Friday, February 25, 2011

Social Bitch

Before anyone gets offended at this title, let me tell you: it has a very specific history and meaning for me.

It dates back to my formative years. I have a friend, Marjorie, whom you all know from various mentions throughout this blog. She is the most charming and social creature I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and knowing. From childhood, she has always been gregarious, outgoing, pleasant, engaging and fun. My mother, probably the least social person on the planet, did not like her. One day, after Marjorie’s taking leave from a rare visit to my house, my mother summed up her estimate of Marjorie in two words. “Social Bitch” she snorted with disdain, as though there might be something wrong with being charming and gregarious and outgoing.

This phrase has become a running joke between Marjorie and me over the years.

Mind you, Marjorie does have a deep side, and strong feelings. Please don’t discount her as frivolous or shallow in any way. It just happens that she is in fact very social. My mother’s comment hurt her deeply and, if I hadn’t felt compelled to share it with her all those years ago I could have spared her the pain of that harsh assessment. But if I had, we would not have this running gag today. So maybe it was a good thing that I confided in Marjorie. Besides, it kept her from visiting again, which kept her from my mother’s scorn, so all in all, disclosure was the right thing to do, in this case.

In a way, I envy Marjorie’s charm and social grace. She has such an easy manner and a sunny disposition! I am aware of how much it costs her to be so light and breezy, but she pulls it off so effortlessly! I struggle with social events, like to hide in my apartment and shy away from contact. Maybe it is because I am afraid that, even from the grave, my mother will deem me a social bitch too.

But this past Sunday was a different story. This past Sunday was the day that I ‘held court’, as royalty does. Sunday, I had so many people come by to visit that I was exhausted by the end of the day and had to wait 3 days to write this entry. Let me tell you about my Sunday, and all of the visits!

First, there was a nice Skype conversation with my good friends George and Chris. George and I used to work together, and thankfully that relationship ended when I resigned my last job. Because now, we’re friends, whereas before we were boss/employee (and also friends). But now, it is pure friendship, and one I enjoy tremendously.

We talked for more than an hour and then it was time to talk with Gabriel. That is always fun, especially the older he gets and the more diversified his interests are. He even tells jokes and riddles. Some might think that maintaining a steady relationship via chat would be difficult with a 9-year old boy, but for he and I, it is a snap. We have been a continuous presence in each other’s life since the day he first drew breath and my day would not be complete without at least a message to him. Fortunately, on most days, I do get to see him and talk with him.

After talking with Gabriel I was quite hungry. I had gotten up at 9AM, and here it was, 1PM and I hadn’t had a bite to eat! Time to get something between my teeth, and then clean the house up because I was expecting Summer and her parents for a visit this afternoon.

Summer is one of my freshman students. I had the pleasure of meeting her mother when we went shopping together, and then going to their house afterward for a meal, where her father joined us. As is traditional in China, it is a sign of friendship and respect to be invited to one’s home, and food is always offered. My visit to their home happened before my jaunt to Xi’an, and now it was time to return the honor by welcoming them to my home.

While waiting for Summer and her parents, Pixie came by with a gift from her hometown: sausage and jujube. Pixie is a freshman student whose father recently died. She has a hard time dealing with her loss while managing her new life on campus, and we always have deep conversations about it. She is a strong girl who will be just fine after this difficult year. I always feel compelled to hug her and try to make it all better. She left when she got a text message that one of her dorm mates had made it back to campus.

Snacks laid out and house cleaned, kettle full and ready to brew tea, all I needed was that knock on the door that would herald Summer and her parents’ arrival. When it came a few minutes later, I was giddy with joy at seeing them again and ushered them in. They could not stay very long because they had to tend to Summer’s Grandfather, but I had time to introduce them to my family by showing them pictures, and we exchanged stories of our time apart. Before leaving, we made plans to get together again soon.

Next, Sam came by for an hour-long visit. We had sent text messages back and forth during Winter Break, but hadn’t actually laid eyes on each other for nearly a month. I welcomed my friend in and we visited for nearly two hours, catching up on our time apart. His German studies are really coming along well, and he confessed that Baby Erica is sometimes very difficult. That is why he is happy Penny’s mother is staying with them for one month; he can get a lot of studying done as long as his mother in law helps with the baby.

Sam took his leave after eating a late lunch with me, and just as I was closing the door, my cellphone chimed with a text message from Gloria, one of my students. Would I mind if she came by? Of course not, Gloria! I would be delighted to see you!

She breezed in, all smiles and refreshed from her time spent at home. She is from a small town just South of the Gobi Desert, and was happy to return to Wuhan, where the weather is warmer. She brought a gift for me: a small bottle of wine, indigenous to her region of China. She declined to join me for a glass but, blushing furiously, confided a secret: she has a boyfriend! She couldn’t tell her mother and I suspect she would have burst if she couldn’t tell someone, and soon! She showed me a picture of him, a handsome young man. He is lucky to have Gloria; she is a beautiful girl, inside and out.

Our visit was interrupted by Stephanie and Melanie, two other students. Stephanie had a difficult time at home during Winter Break; her mother would not let her leave the house or do anything. Stephanie, having tasted independence, resented her mother’s stance and they fought constantly. At one point during the break, she sent me a text message asking if I thought it would be OK for her to run away from home. I can’t really give you an OK on that, Stephanie! I did advise her to talk with her mother, and it seems that fight got resolved but, during her visit with me, she asked where she could find a job. It seems she truly does want independence from her mother, and she is willing to work for it. Unfortunately, I do not have any contacts or connections in Wuhan, but I did suggest she talk with Summer, who does have a job.

All three girls left at the same time and I turned out the lights. It was time to stop holding court and cook my supper. Just then, another knock at my door: come in, Victor!

We talked about how we spent our Winter Break and for once, Victor was affable and conversant. We enjoyed a glass of brandy (or two) as we talked. He said he was truly sorry he was not in a position to help me more these past six months because he was trying to get his own language school going, and the logistics were a nightmare! He also talked about his home in South Africa and how he misses Capetown and his family. I was quite surprised that he shared that much of himself, but it was a welcome change from the arrogant, standoffish colleague I had known till now.

After Victor left it was past 9PM. I had had more company in one day than I’ve had in the last six months except for the Christmas parties, and, as I turned out the lights and finally went to eat something, I could hear my mother snort “Social Bitch!”

Yeah, Mom? What of it?

Orderly Chaos

My good friend and verbal sparring partner Kevin asked me a question: “Do you miss the organization of the good ol’U.S.of A. yet?”

Sometimes I get the best blog ideas from questions my friends ask!

He was referring to the 17-hour train ride I had to get back from Xi’an, when people were standing in the aisles and banging into me and where getting up and moving around was impossible. To tell you the truth, Kevin, I had to get on a bus and go into town and see/feel/experience being here objectively before I could write about it. And even now, I have trouble formulating an answer.

I think it is because I equate the organization and orderly, civilized flow of humanity down the street, into the buses and on the freeways with being quintessentially American. If I were to say that I miss that, it would imply that I somehow feel like the experience of living here is lacking somehow.

In America, you would not see a group of pedestrians challenge oncoming vehicles for their right to cross the street. There is almost a docility to pedestrians in America that does not exist in Chinese pedestrians. Likewise, you would not find a bicycle that ties up traffic, a pushcart laden with coal setting the pace for a column of cars or a three wheeled tractor on a major highway. In short, it would seem to me that, comparing American circumstances to Chinese ones would be like comparing apples to oranges.

But, that wasn’t the question. The question was: do I MISS the organization of life in the United States?

In a rather eerie visual, I conjure up that video to the song by Pink Floyd, wherein identically clad students with waxen faces chant “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” as they shuffle in lockstep off a plank and into a steaming barrel, where they presumably melt. At first thought, it would seem that that visual would apply better to communist China, where things are supposed to be regimented down to the last detail. Instead, I see it as a reflection of American life.

Everyone obeys traffic laws in America: rigorously maintained lines of vehicles going down the road with a set amount of space between them and following a certain speed limit. Here, there don’t seem to be any laws with regard to traffic. Sometimes there aren’t even any lanes on the road. Cars just go wherever there is room for them. Pretty much everybody respects each other’s personal space in America: there is no crowding, pushing or shoving. At least not as a part of daily life. Here, pushing and shoving IS a part of daily life. Just try getting on a bus nicely! Just try walking down the street, crowded with vendors and flowing with pedestrians! There must be pushing, shoving and invasion of personal space in order to get anywhere here.

But, do I miss the order and organization of America, after being pushed and shoved all day (and doing my fair share of pushing and shoving)?

To miss what I had in America means that I am not fully appreciative of what there is here.

Life is colorful here. There is dialog and drama and comedy, all rolled into one noisy film. Just looking out a bus window is better entertainment than anything you could find on TV or in the movie house. When I travel the streets of Wuhan, I usually do it with two sets of eyes: yours and mine. My eyes have started taking things in as par for the course and I have accepted the way of life here. But your eyes are still awed and amused at the spectacle that is life in China. There is wonder as you see street vendor carts jockeying for the best position on the sidewalk while the beat policeman tells him he cannot set his cart up that close to the intersection, so as to not interfere with pedestrian traffic flow.

You shake your head in disbelief as hopelessly snarled traffic inches its way along. And this is traffic from all directions at once at one intersection, unlike traffic snarls in America, where everyone is maintaining their lane of traffic and there is a bottleneck up ahead. If you were to witness some of the traffic here, where buses get so close to other buses that the passengers from each bus could reach out and shake hands, I daresay you would not venture out of your hotel (or whatever living quarters you maintain while here) for fear of being trapped in such an impossible tangle.

But, look closely. Nobody is yelling at anyone. No one is getting out of their car, pounding on anyone’s hood or calling anyone crazy. Everyone just accepts that the traffic situation is bad, but they’ll get to go eventually.

