summary of charges and I initialed by mine. The meters were easy to read because they were analog and in fact, the water meters were in our respective bathrooms. My utility charges were always higher than Victor’s because I actually live in my apartment but he tends to indulge himself while on campus. He runs the A/C to the max so his charges are actually pretty close to mine.

In this apartment the meters are digital. Both meters – water and electrical are in the stairwell. They are tamperproof – I made sure of that. So here I’ve been living, fat dumb and happy, waiting for a utilities charge. That is when Sam gave me the previous explanation: I’m living here for free.

Apparently I’m not living here for free, as previously asserted. It seems now the deal is that the school advances 1000Yuan from my pay for electricity charges. Once the meter calculates that prepaid amount it shuts itself out and it’s G’night, Irene! Whether I’m ready to say good night or not.

I can hear your next question: how could I not miss 1,000Yuan out of my pay? Well, I’ve not been to the bank in a while. I’ve received my travel allowance for the summer and have been living off that since I’ve been here. And, whereas I used to check my bank balance online, now I do not have internet access and I am NOT going to log into my bank account from the internet bar’s computers. I have a vague idea of how much money should be in my bank account and, the last time I checked it was pretty close to what was actually there.

Another factor: I get paid 4,400Yuan a month. Two hundred Yuan is earmarked for utilities usage so, when I calculate my pay I just calculate it at 4,000Yuan – a nice, round number. Thus, 4,000 times the three months I’ve been drawing salary since I’ve been back, added to what I had in the bank before I left this summer and… yep! Pretty close to what’s in there now.

That’s how I can justify not missing 1,000Yuan from my pay. That, and the fact that I no longer have to sign a summary of charges.

However, I can honestly say that Sam was derelict in telling me how my utilities would paid while living here, but there’s a really good chance he didn’t know. I can attest to his not knowing because last night, after power was restored to the building and mine went out approximately 15 minutes later I called him. He came over in a jif and got on the phone with somebody… not sure who. Ten minutes later, after I had resigned myself to sleeping without bed heaters and waking up at 6AM to the prospect of no hot tea and getting ready for class in the dark, he knocked on the door and let me know that is how things work now.

So now, apparently I have to watch my electric meter for usage up to… say… 900, and then let Sam know that I’m nearing my prepaid limit so the school can debit 1,000Yuan from my pay. Or does the property management company monitor my meter and let the school know when I’m getting close?

I’m not really sure. Last night, when the lights went out it was nearly 10PM and Sam, on campus for the first of his three nights here was already in bed when I roused him with my distress call. I could tell he was not thrilled at having to get out of bed after just falling asleep and trudging down 5 flights of stairs, braving the cold to investigate my meter and then engage in an official phone call that lasted nearly 15 minutes. And then he had the unpleasant task of informing me that, Yes, I will be cold all night long. His final chore for the night was sending me a text message telling me he placed a 2-liter thermos of hot water by my door so that I could at least wash my face and have a hot cup of tea in the morning.

That last he did out of the goodness of his heart. The rest was his duty. Doesn’t mean I didn’t feel bad for the poor, puffy-eyed man who had to get out of bed and go out in below freezing temps.

There is irony in this story. There almost has to be, for me to write about it so extensively.

Remember when I told you that I had lent Sam my space heater (see Heat). And, he is the one that took me shopping for bed heaters, thus providing me with the greatest armament of good sleep in the harsh China winters. So there he is, the one that is supposed to make sure I am safe and comfortable, enjoying a warm bed and a heated apartment on the fifth floor while I…

While I, in my first floor apartment shivered my way through Wuhan’s coldest night yet with no bed heaters and a chilled apartment (temp upon waking: 51 degrees).

I did not sleep well but I just LOVE irony!

Old Fashioned Christmas

‘Tis the Season, so of course I’m writing a lot about Christmas. As I cannot wrap my arms around you and share the sights, sounds, smells and feelings you experience I share my experiences with you through my words. Consider that my Christmas gift to you.

I was thinking about this post on the way back from class today. I spent this morning teaching the kids the song Country Roads as an intro to their going home after their final exam on December 26th. Maybe I should have taught them a Christmas carol, but… if ever there was a song that talks about the love for one’s home and the longing to be there, that one is it. Don’t you think so? And where best to be for Christmas than home, with the ones you love and who love you?

All of my kids will be going home after finals. And, because Christmas here does not have the same meaning as in the West, singing about going home was the better thing to do.

How many of you have gone to the stores and seen Christmas decorations as early as mid-October… and gotten frustrated with the commercialism of it all? How many of you thought, the day after Thanksgiving: “Well, I guess it is time to drag the tree out of the attic again and dig out those ornaments” or maybe something simpler, like: “here we go again: Christmas time”. How many of you are exasperated by the long lines around the stores on Black Friday, stressing about what to buy for who, and debating whether to brave those crowded shops or buy online and let the Post Office do the work? The Post Office would really appreciate that, by the way. If you have the option of selecting a shipper when you shop online, please select USPS. They’re ready for your business; I guarantee it.

Amidst the rounds of parties, the stress of shopping, the joy or perhaps the aggravation of reunions and maybe that ol’ ‘here we go again’ feeling… well, I guess what I’m wondering is: is there anything new about Christmas for you? Is there any magic left? Any wonderment or awe or reverence?

For me there is, and not because of my students. Well, maybe not directly because of them.

You see, whether freshman or sophomore, every single kid in every one of my classes longs for one thing and one thing only this time of year: to go home. They simply cannot wait to go home! They want to see their parents and their grandparents, they want to hear what has happened and see what has changed in their absence and they want to regale their family with tales of their life. Those who have a part time job and are earning their own money want to shower their family with gifts.

And they are not shy about expressing their feeling. It shines from every ounce of their being: radiating from their eyes, reflected in their smiles and relayed in their body language as they recount their most precious memories of home.

I remember telling you, back in September that I wondered what I could spend this year writing about. Nearly all of my ‘firsts’ happened last year… first class, first time venturing out on my own, first this and first that. Well, this is now my second Christmas in China. What could be so new about it?

Lots of things.

Last year I was physically ill as well as homesick and wondering if I made the biggest mistake of my life coming here. I was flummoxed by the commercial attitude the Chinese have toward this holiday. I was lonely and wondering what to do with myself for the six weeks I had no university obligations. I didn’t have much time or heart to look around me and enjoy what was here.

I do now. And I like what I see.

Last night I hosted a Christmas party for my second group of sophomores. That’s nothing new: I hosted 4 parties last year – one for each of my classes. It was a strenuous undertaking, let me tell you! I think you remember them: The First of Four Parties, Parties 2 and 3 and Parties 4, 5 and 6 all posted in December, of course!

