Friday, January 28, 2011

Those Fat Chinese!

DISCLAIMER: This is not a slam on anyone who has struggled with weight issues, either currently or in the past. This is merely an observation of a difference between two cultures, and musings on the one that is evolving so rapidly.

OK, ‘fess up: how many of you believe that Asians are all smart and good at kung fu? Answer: probably not as many as Chinese people who believe that all Americans are rich, powerful and successful, and live in beautiful mansions and drive nice cars – like in the movies.

Because so many of my students seem possessed of the idea that America is just like in the movies, I thought I would give them a perhaps brutal reality check. I introduced them to that sometimes ghastly but mostly humorous website, There they could see how common citizens visit their local Wal-Mart to do their shopping in America.

I’ll spare you the kids’ reaction (but tell you it was a jaw-dropping eye opener for them) and focus on my strange reaction to it instead.

I hadn’t logged into that website in a very long time, perhaps six months or more. Now that I was using it as an educational tool, I found I had something to learn from it too. Until I showed my students that website, I had forgotten what it was like to see morbidly obese persons as a matter of course. As I rode the bus into town later that day, I looked out the window and realized that, since I’ve been here, I’ve not seen a single obese person, let alone anyone who is so morbidly obese that they cannot walk.

How can that be? These people eat all the time! They eat more than I do! Seriously: there are snack stands, food vendors and restaurants every few meters as you go along the sidewalk. And let me tell you: they are well patronized! As these hyper-skinny men and women walk down the street, they are invariably munching on something: fried bread, fruit or meat on a stick, corn on the cob, steamed sweet potatoes, even bowls of noodles. And it doesn’t stop there: anywhere you look someone is cracking sunflower or pumpkin seeds, peanuts and now, because they are in season, roasted chestnuts (delicious, by the way). And that is on top of the regular meals they partake of.

OK, so we are all familiar with that fat, laughing Buddha who is rubbing his belly. But in reality, these people would have to buy a belly in order to have a fat stomach. They just don’t have a fat anything! Oh, sure, there is that occasional chubby person or little kid, and the elderly are sometimes kind of plump, but nothing of the caliber of what we see in the States.

In America the current vogue thought is that there is an obesity gene. Recessive but there, somehow it gets triggered in infancy or adolescence and Badabing! Fat Person Emerges! I’m not a scientist but, being reasonably intelligent, I have to wonder: if Americans have an obesity gene, and the human genome is the same from race to race and place to place, how is it that other countries’ populations are not fat? Have they simply not managed to trigger their obesity gene? In spite of all the beer and potatoes (Germany), wine and cake (France) or pasta (Italy)?

I’m not here to debate these questions; they are too far-reaching for this humble blog. But I do want to look at how the Chinese remain so darn skinny when they eat constantly (and presumably have the same genes that all other humans do).

1. They move all of the time. The Chinese are constantly walking, running, riding a bike or standing on a bus. It seems that moving is their national pastime; any city I’ve visited in China has throngs of people ambling about, with or without a purpose. From what I gather from my students and friends, many go out just to wander around the stores and see what there is to see. This is an activity I too have partaken of, either alone or at the behest of my students, who enjoy doing so. Also, parks are plentiful, and there is even exercise equipment free for use in the residential neighborhoods. And let us not forget the women who dance in the street at dusk to stay in shape.
2. They carry things. While they are walking around, they carry things: things they’ve just bought and things they’re bringing to another part of the city. They carry ten-liter jugs of oil, forty kilo bags of vegetables, twenty kilos of rice, reams of paper. They carry their babies and they carry their elderly on their back (no so much that anymore, but I have actually seen it a time or two, here). It is not that wheeled accessories are not available here; it is just the way of life to carry things, so they carry things. The one exception to wheeled accessories are the long carts used to haul coal, wholesale vegetables and the like, and they are pulled by humans, not horses. Although judging by their cargo, a horse or at least a small pony should be pulling those heavy loads.

The Case for (or against) McDonald’s: It is true that there is McDonald’s here, as well as KFC and other fast food restaurants; some Western and some Chinese. And, as in America, they offer less than healthy fare: fried this, white bread that, soda the other. In particular, the Western brands of fast food are very popular here; to be seen at or to eat at McDonald’s does have a certain cachet (if you’re Chinese. If you’re a Westerner, it is expected of you). To be sure, those restaurants are always full and most of them are even open 24 hours a day.

However, whereas in America the standard portion size is enough food for 2 people, here the standard portion is approximately equivalent to a Happy Meal. At least the fries and the drink are; the sandwiches are the same size as in America. And, this being perhaps the most critical difference: there are no drive-throughs, where you can sit in the privacy of your own car and pretend you are ordering for a family of 4 when in fact you are just really, really hungry. (I had a friend tell me once that he would order a bunch of food and pretend he was buying for this entire crew but all of the food was for him. He had gastric bypass surgery recently and his revealing that to me was part of his rehabilitation.) I’m not accusing anyone of actually doing this; I’m just basing my words on my now skinny friend’s account who actually did have that habit.

Times are changing. As the Chinese get more and more comfortable with the capitalist lifestyle, they are learning that life does not have to be so hard. Carrying things is no longer a necessity when you can have a wheeled cart to put it in. Riding a bike is nearly a thing of the past in this city as everyone zips around on their electric scooters. Cars are proliferating faster than the roads can be built to accommodate them. And of course, now that cable TV has made it to China, there are more and more people staying home in the evenings, in front of the TV. Same with driving, the Internet and video games: as more Chinese incorporate these into their life, the more of their ambulant lifestyle they give up.

In short, the same transition we saw in America starting in the late 60’s and still going on now, when Americans stopped being so personally mobile and started to enjoy the idea of wealth – television, home computers, video games and the like, is just now getting started in China.

In my quaint neighborhood people still carry their babies around. In the nicer parts of town, strollers abound. Around campus there are still ‘shoulder poles’ and those that manage to heft impossible loads, but in the trader’s areas there are motorized carts to convey raw goods back and forth. Whereas the more traditional Chinese still have that maddeningly beautiful complexion, the younger generation that routinely consumes the sugary imported drinks like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Sprite have faces ravaged by acne eruptions.

Now the question is: will China, who displays exponential growth in every other area, also catch up to America in the obesity arena? How soon? And, if so, how will they deal with it?

LangLang Madness: The Case of the Propaganda Song

Ever since Chinese President Hu Jintao spent a day at the White House, the American media has been in an uproar about Chinese doings and has made ominous predictions about Chinese world takeovers. One aspect of this media furor is the world famous pianist, LangLang, who allegedly played an anti-America propaganda song right there, in the White House – the symbol of American leadership and of the Republic.

This blog is in no way political, and does not aspire to be. However I am compelled to counter some of the negative and fear mongering media stories that are currently making such a hit on the airwaves. So, against my better judgement, I am jumping into the fray just this one time. Being as I am your eyes and ears in Mainland China, I feel I have a duty to set some minds at ease with regard to the subject.

First, a bit about LangLang. He is twenty-eight years old. At twelve years old he was sent to America and matriculated at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he graduated with honors. He is fluent both in Mandarin Chinese and in English. He now divides his time between China and America, with most of his time spent in America. He is hardly a renegade and, as he has divided his time between China and America since his twelfth year, one could hardly consider him a political figure, much less a tool for Chinese propaganda. His entire life has been about music.

He is much too young to know about a movie made in 1956 that did not cast America in a good light. The song he played at the White House, My Motherland, existed long before the movie the Battle of Shangangling Mountain. The lyrics to the song describe an insurmountable love for one’s homeland and talks about the young women being like flowers. Many times in Chinese cinema, a poignant melody is played as a counterpoint to violence, to depict the futility of violence. The movie Blood Brothers, a recent movie starring Chinese actor Liu Ye (who also played opposite Meryl Streep in Dark Matter) employs the same tactic. I have a hard time believing that Chinese piano virtuoso LangLang was instructed to smear America while playing for world leaders at the White House. Much less can I believe that he chose to do so on his own.

But, that is speculation on my part. I cannot know the motives of one pianist that I’ve never met, nor can I fathom the mind of Hu Jintao or the political machines that are constantly revving their engines and gaining purchase on shaky ground. What I can tell you is what I see and experience with my own eyes and ears every day, while living in China.

· Every single school student, from the most impoverished rural hillside to the most posh academic environment must learn English. This is compulsory, not an elective. Since the 1990’s, every single Chinese student has been bilingual, and that other language is English. To that end, China actively recruits foreign teachers to teach their students the proper way to speak English.
· Restaurant menus are printed in English. Every time I’ve gone to a restaurant there has been a menu written in English for me to peruse and make my selections from.
· China has an abundance of Western restaurants. Not just McDonalds’ or KFC but steak houses, Italian restaurants, French restaurants, ect. There’s even a classic American diner in Wuhan. And the menus are all available in English.
· Chinese movies are subtitled in English. Granted, not many movies are released for American viewing, but those that I have watched, either streaming online or on DVD all have English subtitles.
· Instructional signs are in Chinese and in English. Go to any major transportation hub – train station, bus station or airport and you will see signs in English. If you cannot find your way using the signs you can go to any official – railway personnel, police officer or information booth attendant and they will be happy to help you, whether their English is well spoken or not. If, for some reason you still don’t understand them, they will go get someone who speaks better English, so that you can understand what they are saying.
· Road signs are also bilingual. Not only around town and not only Wuhan, but in the other cities I’ve visited. That includes intercontinental highways, such as the one running to XiShui that I was on just the other day. The only exception I’ve seen so far to that is the small villages and smaller towns I’ve been to.
· American Industry is welcome in China. Major corporations like GE and Apple, and retailers such as Wal-Mart all have establishments in China. The stores are heavily patronized and the Chinese eagerly purchase the goods from overseas corporations, thus putting money in American coffers. And, the door is open to more such partnerships.
· Chinese news media is abundantly available in English., and CCTV, which broadcasts a channel in English, just to name a few. Although my Chinese language skills are far from stellar, from what I can translate, it seems that the translations into English are accurate.

