Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Handwriting Club

I have learned that there are many clubs on campus: two English clubs, a sports club, a math club, a photography club and a chess club among others. I am active in both English clubs for obvious reasons, but the other clubs escape me. Some I simply don’t have an interest in and others I can’t participate in because of my limited language ability.

One club that I am decidedly interested in is the handwriting club. This group of students learns the history of their language by studying and practicing calligraphy.

When I say ‘calligraphy’ I do not mean the quill pens used in the sets you can buy in hobby stores anywhere in America. I am referring to the age-old writing of Chinese characters, using a bamboo and horsehair or sable brush and black ink.

To properly write traditional Chinese ideograms in this manner, you need to first fold the paper into large squares so that you can find your margins. Then you unfold this hyper-thin, see-through paper and place it on a matrix. You paint the characters within the matrix squares, from top right of the page to bottom left. To effectively use the viscous black ink you pour a little out of the bottle onto a stone with a creviced rim, dip the tip of your brush into the ink that is in the crevice and roll it on the flat stone until the brush tip achieves a nice, fine point. You are then ready to address the paper, fluently recording ideogram after ideogram.

The correct way to draw a Chinese character is from left to right, top to bottom and inside to outside. Individual Chinese characters can have anywhere from one to twenty brushstrokes. To watch a calligraphy artist draw characters is to behold an exercise of meticulous detail, precisely executed.

The kids in the Handwriting Club are not that meticulous; they have only been studying this ancient type of calligraphy for a few months. Bear in mind that writing Chinese characters with an ink pen is certainly not the same as writing with a brush. Pens are more forgiving. I have seen calligraphy artists in Xi’an execute flawless scrolls with characters no more than an inch tall. The kids in this club, for the most part, have only been holding a calligraphy brush since they joined the club on campus.

Pixie and Tony, two members of the Calligraphy Club asked me to participate in a celebration their club recently feted. They wanted me to harangue them about the difference between Western and Eastern writing. There would also be a poetry reading – I read a short Chinese verse, translated into English and the attendees would repeat it after me. Then, they would guess what poem I was reciting. The third event involved balloon popping: a set of five balloons on a ribbon were loosely tied around the participants’ right ankle. The players then have one minute to attempt to pop other participant’s balloons. The one with the most intact balloons after that minute was declared the winner. Finally, there would be a calligraphy demonstration, led by the club leader.

I was honored to join them in this celebration. As it turns out I have a huge interest both in Chinese calligraphy and in handwriting.

Handwriting is a dying art. Think about it: how often do you write anything anymore? Other than maybe signing your name, that is. Do you still write letters to loved ones? Do you write in a diary? What about grocery lists? Most of our writing is electronic nowadays. We type everything: emails, to-do lists, even diaries take the form of blogs.

As recently as 30 years ago the Palmer Method of writing was actively taught in schools. Nowadays few schools embrace it, expecting instead double-spaced, Arial-font documents to be turned in or emailed to the teacher. My grandson’s third-grade class is not learning the Palmer Method; they are teaching him block writing instead. See what I mean about handwriting being a dying art?

I thought I had plenty to tell these kids in the Handwriting Club. Namely that what they are doing by learning calligraphy is nothing short of preserving their culture. That, because simplified Chinese ideograms are taking the place of traditional characters, that such a change meant that their language and culture is evolving.

Whereas a foreigner like me, studying their language and culture can make sense of the traditional character for ‘sun’ because it looks like the sun, the simplified character does not even remotely resemble the sun. The traditional character for ‘vehicle’, logical in its composition, helps a beginner understand that that text has something to do with transportation, but the simplified rendition 车 bears absolutely no resemblance to a vehicle. It leaves a foreigner like me, studying their language, completely in the dark.

Years from now, when archeologists dig up hand-written documents in any language, what will their reaction be? In a few decades, will anyone know how to hold a pen and execute a series of words? What about the science of graphoanalysis, the method of ‘reading’ a person’s character by examining a sample of their handwriting? Will that too become a dead science?

Thus, the importance of the Handwriting Club. These kids will be around when the next scroll, written by Confucius is unearthed. They will be able to decipher what the great scholars of their country have set forth for posterity. They will perhaps teach their children the importance of handwriting, and maybe even motivate their fellow countrymen to not forget the beauty of their language as depicted in scrolls.

And in the West? Are we going to let handwriting become a dying art?


“OK, there’s your bell. Go enjoy your lunch! Your big test is this weekend; all of you have my phone number. If you need anything: help studying, a shot of confidence or even just a hug, you can contact me and I will do everything I can to help you. Have a good day and good luck with your test!”

With those words I dismissed my class, basking in the students’ warm farewells, and then turned to erase the board. I then pivoted to face what was supposed to be an empty classroom and noticed that Bailey was still sitting, head bowed. I went to her and asked her if she was OK. “Those people!” she murmured. “They have such passion! I…” and she dissolved into tears.

Bailey is twenty years old; a scrap of a girl with a traditionally Chinese bowl cut hairstyle, parted down the middle with the bangs pinned back by colorful barrettes. She has widely spaced eyes, an adorable button nose and rosebud lips, all framed by a smooth complexion. Smiling, Bailey is a beautiful girl who has yet to realize her woman’s potential. When she frowns, her face puckered and bordering on tears, she awakens an instinct to shelter her from harm.

She is the type of student every teacher hopes to have in class, at least once in their career. Full of grace, deeply intellectual and fervent, such students nurse a flicker of passion and seek a direction for their lives. Unlike Sasuke who burns with a destructive and selfish obsession, the Baileys of the world only want to realize their full potential by finding their destiny. My poor Bailey doesn’t know what direction to go in, but she knows that she will follow a different path from the other students.

One of “Those people” that she was referring to was Erin Gruwell (of the Freedom Writers’ movie), the teacher that turned her students away from gang life and on to educational and professional success. The members of the Dave Matthews Band were the other people. My intent in showing these contrasting examples of passion was to demonstrate to the class that people must overcome adversity to follow their dream. Ms. Gruwell, her students and Dave Matthews Band members certainly suffered their share of heartbreak and hardship on the way to finding their destiny!

Bailey picked up on the passion exhibited on the screen rather than on the concept of overcoming adversity. Or, she may have absorbed the idea of overcoming adversity as a matter of course. Undeniably she saw herself in these contrasting examples of those who, although very different, attained the same goal: finding their passion and achieving self-fulfillment.

I put my arm around this quivering girl and let her tears flow free for a few moments. When she felt she had enough control of herself, she told me why she was so moved. “I don’t know what direction I should take. I don’t know what to do! I just know that I have such passion and want to do good things…”

Very near tears myself, I hugged her close to me until I could regain control. I told her, gently, that it was OK for her to not know what direction to take right now. She is still a young girl with a lot of learning to do. She will try many things in her life on the way to discovering who she really is and that is OK. Some of the most interesting people in life don’t know what they want to do in their 20’s, 30’s or even their 40’s – and then it hits them like a hammer: THIS is where I need to be! THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing! It is OK to be different than everyone else. It makes for a hard life, but the reward of such a life is realizing your dream. That is worth waiting for, right? Until then she should nurse that flicker of passion inside. Never let it go out and never let it die for it will guide her to where she is supposed to be.

This approach is wildly different from the Chinese take on life. The Chinese believe that you do not forge your own way; it is chosen for you: by your test scores which assign your college major; by your family heritage or by whatever job you can scramble to get. That is not a traditional view; it only came about when Chairman Mao took over the country and allocated skills and people where they were most needed. Now, with the shadow of the last sixty years fading away, students have more opportunity than ever to choose which direction to take with their life. My telling Bailey that it is OK to make her own way in the world was stating the obvious, to be sure. But, it seems that is exactly the license she needed.

