Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Who Will Save Sasuke?

Usually when I write a post, there are elements of humor among the serious topics I discuss. In this post, I cannot inject a bit of humor. It is deadly serious. I mean that: there is in fact a life at stake here.

Sasuke is a freshman student at this college. She is a rather plain girl: oval face, unremarkable eyes, a somewhat narrow mouth and a straight nose. She wears her hair pulled back to expose smallish ears; unfortunately that hairstyle serves to highlight what must have been a terrible case of acne in her younger years. With her face so exposed, one cannot help but notice the pitting and scars on her cheeks. She is rather tall for a Chinese girl, nearly as tall as I am and painfully thin. She is decidedly different from all of the girls on campus.

Last semester she was in my class, and she proved to be a wonderful student, well versed in English. She is very intelligent and very deep. Her emotions are intense; they burn and radiate out from her. I think she scares the other students away from her with her intensity. I know she frightens me with her intensity.

I am not scared that she will harm me in any way. Quite the contrary: I fear she has formed an unnatural bond with me and now looks to me for constant affirmation and acceptance. What I am scared of is that she will harm herself.

Sasuke has some serious issues going on. I don’t know what trauma there is in her past but I recognize her for what she is: a victim of child abuse. I know that because I see in her some of the behaviors, mannerisms and emotions I exhibited due to my own traumatic past.

I often use music in the classroom to help the kids with their listening skills, as well as spoken English. Amazingly, when singing, these kids sound more like native English speakers than when they try to speak English. I will explore that phenomenon in another post. I only brought the topic up to introduce this one:

Girls and boys all over China love the song “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson. As a result of that, and in an effort to reach my students at their level, we explored the lyrics of this song in class, and sang it together. Beautiful song!

Do you know it? If you don’t it is well worth the listen. Simply go to YouTube and search for the song and artist by that name (Not the Reba McEntyre version). Take a close look at the video and you will see what it is about: a girl dealing with the anger and sadness of having been neglected by her parents while they struggled through their marital problems, and ultimately the dissolution of their relationship. The poor little girl ended up neglected and forgotten, and it impacted her emotionally. The song is about the consequences of abuse and neglect.

Although this is a fairly common phenomenon in America, it is not quite the norm in China. The way families are structured here, if the parents are unavailable, for whatever reason, there are always grandparents, aunts, uncles… someone to look out for the child.

Sasuke apparently did not have the benefit of extended family, and she was certainly treated to adult behaviors not fit for a child. When we explored this song in class, she was the only one who ‘got’ the true meaning of the lyrics, right off the bat. When I pointed out the cultural differences between the States and China with regard to child rearing – my alluding to the fact that there is a protective emotional bubble constructed around the child, she shook her head and said ‘It is not always so’. That was not my first clue that not all was right with Sasuke.

The first clue was her mode of dress: whereas every other girl on campus comes equipped with a fashionable wardrobe, Sasuke wears no embellishments whatsoever. No jewelry, makeup or fancy clothing. Just jeans and Plain-Jane shirts. The next was offering me a gift upon first meeting me at English corner; this gift signified her attachment. She had actually left the meeting and come back to present me with a gift. Immediately my instincts shouted: “Danger! Emotional attachment forming!”

Not that I mind emotional attachments. It is just that I am not qualified to deal with attachments of this caliber. Once, in my past was a young girl named Deana who formed such an attachment and was devastated when I did not handle it properly. I didn’t know how to handle it properly and, arrogantly I believed I could help Deana all by myself. With Sasuke I see the same scenario playing out as with Deana.

I am now not so arrogant as to believe I can single-handedly help this young girl through her troubles. With age comes wisdom, and I now know that I cannot become emotional where she is concerned, as I did with Deana. I must maintain distance, even though distance is the last thing that Sasuke (and Deana before her) want from me. But that is what they need. Forming unnatural attachments is dangerous for people with issues such as Sasuke’s, Deana’s and mine of yore.

Sasuke now has Victor for a teacher. I do not see her regularly anymore but we do stay in touch. It was her birthday that we celebrated a few weeks back (see the entry “KTV, Now and Then”). We send text messages back and forth – usually me responding to her overtures. I am always careful to not engage her, and to remain neutral in my dealings with her. It is the safest way to handle this type of situation.

Recently, Sasuke visited my class as a guest student – she had actually cut a class to do so. While in class I noticed recent scars on her hands, so I accepted her invitation to dinner so that I could find out why she was cutting herself. Self-mutilation is a cry for help for people with deep emotional problems. To have rejected her could have meant her doing more serious harm to herself.

During this dinner, I took a ‘tough love’ approach. I pointed to her hand and asked her what she was doing. She hid her hand, embarrassed, but I forged on. I talked with her about harming herself being a sign that she needed more help than I could offer her. I told her I recognized where she was heading because I had been where she is now. I told her about some of the things I went through as an abused child, and how it took professional help and a lot of time and faith in myself and those who love me to overcome the trauma of what I had endured at the hands of my parents. I kept going back to the idea that professional help was the only way out of her suffering.

I also told her that she is different from other girls, and that it is OK to be different. I comforted her by saying that she will feel OK being different once she gets out from the monstrous wall of pain she lives behind. Again, I used myself and that song by Kelly Clarkson as examples of how one can overcome such pain and grief at unfairly being robbed of your childhood.

She confided that my eyes scare her sometimes. She feels that my eyes see right through to her deepest, darkest secrets. I replied that they do, and with good reason. Because she is me, thirty years ago. The situations may have been different, but the end result is the same: a tortured soul, trying to decide whether the agony of living is worth it. Again I told her that it took me several years of professional help to battle all of my demons.

I am not a trained clinician. I am not qualified to help the Sasukes or the Deanas of the world. I could barely help myself out of my own, dark thoughts. I am well aware of that. But… if I go talk to the Mental Health professionals on campus to seek help for her, I am in fact betraying her confidence. That is the last thing this broken girl needs. What to do? In America I would have the liberty of telling her that, for her own good and by law, I must report her behavior and her issues to the professionals. It doesn’t work that way here. All I know to do is remain detached, and keep hammering away at her and encouraging her to seek professional help, before the cuts on her hands become gashes across her carotid artery.

Incidentally: that dinner was actually a misnomer. Sasuke did not eat anything, and wouldn’t even sample my fried rice. So, knowing I am no knight on a white horse riding to the rescue, the question remains: who will save Sasuke?

Answer: Only Sasuke can save Sasuke by seeking professional help for her pain.

Don’t Stop!

We’ll address two topics under this title, and they both involve stopping: one of my favorite ongoing topics, traffic, and school kids. Believe me; you don’t want to get in the way of either one in China. Doing so can have unwanted consequences for you.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been a passenger in a car only a handful of times, and I’ve driven nothing bigger than a shopping cart. Even that, I do seldom. In China, you just don’t shop the same way you do in America. Bulk buying is virtually unheard of, except maybe at Metro, Carrefour or WalMart. Usually, you don’t even need a shopping cart at a regular grocery store for the little you buy at a time. Shopping is done as needed: a bottle of soy sauce here, a pound of rice there, or going to the baker’s or butcher’s or the farmer’s market. It is kind of like shopping was done in the ‘50s and ‘60s in America. Quaint! Charming!

Even though I do not drive, I do still try to reason out the traffic situation. How does it manage to get so snarled? How does anybody get where they are going? How is it that there are not more accidents?

And then, it hit me: I have not seen a stop sign since I’ve been here. I have seen red lights and amber lights and standard traffic lights that are fully operational (and sometimes ignored). But, coming off the side streets onto the main roads, or at merging intersections, or for buses coming off designated bus lanes into mainstream traffic there is nothing to denote which vehicle has the right of way. No lights and no signs. There is nothing compelling traffic from anywhere to pause and look for oncoming traffic before they jump into the fray.

And they don’t. They just keep driving as though there is no oncoming traffic: no buses or cars, no pedestrians, no scooters, no ambling dogs and no human-powered pushcarts. I suppose everyone has to look out for merging traffic from side streets as they progress down the main roads. As a pedestrian, I certainly make it a point to check for cars or scooters coming off side roads before I cross those streets, even when I am in a crosswalk. You just never know.

One reason traffic does not get snarled is because of mandatory speed reductions school zones. There are at least two primary schools on the main road in front of the University, and countless others throughout the city. Five to six days a week these schools disgorge hordes of little ones, who take to the roads and buses with gleeful abandon. And, when I say little ones, I’m talking about five- and six-year olds, all the way up to tens and teens. There are no designated school zones where vehicles must slow to a crawl and there are no lines of school buses seeking safe passage onto main thoroughfares. There are no crosswalk monitors that insure these kiddies have priority crossing the road and only a relative few parents and grandparents wait at the school gates to see the children home.

I used to despair in America that, wherever there was a school – kindergarten through high school, that all vehicle traffic must slow down to twenty miles per hour. Crosswalk officers stop traffic whether pedestrians have a green light or not so the kids can cross and policemen are not shy at all about issuing tickets for speed offenders.

First off, I can understand such precautions for wee little ones, but shouldn’t older kids, at least high school kids be accountable for themselves? Especially if said high school kids are actually driving? Why must there be speed restrictions in front of high schools? And then: if a school of any grade range is on a side road, why does traffic on the main road have to slow down? Isn’t that overkill? What kind of message does that send the kids? “You do not have to be accountable for yourself and your safety because the whole world is being made to slow down for you.” Is that the best way to teach kids personal safety and accountability?

As a result of those traffic laws and the ensuing snarls and delays, when I lived in the States I would avoid being out between 2:00PM and 4:00PM. Of course, immediately after the school zones ended their asinine speed restrictions for the day, rush hour started: when everyone got off work at the same time and jumped into their individual vehicles and tried to get home. In short, going anywhere between the hours of 2PM and 7PM was too frustrating a venture for me when I lived in America.