Taking it down to a personal level now…

Everything has been done to assure my safety and comfort while living and working in China. From a Chinese liaison available to me 24/7 for any issue from banking to my health concerns, to accommodations that are admittedly below standard by American measures but certainly far above standard from a Chinese perspective. My work schedule is minimal and I have a bounty of free time. I get paid more to work 6 hours a week than engineers who work fifty or sixty hours a week.

And that’s just the job. Let’s talk about the people.

· I have been warmly welcomed in people’s homes, and been given standing invitations to return. And that’s not just one or two homes; it is the homes of several people: Sam and his parents, Summer, Ken, Della, George, some of my students, some of the vendors on the street that I patronize regularly. Just to mention a few.
· I have been treated to meals in fine restaurants where I am not allowed to pay my share. When I try to treat people I invite, they invariably pay the ticket before I can get my money out… and its not for lack of trying on my part, either.
· Everyone with whom I have occasion to practice my Chinese language skills are thrilled to the bone that I am making an attempt to learn their language and culture. They, in turn, like to practice their English skills with me, even the farmers at the farmer’s market.
· People (usually men) have given up their seat on the bus for me. Considering how hard it is to come by a seat on the bus, that is really saying a lot.

Although it is true that people still point and stare to the extent that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the attention, there is no animosity in their curiosity. Usually a smile and a wave and a greeting from me will satisfy the curious. Or posing for a picture with them. Overall, I have to say that my living experiences in China have been overwhelmingly positive.

Am I wearing the wrong colored glasses? Should I change my name to Pollyanna? Perhaps.

But, from everything that I’ve seen and experienced since I’ve been here, I can honestly report that I have not sensed a single bit of animosity toward America. Nor have I felt threatened in any way by any official. Based on my experiences, English speakers – certainly Americans among them, are welcome and are treated as revered guests in this country. The news media does not disparage American activities. It appears to me that everything is being done to assure the American visitor or worker their safety, comfort and enjoyment here.

A note about censorship: much is being made of China blocking such sites as YouTube, Facebook and blog sites. While it is outrageous to the American mind – who believe in the right to free speech, I can understand why, from a Chinese perspective, that this is so. The Chinese wish to uphold a certain moral standard for their citizens and thus employ censorship to do so. That is not so different from Hollywood, some fifty years ago, who dictated that Joan Collins could not show her navel in the epic movie Cleopatra because navels were considered lewd and obscene at the time. The makeup artist pasted a large fake ruby in her navel and thus did not have to alter the costume… just in case you’re curious.

I said all of that to say this: I believe that the American news media is not presenting a fair and unbiased accounting of China.

Final note: I did not write this to change your mind or to sway you to another way of thinking. For all I know, I am displaying a perfect ‘sheep to slaughter’ mentality. What I am trying to say is that, maybe broadening your perspective might give you a substantially different picture than is being presented to you by the American media. Bottom line: it is my experience that China is America friendly.

OK, long post… I know. I’ve reviewed it and gone over it and edited it and just couldn’t bring myself to cut anything out. Everything I’ve written here is vital to support my point. Please forgive me but… consider what I’ve written, OK?


Sam’s Parents

Sam’s diminutive parents stood to greet me. By contrast I towered over them! As it is, Sam is not very tall but he does stand a few inches taller than his parents. With smiles and greetings, they urged me to put my bag down and make myself at home. They were just as excited by my visit as Sam was.

Sam’s father is a tailor by trade and his mother helps out. Their customer flow is steady in spite of a lack of advertisement. It seems everyone in town knows about the tailor at house number 230. Even though customers came in regularly, Sam’s father took time out to tell me that he had booked me a hotel room because his home did not have a Western toilet. He feared I would be uncomfortable staying in their humble quarters. I did not have the chance to reassure them that I would be perfectly happy to stay at their home, and perhaps that is a good thing. I did not wish to make them uncomfortable in any way.

We spent the afternoon talking in between customers. Sam did have to translate some, and he and I spent a good deal of time talking as well. Sam’s mother made sure that I had something to eat at all times: a plate of nuts was proffered, some fruit, a glass of tea. At one point Sam asked if I had to go to the bathroom and we went to the hotel a few doors down to use their facilities. My room was not yet ready, but the hotel staff let us use a room that was ready. How nice! After regaining a measure of personal comfort, Sam and I went for a short walk around their farmer’s market.

When we came back the table was set and dinner was ready. The table was laden with a simmering fish stew indigenous to the region, as well as fried chicken, roasted duck, pork and vegetables, preserved fish chunks and fish balls. Over dinner our conversation really flowed. Sometimes Sam’s parents had a hard time understanding me and at times I was completely lost on what they were saying. Admittedly it was my fault because my Chinese is just not that good.

In China it is common to exchange vital statistic information such as age, salary and family data. I could navigate that pretty well. Sam translated the more difficult conversational gambits. When Sam’s mother found out I was divorced she swore she would find me a Chinese man. I did joke that he would have to be very tall, and much laughter ensued.

Sam’s parents grew up in an era where there simply was not enough food. There were days when they did not get to eat at all, even. Sam explained to me that, for them, there is never enough food and the meals they prepare for guests are lavish affairs. Especially foreign guests! Sam told me he had asked his mother to fix more vegetables to go with the dinner but she refused, saying that foreigners like to eat meat. Thus the meal was mostly meat based. And delicious.

We toasted each other repeatedly with Bai Jiu. Sam’s father, seated to my right, made sure my bowl stayed full with choice portions of chicken or duck. I in turn placed chunks of meat in his bowl. In China, one shows affection and respect by offering up choice morsels in that manner. I tricked Sam’s mom by sharing the rest of my Bai Jiu with her. The men were done eating and drinking; she and I were toasting each other. Having learned the art of drinking Bai Jiu without getting drunk (take very small sips), I still had plenty in my glass so I poured most of it in her glass. She called me sneaky! But she laughed and drank it anyway. That is another Chinese custom: if you have and someone else doesn’t, you share.

I offered to help clean up after dinner and was waved away. Instead, Sam, his father and I went for a walk. Sam’s sister looked after Baby Erica while we went, and his mother cleaned up.

Watching Sam and his father walk hand in hand and talking I had time to reflect on the love so evident between the members of this family. Like gossamer threads it binds them close, woven with a mutual respect and admiration. Sam had told me that, when he got married his father contracted construction on his home to build another level for him and Penny, and the child that would eventually come. He also gave Sam and his bride a substantial chunk of money to buy their own apartment in the city. All of this from a humble tailor whose own life had been fraught with hardship. I have no idea what father and son talked about as they walked together, first holding hands and then father supporting son because Sam’s ankle grew more painful with each step, and I don’t need to know. It was such a beautiful sight, to see these two men in such harmony and cadence with each other. I felt honored to witness it.

Unfortunately Sam’s ankle started paining him terribly and they decided to take a taxi home. The men sat in the back and I scrunched myself into the front seat – have I told you that Chinese taxis are relatively small? Within minutes we were back at #230, and we decided to call it a night. Off I went to the hotel, after admonishing my friend to sleep with his ankle propped up and bidding my gracious hosts goodnight. I fell into bed at 9:30PM and got the best night’s sleep I’ve gotten in a long time.

The next morning Sam and I went to breakfast. His mother, an early riser, had already eaten. His father was tending to customers’ orders. He looked up, busy and harried, explaining that he could not be a good host because he had a lot of business to take care of. I, not wanting to be any trouble, assured him that I was not mad at all about it.

Sam’s damaged ankle was indeed better that morning and we went for a much longer walk. He showed me many things about where he grew up, but mostly he showed his heart. He confessed that, when he returns home he does not necessarily hunt down any school chums; what he likes to do is hold his baby girl and look out on the street at the people passing by. He made sure I saw and felt the excitement of the people for their upcoming holiday, even calling me outside when a store across the street let off firecrackers to signal their grand opening.

How time flies when you are so fortunate as to find yourself in that peaceful place that you share with good friends! All too soon it was afternoon and time to enjoy another meal. This time, Mom had prepared dumplings, the traditional dish for luck and prosperity at New Years. The leftovers from the night before also graced the table. Unfortunately Sam and I were both still full from the bowl of noodles we had for breakfast, but Mom was not going to let us get away that fast. For this meal, Sam’s sister’s future mother in law joined us and again I saw the perpetuity of life among them. The future in-laws chatted like old friends, Mom made sure my dumpling bowl was kept full and Dad led the toasting. Again I tricked Mom by sharing my Bai Jiu, while Sam and his sister fed Baby Erica. Throughout the meal, customers came in to drop off their orders.

What? It is 2:30 already? I almost did not want to leave, and indeed Dad said I was welcome to stay another day, something I could not do. I had to get back to Wuhan and make my preparations for my trip to Xi’an. However, Sam’s parents would not let me go until I promised them that I would return. In fact, they threatened me by saying if I don’t return we will not be friends! That is a promise that I find easy to keep, and I gave them my word sincerely. These are people you would want for a friend, simply for their strength and honesty of spirit.

As I grabbed my bag and fought my tears, Dad asked forgiveness for not seeing me off at the bus station. His older sister has cancer and she is in her final days; he had to go with his brother to tend to her. After everything he did to make me feel welcome, I would feel slighted at his leaving to tend to his sick sister? No apology needed, Dad. Please go and take care of her. We will see each other again.

I promise.

A hop to Xi Shui

As I wander into experiences and all over China I try to maintain a degree of objectivity so that I can report to you what I see, feel and find as though you are experiencing it yourself, unclouded by my prejudice. I regret to inform you that this time I have failed miserably. You will see and feel my heart in my words, because there was so much heart put into my visit to Sam’s home.

Xi Shui (pronounced she shway) is the town where Sam’s parents live. I like to read up on my destinations so I can learn what to expect when I get there, but I did not get any knowledge prior to going, other than Sam calling it a town and telling me it takes two hours to get there. ‘Town’ is a misnomer; the population exceeds that of most major cities in the States save for the real biggies like New York or L.A..