No longer disconsolate, she tentatively raised her head and essayed a smile. It was a weak, watery smile that pushed the last of her tears down her smooth cheeks. I wiped them away for her and held her a little longer, until she felt strong enough to pull away. A few minutes later, calm and composed, she was ready to face the world again. She thanked me and wished me a good weekend, gathered her books and left the room.

I walked away from class this morning knowing I had done my best not only as a teacher, but as a mentor and as a human being.

Bailey is going to be just fine. She will be better than fine. In fact, you should keep your eyes on the horizon because, in a few years, there will be a shining new star. Her name is Bailey.

In the Zone

I have nothing to write about. Nothing new has happened. No new revelations and no new activities. I teach my few classes, enjoy the occasional movie, definitely enjoy emailing back and forth with my friends and certainly enjoy chatting with my family. And now, there are the English Teacher seminars that I host. All of that is good.

Last week I reflected that I had not left the house for 6 days except to teach or go to the farmer’s market for fresh veggies and fruit. At that, going to the farmer’s market barely constitutes leaving campus because it is so close. During the Qing Ming festival I had a total of 5 days off but opted to stay at home rather than take a short trip somewhere. I always have 4-day weekends and do not go anywhere.

What is going on here?

I can honestly tell you that depression is no longer a factor. With my good health restored, the depression has gone away. I’m not sleeping twelve hours a night and dragging through daylight hours. I am actually quite content in my little apartment, even though it is still a bit chilly in here. I have started exercising again, I’m keeping the place clean, writing my stories and my blog and my emails. I’m studying Chinese again: my lexicon of words is growing by leaps and bounds. And, during the evening I turn on my space heater and cozy up to my new TV to watch a movie, eat my simple dinner and go to sleep at a decent time.

I have come to the conclusion that I have hit a comfort zone. I know where to shop, what to eat, how to entertain myself, how to communicate, how to get around… and I’m wallowing in it! Happily and contentedly wallowing away is what I’m doing.

There is nothing wrong with finding a comfort zone and wallowing in it… for a while. I don’t want to just sit in comfort here though; I want to find new things. I want to go exploring and take nice pictures and share them with you.

There is a small stumbling block to that, though.

The end of the school year is rapidly approaching: July is only 3 months away. I will have 2 months off. I plan on returning to the States to visit during the two months I am off and I will need money to do so.

Not that I’m broke. And I’m certainly not living from paycheck to paycheck. But with oil prices steadily rising, I need to make sure that I will have enough money to not just fly back but also to sustain myself and travel around, visiting friends and family all across America. Also, I will need to update my wardrobe while I’m in the States, and buy some things I’ve learned that I cannot get here. I would like some new books, too. All of that takes money.

So: do I take pleasure and entertainment while I’m here and hope I will have enough money for my trip to America, or should I just wallow in this comfort zone to make sure I have enough money for this summer’s trip back?

I vote for the latter. I’m OK with sitting around for now if it means I can go back to see everyone I love this summer. What do you think?

In the meantime, I have nothing to report. Nothing to write about. Nothing new going on. I suspect that that will soon change. Surely one of my students will do something noteworthy, or one of my sessions in class will be worth reporting on, or I’ll go on an outing with friends that you’re bound to hear about.

Stay tuned!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Uber-Blonde!

“Are you…”

“Still a lesbian? Yes.”

This snatch of dialogue is from the monstrously successful hit TV show from the ‘90s called Friends. One of the characters’ wives suddenly discovered, much to his chagrin that she is a lesbian, so she left him. He pined for her and mourned the demise of his marriage; it was fodder for at least two seasons of this show. This particular bit came up when the wife found out she was pregnant. She had apparently gotten that way while still married to Ross, the character in question. She went by his work to inform him of such. Needless to say, he was suitably shocked.

And no, she did not go back to him because she was pregnant.

If we were to use that bit of dialogue for a conversation between us, it might sound something like:

“Are you…”

“Still blond? Yes.”

As you know from the My Word but She’s Blond entry, I am in despair over my blond hair. Not that I mind being blond, it is being Uber-blond that gets to me. So blond that my hair actually appears white.

I don’t blame the salon stylists. Well, I used to not blame them; now I blame them a little bit. A lot. Completely, actually.

It all started because I came here with blond hair. When it started growing out I went to the salon to have it touched up. I expected there would be challenges, such as language barrier and hair type, and I was right to expect those things. While I was in the States, it was a simple matter of purchasing the next carton of Ms. Clairol #103 and spending some quality time with the shower spray, rinsing it off. I know, baby-fine as my hair is, to not leave the color in for longer than 15 minutes. I’ve written about all this before.

In an attempt to match the color I came here with, the stylist mixed up some blond coloring and applied it. Even though I cautioned him to not leave it on too long, he left it on for a whopping 40 minutes and PRESTO! Uber-Blonde emerges! I slunk around, trying to hide this excessive blond-ness. Impossible feat.

The next time I went for a root touch up, I spoke a little better Chinese, so I explained that I did not want to be that blond anymore. I went by myself, fully confident that I could make myself understood. They set to, applying dye all over my head. When I asked to have it washed out because A. the maximum 20 minutes my fine hair should be exposed to dye had elapsed and B. my head was itching like mad. A sure sign that dye should be washed out.

The kindly stylist scratched my head for me and, 20 minutes later rinsed the dye out of my hair. Uber-Blond, Part II!

I’ve had enough of this uber-blond look. One gets used to certain things if they have to, but if there can be better days, then that is what one strives for. I was looking for better hair.

So, when Lancy, one of my students volunteered to go to the salon with me and stick around until the job was done, I nearly wept with gratitude and explained that I no longer wanted to be Uber-Blonde. As a matter of fact, I wanted to select a nice, light brown color and change my look completely.

True to my request, the stylist presented me with a book of hair color shades. Right there, in the third column was a lovely light brown shade that I just know would look darling on my head. Lancy and Maggie, another student that accompanied us, agreed that that would be a good shade. Much more complimentary than the whitish-blond look I had sported till now. Lancy gave him detailed instructions that the hair color should be changed completely, from blond to brown. She showed him the desired shade. Could he do that? Certainly, he averred. He would just have to be careful mixing the dyes. I’m beginning to get scared again, because no one is talking about the length of time the dye should be left in. but that’s OK, Lancy is here to wipe out my fear. She told him, at my insistence, to not leave the dye in a long time because my hair is so fine.

So the stylist went in the back and mixed, and then he reappeared and applied. He applied first at the roots, and then the rest of the length. My head started itching, a sure sign that it is time to rinse the dye out. He came and scratched my head for me.

Why am I getting that nightmare feeling again?

Forty minutes later, I emerged from the rinse cycle and parked myself in front of the mirror again.

There is no brown in my hair. My hair is blond. Not quite so blond that it appears white but it is blond. VERY blond. Nearly as blond, under the sun we now enjoy, as it has been all winter.

One of these days, one of two things will happen: the stylist will either listen to me when I say it is time to rinse the color out, or I will simply figure out a way to do my hair myself.

Going to a different salon is not an option. I will have the same difficulties at another salon as I do at this one. However, if I used bottled water to rinse my hair, Ms. Clairol is a distinct possibility. Now: to buy Ms. Clairol over here. Everything is tailored to the Asian head. I will have to buy it when I get Stateside and bring it back.

In the meantime, it is Uber-Blond, Part III. Do you think I could turn myself into a cartoon character?

Culture Shock

During my long walk across the bridge and through town (see previous post), I started thinking about this summer. July is only 3 months away! In a little over 3 months, I will be on a plane, headed back to America.

There is a measure of anticipation in this. I will get to actually be in the same room as my loved ones; not just see them on video – although you will never hear me say a bad word about Skype. All praise Skype! All hail Skype! It has been a part of what has kept me sane during the lonely winter months.