There is a tolerance to circumstances here that simply doesn’t exist in America, at least not to my knowledge. I can still remember being impatient, arrogant, losing my temper and raising my blood pressure at being stuck in traffic. I can remember surface streets and highway access roads filling up with cars wishing to avoid the bottleneck on the highway. I still read reports of people falling victim to road rage and being gunned down because they had a better traffic advantage and someone wanted it for themselves. None of that exists here.

Just recently I was on the bus, sitting up front, close to the driver. And, as usually happens, there was a traffic snarl. The bus positioned itself for eventual maximum advantage for when traffic started moving again, thereby cutting off a scooter’s access to the road. The scooter driver did not pound on the bus or yell at the driver. Instead, they engaged in a mute conversation. The scooter driver stared at the bus driver, who was in fact in the wrong because he was occupying an oncoming lane of traffic as well as his own lane. The bus driver, without saying a word or making any type of gesture to the scooter driver, cranked his wheels the other way and inched forward as far as possible, so that the scooter driver could get past him.

Comparing that to the orderliness of people shouting at traffic bottlenecks and road rage, I’d have to say that I prefer the colorful chaos of China to the meticulous order of America.

100th Episode

Confession time: I do not post on this blog. Have I told you about that? I don’t think so. So, I confess: I do not post this blog. I cannot even access this blog.

Two years ago, in order to better monitor (or censor, if you prefer) material that might damage the morals of the Chinese people or the integrity of the culture, the Chinese government blocked sites like Facebook, MySpace and most all blog sites, this one included. I have not seen my own blog since I’ve been in China.

But don’t let me mislead you: I do write the blogs. The credit for you getting to read them goes to my conspirators, who shall remain unnamed. I write the entries in Word format and attach them, along with any relevant pictures, to an email and send it to my conspirators, who then diligently and faithfully post them in the order specified.

In part, let this entry be a tribute to my unnamed conspirators. If they wish to be named, I will do so in a later entry, but for now I don’t have their permission to divulge their identity. Just please: thank them heartily and well.

Being as I cannot see my own blog, how could I know that I’ve written over 100 entries? I was only clued into the fact by my conspirator, just a few days ago.

This is huge, all! This is stupendous! I’ll tell you why: usually, I have no follow-through.

The only other thing I’ve done with any consistency in my life is raise my children. That is the only task I have stuck with for the duration. I have abandoned jobs, walked away from friendships, places, homes, and anything else you can imagine, leaving a trail of debris and detritus behind me. I’ve taken my kids with me, until they grew old enough to determine that they are done living with me and struck out on their own. Otherwise and since then, I’ve not seen anything through.

I wonder about that, now that I see it in print… it is not exactly flattering.

Several years ago, someone told me: “You’d be just the kind of girl to vote the county dry and then start drinking.” At the time, I wondered what he meant. Was it an insult, a compliment or just an observation of an obvious character flaw of mine? Has his decree become prophetic or have I always been destined to be this way?

I’ve always been a ‘big picture’ kind of girl. I don’t like details and I don’t have the patience to work things out. I can usually come up with stellar ideas, but doing the work to make those ideas a reality is my weak point. I suppose that, one way you can describe me is ‘flash in the pan’. Not a very attractive quality, I admit. Like that Bob Seeger song, ‘I’m running against the wind.’ That seems to be my nature. And, as the song says: I’m older now, but still running against the wind.

Now you understand why it is such a huge deal that I’ve actually kept up with this blog. Not just writing it, but engaging an admittedly more than willing pair of conspirators to make sure that each entry gets published.

And, is it sheer happenstance that the 100th entry just happened to be How I Spent My Chinese New Year? I could not have figured the timing on that better than if I did have access to the blog page and could have calculated that. How fortuitous that the 100th entry turned out to by the chronicling of my first Chinese New Year in China. I know I’ve told you that I’ve felt serendipity lending a gentle hand to my circumstances while living here, but helping on the timing of that blog post? How serendipitous is that? Can you say ‘meant to be’?

I had to do the math on this. I’ve been here since August 25th, but started writing the blog at the end of July. If you figure since I’ve been in China, that works out to an average of one entry every 32 hours or so. If calculated since the end of July, it works out to an average of one entry every 38 hours. That is a lot of writing.

Add to that the fact that, not only have I developed staying power to write this blog but I’m also to keeping up regular email conversations with several friends. And this has gone on for six months!

What happened? Am I no longer running against the wind, or is the wind finally stilling? Have I voted the country dry and stopped drinking? Have I finally realized that, at some point in life, I have to stop walking away and embrace what I have?

Am I growing up… again???

TV shows make a big deal out of their 100th episodes. As they only produce an average of 24 episodes per season, it takes them better than 4 seasons to reach that milestone. No wonder they celebrate it!

How many seasons have I been through that I can celebrate this milestone? How much growth, how many prunings, how many times of my efforts not bearing fruit have brought me to this 100th episode? Well, all of my life. And, all of you. My sense of responsibility to you keeps me at this keyboard, recording impressions and relaying events. Would I have cared ten years ago, or even five years ago to write things down after the initial few months?

Who knows and who cares? Let us now celebrate our 100th episode together. Throw a big party for my conspirators, have a generous slice of cake and let me do what I’m bound to do: write blog postings.

If I were to give a speech, such as those who are given an award after a particularly outstanding accomplishment, I would have to say: “All the credit goes to __________ and ________ for making the blog publicly available, and to everyone who reads it. This award is for you. I can’t thank you enough for your interest and your feedback. My desire is only that I keep writing.

And, keep writing I will. Before the wind picks up again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Water or Juice?

This is not an entry about people on a liquid diet but in titling it, I have to wonder about the coincidence of our most popular utilities – water and electricity, reflecting beverages. Interesting, no?

So far, during my tenure here, I have been without electricity for a period of over 24 hours (See Black Friday) and this past week have been without water for over 24 hours. Both events were unannounced and both events caused discomfort in my routine.

NOTE: Routine is a word used in perfect grandiosity here. I essentially have no routine, especially now that I am done teaching the sophomores and only have 2 classes of freshmen a week. Too bad that the day we woke up to no water on campus was a day that I had to go teach. I couldn’t hide at home until I could shower.

I got cleaned up as best I could and left the house. As this was on a Tuesday, Sam also had an early class to teach and when I saw him, he looked just as bedraggled as I felt/looked with no washing possible. Luckily I had some moist wipes and was able to at least swipe one over my face and hands. Also, the bottled water came in handy to brush my teeth with. So, at least it wasn’t like I had just fallen out of bed and into my clothes.

As I walked to class I saw, all over campus, kids carrying buckets of water back to their dorms. Two questions immediately popped into my mind. Where do they get the fortitude to just accept and adapt to these ever changing, uncomfortable circumstances? Where did they get that water from?

They got the water from the fire stands. Each fire department connection had a wrench attached to it and when someone needed water, they just brought their bucket and filled up. Granted it was cold water, and laden with what kind of organisms I couldn’t begin to imagine, but if the system is not closed loop, maybe the water is not stagnant.

I still don’t know where they get their fortitude. But I’m coming to realize I’m way more spoiled than I ever imagined I was, or even want to be. These kids put me to shame come gut check time.

Or maybe it has a lot to do with the fact that they know how to manage such things and I don’t have any experience managing things like this. It could be a little of both.

After class, still no water. I went to the food vendors for breakfast and then went out to town for the day. I couldn’t clean house, cook, shower or flush the toilet with no water. In summary: my apartment is lacking 2 major comforts I take for granted: heat and water that flows from the tap. Those are good enough reasons to stay away, right?

I bummed around town all day, enjoying the warmth of the various stores I visited and eating a good dinner. Catching the late bus home I hoped that the water would be back on because I really missed feeling clean. Not being able to shower before class, coupled with bumming around town and catching dirt and grime typical of Wuhan really caused me to hope for a shower before bed.

As I walked on campus I noted that no one was carrying buckets of water anywhere. But then again, it was late. Maybe all of the water carrying was done for the night. The acid test would come when I entered my apartment and turned on the tap.

Water! There, flowing in a silver stream from the spigot, called forth by the flick of my finger. Water! There is water on campus again!

As always when something like this happens I stop to think about it. What would I do if the service had not been restored? How would I manage if I never had water piped directly into my living quarters? In China, that is not uncommon, you know. Not so much in the city anymore, but in the semi-rural and rural areas, people still go to the well to get their day’s water supply. And, because of the Yellow River dam project and severe droughts, they have to make that water last; it is not like it is a never-ending supply. Could I manage with just one bucket of water a day? Could you?

Maybe that is where the kids get it from. Maybe, for a lot of these kids, indoor plumbing and running water is a luxury and they are used to hauling water from the well, spilling nary a drop of it along the way.

Here’s another thought: would you rather be without electricity or without water?

If I had to choose, I would rather be without water for a day than without electricity for a day. Especially now, with the temperature plummeting and both of my heat sources being electric. Of course I’m sure that, if push came to shove I could light a fire but I think the University officials would probably frown on my having a bonfire in my apartment.

With electricity I can heat my home, cook food, entertain myself (and you to some extent, as long as I can post my blog entries).

Without water, I can make do. I can learn to carry a bucketful of water and learn to make it last. If I really wanted to put on airs, I could go to any of the 5 local supermarkets and buy bottled water. Heat it and I can at least sponge bathe.

So, which one would you prefer: water or juice?

Return to Aloha’s

Today, I was bound and determined to find Aloha Diner again, that lovely abode where I hula’ed and ate good food on Christmas Eve. Not only was the weather today conducive to getting out for the first time in a week, but I have company coming in this weekend and I would like to treat them to a nice meal there.

Again I consulted with my online bus directory, which assured me that bus 561 will take me practically to the doorstep of my desired destination. After talking with my Sweet Gabriel via Skype, I packed my bag for the day’s adventure.