Now I deal with traffic delays all of the time. But, I can manage these so much better because there is a logical reason for them. Mind you, I didn’t say sensible, I said logical. As in: the reason why traffic snarls so hopelessly here is definable. No one stops for anything, therefore everyone must stop for everything.

Due to a spate of attacks on school children in China last year, schools are more closely guarded and parents do try to be at the school gate when their little ones are released for the day. That means that there is a collection of adults standing outside school gates. They park their scooters haphazardly along the road because there is no room on or along the sidewalk. The result: traffic problems.

Because more adults are seeing their kids safely to and from school, buses are more crowded – parents who do not have scooters or cars ride the buses. The buses take longer to load and unload passengers, especially at popular stops – in front of schools and… the neighborhood where my university is at, for example.

I really don’t like being out while the school kids are making their way home. They are loud and rambunctious just as are kids all over the world. It is difficult to enjoy a bus ride when the kids are on board. They fight for and take up all of the seats. They squeal and fight and play and shout. They like poking fun at the foreigner, saying their “Hello’s” and trying out their English language skills, as well as testing out my Chinese skills. Although they are rather adorable, I would just as soon avoid the noise and having to stand on the bus all the way home.

However, I can’t help but admire these little ones – very little ones in some cases, who make their way home on mass transit or in the world by themselves. They navigate traffic and the bus system as well as any adult and they see themselves and each other safely home. They do not operate under the illusion that they have some sort of extra privilege because all traffic stops for them; they KNOW they have to be careful and watch out. They are held accountable for themselves and they take that accountability in stride. Short little strides, because their little legs cannot manage big, deep, adult strides.

They stride nonetheless, on their own. And they make it home every day, whether there are stop signs or not. Not bad, for a collection of little ones, no?

It Is Raining!

If it is true that April showers bring May flowers, what do March showers bring? And, if the goodness I’m being showered with in March manifests itself in wealth and material goods, what can I expect for April, May and June?

While I make this play on words with regard to my good fortune, let me take a moment to express my concern over the droughts in Texas. For the little bit of rain that has fallen on my old stomping grounds, I have to admit I am concerned about environmental resources (water tables dropping, unhealthy bacteria in local water sources, food prices soaring, electrical rates skyrocketing, rolling brownouts and possible blackouts) as well as the health and well-being of all my friends living there. Take care, you guys! You are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope that rain will soon come your way.

Let me mention as well the people of Japan. I have been remiss in writing about the double-hitter tragedy they suffered with the earthquake and the tsunami. I will soon remedy that. For now I’ll just say that I cannot consider my good fortune without thinking of their devastation. Indeed, there but for the grace of all that is good and powerful and right, go I. Go we… right?

Now, let’s get on with these showers of mine.

The first bit of fortune came at the beginning of the month when the school made good on their promise to deliver a new television, complete with Internet TV connection (see ‘Building Guanxi entry). This new TV is a flatscreen, top of the line, 32-inch model to complement my living room. Not only do I get all of the Chinese channels but I also get movie channels, music channels, special interest channels, the channel that broadcasts in English and other features. It will even pause, TIVO-like, while I watch a movie so I can get up and get a snack or a cup of tea. It is really much more TV than I anticipated or dreamed of.

As I write this, an old Jackie Chan movie is playing to keep me company. Now nice to hear people speak within these four walls!

The next bit of luck came with the renewal of my contract. It is still a bit early in the year to renew contracts; according to my current contract we weren’t supposed to renew until closer to June. Never mind that, let’s just sign and get done with it! I got a 200Yuan a month raise and an option to renew after Year Two. According to Sam, not many teachers get raises, and even fewer are offered a third year. He avers that the faculty really likes me, and the students consistently report the quality and content of my classes as high, thus the administrators are very interested in keeping me here. I don’t have the first problem with that; I am glad to have a measure of job security.

My third bit of chance comes in the form of a promise: a new apartment in September. Not that I’m complaining about this apartment; it does have its advantages: large rooms, no stairs to climb, no need for air conditioning in the summer (but a desperate need for heat in the winter!). Besides, who am I to complain? I have a place to live; there are some that don’t.

I am looking forward to the new apartment though. This complex is being built solely for the teachers of this school and will be offered for sale at a reduced price. I do not have to buy mine; it is a part of my contract. I don’t have any particulars about the new apartment, so the anticipation is akin to a child waiting for Christmas. What I can certainly look forward to is an environment more conducive to socialization, because…

Sam told me that, since my performance in the New Year show last December (see The Year End Parties) and the teachers have realized that I am open and friendly, many have expressed curiosity about how I live, why I want to work among them and why I abandoned life in America. They are also being much more friendly as we pass each other on campus: smiling and nodding, even speaking a few words occasionally. Perhaps, should we become neighbors, some of their curiosity can be assuaged by my inviting them over. What do you think? I think I’m looking forward to it!

The forth blessing comes in the form of my restored good health. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to no longer feel run down and miserable. I think sunshine and the temperatures warming up have something to do with my good feelings, but feeling physically well and not waking up in the middle of the night, wondering if I’m dying a tortuous death plays the bigger part in it all. There’s nothing like feeling good!

The last bit of joy comes in the shape of a job offer. My friend Carrie Ann told me that recently, they had five teachers out and not enough subs to cover. The administrators and even Carrie Ann herself, the librarian, had to cover a class. Would I consider applying at the school she works at as a substitute teacher? This is at Mapleleaf International School, where the curriculum is taught exclusively in English, and the pay is $100 a day.

I went for my interview last Friday. It wasn’t really an interview, at that. I simply talked with Ewan, one of the directors, who referred me to Darrell, the Head Administrator. I had met Darrell before at the Wuhan Christmas pageant. He remembered me and did not feel the need to interview me; he just welcomed me to his staff. Now have the opportunity to expand my teaching experience at one of the most expensive and prestigious schools in Wuhan. I am ‘fourth sub’, meaning that all of the other substitutes would be called before I am but that suits me fine.

You know, it has not been easy being here, sometimes. But you will never hear me say that I do not have it good. Better than a lot of folks, even. I have great friends, a gravy job, a place to live, money in the bank and a future to look forward to. But this month, with all of these blessings raining down on me, I state positively that coming here has been one of the best moves I’ve ever made.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Million Ducks

“Uh Oh! What could this one be about?” I imagine you thinking. What kind of visual does the phrase ‘a million ducks’ conjure up for you?

I think of the training center my erstwhile employer would send me to. It is a lovely facility with athletic concerns, a swimming pool, a lounge for socializing, a great dining hall that offers Steak Night every Wednesday… and a duck pond, right out front. As you walk the path around the duck pond there are dispensers from which, for a quarter, you can obtain a handful of food and feed the ever hungry ducks. Anyone who approaches the food dispensers is treated to the sight of a swarm of ducks, furiously paddling and quacking, trying to be the first in line to get the food.

Walking that path, you would swear there were a million ducks, and they all left their mark in such a way that you would have to step carefully to avoid duck droppings. Cleaning that path every so often would have been a good idea.

More prevalently I think of my friend Paul, a fellow with a sense of humor similar to Mel Brooks’, who, in his wackiness could turn such terror-inducing visuals as ‘snake and mice screams’ into a birthday gala event – ‘cake and ice cream’. In part, this post is a tribute to Paul, whose wacky sense of humor and staggering intelligence make him such a memorable character.

The most elaborate gag Paul ever played on me was attaching a dongle to my computer at work and remotely operating the mouse. I watched the cursor sail all over the screen and exclaimed out loud that my computer must somehow have contracted a virus, or have been hijacked. Meanwhile he, sitting across the room, never cracked a smile or chuckled at my increasing panic. Straight-faced, he watched as I summoned all who were in the office at the time to witness my flying cursor. Of course, when someone did get up to look at my screen he quit moving the mouse, and my coworkers accused me of going crazy. They were all in on the joke, of course.

Paul kept the charade up for twenty minutes before detaching the dongle and allowing himself a great belly laugh… a laugh he later regretted, because I got him back for his prank. I forged a job reassignment, sending him to the overnight shift. I bought a huge cake that said ‘So Long, Paul’ and some ice cream, and I got the Big Boss involved, who presented him with his new duty assignment. The whole crew was there to witness poor Paul, crestfallen, trying to think of how he was going to break the news to his family. Only when I gave him the accompanying card that had just one word: “Gotcha!” written in it did he get that he was being pranked. We all enjoyed a great laugh and good, sweet snake and mice screams.

Change of subject, now.

When I wake up morning, I take a few moments to inventory. How do I feel? What kind of day will this be? Do any of you do this? I have the luxury of doing this every day. It helps me focus on positive feelings and energy, especially since I’ve been feeling so sick and run down for so long.

But today I woke up, took inventory and found that I felt like… a million ducks! A million ducks, all organized and paddling in a row, as one great organism, toward a single goal. All flying in formation toward some great, preordained migratory destination. No conflict and no fighting, no barriers and no bad feelings. For the first time in a long time, I woke up feeling really great! No depression, no problems breathing, no racing heart, no bloated stomach, no muscle cramps, no creaky tendons. Every system go, everything wonderful: I felt like a million bucks!

Except in my head, it became a million ducks. And, in conjuring up a million ducks I thought of my friend Paul, who would use such a wacky phrase.