But ‘skyping’ with loved ones and actually being able to touch them and speak with them face to face is two totally different propositions. And, come three months from now, it will be a ‘face to face’ proposition. The first thought is: ‘Wow! What a long time it has been since I’ve held my beloved Gabriel, or gotten one of those crushing bear hugs from my son!” I even miss the sideways, one-armed hugs from my daughter. Marjorie, crying tears of delight in spite of her best efforts to not cry, and dragging me along into the tear-fest because of my own joy at hugging her. Chris, George, Ann, Lisa, EVERYONE is going to get so hugged when I come back!

Let that be fair warning! I will be doling out hugs, and will be lapping up my share or more, if I can. If you let me.

My plan is to go cross-country again. Start in California and end up on the East Coast, from whence I will again make the journey back to China and the job and future that awaits me here. On the way through, I’ll make stops in Denver, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Memphis, Tampa (if my daughter and her family are relocated), West Virginia and Pennsylvania, before flying out of one of the major airports – as yet undetermined which one.

This trip will have its challenges. Being as I no longer have credit cards, it will not be so simple as renting a car and going anywhere I want to go. If I am in a city with minimal or no mass transit, I will be reliant upon the good graces of friends to drive me around. If there is only minimal mass transit, such as in Dallas, I will be taking what buses or trains I can, and then walking a lot. Or, again: relying on friends to get me around.

Getting across the country will also call for ingenuity. Amtrak or Greyhound? Cost is a factor, as is time. Obviously I want to spend the maximum time available with my loved ones; being on the road or on the rails takes away from that time. And, taking the train or the bus takes much longer than flying. Finally, another consideration is that, while everything costs money, flying is the most expensive. So, I have vetoed airplanes. I’m going to have to engineer everything by bus or train.

Buying tickets online? Out of the question: no credit card. And, speaking of online: should I lug my faithful laptop back to the States with me? Most everywhere I’ll be there will be a computer. If there is none, I can just as well go to the local library, where they do have public access computers (I hope). I don’t think internet cafes are as prevalent in the States as they are here.

And THAT is when my thoughts turned around. OMG! I’m going Stateside! In three months I will not be in China! I will hear English when I go out and about, unless I’m in an ethnic neighborhood where another language is spoken. And, there is a good chance that that language will not be Chinese.

There is going to be Caucasians everywhere I look! Chinese people will be a rarity! People will no longer point and stare at me and say ‘Waiguoren’! I will no longer have the pleasure of smiling at little ones and shocking them by telling them I’m not a foreigner. I will not be the only blonde for miles around! All of the good graces, the mannerisms, the sleek black heads and trim bodies I’ve been surrounded by for these last 7 months… all supplanted by people who look like me (Caucasian), talk like me (English) and eat the same foods I eat.

No, wait. That’s not true either! What am I going to eat when I go back stateside? There will be no Re Gan Mian – hot dry noodle, no street vendors selling yummy treats for a few Yuan. Restaurants are mostly all going to still be on that trend of ‘the louder the better’ – here, restaurants are so quiet you can hear the click of chopsticks. The grocery stores will all have foods that I am not used to anymore, and in much larger quantity and variety than I am now used to. I will not be able to negotiate a fair price for something that I like in stores, like I do here. I’ll be expected to pay the full, marked price on everything in Wal-Mart or anywhere else I go.

And there is more: no more will I have the convenience of a bus just a quarter mile from where I live, networked to all of the other buses in the city. Traffic is going to be so regimented; even buses have timetables to follow. No KTV for entertainment, no night market to walk through, streets nearly devoid of pedestrians, nobody doing tai qi in the morning or dancing in the parks and courtyards at sundown. I’ll be in a place where eating with chopsticks constitutes a rare talent, and is only allowed in certain types of restaurants.

There might be a chance that I would want to hide. Just bury my head in my pillow and not leave… wherever I’m staying at. How can I do that, when I’ll mostly be staying with family, or the occasional friend who welcomes me to their home? I’m so used to living by myself, being alone within my concrete walls. The walls won’t even be the same!

I’m sensing a greater impending culture shock than the one I had when I came here, aren’t you?

Go Fly a Kite!

Generally it is said that a good parking spot is one that is closest to the entrance of your destination: office building, store or work place. In Texas, a good parking space is one that is in the shade, no matter how far it is from the entrance of whichever concern you are parked at. In Wuhan, a good day in transportation consists of getting a seat on the bus.

It was definitely a good day for transportation in Wuhan. In spite of the problems met by the first bus I took – see previous post, I had a seat on every bus I took to get all the way to my destination.

I made it to the Yangtze River, relishing the long walk I would take with the sun on my shoulders and the wind in my face. I had the camera ready for picture taking. The only thing that wasn’t necessarily right is that I was dressed for chilly indoor temperatures, when outside was spectacularly fine. I wasn’t wearing a jacket although I had one with me – just in case; you never know. But I was wearing longjohns, leg warmers and wooly socks. I thought about taking the leg warmers off but decided against it; there were too many people on the boardwalk.

And with good reason! On a day like this, not going out would be lunacy! So, I just dealt with my rapidly overheating legs and feet. After all, why complain: my feet and legs have been so cold for so long! Now is the time for warmth! And Brother, was it warm…

Never mind about my feet. I want to convey what my eyes saw; not what my feet felt.

As I crested the staircase to the boardwalk, I couldn’t help but gasp in surprise. There, aloft, were what seemed like hundreds of kites! Multicolored and various shapes, all flying about in the sky along the river. What a sight! I took several shots but most did not turn out. Such a pity! It seems everyone that came to the river was flying a kite. Can you imagine that?

Kite flying is not just for kids. I saw couples taking turns holding the spool of string tethering their kite, children shouting with glee as their cartoon-character kites whooped and dove on the wind, older gentlemen battling the wind’s caprice in an attempt to maximize their kites’ altitude.

It seems kite flying is a very peaceful, relaxing experience. One man sat on a rock with his kites’ string in his right hand while he gazed inscrutably into the distance. His pose and demeanor were completely relaxed; he seemed at peace with himself, the wind and the world in general. A younger couple worked at launching a kite together: he held the kite while his bride sought to gain elevation by running away from him. An older man played his line and studied the sky to distinguish his kite from all of the others aloft, while his wife gathered grass and weeds and put them in a bag. I stood still amidst this field of peaceful kite flyers, letting their amity wash over me.

A small girl’s piercing cry shattered my reverie. Her little kite had tumbled from the sky! She was inconsolable as it crashed on the beach. Even when her father embraced her and wiped her tears away her posture and manner suggested total dejection. Her father opted to not launch the kite again; perhaps he thought that another disappointment would be more than she could stand. Together they rolled the kite up and, still sniffling, the little one marched resolutely away from the whole scene. I caught up with them later and saw her savoring an ice cream, so not all was lost. She had found happiness again. I was relieved for her.

The most impressive display of kite flying was this man (see picture). He was flying two kites in perfect synchronicity. His were the type of kites that make a buzzing sort of noise as they cut through the air, and he was maximizing that feature by making them whirl, dive and gain altitude again. Everyone at that spot on the beach stopped to watch this kite-flyer extraordinaire manage his two kites. Admittedly, he put on a good show: now a few feet from the beach, now soaring into the wind, his kites were never still or aloft at the same altitude for more than a second or two.

I don’t know what to make of the youth that stood by him, arms crossed. Was that his son, waiting for his chance at flying the kites, or was he just there for moral support for his dad? Could it be he was humoring his father by letting the old man fly his silly kites, when really he would rather have been elsewhere?

Only he would have known. The rest of us on the beach were dazzled by the skill and mastery of this particular kite flyer. I moved on after having stood there long enough to make my stay embarrassing. What no one knows is that I was formulating this entry while being hypnotized by the flying kites. Well, no one but you.