This year I’m only having parties for the two groups of sophomores, and I want to make them special parties. The first one, 30 Little Piggies was a lot of fun. The second one harkens back to another time, when life was simple and electricity was none.

Electricity was none?

You bet!

As for the thirty piggies, so the same menu prevailed for this next group. Early in the day I prepared the meatballs – they have to simmer all day to get a good flavor. Somewhere around 4PM I started with the congee, by 5PM I was slicing tomatoes for the egg/tomato soup, and come 6PM I was chopping chicken for Cola Chicken. And that’s when the power went out.

OH NO! That’s not good! I’m supposed to be hosting a party! Hoping against hope that this was just one of those quick drop offs and service would be restored in a few minutes I continued chopping. Understand that, come about 5PM it is already dark so… how I was chopping chicken?

I have a tea warmer. It is a lovely, clear crystal bowl with an aluminum platform to set your teapot on. You put a candle in the bowl, put the platform with goblet patterns punched out of it on the rim of the bowl and set your teapot on it. It keeps the tea warm. Maybe you’ve seen one, or even have one? It just so happens I had tea warming close to the cutting board and when the lights went out the tea warmer’s candle provided me with enough light to finish that chore by.

Marjie, the class monitor sent me a text message a few minutes later: ‘The power is out. Will we still party?’ ‘Of course! You should get here quickly while the food is still hot.’ The kids arrived 10 minutes later. Power was not restored until just before they left, at 9:30. What did we do for 3 hours in the dark?

Fortunately I have a lot of tealights for my tea warmer. Between Marjie’s text message and their arrival I ran around the house, lighting and placing tealights. When they showed up I had the pleasure of hearing their gasps of surprise at this ‘romantic’ sight: my entire apartment, candlelit. I welcomed them to their Old Fashioned Christmas Party.

Gayle and Christina dished the food out. We ate and chatted, and then sang songs. Vanessa and Carrie did a stunning duet. I sang my heart out to I Can’t Fight This Feeling, an oldie but goodie that I had listened to earlier in the day, when I had electricity to power my digital jukebox with. Bettina and Allison joined in song but Bettina was sick and they didn’t quite finish regaling us.

We got tired of singing so then we played cards. I only had Uno cards so I taught them to play Uno. They loved it! Vanessa even asked me where she could buy such a game. I decided then and there to gift them my deck.

Fortunately this was a small crowd. Most of the kids had gone home for the weekend and weren’t back on campus yet. Some, I suspect, simply didn’t want to come to the party… and that’s OK. In all there were a dozen of us, singing, swapping stories and playing by candlelight. It was a warm, intimate time, spent with good friends, with lots of laughter and love.

Just as the kids decided it was time to wrap things up the power came back on. Being as I had the house decorated and lights strung up, they got the full Christmas effect only as they were leaving. Instantly the cameras and cellphones popped out and, like tourists, they took pictures of everything. And of me, and them with me and me with them and I took a picture of all of them together. A few final words – us expressing our love for one another, something that is done freely and openly here, and out the door they went, chatting and laughing and shouting repeated ‘Thank You for a good Time!’ over their shoulder. Smiling, I closed the door on their retreating figures.

You have to marvel at these kids, who can make the best of anything. It’s cold outside? Wear more clothes! You’re sick? Drink more hot water! No electricity? Let’s go enjoy the party anyway! We’re all far from home? Let’s make a home for ourselves here, with one another.

It’s Christmastime? Let’s embrace our foreign teacher not just with our arms but with our heart and our spirit. After all, we get to go home. We should be ‘home’ for her. Wow. What a feeling.

Briskly I ran around the house, doing a small clean up. Turning on the bed heaters was my first act of preparing for sleep.

And that’s when the lights went out again.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cola Chicken Recipe

After reading the last entry you might be hungry to try some Cola chicken. I thought I’d share the recipe with you. Bear in mind that I seldom measure anything and generally cook by feel instead of detailed instructions so, while this recipe is as exact as I can make it I cannot tell you how many people it will serve. With that in mind, here goes:

2 LBS of chicken meat – drumlets and wings work best.

1/3 cup vegetable oil

3 garlic pods, chopped fine.

1/2 cup minced onions (or leeks. I prefer leeks)

3 TBSP light soy sauce

2 cubes chicken bouillon, ground fine

8 ounces Coca Cola

Wash and dry chicken pieces.

Heat oil in a deep skillet or wok.

Add chicken; allow it to brown (sautee works well. Do NOT cook it thoroughly!)

Add garlic, onions and bouillon. Stir to make sure chicken and condiments mix well.

Add soy sauce, again making sure all the chicken is coated.

Allow chicken to fry for 2 minutes; add Coca Cola (or Pepsi, if that is your preference)

Cover chicken and allow it to steam for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally (about every 3 minutes)

Remove lid and stir occasionally, allowing the rest of the liquid to evaporate.

Chicken is done when the Cola has turned into a thick syrup.

Best when served as soon as it is cooked.

This, along with tomato/egg soup is a Chinese favorite. I will post the recipe for tomato/egg soup next.

Congee Recipe

What are you going to do with that leftover rice from your rice with tomato and egg dish (see last post?)

Well, you could make fried rice, or you could make congee. Some regions in China do use leftover rice from the day before to make a rice soup for breakfast and they serve it with a type of fried, unsweetened doughnut. They dip the doughnut into the congee and then use the last of the doughnut to scoop the rice out of the bowl.

Here is the recipe I used to make the congee I served my kiddos during these past Christmas parties:

Leftover rice, any amount

1 small carrot, shredded

1 small potato, peeled and cubed

2TBSP garlic

1/2 cup minced onion (or leek – I prefer leeks. Did you get that idea already?)

I cube of chicken bouillon, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in a large pot (or a rice steamer, if you have one)

Stir to blend all ingredients, breaking up any clumps of rice.

Add water to a ratio of two to one. Twice as much water as you have rice/potato/carrot.

Cover and allow to simmer for an hour or more. DO NOT allow all the liquid to evaporate.

If using a rice cooker, allow to steam for approximately 30 minutes.

Congee is done when the potatoes are soft and the rice has ‘swelled’. The grains look like they are split and peeling back. You can make your congee thicker/thinner by increasing/decreasing the water amount. This dish can be reheated.

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of these recipes, and maybe even added your own variations to them. As you can see, Chinese cooking is rather simple: simple list of ingredients and short cooking times.