And that is another novelty. I have been living in survival mode since being here: where will I shop? What will I eat? Who will I talk with (before I go insane from lack of human contact)? What will I do? How will I manage… whatever issue was at hand: money, food, communication, transportation, teaching, ect. The fact that I now have the luxury of thinking beyond myself and my immediate circumstances is definitely a step in the right direction. It means that my affairs here are under control, and I can reach beyond right now and think of others. It is my distinct pleasure, and a huge relief to do so. Today, because of all those ducks, I think of my goofy, sagacious, helpful, generous friend Paul. Oh, the good times we had! Oh, the precious memories!

He recently celebrated his birthday. Happy belated birthday, Paul! I hope you enjoyed snake and mice screams, and I wish you a million ducks.

Mystery solved

There is one dish indigenous to Wuhan that I truly enjoy eating. It is called ‘hot, dry noodle’, a noodle dish served with a sesame paste and peanut sauce. Unlike most Chinese noodle dishes that are swimming in broth and are sometimes overspiced, this particular dish has no broth and no bad-tasting spices. It is a breakfast favorite that one can enjoy all day long. Being as I enjoy eating it, I sometimes have it for dinner as well as for breakfast.

Several vendors all over Wuhan make Hot Dry Noodle, and they put their own twist to the standard recipe. Some add hot peppers, others add vegetables. I prefer the standard dish and only one husband and wife vendor team near the school makes it perfectly. As a result of their culinary know how, I patronize their stall the most. He and his wife feel quite blessed at the foreigner’s patronage because, invariably, if I’m in the restaurant having a bowl of noodles, several more people will come in just for the novelty of watching me eat. I’m really not kidding when I say this. It simply cannot be coincidence that the restaurant is empty when I get there, and by the time I leave every table and every stool is full, and the husband and wife team are kept hopping with calls of ‘fu wu yuan!’ (Waiter!)

The other day I had a craving for a bowl of hot, dry noodles and made my way up the street. My favorite vendors were happy to see me and greeted me with a big smile. They were in the middle of cleaning up after their mid-morning rush. As he wiped the tables, his wife asked me if I wanted my usual. “Of course!” I affirmed, smiling. The husband invited me to a clean table, and I sat down to wait for my delicious treat.

Shortly after I was seated, a woman new to the neighborhood came in. I had not seen her before, but later I learned she works at the farmer’s market around the corner. I am always eager to meet people in the neighborhood and make use of my growing lexicon of Chinese words. I thought that just such a chance materialized when she entered the restaurant and sat down at the table next to mine.

This new patron did not engage me at all. However, she did stare at me unabashedly. I cannot get away from being a novelty when I eat out, not just because I am a foreigner, but because I can use chopsticks and I eat with my left hand. After a minute or two of watching me eat my noodles, she asked the ‘waitress’ what country I was from. The response came swiftly: “America”, of course.

I thought it was rather strange that the stall owner did not encourage this new customer to ask me directly. Both owners are not only proud that I patronize their stall habitually, but also of the fact that I can speak Chinese. They usually encourage their customers to engage me in conversation, something that I gladly do. It earns them brownie points (guanxi) within the community and helps me too. Perhaps it was because the poor, harried chef was still in ‘rush hour’ mode, running back and forth from front to back of the restaurant replenishing supplies, that she barked a response rather than suggesting that the customer ask me.

The woman stared at me some more, using no discretion whatsoever. She started at my feet, taking a good, long look. She then let her eyes cruise up my legs which were somewhat uncomfortably folded around a pink plastic stool that is about the height of a kindergartner’s chair. Feeling ogled, I looked up to find her leaning forward, her glance lingering somewhere around my knees. I smiled at her but she still said nothing to me. Her roving eyes moved up my body: the length of my arms, the size of my hands, my face, my hair.

She then asked the stall owner: “Is that a man or a woman?”

I put down my bowl and replied: “I am female.”

“You understand me!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I understand you.”

Horrified, embarrassed, she then threw her hands in the air and apologized over and over. I reassured her, explaining that it is a question I am asked often.

That is the truth. Even in the States I get mistaken for a man. “Honey, move over and let the nice man by” a young mother said to her small daughter once, when I was shopping at a grocery store. And this was when I wore my hair long, and was wearing a tee-shirt and shorts, in the summer. In fact, the only place no one has ever mistaken me for a man is in Auto Zone.

I don’t get where people could possibly mistake me for a man. I’ll admit I am a tall drink of water, but I have distinctly feminine attributes: long legs, hips, shapely derriere and, the most telling: breasts and longish, styled hair. My nails are long and manicured. I have no Adam’s apple. Even on days where I don’t much feel like it, I still apply at least eyeliner, mascara and a light lip-gloss, as well as jewelry before leaving the house. And those are just visual clues. My mannerisms, voice and gestures are feminine. I don’t know how I can be more female than I already am, and yet I am still mistaken, or at least confused for a man, even under close scrutiny.

Most of me thinks it is rather funny, but there is a part of me that thinks: “Oh, come on, now! Do I REALLY look like a man to you? How is it you cannot tell the difference?”

I can see where this patron might have been confused if I were standing up and she had to look up at me. Bundled up as I was that day against the cold wind, most of my physical attributes were covered up. Maybe there could have been some debate as to my gender. But, I was sitting down, knees together, and my face was level with hers. My manicured hands maneuvered the chopsticks from the bowl to my mouth. Our eyes met evenly when I answered her. Surely she must have seen the nails, the makeup, the shoulder-length blond hair and the jewelry. And still:

“Is that a man or a woman?”

The poor woman left before her noodles were done. I suppose she felt so embarrassed… not at asking the question, but at the fact that I understood her. I felt bad for her, not getting her noodles. But, this incident did finally answer a large, looming question for me.

I now know why people stare at me all the time: not because I am a foreigner, but because they are trying to figure out if I am male or female. Maybe I should start wearing a sandwich board when I go out, to answer the two main questions that pique people’s curiosity. The front side would say: ‘I am from America’ and the back side would say: ‘I am female’.

That should take care of the staring, don’t you think?

Plain Stir

I have grown fond of a brand of yoghurt called Plain Stir. Its packaging is indeed quite plain: blue lettering on a white bottle. Only one small logo, akin to the Starbucks logo in size, except for the Plain Stir logo is of a cow in a field and the Starbucks logo is of a mermaid. The rest of the labeling is all Chinese characters, except for the ‘Pro-B’ designation that indicates this yoghurt contains active cultures.

I really don’t care about the packaging; all I care about is that this yoghurt contains those active cultures that aid digestion. For nearly a year I have had problems with my stomach. Drinking Pro-Biotic yoghurt helps a lot. And, it is not bad tasting. I have one 4-ounce glass of it with my breakfast and a second small glass after dinner, and my stomach ills have virtually disappeared. No heartburn, no gas, no bloating. I think my stomach problems are a result of aging and I’m very glad to have a natural remedy, rather than having to take a supplement or an actual medication.

Buying this yoghurt is not as easy as going to any of the stores on The Street. Some of the stores around campus sell certain brands of yoghurt, but none are Pro-Biotic and Plain Stir is not sold at all. I can either buy it while I’m out at one of the major stores in town, or else the closest outlet is a store eight bus stops from campus. I have to ride the bus, and then cross the street and battle construction debris to get to that store. On good days I walk there. It is a nice workout, as well as a sport to dodge traffic and not inhale too much dust. To me, it is well worth it because of how well that yoghurt balances my digestive system. Usually, as I return to campus from some foray I’ve taken into the city, I simply get off the bus, go to that store and pick up a bottle, board the bus again and go home.

For as well as Plain Stir yoghurt worked on my digestive system, and for as long, imagine my perplexion when my stomach ills returned. Very strange: I’ve been drinking my regular two glasses every day, as I have been nearly since I discovered how much it helps me.

I think I discovered the problem when I set out to buy my next 1.5 liter bottle of Plain Stir: the label no longer said ‘Pro-B’.

That’s a little strange! Why did they stop putting active cultures in Plain Stir? I don’t know, but I did take a minute to reflect on the irony of Plain Stir yoghurt now actually being plain, instead of enriched with cultures. Luckily I found another brand of yoghurt that is Pro-Biotic and bought it instead of my habitual brand. I admit: I’m not brand loyal; I just don’t want any stomach troubles.

When I got home that day I looked at my current bottle of Plain Stir. Sure enough, it did not say Pro-B. So that’s why my stomach was acting up again! And I never even noticed the absence of Pro-B, I just kept drinking happily away, thinking I’m doing a body good. I finished what I had left of Plain Stir and started on the new brand, relishing the thought of imminent banishment of my stomach woes.

About two weeks ago I started getting really sick. Stuffy head, blocked sinuses, swollen eyes, wheezing breath, inability to breathe and pounding heart, especially at night. All of this coincided with the arrival of Spring and the fact that I had started throwing the windows open at the first hint of sunshine, so I thought it was just pollen allergies. Although I’ve only had such a severe environmental allergy reaction one time before, when I visited New Orleans, I did recognize it for what it was and just blamed the terrible air quality of Wuhan for my current host of respiratory ills.

I also thought that the mold growing on my walls might have something to do with my steadily worsening condition. Not just the above listed symptoms, but also a terrible ear infection which required a round of antibiotics to get over. I felt like I was deteriorating fast! As I wrote in A Certain Lassitude, things got to the point where I could not bring myself to face another day.

Until the day that Lavender had to hustle me out of the house without so much as a breakfast under my belt. True, my breathing problems continued all through that day, but the next morning, after about 2 hours of violent coughing to clear my lungs, my wheezing, gasping breathing gave way to clear, deep breaths. Blissful, blessed air! I was once again able to breathe like a normal person: full lung expansion, no wheezing and no gravelly voice when I tried to talk.

It is a miracle! I honestly thought that the mold on the walls was the culprit and now that the mold was gone, my respiratory system breathed a sigh of relief – pun intended. After my usual Sunday morning Skype chats, I fixed my breakfast of eggs, rice and bacon, a piece of fruit and a glass of yoghurt.