There is precious little information about Xi Shui on the Internet and I soon found out why. The city is touted as the most environmentally friendly city in China… because it has no industry! It seems there is nothing remarkable about the place that would be Internet reportable. Based on my failed attempt at research and Sam’s description I thought it would be a small village, so I prepared accordingly: a pack of cigarettes to distribute – a customary ice-breaker in China, a bag of candy to treat little ones with and wine for Sam’s parents.

I will have to write about the experience of traveling by long distance coach in another post. For now, suffice to say that I was a bit dismayed that, as we neared the two-hour mark on our travel we were in a rural area and the bus driver started dropping people off on the side of the road. Again my American experiences formed my perceptions; I thought that the driver would announce the stops he was making along the route. The driver was not announcing anything when he made these stops. This being my first experience with long distance busing, and not knowing that Xi Shui was actually a pretty sizable city, I started panicking, not knowing if we had actually passed my destination and I didn’t know to get off the bus.

I asked the traveler sitting next to me if Xi Shui was still ahead and he did inform me that we had not arrived yet. I breathed a sigh of relief. When the driver pulled into a lot with other buses and turned off the ignition, and all of the passengers got up and got off the bus, I took that as my cue that we had arrived.

People milled about, smiling, smoking, hailing each other or taxis. I did not see Sam anywhere so I sent him a text message. Soon afterward he limped up with a smile on his face and a greeting on his lips. Wait… limped up? Sam, what happened? He had fallen down the stairs the day before, just after I had sent him a message that I was buying my ticket to come visit. The scariest part was that he was holding Baby Erica when he fell! Fortunately, Sweet Erica is just fine, probably because of all of the bundling Chinese babies wear to ward off winter cold. She was scared though and spent some time crying, seemingly commiserating with her father who was not happy about his sprained ankle.

I feel a degree of guilt at his falling.

His family home is a mere ten minutes away from the bus station and during that short walk (or hobble, in Sam’s case), I tried to take everything in: the red and gold decorations for the impending celebration, the multitude of street vendors, the buildings and the people, the lack of organized vehicular traffic and the cacophony. I had a hard time doing so because, in spite of China’s progress and modernization everywhere else I’ve been, this town’s sidewalk was in such bad repair that I risked a twisted ankle by not watching where I was going. Or, I might have run someone over… decidedly not something I wanted to do during my first few minutes there (or at all).

Sam and I are babbling as though we had not seen each other in years instead of just days; he is such a gracious host and was honestly happy that I had come. All smiles except for when he grimaced in pain, he could not wait to show me around and introduce me to his family. Soon enough he steered me into a narrow hallway between a clothing store and an optics merchant; it seems we had arrived.

The hallway let into a large, high-ceilinged room painted royal blue on the bottom third and white the rest of the way up. The front of the room houses the tools of a tailor’s trade: two treadle-type sewing machines, a workbench and two sergers. A square table and a mantle occupy the back of the room. Two doors; one leading to living quarters upstairs and the other into a diminutive but serviceable kitchen flank the mantle. Chairs and a low, green, antique couch line the walls. That is the family living and dining room. That is where I met Sam’s parents.

I will leave you to visualize all of this for now while I gather my impressions for the next post. Let’s get ready for a merry time around the dinner table!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writer’s Block!

I do realize the irony of writing about writer’s block. But, if you’ll just bear me out…

For a long time, about 6 weeks, the impressions and ideas have been coming fast and furious. Not just for the blog but for stories that have existed in my head for years, fully fleshed out with subplots and character lines, that have been begging me to write them. Now I have a wealth of time to spend at the keyboard and I carry a notepad to boot, so that when inspiration strikes I can just jot down a few notes and BAM! There’s another story or blog entry.

I have been caught in a tidal wave of ideas and have started writing no less than four stories in the past few weeks, while still keeping up with the blog and writing emails. I’m also writing an orientation manual for foreign teachers that is tailor made for this school but is to be adaptable to all schools who employ foreign teachers in Wuhan.

Here lately, it has been like pulling teeth to write anything. I know what I want to write and heaven knows I have enough material, but I just can’t seem to get my ideas out of my head and into print. And then I get frustrated and start surfing the ‘Net…

The problem is that, during my writing time – late afternoon till about 11PM, I have no idea which narrative to tackle! It seems they all clamor for attention at the same time. Mind you, I’m not complaining. Every writer should be so lucky as to have such a flood, and maybe quite a few are and just don’t talk about it. For me, it is overwhelming. Maybe I lack training.

I feel my first priority is to answer emails. These are from friends who are especially close and from family members. #2 on that list is my blog; I’ve stated before that I feel that I have a responsibility to you. How blessed and lucky am I to have so many correspondents and readers! And I really want to do a good job keeping up with everything and everybody.

After answering emails and updating the blog come the stories. Which one to write first? Which one is particularly begging for attention? Which one was it that I had a stupendous idea for and didn’t make a note of? Which one did I get hung up on and, by sheer happenstance, came upon a solution to a plot complication?

Writing is slow work, at least for me. Unless I am on a continuous flow – meaning 10 hours straight, I have to go back and read the last few paragraphs or the last chapter to get fully caught up with what I was writing and where I was going with that particular story. While doing that I find myself editing or revising passages, which, in itself is time consuming.

Two other deterrents to writing: I usually hit a low point at about 2:00PM, and I do not have a work environment that is conducive to writing.

I need solutions.

With regard to my work environment: I have to sit at my desk while online because my DSL cable will not reach very far. The problem with sitting at the desk is that my chair is actually an implement of torture rather than an inviting conspirator. Since my office chair died a few weeks back I have been using a wooden kitchen chair. While I thought that the office chair with a list to the right was bad, this chair will go down in infamy! By the time I’ve done everything online that I need and want to do, my bones are in agony and my muscles beg to be stretched. And we’ve only made it till noon, Folks!

It took me a little bit to remember that my laptop is actually portable. I do not have to be anchored to my desk. So, using my little lap desk, I can sit cross-legged on my bed, propped up by pillows and write in full comfort. By copying all of my incoming emails into Word, I can answer them while offline and then paste my response back into the email format when I’m back online the next morning. Immediately after the email session I am onto the blog topics. There’s one solution.

And then there is the novel idea of living life (pardon the pun: ‘novel idea’ in a text about writing?) Gee, I ought to get outdoors and talk to some people, right? Maybe get some exercise? Move my body a little bit? I can’t spend all of my time in front of the computer! Of course, with everybody gone from campus I am compelled to go into town, which takes about 4 to six hours, if done in just mediocre fashion. That is a substantial chunk of time away from my writing duties. And I do have friends here in China that want to chat or send text messages at random times.

And then, of course, there is keeping up with the news, grocery shopping, cooking dinner, cleaning house and washing clothes, showering, reading for pleasure, relaxing, maybe catching the occasional movie… and those darn puzzle games that my sweet grandson got me hooked on.

I think I need a schedule.

That is actually probably the root of my problem. I don’t see writing as my job. I see it as something I want to do, but am not necessarily compelled to do each day. As a matter of fact, I write when the writing is good, just like I eat when I’m hungry, I go out when I feel restless, I clean when I need to.

How does this sound? I should wake up at 8:00AM and read and respond to email. Afterward I fix something to eat and talk with Gabriel at noon – that is a must. After talking with Gabe I can exercise, hit the town, grocery shop, even take a nap if so inclined. Whatever I need to do. By 6:00PM I should be back at the keyboard to update the blog. Then I will eat, and then devote some time to one of the stories.

Now, if I could just find the discipline to stick to it.

Sam This and Sam That; Sam, Sam, Sam

I have been talking about him pretty much since I’ve been here but I have yet to dedicate an entire entry to my friend Sam. Now is the time to do so.

When I first met him at the train station after my harrowing journey here, I thought he was a student aid. He really looks that young! In my defense, it was a reasonable assumption, considering that American Universities make use of students all of the time, and because an older man was driving the van that brought us to campus that first time, I saw no reason to change my mind about Sam’s presumed status. However, since I laid eyes on him, my friend Sam has been nothing but a bundle of surprises.

I am ashamed to admit that I really did not observe any social graces the first few weeks I was here. I did not ask him to tell me about himself, his family… anything. So, when he and I were out that first time – for my mandated physical a few days after I got here, remember? And Sam blurted out over lunch that his wife was going to have a baby, I nearly spit my tea all over him. Wife? Baby? Aren’t you just a student?

Well, he had told me he was twenty-nine years old, but I think I thought he was just pulling my leg a bit. Surely this chubby-cheeked creature could not be as old as my own daughter and expecting a child! Yes, he is.

And he is smart, too. In no way am I being facetious when I say that Sam is one intelligent man. Not only is he a revered and excellent teacher on campus, and not only is he the foreign teacher liaison – on call 24/7, but he is also studying for his MBA, and he is darn close to earning it, too! Part of his MBA requires him to speak two foreign languages. He has English pretty well whipped, so now he is tackling German with a vengeance.

Beyond that, his curiosity about everything is astounding. He constantly asks questions about life beyond the borders of China. He borrows books and movies from me. He and I have had some very engaging conversations in which we compare language, culture, politics and philosophy. I have come to appreciate Sam as a challenging and enticing conversation partner. And, I appreciate him as a friend.

Mind you, he had to work really hard to get me there. For the longest time I thought of him as my boss and, without necessarily intending to, I held him at arm’s length. He, being the intuitive person that he is, did not press or drive for more; he gave me all of the time and room I needed to get completely acclimated before gently chiding me for being so closed. That doesn’t mean he didn’t chip away at the walls I had set up, it just means he was biding his time until he sensed he could get completely through. He is a little pushy in his own way, but it is a good way. Of course, I’ve already confessed to being slow on the uptake, too.