I am by no means an official Chinese chef so I hope no authentic Chinese chef gets offended at my assertion of their cuisine being simple and hunts me down with a meat cleaver. So I offer this claim as well:

While simple in ingredients, the prep work is strenuous but the end result is a complex blend of tastes, pleasing to the palate.

And that’s the truth!

Tomato Egg Soup

The first time I came to China I tasted a dish: rice with tomato and egg. You wouldn’t think that that combination would taste very good but it does.

This dish happens to be a signature Chinese dish. Every province that I’ve been to across this country serves it. Some eateries and/or regions prefer the eggs to be whole and hard fried while most serve it with the eggs scrambled. It has only been recently that I’ve known it to be served as a soup as well, mainly because I’ve gotten more adventurous in my dining experiences. So now I share with you the recipe for Rice with Tomato and Egg, and by proxy the Tomato/Egg soup.

6 large eggs

2 tomatoes (beef tomatoes work best)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup minced onion (or leeks – I prefer leeks)

2TBSP minced garlic

A pinch of cornstarch

Salt and pepper to taste.

In a deep skillet or wok heat the oil. Once oil is hot add garlic and onion.

When lightly brown add eggs (scrambling them makes it easier; hard fried is also OK).

Allow eggs to soft scramble (if you chose the scramble method) Fry eggs completely for hard fried option.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove eggs from pan; fry the tomatoes in the remaining oil.

Stir tomatoes until they start ‘juicing’ – until you can see juice at the bottom of the pan. Stir in the pinch of cornstarch (this will make the juice thick and rich)

Cut the eggs back in to the tomatoes, stirring until they are well mixed.

If you are stopping at Rice with Tomato and Egg, stop here: your dish is done. It is best served hot over jasmine rice, available at any grocer’s in the rice section.

If you are moving on to the soup, follow these directions:

Pour your tomato/egg mixture into a pot; add water.

Allow to simmer for approximately 1 hour.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Thirty Little Pigs

We all know the tale of the three little pigs who, in their bid for independence struck out on their own and, using various building materials built themselves houses that, in two of the three cases, could not withstand the wolf’s harsh breath. As all the buildings in China are concrete that point is moot: no wolf would be able to blow down Chinese houses.

And we’re not talking about those pigs anyway.

What about those other pigs? The ones that 1. went to market, 2. stayed home, 3. ate roast beef… ect? You know… the ‘piggy’ chant your parents used to play with your toes that, in turn you use to elicit delighted giggles out of your own kids and/or grandkids.

No, I don’t mean those pigs either. Although, if you multiply the number of pigs that went to market, ate roast beef and went ‘wee, wee, wee all the way home’ by the number of pigs that built houses, you would get the exact number of pigs that were at my house last night.

OK, erase from your mind the picture of my house suddenly being turned into a pen by a pack of pigs. And… what is the proper measure word for pigs? A pack of dogs, a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a troupe of monkeys, a ____ of pigs? C’mon, help me out here! Let me know at teamkrejados@gmail.com

No these little piggies were of the human variety, and they stood around with bowls in hand and chopsticks at the ready, waiting for me to finish cooking Cola Chicken.

I decided this year to only host two Christmas parties, one for each of my sophomore classes. I will celebrate Christmas with my freshmen in class because our last day of class is the day after Christmas. I might have a party for the English department faculty on Wednesday afternoon. Everybody will be one building over, attending the weekly staff meeting and I’ve long said I wanted to have everyone over for a party. Maybe after their meeting would be a good time to do so, if everyone is amenable to it.

But in the meantime, what about those sophomore piggies, and the Cola Chicken?

Being as my students are always so helpful, and being as I always want to be a gracious hostess, I enlisted a few volunteers to come by and help decorate my apartment last weekend. While they were here we discussed the menu. I decided to make this more of a Chinese menu. I’ve found some – OK, make that MOST Chinese are not necessarily open to Western type foods. So, on the menu: meatballs in sweet and sour sauce, congee, tomato/egg soup and Cola Chicken. Carol, my class monitor, had sampled my brownies before and she wanted brownies.

Not only did the kids help decorate the house but they also helped with the shopping and were going to help with the cooking, but I had all that done by the time they arrived. I’m very particular about my kitchen, I believe I’ve told you already. The only thing that I delayed preparing was the Cola Chicken. With every other dish I had a way of keeping it hot till my guests arrive: meatballs in the crock pot, congee in the rice steamer, soup on the electronic hotplate, brownies on top of the oven. Cola chicken has to be served hot and freshly cooked or it is no good.

So, the table laden with hot, steamy goodness and the house full of happy, eager students I set to cooking Cola Chicken. Suddenly my kitchen was packed with more people than should rightly be in a room that size and I found I barely had elbow room to cook in. It seems everyone wanted to watch me make Cola Chicken! Well, watch me and wait for the chicken to come, hot out of the wok.

Picture it: about 10 girls, clicking their chopsticks in anticipation and jockeying for position. Whoever was closest would get the first morsel. As I sautéed the chicken, and then added garlic and onions I heard moans from my audience. “Oh, it already looks so good!” one exclaimed when I dashed soy sauce over the golden meat. They were audibly sucking up their drool. Kid you not. Can’t really blame them; it did look good.

“If you’re hungry you can go eat some meatballs or have some soup. Go eat some food that is already prepared; this will be ready in about 15 minutes” I tell them.

“No!” One exclaims. “We are waiting for Cola Chicken! It smells so good!”

I can tell you I was a bit aggravated at that. I spent all day cooking, after all. The menu had been agreed on beforehand. And now, all anyone wants to eat is Cola Chicken? Why didn’t they just tell me all they wanted was Cola Chicken in the first place? I would have bought more chicken and fewer meatballs.

Those meatballs were pricey, too: 85Yuan for 3 kilos. By comparison, chicken is cheap.

My wok being big enough to handle only so much chicken I had to cook in batches. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare Cola chicken and it took only 2 minutes for my little piggies to devour it. I wasn’t really surprised at how quickly the chicken went down their gullets though. I had to shoo them out of my kitchen because I feared slipping on their drool while I cooked so I knew the finished product would be gone in a matter of seconds.

What did surprise me was how fast ALL the food disappeared. I’m telling you that EVERYTHING was gone in the blink of an eye: congee, soup, meatballs, brownies, sweet potato chips and sesame crackers and puffed corn snacks. It appears that these kids were far too polite to help themselves to food before I gave them the official OK. When I enlisted my ‘kitchen staff’ to serve up the food already prepared, they sounded the cry and everyone left the living room and crowded into the dining room en masse for their bowlful.