Again it is no problem finding bus 561, I simply take bus 34 from campus and make a connection 9 stops later. But here is where it gets hairy: I cannot, for the life of me, find Aloha’s Diner! To be sure, I was there only one time, at night, and it was sleeting to boot, but the Internet source wouldn’t deliberately mislead me, would it?

Why sure it would! Bus 561 did take me to Hanyang, that section of town where Aloha’s is, but then it promptly left Hanyang and took me to Hankou, the shopping district that I am very familiar with and did not want to be at.

I had resolved, before leaving the house, that if I am again misled and cannot find Aloha’s, I would simply jump in a taxi and have them take me there. That is why it is handy to collect business cards. If I do have to taxi around town, I simply hand the driver the business card of my desired destination and he or she just takes me right where I want to go. It is kind of expensive to do things that way, but I figure I only have to do it one time per destination; once I am there, I can figure out which bus to take home.

And so it goes. After riding bus 561 for nearly one hour and not finding Aloha’s, I end up in the shopping district. Frustrated, I get off the bus, cross the street and snag a taxi that was just discharging some shoppers. I hand the driver the business card, he consults it for a minute and then drops the flag and off we go.

During the ride through the shopping district he tells me I can buy many clothes there, and I reply that I cannot buy clothes in China because I am too big. Thus made confident of my language skills, the driver engages me in conversation, and we find out we are nearly the same age: both born in 1962, but he in July and I in September. Nice laugh over him being 2 months older than I. We went on to banter about other things.

Riding a taxi in China is a fairly inexpensive proposition. The meter starts at 6Yuan, and if the car doesn’t move, neither does amount on the meter. That means if you are stuck in traffic, you will not be held liable for a some monstrous sum of money… because there is traffic all over the place! However, once you start zipping along, the meter acts like every other taxi meter you’ve ever seen in your life: increasing the fare incrementally, according to distance. And, if you cross a bridge a toll 5Yuan is added to your fare. I’m not sure how the car or the meter knows you’ve crossed a bridge, but in fact the meter did jump by 5Yuan as we crossed first one bridge and then another.

Still in the belief that Aloha’s lay somewhere along the path of bus 561, and reasoning that there weren’t that many stops between where I got on the bus and where I got off, I was starting to wonder if this driver decided to take the long way around.

Many taxi drivers in China like to gouge foreigners in that manner, especially if they are coming into town from the airport. My suspicion deepened when he asked me if I had ever been to that place – Aloha’s, and I realized after giving an answer to the negative, that I had misunderstood him. Maybe he did decide to take the liberty of just driving to pad his fare, figuring I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, but he did finally get me there… to the tune of 35Yuan.

So, this adventure is a little more costly than I thought it would be.

Nevertheless, I am in the neighborhood of Aloha’s, and they will open for the dinner crowd at 5:00PM. I have just over forty-five minutes to kill, so I stroll through the aisles of the IGA next door. When we went to Aloha’s last time, Carrie-Ann had told me that the IGA had a fine selection of ‘foreigner’ goods and I wanted to see for myself if that was the case. She also pointed out that there was a good French bakery further down the boardwalk, behind the diner. I decided to check that out as well.

There were foreigner goods at the IGA, but rather expensive. Besides, I didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without. Now there’s a telling statement. I don’t need foreigner goods? What is happening to me? I was equally unimpressed with the bakery but, because I am a foreigner, I was expected to buy something. I bought two little cakes and a loaf of bread; grand total for that expenditure: 52Yuan.

So now I am into this adventure for 3 hours and 90Yuan including bus fare, and I haven’t even had dinner yet. It is all in the spirit of discovery, so I don’t mind too terribly.

Still fifteen minutes to go before the diner opens, so I figure that is a good time to see how I’m going to get home. I walk to the street and find the closest bus stop… and stop dead in my tracks.

Bus 561 does not stop there at all. However, bus 202, which stops right in front of my campus also stops right in front of Aloha’s! Imagine that: I spent over three hours on a bus and 35Yuan on a taxi, when I could have just hopped on bus 202 and ridden 5 stops, to the tune of 1.8Yuan. It would only have taken twenty minutes to get here. That darn, lying Internet site!

Once I got over my shock at how easy it will be to get to Aloha’s in the future and how quickly I will get home today, I returned to the diner, which by now was open. All of the waitresses remembered me as the one that did the Hula with Sophia during Christmas, and they greeted me warmly. We chatted like old friends for a while and I got to learn all of their names and a bit about them. The meal was spectacular but expensive – 90Yuan. Well worth it, in my opinion. It is not like I go out all the time, after all…

Going home, I boarded Bus 202, where there were already about 50 people on board and I had to stand all the way home, squished among other passengers, but the day out was totally worth it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

They’re BAAA – AAACK!!!

For the past six weeks, campus has been deserted and The Street – the strip just off campus, stretching to the main highway has been quiet. Shops closed, street vendors gone… everyone went home to celebrate Chun Jie (Chinese New Year).

For the past six weeks, as I drifted in and out of town through my travels, I enjoyed the quiet, peaceful environment. No music blaring at 6:00AM for morning exercise, no clomping in the dorms above me, no shouts and screams. No delectable smells coming from the alley over the wall, no music from the KTV, no impromptu visits and no erratic knocks on my door. No dorm mothers monitoring my activity and my comings and goings, no security personnel to walk past. No farmers to buy fresh produce from and no restaurants to score a quick meal at.

But now they’re back.

The students are back. Singly and in groups, they have repopulated the campus. They bring with them the joy and comfort of home, along with the anticipation of what the new semester will bring. They have girded themselves for another difficult four months of sharing a space smaller than the average bedroom with three to five other people, and living with less luxury, privacy and privilege than prisoners in America do. They’ve already shared their holiday experiences and many have exchanged gifts. Once again they walk arm in arm down The Street, meandering into shops, stopping for a snack, enjoying being free of parental tyranny.

The vendors and shopkeepers are back. As early as 7:00AM you can hear them trundle their roll-up doors, and setting goods out on the sidewalk. You can hear the delivery trucks bringing the latest merchandise to the shops in the hopes of tantalizing the students into spending their money. You can hear the squeaky wheels of the pushcarts as they set up for the day, and in an hour or so, you will smell the food grilling or simmering or baking or steaming right on these self-contained serving carts. The food vendors will occupy the street for more than 14 hours each day, making their few Yuan per serving. They will annoy those who, for the past six weeks, could drive their cars down the uncluttered alleyways.

The migrant workers are back. A whole new crop of migrant workers are now laboring on the construction site at the other end of The Street. They will perform menial tasks such as carrying rebar and scaffolding parts and wooden planks to help build the freeway that is under construction. These men are from villages far west of here, coming to the city in the hopes of earning decent money to send back to their family. They will spend an average of eleven months away from their home and their loved ones, mostly living in shared quarters and working up to sixteen hours a day, 7 days a week.

There is great concern for these migrant workers. Their healthcare is an issue, as well as their mental and emotional well-being, because they are far away from home. They get paid only minimally as the are considered unskilled, but it is still more money than they can hope to earn in their villages. The battle rages over migrant workers because they are needed in the big cities for all of the ongoing construction, as well as across Eastern China to help build and maintain the infrastructure. However, if everyone leaves their village to work construction, who will farm the land?

The Chinese government is currently giving incentives for people to stay at home and farm. Food production is becoming a huge concern because, as people get used to a standard of living akin to the West, more food is consumed per person than was the average even 20 years ago. But, is that money enough to keep farmers on the farm? What about those who are not farmers but can’t survive on the median income of smaller towns and villages? They must find work elsewhere.

I know these are a fresh crop of migrant workers, unused to big city noises or the hustle of constant, hard physical labor. They startle at car horns, they stare at everything and they… gape unabashedly at me. Yes, these migrant workers are fresh from the Western provinces, where foreigners never go. I was at the bus stop just yesterday and a few of the workers just stopped dead in their tracks, slack-jawed and awed at the foreigner standing there, just a few meters away from them. Unfortunately they were in the middle of the road when they stopped dead, and they had to be yanked out from in front of oncoming traffic. In time they will get used to seeing me; I am a fixture in this neighborhood and I do get out a bit. But for now, everything is novel to them, including the tall, blonde woman. They will stare.

For six weeks I’ve not had to endure this staring. I’ve enjoyed watching grandmothers leisurely strolling the uncluttered Street with their little grandbabies; family coming, laden with parcels to visit residents in the alleyways behind the school, and the occasional farmer driving his three-wheeled scooter to parts unknown. For six weeks I’ve enjoyed waking up to my natural rhythm instead of to shouts and stomps, and I’ve enjoyed the view of virgin snow just outside my window. For six weeks I’ve been a lone drifter across the landscape of this campus.

But now they’re back. First as a trickle and then a flood, until masses of people swarm the neighborhood.

Like a hibernating animal shaking off its winter sleep, yawning and stretching, and now foraging for the existence it knew prior to this long hiatus, the community is reverting to the noise and bustle I too had gotten used to before Winter break.

The Street is alive again.

Suspended Animation

This has been a lifelong affliction: people seem to think that, unless they need or want me again, I have nothing better to do than to wait, in suspended animation, until I am summoned by them. Let me give you three examples.

“You should load Yahoo chat so that, whenever I’m online I can see you and we can chat.” I already have Skype chat (and so does the person that made this comment), as well as gmail chat and MSN chat, and I have not one but two email addresses. Yet, because THIS ONE person wishes me to, I should download yet another chat program? She is the one who also said:

“Why do you wait so long to answer my emails and why don’t you answer my questions?” I replied: “Sometimes, I actually have things to do and I’m not at the computer as soon as your email pops up in my inbox. Sometimes the internet connections are not all that reliable in China and I can’t get on the computer. And, when I answer emails, I make it a point to go through each email, paragraph by paragraph, and respond. What question have I not answered?” She gave me no reply to that. Apparently it is OK for some people to not answer questions, but heavens forbid if I should neglect to!

I did inform her that I had recently posted my 100th blog post, to which she responded that she is so busy she does not have time to read my blog. How is it that she is allowed to be busy, but I’m not?