Much to my dismay, my breathing problems returned full force that night. At 2AM I woke up gasping for air, heart pounding, coughing and wheezing so loud I could not catch my breath, let alone get back to sleep. I confess that I lay in my bed and cried. I couldn’t handle going back to being sick again after this one-day respite. I simply could not embrace the prospect of such a crippling problem continuing on. Not that my lifestyle has been particularly active since I’ve been here, but still: the idea that I could not even so much as walk The Street or to my next class without panic and agony filled me with such bitter and impotent rage that sobbing in my pillow was all I could think to do. And I couldn’t even cry very well because I couldn’t breathe enough to cry effectively.

Don’t ask me why or how, but last night, as I was drifting off to sleep fortified by a dose of Benadryl, the words ‘anaphylactic shock’ drifted into my head. How every curious, but then this is not the first time I’ve had this type of epiphany. As I fell asleep I resolved to look up the symptoms of anaphylactic shock first thing in the morning.

Another agonizing night, interrupted by a struggle for air. Again too wrung out to cry properly, I propped myself up in my bed in the wee hours, waiting for the latest dose of Benadryl to start working.

My mind was effectively blown when I read what constitutes anaphylaxis the next morning. Anaphylaxis is a result of an allergic reaction to a toxin, either insect sting or bite, food, or drug. It is very serious, leading to shock, and in worst cases, respiratory and/or cardiac failure and death.

I had nearly every symptom: wheezing, not being able to breathe, coughing, swollen eyelids, dry skin, heart palpitations and rapid pulse, mental confusion and low energy, just to name a few. The only symptom I did not have was nausea and vomiting. I stared at my computer screen, trying to figure out what was trying to kill me.

Then I remembered that I had not had any yoghurt on Saturday, and Sunday I felt better. Sunday afternoon and night I partook of yoghurt and by Sunday evening I was feeling like at death’s door again. Monday I had yoghurt and Tuesday I could barely make it to class. I actually had to double up on the Benadryl just to make it through that hour and half of teaching.

I have not had a glass of yoghurt since that revelation on Tuesday morning. I am still on the mend and still having to take Benadryl, but now my ears have gone back to their normal size and feel, my eyelids are no longer swollen, my voice is not gravelly and my heart is behaving as it always has. I no longer itch uncontrollably and I no longer cough incessantly and unproductively. I can draw deep breaths, one after the other, and enjoy the feeling of full lung expansion. I do not feel dizzy, lost, confused and anxious.

I do not blame Plain Stir yoghurt. That brand worked really well for me although I did have a few problems. I only got terribly sick when I switched brands, and I think the new brand has something in it that I’m violently allergic to.

What I am deeply grateful for is the ability to listen to my body when it tells me something. I caution you: if your body starts acting dramatically different, take stock and think about what you have changed in your diet or routine. Keep a food diary if you must, even though it is a tedious task. There is nothing less than your life at stake. Anaphylactic shock is nothing to play with. Being able to trace the beginning of my symptoms back to when I started ingesting that new brand of yoghurt may well have saved my life.

Especially because people here seem to think I wasn’t drinking enough hot water!

Friday, March 18, 2011

When The Universe Speaks

I’ve always been fond of saying: ‘If everything you undertake toward a certain venture goes wrong, consider that the Universe might be telling you this is a bad venture’. In my case, and in the case of some spectacular failures I have witnessed, this has proven true.

I’m not saying my move to China was a wrong move as far as the universe is concerned. I think all of the serendipitous events since I’ve been here prove rather conclusively that this has been a good move for me. Unless the universe is preparing to make me the butt of some monstrous, cosmic joke, that is. But I don’t think that will be the case.

Ken’s marriage to Della, on the other hand… (see Bah Ling Ho entry). Nothing has gone right for him since he got together with her. That is a good example of the Universe telling you you’re making a bad move.

Here is another good example:

Today, the weather started out terrible: cold, windy, rainy. I had an early class to teach, so I was out in this weather. Fortunately I only had to walk to Building 2, so I was only out in the elements for a few minutes. But, that was enough to sour me to the idea of going anywhere after class today.

However, in the hour and a half that I spent engaging these students of mine, the weather changed for the better! The sun came out, the wind and rain stopped and, even though it was still a bit chilly, it turned out to be a nice day. A great day to go out, in fact.

I had heard word that there is a certain bookstore near Wuhan University (not the one I teach at) that sells books written in English. I figured it would be fun to get on a bus, find the University and browse the bookshelves for a while. With the weather being what it is and me already dressed and ready to face the world, why not go?

I made sure I popped a Benadryl, and set off. My not-so-trusty-anymore website indicated that Bus 564 stops directly in front of Wuhan University, and the first bus stop for that bus just happens to be one stop removed from my campus. I could ride a bus from my regular stop, down one stop to connect to Bus 564, but why bother? The sun is shining and the next bus stop is only a half-mile away.

Famous last words. I had apparently forgotten that it had been raining earlier today, and the mud slathered itself generously all over my shoes and pant cuffs. The Benadryl had not yet kicked in and, try as I might to force my lungs to work right, they just wouldn’t get with the program. Heart pounding, gasping for breath, slogging through mud, I finally made it to the bus stop.

I waited and waited for my bus. I might have waited twenty minutes before asking a nearby traffic cop if bus 564 still stops at this stop. “No”, he informed me, “It now starts its run 3 stops further up the road.” Well, that’s not good, but its not all bad, either. My breathing was getting a little easier and walking certainly wasn’t going to hurt me, so I take off. Again, with mud leaping about, just waiting for the chance to adorn my pant cuffs and shoes. In addition to that, the ongoing road construction incorporates overhead ramps, so now I’m slogging through a tunnel under construction, as well through mud. Cars and trucks bumbled by. No sidewalk, of course. I’m sharing the road with the traffic.

It was a bit chilly in the tunnel, but luckily I still had on my parka and a light jacket I wear under my parka on cold days. It was not that cold a day and soon I started sweating as well as laboring for breath, even though I was in the tunnel portion of the construction and not getting any sunshine. I walked only two of the three stops needed to reach bus 564’s first stop, and then decided that I could not do this anymore. I waited at that bus stop for the next conveyance that would take me to the desired bus stop.

There goes one bus fare in order to ride two stops to get to Bus 564’s first stop. I stand and wait yet some more. Now I’m really getting sweaty from wearing what essentially consists of two jackets as well as thermal underwear, in full, glaring sunshine. Oh, and I forgot to tell you: I did not change my pants after teaching, so I’m wearing my work slacks out, and it is they that are covered in mud. I guess I’ll be washing clothes tonight; I have to have mud-free slacks for class on Thursday.

Again I wait for my bus, and again I am disappointed. I start asking random bus drivers if they go to Wuhan University as they stop to pick up passengers, and all of the them tell me that only bus 564 goes straight to that destination. One kind passenger told me that that bus no longer originates at that stop; I now have to go nearly to the train station to catch Bus 564.

In for a penny, in for a pound, and there goes another bus fare. I board the bus and ride 3 more stops, nearly to the train station. By this time, my disposition is not so sunny, but still: I hadn’t been out of the house in two days and I wanted to go somewhere. I wanted to go exploring, even though, by that time, I had never felt less like exploring in my whole life. Matter of fact, this was beginning to feel like tedium.

I checked the time: 2PM. I had been trying to catch a single bus for nearly 2 hours. Two hours, and I was still only a few kilometers from my house. Muddy, lungs constricted, nose running, and still no bus in sight.

Now comes Bus 609. If I remember correctly from my not-so-trusty website, this bus also goes to Wuhan University. Before I pay yet another fare I ask the driver if he goes to Wuhan University. He holds up two fingers, indicating the fare is 2Yuan. Apparently, he is one of those who, thanks to my appearance, hears English when I speak Chinese. I hold up my bus card to indicate that I know how much the fare is, and ask my question again. Again, that mythical Bus 564 is invoked. Again I wait and wait.

By 2:30 I decide that going anywhere is going to be a lost cause. Sure, I could still get on a random bus and ride it somewhere, but then I’d have to face rush hour traffic and crowded buses full of schoolchildren going home. I just didn’t feel like dealing with all that. I cross the street and get on the homeward bound bus.

Muddy clothes and shoes, uncomfortably hot and burdened with a heavy parka, breathing difficulties and a pounding heart, thee wasted bus fares and two and a half hours getting nowhere… That is a classic example of the Universe telling me that this venture is not a good idea.

The outing was not a complete waste though: I did manage to go by the store that carries my Pro-Biotic yoghurt and pick up a liter.

Drink More Hot Water!

Ever since I started this hacking/choking/gasping/coughing extravaganza I’m currently on, everyone, from street vendor to student, and everyone in between has instructed me to drink more hot water. As though I do not drink enough hot water. As though hot water were the cure for everything.

With this simple entreaty – drink more hot water, I am reminded of the comical habit that Army medics had of dispensing cough syrup for every ailment. Allergies? Have cough syrup. Stomach flu? Here’s a nice bottle of cough syrup. Broken leg and concussion? Cough syrup is the only cure for you, Private. Next!

Do any of you former Military remember that drill? It was quite the gag there, for a while. I think GSA (Government Services Administration) had a run on cough syrup during the early ‘80s and everyone who suffered from any ailment got a bottle of cough syrup. That might still be going on today, for all I know.

In China, it seems the cure-all is hot water. For stomach ills, for coughs, for runny noses and for sneezes. For flu and intestinal discomfort, for headaches and toothaches and joint aches and pains in the rear, hot water will soon make them all better. If I had one Yuan for every time someone told me to drink more hot water, funding my retirement would not be a worry.

