Thursday, May 26, 2011

Green Street

Have you ever heard the song Grey Street by Dave Matthews Band? It is a song about a woman with an unspecified mental disorder – possibly schizophrenia, who knows there is something fundamentally wrong with her, but she cannot bring color to her world and everything is grey. She lives on Grey Street. Very profound, especially in this day and age where music seems mostly concentrated on romance or money.

This entry is not about Grey Street but about Green Street. How does one go to Green Street? I shall direct you.

A few days after the police shooed all of the vendors off The Street (see Ambulant Vendors entry), a crew of about 30 workmen came and dug up bricks out of the recently laid sidewalk. By recently laid I mean that, when I first got here last August road crews were pouring concrete for the road and paving the sidewalk with bricks. What was The Street like before I got here? I would like to know. Possibly it was just a dirt road with no sidewalk at all. The point is, The Street such as I know it is relatively new. And now they’re tearing it up again.

At approximately 5 meter intervals these crews are now removing bricks and digging up one-meter square holes. They are not very deep. What could they possibly be for?

For two weeks we all wondered why we had these holes in the sidewalk, while the bricks rested, piled up neatly nearby. Today, upon receiving the news that I would be done teaching earlier than anticipated and going through my little bout of panic (see previous entry), and then, resolving to ramble around China for a few weeks before flying back to the States, I decided to carry on with my plans of going to Hanyang for the afternoon. I brewed my tea, packed my bag – my faithful companion that always contains my camera as well as personal effects like my phone and my wallet, and set off.

My heart was light and my mind was whirling over the possibilities my extra bounty of time would afford me. I felt really good for the first time in a long time, the weather was pleasant for the first time all week… All conditions were perfect to stop me in my tracks as soon as I hit The Street.

They were planting trees! Every 5 meters there was a hole in the sidewalk and every 5 meters there was a tree being planted!

Oh! How lovely! Delightful! Until now The Street had no trees on it; it is just a short stretch to the main road but is not necessarily attractive: businesses flanking both sides of the thoroughfare and virtually new sidewalk and road. Now there are trees! The Street is green!

Just think of what that means: birds might nest and welcome us with their song. The Street will be shaded during the hot summer months and the trees will provide somewhat of a wind break in winter. Instead of merely being a street it will be a boulevard, fit for strolling. As the trees are already leafing they will work their photosynthesis magic and help clean the air. Appealing to the eye, these trees will lend counterpoint to the various colored facades of the businesses.

With a silly grin plastered on my face I walked up The Street, watching the crews first cut the trees loose from their binding and then pruning them before planting the bulbous roots and scooping and packing dirt around them. Small children ran and snagged the pruned branches and paraded on the sidewalk, waving their green trophies. Grandparents beamed at them indulgently and some even joined them in song or encouraged them to wave their branches back and forth in ever wider arcs.

Life on The Street. And so it goes, and will continue to go, whether there are bricks on the sidewalk or whether there are trees. Whether I am here to behold it or not. Part of the timelessness of China, and The Street is a perfect example of such. Grandparents will indulge their grandchildren, children will amuse themselves, grow up and leave, the trees will grow and provide their shade…

What will The Street look like when I come back in August?

The construction on the main road is nearly complete. Maybe the dust will not be quite so heavy when I come back in the fall. Maybe the trees will have grown a bit. Those grandchildren will have grown and lost teeth and grown new ones. Vendors will have closed up shop, lost their license and been replaced by new shopkeepers, full of hope for heavy patronage when the students return. Will anyone remember the tall, blond foreigner?

My heart took a picture. This might be the last time I see The Street in just this way.