You remember the size of my dining room, right? It is not a big area. Some were elbowing and clamoring to get closer to the table, which I had turned longways and pushed to the balcony door. Others were standing on chairs, reaching for their portion. I have to tell you: if these kids were that hungry, it is a wonder that the combined smells of meatballs, soup and brownies didn’t drive them out of their minds while they waited to be given license to partake.

And that is how we get to all those piggies in my house. Adorable little piglets, all of them.

After the food was gone, say… 5 minutes, the kids started on their fun. Lin brought her music so a contingent of kids set up housekeeping in my office, listening and dancing to music. The other group decided to explore my movie cabinet and selected a comedy to watch in the living room. And then there was a third group: the cleaning crew. Stephanie did dishes and Claire dried them. Aron J. took over the broom and Martin took out the trash. At the end of the night, Pamela ran the mop.

I was not allowed to clean anything. What I was allowed to do was go enjoy the party. And I did. I bounced back and forth between all three groups, even wowing the dance crowd with my moves.

These kids have a special place in my heart. They were freshmen last year; we started at this university together. We shared our fears and our hopes and our joys and, through it all, became friends.

They’ll move on next year. Next semester they’ll be Victor’s students and next year they will be Juniors: no Oral English in their curriculum. They are not happy about being Victor’s students again. They are really not happy at me not ever being their teacher again.

Incidentally, you might wonder, with all the gobbling going on: did I get anything to eat last night? Well, yes but in a strange turnabout. Being as I had lost my tooth earlier in the day (see previous post) I was wearing a surgical mask all night to hide my ‘deformity’. The Chinese are very particular about being sick and I easily explained my wearing a mask as being sick. It was automatically accepted and no one clamored for me to remove the mask, not even for picture taking. Claire, Carol and Stephanie made sure I got a fair portion of food, which I ate in the kitchen with virtually no witnesses.

WHEW!!! So far only Sam knows I’m actually toothless!

The Demise of Sophie-the-Kid

As you can guess by this title, I’m going for a Western theme. Not Western as in west of China but as in John Wayne, good guys/bad guys and riding off into the sunset, leaving Ms. Kitty behind.

And no, I do not REALLY die. That, like in the movies, is just make believe. Otherwise it would be very strange for me to still be writing blog entries, don’t you think?

Ok, we’ve had a nice chuckle, now on for the story… and the ensuing laughs.

Over dinner the other night I confided to Sam something I’ve already shared with you in the Chong Qing series of posts. Traveling with Gary and Mask showed me my glum future as a lone traveler in China. While I will get to see touristy things, and touristy things are indeed nice, I will not be treated to ‘real’ China: where people call each other ‘friend’ no matter where they hail from, where people help travelers out and get downright neighborly, even if it is just for a minute. Not that I mind touristy things, but I know in my heart that I am missing out on the soul of China while I snap pictures of tourist attractions.

The truth is, no matter how well I speak and understand Chinese, I am not and will never be Chinese. No matter how long I live here, to the Chinese I will always be a foreigner. Certain hotels will not be able to lodge me. Certain restaurants will not serve me. Observing and taking part of cultural rituals will be denied me no matter how much I want to take part in them, because of my ‘foreigner’ appearance.

That topic came up in conversation on Thursday evening because, with winter vacation two weeks away and Gary and Mask not always available, I’m planning some trips on my own. Sam broached this topic with me after he met Gary on Tuesday night. Sam being responsible for me 24/7, he has been curious about my newfound friends since I started talking about them. He wanted to make sure that my traveling companions would take good care of me.

Sam is now resting assured. He has met Gary, and on that occasion, Gary presented me with two new sets of earrings he picked up for me on his latest trip to Beijing. Really: Gary and Mask spoil me so!

Now back to that sad disclosure, the one where I’m missing out on China even as I travel through this beautiful and sometimes poignant land. You see, I was speaking figuratively when I told Sam that some doors will forever be closed to me. He took me literally. Only after I explained what I meant did he understand that I did not mean an actual door, slamming in my face.

Conversing with my good friend Sam is so easy I sometimes forget that English is not his first language. Sometimes he does not get the nuances and pictures our language paints.

And so I erupted into gales of laughter. Not at Sam, and certainly not because of his disability in grasping the subtleties of the English language, but at the mental picture his misunderstanding created…

At the edge of town stands Sophie-the-Kid, her pack pulling her shoulders back and a pouch slung low on her hips. The sleepy burg, no more than two streets a’cross, lay below. A saloon on the left, the bank and post office on the corner. Some shops lining the street and the general mercantile dominating the block. The courthouse on the right, just before the bank. Beyond that, the feed co-op, a few houses and, at the far end of town the school and then it is back out and to the open plains beyond. Would there be a hotel for this traveler to rest her weary bones?

All the townsfolk knew there would be foreigners coming to their idyllic little village eventually. With their country opening up to the greater world, it would only be a matter of time before some stranger made it to these parts.

And what a stranger! Standing 6 feet tall, with her big nose, and short hair cut into a bob blowing in the breeze and dust on her shoes from all her travels, she cuts an intimidating figure. Shading her eyes with one upraised arm, she slowly makes her way down the thoroughfare into the heart of the town, her footsteps raising equal parts of dust and doom.

Even with the blacksmith’s place is when the cry rang out: “Foreigner!” the smithy’s ‘prentice hollered. The warning rang through the midday drowse.

Instantly the townsfolk swung into action. Windows were barred and doors locked. The merchants hurried their wares off the sidewalks. The general store had too much to carry in so they left their goods out, where the stranger could get to them, if she wanted them. A mother snatched her baby off the street. On the crossroad a lone dog howled.

Everyone watched the foreigner make her way into town. Through shutter slats and dainty laced curtains, working folk and rich folk alike tracked her progress and puckered their brow at the ruin this stranger might cause. Some kids hiding under a porch drove a projectile toward the stranger with their slingshot, but missed. And where was the law? Would the man with the badge confront this latest trouble and save the town?

By now Sophie-the-Kid has made it to the crossroads. The saloon’s batwing doors precede the gloom within, but no sign of life inside discourages her from entering. In the intersection she turns around, looking for a friendly face or an open place. There was none to be found. It seems even the Law would hide from this new arrival.

Dispirited, Sophie-the-Kid moves on…

Sorry, no gunplay in this story. Guns are not allowed in China. I only slew her with laughter.

All of this rolled before my mental eye in a flash. As the scene got more and more elaborate – adding the mother snatching the baby off the street was a particularly nice touch, don’t you think? – so the gusts of laughter grew until I was unable to catch my breath and tears came streaming down my face.