He managed to get through to me on the day of the computer crash and the chair breaking (see Walking Pneumonia and Computer fever entry). While being completely non-accusatory, he did a great job of pointing out that I had a way maintaining distance and, while I could have denied it, what’s the point? He is right, and I’m aware of it. Not to say that Sam is the only person, or indeed the first person who deserves my trust. However, being as I am determined to learn how to trust, why not trust Sam? He has certainly proven a worthy candidate.

He likes to drop by my apartment just to visit. Now that I’m learning to accept him as a friend and only incidentally a liaison between me and the school, I find his visits enjoyable. Especially when we get going on one of those conversations that leap from deep to deeper topic. He too likes discussing politics and philosophy. Sometimes over tea and sometimes over something stronger, we will sit on the world’s ugliest couch and exchange ideas until either his phone rings or one of us has another obligation. Usually him.

As time goes by and through our talks, I’ve formed a mental picture of Sam that I constantly have to revise. Recently, over lunch I asked him what he likes to do to relax. As he is always so busy, I genuinely wondered. He said he likes to go fishing. Now there’s a surprise! I wouldn’t have thought that this dedicated professional, continuous scholar, deeply intellectual man, father of one and husband to the lovely Penny would enjoy disconnecting from the world. The man is just full of contradictions!

I have had the privilege of going to visit his home and meeting Penny. Also, Sam has accorded me the honor of giving his sweet baby girl her English name. I chose Erica, a name that delights him. And it really suits her too! Erica and I have bonded; she coos and talks with me and I talk right back with her. She is a perfectly delightful baby; a reflection of her parents. Sam says she really likes me. I say she’s really precious… just like her father.

This Spring Festival, Sam and Erica will go to Sam’s hometown to show her off. Penny will join them on her days off from the hospital, where she works as a RN. It will be Erica’s first time there. A big to-do is planned for her homecoming. It will be my first time there, too. Sam has invited me to meet his family, emphasizing what an honor it would be for his parents if I were to come.

No Sam, the honor is mine. You’d better believe I will take you up on your invitation. How do you refuse when your friend invites you home?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I Danced at a Hip-Hop Contest!

The reason my friend Ken came to Wuhan for the weekend was to compete in a Street Dance competition. France hosts a global contest annually, called Juste Debout, and this happened to be the China portion of that contest. Dancers from all over China poured into Wuhan for this two-day event. Luckily I only had to secure return train tickets for my friend and his dance team, not for all of the dancers that competed.

Incidentally, you can google Juste Debout China 2011 and watch footage of the contest. It was pretty spectacular.

Normally I would not attend such an event, even though I find street dancing fascinating. The origins of street dance come from the gang torn streets of New York City, and started back in the ‘70’s. To settle territory claims rival gangs would dance in the street; whoever had the most impressive moves won the territory in question.

Dancing was used as a substitute for violence thanks in large part to the efforts of DJ Kool Herc. He did not apply for the job; indeed there never was a job posting that read: “Record scratching DeeJay needed to MC rival gang street dances. Pay negotiable if DJ is not shot or otherwise killed. Maimed DJs are entitled to danger pay.”

Clive Campbell, DJ Kool Herc’s real name, got tired of all of the fighting on his block and organized the first dance-off. He recognized the youths’ need to assert their presence on the block, but would not advocate fighting. Thus, dancing became the substitute and DJ Kool Herc became known as the father of street dancing.

The movement caught on and street dancing became an institution. Now it is a global phenomenon and nowhere is that more evident than in China, where violence is strictly forbidden, the concept of ‘territory’ is unknown and gangs are just now burgeoning. From all of my asking and researching I have gleaned that, in fact, many Chinese dancers of hip-hop or other styles of street dancing have no idea of the history of the dance style. They just adopted it as a practicable symbol of the West, a culture many of these youths aspire to emulate.

Among the types of street dance, Hip-Hop is the most popular. Under that general header come ‘breaking’, ‘locking’ and ‘popping’, all subcategories of hip-hop. There are many other styles of street dance, but these four were what this competition addressed. My friend Ken dances Hip-hop, the general variety that incorporates moves from the three sub-categories in freestyle form.

I was very excited to see him dance! It had been a long time since we had seen each other to begin with, but it had been even longer since I had seen him dance, something he loves to do. Therefore I had to go watch the competition.

As we entered the hall, the music was already pumping from the auditorium, clearly audible in the lobby. Although I can live without listening to a lot of the lyrics to the music that dancers ‘break’ to, the beat is entrancing and, if you have any sense of rhythm at all, you will be compelled to move your body in time to it.

Confession time: I did not really dance at a hip-hop contest as part of the competition. I danced in the lobby and in the aisles, way up in the bleachers where no one could see me. Partly because it was so cold in the auditorium – no indoor climate control in China, remember? And partly because… well, because the enthusiasm of the contestants was contagious!

The contest was supposed to start at 11:00 but somehow it got to be 2:00PM before any judged dancing took place. Most of the contestants already surrounded the dance floor and, because the music was pumping, they were working their moves. Let me tell you something: these kids have some moves!

I was actually surprised at how good they are. Some of the teams look like they do nothing but dance morning, noon and night. Their bodies are so fluid and their moves are so clean! They make it look like they were born to dance, they do nothing but dance and they probably even dream about dancing. While the more showy dancers practiced their moves ringside, my good friend Ken worked it way up high in the bleachers alone. That is just the type of guy he is: he has to get ‘in the zone’ before he turns up the power and blows out the lights. Once he was assured he was in the right frame of mind to compete, he and his partner worked out their routine.

At long last the MC introduced the judges and the contest started. Dance teams – two members per team, were summoned into the ring in groups of 5, and they were given one minute to show their moves. Ken’s team, Reborn, was team #9, so he was in the second group of dancers.

This type of competition is difficult because you do not dance to music you select. The DJ plays a one-minute snippet of music that the dancers may or may not be familiar with and that is their chance to secure a place in the second elimination round. Fortunately the beat does not change from snippet to snippet and that is what the dancers respond to.

Each two-person team advances to the center of the ring when their turn comes and usually the moves are synchronized. After the ‘approach’, generally a form of salute is made to the judges, and then each dancer in turn takes the floor and shows what they’ve got while their partner moves to the background. The dancers then switch places and the lead dancer fades to the background while the second member of the team dazzles. Once the guest MC signals that their minute is over with, the dancers salute the judges again and recede into the background, leaving the floor open for the next dance team.

I am sad to say that Ken and his partner did not make it past the first elimination round. To be fair, he was up against kids that dance all day and all night, wear coordinated clothing and have all the time in the world to work on their routine. And, there was this team of little kids, maybe four or five years old, that stole the show! Nevertheless, we were all thrilled that there was even a competition in which Ken and his partner could showcase their moves, if only for one minute.

Ken vows he will practice more and return to compete next year. I will probably secure his return train ticket, and dance in the bleachers again. Afterward, we will most likely enjoy spending time together. We are good friends, after all.

Winter Break

For many in China, the travails of travel have begun. The upcoming holiday, Chinese New Year is the most revered and most celebrated holiday in the country. It is called Chun Jie, pronounced Tshun Gee-ay, which translates to Spring Festival. Traditionally, this holiday marks the start of spring, as well as the Lunar New Year.

During Chinese New Year, college students return home for their 5-week break, food vendors shut down their stands and wheel them off the streets, migrant workers get to see their family for the first time since last year’s Chun Jie. Yep, a whole year. All transportation venues – long distance bus and train stations, and airports are crowded beyond belief and all avenues leading to said venues are jam-packed full of traffic: buses, taxis, private cars… you name it.

I had occasion to witness this stampede recently. My friend Ken, came in from Xi’an for the weekend but, knowing how difficult it is to buy train tickets during this season, he asked me to go to the train station and buy his return ticket. Thus, ten days before his arrival, and before the travel season begins in earnest, I found myself at the train station.

Getting to the station was an ordeal in itself. The regular city bus that usually navigates straight into the depot had to take a detour just to get to the station. Of course, the bus was so crowded that it was not just standing room only; I did not have to hold onto any rails or bars because all of the people around me held me in up as the bus lurched down the road and around curves. The upside to that was that I didn’t have to worry about pickpockets; no one could have slid a hand in my bag or pocket to pick it!

Finally arriving at the station I went to the ticket booth and stood in the mob. There was no standing in line because there were no lines. EVERYBODY wants to go home. As opposed to in the States, you cannot buy your transit ticket online, nor can you buy it months in advance. Ten days is the limit on buying tickets in advance. There are ticket booths throughout town but for the most accurate availability and up to date information, the train station ticket office is the best bet. Everyone knows that, too. Fortunately there are enough windows at the train station ticket office to guarantee expedient sales, and they are all staffed. Directly over the sales window a giant marquee scrolls the trains, identified by number, and the seat availability.

I looked around me while waiting for my turn at the window. Affluent citizens and migrant workers wore the same expression as they eyed the marquee nervously. Would their train be sold out? Would they be able to get home? Will they have to stand in the aisle of the train all night, or however long it takes to get them home? Ticket holders walked out of the office, holding their ticket in their hand and looking bemused at their good fortune at having secured a means to get home.

Is there such anticipation at homecoming in the States? Except for maybe soldiers returning from combat, maybe not. Many travelers in America focus on the aggravation of traveling: packing bags, going through security, possible transit delays… how many overlook those logistical issues and see only their loved ones when they look at the tickets they have that will allow them to be home again?

Although the mob was frenzied it was not out of control. People were very polite and did not cut in line. When it came my turn at the window, the clerk took extra pains with me, causing delays in the buying of tickets for everyone behind me. With 34 other windows selling tickets as fast as they can, surely the people in my line got mad at the foreigner who might ruin their chance to get home. No one said or did anything mean or bad about it, though.

And what of those who cannot secure a ticket home? I honestly don’t know. Just today I read that people are now camping out overnight to buy their tickets – remember the ten-day advance buy rule. As soon as the tickets for ten days out become available, they will be snatched up. Remember also that it gets below freezing overnight nowadays as China experiences one of the harshest winters of the century, this one and the past one. With it being considered nothing less than sacrilege to not be home for Chun Jie, I can’t imagine how one would feel or how badly they would be condemned for not getting home for the holiday.