The rest of my walk was uneventful. It ended up being a fairly long walk, at that. I started at one suspension bridge and walked the beach to the next one, 17 km away. Once I made it to that bridge I had to cross it – on foot, and then take a set of stairs down to street level to catch the bus. Again I scored a seat for the ride home; truly a good day for transportation! It was a good thing I got a seat for the ride home; the walk I took ended up being somewhere between 25 and 28 km long. But it felt so good to get out and stretch my legs!

If there is to be a moral to this entry, let it be this: next time someone tells you to go fly a kite you might take them up on it. Kite flying certainly has its benefits!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It Finally Happened!

Are you wondering: ‘what finally happened?’ Did she get married? Did she finally start acting her age? Did she discover the proper way to make Moo Goo Gai Pan (or learn why it is called that)?

No, my friends. It is none of that. What happened is something that I have thought is inevitable since I’ve been here, and I’m quite surprised that it hadn’t happened before now. In order to tell it right, I have to go back to the beginning.

For this, the first actually gorgeous day in Wuhan I decided that nothing short of a day-long frolic would do. I got up early and got ready to go even before my appointed Skype chat with family, so that immediately after talking with my Sweet Gabriel I could just grab my bag and take off. And that is exactly what I did.

I walked up The Street, basking in the sunshine. Didn’t even have to wait for a bus; the bus was waiting for me. It was a double-decker bus, and not even overcrowded! I decided to sit on the lower deck because I was only going to travel 8 stops on this bus before transferring to the 507 line, which would take me right to the Yangtze River access point. My plan was to walk along the Yangtze and see what there was to see, maybe even take a nice picture or two to share with you.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So: here we are, on a double-decker bus that was in no way overcrowded. Everyone who wanted one had a seat and the sunshine streamed pleasantly by outside the windows. For once, the bus driver did not have to fight traffic, because there wasn’t any. He did have to be careful though; the condition of the road had not improved overnight. There were still potholes and creaks in the pavement where one could lose a tire if not careful. Several centimeter-thick steel plates covered the worst of the road damage and workers were shoveling gravel and filler into other low parts of this damaged road.

At one point I felt the bus bottom out and heard the distinctive metal-upon-asphalt crunch. Immediately after, the bus got substantially louder and I could hear something dragging. I wondered if the bus had blown a tire or, heaven forbid broken an axle or a leaf spring. Judging by the sound the bus was making, it sounded at the very least like a muffler issue.

A kindly driver of a passenger vehicle honked his horn - which doesn’t mean much here, and then pulled alongside the bus and shouted at the driver while gesturing toward the back of the bus. Our valiant driver pulled over as best he could on this road with no lane markings and got out to examine his bus. We passengers started worrying when he didn’t return after a few minutes and the more intrepid of us got out to see what was wrong.

See that picture? It used to be a muffler. It is now a barely recognizable lump of metal. When the bus bottomed out somehow the muffler got caught on one of those centimeter-thick steel plates and got ripped right off the bus. By the time the concerned driver of the passenger car flagged the bus driver down it had managed to work its way out from under the bus and had been dragging by its rapidly unwinding flexible extension. To add to the poor driver’s woes, the bus’ right rear tire had a nasty puncture and was just flopping around on its rim.

The bus driver emerged again from the bus, talking to someone on his cellphone. I presumed it was either his boss or the bus depot on the other end, and he was asking them what action to take. Apparently he was instructed to pull the muffler free from its tenuous metal link and store it on the bus. Afterwards he was to drive his passengers to the next stop, where a replacement bus would soon meet them. Some of the passengers helped the bus driver carry the burning hot muffler back onto the bus and we all boarded again. The driver hobbled his bus down this terrible street that has the power to bring even double-decker buses to a grinding halt. Luckily he did not have far to go; just a little over a kilometer.

Some of us passengers waited for the replacement bus so they wouldn’t have to pay another fare. Others, such as me, boarded the next available bus regardless of what line it was and went on with our day.

I have talked about buses off and on throughout this blog, but now let me make this perfectly clear: I cannot say enough about the good men and women that pilot these buses through this city. They are, hands down, some of the best drivers I have ever seen. They drive for 10 and sometimes 12 hours a day over terrible roads in abject traffic conditions and, for the most part, are courteous and professional in their dealings with other drivers and annoying passengers.

All of the buses in Wuhan are standard transmission; the drivers have to constantly pump a clutch and shift gears. Considering traffic conditions around here, a lot of times they stay in first gear and play the clutch to move the meter or two that they have room to move in. Their buses are poorly maintained, as evidenced by the black exhaust the buses belch, the way the gears grind and the general condition of the body and the insides of the buses. Few of the buses are new, generally only lines 401 and 402 – called the ‘foreigner buses’ because they travel to all of the tourist hotspots are clean and well maintained.

Many drivers take passenger safety into consideration by refusing to overload their bus. They will bypass a stop, not letting anyone else on… much to the chagrin of prospective passengers who stand in the street trying to flag it down. Instead the driver will shout ‘does anyone need to get off the bus?’ and stop well beyond the appointed stop to let passengers off if such a declaration is made. In spite of the abysmal traffic conditions, where people cut each other off and turn onto main roads from alleyways without so much as looking at oncoming traffic, I’ve yet to witness a bus wreck – either while on a bus I’m riding or one that I’m not on. If something goes wrong with their bus, they have to handle it. All of this while still collecting fares from every passenger. All of this, and they get paid less money than I do.

All of this is on a good day. I haven’t said anything about driving in bad weather conditions.

Strangely enough, yesterday turned out to be a bad day for buses. I saw no less than 4 buses broken down and stranded by the side of the road. Whatever their failure was, I can certainly attest to the fact that it was most likely not the driver’s fault.

Sunny +70 = Frolic!

Three major events happened while I was out yesterday: buses broke down everywhere and the sky was full of kites. Each of those events merit their own entry, right? And you’ll read them soon. My thoughts drifted into that scary territory called ‘Culture Shock’, and you’ll read about that, too.

Maybe my eyes were set on ‘scan’ and I picked up on a lot of stuff. Maybe this is just a day to be prolific. Could be a combination of both. Who knows? All I do is write blog entries. I hope they are entertaining and thought provoking to you. I know I really enjoy writing about the things I see and do here.

And that is what I want to tell you about: things I saw while out yesterday. Things that didn’t belong in the other posts.

Like the woman who was crossing a very busy street. Luckily for her, there were plenty of other people crossing. Matter of fact, this intersection was so busy that a traffic policeman was monitoring and governing the flow of traffic. Good thing for this particular pedestrian, too. She was so absorbed in reading, of all things, an eye chart, that she… bumped into the man walking in front of her. She gets a plus for testing her eyes. Too bad she was doing it while walking. Another plus: she bumped into a human walking, rather than a bus, driving! That could have gotten messy.

And then, there were the brides in wedding dresses. Here, the brides prepare their wedding album in natural settings as well as in studios. So, they traipse all over town, sometimes with their be-tuxed grooms in tow, having their picture taken in strategic locations. Being as the area I was at not only had a vast expanse of grassland along the river, it also had a terrace with sculptured gardens. I had often looked at that garden as I passed by on the bus, crossing the same bridge I walked on that day. I had vowed I would figure out how to get to that garden and walk through it; now I know how: be a bride! Your photographer will take you there, for just a few hundred Yuan. On the positive side: at least the brides get more than one wear out of their hyper-expensive dresses.

Before I got to the sculpted garden, I encountered a little slice of heaven, right here in the city. Who knew such places exist in Wuhan? Maybe the wedding photographers did. Still, that little creek, burbling away within its channel, set deep into a ravine to discourage any who might disturb its natural beauty stopped me in my tracks. So charming and peaceful was this part of my walk that I decided this would be the picture I would include with this entry.