And think about this: what is she telling me by saying she is too busy to read the chronicling of my thoughts and feelings and life while in China? And then to demand that I download a chat program to suit her needs, and answer her emails right away?

Is it just me, or is there a double standard going on there?

Let’s talk about someone else, shall we?

This person informed me she was coming back from vacation tomorrow. Would I please meet her at the train station? Naturally, I had to ask: “What time does your train come in, and to which station?” Wuhan has three different train stations and there are twenty-four hours in each day, so I felt justified in asking these two questions.

She did not tell me which train station her train is coming in at, but she did say that her train leaves at 9:10 in the morning. Could she just send me a text message when she gets on the train?

Well, that is a wonderful idea, but… how long will you be traveling? How far away are you? Just send me your train number and I will look it up on the train schedule. She would not send me her train number, even though I asked for it twice.

So, as I see it: she is going to let me know when she gets on the train, but then I’ve got to wait and wait and wait until she tells me she is pulling into the station. And still: which train station?

Of course! I have nothing better to do than to wait at train stations for people who seem to believe I have nothing better to do! Is it so hard to meet me halfway? It is OK to divulge the train number; it is not like it is proprietary information. And then, I can plan my day around meeting someone who clearly wishes to see me again, but doesn’t think I have anything else going on.

One more example: “I’ll come by and pick you up at 2PM.” OK, I’m ready to go by 1:30, just in case there is any early arrival in the offing. The appointed time for pick up comes and goes. I dust off my shoes, fix another cup of tea, stare out the window and finally send a text message. The response I get: “Oh, I’m a little tired, so I’m going to take a nap, and I’ll come by at 4:00.”

Well, I have someplace to be at 4:00. I have been waiting for you since before 2:00. Did you not sense your impending tiredness before you made plans to come get me? Do you not think I have anything better to do than to wait on you to decide to not be tired or busy or otherwise engaged?

These are real life scenarios, and they have happened to me in the past 3 weeks. Is it just me that this happens to, or does everybody get a fair dosing of it?

Can you tell I’m really miffed by it?

With the ‘I’m too tired to meet you’ incident, I ended up lugging a large package down a few flights of stairs and onto a bus and across town by myself. That person was supposed to come help me, and there was a time limit in which this had to be done.

The train incident turned out to be a true fiasco! I went to the train station – hoping it was the right one, and she finally told me her train number. The train rolled into the station forty-five minutes late, but after she got off the train she did not send me a text message telling me where she was and she did not answer her phone when I called her. I waited 45 minutes beyond her debarkation time, and then sent her a text message saying I was going home.

The other one? I just don’t know what to do with it. This particular relationship seems very one-sided, and has always been. Till now, it has been tolerable because I have had only minimal contact with this person and never online. I’ve been able to overlook her aberrant behavior in the past, but it is getting worse and I would like for it to stop.

Actually, I would like for all of it to stop. I have friends who are considerate of the fact that I have things to do, and maybe even things I like to do but have no urgency or necessity attached to them. Those friends do not seem to think that I am in limbo until they invoke me again. With those friends I am happy to send them a short email saying “Got a lot going on right now, but I’ll get back to you soon.” And, guess what? Those friends are happy to see that I have things going on.

No, it is the friends who seem to think that I live in suspended animation until they summon me that drive me crazy. How does that happen? And now, with the students returning to campus, it is going to crawl under my skin and drive me just this side of crazy. It is a phenomenon particular to me? How do I make it stop?

Can you tell I’m aggravated?

Valentine’s Day

“Why do you suppose it is that people get married, Mr. Devane?”

“Passion” he replies, instantly and forcefully.

“It is because we need a witness to our lives. I mean: 3 billion souls on this planet; what does one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The big things, the little things…” “… You’re saying: ‘your life will not go unnoticed, for I will be your witness.’ You can quote me on that if you want.”

This exchange, from the movie Shall We Dance, is the most concise and romantic definition of marriage that I have ever heard. Matter of fact, this dialogue, between the distraught Mrs. Clark (played by Susan Sarandon) and the cynical Mr. Devane makes the movie, in my opinion.

And on Valentine’s Day, when loved ones the world over are cuddling over pots of fondue and behind bouquets of flowers, is there anything better than knowing you have a witness to your life?

Valentine’s Day marks the end of the Single Girl’s Unholy Triumvirate: Christmas, New Years and the most cruel of ‘holidays’: the one dedicated to lovers. And maybe the single guy’s unholy triumvirate too. Let’s hear from you, guys: do you feel as lousy as we females do with no one to kiss under the mistletoe, or at midnight on New Years, and do you resent everyone carrying long stemmed red roses around and being fed fine chocolates on February 14th?

Valentine’s Day is no less an occasion in China than it is in other parts of the world. I daresay it is even bigger than in the West, which has hyper-commercialized (and thereby trivialized) every single meaningful day.

At one time not so long ago, there were no lovers in China. Marriages were arranged and were supposed to be functional relationships, not romantic. Couples were not allowed to make any public displays of affection, not even so much as holding hands, even if they were in love. Even now, the most a traditional Chinese couple will venture to do in public is lean toward one another. The younger generations, with more and more social evolution, accept lovers holding hands or other touching. With more money floating around here than ever, guys treat their girls to all of the tokens of love that any Western girl worth her salt would expect: cute things, tasty things, even shiny things that slip onto fingers and promise lifelong devotion.

I chose to hide out today and gather my thoughts. I have a very important mission: to write this blog entry. Besides, do I really want to be out where people are walking out of stores with chocolates and flowers and cute little teddy bears intended for the object of their desire? OOPS! Looks like I’ve just commercialized Valentine’s Day myself. But on the other hand…

Valentine’s Day as we know it got started as a commercial venture. Seriously! In case you didn’t know it: a candy maker in San Francisco wanted a promotional gimmick, and so he chose February 14th as the day to buy chocolates to Proclaim Your Love. As you can guess, the idea caught on and candy sold like wildfire!

Aren’t you glad he wasn’t a sardine salesman?

But the original Valentine was a monk back in Medieval times, when people were imprisoned for any reason just or unjust. The monk passed messages between two imprisoned lovers and thus became known as the Patron Saint of Love. Interestingly enough, there were actually 3 Valentines, and all of them had significant dates of the 14th of February (either their birthday or the day of their death).

Valentine’s Day is a hard day for me, a lifelong single. Although I manage my life of solitude well and, quite frankly wouldn’t know how to share my life or my space after having been alone for so long, I do admit that I want to be kissed and sometimes I would give anything for a lover’s touch. Somehow love never happened for me, at least not romantic love and, for the most part, I do my penance with no complaints. But it has been many, many years of solitude: could I not have a parole from my sentence, or at least a furlough? I no longer hold that hope.

To quote another one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is sometimes the best of things.” Ironically enough, this line was delivered by Ms. Sarandon’s former love, Tim Robbins. I wonder sometimes. To hope can be painful. Is it better to hope and endure the pain of longing, or no longer hope and accept one’s aloneness?

See the questions I have to ponder today?

While talking this subject over with Ken recently with regard to his potential marriage to Della, I quoted that bit of dialogue from the movie Shall We Dance and asked if he had seen it. He sidestepped the movie question but turned the quote back on me.

To him, marriage is not the only way to have a witness to your life. Your friends, your family, those who share your joys and those who lift you from your sorrow are all witnesses your life. You just have to let them. He declared himself a witness to my life – he and I have shared so much over our 3-year friendship!

He got me to thinking. This blog is about my life and experiences in China. Every time you read one of these posts, every time one of my rambling thoughts gives you pause or makes you smile, every bit of anticipation you hold at what my fingers will type out next makes you a witness to my life.

I am so glad you are my witness. Happy Valentines’ Day!

Big Girl Boots

Upon my return to Xi’an, I vowed I would not fall back into the apathetic/lethargic state that had plagued me since winter break started in January. I was getting strange messages from my body – racing heart at the least bit of exertion, painfully cramping leg muscles, hurting feet and legs, all topped off by a generous serving of depression. All of the sitting around I had been doing was ruining my health – physical and mental. Getting out every day while in Xi’an kick started things back up. I did not want that to go to waste and I certainly did not want to slide back down into that dark place where tendons don’t want to stretch and legs don’t want to move.

With little more than two weeks until school resumes, and with no desire whatsoever to occupy my cold apartment on the deserted campus, I decided to take off for another visit somewhere. I chose Yi Chang, a small town four hours away by bus, which holds the distinction of being the closest populated area to the Three Gorges Dam.

The very day after getting off the train from Xi’an, I marched into the bus ticketing office and bought my ticket for Yi Chang. The next day, there I was, light bag packed and ready to board. As the bus pulled out of the station and drove down roads I was not familiar with, my excitement bubbled over.

Think about it: I had negotiated the ticket purchase by myself. I was headed to a town I had never been to and where no one awaited me. I was going to see things I had never seen before and I was going to do it on my own. This is tantamount to Cool Beans! This is what I came to China to do: Explore! See new things! Just hop on buses, big as Billie Be Darned, see what there is to see and do what there is to do!

This really is huge: for the first time since coming to China, I have no one to pave the way for me. In Xi’an, Ken is always waiting for me; when I first came to Wuhan, Sam was there to show me around and since then students are available in abundance. When I went to Beijing in 2009, my friend Hui Yun took the day off from work to pick me up at the airport. This is the first time I’ve gone someplace on my own and made all of the arrangements by myself.

Do I have my Big Girl Boots on, or what?

Actually, I’m never really alone in any of my ventures in China. If I need anything, a simple text message to Sam, Ken or Jerry and they will be there to smooth things over or pave the way for me. If it is a language issue – say, I can’t explain to whomever I’m dealing with what I need, I could just call one of them and have them talk to whomever I’m dealing with. So it is not like I’m doing this entirely on my own. But, I am doing more than cowering in my apartment. I’m taking initiative, I’m getting out, I’m not hiding behind anyone.