I was able to buy tickets for my friend with minimum hassle. The train for the day he had specified was sold out so I bought tickets for the next day. That means he will have to spend an extra day in Wuhan, but at least he will get home.

I battled my way out of the train station in back to the bus stop. As the bus trundled homeward I noticed meat and sausages hanging out of windows: on ledges, on coat hangers, on special wooden racks and even from power lines. How odd, I reflected, that meat should suddenly appear everywhere. I did not make the connection between Chun Jie and these meat manifestations until I asked Sam about it.

I thought that, maybe, this being winter, the government rationed meat to everyone and curing it and hanging it outside while it is cold out was a way of preserving it. Sam corrected my impression by telling me that hanging meat out indicates that family’s prosperity for the new year, and by hanging it outside it gains a special flavor that you just cannot artificially season the meat with.

How strange: with as dirty as this city is and with all of the grime flying around, I wonder what that meat is going to taste like?

Incidentally: this Lunar New Year is the Year of the Rabbit. It officially starts on February 2nd.

I get off the bus at the proper stop and walk back to campus. The Street, eerily quiet now that the students and vendors are gone, now reflects a quaint neighborhood. Many of the shops are closed and most of the farmers who usually sell produce at the farmer’s market have gone home. People I don’t recognize stroll the sidewalks in spite of the cold. They must have just come home for the holiday.

Chun Jie kuai le! Happy Spring Festival to all!

Off The Hook

In the blink of an eye, it seems, the semester is over and all of the kids are going home. My teaching obligations ended last week with the turning in of the grades and I have enjoyed the first of my six weeks off.

The kids still had to take tests this week, but as they wrapped their work up and packed to go home, their eyes gleamed with anticipation of their homecoming and a break from campus life.

The sophomores got to go home a few weeks back and only the freshmen remained, because they had started their semester later due to their military training. Somehow, when the sophomores went home I did not sense the wild anticipation and the excitement around campus that I feel with the freshmen. Maybe it is because the sophomores are old hat at college life, maybe it is because they are older and wiser than the freshmen. The sophomores did not express that they missed home or that they missed their parents. The freshmen certainly did!

As the week wore on and the kids dropped by my house in ones, twos and groups to say goodbye and wish me a good holiday, I experienced something I never thought I would feel: I’m going to miss these kids. They are so sweet and so young; their eagerness to please and their pride in having taken their first, fledgling grown up steps away from home left a deep impression on me; one I did not anticipate.

I have an almost maternal sense of protection toward these girls (and the few boys in my classes), which is really strange seeing as they are going home to their parents. But, over these last few months, it seems that I was the most approachable adult around, and they bonded with me. And I bonded with them.

Some of them told me of the problems they have at home. Others confessed that they knew they were going to be bored out of their mind, but what was their choice? They have to go home for the holiday. Stephanie confided that, since she left for college, she and her mother have stopped fighting. She wondered if the truce would last through the break or if they would start butting heads again once she returned home. Sasuke confided that she had tried suicide a few years back because of the problems she endured at home. That one was heavy! Martin told me about how his girlfriend, the love of his young life, had broken up with him just prior to leaving for college. Now he had to go home and face her again.

When they talk about their trials and tribulations at home, I am as open as receptive to them as they are to me in the classroom. My listening to them and talking with them seems to help them in some way. They get to unburden themselves and sometimes, if they ask for it, they get advice from someone they have come to trust. Most of the time though, they just want someone who cares to listen to them. I am honored to be that person.

Through their stories I realized that this is not just a gig for me. Not just a paycheck and not just a job. These kids mean something to me: when they look up from their workbooks, wide-eyed and receptive, I am compelled to offer them the best of my knowledge, to the best of my ability. After all, for these first year college students, I am a role model and an introduction to their campus life. I have made an indelible impression on them, much as they have made one on me.

The campus is now eerily deserted. The clacking around in the dorm upstairs from my apartment is now quiet, there is no clomping down the stairs at 6:30AM and no music playing for morning exercise. The school bells heralding the start of classes no longer ring every forty-five minutes. The low purring sound of plastic wheels on concrete trundles by as one of the last few lingerers leaves for home, pulling her suitcase behind her. The wind lows mournfully around the denuded tree branches in the park behind my apartment as though asking where all of the people have gone.

As I walk through this academic ghost town, my cell phone chirps. Another one of ‘my’ kids has just sent me a message, letting me know she made it safely home. Like others before her wrote, she cautions me to be safe and not get sick while she’s gone. Her message ends with ‘I miss you’ and ‘see you soon!’

How precious they are.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Day Out

A lot of days, unless I am teaching, I spend in my nice, warm jammies. Some days it is too cold to go out. Some days I figure that if I go out I’ll just spend money I don’t need to spend. Other times I just can’t find a reason to go through the aggravation of getting ready to go out and brave the mud, the weather, the buses, the traffic, or the crowds.

Yep, sounds like there could be a touch of depression in that last sentence, but not everything can always be peaches and cream, you know?

Yesterday, I was bound and determined I was going to go out. I had a plan you see, a plan that involved taking my trusty laptop to a coffeehouse and writing to my heart’s content while sipping tea or hot chocolate and maybe nibbling on a cake. I also wanted to see if I could find some more suitable long johns – the ones I have don’t quite work so well here, although I’m grateful to have any at all. I also thought I might find a nice gift or two to send back to the States; I have plenty of recipients in mind for gifts as it is.

So: shower first thing in the morning (and note that I desperately need to cut my hair), breakfast, quick phone call to my beloved Gabriel and then load up the laptop. Boil some water to take on the road with me, bundle up and off I go for a day of adventure and fun!

While on the bus I reflected that I had forgotten to pack my book. I might get tired of writing and want to read for a while; sometimes it helps me to distract my mind from what I’m trying to say so that I can make the end effect more concise. Oh, well! What do I need my book for; I will just daydream instead of read.

First destination: Wal-Mart, to find microfiber tights or longjohns. Not much success, but I did overhear one woman telling her daughter about how big I am. I got into a short but pleasant conversation with her about how, even by Western standards I am considered big. She and her companion both expressed amazement: “She understands us!” is what they said. I laughed delightedly, and we chatted for a few moments.

I thought I might try for some fur lined shoes too, and struck out again. I didn’t expect much luck there, so I wasn’t disappointed.

After walking around the whole store I found I was hungry so I went next door to Pizza Hut. It would have been nice to have my book along because the wait for my meal was unusually long. Never mind! I just took in the scene instead. A family of three had ordered pizza and a pasta entrĂ©e, along with a vegetable platter for their young daughter. While waiting for the food, the husband went next door to McDonald’s and bought his family each a frozen treat – the one equivalent to Dairy Queen’s Blizzard. They really had a lot to eat! Although, to be perfectly fair: they did take half their pizza home with them.

I had cream of potato soup and a salad, and a nice cup of tea. In America, that would have been a complete and filling meal. I had forgotten that portion size is substantially smaller here; no wonder the waitress asked me what else I wanted to eat. It was satisfying but not stellar, and I was still a little hungry when I left. Good! More room for the hot chocolate and cake I intended to have. Off to the coffeehouse with me.

No problem ordering a nice cinnamon roll and please do put whipped cream on that hot chocolate! Except… they fixed me a coffee latte instead and I could tell that the cinnamon roll was stale even though it was warmed up. Well, that’s not what I came here for, anyway. What I really wanted to do is write!

I had been thinking about how I wanted to formulate these blog entries; also I have a lot of emails to respond to. What a way to while away an afternoon: writing to the ones you love!

I tried to plug in my laptop but… have I told you the plug configurations are different here? Some plug configurations are slotted and in my house they allow for the standard American 3-pronged plugs, but not so at the coffeehouse. NOTE TO SELF: bring adapter with you so you can plug in computer when you go to the coffeehouse! I sat there and ate my stale and rapidly cooling bun and drank my undesired latte, mourning the absence of my book and cursing the fact that I could not write the first word when I had intended the whole rest of the afternoon to do so.

At this point you would figure that this would all add up to a bad day, right? Lugging a computer around, not finding anything I set out to buy, being disappointed by the rare meal out and the subsequent coffee house treat… All that on top of getting my shoes all muddy again, braving the cold, cold wind, the crowded buses, and the two hour travel time to get to where I wanted to go?

Well, I can’t say I was suffering a touch of depression yesterday. I figured some people take their dogs out; I took my computer out (for lack of a dog, you might add). And, even though nothing seemed to be going as planned, I reasoned that, at least, I got out of the house. Not much of a purposeful life but I did set out with a purpose.

On the way home, the buses cooperated. I did not have to brave the elements very long before they came chugging down the road, and they were not so crowded that I had to stand for the whole way home. Traffic was not so bad that it took forever to get home. When I got home I set to cleaning up my kitchen, cooking a meal and finally settled in to write. Because of the coffee, I was zinging until about midnight, so I got a lot of writing done.

All in all, not a bad day!

Short update: I did take my computer back to the coffeehouse, this time with an adapter. It still wouldn’t plug in. There is one more way that I could try the whole ‘writing at the coffeehouse’ scene; that would be to bring a surge protector which does plug into Chinese outlets effortlessly, and will accommodate my laptop’s Western plug. Maybe I will want to try that sometime, but not any time soon.

A Purposeful Life

I am a big fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay titled Self-Reliance. If you’ve not yet read it, I strongly encourage you to. Especially in this day and age, when our Nation is undergoing a social and economic revolution.

In this essay, the venerable Mr. Emerson talks about eschewing the trappings of society and finding one’s own path. Only by doing so can one avoid the pitfalls of total societal compliance and the complications brought forth by such a passive acquiescence to what passes for the norm. He urges the reader to find rectitude and lead a moral life. He professes that, only by being self reliant, as opposed to relying on the government and being dictated to by society, can one begin leading a decent and purposeful life. He avers that such a life is the only life worth living. I agree with him.