Early Dismissal

The closer it gets to July 10th, the date that marks the end of my teaching obligation, the more I am fine-tuning my plans for travel. Should I fly straight out Tian He airport – the airport in Wuhan, or should I take a train ride to one of the port cities like Shanghai or Beijing and then hop on a flight once there? I’m certain that opting for the latter would reduce my airfare cost substantially however, the idea of being in the air for longer than the nineteen hours needed to reach the States sends shivers up my spine. On the other hand, wrangling my luggage through train stations and across a major city to the airport also leaves me cold. Especially seeing as I will be lugging my suitcase and laptop case for the next two months while I travel across America. Which is better (or worse): flying for longer than necessary or pulling suitcases for longer than necessary?

And that is just one aspect of consideration for this long sabbatical from my job. Budgeting, duration of stay in each place, food, accommodations… like a carousel these thoughts prance in my head, but instead of cheerful calliope music these horses with their maniacal grins and flyaway manes go round and round accompanied by a dirge. I don’t have any answers, let alone a plane ticket.

Again the thought crosses my mind that I’m not much of a carefree vagabond. A vagabond who likes things planned out in advance? Really?

As though things were not bad enough with my turgid carousel of thoughts, Sam informed me today that my teaching obligation actually ends on the week of June 18th, as soon as I administer Final Exams to my students and hand in their grade sheets. Why, that’s nearly a month earlier than I had been planning on!

The horses just fell off the merry-go-round and the music screeched to a halt. All I hear is feedback whine, and it is turned up high. Now what do I do?

More time in the States, or kick around China for a while?

People who are looking forward to my arrival in the States might not be able to put me up for longer than a few days and, quite frankly I wouldn’t want to impose. Especially with not having my own transportation, I would become a bigger burden than I want to be. Life is more expensive in America than China, so I might spend more money than I had planned on. On the other hand I would be around English speakers and I probably wouldn’t starve for company. I would be able to navigate America more easily than China. Maybe.

I could borrow my son’s camping gear and head north, up the coast of California and camp out in Redwood National Park, and then go into Oregon, maybe even as far as Washington State. Does Amtrak also head east into Wyoming? With all this extra time, there is no end to what I could do, and if I have a pied-a-terre somewhere, so that I don’t have to lug my suitcases around like a turtle carries its home, the possibilities are endless.

On the other hand, this extra time gives me a chance to go around China for a while and visit cities that I’ve never been to: Shanghai – to see more than the train station I was stranded in when I first came here, or maybe some inner-country cities like Nanjing. I would also like to go to Qingdao, a beautiful sea-side city that I’ve only visited in the movies. I can visit some friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, like Tang Guo Ming, who lives very far north, in Shenyang. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to go back to Xi’an for a day or two either. And Chongqing, the city with the 140 meter tall Buddha statue is close to Xi’an.

Besides, in Xi’an I know someone who works in the travel industry who can help me arrange my flights to and from America.

After a brief time of confusion and non-plussedness, I decided that this would be a great time to vagabond around China for a few weeks. Why not go to Nanjing, Chongqing and Qingdao? Isn’t that why I decided to become a vagabond anyway? Wouldn’t it be cool to blog about some real vagabonding in this vagabond blog?

So I’m done teaching on the week of June 18th. It is not the end of the world. I’ll just put drop cloths on my furniture, pack my bedding away, clean out my fridge and get Julia and Chris, a husband and wife set of teachers that work on this campus to babysit my plant for the summer. I’ll pack my suitcase with the gifts I have for everyone Stateside and the minimal clothing I’ll need to vagabond around with: two pair of jeans, a couple of capris, two pair of shoes, three shirts and personal hygiene stuff. Should make for a fairly light suitcase.

I’ve decided I will take my faithful laptop with me after all. Remember, in the Culture Shock entry I was debating whether to bring it or not? Well… if I don’t take it with me, how can I write these blog entries and stay in touch with everyone? And, now that I will actually be vagabonding, it would be a good time to blog, wouldn’t it?