As Lavender and I were leaving for Hanyang (see previous post), I debated bringing my bottle of Benadryl. Benadryl has been the only medicine that has given me any relief from the symptoms I’ve been suffering from these past few weeks. I had even tried traditional Chinese Herbal medicine, which did not help. I had to take 2 Benadryl to still my coughing when the Maintenance man who was sanding my wall instructed Lavender to get me out of the house before I died from respiratory failure (he thinks I didn’t understand him, but I did).

Strange that I even have Benadryl. It was never a part of my medicine basket when I lived in the States. I do not know what compelled me to buy a 100-count bottle of Benadryl and bring it to China, but here again serendipity shows her gracious hand. I would never have anticipated needing this medication, but now it seems to be the only thing standing between me and lunacy over my runny nose, itchy throat and wheezing lungs. One caplet of this wonder drug and I can at least manage to make it through the day without hurting myself, coughing.

I opted not to take my Benadryl bottle on our outing to Hanyang, but I could not get away from Lavender suggesting I drink more hot water before we left the house. Wordlessly I handed her my constant companion, a 32-ounce bottle, filled with hot water. She was satisfied that I would soon be cured; surely a whole liter of hot water will heal me!

Lavender and I had a nice day out. The sun was warm on our faces and a gentle breeze blew in from the lake. Hanyang is one of the more scenic and quiet areas of Wuhan. For those who enjoy a peaceful environment, Hanyang is the place to be. My young companion and I walked the pier, and I had her pose by the schooner that is docked in the bay. That boat now houses a couple of bars. Every time I have been there, the bars have been closed, probably because it is too early in the day.

After walking the boardwalk and translating all of the sayings graven in the sidewalk from French to English for Lavender (remember, this is where the French expats live), I started straining for breath again. The more we strolled and talked, the worse it got. And, no Benadryl on hand! Fortunately, there is an IGA store close by. I bought some Fisherman’s Friend cough drops and they eased my symptoms somewhat, but we both knew it was time to get me within reaching distance of my medicine.

By the time we returned home the workmen had finished whitewashing my walls and had considerately put my bed back in place before leaving, but everything was just filthy! Paint spatters on the floor, dust everywhere… it was going to take me hours to clean it all! Bless Lavender’s sweet heart, she volunteered to stay and help me get all of the work done. I think she was worried I would pass out from lack of air, even though I took a caplet of Benadryl as soon as I got home.

Yep! I, who hates the pharmaceutical lifestyle, cheerfully popping pills! The alternative is no fun, trust me. There is nothing worse than feeling like you’re under ten feet of water: that pressure on your lungs, constantly, as you try and try to draw breath. The associated ills, such as muscle cramps and spasms because your blood is not getting enough oxygen to keep your muscles nourished, or extremities going numb. The pounding heart and the seeing stars… Well, actually, there might be worse things, but this is pretty bad.

Lavender and I had the house clean after 2 hours of heavy-duty work. First removing drop cloths, and then dusting everything, finally sweeping and mopping the floor. She did not leave until she was satisfied I was going to do nothing more strenuous than park myself somewhere and breathe. I couldn’t have managed much more than that, Lavender!

That night I slept the sleep of the righteous. Matter of fact, I do not know how long it has been since I’ve slept that well. Actually, I do: since I was in Yichang, in that lovely hotel room I can still see with my mind’s eye. When I woke up from the first uninterrupted sleep I’ve had since returning to Wuhan, I took inventory: resting heart rate, breathing capability, wheeze factor, stuffy nose.

What a novel sensation! I had no troubles breathing whatsoever! I lay in bed, drawing one deep breath after the other. My lungs, so long restricted, expanded fully and the joy of sucking in air through my nose and expelling a full breath without wheezing through the second half of it brought tears to my eyes. I had to sit up and try breathing, just to see if laying-down breathing was a fluke. Still no racing heart, still no steel bands around my ribs, still no cramps as I flexed my leg and feet muscles.

I knew the mold in my room was creating problems for me – in no way can inhaling mold spores be considered a healthy human activity. I had no idea how pervasive the problem was until I spent a night NOT breathing in alien organisms. I cried from relief at not having to face another day, struggling for breath and blowing my nose. Another listless day, unable to do much more than amble around the house because I would get too winded if I so much as walked The Street. I could not have rejoiced more had it been Christmas Morning, and Santa himself was parked on my bed, ready to grant my every wish.

Unfortunately the relief was short-lived. I am back to taking Benadryl in the morning and at night. But, at least I have Benadryl to take, and with it, I can at least make it through a teaching session or an outing. Can you see that I am a glass-half-full kind of girl?

Parting shot: as Lavender was leaving, she reminded me to drink more hot water. That’s it! I can’t take the hot water advice anymore! I told her, not quite facetiously, that so many people have told me to drink more hot water that I vowed the next person that gave me that advice would find themselves boiled in hot water!

Of course, I would never boil Lavender in hot water. She is far too sweet a person for such treatment. Besides, she would not fit in my kettle.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Certain Lassitude

Since before Christmas I have been plagued by a certain lassitude. Sleeping more than my requisite 8 hours per night, no ambition, no desire to do anything. It has gotten particularly bad this past week, since I’ve been sick.

For those of you who read this blog regularly, and as those with whom I email regularly can attest to, I tend to be particularly… prolific in my communications. Downright verbose, sometimes. This past week I have not been able to bring myself to make even the rudiments of civilized conversation with anyone. Not that anyone has done me any particular wrong; I’ve just had no energy or desire to communicate with anyone, or to blog. The task seemed insurmountable.

Even teaching my four classes this week took more out of me than I felt I had to give. Come on, now… I can’t manage a 6-hour work week? Well, I managed it but I certainly was not feeling it, or feeling good about my efforts in the classroom. I KNOW I did not give 100% to my kids, but I was helpless to do better.

Instead, I parked myself in front of the television with my space heater beside me and watched movie after movie. If I wasn’t watching movies I was playing computer games, biding my time until I could go to bed again. It just felt like too much work to be productive in any way. Sitting up required more energy than I had. Processing thoughts was completely beyond me. While I slouched in front of the television I wondered what could possibly be wrong with me.

For a long time I thought my health had taken a turn for the worse. I have been unable to breathe deeply or well since my return to Wuhan. The heart palpitations were back and getting winded while walking was the norm. I woke up coughing so hard in the morning that I could not breathe, and I was wheezing as though I had an advanced case of emphysema. Forget exercising; I couldn’t walk and talk at the same time.

Perhaps my heart was giving out, or maybe I had caught tuberculosis from someone. I was at the point of really not caring; my mental and physical state had been run down for so long that I just wanted a resolution. ANY resolution.

Change of subject; this is a little too gloomy. But, the change of subject does bear on the above mentioned topic.

It has to do with the last post you read; Building Guanxi. Remember when I said the administrative staff came by to inspect my apartment and see what-all was wrong here? This past weekend, the workmen showed up to sand and repaint my walls.

Strangely enough, I did not know that the workmen would be by this weekend. Sam swears he told me and he may well have. With me having been in such a fog, he could have told me I was fired, promoted or transferred and I would not have caught on. On the other hand, I swear equally strongly that Sam did not tell me the workers would be by this weekend. There are several instances, recorded in this blog, where Sam has not informed me of things he thinks he has informed me of. I don’t blame him; he is very busy and things do slip through the cracks. No one should get yelled at for that.

Whether Sam or I dropped the ball, the end result is the same: I was still in bed at 9AM on Saturday, when the workers were pounding on the door. It took a few phone calls from Sam to wake me up. I leapt out of bed, made myself as presentable as possible in five minutes’ time and let the maintenance crew in.

Of course, leaping out of bed and scrambling around to make myself presentable winded me and I was coughing so badly I couldn’t catch my breath. The maintenance man was already on the ladder, sanding the wall, and he suggested I get out of the room before I actually die of respiratory failure. Nothing doing, Buddy! I’m putting dropcloths on my furniture before you get on with anymore sanding! Especially my bed and computer!

You’d have thought that the maintenance crew would have put the dropcloths down, wouldn’t you?

Lavender and I headed to Hanyang, a particularly attractive section of Wuhan that houses the French contingent of expat population in this city. You may remember Lavender, that adorable dumpling of a girl from previous posts in this blog; she likes to call me her American Mommy. She was appointed by Sam to interface with the maintenance workers and see that the job gets done properly. After she and I covered everything, she barked her rapid-fire Chinese at them and then we left.

And this is where I’ll leave things for now; this post is turning monstrous-long, and I’m not done elaborating on the subject yet. So, see you next post, when I tie this story together and put a nice ribbon around it for you.

My Right Knee Hates Me

I’ve taken some pretty spectacular trips since I’ve been in China, like the one at Guang-Gou, or the one where I planted myself in a puddle of mud (see ‘Would You Like Those With Dust or Mud?’) The one at Guang-Gou, I lacerated my right knee so badly that it got infected and took weeks to heal, even with neosporin. Even now, completely healed, my right knee bears a patch of pinkish skin that might not ever pigment itself to the skin tone on the rest of my leg.

Did you think I meant traveling around China when I said I’ve taken some spectacular trips? I thought I’d make use of that old joke: ‘Have a nice trip; see you next fall!’ Surprise!

Most recently I tripped when I found a 5Yuan bill by the campus security checkpoint. I had no problem bending down and scooping the money up, but when I pivoted and started walking to the campus police to give them the money I found, I tripped over a piece of loose concrete and landed on my right knee, yet again.

That’s three falls in six months. What is going on here? Although one could never mistake me for the physical embodiment of grace, I can honestly attest to the fact that I’ve never had such a problem maintaining my balance, even when I was in an imbalanced position (physically, not mentally).