Now for the ominous-sounding portion of this entry: the Man in the Silver Car. As I was walking along that long span of a bridge a new-ish silver car pulled over, blocking the right hand lane (no such thing as a shoulder here; it is all road – even the sidewalks). As I guessed, he was offering me a ride. Being as I was in the market to walk, I politely declined his offer.

It is not the first time someone has offered me a ride since I’ve been here, and I have accepted rides from strangers before. Here, the fear of rape, robbery or murder doesn’t exist for me. People are just genuinely nice and want to help the big foreigner get where she’s going. Or they just want to have a chance to mingle with foreigners. All the times I’ve been in China, and in all the time I’ve been in Wuhan I’ve never been assaulted, or even accosted in a threatening manner. As I walked on I pondered that.

I would never get in a car with a strange man in the States, but here I have no problem with it. Walking at night in the States was an exercise in folly, and walking in certain neighborhoods, or, for that matter driving in certain neighborhoods, no matter what the time of day could be considered a suicide attempt. I feel safer walking here with money dripping out of my pockets than I ever did in the States, where anyone can just get randomly shot. What a sad commentary, don’t you think?

Riding the bus home, there was that chubby, no make that downright fat little boy that plopped himself right next to me and promptly fell asleep. In his right hand he held a kite, nicely rolled up and sheathed in its pouch. In his left he had a bottle of orange soda, two-thirds drunk. While he never let go of his kite, his soda bottle fell from his hand once he got good and asleep. Before it could go rolling all over the crowded bus, a passenger standing in front of me picked it up and put it back in the boy’s lap. It rolled right back off. I grabbed it before it hit the floor and tucked it into the collar of his jacket. The boy woke up shortly after that and wiped the sweat from his face and head. Unfortunately he used the back of his right hand to do so, still never letting go of his kite, which would have poked me in the eye had I not been quick and ducked away.

On the last leg of the trip home, I encountered something I had only witnessed one other time since being here: emergency response vehicle sirens (see ‘What’s Missing?’ entry). I looked out the window of the bus and saw 5 fire trucks, lights ablaze and sirens wailing, rush through the intersection and head to some destination unknown to me.

My first thought was: ‘I wonder if they’re headed to a Chinese fire drill?” And then I realized how uncharitable that sounded, although it was quite funny. Belatedly I gave way to my hope that, wherever they were headed, they would be able to avert or at least minimize the tragedy they were called on to respond to.

That’s it. All senses full, replete with experiences to write about, I walked the quarter-mile to my apartment with nothing further of note happening. The rest of the night passed peacefully, except for the fact that I ate too much and did not sleep well because of it.

No need to blog about that.

Meet and Greet

Finally! My dream comes true! After months of wishing and longing and waiting and hoping, I am going to meet the English teachers!

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met some of the English teachers before, but they were very brief meetings. Still today, if an English teacher came up and slapped me I wouldn’t know if s/he were an English teacher or just someone who wants to slap me… for whatever reason. I’ve not figured myself as particularly slappable since I’ve been here so maybe, if someone did come up and slap me, I might have to figure there might be a connection to something. Perhaps to the English department.

All slaps aside, one of my fondest wishes since being here has been to work more closely with the English teachers that teach the kids the nuts and bolts of the language I am here to help them learn. A few months back, when Sam and I had that long discussion in which I poured out all of my frustrations (see Walking Pneumonia and Computer Fever entry) I expressed the idea that the school should maximize its investment in their foreign teachers. They paid a great deal of money getting me and Victor here, and they pay us a more than generous salary, complete with benefits and accommodations, to do the little we do. How does 6 hours of work per week balance out against what they are paying to get us here and keep us here and keep us happy?

I have learned that everything has its time and place in China. Remember, when I had to rehearse for the song I sang at the Year End show (see The Year End Parties entry), and nobody said anything about it until Wednesday… and the show was on Friday? There have been many other instances of such seemingly ambling preparations: no orientation prior to teaching, no advance warning when class schedules change and no warning when the workmen were coming to my apartment. So, after telling Sam the administration should maximize their resources (Victor and me), especially because they paid so much money for us and, quite frankly, are not getting much of a return on their investment with our pitiful 6-hours per week of teaching, I really did not expect anything to come of it.

Well, something did come of it. It seems the teachers have been curious about me for a very long time – since I got here to be exact, and my performance in the Year End show proved to them that I was approachable. Now that they know the big foreigner woman will not bite them or otherwise harm them, they want to work with me.

Sam came by last week to tell me that the teachers and the department Dean want to have a series of meetings, seminars actually, to help the teachers make use of their English skills. It seems the teachers have the same problem the students do: they do not have a native speaker to practice English with, or to listen to in order to maintain their listening skills. My excitement overflowed and I jumped around the room at the news! Poor Sam: he was carried along in my leaps because I had taken hold of his hands and wouldn’t let go.

The first meeting was scheduled for this past Wednesday. On Monday I went to Hanyang, to the IGA to shop for foods that would fit the bill for the first ‘Foreigner Meet’n’Greet’. I thought potato salad, cocktail weenies in barbeque sauce and some cookies would be appropriate. The trick was finding barbeque sauce and mayo to make potato salad with. The ‘foreigner foods’ section at the IGA did not have what I needed so on Tuesday I took off for Metro, knowing that I would find what I need there.

Not only did Metro not disappoint but they had finally gotten a shipment of Brownie Mix in! I bought three boxes of Brownie mix and a medium sized jar of Miracle Whip. I had to buy dill pickles because they did not have relish, but I reasoned I could simply chop up the pickles and mix them back into the pickle juice before adding it to the potato salad. Add one bottle of honey mesquite flavored barbeque sauce, and I’m ready for the checkout.

My shopping bag full, I returned home and set myself up in the kitchen: peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing. Green onions, peppers, pickles all fell to my blade. Potatoes boiled cheerfully in the pot while I mixed Brownie ingredients. Soon the kitchen was redolent with the smell of chocolate and the steam of boiling potatoes. As I do not have a well-equipped kitchen, I had to do dishes as I went, using and reusing the few implements I own. In total, I spent four hours in the kitchen. Between two days worth of shopping and hours of cooking, it was the most work I had done in a while.

The potato salad turned out exquisitely, but I burned the first batch of Brownies. How silly of me to not have positioned the oven rack properly! I decided to get up early the next morning and make another batch. Can’t serve bad brownies now, can I? Exhausted I fell into bed.

Back up at 8:00AM, and I quickly whipped up another batch of Brownies. While the oven was thus occupied I heated the barbeque sauce on my hot plate and added the weenies. That darned electronic hot plate! It overheated and burned some of the weenies, but not to the point of ruination. At least the potato salad would be good.

All’s well that ends well. The Meet’n’greet was a huge success. The teachers and I talked about differences in American and Chinese education systems and the challenges we face as educators. They thoroughly enjoyed the food, especially the brownies. They all expressed their welcome to the department and are looking forward to making the Wednesday seminars a regular occasion. They did ask that, next time, I prepare an agenda and email it to them so that they can prepare discussion points. We parted company 2 hours later, reluctantly, with the promise that future sessions will be even more fruitful.

The irony is that I, the novice educator and the one with the least credentials, am hosting it.

Good thing I live for irony! I have several weeks’ worth of agendas ready and another box of Brownie mix ready to whip up.

Monday, April 4, 2011

No Girls Allowed!

It started with trees. Family trees, to be specific.

I was talking with my Freshmen about how, in America, families are so disparate that family records are kept in various ways, most commonly on Family Trees. See, in America, the nuclear family – Mom, Dad, siblings – does not necessarily live around their extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Sometimes, people do not know their extended family. We have family reunions to get everyone, or at least everyone who can attend, in one place for one weekend a year or every few years.

Some families never have reunions. My family is such a one: my children barely know a quarter of their cousins, let alone any of their aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. They have only met their paternal grandparents a handful of times, and their maternal grandfather three times. They have never met my mother.