We were in the newly opened Teacher’s Cafeteria in the construction zone, one building away from my apartment. It was virtually deserted; only a few diners lingered over their drinks. The staff had just sat down to their dinner at the table next to ours, presumably to get a good eyeball full of ‘the foreigner’, a phenomenon that I deal with on a regular basis. That kind of added to the effect of the movie playing in my head and made me laugh even harder.

Now I’m laughing so hard that I actually have to cover my face because I’m crying and I’ve run out of tissues to blot my tears with. My face is so red it looks like I’m nearing apoplexy. Sam, who has no idea why I’ve suddenly taken leave of my senses and am making like a hyena looks on, nonplussed.

His puzzled expression makes me laugh even more. Now I don’t know when the last time was that I laughed so hard and for so long. Maybe since I had the idea to toss my son’s dog off the balcony instead of the dog’s ball.

Finally I get a grip on myself and manage to tell Sam what got me going. It took a few tries but, once I got the story out he too started laughing. With more decorum, of course. Sam is Chinese and it would not do for him to break down so completely, as I did.

I, that bumbling foreigner to whom the doors to China’s mysteries will forever be closed.

The Case of the Missing Tooth

Of all the teeth to break or lose, the front teeth are the worst because they are visible. And, as a public speaker of sorts – a teacher, presenting one’s self badly is contrary to the public image that one should project. To say nothing of the fact that I live like a bug under a microscope and EVERYTHING about me gets talked about. So imagine my dismay when I lost my front tooth yesterday!

I know there is no shame in breaking and/or losing a tooth. It happens. One just has to go to the dentist and get it fixed, usually at prohibitive cost. But before I get into the tale of losing my tooth yesterday I have to backtrack… to January of this year.

First off, those of you who have been following this blog religiously and those of you who know me well, know I wear full dentures – top and bottom. There is no shame in wearing dentures and in fact, it makes going to the dentist a breeze! I feel no pain when they work on my teeth because I simply pop them out of my mouth and a technician takes them into the next room to work on them.

Last year, while visiting Sam’s parents in Xi Shui (see A Hop to Xi Shui and Sam’s Parents entries posted in January of this year) I broke that tooth while trying to bite a chunk of meat from a microwaved duck thigh. We all know that reheated meat tends to be a lot tougher than freshly cooked meat. Fortunately Sam’s family was focused on the future in-laws and making the meal a success when I spit the broken tooth out and quickly pocketed it. While my Chinese hosts chattered their rapid-fire dialog I wondered how I was going to fix my tooth. I did not want to embarrass them or cause them any bad feeling for my breaking a tooth at their dinner table so I didn’t smile and talked only minimally, and with my face averted. And yes, they would have taken the blame for themselves about my tooth, and been mortified.

I did not blog about because I was mortified. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Intellectually I know there is nothing to be ashamed about when breaking a tooth but, for some reason I simply cannot get myself to present myself badly, in person or in writing. And that means my teeth must be intact (my hair must be combed and I have to have makeup and jewelry and decent clothes on too, but that is a different story). Could this tooth hangup be a part of my neverending vain streak? Will I ever vanquish it? That just might be a question I will never be able to answer.

In the States it would have been no problem to fix that tooth. Simply go to DentureCare and have them repair the dentures they made for me. I don’t think it has escaped anyone’s attention that I am not in America anymore and I aver I would have to be an idiot to think that things could go that simply in China, especially after witnessing the nightmare business of construction. But a year ago, while I had a tooth in my pocket that needed reseating I was not acquainted with these strange building practices. What I was acquainted with were other archaic practices like rinsing meat in cold water and chopping it on a dirty cutting board, and bureaucratic policies that simply made no sense.

I had asked Sam while still in Xi Shui if there are dentists that specialize in dentures. He told me, much to my dismay that denture wearers are few in China. Usually if a Chinese person’s tooth falls out, it stays gone. That was not the answer I wanted to hear.

On the two hour bus ride back from Xi Shui I reasoned: what would a dentist in the States do? Why, they would clean the denture and the tooth, and then glue it back in. It just so happened I did have some superglue at the house, so that is just what I did. The result was perfect: tooth reseated, well bonded to the denture and no further problems. NOTE: I was very careful to make sure the glue was completely dry before putting the denture back in my mouth. Wouldn’t do to poison myself or worse: glue my tongue to my denture, would it?

Flash forward to now.

That pesky tooth has broken loose two more times since that first time I glued it in but each time I was able to recover it, reseat and secure it in the same way. Yesterday was a different story.

Yesterday I was out and about. My electronic hotplate had died and I had parties to host this weekend. How could I host parties if I couldn’t cook anything? So I had to buy another hotplate. I reasoned I would first check the shops on The Street, and if they didn’t have one I would venture into town. I really didn’t have the time for that so imagine my delight at finding one right there, in the first shop I went to! And it is a much nicer hotplate than the one I had before.

How I wish I could say that, in my excitement at finding a hotplate so easily I swallowed my tooth! No my friends, I don’t get off the hook that easily.

Reasoning that I would have to take a lengthy bus trip into town and then walk a ways to the stores, I decided against fixing breakfast at home in favor leaving the house quickly and grabbing a sandwich on Snack Street. Living at the back of campus I don’t get to eat Snack Street food very often anymore and I do miss those tasty treats. I figured a breakfast sandwich would be mighty fine on this day of optimism and joy. It was while taking a bite of the sandwich that I lost that tooth.

But I knew. See, I knew that tooth was loose the day before, when I bit into a slice of thick bacon and felt it move. Rather than knock my own tooth out for the pleasure of gluing it back in I decided to let things ride their course and let it fall out on its own. I’ve recovered it every time in the past and this time would surely be no different, right? WRONG!!! So, losing my tooth was my own fault.

My friends, I tried everything to recover that lost tooth. Hoping against hope that it fell out of my mouth I carefully backtracked, searching the ground. No luck. I checked my scarf and my bag: maybe it had fallen in there? Nope. I KNEW this tooth was a goner before I even started those futile efforts but, with Sam’s entreaty that dentists in China do not deal with dentures, I had to fight mounting panic at the thought that the tooth was gone forever. I knew I had swallowed it because I could feel it in my throat. I really did try everything to recover it. I’m not going to go into detail of the lengths I went to recover that tooth. I’ll leave that to your imagination and simply tell you yes, I even tried that.

Last resort: call Sam. I’m simply going to have to – haha – bite the bullet and task him with finding a dentist that handles false teeth. Surely there are denture wearers SOMEWHERE in China!