I‘m starting to get excited about this…

Ambulant Vendors

Here lately The Street has been filling up with vendors of all types that sell all kinds of things: clothing, jewelry, socks and shoe inserts, fruits and vegetables; everything from little knickknacks to computer accessories to bread. They crowd the sidewalk and the street, making it nearly impassable at its narrowest point. They reserve their place by throwing down tarps or blocking off a section of sidewalk or road with bricks and boards. Come sundown, just as the students are going out strolling these vendors set up shop and start hawking their wares. Their cries and the vigorous bartering that ensues lend a human counterpoint to the cars that honk their horns, hoping to drive past and get home.

This is part of the charm and magic of living in China. It simply wouldn’t be China if there were no vendors at every turn of the road. Quite frankly I have missed this scene because, until recently, the only ‘official’ night market in Wuhan was a 2 hour bus ride away. That night market is so crowded and so far from campus that I’ve only been there once. It is a regimented affair with official stalls set up and no one squatting on the ground with their goods spread out on a tarp. Unlike the casual vendors who just find a street corner and throw their tarps down to lay out their ‘store’, the night market was not a delightful experience for me. However, I find these smaller trade areas are quite charming and a lot of fun. The Street, being a mere 1/4 mile long does not afford a lot of room for such vendors to set up shop. Also, construction on the main road kind of kept our area isolated and vendors did not like to head this way for such a limited market – college students and the small neighborhood behind campus.

As the school year wore on more and more vendors set up shop. The more the weather warmed up the more vendors found their way to The Street. Is there some sort of Vendor Underground Network where untapped markets are communicated and vendors are dispatched to fill the sidewalks? Is this a coordinated effort on the part of Trinket Sellers LLC where, in their office there is a huge map of the city with red flags denoting where vendors are already deployed and potential new markets are marked with blue flags? It is hard to believe that this sidewalk filling activity is done independently, by vendors who have no network or communication at all with each other. I wonder if there is a periodic vendor convention where such information is passed on.

One could liken the vendors to flies. How do flies know where to go and end up there en masse? I think maybe even scientists do not have the answer to that question. If flies have a sense about where to go for a meal, couldn’t one say that vendors also have such a sense that communicates an available stretch of sidewalk to crowd on and sell? OK, well maybe the ‘fly’ analogy is not flattering but it certainly is apt.

Please note that these vendors are different from the ones that line Snack Street, which is located in the alley behind campus. The Snack Street vendors have paid a licensing fee for permission to stand in the alley and sell their food, and they pay a monthly maintenance fee for permission to keep doing so. You could say that they are legitimate vendors renting their little part of Snack Street, as opposed to the ones who throw tarps down and lay their goods out after sundown.

I had gotten used to the vendors lining The Street starting dusk and shouting and crying late into the night. After all, this is their livelihood: if they do not sell, they do not eat, so they shout and barter vigorously. I actually found it convenient to be able to buy fruit and veggies from them on the way home rather than stopping at the farmers’ market up the road. Usually these vendors’ goods were a bit cheaper than at the farmers’ market. Bartering was certainly more fun with them; most had never dealt with a foreigner before. I got a lot of good deals from these vendors.

One day, I hit The Street to go buy a roast chicken. I do not like to cook after my long day of teaching; a nice roast chicken and baked potato or rice and salad makes a nice, effortless meal on such days. I buy the chicken and provide the rice or potato and salad. Imagine my surprise to see The Street flooded with police shooing the vendors away. Most had already marked their area and were squatting in anticipation of nightfall, although they had not unfolded their tarps or unpacked their goods yet. From body language and gestures – and the outraged tone of the vendors I guessed that the vendors were being shooed away like so many flies.

Why were the police cracking down on the vendors all of a sudden? Has someone complained? Does a contingent of policemen live in the neighborhood behind campus and got fed up with having The Street blocked every night when they came home?

Just like I don’t know how illegal street vendors know where to set up shop, I couldn’t begin to tell you how the police knew that The Street was suddenly a haven for such vendors. I can tell you that The Street is now much quieter and a lot less fun to walk come sundown. I miss all of the activity and I’m sure the students do too.