And I did not have to invoke either Sam or Ken. Now I KNOW I have my big girl boots on.

Once the bus arrived in Yi Chang, I went to the ticketing counter and bought my return ticket. It seems Yi Chang does not see many foreigners. They do come through on tour buses because of the town’s proximity to the dam, but they don’t come to stay, and they certainly do not come by long distance bus! So, you can imagine the stares I got: it was like being on campus for the first time all over again! Some people, lingering by the ticketing window had apparently anticipated having to help me. They were already spraying WD-40 over their rusty English skills while closing in on my left side. I disappointed them… or maybe surprised them. The poor ticketing clerk nearly fell off her stool when I approached the window and, in Chinese, ordered my ticket back to Wuhan for 3 days hence, in the afternoon without needing any help at all.

Still feeling as though I am wearing Boots of Seven Leagues, I leave the bus station and endeavor to find my hotel. As usual I have to run the gauntlet of people wanting rich tourist’s money, but after I passed them I made it to the taxi stand and asked the first car’s driver to take me to my hotel. I showed him the address that the hotel had kindly sent in a text message. He said he would take me there for 20 Yuan.

Two notes, made as asides. Number 1: When a taxi driver offers you a flat fare to your destination, he/she intends to rip you off. I had read about that before on other China blog sites, but had never before experienced it firsthand. Had he engaged the meter, it would have only cost a few Yuan, because my hotel was actually within walking distance of the bus station. I did not know that. Because it was coming up on 9:00PM, I did not want to take the chance on losing my hotel reservation, so I accepted the flat fare offer. That one is for the experience of it; it is now safely tucked away in my ‘Bet I Don’t Do That Again’ file.

Number 2: You do not have to have a major credit card to reserve a hotel online in China. Simply send them your booking request and they will hold the room for you. Once you arrive at the hotel you pay for your room up front, as well as paying a cash deposit. As you check out of the room, you must turn your key in to the front desk, whereupon the clerk radios the floor supervisor, who does a check of your room and radios back down that everything is in order – nothing broken or missing. Only then do you get your deposit back. Great system! What do you think of it?

Back to Yi Chang now. I fell in love with my room as soon as I walked into it. It was on the 17th floor and commanded a great view of the city, with the Yangtze river off in the distance. The walls were an attractive salmon color, muted by indirect lighting. The drapes were a burnished bronze color and covered three of the four walls. My immediate thought, as I was checking it out, was that I could live in a space like this. Really, that room was much nicer than my apartment and felt much more like home than my own apartment back in Wuhan does.

That’s why I did not leave it on Valentine’s Day, except to eat. I just felt so at home there, so comfortable. The television had a movie channel that played movies in English, I had my trusty laptop and I just really wanted to hang out in an environment where I felt at home.

I did go on a tour of the Three Gorges Dam the next day, and it was rather disappointing. The weather was murky and the dam was not as impressive as I expected it to be. Actually, I was rather saddened by it, thinking about all of the relocated families whose homes got flooded out to create the dam basin. All of that history, all of the tradition, now underwater. Remember, from Burial Rites, how the living ‘holler’ the dead home? Where will the spirits return to now?

But on the other hand, I did meet a very nice young man named Jones who was on vacation. He spoke perfect English and we toured the dam together and took turns taking pictures of each other. He took the picture of me in front of this temple. We enjoyed nice conversation and quite a few laughs, and we exchanged contact information. I’m sure this will be a great friendship!

Checking out of the hotel and getting back to Wuhan were sad and dismal affairs. Sad, because I was leaving the hotel room that felt more like home than my apartment does, and dismal because this bus was nowhere near as comfortable as the bus I rode to Yi Chang was. But, I have to get back to Wuhan, whether I want to or not.

The students are coming back, and I’m supposed to help them learn English. I can’t do that from a hotel room in Yi Chang, can I?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Chinese System of Snow and Ice Control

With this being our fifth or sixth snowfall, I disremember how many… Sigh! I have to tell you that I had been wondering from the very first one how, with all of the smooth tile and all of the bridges, the Chinese keep from falling down everywhere and having car accidents when it snows.

Now, with equally inclement weather stretching across the States and torturing Dallas especially (my old stomping grounds and Superbowl City), it seems a good time to write about what I’ve found out about how things are done in China.

First, about those smooth tiles. It seems that every building I’ve been in, from shop to government office and including apartments, is tiled in 2’ square, smooth, cream-colored tile. Maybe there was a run on it at the local Home Depot, or maybe it is one of only few available flooring alternatives. The others being laminate, such as in my apartment, or concrete, like at Sam’s parents’ house. I’ve yet to see anything – restaurant, apartment or hotel that has wall to wall carpeting, except for an occasional hotel room. There really doesn’t seem like there is much choice when it comes to the floor.

When I first hit campus and got a load of Teaching Building #5, with it’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ side and a smooth tile breezeway in between, my first thought was: ‘that walkway is going to be fun to navigate in the winter, when it ices over. In addition to that, the staircases on this building, as well as building #1 are external. They too are going to ice over. How are they going to keep ten thousand students (and one clumsy foreign teacher) from falling down, given those conditions?

In addition to those questions came the question: what about around town? To facilitate traffic flow, major intersections have pedestrian overpasses. The pedestrians climb a set of stairs and literally walk over the intersections. It saves the pedestrians the temptation of challenging vehicles’ access to intersections (as they are prone to do when no overpass exists). However, again: how are they going to keep all of those pedestrians from slipping on the stairs when there are no handrails, or the handrails are out of reach because of the bike ramps conveniently built on both sides of the staircases?

Last but not least, I thought of the traffic conditions. On a good day, traffic is just short of murder. On snow and ice days, you can imagine how things might be. And, with all of the bridges, especially over bodies of water like the Yangtze and the Han Rivers right here in Wuhan, how are the traffic police going to find time to investigate all of those potential wrecks? Better yet: how will they be prevented?

In the States, people tend to not venture out in inclement weather. Unless they either live up North or in the mountains, where they have to deal with such weather all of the time. Or, they are just foolhardy and wish to challenge the elements and other drivers and see how many times they can spin out before scaring everyone else on the road. And then, with their mission is complete, they can drive back home doing 20MPH.

In the States there are sand trucks, salt trucks and plows, all of which get deployed at the first mention of ice or snow. The mountainous regions have chain laws. Who knows what they have here?

Well, for one, they have a very extensive and very busy infrastructure. I daresay if the buses and trains could not run, these cities would come to a standstill, and taxis would be busier than ever. Therefore, at least the buses and trains have to be able to keep transporting passengers. But that is not all. There is so much industry and so many goods to transport – raw and finished, if trucks could not make their dispatches and deliveries, that would be another catastrophe.

So, it seems to me that China cannot afford to stop everything and keep things parked as soon as a little inclement weather hits. There has to be a way to keep those pedestrians from sliding off the overpasses, students (and teachers) from sliding down the stairs and trucks and buses from sliding all over the roads.

I got my answer during the very first snowfall. Considering that was back in December, you can see how long I’ve waited to write about this topic, right? The answer is: straw mats.

Please go treat yourself to a Sundae at Baskin Robbins if you got it right. I would never have guessed it.

Are you wondering how the straw mats work? It is very simple. During the fall, a certain corps of older women (and perhaps some men) are tasked with loosely weaving straw into mats. These mats are thrown down on the staircases and walkways at the first drop of a snowflake. As pedestrians walk over the mats, the binding that kept them together disintegrates and the straw sticks to the sole of the shoes. It is then tracked upward. Having sufficiently dried the soles of the shoes, it then leaves that pair of shoes and lies, sodden and trampled, on upper stairs for people to track back down when they come downstairs. Thus there is always traction giving material on the stairs and walkways. How ingenious!

But what about the roads? I’ve yet to see a straw mat on the road, and I don’t think they would be very effective on the road anyway. And I have to admit that I am not on the roads enough to actually see their sanding/salting operation, if there is even one.

However, I did get lucky. Some friends and I were riding back from some remote part of town in a taxi one icy night and saw that the other side of the road had no traffic on it except for one small truck. Come to find out, that was the sand truck. The truck drove very slowly over the bridge while some poor soul sat in the back of it, probably freezing, and tossed bucketsful of sand out on the road.

This truck was not designated as an official vehicle; it looked just like any ordinary truck that just happened to be full of sand for the road. Whether there is actually a fleet of sand trucks or whether people get pressed into such duty is still a mystery to me, and no one in the car could tell me. Except for maybe the taxi driver, and he had all he could do to drive safely. Besides, I don’t possess the Chinese vocabulary necessary to broach such a topic and I probably would not have understood his answer if I had asked. Maybe I will be able to next year.

And where does the sand or salt come from? I don’t have the answer to that one, either.

If nothing else, this does prove that I do in fact deserve the name Question Queen. But at least I was able to provide you with some answers.

Your’re in China: Speak Chinese!

Mostly, the Chinese are thrilled that I can speak a bit of their language. Thrilled and surprised. Sometimes shocked. Like the woman at the farmer’s market who approached me with the bargain deal: if I buy fruit from her, she will only charge me 1Yuan for each ‘Jin’ (about 500 grams). When I told her – in Chinese, that I was committed to buying this farmer’s fruit, but that I would come see her next time, she threw up her hands is horror and exclaimed that she didn’t understand me. Her husband swatted her on the arm and said: “What don’t you understand? She’s speaking Chinese to you!”

That poor woman became the butt of many jokes at the Farmer’s Market. I am now a celebrity of sorts.

Sometimes I do run into people who simply do not want to speak anything but Chinese. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not, especially since we are in China. But, in formulating this entry I have to tell you I have a certain person in mind.

Her name is Della. Well, her English name is Della. She does not like it. Her boyfriend Ken gave it to her. She prefers her Chinese name: Chun Xue (tchun shway) – meaning Spring Snow. Beautiful name for a beautiful girl. But a rather obstinate girl.