I’ve done some discreet inquiries about how brittle bones and broken hips are dealt with in China. As I’ve said often enough, there is no such thing as social security here, and health insurance is a novel idea that has yet to catch on. If someone needs to go to the hospital, they have to pay cash for their treatment, or make a substantial payment on their treatment at the time services are rendered, and pay the balance off within a certain period of time; usually a year.

With so many of China’s elderly having suffered from malnutrition when Mao Ze Dong first came into power and for the rest of his rule, brittle bones and other elderly ailments are actually quite common here. What is not common is hip replacement therapy. Usually, the sufferer is kept in the hospital, immobile, until the break has been deemed sufficiently healed to send the patient home.

Of course, my first worry with all of these falls is a broken hip, not a lacerated knee. Broken hips take a lot longer to heal, and are much more painful than knee scrapes. The way I’m falling, I first impact my knee and then roll onto my hip. Thus the worry.

How would I manage a hospital stay? I don’t speak enough Chinese to navigate such an ordeal, and I know Sam will not be able to stay at the hospital with me. I’m sure a student or two might visit, but again: will the visit be timely, to the point that someone is there to understand the nurses’ or doctors’ instructions when those officials are in my room, dispensing advice, orders or decrees? In truth, I’m not very comfortable plunking myself down in the midst of Chinese society voluntarily. How would I fare if I were confined, and in a situation where I was in pain, and could not leave?

While I’m on the subject of health care: I had given that topic a lot of thought before making this move. Mostly, my premise was: I am a believer in traditional Chinese medicine, such as: acupuncture, herbal/natural therapies and relaxation techniques used for healing. Therefore, I believed that moving here would present no problem with regard to this subject. If something went wrong and I needed treatment, I would gladly partake of treatment at a Hospital of Traditional Medicine, just down the road from the school. Besides, I was just a little bit arrogant in thinking that I am perfectly healthy and my good health will last forever.

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the language barrier. Being as my job prospectus guaranteed me a liaison person, I figured that language would be no big deal. Unfortunately, now that I know my liaison person – Sam, it seems it might be a big deal, for the reasons mentioned above. I’m not saying that Sam wouldn’t make my health condition a priority in the immediate concern, but if I were to be hospitalized for any length of time… that would be a different story.

A fine example of language difficulty with regard to health reared its head a few weeks ago, when I wanted to donate blood. I recognized the mobile blood collection truck by its markings and the goings-on through the windows. Eagerly I climbed aboard the bus, rolled up my sleeve and expected joy and awe that a foreigner would donate blood to save Chinese lives. Unfortunately, just like in the States, there is a 2-page medical questionnaire to respond to and fill out, and it is all in Chinese. I couldn’t interpret the first line on that paper beyond ‘Name, Age, Gender, Address’. No one in the mobile collection unit spoke any English; we could not even resolve this issue verbally. I left feeling frustrated, longing to donate and thus help… who knows how many unknowing citizens with my clean, foreigner, universal-donor type blood.

The university has me covered medically. However, if that cost exceeds what is allotted me, I could just as easily have a terminated contract on my hands, as well as a broken hip or other serious health condition to deal with. And then, I would have to scramble for a new job while limping around with my damaged hip. Not an appealing prospect.

I do not feel dizzy at all, and I am not falling as a result of dizziness. I don’t think my falls are caused by any serious health concern. I think it is my lunky feet and my even lunkier shoes that are causing the problem. I think I told you that I bought my shoes a half-size bigger than needed to accommodate the extra socks I will need this winter. I think that is the problem. To remedy the problem, I need to get rid of the lunky shoes.

The weather is still too cold. It is not time to get rid of lunky shoes yet. I’ll just have to be more careful when I walk. In the meantime, I’m making plans to make it up to my right knee by falling on my left knee next trip… if there is a next fall.

UPDATE: I am delighted to report that Maintenance has filled in that patch of loose concrete that caused my fall. The patch is curing as we speak and the area is blocked off, keeping anyone from ‘leaving their mark’ on the university by stepping in the wet cement or writing their name in it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


A lot of times I build entire entries around intriguing titles. I wonder what runs through your head at my sometimes odd appellations, and if you then get a chuckle or an a-ha moment when you read the entry and see why I titled it as I have.

In this case you will be in the dark until I explain the phenomenon described as ba-ling-hou (see pronunciation in title). ‘Ba’ is the Chinese word for ‘eight’. ‘Ling’ is the word for ‘zero’ and hou means ‘after’. Thus, ba-ling-hou means after ’80, and it refers to the generation born after 1980.

In 1980, China started opening up to the West, and started its forays into the capitalistic economic system. Children born after 1980 enjoyed a privileged upbringing, with more material goods and more food than their parents had theretofore seen or experienced. At the same time a social system emerged which entitled people to retire at age 55, thus freeing one or both sets of grandparents to be available to their grandchildren as needed.

The downside to this system is that the parents of ba-ling-hou children had to work doubly hard because they had their children to provide for, as well as their own future and their parents’ current upkeep. The new Chinese system did not account for what the retirees would do for money, and there is no social security in China. It is up to individual, and their family to provide for the elderly. Because the elderly did not have many financial opportunities prior to 1980, their financial resources are meager.

If we thought the middle class in America is stretching it, taking care of elderly parents and college-aged children, you should see how the ‘sandwich generation’ in China manages. They are under tremendous pressure to provide for two sets of parents and their child. Reports say that the stress is unbearable. Not only do they have the socially mandated obligations to their parents and their child, but they must also see to their future because there still is no social security in China. They will only have what they’ve managed to accumulate in their lifetime to live on in their old age.

Wait a minute, though. If they have to support their elderly, couldn’t they count on their children to support them? Isn’t that system perpetuated?

Well, that’s why ba-ling-hou is called a phenomenon, and why sociologists are so worried about it.

Having grown up entitled and with more choices than this society has ever provided anyone, the ba-ling-hou’s are not living up to expectations. Rather than being grateful at all they were blessed with growing up, they expect more and ever more for themselves.

Ba-ling-hou’s are restless and change jobs often. They own more clothing and luxury items than their parents ever dreamed of having. They marry later in life and sometimes opt not to have children. On the average, they have accumulated no savings and hold no real property, even though they have been out of college for up to ten years. Ba-ling-hou’s are as different a demographic as China has ever experienced.

You can see why sociologists are worried, right? Wait till I tell you about jiou-ling-hou. ‘Jiou’ is the Chinese word for ‘nine’; jiou-ling-hou means ‘after ‘90’, logically enough referring to those born after 1990.

Once the idea of material wealth sunk in with the traditional Chinese – as they watched the ever-widening chasm between having and not having grow, their parents decided that having is essential to a happy life. They were born in the ‘70s, just children at the time that ba-ling-hou were being produced. Now, as parents of the worrisome jiou-ling-hou generation, they are feeling the increasing pressure of taking care of their parents (still no social security in China) and providing for their children, now that things are getting more expensive. Education, food, healthcare, clothing, entertainment, luxury goods… all of the essentials, and all the things that a self-respecting member of Chinese society expects as a matter of course for their life.

I would venture to say that China just might encounter a bit of trouble, socially speaking. Don’t you agree?
I am friends with several ba-ling-hou: Ken and his girlfriend Della, George, Jerry, Li Xiang and others. I’ll use Ken as an example, because I know him best. He graduated college five years ago, and since then has held a series of menial jobs that sometimes didn’t even pay minimum wage (minimum wage in China is 900Yuan per month – not even a livable salary). He lives with his parents and has borrowed a great deal of money from his family for a business venture that went bust. He now wishes to travel abroad and marry his girlfriend, none of which is possible unless his parents fork over a great deal of money and real property for.

It is traditional for a man to provide an apartment as a condition of marriage before a girl’s family will agree to the marriage. Ken’s parents do in fact have an apartment available for them, but refuse to put it in Ken’s name for fear that he would sell the apartment to buy something he wants more at that moment, such as traveling. That apartment is Ken’s parents’ social security. Ken has proven financially unreasonable and unrealistic since his graduation so it is safe to assume that he would not be able to take care of his parents in the future. I can’t blame the parents for seeing to their financial security before accommodating their son’s wishes. Ken’s and Della’s wedding plans are now at an impasse: Della’s parents will not agree to the marriage and Ken’s parents will not surrender the apartment.

When I suggested to Ken that he get a better paying job in order to buy his own apartment and prove to his and Della’s parents that he is serious about his obligations to both parties as well as to his intended, he was shocked speechless. But then, he agreed that he should find a better job. And he has. He is now saving money… to travel abroad this summer.

What happened to getting married? Well, that’s the problem with ba-ling-hou: you just don’t know what they want or what they’re working for. It seems he is going to keep begging his parents to surrender their apartment, with no thought to their future.

Jonathan and Mary (see How Rude) are jiou-ling-hou, as is Hero, a computer science major here at the school. I’ve already divulged the first two kids’ arrogance and rudeness, but I’m afraid that Hero tops them in that department. He went so far as to suggest I should not try to eat with chopsticks, and he totally disregards the fact that I do not wish him to come by my apartment whenever he feels like it. It seems his goal is to learn better English, and he has designated me his personal tutor, whether I am in agreement or not. I have told him often to not just come by my house because I am usually busy doing something, even if I am just at home. That seems to fall on deaf ears. I’ve come to suspect that many of these kids, Hero included, understand English fairly well until something comes up that they do not want to hear.

I teach jiou-ling-hou. Every single one of those kids has a cell phone and they dress to the nines. They have money to burn, and they do burn it: eating out instead of eating mess hall food, going to KTV instead of hitting the books and the library, buying clothes and shoes and MP4s and music and downloading movies and playing games on their laptop computers.