This essay was written during a time of social upheaval, and it is rather odd that Mr. Emerson authored it, as he was a part of the upper crust of society at the time. It just so happened that he looked around him, at the indolence and the wantonness of the people in his circle, he wondered how in the world he came to belong there. Indeed his penning and publishing this essay did cause his excommunication from high society and also caused him a lot of legal trouble. The legal trouble came as a result of the fact that he was speaking out against the government.

This blog is not political in nature. However, I do like to reference such texts from time to time as an example both of the fact that history does repeat itself and that this world is not so big that what applies to one society does not in any way touch another society.

But on a much smaller scale, Mr. Emerson’s essay affects me very deeply. Not as an urging to become self reliant – I’m nothing if not that! In his text he expounds on the idea that one must give their life a purpose. And that is the true topic of this entry.

These last four months have been so easy: teach for a grand total of 6 hours a week, and the rest of my time is mine. Since I’ve been here I have been tasked with nothing more challenging than learning my students’ names and figuring out what to do with them for the brief time each week that I stand in front of them. I do not consider the challenges of learning to live here, the adversity of which I have written extensively about, part of a purposeful life. I consider those issues existential in nature.

One of the problems with my life in America was that I felt it had no purpose. While, true enough I went to work every day and even did what I could to make my colleagues’ work lives easier, I simply could not digest the fact that that was my sole purpose. Truth be told, I was the sole beneficiary of my employment: the paycheck, the benefits, the incentives and the rewards were mine alone, just like they are for every employee there. Not much of a purpose in being self-serving, is there?

While I was a student, I felt I was leading a purposeful life. Learning new things, broadening my horizons, expanding my life experiences all gave my life a zip and drive that I had not felt since being in survival mode when my kids were small. After graduating college I felt oddly deflated… but by then, China was on my horizon.

(I should note here, for those of you that do not know me so well, that I only attended college after my children were successfully launched into their adult life. I graduated in 2008, at the age of 45.)

After my first trip to China, I did not immediately see living here as my next goal. The trip changed me in a profound way, but the idea of chucking everything I had built in the States and coming here was not even a consideration at that time. What forced the issue was the fact that I could find no purpose, no sense of fulfillment after graduation.

I tried volunteering at women’s shelters. I could teach them simple household repairs, how to fix their car… I could even have helped with their emotional distress because, in my life there had been a hefty dose of that. I’d been where these battered, downtrodden women had been and I had overcome; surely there was knowledge to impart and aid/succor to be rendered. I was told repeatedly that I did not have the educational credentials to help these women on that level.

Well, OK then. I can help with kids. I had been severely abused as a child and had gone through counseling and overcome a lot; I generally have good rapport with children, even though at first they tend to be intimidated by my size. Again I do not have the proper background and education credentials to work with kids.

Well, what about when Katrina hit and all of those victims flooded into the city I called home? Being as I’ve been homeless and have suffered tragedy, maybe I could help there? ‘No, but if you’d like to make a cash donation…’

I am not even allowed to donate blood or marrow in America! Much of my childhood and early adult life was spent overseas. The fear that I might have mad cow disease from eating meat while overseas overrode the fact that blood is desperately needed and I am a universal donor (O-), have never had a venereal disease, have never done drugs and am healthy as a horse.

Its not like I wanted an all or nothing proposition. Its not like: “I want to do this, and if you don’t let me do this I’m going to go away and sulk.” I did not mind volunteering at shelters and reading to kids… but again: where is the purpose? Why, when there is such a need for help, and I stand here with a lifetime of real experience under my belt and ready to help, won’t you let me help?

That is when I started focusing on China. Chinese society is just now burgeoning out into what America recognizes as modern. Chinese industry is just now recognizing the perils of polluting their land and waterways. The Chinese lifestyle is just now becoming what America was in the 1950’s. Maybe there is room for one foreigner to make a difference in helping build that bridge to what China wants to become: a so-called first world country.

These past four months have not felt very purposeful. These next few will become so. That is one of my goals for this new year.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Strange Reversal

The weather forecasters in China are marveling that this is, and will be one of the coldest winters on record for the whole country. reports that South China has seen record cold temperatures, which have caused a spike in electrical consumption, as opposed to Northern China, which is used to cold temperatures and uses coal or oil to heat homes. Sam has imparted that these 4 snowfalls we’ve had so far this season are unlike anything he’s seen in his somewhat young 29 years; the typical snowfall for Wuhan is usually one small snowfall per season.

I don’t care about all these statistics. I’m just tired of being cold.

I remember watching so many National Geographic shows, Lorne Greene’s Wild America and so many other nature shows whose refrain was the animals’ constant quest for food. To listen to them tell it, some animals’ sole purpose is to seek food morning, noon and night. Unless it was a nocturnal animal that sought food only from dusk till dawn.

I seek warmth with the same single-mindedness that those animals reportedly seek food. I have bought fuzzy slippers and wooly socks, make use of a water bottle and a thick quilt, wear thermal underwear like a second skin… and none of that is enough. I have resorted to running the heater full time in my room even though the maximum temperature it achieves is 65 degrees Fahrenheit – 20 degrees warmer than the rest of the house. I’ve forsaken my desk. As I write this, my faithful laptop is on my bed tray which spans my lap so that I can keep my legs covered while I write.

It is but a small consolation that winter will be over soon. I am cold now. NOW is the time that matters.

I’ve tried doing what the Chinese do to keep warm: keep moving. That helps some, but not when the wind is so bitterly cold that I end up nauseated, my nose running and my ears ringing. Besides, my top half stays nice and warm, thanks to the many layers of clothing I can get away with under my parka, but my bottom half only has two layers covering it. My legs may as well be naked, for all the cold protection I have on.

In conversation with Sam, he showed me that he wears fuzzy, lined shoes with his woolen socks. He also has fuzzy lined longjohns, but I only had to take his word for that. He didn’t show me those. It appears that the Chinese people keep themselves warm rather than heating their space, as I’ve mentioned before. Sam might have been gently chastising me for running my heater ‘round the clock.

Not because of any inducement of Sam’s, but I decided to go seek fuzzy undergarments for myself. The motivation came on the day I was playing badminton outdoors in 30-degree weather in an attempt to generate warmth. With Chinese people getting bigger and bigger, there might just be lined longjohns for me somewhere in Wuhan, I reasoned.

The next day I went out, full of purpose. I was going to find fuzzy longjohns if I had to stay out all day to do it! Fortunately I did not have to stay out all day to do it; I found quality fuzzy longjohns at the very first place I came to: ever lovin’, ever trusting Wal-Mart.

I need to remark here on a strange fashion trend these Chinese girls are wearing. All the fashionistas are wearing shorts with spandex tights beneath and high-heeled shoes or knee boots. Since I first saw this style running around campus I had to wonder: how are these girls staying warm with just a pair of tights covering their legs? Come to find out, they are fuzzy, lined tights and they are just as warm as toast! I know, because I bought a pair.

That is the first of two strange reversals. After putting on my fuzzy lined tights under my jeans, my bottom half is now warmer than my upper half, no matter what I wear on my upper half. I might never take my fuzzy lined tights off.

The second reversal is equally strange. I will tell you about it now.

Sam stays on campus three nights per week because his commute is nearly 2 hours and not practicable when he teaches an early class. His quarters are two doors down from mine and nowhere near as lavish: one simple room with a Chinese type bed – a twin bed frame with a board covered by a thin pad, a desk and an old-fashioned wash room. No heat source whatsoever.

I should clarify that, when I say it is cold here, I mean it is below freezing overnight. The mercury hovers around in the 20’s, and his walls are just as concrete as mine. Meaning that they trap the cold just as much as mine do.

I find it inhumane to expect anyone to sleep in those conditions. Even though Sam has a heating pad on his bed, all of the heat is promptly leached out of it by the chill in the room. I offered Sam the parabolic heater I had bought for myself. He did not protest or fight with me at all over the idea; indeed he sent me a text message that afternoon asking if I were home so he could borrow that heater.

Now that is an even stranger reversal than my legs being warm and my upper half being cold.

As luck would have it I was not home at that time because I was out buying fuzzy lined tights. But as soon as I got home, I made sure he got the heater. We shared some good conversation and a shot of Bai Jiu with a hot tea chaser, and then off he went to enjoy some heat in his room.

When I saw him this morning he was strutting like a prince. I asked him how he slept and he crowed that he slept the best he had in days, thanks to that heater. He even intimated that he was going to go buy a heater for his wife, Penny, so that she can sleep as well.

What have I done? I’ve turned this traditional Chinese man into a consumer! He’s going to go buy a heater! What’s next? GASP! Air conditioning this summer???

And that could be seen as the third and strangest reversal: while I’m out buying fuzzy tights to emulate the Chinese, he’s going out buying heaters to mimic the Americans.

The Chinese System of Personal Comfort

My first clue was fat babies. Babies so fat their arms stuck out from their bodies at 70-degree angles. Their little heads bobbled on top of their fat bodies, incongruously small. Small children who could walk toddled along similarly bundled and their heads were equally disproportionate. What was wrong with these babies?

My second clue was adults running around in what appeared to be jammies: matched jacket and pants sets that were quilted. During the warmer months I had seen adults run around in actual jammies and I had even seen one woman walking down the street who wore a red sheer nightie as though it were a dress, so these quilted outfits struck me as extremely odd. Why were people suddenly wearing pajamas while out and about?

Incidentally: I meant to write about the jammie craze around here. When the weather turns nice again I’ll be out with my camera and take a picture of someone wearing jammies as though they were regular street clothes, just to show you.

And then I learned. A lot of apartments around the neighborhood do not have heaters so the babies have to be bundled up to three times their normal size in order to conserve body heat. Adults also conserve body heat by wearing these quilted outfits, along with fur-lined boots.

In America we are used to regulating the temperature of our space. Central heat and air conditioning, oil or kerosene heaters, wood stoves or, if nothing else is available, electrical space heaters. In China, they have no choice but to bundle up, layer upon layer, to stay warm.