As you know, Ken is fairly well versed in the English language. To him, it is important that his future wife also be, if not fluent then at least conversant in the language. Among his many arguments is the fact that she works in travel; she is likely to have to deal with foreigners at some point in time. That is a valid contention. Another point he likes to make is that, learning something new is not going to hurt her in any way. Enrichment is good, is his motto.

She is a thoroughly traditional Chinese girl. If people come to China, they should be able to speak Chinese, she holds firm. If not, there are plenty of Chinese people who speak English; no need for her to learn any. Much to Ken’s frustration.

And the sad thing is, she can speak some English. Not very much and not very well, but if she applied herself, she would probably be good at it. She is not a stupid girl, and she has the support and encouragement of her boyfriend.

Somehow, that issue always rears its head when I come to town. It could be because Ken and I speak English and she gets left out. It could be because Ken does not get to enjoy his time with us when he is translating back and forth, instead of participating in the conversation. Or it could be because I like to hang out with her while Ken is at work and doing so it difficult because of the language barrier. There is only so far I can carry a conversation in Chinese. Whatever the reason, Ken gets to a boiling point because Della simply refuses to learn English.

In a sense, I have to agree with her contention: if you are in China, you should speak Chinese. Just like many Americans who feel that, if you’re in America, you should speak English. But, for the first time in my life, I am on the other side of that fence.

I’ve never had to worry about language. In France I spoke French, in Germany I spoke German and in America I spoke English (and a little Spanish). In China I speak a little Chinese. I have to admit I am dependent on the good graces of those who do speak English to get some things done, like major banking issues or trying to find someplace that is listed on a map but somehow, mysteriously moved before I got there. When I first got here I was largely reliant on my English speaking students to help me learn how to get around.

Is it fair to say: “You’re in China! Speak Chinese!” Likewise, is it fair to say: “You’re in America! Speak English!”

The stress of living in a strange environment is huge. There have been times I have not wanted to get out of bed, leave my apartment, leave campus or go into town because I know I cannot communicate. I cannot read and I cannot understand when someone speaks to me. I cannot order a meal in a restaurant (without a menu written in English). I can buy fresh food at the supermarket because I can recognize what it is (mostly), but when it comes to preserved stuff or kitchen staples such as salt, sugar and the like, I’m helpless. I have to look at the picture of what that container houses and try to figure out if it is what I’m looking for or what I need. I am here with no family and no community that speaks my language, looks like I do and has the same customs and mannerisms that I do. If there were such a community, I would immediately flock to it.

On top of all of that, is it fair for people like Della to insist that, now that I live in China, I should somehow, miraculously be able to speak Chinese? Isn’t there any consideration to the fact that learning a new language takes time? And what about managing the stress of daily life and the depression of isolation? What about the grief of having left everyone and everything behind? One would have to be a virtuoso to be able to manage all of that and still master a new language in time to manage a new life in a new country.

Is her attitude fair? If I had been living in China for three or four years and still had not advanced beyond the basics, yes: I have to say that her attitude is justified. But, having just moved here last September and only immersed myself into society after I got over the terror and depression of being here, I do not think her attitude is justified. If there were a large community of expats I could routinely commune with and thus not need social connections with Chinese people, her point would be moot – and my being here would be fruitless, insofar as learning about the culture and the people.

Although Della is perfectly charming and lovely and welcoming in every other way, her dogged insistence on not learning English does not serve her well, and it is rather dismaying to me. How can I establish more than a superficial relationship with this girl who means the world to my good friend? And, why does she insist on putting him on the spot and in the middle, instead of accommodating his desire to be social with his foreigner friends by learning a new language herself?

Lastly: with China growing more global every day, why does she not see the need or have the desire to be a part of it?

Think about Della the next time you have the urge to say: “You’re in America! Speak English!”

Small Pagoda, Now

As I said before, I visited the Small Wild Goose Pagoda by myself. A short hop on bus 29 got me there and it was just a matter of scanning the skyline to find it, in all of its ancient majesty. Now: how to get to it? Ah, I see! Just follow the crowds; they are all headed there too.

Apparently there was a celebration of some sort going on in the park that surrounded the pagoda. As I arrived I was met by the cacophony of Chinese music. Chinese music does seem discordant rather than melodious to me: the drum tones are flat, the brasses are monotone and the singing doesn’t seem to keep time with the instrumental portion of the song. But the dancers seem to love it!

I stood at the gate, just outside of the enclosure and watched the dancing. It was a traditional dance with the women waving neon green fans and the men carrying brightly colored parasols. One dancer in particular was so enthusiastic that his smile threatened to break his face and his head bobbed with every step he took. The ‘ears’ of the towel tied on his head nodded cheerily, as though to encourage all of us spectators to nod our heads as well. His joy and passion were contagious and captivating. It is his picture I include with this entry. Like with the Big Pagoda, you can see pictures of the Small Pagoda online but you probably wouldn’t be able to see the smile on this dancer’s face unless I include it in the blog.

I decided to pay the 20Yuan to get into the park. There seemed to be a carnival atmosphere: the weather was acceptable, the people friendly and smiling, the dance captivating. I really wanted to be part of it.

After entering the enclosure I stopped to watch the dancers some more. By this time my dancer friend in the blue jacket was playing cymbals instead of dancing, and his smile had waned. The rest of the dancers paled in comparison to my favorite one, and indeed it seems the crowds were scattering. Soon the dancing stopped. I moved on.

It seems that everywhere, people were taking pictures: fathers of their wives and children, boyfriends of their girlfriends, tourists of everything picture-worthy. At times I offered to take pictures of whole families so that everyone – Dad, Mom and Kid could be in at least one shot. I’m not sure what these people thought of the big blond stranger offering to help them by taking their picture for them, but they did seem grateful and not one had a problem handing over their camera. Of course, I gave them their camera back after I took their picture; it would have been a frantic chase through the park if I had been laden down with so many cameras!

Over a bridge, across a small pond and down a path I slowly wended my way to the pagoda. I wanted to savor the moment so I attempted to build anticipation at being at the base of the structure by taking my time. I should have just headed over there directly because I didn’t really take anything in, being so busy looking at the pagoda and its rounded edges and majestic height.

Indeed it did give the appearance of soaring, unlike the Big Pagoda, which seems to waddle and remain grounded.

Although at one time the structure must have had very defined corners, now the edges on each layer of the pagoda are gently rounded. The construction is brick and over time, some of the mortar eroded and the outermost bricks on the corners fell off. The effect is of a gently rounded yet powerful lance, extending skyward. It does look slightly tired, as though having stood there all of these centuries have worn it out. But, it does not give the impression of wishing to crumble.

One could go inside the pagoda and climb all the way to the top, but for the extra 30Yuan it would cost me, I figured just standing at its base was enough for me. I walked around its base platform mostly looking up, but occasionally casting my eyes down to what was happening on the ground below. That is when I saw two angry men wielding large wooden mallets, beating on a tree stump. They had a certain rhythm going and it seemed that there was nearly a vengeance to their pounding. Suddenly they stopped and one of the men flipped over a substance that looked like pummeled tree bark. Interesting. I went to check it out.

Now, my dentist loves me! More specifically, if this treat ever made it to America, all the dentists would love it!

The men were pounding peanuts, flour and molasses into a type of bark, when they were done pounding on it, was as flexible as paper. One of the men turned it over, balled it up and the pounding began anew. This went on until there were no more peanuts to be seen. One of the men took the mallets and the other grabbed a large putty knife and cut this flattened bark into chunks. I just had to try some, and the clerk at the stand gave me a sample.

Heaven! I’m in Heaven! Oh, I have never tasted peanut brittle, peanut candy or any type of peanut confection that had exactly that texture, that perfect blend of sweetness and grit, that exquisite, peanutty goodness that that treat had. With no compunction whatsoever I handed over the 10Yuan it cost me to own my very own bag of it. It was still warm from all of its pounding and with no decorum at all, I popped piece after piece into my mouth. Well, not quite slobbishly. I did wait until I was done eating one piece before snagging another one. After four pieces I decided to save some for my friends to try, and I certainly wanted to bring some back to Wuhan with me.

Too bad I left it in the hotel room when I left Xi’an. Fortunately, it is not the last time I will go to Xi’an and I guarantee you I will visit the Small Wild Goose Pagoda again, if only for that treat.

The rest of the park was pretty unremarkable. Various outbuildings and a few guard towers. There was a free concert and I stopped and listened to some Chinese pop music for a few minutes. The most eye-catching displays in the park were of the dragon, constructed completely out of china (dishes, not the country) and a rabbit built completely of corncobs. This is the year of the rabbit, after all. How the corncobs factor in, I couldn’t tell you. As I was leaving the park after my three-hour visit, the dancers were reassembling and getting ready to put on their show again. A whole new crop of spectators had arrived and it was time to pop those parasols and flick those fans.

There is something so joyous and peaceful about ambling around Xi’an. A short bus ride, a few Yuan paid here and there and you are exposed to something so marvelous, so iconic, so Xi’an. That is why I love this town.

Wild Goose Pagodas, Big and Small

I’ve already confided that Xi’an is loaded with iconic cultural relics, right? Two of the more prominent ones are the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. From pictures I knew that they were monumental and magnificent edifices but I had yet to see them with my own eyes.

The first time I visited Xi’an, as a part of the Scholar Laureate Program in 2008, visiting the Big Wild Goose Pagoda was actually on our tour agenda. However, because of the massive earthquake in nearby Chengdu that claimed over 5,000 lives, it was decided that the pagoda might pose a physical danger – bricks falling and the like, because of possible aftershocks. So, we went to the Shaanxi (pronounced Shawn-she) provincial museum instead. (NOTE: Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province.)

During subsequent visits to Xi’an, I somehow never made it to either pagoda. I know, big surprise: I’ve been to Xi’an more than once –tee hee. This visit, I was determined to behold both Big and Small Pagodas.