If Ken, Jonathan, Marie and Hero are any example of the mentality of these younger generations of Chinese, is it any wonder that ba-ling-hou and jiou-ling-hou are scaring economists and sociologists to death?

Building Guanxi

I’ve talked with you about guanxi before. It is the art of reciprocation, building mutually beneficial relationships that Chinese society, both business and personal, is made of. Whereas in America you need money, or, as the old saying goes: ‘It is not who you know but… ‘ In China, you need guanxi to get anything done.

I admire this system, and I like building guanxi. Both because building relationships is the right thing to do and because it takes money out of the picture. What follows is a real-life example of building guanxi.

When the faculty and staff returned to school after Spring Festival break, Sam suggested I visit the administrators. Actually, he had suggested it prior to the break but we ran out of time. Besides, everyone was very busy and it probably would not have been as effective as it could have been. No, after the break worked so much better.

Sam is a clever little rascal. Not only is he a master at guanxi building, but he gave me some great pointers as well. I had long dismayed over the fact that my apartment has a television set that gets no reception. I had been scrubbing mold off my walls for months, only to watch it grow back at an alarming rate. I had despaired over not really feeling a part of things and wondering about my uncertain future… although that kind of went away when I was invited to participate in the New Year Festival.

The idea to visit the administrators was reborn one Sunday afternoon, when Sam was visiting. I was talking with him about the many students that have been coming by my apartment expressing concern or outright fear of a major test that they have to take in April, called TM4. I would like to help these kids as much as possible, so I thought it would be a good idea to hold a workshop every Sunday from now till test day to answer any questions or render any aid possible. Sam suggested I present the Dean of Languages a small gift and pitch this idea just after asking how her holiday went.

He also suggested that when Sha-Sha, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs asks me how if feel about renewing my contract right after I give her a small gift, I should say something to the effect of ‘well, I just don’t know if I can stay here with no television to watch’. That should get me a cable hookup so I can watch TV – which will help me learn Chinese, believe it or not.

With regard to the mold growth? That is something that we drop squarely into the Maintenance Manager’s lap. All I have to do, after presenting him with his small gift and asking about his holiday is express my health concerns about breathing mold spores and presumably, Mr. Wang would jump right on that mold issue.

Of course, that rascally, wily Sam will be right there to translate everything for me. He’s so sneaky!

It went off just as planned. The Dean of Languages received a lovely pashmina that I picked up earlier this year with no specific purpose in mind. She was quite surprised at the gift and at receiving a hug. The hug was heartfelt on my part because I genuinely like this woman. We bantered a bit about our holiday and then I told her of my students’ concerns about TM4 and what I wanted to do about it. Still glowing at receiving the unexpected gift, she could do nothing but agree with my plan, and immediately furnished me with a classroom, complete with multimedia capability. Score!

Next we visited Sha-Sha. She was the surprised recipient of a photo album, which worked out great because she has a 3-year old boy and takes lots of pictures of him. When she asked me about renewing my contract I looked at Sam and said I would be delighted to, if it weren’t for that darn TV set that gets no reception whatsoever. Her antenna went on high alert: this was something she could do for me after what I’ve done for her! She agreed to look into the matter as soon as possible, and promised I would have my new contract to sign in two weeks. She also said she knew a shop where I could buy clothes; maybe we could go together sometime?

Guanxi running everywhere!
Our next stop was the Party Secretary, who received a bottle of fine Italian wine. He too was surprised at the visit and at the gift, but took it more in stride than the Dean and Sha-Sha. He and I had a long talk ranging from the future of academics to –believe it or not, politics! He is a learned and well-traveled man and quite the conversationalist; we ended up talking for nearly two hours. Sam, poor thing, had to translate most of it. However, Mr. Secretary did say that my Chinese has improved substantially and my confidence at language usage has grown.

His big concern regarding me is that I am happy to work at this institution. He reiterated the promise of a new apartment this fall and wanted to know if there was anything else that is causing me distress. Sam told him about the issues I had already brought up, like the TV and the mold. He would have found out anyway, being as the Dean and Sha-Sha are on his staff. He countered that he would like to inspect my apartment and see for himself everything that we had talked about.

The next day, The Administration descended on my humble quarters en masse. Fortunately, the house was nice and clean!

Because we ran so late the day before, talking with the Party Secretary, Sam and I did not have time to visit with the Maintenance Manager. However, he did accompany the group on the tour of my apartment and got a first-hand look at everything I was talking about.

Not only was it decided that I will have cable TV within the next two weeks, but the Maintenance department will scrub the walls, repaint them and apply wall paper to boot! Also, the Party Secretary happened to notice that I had a burnt out light bulb in my bedroom and he instructed Mr. Wang to change all of my bulbs.

As they were leaving I pulled Mr. Wang, the Maintenance Manager aside and gave him the gift that I was not able to give him the day before: a Husky multitool that I had bought for him at the Home Depot in Xi’an. I had seen him admire my Gerber multitool and I thought that he should have one of his own. He was thrilled.

Sha-Sha was thrilled too. When everyone was crowding my kitchen, inspecting the mold, she saw that I had fresh veggies laid out and wondered out loud what kind of food I cook. I suggested she should come over for a meal sometime and see for herself. She giggled delightedly and threw her arms around me.

I would say that The Administration is quite happy with me and with my services. And I am quite happy with them taking time and being concerned with my well-being and happiness. Both sides made an effort and met in the middle. Many smiles and much good feeling ensued.

And THAT, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the art of building Guanxi.

A Normal Day

As you read in the last post, school has resumed and I am fairly drowning in gravy. Actually, I would liken my situation to a river of sweet chocolate, both because I prefer chocolate to gravy, and because this is one of the sweetest gigs any professional can have.

Think about it: I only work two days a week now, and only on one of those days do I have to get up before the sun rises. All of my accommodations are paid for and, although I’ll never get rich at it, I get paid a handsome salary (by Chinese standards) to do what I do. And what I do is as natural as breathing: I speak English. This may well be the best-kept professional secret in the world. All terror aside from living in a foreign country and the pain of living separated from all of my loved ones, the job is pure… chocolate.

I have lived nearly my entire life at least thirty-three degrees out of mainstream. Most people get up early in the morning, commute to a job that they work from early morning to mid-late afternoon. And then they commute home, reconnect with spouses and kids (if any), go to the gym, go shopping, cook/eat dinner, clean house, watch a little TV and then go to bed, only to get up and do it again, five days per week. If weekends are good, there might be an extra hour of sleep in the morning.

That world is too crowded for me.

I have spent the last eight years building my life around a swing-shift work schedule. I would wake up about 10AM, read/respond to email, surf the ‘Net and study something – lately Chinese, but in the recent past, for my college degree. And then, I would shower, go to work, enjoying a no-traffic commute, manage my work day and then commute home long after those on a ‘normal’ schedule had turned off the TV. In the silence of the night I would enjoy a movie or curling up with a good book, finally going to bed somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning.

Prior to this most desirable schedule I mostly worked the night shift, in order to earn the maximum amount of money to support my family on, and to be available to my kids during daylight hours. Only rarely in my professional life have I had to work a standard schedule, and that suited me just fine. I like being at least thirty-three degrees out from the rest of the world.

In considering this career change I recently made, my reluctance to force my circadian rhythm to a standard schedule was in fact a consideration. Most teachers teach from early morning until late afternoon, after all. And then there are meetings and after school counseling sessions and other education-related activities that would encumber my schedule more than I might want. Remember: I made this move to lower my stress levels.

Haha, it seems the joke is on me. I’ve had a fair measure of stress, learning to live here and learning to be a teacher. But, the worst of that is over now. And, since I’ve hit my stride in the classroom and have learned to live fairly comfortably in Wuhan, my stress levels are down and manageable. So is my schedule.

Matter of fact, so manageable is my schedule that, on my one long day, Thursday, when I teach from 10AM until 5PM, with a 2-hour break at noon for lunch, I wondered how I was going to feel.

Last Thursday, after I bade the last student farewell and cleaned off the board, I put on my jacket and left the classroom. The campus and The Street were full of students who abandoned their textbooks and were done with classes for the day. They were just taking in the evening air, which was, in fact, quite pleasant. I needed some things from the store and wanted some fresh stuff from the farmer’s market. Being as I was already dressed and ready to go out, I simply grabbed my shopping bag and took off.

After the farmer’s market I stopped off at the bakery for a fresh loaf of bread and considered treating myself to a dinner out but then vetoed that idea. I had all evening to cook and savor a meal, so I went home and rattled some pots and pans and produced an acceptable dinner. While dinner was cooking, the thought crossed my mind that now, with my teaching obligations done for the week, and all email and blogs caught up, I had opportunity to watch a movie that I had bought last week. So I decided to eat dinner in front of the TV, in spite of the lingering chill in the living room.

The movie was excellent and dinner was pretty good too. I munched an apple as the credits rolled, and then got up to clean the kitchen before bed. It was going on 9PM and I didn’t want to leave dirty dishes behind. Once the kitchen was clean I sat down to read a little bit, and started yawning. At 10:30, I got ready for bed.

As I drifted off I realized that, for the first time in years, possibly my entire life, I have lived a ‘normal’ day. Maybe normal days aren’t so bad after all. Or maybe they’re not so bad because I only have to do it once per week.

That night, sleep took me with a smile on my face.

A Whole New Crop

With the new semester came a whole new crop of students. Victor speaks Oxford English because he is from South Africa. I speak American English. Thus it was decided that Victor and I should swap classes, in order to give the kids maximum exposure to the diversity of the English language. We’ve known about the swap since last semester, and I made it a point of informing my kids, much to their disappointment. And mine, too.