My apartment has two climate control units: one in the bedroom/office and one in the living room. Clearly foreigners are not expected to maintain the same degree of personal deprivation and temperature torture as the Chinese do.

As we get deeper and deeper into the winter months I find myself scrounging for better and more efficient ways to keep warm. Obviously running the heaters costs money, and the heat pumps provided are woefully inadequate to maintain the minimum temperature I’m used to: 68 degrees. To that end I have procured a 1,000-Watt space heater, to assist the heat pump in keeping at least one room warm.

And I only heat one room: my bedroom/office. That is where I hang out the most. That is where I sleep and where I write, that is where my Internet connection is. I feel there is no point in heating the living room as I can only be in one room at a time; therefore heating that space is a waste of resources. The bathroom only has a heat lamp directly above the bathtub and the kitchen has no heat at all. When I’m in those rooms for an extended period of time, I usually carry the space heater with me and make use of it there. In the kitchen I turn on my oven if it is going to be just a short jaunt. It does a pretty good job at heating things up.

With the walls being concrete and floors having only a thin veneer of laminate over concrete, cold and damp get trapped inside and overpower any climate control efforts. I find myself wearing 2 pair of socks with my fur lined house shoes (or any other shoes for that matter!), 3 or 4 shirts and long johns under my flannel pants. At times I wear my jacket indoors and nowadays I always wear a scarf. Even that is not enough to keep warm sometimes.

I exercise and do jumping jacks. I play solo badminton and I have recently bought a jump rope. A few weeks ago I broke down and bought an electric heating pad for my feet. It sits on the floor beneath my desk. It may well be one of the best investments I’ve made. My kettle gets quite the workout warming water for my hot water bottle.

Sam does not heat his quarters at the university. He has an electric heating pad for his bed and otherwise keeps his jacket and his fur-lined shoes on. He keeps his hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea or water unless he is doing something that requires hands, such as typing or any other manual function – tee hee! Nor is his home heated. How do his wife and baby manage?

In absolute confoundment I asked him about the issue of keeping warm. He told me that this is South China; people are not expected to get cold. He told me that on the day of our second snowfall, when the wind chill was below freezing and the wind gusted so hard it blew small, skinny girls over. I think he expected me to believe him. It seems I have no choice but to do so.

Or do I?

I have seen freestanding heat pumps for sale at various stores around town. They stand about 65” tall and simply plug into a wall socket. They are entirely self contained and, from what I can tell, fairly efficient. They are costly though. The next best thing is a space heater. A lot of places now sell all manner of space heaters: parabolic, like the one I have, ‘portable’ radiators with oil inside them that heat up when plugged in. I’ve even found ceramic tile space heaters. So I guess that the Chinese are tired of being cold and now, with the burgeoning capitalist economic model, they can buy heat.

It seems that here too, the tide is changing. All of the new construction around town includes heat pumps for the apartments. I can see the external units mounted on the walls of the high-rises, hanging on the side of the buildings like evenly spaced, rectangular parasites on a host. What I don’t understand is why the apartment owners tarp their units up and don’t use them in the winter. Maybe the tide is not changing as quickly as it appears to be.

I’ve gotten used to an indoor temperature of 63.5 degrees. That is as warm as my room gets, running the heat pump 24/7, and that is twenty degrees warmer than the rest of my apartment. If I start shivering I put my faithful laptop to sleep and go jump rope or do some squats or heat some water…

When I get my electric bill for this month I’ll be in shock and temperature won’t matter to me anymore because when you’re in shock you don’t register external stimuli. What a strange thing to look forward to.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Rude!

As I had mentioned in my previous post, my student Jonathan is overly helpful. However, he is also a very intelligent young man and he has a lovely girlfriend names Mary. Together we have enjoyed many meals out and, as they were both graduating this spring I felt I should honor them by inviting them to my home and preparing a meal for them.

DISCLAIMER: Not all is peaches and cream with Jonathan. Remember the bus card incident? He tends to be rather pushy and sometimes can be very arrogant about his Chinese-ness, namely that I could not possibly know anything about China, Wuhan, or the Chinese culture. This trait is not particular to Jonathan; it seems many Chinese feel the need to caution me as I go about town or perform functions that are deemed too Chinese for a foreigner.

However, in my first few months here he did reach out and become a friend. He is one of the few students who made it a point to visit with me and invite me out once a week, and we do have some nice conversations. You take the good with the bad, you know.

So I invite him and his lovely girlfriend to my home for a meal. My goal was not to dazzle or impress anyone; I just wanted to offer them something personal in return for all of the time and attention they had lavished on me over the past months.

I’m not a half-bad cook. So I’ve been told, and so I judge myself. Neither my children nor I have ever fallen ill or died from anything I’ve ever cooked. The food I prepare generally turns out fairly tasty. No dinner party I’ve ever hosted or contributed to has resulted in a single case of ptomaine poisoning. No salmonella either, for those of you who just have to crack wise! For these reasons I deem myself a good cook.

On the menu: sauteed chicken breast in a sweet/sour sauce, spicy vegetables, beef with green beans and egg with tomato – a Chinese standard. All of this served with rice.

My guests were due to appear at 6PM. The original invitation was for 5:30, but Jonathan told me they had to take a test that was not scheduled to be done until after 5:30. Hence, the later time. I started in the kitchen at 5; chopping, slicing, washing, dicing. One hour’s prep time is plenty for the fare I was preparing, unless things go wrong. And they did, almost immediately.

I did not have a lot of rice to cook, but what I did have should have been plenty with all of the other food I was preparing. The next thing that went wrong: Jonathan and Mary showed up at 5:15. I was in no way prepared for them that early; fortunately I had some appetizers I could quickly lay out for their consumption, and I served them hot tea and invited them to watch a movie while I finished preparing the rest of the meal.

A few moments after I had installed them in front of the TV and gone back into the kitchen, Mary slid open the kitchen door and offered to help. I should explain that I am rather particular about my kitchen. I see my meal preparations as orchestrations; each movement being played just so in order to achieve the desired end result. Unless we are very close friends and you know my culinary routines, please do not intrude on my kitchen. Therefore I told her: “Not necessary, go unwind from your examination and spend time with Jonathan. Enjoy the movie and the snacks.” She left, albeit reluctantly… and then returned, insisting on being of help (here we go with the ‘more help than needed’ syndrome again!)

This was not quite rude. Showing up 45 minutes early was also not quite rude… until I divulge that originally I had invited them for 5:30 and Jonathan himself moved the time back to 6. But, no matter! No overt rudeness has yet occurred; I can deal with this.

I got everything done and ready to put on the table by 5 minutes after 6 – which is what I had planned on. As we gathered ‘round the dining table, they commented that everything looked delicious and the chopsticks started digging in. Jonathan sampled the beef and green beans and… immediately spit the mouthful he had out! Apparently I don’t know how to cook green beans; he said I did not cook them right. I was supposed to cook them until they are soft, not leave them crunchy and half raw.

I was shocked at his reaction: not necessarily the spitting out – although that was a bit shocking to me, but the fact that he chastised me for not cooking them properly. “But I always cook them this way!” I told him. He then went on to express his concern for my health because I eat raw vegetables. To listen to him speak I was in imminent danger of some sort of vital organ failure because I eat raw vegetables.

To forestall the issue, I jumped up and threw the food back into the wok in order to cook the beans longer. Mary again came into the kitchen, insisting that she cook them for me. I urge her back to the table to eat while the food is still hot. Now I’m getting the idea that maybe they don’t trust my cooking and she wants to supervise. That impression is borne out when I return to the table to find them only picking cautiously at the other dishes I had prepared.

When I return to the table with the beef and beans dish Jonathan immediately tells me I must be careful of how I cook food and what I eat so that I do not get sick and die. Mary chimed in with the same refrain, and I’m gathering the impression that, in their opinion I should never venture into the kitchen. I finally told these two young pups that I have been alive for 48 years and cooking since I was 7; seeing as I’m not dead yet, I must know something about cooking. That ends that argument.

I do get kudos on the sweet chicken, and the veggies make the grade. Mary asks if I had beat the eggs before frying them prior to taking a small bite and deeming them acceptable. Not good, just acceptable. She did declare that I cooked the rice very well. If I were a small child or otherwise inexperienced as a chef, I would have beamed at that compliment.

Now comes the problem with the rice… because they do not trust my culinary skills they filled up on rice. Jonathan asked for more; unfortunately I do not have anymore. I had cooked all the rice I had in my kitchen. “Never mind,” I say “I’ll cook you a potato.” I go into the kitchen and get a potato, and while in the act of peeling it they both come into the kitchen! Jonathan tells me I should let Mary cook and Mary is practically taking the paring knife out of my hand while I’m peeling the potato. Now my temper is getting rather short…

I don’t bother urging them back to the table. I’m actually getting too mad for words and want to throw them out of my house, is what I really want to do. Yet gamely I go on with the charade of hosting this dinner for these rude children. As I place the peeled potato on the cutting board and grab a cleaver to start chopping it, Jonathan urges me to caution. I resist telling him that I am 48 years old and have all of my fingers still, therefore I do not need him to constantly caution me. As he looks over my shoulder at how I’m chopping the potato, he apparently feels I am not doing it right and grabs my arm- the arm holding the cleaver and actively chopping the potato – and tells me to let Mary do it.

Ok, the gig is up. I surrender the knife and stand back while Mary takes over my kitchen and Jonathan supervises her. He also instructs me to go to the table and sit down. “No” I reply. “I want to see how Mary cooks this potato.” I’m more than a little hot under the collar and I stand there, arms crossed as they go through my kitchen, looking for what they need to cook this potato with instead of asking me where they might find things.

At this point I will end this post. I’m getting mad all over again just in the retelling, and I hope you are not getting too chapped at the reading of it. I will tell you how the dinner ended though. Mary did not cook the potato right either, but Jonathan ate it anyway. Apparently her cooking deficiencies can be tolerated but not mine. The dessert, fresh fruit and cake, also did not go over well, and I told the kids that from now on, we should enjoy meals out instead of my cooking for them.