Much as I would have liked to have had Ken’s company on these outings, the fact is that he lives and works in this wonderful city. He is not a tourist and certainly not at my disposal. However, he gallantly provided his cousin MaoMao, who was freshly back from 2 years of military duty as my escort for the day.

MaoMao speaks very limited English. Much more limited than my Chinese. But, what he lacks in language skills he makes up for in charm, wisdom and gallantry. He is a very centered and self-possessed young man, radiating wisdom and a calm rare in one so young (he’s 23 years old). What an absolutely precious person he is. At one point, after a long silence in which we walked side by side, I confided to him that I wish is spoke better Chinese so that we could have good conversation together, whereupon he confessed his shame at not knowing more English. We resolved to help each other learn each other’s language. From there on, it was mostly all giggles and stilted conversation. Fortunately our cell phones have dictionaries on them!

I had originally intended to set out for the Big Pagoda somewhere around 2:00PM. However, when Ken informed me that MaoMao wanted to go with me, I waited for him, visiting with Ken at work. Until 5:00PM.

Well, now: wait a minute! All the light will be gone from the day, and I won’t be able to take any good pictures! As it turns out, that was no big problem at all. The pagoda is well illuminated and somehow rendered even more breathtaking than I imagine it would be during the day. The park around the pagoda is equally photo-friendly, with its street vendors and various bronze statues illuminated. And, because this is New Year, extra pains have been given to celebratory lighting. Lanterns, strings of lights and spotlights rendered my fears about camera light sensitivity obsolete.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While still on the bus, I played a nice joke on MaoMao. Seats are as hard to come by on Xi’an buses as they are on Wuhan buses, so that when a seat came available, he ushered me into it. One stop down the road, another seat came open toward the front of the bus, and I ushered him toward it. The next stop, the seat behind him came open and I slid into it, and then tapped him on the shoulder and asked him in Chinese: “Excuse me, could you please tell me how to get to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda?” He turned, an earnest look on his face, ready to help… and saw it was me! We giggled yet again. We were having so much fun!

The bus turned the corner and there it was! Seemingly smack in the middle of the road, this magnificent structure that has stood for centuries! I am finally seeing it with my own eyes! Poor MaoMao, he didn’t know I turn into a child when I’m excited. Here I am, bouncing in my seat, pointing, eyes as big as dinner plates, exclaiming – but not too loud; I don’t wish to make a spectacle of myself. MaoMao was enchanted. He suddenly appreciated Ken’s invitation to accompany me in a whole different way.

We got off the bus and had to go through an underground passage to cross the boulevard. As I climbed the steps, wild with anticipation, the first thing my eyes lit on was… Baskin Robbins! I kid you not.

I forgive the Chinese their need and greed for Western experiences because there wasn’t a McDonald’s in sight. Baskin Robbins was the only Western establishment in the whole park. Had there been a McDonald’s though… well, I probably still would have been forgiving, so awe-inspiring is this Pagoda.

Unfortunately we were too late to enter the enclosure and, at 30Yuan per ticket, I’m not sure I would have wanted to anyway. Besides, the Pagoda was highly visible over the enclosure walls (pun intended). I did manage to get some spectacular pictures of it, but the ones I cherish more are the ones of MaoMao and I posing with the various bronze statues around the Pagoda wall. (Note: you can see the Pagoda pictures by googling Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but you probably won’t see MaoMao unless I attach his picture to this blog. Hence the choice of pictures.)

Each sculpture represents some part of traditional Chinese culture: shadow puppets, poetry, music, dancing maidens and the like. MaoMao and I took turns posing with the statues. At one point he wanted to take a picture of me with a statue depicting a female warrior and I told him he should pose with female statues and I should pose with male figures. He saw the sense in that and agreed.

As we spent more time together our conversation became more comfortable, in spite of the language barrier. I asked him if the Government will help him find work now that he is discharged from the military and he did aver that, after the New Year celebration, there should be job offers for him such as: accident investigator, traffic policeman, or some other lower level bureaucrat position. Considering how difficult it is to find a good job in China, I was encouraged to know that, after serving his country, his country will assist him. Much like the veterans get assistance in America, I assured him.

All too soon we had walked the entire circumference of the Pagoda and its park, which incidentally features the largest dancing water display in all of Asia, and there was nothing left to see or do. MaoMao walked me to the bus stop and waiting with me until I was safely on the bus, headed home. As I turned to wave at him, I saw him on the phone, presumably with Ken.

As usual, these good times spent with friends deserve as much room on this blog as I can give them. Hence this outing with MaoMao takes up all the room, even though it was just a short outing – maybe 2 hours spent together. And, because the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Small Wild Goose Pagoda are not geographically close to one another, with one being at one side of the city and one being on the other side, I think I will tell you about visiting the Small Pagoda in the next post.

Besides, I went there by myself. See? Another difference.

Blue Roofs

If you ever decide to come to China, most likely you will fly into Beijing International airport. If you are so lucky as to be near a window and you happen to glance out, you might see that many roofs are painted blue. You might wonder why that is so. I will be delighted to tell you when I meet you at the gate, after you finally land.

Or, I can tell you right now, so that you’ll know to be on the lookout for the blue roofs while you are still in the air.

Most people think that China is a Godless country. And indeed, there is no recognized religion here. More specifically, the CIA World Fact Book lists it as an Atheist country where Buddhism and the Tao prevail. Buddhism and Taosim (and Confucianism, the spiritual triumvirate of China) are philosophies, not actual religions.

In 1950, Mao Ze Dong decreed that religion was non-productive and abolished any active practice of religion throughout the country. I have not read any accounts where the people decry his decree, mainly because there most likely aren’t any. Back then, when people didn’t agree with Mao, they were… put in a place where agreeing with anything or anyone was a moot point.

From that time on, until maybe 1980, when Deng Xiao Ping opened China to limited exposure to the West, not much thought was given to any type of religion. People were too hungry, too terrified and too busy to think of anything besides meeting production quotas, staying alive and getting enough food. Again, there is no literature that says people prayed to anyone (God or Buddha) for comfort, solace or maybe even a morsel to eat. They were still too terrified. The prisons and denouncements were still a very real threat. There is a good chance that older generations might relate stories to that effect, but I think their memory of that terrible time would eclipse any desire to talk about their thoughts of God while starving.

Now there is a loosening of the edict against religion. Not only are Buddhism and Taoism making a resurgence into mainstream society, but books about Confucianism are flying off the shelves (because customers are buying them that quickly, not because they are possessed of mystical powers). Temples are being renovated at government expense. Whether it is because they are cultural relics or because they are religious in nature is irrelevant; the fact is, they are undergoing renovation.

There is even a burgeoning Christian movement in China. Being a foreigner I have been invited various churches several times, and even saw a Christian church while I was out walking the streets of Xi’an. Mind you it was not on a main thoroughfare and I only caught it by happenstance because I looked down the side street, but nevertheless it was there. There are several Christian churches in Wuhan as well. Not actual buildings dedicated to worship like the one I saw in Xi’an, but stores or offices that offer up their space for that purpose. I’ve been given to understand that the Christian population across China is growing. Certainly some of my students follow the Christian doctrine, as evidenced by their testimony of what Christmas means to them.

And, of course, you read about Muslim Street in Xi’an right here in this blog, and surely you are aware of the Muslim population in Urumqi (a province in Northwest China). They featured heavily in the news a couple of years back because of rioting: they wanted an end to the discrimination they have lived under for years.

So, clearly, religion does play a part in the lives of the Chinese. But where do those blue roofs come in?

Back when it was forbidden to believe in anything, people were not willing to give up their devotion to the Buddha. They were not allowed to go to temples and burning incense and praying were most definitely no-nos. But… who was going to say anything about the men, arduously laboring to fix the roofs? And, while they were at it, they just went ahead and painted them… blue.

Because blue is the color of devotion and spirituality. Blue was the color of the Buddha’s robe, to reflect the eternal blueness of the Heavens. Blue is purity of spirit.

To have a blue roof meant that your home was welcoming the spirit of the Buddha into your dwelling, in spite of the political turmoil or the terrible and terrifying living conditions. Having a blue roof meant that you were defying Chairman Mao’s edict, but in such a way that would not be detected and would certainly not be punishable. Having a blue roof meant that, no matter what, spirituality and faith and belief does not die.

So, as your plane makes its final approach to Beijing airport, remember: I will be at that gate, ready and overjoyed to see you. But before you get there, give thought to those brave and devoted ones who, even under heinous living conditions and perpetual terror, had the strength and courage of their faith to paint their roofs blue.

Muslim Street

One of my favorite aspects of Xi’an is its diversity. There are shoppers and strollers, sightseers and foreigners. There are old buildings and new, old buses and new, old people and… young. And they all commingle virtually seamlessly. At any given point you might drive by a park dedicated to statuary, or an edifice that has stood since the days of Genghis Khan. And that would be right next to the new shopping mall, complete with McDonalds’.

No less a spectacle is the Muslim Quarter. Xi’an boasts a fairly large Muslim population, and they are centered around the centuries-old Mosque near the ancient drum tower, which just happens to be very close to the heart of the old city. Matter of fact, everything in the Old City is within walking distance from the South Gate of the original City Wall.

Please feel free to google any of these images. Again I regret that I can only include one or two pictures with each blog entry. Although I am posting pictures on my flickr page, it seems to me that I would be inconveniencing you to urge you to go look there, when you can just as quickly google some results. Not everything has to be from me, I realize. Besides, google might have better pictures than I do. Or at least more variety.

My job is to paint pictures with words. As I am intent on doing my job well, I now invite you to walk down Muslim Street with me.