Now it is today. Yesterday’s optimism is gone and I am as gap-toothed as any 7 year-old. And now I AM acquainted with backwards building practices so my imagination is running rampant: I’m going to have to live without my dentures for two weeks! And this at Christmas, when I have parties to host and company coming over and traveling planned and still have some teaching to do! Or worse: the denture repair would be so expensive that I would have to not only spend all the money I have saved up but would have to take out a loan to boot! Or even worse: Sam can’t find a dentist that deals in dentures and I’m going to have to live gap-toothed forever more!

As it turns out the solution was easier than I could ever have anticipated. Sam’s first line of action was to take me to the hospital where all foreigners get treated. Surely they would have a dental clinic there. That hospital happens to be a ways away so, as we walked up The Street to the bus station he asked me if I wanted to check with the local dentist, right there on The Street.

Guess what? Not only do they handle dental prostheses but they have overnight service. And the cost is more than reasonable!

And so it came that, after a brief admonition that my dentures are not very good quality (I knew that) and could be remade, and after being told the cost (200Yuan, paid up front) to fix the broken tooth, I returned to my apartment toothless but with the promise that I could pick up my dentures after 9AM tomorrow morning. The dentist even gave me a few face masks to wear while out and about so it would not be immediately obvious that I was completely toothless.

After all my fears, imagine my relief at fixing this problem would be so easy, and so cheap.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Heat! Heat! Beautiful, warming heat! Marvelous, delicious heat!

Do you get the idea I now have heat in my apartment? I HAVE HEAT!!! Oh, the joy of heat!

I kind of wish I didn’t have heat.

OK, let me backtrack and take you through this whole thought process.

I’ve been living in my new apartment without heat this whole time, as I believe you know. And, as you can imagine, the closer we get to the Winter Solstice, the colder it has gotten. Unlike last year the march to cold this winter has been gradual. Last year it got cruelly cold ruthlessly quick. In fact, last year was Wuhan’s most brutal winter on record. That record-breaking winter coinciding with the first year of my China adventure, I guess you could say Mother Nature was breaking me in the hard way.

Or, the Fates were throwing everything they had at me in an attempt to make me run away. It didn’t work, obviously.

So now I suppose that the Fates have given up on sending me, deranged and disillusioned, back to America.

This second year in Wuhan has proven very amiable and amenable indeed. New apartment, deepening ties with my dear friends in the States, lots of good friends and good times in China, no illness and a much better grasp on how to live here, how to teach and how to speak Chinese.

Life is good. Right now, for me. For some, life is still hard. Please keep those people in your thoughts and prayers. If your life is not so good, you are in my thoughts and prayers. You are, anyway. But I digress…

This past week the temps have dipped into the upper 20’s overnight, and it has not been much warmer during the day. Mildly uncomfortable, but I had my space heater, my bed heaters, my hot water bottle and lots of clothes to wear. I was not dismayed at the cold. I had a system, even. Get out of bed and, while the body is still sleep-warm, take a shower and get dressed. Do what I have to do – teach, shop, clean… whatever I have to do that day. When I’m stationary/sedentary, such as when I eat my meals or write to you or play computer Scrabble, I turn on the space heater. Turn on bed heaters about 1 hour before going to bed, crawl into nice, warm berth (fully appreciating the heat), sleep the sleep of the just and get up and do it all again the next day.

It was a good system. But now I have heat!

I know what you’re going to say: “Just keep to the system and save the heat for when you really need/want it!”

That’s a great idea, but I can’t. Poor Sam sent me a text message the very day that Mr. Wang himself, my greatest fan (his words, not mine) and the head of maintenance personally came by to fix all of the heaters in my house. Sam was staying on campus that night, it being one of his 3 nights a week he does so and his apartment also has no heat. Unfortunately his apartment happens to be on the 5th floor (of the administration building, if you must know) and he was catching a heavy draft from arctic wind blowing around. His apartment was substantially colder than mine ever got.

He descended from his lofty position on the 5th floor for a warming glass of wine or three and some conversation. He left two hours later, slightly inebriated but much warmer and toting my space heater.

With Sam in possession of my space heater, I cannot go back to my system if I wanted to. I COULD just go back to the old days when I just plain froze and made no use of my space heater but it is too cold for that. So now I am compelled to turn on the heater. Just the one in the living area, not the ones in the bedroom or office.

Now I’ll bet you’re wondering: why do I kind of wish I had no heat?

Well, because this unit, while very good at dispensing heat, is also very inefficient. Or rather, I should say it dispenses heat efficiently but is not very ‘green’. It is a heat pump – basically an air conditioner that reverses its function in the winter. Those are only efficient up to the 40-degree outside temperature range. If it gets any colder than that outside, they have to run continuously to keep the inside warm. And, the inside temp only gets up to about 65 degrees. Not exactly balmy, but a far cry warmer than the low 50’s that I endure with no heat. It eats a lot of electricity, as you can imagine.

Fortunately I’m not worried about my electric bill. Or my water bill, for that matter. It appears, according to Sam that I’m living here for free, and have been since I moved in here.

Because I moved in prematurely (remember that amorous rat crawling on my leg while I slept?), the developer has not yet hired a management company to manage the property. Any utilities charges incurred are considered a part of the building process and are automatically paid by the developer. So, my utility usage has been absorbed into the cost of construction. So far no one, least of all me, has complained. Once people start moving in it will be back to standard: each dweller will pay for their utilities usage. Till then, I’m not being shy about turning on a heater.

I am concerned about the environment however, so I’m only turning on the heater I need, not all the heaters and all the lights in the house. Free utilities is no reason to be wasteful, is it? And there I am, digressing again… back to the point, now.

Another reason running this heat pump is not that great a thing is that such devices, by nature, are dehumidifying. I don’t think I told you that the air here is so dry I can literally feel my sinuses dry up. I must constantly drink something, sometimes in great draughts, to get rid of that itchy, sticky feeling in the back of my mouth where my nasal passages join my oral cavity, just before plunging down into my glottis. And that is just when I’m out and about. When I’m home and running the heat pump, I must also run a humidifier full blast AND drink great quantities of liquid.

How bad can it be, you ask? Well, it gets pretty bad when your hair gets listless, brittle, dull and ACTUALLY FALLS OUT for lack of humidity. When the skin around your eyes sinks into your eye sockets for lack of moisture, adding 10 years to your appearance. Running to the bathroom every quarter hour is not a fun game either.

I’ve talked about the aging issue enough for you to know how much it matters to me. I don’t need to accelerate the process by dehumidifying myself.