How rude!

All the Help I Need, And Then Some

I hope, as you follow this blog, you see that, every day I am becoming more self-assured in living here. I venture out on my own, I now shop by myself and have figured out how to cook satisfying meals. In short, I’m getting along, more or less.

There are still some things I need help with and sometimes it is downright agonizing to ask for help. Not for my own previously confessed inability to accept help, and certainly not for the lack of anyone helping me… that’s for sure!

Let’s say I’m looking for a bus stop – such was the case just the other day. I just happened to be out in an area that had been familiar to me but due to construction, the bus stop had been moved. I had two choices: keep walking along the road for surely I would find A bus stop eventually or I could ask someone.

In the spirit of learning how to ask for help, I decided to ask someone where I could find a bus stop. Also, this allows me to test my ever-developing language skills.

I approached a young couple who was walking in the opposite direction and asked them where I could find a bus stop. Their immediate answer is ‘I don’t understand you’. I get that a lot when I speak Chinese because many people do not expect me to speak Chinese. Sometimes I have to say things two or three times before they realize I’m talking to them in their own language.

True story: I was shopping at the farmer’s market. One of the vendors from a nearby stall tugged my sleeve and offered up a brilliant proposal: if I bought bananas from her, she would only charge me 1Yuan for each ‘Jin’ (a unit of measure equal to 500 grams). I told her – in Chinese mind you, that I had already committed to purchasing this vendor’s bananas, but next time I would come see her. As I spoke she looked at me horrified and started shaking her head and waving her hands in front of her face, all while backing up and saying “I don’t understand you! I don’t understand you!” Her husband asked her: “What’s not to understand? She’s speaking Chinese to you!”

Apparently she wanted to be brave and approach the foreigner; she just didn’t expect the foreigner to be able to understand her. My appearance alone guarantees misunderstanding, until my conversant listens up and realizes that it is Chinese coming from my mouth, not some foreign language. This happens a lot, both on and off campus.

Back to finding bus stops. I was on my second repetition of my bus stop question when an older gentleman on a bicycle saw us. He immediately got off his bike and asked, in very clearly enunciated English: “What do you need?” I replied in Chinese “I am looking for the bus stop. Can you tell me where it moved to?” He then asked me, again in English: “Where do you want to go?”

Well, I want to go to the bus stop. I can figure things out from there, just please tell me where the bus stop is!

That response would not have been satisfactory. In that person’s mind I am a foreigner, I am helpless, he has to do everything he can to get me all the help I need. He had to know my destination in order to render the proper level of help, in order to assure himself and presumably the rest of China that he had done his utmost to help the foreigner.

On the one hand, it is difficult to mock one who presents such a desire to be helpful. On the other hand, it gets really aggravating to ask for a hand and be given a forklift instead. It is in the genre of that old joke: Why did it take 20 boy Scouts to help the little old lady across the road? She didn’t want to go! Hnyuck, hnyuck, hnyuck!

Once I informed my kindly, overly helpful new friend that I wanted to go to the train station he said I just needed to get on bus number 577, which stops just up the road a ways. I knew all about bus 577 because that is the bus I rode to get to where I was now, but still did not learn where the bus stop had moved to and ended up backtracking to where I knew the next bus stop upstream was at.

Another lesson in help: I had just obtained my bus pass and needed to recharge it. Unfortunately I did not know how to go about it and Sam was out of town. I asked one of my students to please tell me how to go about putting more money on my card.

Jonathan is a student who is a native of Wuhan. If anyone knows how to perform this task, he should, I reasoned. Surely he would tell me how to go about doing it, right? Instead, he stated that he would be delighted to take my card and load it up for me the next time he went to town. I countered that, although I appreciate his offer, if I don’t learn how to do it I will never be able to do it for myself.

It seems the logic escaped him. Or, maybe he felt offended that I was turning down his offer of help. That was actually not the case. I was asking for a specific limit of help, and he was offering to do everything for me. It took several tries to finally make it clear to him that, because I intend to live in Wuhan for the foreseeable future, I must learn how to perform these simple tasks by myself. Otherwise I would have to rely on him to do it for me every time my bus card needed reloading.

He had no problem with that. He said I could call him whenever I needed to. Back and forth we went on the matter; me insisting I learn something and he insisting to be of more service than is actually called for.

I’m not really sure how, but I finally wore him down and he did show me how to load my bus card. Come to find out, it is ridiculously easy; all I have to do is find a certain chain grocery store and tell them how much money I wanted to put on my card. Fork over the money, get my card back and then it is done.

See Jonathan? It was not that hard to tell me about it! But he still had a look about him as though I had gravely offended him, somehow.

You can see why I am so reluctant to ask for help, right?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Walking Pneumonia and Computer Fever

Ever since I wrote the Boo Tie Shoo Fu post I have been feeling under the weather. Coughing, certainly, but also a general malaise and a lassitude, which culminated into my not being able to draw a deep breath. The inability to breathe well even woke me up a few nights in a row. I was terrified, wondering what could be wrong with me! I would lie in my bed at 2 and 3 in the morning, fighting for breath, heart pounding, coughing till my throat was raw and my abdomen hurt. Very scary.

It just so happened that, while that was going on, I had also been suffering computer woes, which culminated in my 200Gig external hard drive crashing.

About 2 weeks ago I grew so worried about my laptop crashing that I started using the University provided computer. I had legitimate reason for this worry: one evening, while using my laptop, typing happily away, my screen went completely blank. White Screen of Death instead of Blue Screen of Death (as Mike would call it), but certainly an event to cause panic. I figured I had better back up my files and start making use of the computer that I had no personal stake in so as to preserve the one I do have a stake in. I was using the university computer to broadcast Christmas music from my external hard drive on the night of the first Christmas party I hosted last week.

The next day, my external hard drive would not come up; I kept getting a message that there was an error on the disc. Talk about panic! EVERYTHING is on that drive: family pictures, music, stories I had written, video compilations I had edited. Most specifically, I was making a video for Marjorie and was nearly done with it. Hours and hours of work for this 13-minute video, and the materials (music and pictures) for that video are all on… you guessed it: the external hard drive! I can’t recreate the video now!

Was it lack of sleep? Feeling bad? The computer problems? Everything at once? The stars lined up just so to cause me to panic? I was crabby, whiny and depressed; even my office chair, which had always caused me to tilt to the right was irritating me.

After my second night of not being able to breathe I called Sam and told him about everything. He in turn had a solution for everything.

For the feeling sick part, we went to the campus infirmary. I knew there had to be one somewhere on campus; turns out it is right by my dorm building, cleverly concealed by Education Building One, where I teach on Tuesday mornings.

Stepping into the infirmary was like stepping back in time – as so many things here are. The doctor sits at a small desk, among shelves of medication. No separation between the examination area and the dispensary by a shatter-proof window. Some of the medicines stored on the shelves are in glass bottles. How long has it been since you’ve seen that?

The doctor asked me to pull up my shirts (all 4 of them) so she could listen to my lungs. Come to find out, there was some infection in my right lung, which was why I felt pressure on my chest and couldn’t breathe when I lay on my left side. She dosed me with some antibiotics and a traditional Chinese herbal preparation to help with the cough. For a mere 19Yuan and 15 minutes of my time, it seems my breathing woes were going to go away… along with the fear that my heart was giving out. WHEW!

The computer problems are going to be more difficult to tackle. I told Sam that I suspect the University computer caused my external hard drive to crash and that, in fact I had been having problems with that computer since I started using it. It would freeze up or go blank; sometimes programs that I didn’t even want to access opened up and would not go away. Although the computer department had installed an English language pack, most of the programs came up in Chinese and I was not able to use them.

He vowed to get me a new computer, which is good… but the more important issue is my external drive. I have to retrieve all of the data from that drive!
Sam to the rescue again! He took my drive to the campus’ computer department who diagnosed it as a failed disc. The local computer guru further stated that a repair of that magnitude was beyond his level of expertise and he recommended we take the drive to Computer City, a mega-computer outlet in town with technicians who specialize in such repairs. Sam knows that, if I went by myself I would most likely be overcharged for the repairs simply because I am a foreigner, so he volunteered to take it for me. Computer City is on his way home anyway… Thanks, Sam!

The final issue was the chair. I invited Sam to sit in it and he too quickly got annoyed by the distinct list to the right. He said he would procure me a new chair, but it probably wouldn’t be until the following week before the chair would be replaced. I thanked him, glad to have some relief for my back and shoulders from this evil, tortuous chair.

By the time Sam had batted all of my nagging out of the park it was lunchtime, so we went to lunch together and had a long talk. Two hours worth, to be exact. The most salient moment of that conversation came when he pointed out that I had only called him because of the University computer, and then just whined about everything else. (He did not accuse me of whining; that is my word.) I did not treat him like a friend and rely on him to help me with all of my troubles before they actually became trouble.

Remember in Continuum Break III, when I said I wanted to learn how to share and be a friend? He is absolutely right: I did not commiserate with him; I held him at arm’s length and relied on him to fix things only because I had to, after they all broke. I did learn something about myself that day, and I felt a door, long rusted shut, creak open… just a bit.

You see, no one has ever told me, and I’ve never accepted that friends need to be needed as well as wanted. I’ve only ever relied on myself. Sam pointing out that simple truth was a revelation to me, and a start to changing my bad and selfish behavior.

After talking with him I felt much relief. We walked back to campus – an odd looking pair with me so tall and he so short, but now on the way to becoming good friends nonetheless. As it was Friday, he went his way and I went back to my apartment, still reeling from the loosening of all that tension.

Final word about the chair: I was video chatting with Liz when it finally gave broke all the way. I had been wriggling around in it, trying to get comfortable when suddenly it decided to give up on supporting me and tipped backward. After getting up from the floor (and both of us laughing our fool heads off!) Liz told me the look on my face was priceless: my eyes the size of dinner plates, my face receding from the camera in slow motion and tipping backward until only my foot waving in the air was visible.

She should have recorded it!