Coming here is, in a sense, coming home for me. Not just Xi’an, but especially Muslim Street. It has nothing to do with religion, tradition or custom but more with the hustle and bustle, the life, the excitement, the wares, the very air and atmosphere and the timeless practice of barter and trading, eating and strolling, eyes wide with wonder and heart soaring with elan. When one walks down Muslim Street, listening to the vendors hawk their wares, tripping over that loose cobblestone, taking in the traditions in craftsmanship, cookery and trading, one feels like they have turned the clock back about 400 years and changed geographical points altogether.

It is a loud and fragrant place. There is no restaurant section, sales section, this section or that section. Everything is all mixed together. At any given point you might find a whole lamb shank roasting over an open fire right next to a craftsman making jewelry, right next to a baker making their strangely tasty, unleavened bread. Most of the food is cooked outdoors and if you find an entrancing chef, it is perfectly OK to stop and watch him. And they are always a ‘him’. No ‘her’ chefs in the Muslim Quarter.

Many of the vendors sell the same type of tourist kitsch; it is a tourist attraction, after all. You have to look past those vendors to get the beat of the true Muslim Street.

There is one distinct section that is in fact reserved for tourists. The first time I went to Muslim Street with Ken, last year, he declared he did not even know that section exists. However, the fist time I came to Xi’an I was in fact a tourist and that is the only part of Muslim Street I saw.

In this narrow alley, off the main thoroughfare of the Quarter, Chinese vendors hawk their wares almost exclusively to tourists. Their calls of ‘Hey lady! Hey Lady! You come! You buy!’ are almost comically stereotypical. They like to grab your arm and pull you into their shop. And, unless you bargain with them, they will not respect you. For all of that, I do have to say that they do indeed have nice, touristy stuff: Terra Cotta Warrior replicas, copies of Chairman Mao’s red book, various tee-shirts and some Chinese clothing. There are silk painters who will custom paint for you; there are artisans who will paint on rice paper, there are trinket and toys and things for little and big ones alike. There is jewelry and teapots for sale, along with the requisite variety of teas, and there are ornamental boxes and a million other trinkets.

Had that been all there was to Muslim Street, I would be writing about something else instead. I was not enchanted until Ken showed me the other parts.

As I walk down Muslim Street, alone this time, I take in the sights, sounds and smells. My hands are in my pockets and a small, knowing smile plays on my lips. I almost close my eyes and let my other senses guide me. I do not need to see tourist kitsch; I need to feel the connection to this living time machine.

These Muslim are humble and hard working. They do not accost you directly; it is more the skill of their hands and the aroma of their food that beckons. Theirs is a type of seduction that, although you might be able to resist momentarily, its lure and chant will haunt you until you return, again and again, to behold it, if not take part in it.

For you are a participant when you are on Muslim Street. That is, if you do it right.

You should go there by day, the earlier the better. Certain types of food are only cooked early morning, and their delicate aroma is trumped by the smell of roasting meat if you go later on in the day. Besides, if you get there before the tourist buses, you can see what life is truly like on Muslim Street without getting squished by throngs of people or assaulted by tons of vendors.

Early-day food cooked and served, men head to the mosque at the center of the quarter. The chant from the minaret is loud, clear and powerful in the morning air. There is camaraderie evident among the devout as their sandaled feet slap the cobblestones. An aura of reverence descends on the Quarter at prayer time and, even though the men smile and talk and laugh while walking, the closer they get to the mosque the more hushed and awed they become. Tourists are allowed to enter the mosque, even at prayer time, on the condition that they do not cause a disturbance or interrupt prayers. Women must be properly attired: no bare shoulders or low cut shirts.

Or you can take in Muslim Street at night, when it reinvents itself to become a bazaar. There is a sensual feel to the smoke from the barbeques, the cracking sound of the fruit presses for fresh pomegranate juice, the popping of walnuts churning in their roasters, and all around you the night air, silky and redolent with the fragrance of flowers and herbs. At night you are anonymous, a face in the crowd, a part of the swelling masses. At night, Muslim Street happens without you being able to see it for all of the noise and the press of the people. But you know you are there.

One night, I put away my laptop and needed a walk. Invariably my feet took me to Muslim Quarter. I didn’t need the lights or the people but I wanted the sounds and the smells. I walked on, an island in a sea of faces, feasting on the aroma and drinking in the sights. Rather than stick to the main concourse I decided to run the side roads, which are substantially more narrow and infinitely more real to me. That is where life happens in Muslim Street at night.

As I walked on I came upon a small drama. A kitten had perched on a scooter seat, and the scooter’s owner was trying to dislodge it. The man did not simply exert his larger size against the kitten’s more fragile countenance, scoop it up and deposit it unceremoniously on the ground. Instead he encouraged the kitten to jump down of its own volition. Man and cat wrangled for a minute, with the feline hissing and the man nudging its hindquarters. Finally the cat understood that the man was giving it dignity by allowing it to descend on its own. It raised its tail, jumped down and found its own way along the cobblestones to its next perch. The man mounted his scooter and rode away.

That is the essence of the dignity and life of Muslim Street.

Death Rites

I know, a rather glum topic to embrace just as we are celebrating the start of a New Year. But, in order to explain Ken’s parents’ absence while he and I chowed down on jiao zi, I have to put this topic right here.

In China and all over Asia, death is seen as an integral part of life. It is inevitable. Everybody and everything must and will die. That is an accepted fact here. And it is seen in the reverence held for the ancestors, in the burial rites and in the remembrances to the deceased.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t sadness, grief or mourning for a loved one’s passing. However, how that passing is marked and handled and celebrated is as opposite to the Western way of marking a death as cold is to hot.

In the West, death rites are performed for the living. The funeral, the services, the processions and the burial are executed for the benefit of the living. Before you get into an uproar about this postulate, let me explain how things transpire in China.

When a loved one passes, he or she is cremated within 72 hours. That is because of growing health and sanitary concerns. Until recently – say, thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to bury a loved one in the fields that he or she had cultivated all of his or her life, sometimes with and sometimes without the benefit of a coffin. If there is a coffin, it is not sealed. It generally consisted of a handmade, handpainted box. As the body decomposes… well, you can just guess what happens to the crops, right? Thus the government passed the edict that only professionals can handle dead bodies, and the bodies must be cremated.

That is not to say that there are no cemeteries in China. Of course there are. But here again, you have to remember the massive population of this country. Can you imagine dedicating enough land for each full-sized coffin? That would be too much land, and it also would not account for deaths that happen in the country and in the villages and in the smaller towns. Thus, a nationwide edict of cremation.

Upon the death of a loved one and after cremation, the processions start. At the head of the line is the first born offspring, holding a picture of the deceased. Following that heir come the ‘pallbearers’, those bearing the box of cremains, usually mounted upon an altar and surrounded by burning incense. After that comes a band, playing loud music. The rest of the procession consists of family and friends, each singing loudly, wailing and tossing yellow paper into the air. This procession is paraded around the neighborhood or the village of the deceased, both to proclaim that soul’s liberation from his earthly body and to announce to the departing spirit that here is his or her home. Should he or she ever want to come back and visit in spirit form, he or she would know where home is.

At some point during this procession, depending on the ethnicity of the deceased (there are 58 ethnic minorities in China, and one majority: the Han) the family will prostrate themselves before the procession 49 times, wailing at the spirit of the deceased to not leave them. They get up in time to not be trampled to death by the procession, run ahead and prostrate themselves, wailing, anew. In every case, yellow paper is thrown in the air and/or burned. This yellow paper symbolizes money, so that the deceased will have money to spend in the afterlife.

The procession continues, all the way to the burial site – however far that may be from the deceased person’s home. The shouting and singing continue and the pall bearers are changed out so that no one gets too tired. If the way is long, stools are carried to provide a temporary rest for those weary of walking. Invariably the songs and shouting consist of instructions for the deceased to find his or her way back home, because they are being moved far away from where they lived.

As I understand Western death ceremonies, the loved one is talked about but not invoked. Sometimes strangers (Priests, ministers, pastors, ect.) offer platitudes, and sometimes eulogies are offered up. Sometimes those that knew the deceased well will offer up anecdotes. Sometimes – well, often, music is played. For me, Western burial rites are sad affairs: grief at a loved one’s passing, where sadness and gloominess prevail. There also seems to be a sense of embarrassment. What does one say to someone whose mother or father just died? Is it as uncomfortable an ordeal for everyone as it has been for me?

There is a finality in Western burial rites: the deceased is gone, their time had come, they’ve passed on, gone on to their reward, are in a better place, home with the Lord… but might he or she ever find his way home to his loved ones again? Usually, ‘home’ is heaven. It is implied that that person will never again occupy space or time on Earth.

Not so in the East. Here, strange as it sounds, the deceased are as much a part of things as they ever were. They are just not physically present.

For days, as I wandered the streets of Xi’an I noticed people drawing small chalk circles on the sidewalk, and then burning yellow paper in those circles. Vendors even sold a particular type of paper that would burn especially well. Everywhere there were piles of ashes. Some intuition led me to circumvent them; somehow I sensed the reverence of this rite without really knowing what it was about.

Until Ken’s parents went downstairs to burn paper. And then, my Question Queen self emerged and I assaulted Ken with a barrage of questions regarding this custom. After all, Ken was the one who gave me the name Question Queen (remember, from the Quest for Shoes?)

As Ken explained it, paper is burned for the loved ones to have more money to spend in the afterlife. And, this paper is burned right there, where the living members of the family reside, so that the spirits of the loved ones will be compelled to return and visit. Especially during the momentous occasions like New Years or birthdays, or the birth of a new family member.

A final note about burial rites: the Chinese observe a holiday especially reserved for the reverence and celebration of their ancestors. It is called Qing Ming (pronounced ching ming). That is the day set aside for the remembrance of loved ones and people flock to burial sites to play homage. That is, to my knowledge, the only time that the living travel to where the dead rest. Any other celebration or occasion, the dead are remembered where the living reside, and they are a part of the living’s celebrations. There is no segregation between life and death in China (or maybe throughout Asia; I would need to travel more to assert that as fact).

Somehow, that is beautiful and right to me.