Originally I thought it was the height of cruelty of the school administrators, taking away the kids I had bonded with and replacing them with kids that Victor had tainted. Mind you, there is a measure of prejudice in my saying that Victor tainted the kids; I do not know how Victor does as a teacher. He may far outshine me. Or, he may have turned them off learning English forever. His attitude toward me so far, except for that one time of confessing his longing for his homeland, would certainly convince me I would not want anything to do with anything Victor. I wonder what the kids would think of our teaching styles: same or different? Better or worse?

I do have to confess that, just for a while, I wondered if Victor had persuaded the administrators to engineer the class swap because I had a gravy schedule and his was a bit more difficult to manage. Last semester I had class on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with my Wednesday class load ending at noon. Thus I had nearly a five-day weekend, every week. He held class on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, giving him only Saturday, Sunday and Monday off. He had to be on campus by Tuesday night for his early Wednesday session. Clearly I had the better schedule. However, that suspicion became a moot point once we got our schedules for the new semester because all of the classes had changed.

My new schedule is again a river of gravy. I have only one early class: Tuesday morning, 8AM, in Teaching building 2; not only is it as close to my apartment as possible, but my classroom is on the first floor. My other classes are all on Thursday, and the earliest one is at 10AM. I simply could not ask for better.

When I greeted the kids for this new semester, many of them were shocked to find me leading their class, rather than Victor. It seems he had not informed any of his students of the swap and they were expecting him to teach. It was up to me to inform them of the Administration’s decision, and that’s when I learned how Victor was appreciated.

Here is the start to my standard speech to explain the swap: “Are you surprised that I am here? Hold on, let me go put on my Victor suit.” I then mimed putting on a costume. “There, I am now wearing my Victor suit: is that better?” Laughter from the kids and a responding smile from me. Then: “Victor is a good teacher, but…” invariably, before I could explain the administrative decision based on Victor’s and my language difference, someone, or several someones would pipe up “NO! He’s not!” I would feign shock and anger, but inside I was gleeful at this revelation.

Am I mean, or what?

I recall all the times Victor’s students needed help and he sent them to my apartment, even though he was home, and they knew he was home. All those times I had reached out to him and he had spurned my advances, even though they were only superficially friendly. I have yet to get friendly with him; he hasn’t given me the chance to be friends. The few times he has offered conciliatory gestures, such as offering to introduce me to people he knew in the Wuhan education arena or showing me around town, he has not followed through on them. His body language at English Corner and in general.

I guess I can’t blame some of the kids for saying he might not be the best teacher. But on the other hand, I don’t have to be so happy with the knowledge that I am well loved and have a good reputation and good standing with students and administrators alike, while his reputation… is what he made it. That’s neither charitable nor kind, to say nothing of unprofessional of me. And what does it say about my competitive nature that, to this day, surprises me with its fierceness?

To misquote Forrest Gump: “Victor is as Victor does”. He has earned what he has got, and so have I. And now, I have a whole new crop of kids to reach out to, to give a positive learning experience to, to empassion with English and with culture, to dazzle and wow, and to bond with. Some of them I know from last semester, when they would come by my class, just to see what I was teaching. That actually happens quite often. I get a lot of visiting students, either from Victor’s classes or from other departments, who are just interested in what’s going on. See what I mean about reputation? Some of the students I only know from English Corner and some I know to be refugees of Victor’s: when they sought his help and he sent them to me instead of helping them himself.

We’ve now had two sessions together; school started again last week. I can tell the kids are enjoying my ‘home made’ curriculum fashioned last semester, when I had nothing but my imagination to rely on to reach and teach the kids. I know I have their attention because no one is playing with their cell phone and plenty are making eye contact. Several are active participants and others have already volunteered topics that they would like to explore. While I can’t say that I am now a seasoned veteran of the classroom, I can say that I have more experience than I did last semester when, terrified, I faced group after eager group of kids and had no idea what to do with them.

I may not bond as fiercely with this group as I did with ‘my kids’, but there will be bonding and mutual learning. There will be laughter and there will be tears, and there will be a sharing of experiences. These kids and I will grow together because I still have so much to learn. And they have already shown me they are great teachers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

KTV, Then and Now

I have not told you about my first KTV experience. Even though I mentioned KTV before, I have not even told you what KTV is. Seeing as this entry is about KTV, I had better get busy and fill you in, hadn’t I?

KTV is Chinese karaoke. I do not know why it is called that, other than perhaps the K stands for ‘karaoke’ and TV is added because they use a flat-screen TV to show the accompanying video to the song currently playing.

Karaoke is originally a Japanese pastime. To sing karaoke in Japan, one covers one’s head but exposes one’s belly, and it is presumed that the belly is doing the singing. A mock face is drawn on the belly and the mouth is supposed to move as the singer sings. Or some other inane behavior marks the revelers. It is a time-honored activity in business circles: after a formal dinner, the meeting adjourns to a nearby karaoke club and everyone loosens up by drinking alcohol and singing with their belly exposed. That is just one way that people let down their guard. Dancing, mocking a song by singing in falsetto and liberal doses of sake keep the party going.

When karaoke migrated to America, the practice of covering one’s head while exposing one’s belly went by the wayside. In America, the singers sing in front of a bar room full (or half full) of people, and nobody cares how well or how badly the song is sung because it is all in fun. Of course, the more beer you drink, the less you care about who is screeching into the microphone and forever ruining your favorite song. If they are really bad, their rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Hound Dog” would make Elvis REALLY want to leave the building, along with the rest of the clientele.

I have no room to talk. I have done a terrible job in the past, singing karaoke. But I don’t do half-bad singing acapella, apparently. Remember, when I ‘auditioned’ for a part in the Year-End show for the school and Sha-Sha, the show coordinator commented that I could really sing? And, (I don’t think I divulged this little nugget either…) because I was running out of things to do in the classroom, I taught the kids to sing pop songs that they really like, such as ‘Yesterday Once More’ by the Carpenters, or ‘Because of You’ by Kelley Clarkson. I had to sing those acapella too, because I did not have a way to play the accompanying music. The kids were impressed that I could sing the songs they liked, and sing them well.

It seems I have turned into quite the songbird since I’ve moved to China.

Singing karaoke in China is different from both Japan and America. In China, when you go to a KTV – a karaoke club, you do not get up in front of everyone, and sing – either with your belly exposed or covered. The club consists of little rooms that you book by the hour, each furnished with their own karaoke set-up, a couch that offers seating for up to eight people and little hassocks to accommodate more, if your party is really large. You can purchase food, snacks and alcohol, and even play a game of dice, if you wish. It is a group activity.

I had longed to experience karaoke in China, having seen it in various Chinese movies that I had watched. But, as I seldom travel within a group, my prospects of experiencing KTV type entertainment were limited. Until Summer, Sasuke and Mahalia invited me to go, that is. These three young ladies, students of mine, wanted me to join them for a day out and, although I had never expressed a desire for it openly, they made KTV a part of the outing. What joy! I was finally going to experience KTV!

This particular KTV was more upscale, with fancy wallpaper and a premium sound system. They also had a bank of switches on the wall, which I soon learned were volume control, or to either mute or blare the original singer of the song. Sometimes at KTV, the people in the group like a particular song but do not want to sing along with it, so they have the option of just listening to it being sung by its original artist and watching the video. The last two switches were for lighting control; apparently the mood strikes people differently and they want either diffused lighting or a spotlight. Very fancy.

Sasuke, Summer, Mahalia and I ‘played’ KTV for about 2 hours. We each took turns picking tunes from the sizeable bank of songs available. Of course, I sang mostly songs in English, but I do know a Chinese song or two and we giggled at my attempts to sing those. Of the four of us, Mahalia was the best vocalist, but she is very shy and didn’t sing very many songs.

I had meant to write about this before now, seeing as it happened before Winter break, but maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t, because today I experienced KTV for the second time.

This experience was a bit different than the first time I went to KTV. This club was close to campus, right there on The Street. It had just opened a few weeks before Winter break, but now it was doing a hopping business. It seems KTV is the thing for bored people to go out and do.

The rooms are much smaller in this club, and not soundproofed at all. We could hear the wails and screeches from other patrons enjoying their rented hours of fame with their friends. Presumably, everyone could hear us, too, if they were quiet for a minute or two. The song bank was not nearly as well populated or organized as the first KTV club I went to; we had to really hunt for songs to sing. The kids – Martin, Stephanie and Winnie, wanted me to sing “Yesterday Once More” like I did in class. We finally did find it in the songbank, along with some other songs I know the words and melody to. One song I sang, “How am I Supposed To Live Without You” earned me a 96 on the talent meter! Even I was impressed with that.

Winnie can sing! This girl is so good, I thought that she was letting the original singer sing, but this room had no such controls, like the first room I sang in did. I realized it was her doing the singing when Martin insisted on joining her, and she laughed at him. Only then, when I heard a lapse in the lyrics, did it sink in that Winnie was singing to rival a professional vocalist. I would have gladly let her sing the whole time we were there, but that would not have been fair to everyone else. Especially Martin, the only boy in the group, who felt compelled to rap, of all things. This poor child should study hard in school because he will never make it as a rap artist.

Where did the time go? I thought we had only booked the room for one hour, but it seems Stephanie and Martin had rented it for three hours. Before I knew it, it was going on 8PM and the club manager knocked on the door to tell us he had a reservation for the room. We had to clear out, and fast. We cleared the queue, gathered our things and hustled down the stairs, into the night.

I have to admit: KTV is a lot of fun. Is it the singing, the camaraderie, the hanging out with a group of people and being given license to be a performer for a time? I don’t know. I just hope someone invites me to karaoke again, soon! Or else, I’ll do the inviting.