I contend that heritage is critically important. Not just for practical reasons like medical history or vital statistics, but also for a sense of continuity and belonging. I have learned the hard way how important it is to have such feelings; they anchor one into society and give one a sense of stability and equality among their peers.

I grew up without family. I was not an orphan, but my mother specialized in keeping my sibs and me far away from extended family. Thus I did not know I had a wealth of relatives in France, and I barely knew any of my relatives in America. It took me years as an adult to find and meet everyone. Well, not quite everyone, but at least now I know I have a wealth of family on both sides of the ocean.

In China, there is no such thing as a distinction between nuclear and extended family. EVERYONE is family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… everyone is simply called family. There is no need for reunions here because everyone gets together every year, several times per year. There is no need for family trees because family tradition and history is orally passed down from generation to generation. At Spring Festival, Qing Ming, National Holidays and weddings, the whole family tells stories, and sometimes legends of their ancestors.

No wonder I was met with glazed eyes and blank stares when I introduced the concept of family trees! It seems the idea that family would not be together is inconceivable to the Chinese.

But, as I pointed out to these kids, when they graduate they may or may not return home. As with so many other things in China, the trend is now for families to break up. Grown children are moving permanently away from the villages and to the cities where they can make money. Some do not go home at all anymore. They marry someone they met in the City and make their life in the concrete jungles. Oral traditions are fading. In just a few years, the Chinese will also need to have family reunions and record family ties on trees.

For this discussion, I started by showing the class some pictures of my kids and grandkids. I then moved on to the concept of nuclear versus extended family, after which I talked about family trees. I showed the kids examples of family trees, downloaded from the Web. Finally I launched into my ‘As I understand Chinese culture…’ segment.

When making cultural comparisons for my students, I preface my statements with ‘As I understand Chinese culture…’, and usually I am right when I bring up Chinese cultural tidbits. I do my research before I stand in front of my students and tell them about their culture; I’d be a fool not to. However, this time, it seems I was wrong! Some families do keep written records; they are called family books, or scrolls.

Both Mandy and Yolanda averred that their family does maintain a family book. Their fathers currently have custody of it and it is in fact a revered family document, going back centuries. However, neither Yolanda nor Mandy are listed in the books of their respective families. They will be, once they marry. Correction: they will not be; their husbands will be.

WAIT A MINUTE! By social decree you are your parents’ only child, yet you are NOT listed in the family book?

That is right, they affirmed. Once they marry, their husbands will be listed in the family book. Their name will never be entered into this document. Further, if they give birth to a baby girl, their daughter will also not have a place in the family book.

My mind was effectively blown. I have long known that this is a patriarchal society and I have long known that sons are revered and daughters are tolerated, at best. A necessary evil, needed primarily to propagate the species. But to not record a daughter’s existence in the family annals, when that girl-child is the only child a couple is legally allowed to produce?

I simply could not get my mind around it. I asked Mandy and Yolanda what their feelings are about that. They both said that they accept and understand tradition, and that it does not matter to them that their name is not recorded because they know that their parents love them as much as they would love a son. I was still spluttering in outrage, trying to comprehend how such inequity could be considered tolerable.

I literally had to stop, get up and pace around in order to accept this blatant gender discrimination. As Mandy and Yolanda continued to expound on how their family scrolls record the lives of their family, I was forced to put my own views and feelings aside and look at the issue from their perspective. THEY were the victims of discrimination, not I. THEIR names will never be recorded for posterity. THEY accept the situation… why can’t I?

I have a finely attuned sense of discrimination. When I see an instance of such, especially as blatant as this one, my hackles rise and I am ready to fight for equality… or incite the victims of such perceived inequity to do so.

And that is the problem. I perceived the situation as inequitable, but they are perfectly accepting of such. I was outraged and wanted to transfer my outrage to them, so that they can fight to change tradition and become legitimally recorded members of their family. It took me a few minutes of pacing and reasoning to accept that this is not my fight. It took me a few minutes to step outside of myself and see things from their perspective.

Their perspective is so healthy. They don’t care if their name is recorded for posterity: they know they exist, and they know they are loved. It does not matter to them that tradition denies their existence and forbids the recording of such; their parents will never forget their beloved daughter. And, years from now, when the family scroll is examined and their husbands’ names come up, Yolanda and Mandy will be remembered as the one who brought those men into the family. How balanced and healthy!

I commended them for their outlook. Mandy and Yolanda are stronger women than I am. I would never accept such disparity. I would never develop such a healthy view of the situation because I would be consumed with outrage and jealousy. I would put all of my effort into changing things to the way I believe they should be, and if things did not change, I would walk away. And then, I would truly be an outcast: not recorded in the family scroll and not remembered favorably, if at all. It seems, my students taught me more than just Chinese culture that day.

To finish the lesson, we created a family tree in class. Everybody got to put their name on the tree, especially the girls. They really enjoyed being legitimized, if only in class.

Who knows: maybe this tradition will change one day, and Chinese families will see baby girls recorded on family scrolls with the same esteem that baby boys are recorded. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is one thing that will never change.

Ching Ming

Qing Ming (see pronunciation in title) is upon us. That is the day that Chinese everywhere visit the tombs of their ancestors, as I alluded to in How I Spent My Chinese New Year and Death Rites. Qing Ming is the day when the living go to the dead to pay their respects, as opposed to the rest of the celebrations throughout the year, where the dead are remembered at the place where the living reside.

Qing Ming, called the Tomb Sweeping Holiday, calls for family to go to the graveyard where ancestors lie, and clean off the tombs. After a family visit, fresh paper flowers adorn the graves and the stones are cleaned of any debris or damage, such as lichen or moss that might have grown there. While gathered around the graves, family legends are recounted and new family members, if any, are introduced. As with any other celebration, paper money is burned as an offering to ancestors so that they might have enough spending money in the afterlife. Afterward, families might go to temples and pray for their loved ones. Of course, food is a big part of this celebration, but there are no distinctive foods that are served exclusively for Qing Ming, as opposed to other celebrations like Spring Festival or Dragon Boat Festival.

The West’s equivalent celebration is All Saints’ Day, the day after Halloween. It is primarily a Catholic holiday mostly celebrated in Europe, although people of all faiths and ethnicities visit their deceased and clean off the graves. In the States people tend to do that at any time during the year, especially on Memorial Day, but not necessarily on November 1st. All Saints’ Day/Memorial Day is considered a minor holiday. Generally, no special rituals are observed and no special foods are served. Usually the family does not convene for All Saints’ Day/Memorial Day, preferring the warmth and bluster of summer months for their gatherings.

Qing Ming is not a momentous celebration in China, either. The actual day of Qing Ming this year is April 5th. Although it is marked with certain rituals it is considered a minimal festival here as well. Most often, people who work or study away from their hometown will not travel home for this occasion. Even though classes have been rescheduled to offer the students and faculty the opportunity for observation and travel should they so desire, most of my students will remain on campus instead of boarding trains and buses for this three-day celebration.

As I enjoy a few extra days off, I ponder Qing Ming. The dead are a part of life in China, remembered in countless ways, not the least being at regular holidays and when naming new family members. It would seem redundant to have a day specifically to remember ancestors but all of the Chinese I’ve posed that hypothesis to counter it with: “It would be disrespectful to not visit the dead. Always inviting them to your home and not going to them would show them that you are not willing to meet them on their ground.” A strange, but I suppose a valid philosophy.

What about the dead in the Yangtze River basin? The towns near the Three Gorges Dam, where forced evacuations caused families to abandon land and homes that have been in their family for generations? Entire villages are now under water and ancestral homes exist no more. What about those exiled from Tibet? How do those families return to their dead and sweep their tombs?

They don’t. Those families have new tombs, where their ancestors’ remains may or may not lie. It is a symbolic tomb or mausoleum that they visit, so that they at least appear to meet their dead halfway.