One more reason why I’m not necessarily gleeful about having my environment heated: being warm while being home makes it very hard to leave home. When I step out of my apartment I’m not getting into a car whose climate control unit will kick on as soon as the engine has generated enough heat. Nor am I headed to a warm classroom to teach – if you’ll remember from last year’s winter postings, none of the classrooms are heated. No, none of that, my friends. Once I leave this temp-regulated apartment I am again subjected to the elements. It was easier to manage the disparity between inside and outside when inside’s temp closely matched outside’s temp. Now my body is constantly having to adjust to one temperature or another, sometimes several times a day. That can’t be good!

I am not whining. I am telling you that I’ve not found the balance between regulated indoor temps versus savage outdoor temps. I will find that balance, and soon. Probably before some management company starts charging me for utilities.

For now, in spite of the temp disparity, in spite of running a humidifier, in spite of potential cost… I’m glad I have heat.

Final note: as you might intuit from the ‘Crazy Building Methods’ series of posts, maintenance on these buildings is a nightmare. The lack of blueprints give the techs no idea how the water lines run, where the electric lines originate and, in either case, having to chip through solid concrete to get to either one. The maintenance techs, Mr. Wang included, have a veritable struggle trying to fix things. A lot of times they just adopt a ‘There I Fixed It’ (have you ever visited that website? www.thereifixedit.com – hilarious!) approach to repairs.

Thus, when tasked with trying to figure out why the climate control unit bedroom doesn’t work, they simply declared that I should just plug/unplug the unit to turn it on and off. For the unit in the office, they determined the outlet, mounted high on the wall and designed for that heat pump was dead, so they ran an extension cord from another outlet near the baseboard. Once plugged in, the unit ran fine. Unfortunately there are not that many outlets in my office – only two not counting the one designed for use by the heat pump, and I don’t want to sacrifice the only outlet not being used by the computer to a heater. And I don’t want an extension cord spangling itself diagonally across my wall, either. I don’t intend on using that A/C unit anyway.

I have heat. YAY!

C’mon, Winter!

Bravery or Stupidity?

So often in emails, and while I was visiting friends and family this past summer I heard about how brave I am to just leave everything behind and go live in another country, with all that that entails. And it entails quite a bit. It took 2 years to end my life in America – wrap up my affairs as best as possible, take care of business or take steps to see that business will be taken care of in my absence. While I was doing that I was taking steps toward starting life in China: learning the language and the customs, opening accounts with international banks, arranging for visas and other paperwork necessary for such a changeover, looking for a job. Making the transition was a lot of work.

And it caused a lot of grief. I grieved the loss of a way of life – my life, and the abandonment of one culture for another. Even though I felt comfortable with the Chinese culture even while living in America, saying farewell to the culture I had learned to adapt to for over two decades entailed a lot of grief. I grieved the loss of geographical closeness to my family and friends.

As you have been witness to, following this blog, the grieving process has perhaps been as difficult and as thorough for me as grieving for a relative would be. Probably not one you were intimately familiar with, but maybe for a cousin or an aunt. Maybe even someone you were acquainted with, who has since passed out of your life.

Of course, if you grieve for a friend or relative it usually means there was no choice put forth. Unless facetiously or in the movies, one generally does not ask someone ‘do you want to die?’. Usually grief is brought on by something that is completely out of the griever’s control. But I had complete control over my actions and the circumstances that came about as a result of my actions. Still, I mourned everything I lost when moving here.

So now the question is: does incurring this grief make me brave or stupid?

How many times have you watched a movie where the protagonist opens that closet/goes out in the dark/climbs those stairs/enters that room where they heard that noise? And you shout at the television: “Don’t go in there/out there/up there!” because that is where the Boogeyman IS and that’s where he’s WAITING FOR YOU and that’s WHERE YOU’LL GET SLAUGHTERED!!!

Later, after said protagonist has been mercifully saved from an ungraceful and untimely death at the hands, claws or fangs of the Boogeyman, you turn off the TV and think, or comment: “That’s so goofy! Why would he/she go up there/in there/out there, knowing there’s this monster on the loose?” You would project yourself into that role and sure, you’d know better! You WOULDN’T go out there, or in there, or up there, knowing there is a Boogeyman ready and waiting for you.

I think that Hollywood intends for such acts to be heroic. The protagonist is demonstrating bravery in venturing out into the dark or into the cellar armed with only a flashlight and facing down the Boogeyman. I think that those filmmakers intend to draw a metaphor to having to face down your fears in life.

I wonder if those Hollywood flimmakers realize that we, the moviegoing public think the protagonist is stupid for venturing out from their safe haven?

Of course, this simile only works if you are familiar with scary movie plot twists. And I’m not sure it helps at all in answering whether, as my friends assert, I’m brave or, as I contend, this might have been an incredible act stupidity.

Let’s change tacks for a second.

I’ve recently gotten confirmation of a rumor that the Facility where I worked at prior to making this jump halfway across the world will close. Some of my former colleagues have opted to retire while others will be, MIGHT be relocated. Whether they will be relocated to a different facility within the same geographical area is not known.

Not that this is not happening all over America, but still: it is troubling to me because people that I know, that I care about and have worked with for 7 years are facing circumstances out of their control. What if someone is offered a position 500 miles away and, for whatever reason, cannot accept the relocation offer? According to the rules, their relationship with the company is declared over with and they lose everything. They now have to go looking for a new job and start from the ground floor again. Seniority, vacations, pay grade and retirement plans – all forfeited.

Just goes to show you that even working in a Federal facility provides no job security anymore.

I feel a sense of kinship with my former colleagues. I have no job security, either. However, unlike them I am the author of my circumstances. I’m the one who jettisoned my former line of work and choose a career where there are no guarantees, where my job security lasts only from year to year as I’m offered contracts and by no means can I expect this university to continue my tenure here.

On the other hand, I am now in a field where work is plentiful. I am living in a country where my skills are in high demand. As long as I’m a good teacher I will be able to find work. And here, at this university, my first teaching gig ever, I am gaining experience and building my reputation for future good references, should I be made to leave. Had I stayed at my former position I might not have had such choices.

Thus I contend I was not stupid to make this move. In fact, as a language teacher overseas it appears I now have more job security than I did had I stayed with my former position. But am I brave?

To listen to everyone tell it, packing up, moving to a different country and having to learn how to live all over again was bravery. Not that I deserve any medals for following an overwhelming compulsion – and how strange that I was compelled to do so just before the ax fell on my old job! – but I finally agree. If you define ‘brave’ as ‘bold’, ‘confident’ and ‘daring’, as per the America Oxford Dictionary, then I am indeed brave. It was a bold move, walking away from everything safe and familiar and into an uncertain future. Especially considering the future that might be staring at me had I stayed in my old job. The future that my former colleagues are now facing.

Fortunately my gamble has paid off. I have plenty of job security because English teachers are in high demand in this country I’ve chosen to live in, and I am prepared to move around and even go to another city, should the need arise. I hope that my friends and former colleagues have Fortune smiling on them as it did for me.

Pro… Where?

It should come as no surprise to you that I occasionally reread my own blog entries. Not out of a sense of vainglory but so that I can keep up the narrative thread. You should know that I am not building a concordance as I write. When I refer you back to a previous entry I am mostly doing it from memory, something to the effect of “I KNOW I’ve written about that topic before!” And then off I am, searching my archives for when I’ve written about specific subjects, before I type the dreaded (See ---- entry, written on this or that date).

Having now written over two hundred entries, and on two different computers, sometimes searching for a specific anecdote can be daunting. Add to that the central file, formerly kept on the external hard drive that died last year in December, as well as now using thumb drives that I use to store entries in so I can take them to the internet café, I can testify that my blog archives are truly a mess. It would be so much easier if I could access my blog to see what I’ve posted and when I’ve posted it, but I don’t have that option while living in China.

Which brings me to this topic: Pro… Where?

I was going through the last few posts I’ve written, storing them on my laptop’s hard drive from the thumb drive, and ran across what I feel is one of the most provocative posts I’ve ever written: the one titled Human Rights.

I wonder how you received that post. Did some of my opinions and contentions outrage you? Did some of them give you pause? Did anything I wrote in that post sway you to the conviction that ending that poor child’s life was in fact more merciful than preserving it?

After rereading that post, and several others I came to the conclusion that it appears I admire Chinese society and the Chinese way of life at the cost of regarding the American way of life with any fairness. In this post I want to set the record straight.

I am not pro China or anti America. For that matter, I’m not vice versa, either.

When comparing the two societies side by side I am attempting to highlight the cultural and societal differences. I am so privileged as to have experience living in both countries. I feel I have a duty to report on my personal experiences – kind of like an Evremonde of the Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities” fame. His name was a play on words, designed to mean ‘everyone’ or ‘anyone’ (Evre – from English ‘every’; ‘monde’ – from French to be ‘world’, or ‘population’). Very cleverly done Mr. Dickens, being as the story itself is a Tale of Two Cities – Paris and London, located in the countries that speak those languages.

I also feel that I have a duty to emphasize that what the media might report, such as this little girl’s fate, or when pianist Lang Lang regaled a White House audience with his rendition of a moving cinematic moment (see Lang Lang Madness, posted in January of this year) is often done with a liberal bias against the Chinese. My personal preferences do not belong in a factual assessment.

But they do belong here, in this entry.

Obviously, I enjoy living in China. Otherwise I would not be here. I would long have packed my bags and run back to where I had it made: America. Where I was a homeowner and car owner, with family and great friends on the same continent and… who knows? Maybe I could have gotten my old job back and taken up the middle class lifestyle again. Or, at least, the middle class income.

Some aspects of this life are not pleasant: being at the mercy of the university, who administers to my needs as possible or as they see fit. For example – a petty one to be sure, but one nonetheless: when I asked for a replacement for the office chair that died. Instead, I got a kitchen chair that tortures my back and butt. When I questioned Sam about the chance of getting an actual office chair, padded/swivel/casters model, I got… another kitchen chair. This one is mahogany. I would much rather have an actual office chair, but the chairs I was given are considered an office chair to this school. Not even Dean Tu, the head honcho has a better chair than the ones I have. If I want an office chair I will have to buy it myself.

Why would I buy a piece of furniture for myself when I have no guarantee of tenure here?

I am on a year by year contract. If, for some reason I become displeasing to A. the students, B. the university staff, C. the Chinese government, my time here is over. And that is another uncomfortable aspect of living here: no guarantee for the future and no stability.

Simply put: I love my life in China. That is why, amidst my heartbreak at not sharing a continent with my kids and grandkids, not being able to observe traditional holidays and festivals with my fellow Americans, not seeing anyone who looks like me, talks like me or lives like me, I choose to live here.

I also feel that I have lessons to learn. Deep, spiritual, life-changing lessons that I could not and did not learn in the 20+ years I spent living in America. Like how to share. How to be a friend. How to open up to people and stop believing I must live behind a wall my painful past experiences have caused me to build.

And I am learning these things. By virtue of this society that is based on sharing and openness, I too am learning to open up and share. Because I am so far away from everyone I love in the States I am learning how to be a better friend. It is so hard to learn these life lessons but, being immersed in a culture that demands such things, I have no choice but to adapt. To learn how to do it. You could say that I’m living in China because I’ve never learned how to be human.

Do I think America is bad? No. Not at all. I believe America is a very young country, still finding her place in the global scheme of things. She has a long way to go in forming a culture, and in learning about diplomacy and fairness. Take things that America damns China for – human rights violations, for example. Americans are guilty of the very same thing! The legal system is not fairly administered, even though we have documentation that specifically states how it should be administered fairly. Discrimination is a seemingly insurmountable societal ill. Street violence causes people to barricade themselves in their homes, set their alarms and not try to mingle with other cultures. Indeed, some are compelled to hate other cultures and ethnicities because of the rumor that that culture/ethnicity is violent.

Do I think China is good? Not necessarily. China, just like every country on the globe including America, has her issues. In her 5,000+years of continuous civilization, the Chinese, in one form or another have practiced atrocious violations against humanity. They have spurned relations with other countries and openly proclaimed their superiority. At one time their borders were completely closed. That is 1/7th of the world, locked up tighter than a drum, with all of the resources she could have been sharing, and all of the knowledge and wisdom such an ancient society has accrued and could have taught others, locked up. Only recently has China seen the errors of her ways and cautiously opened up again.

Which country is better? That is a matter of conjecture. Why should one country be deemed good and another one bad? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that every country has their good and bad points?

This is a great gig for me, being your eyes/ears. But I do so with the awareness that my words are tinged with my own preferences. My eyes are clouded by my own prejudices. Please believe me that, inasmuch as possible I do my best to be unbiased and factual in my reporting. Also, remember that anything I write is interpreted through the window of your own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Maybe there is no answer to whether America is better than China or China is better than America. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as the Chinese are happy with their country and the Americans are happy with theirs.

Whether one is good, the other is bad or they are both the same, please believe that I hold them both in high esteem and see them both with great regard. No matter what my blog postings seem to say to you.