What about families near or from the Gobi Desert who, because of extreme drought conditions have fled their family homesteads and now live in the agriculturally richer, more profitable Southern regions? Do they go back and sweep tombs?

No. Those tombs have long eroded into dust. The harsh winds and fine, gritty sand have reduced any monuments to unrecognizable mounds. From the accounting Gloria, one of my students from that region gave, the dead are remembered where the living dwell, even at Qing Ming.

Interestingly enough, if a family purchases a plot to inter their dead, they only have access to it for about twenty years. There are simply too many people and too little space for each deceased person to occupy a grave for all eternity. Also, there is an edict of cremation nationwide because of the age-old tradition of burying family members in the fields they worked all of their lives, as I alluded to in the Death Rites post. Apparently the business of commemorating a box of ashes only lasts twenty years before the next resident box of ashes takes that space.

I can see where that would make for a lot of confusion, come Qing Ming time. Imagine going to where you know your father or grandfather is interred, the same plot you went to last year, only to find it is now occupied and worshipped by another family. How would you feel? I do not know of anyone in China that has had to muddle through such a situation, but the news outlets report outrage on the part of citizens who expected to have that piece of land in their family for generations. I can imagine!

Even though I am in China, and Qing Ming is nowhere near All Saints’ Day as far as the calendar is concerned, I think of my family now. All of the deceased, on both sides of the Atlantic. My grandparents, whom I have never met. My parents, buried thousands of miles apart, whose graves I have never visited. Scores of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews whose time had come, all interred and commemorated and resting eternally under heavy slabs of stone, with markers that bear their name. At least, their bones rest there.

I prefer to think of my ancestors as roaming free, wondering why they have no money to spend. Maybe I am more Chinese than I thought I was! I don’t think I’m ready to burn paper money for them yet, but burning incense is not such a stretch.

I wish your ancestors and mine a peaceful rest on this Qing Ming.


Qi (see pronunciation above), is the life force that moves us all. Qi inhabits everything from bodies to boulders, lives in the air and underwater, makes leaves green and flowers bloom. Without Qi, there is no life.

The Chinese believe that Qi flows uninterrupted through the body, from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet. Any blockage of Qi flow results in sickness of the body, where the Qi is deterred from its natural path.

On a larger scale, Qi flow in nature and spaces is as important as through the body. The four Earthly elements – Earth, Fire, Wind and Water, govern this type of Qi. Earth, with its magnetic core, attracts; fire destroys, water purifies and wind cleanses. This concept is addressed by the use of Feng Shui – literally Wind and Water, with ‘feng’ being wind and ‘shui’ being water. Any blockage of energy flow through a space results in misfortune and poor deeds for the dwellers of that space. That is why some people sometimes get ‘good vibes’ or ‘bad vibes’ when they go places.

Of late, people have gotten rich from Feng Shui consultations. Before the economic meltdown, that is. Not sure how feng shui practitioners are faring nowadays.

George Lucas ran away with the idea and underscored the concept of Qi perfectly in Star Wars. Who doesn’t remember “Let the Force be with you”? As I understand it, that ‘force’ is Qi, or the Tao. Did he do so purposely and knowingly, or did it just come to him with no conscious connection whatsoever to the mystical?

There are many references to ‘The Force’, A.K.A. Qi throughout English literature. Lewis Carroll expounded on the principles of Qi in the Alice in Wonderland series. A. A. Milne unwittingly (or knowingly?) exposed the West to the concept of the Tao through his character Winnie the Pooh. Everyone’s favorite bear, along with his cohorts, Tigger, Piglet and Eyeore used complex philosophical ideas as a basis for their various stories and adventures. There is even a book out called The Tao of Pooh, written by Benjamin Hoff. Just in case you need Winnie the Pooh’s and the 100-Acre Wood’s philosophies spelled out for you.

References to Qi are not limited to movies and literature, although the references in those media are countless. There are also allusions to Qi in music: the group Earth, Wind and Fire; the song Silent Lucidity by Queensryche and more than one song by Dave Matthews Band… just for example.

Massage, acupressure and acupuncture are yet other manifestations of Qi. The philosophy is that, if energy flow through the body is blocked, massage will encourage it to resume along its rightful path. If you have ever had a massage, you might have noticed how the masseuse works from your torso to your extremities, and makes motions as though to pull strings out of your fingertips and toes. You may even have felt as though strings were being pulled out of your fingertips and toes. Those are allegedly trails of energy that the masseuse is encouraging to flow. And, doesn’t a good masseuse encourage you to relax and drink plenty of water after a massage? Of course! That would be to encourage freshly revived energy to keep flowing.

Acupressure encourages the suppression of blockage in your body so that Qi can overwhelm it and acupuncture will redirect Qi flow around the blockage until that blockage resolves and heals itself.

I am a firm believer in the concepts of Qi and Feng Shui. Before I actively studied such ideas I instinctively kept my dwelling’s spaces clear for proper energy flow. I meditated and have maintained good posture all of my life. I tried to keep a peaceful mindset… but that is a bit difficult when you live a troubled life.

When I did start studying these concepts in college, it was not actually Qi and Feng Shui that I studied but the Tao, in both my Philosophy and World Religion classes. The Tao is the life force that moves everything. It inhabits everything, like God but, unlike God, it is not a thinking and sentient entity, and does not care specifically about people.

I have personal reason to be a firm believer in these concepts. After suffering from unendurable back pain since an industrial accident years ago, and incapacitating bouts of plantar fasciitis in my left foot, I decided to try acupuncture. That was another one of those times where I had one of those epiphanies, like I did when my mind suddenly dredged up ‘anaphylactic shock’ while I was gasping for breath at 2AM (see Plain Stir entry). Because I’ve been having them for so long, I have come to trust those intuitive leaps so I sought out the ministrations of an acupuncturist while still living Stateside.

Lo and behold! After a mere seven sessions, both my back and my foot were cured! Actually, after the first session I could bend over and touch my toes without lower back pain and I could walk normally. The other six sessions were perhaps actually corrective in nature and only the first session redirected energy flow.

I don’t know exactly how it works, but it works. I was completely sold on acupuncture after feeling the effects of it on my foot and back. When I saw that acupuncture could also cure thyroid disease, I worked with my acupuncturist to cure that problem. I had suffered from a low thyroid condition for years, popping a pill every day and submitting to blood tests every 3 months to make sure my hormone levels stayed where they are supposed to.

Again success! Only 12 sessions and I was done taking pills! Presumably, some sort of past emotional trauma blocked energy flow at my throat, affecting my thyroid. The needles, inserted at the crown of my head, and in my belly and calves directed energy flow. The needles in my ears stimulated endocrine activity.

Believe? Don’t believe? Entirely your choice. I believe, because experience and study show me it is a concept worth believing in. Not only my personal experiences, but 5,000 years of continuous civilization – as long as Chinese society has been around… surely they know something of healing and philosophy, right?

Of course, the thought of acupuncture crossed my mind when I was so sick a few weeks back. Surely something was blocking my Qi and making me so ill! While I pondered how to find an acupuncturist and, once I did, how I would make him/her understand what was wrong with me, my students and friends were all suggesting that I drink more hot water. As you know from reading that entry (see ‘Drink More Hot Water’) I got very aggravated with that suggestion, not understanding how hot water was going to help cure me.

A few days ago, Sam finally told me why everyone from the campus doctor to the pharmacist down the road kept pouring hot water down my throat – figuratively, of course. Presumably, hot water helps clear energy pathways within the body and allows proper Qi flow. If I am sick, hot water will help clear the problem and allow my Qi to flow unimpeded again.

And now you know why I write of this topic. I did not want you to wonder why everyone and their uncle thought hot water was the cure-all for anything any longer than you had to.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Today is April Fools’ Day. In China and in America, the gags roll on. Fortunately I had my students to remind me of this momentous occasion; otherwise I might have let a day of legal pranking go by unobserved!

I love a good joke, don’t you? Even if it is at my expense: there is nothing richer than the laughter you can direct at yourself.

Sadly, no one is sure of the genesis of this great, fun day. Some say it is to honor court jesters of yore, others believe that, once, a jester took a monarch to task. The monarch in question retaliated by making the jester king for a day. The jester got the best of him: he proclaimed that ‘his’ day of being king should be forevermore the day when fools get to be kings. It just so happened that the day in question was April the 1st. I tend to believe the latter explanation.

In China, April Fools’ Day is no less an occasion than in America. However, the jokes are not very sophisticated, and they are more good-natured than mean-spirited or goofy. They run along the lines of: ‘Hey, I just saw you walk by. Where are you headed?’, delivered by text message.

As it turns out, that was my first prank today. It really wasn’t funny because I did have an errand to run early this morning and ducked out of the house at 7AM, before anyone was really moving about on campus. I hadn’t washed my hair (but I did comb it), hadn’t put on any makeup and did not bother with ‘outside’ clothes. When Yolanda, one of my students sent me a text message that she saw me, I was horrified! I guess, in retrospect, it was pretty funny. Especially because Yolanda did not know that I had left the house on this emergency errand in such disarray. I supposed she and I are even, having double-pranked one another.

Yolanda set the tone for the day. I decided that, if I’m going to get pranked, I’m going to do some pranking myself. I sent all of my students, as well as Sam and Victor a text message saying that I just received an emergency phone call from the States and I must return home immediately. Oh, the flood of messages I got back! They ranged from concern for my situation to asking what they could do to help. Victor said he also had a situation he must return home to manage. Sam started sweating bullets, and that’s not good because guns are not legal in China. It appears everyone laughed when I sent them the ‘Gotcha!’ message.

I then undertook to prank all of my Stateside contacts. I sent out an email saying that my time in China has come to an end due to the political climate, tensions on campus and my ongoing health concerns. I’ve already gotten a few messages back from that email. Suzanne knew I would be contacting her today – she remembers me best as the jokester in her life. Others thought I was serious because of the way I phrased the email. That is, they thought I was serious all the way up till they read the postscript: Happy April Fools’ Day!

My email prank to my Stateside friends and my text message prank to my Chinese friends pales in comparison to this next…

The best prank I fell victim to today: Toothpaste oreos.

One of my students/friend, Jinkey, pried a few oreos apart and put minty toothpaste between the cookies, and then put them back in the package. She offered me a cookie and, delighted - oreos are my favorite, don’t you know! I was just about to pop one in my mouth and she shrieked, scaring me half to death! And then, she took my oreo away...

As you might guess, I will fight for oreos, and her snatching mine out of my hand... well that was a declaration of WAR! Until she showed me the toothpaste.

I thought she was just offering me minty oreos. She is a clever girl. She wins the prize for best prank today!

I hope you get pranked with happy, funny, memorable, non-serious gags. Just be glad I’m not in your immediate vicinity.

P.S.: due to my earlier gag on my students, I felt the need to hide under my bed the rest of the day to avoid any further pranks my students might pull on me. I crawled out from under just to write this entry. I hope you appreciate it!

China’s Take on Japan’s Tragedy

As I wrote in It Is Raining, I have been remiss in writing about the tragedy in Japan. Now is the time to do so.

First, my personal feelings: I cannot imagine how the Japanese must have felt to first feel the Earth shake beneath their feet and then to see that tidal wave crash into their wrecked land. The horror and devastation they must have felt! So many dead! My heart reaches to them. And now, the ongoing struggle to contain and control nuclear fallout of the reactor affected by the earthquake. In a race against time, their best engineers struggle to avert yet another catastrophe. The world holds its collective breath, all while countries send rescue units and material aid.

The Japanese are fatalists. They are deeply philosophical. And, for being such a modern, progressive society, they are a deeply religious people – unlike the most advanced societies in the West who, statistically, are turning their back on their religious roots.

The Japanese remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki very well. Not from the point of view of destruction but from having to rebuild their country. From being hungry and dirty and sick and cold and tired, with no safe place to lay their head. And they educate their young so that that dark time in their history is not forgotten. They accept responsibility for their part in bringing about the destruction of their country. That is another amazing facet of the Japanese culture: being objective, even when it does not serve their interests.

I have been keeping a close eye on the news broadcasts here in China. Many Chinese are worried about radiation fallout and are sweeping the grocery store shelves clean of salt, thinking that it will prevent or counter radiation poisoning. There is some truth to that, considering processed salt is enriched with iodine, but the iodine content of salt is too low to do any real good where radiation poisoning is concerned. Besides, ingesting massive amounts of salt is more dangerous to the cardiovascular system than the benefits it could give with regard to radiation poisoning.

The news here is necessarily neutral. In China, the newscasters do not report tragedies with a gleam in their eye and a bloodlust in their voice. They tend to be stoic in their composure and their tone of voice is even and well modulated, no matter what they are reporting on. To get the real news, I hit the streets. So, I asked the students and my Chinese friends what the general sentiment is with regard to Japan.

To say I was surprised by the answer is to understate my reaction. In truth, I never expected the Chinese sentiment about Japan’s triple tragedy to be so vengeful.

Although overall, the Chinese are sympathetic, and the Chinese government has sent their rescue team to Japan, the general sentiment is: “Serves them right. Divine retribution for what they’ve done to us.”

There is a long-standing rivalry between China and Japan. And when I say ‘long-standing’, I mean millennia-long. Although China was the first established society in this part of the world, and the first people with a formed language, it was only an oral language – not a written one. When Japanese soldiers came over some 4,000+ years ago, they took China’s language back to Japan with them and assigned ideograms to each sound. Thus Japan was the first to have a written language, and it came from China’s culture.

It goes on: the tea ceremony, now so famous in Japan, came from China. The royal hierarchy, originally Chinese, was copied in Japan. Agricultural methods, upon which the Chinese relied on for centuries before Japan paid their visit, were emulated by the Japanese and made Japan a successful agricultural society.

All of this is small potatoes. The one incident that makes the Chinese so bitter and vengeful against Japan happened last century: the rape of Nanking. In 1937, Japan cut a bloody path through China during the Sino-Japanese war. On the way through and up North, they stopped long enough to devastate the then-capital city, now known as Nanjing. It was a six-week ordeal: women raped and killed, babies murdered, men made to witness the humiliation before they met with their death. If you are unfamiliar with this event in history, an excellent biopic of it is called Don’t Cry, Nanking.

Is the Chinese mindset fair, or even reasonable? Objectively, I would say ‘No’. But there is no quelling a passion that runs that deep. I suppose, as long as the Chinese have sent their rescue team over and are doing what they can to help, it doesn’t matter what the sentiment is. What do you think?

I reflect on why I write about this, weeks after the actual events in Japan. Something stayed my hand even though this topic has been on my mind to write about since news of Japan’s tragedy first hit the airwaves. Today, I learned why I waited so long.

I read an article on Yahoo news about a British former POW who, while a prisoner, snuck into Auschwitz twice to personally witness the conditions there. He had heard tales of the atrocities and wanted to see for himself, so that he could accurately report them upon his release. You can read this article here: I was shocked to read many of the reader comments that said the Holocaust never happened. Several made ethnic slurs against the Jews. Anyone who made positive comments about this Vet’s courage, and about how this story is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago were slammed and demeaned, myself included.

If the Japanese make it a point to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and have built a successful, progressive society since then all while accepting culpability for their past actions, and the Chinese can send aid to their arch-rival while their grief over Japan’s doings is still so raw, how is it that Americans responding to that news article deny that the Holocaust ever happened and they are still as racist and narrow-minded as they are? What does that mean for the future of America, and for the world?