The vendors got the last laugh though. Instead of throwing down a tarp to set up shop they now conduct business from the back of their bikes or scooters, with the more affluent ones having a tricycle bed to work off of. They are now ambulant, so that all they have to do is mount up and ride away ahead of the police. They must have a lookout posted somewhere.

I’m glad they’re back, if only in limited numbers.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I’m Going to be Arrested!

With a mere 6 weeks left to teach and about 7 weeks left to live in my beloved China, my thoughts are turning more and more to my visit in the States. I have to admit: as much as I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, there is a bit of panic induced by thoughts of being stateside.

I don’t know how to be American anymore! From the start I’ve felt so at home here that instances of culture shock were rare phenomena. Looking out the bus window and seeing Chinese characters on street signs and shop advertisements served only to indicate that I had finally arrived to where I’ve wanted to be all along. Eating with chopsticks is now so commonplace that a fork and knife feel funny in my hands. I know; I’ve tried them recently.

Pressing close to strangers does not bring on blushes. Wrangling onto public transportation is part of my exercise regimen, as is walking nearly everywhere, standing for long periods of time and carrying my groceries. Holding a young girl’s hand while walking is a pleasurable activity, not unnatural at all. Taking another woman’s arm is so commonplace I don’t even think about it anymore. Seeing boys go about arm in arm is a matter of course. Ditto for men with exposed bellies and women wearing negligees out in public. By the way: men wear their pajamas out in public too. And not just around their neighborhood, they jump on their scooter and drive across town in pajamas.

Driving! How am I ever going to get used to people staying in their lane and obeying the speed limit and not honking their horn and not jockeying for most advantageous position? What is that funny, red and white, 8-sided sign with that word ‘STOP’ on it? What does it mean? What do you mean, jaywalking is a crime? How am I going to get used to using crosswalks instead of challenging oncoming traffic and double decker buses? Where will I find any double decker buses, anyway?

And what about when I stoop down to talk to and play with a stranger’s child? Somebody is going to think I’m trying to kidnap their baby and scream for the law! I’ll have to run, with cops in hot pursuit down a side street where I must first obey that stop sign! I’ll never get away!

I’m going to be arrested if, in America, I practice some of the behaviors that are so commonplace here.

At the very least, I’m going to be looked at funny for offering everybody cigarettes. Here, that is considered an icebreaker; a way to make friends and a way to cement friendships. In America I might get thrown out of places for doing that, especially in California. Heaven forbid I do it to any of the many cops I anticipate will be arresting me this summer!

“No officer! I’m NOT trying to bribe you! It is custom in my country!”

“You have an American passport. That means America is your country.”

“Oh, officer! I’m so confused!”

And I will be, too.

When I board that first Greyhound out of San Diego I’ll get pulled off the bus for shoving my way onto it. I’ll have to walk to Denver. Maybe without my luggage.

Men in white coats are going to approach me slowly in McDonald’s because I’m eating my french fries with disposable chopsticks that I pulled out of my luggage.

I’ll try to lay off the chopsticks at McDonald’s, but if, after my repeated calls for ‘fuwuyuan! – waitress!’ brings no chopsticks I’ll HAVE to get a set out of my bag. Of course, I might get thrown out of the restaurant for shouting ‘fuwuyuan’ to begin with, especially if I’m in the South. They might think I’m speaking in tongues, or, at the very least that I suffer from a strange variation of Tourette’s Syndrome. Either way, here come the mental health professionals! Or a charge of disturbing the peace.

If I manage to evade the doctors and/or policemen, night patrolmen are going to detain me because I’m spray-painting ‘Welcome to our Establishment’ in Chinese all over the doorways in the business part of town. I might be able to stop myself before attempting to train cats to wave though.

Here it is common to have a huge banner, greeting customers by telling them ‘Welcome to our Establishment’. The sentiment is reinforced by a golden ceramic kitty waving its paw, inviting you to come in. I’ll stop at the kitties, but there is no guarantee that I won’t welcome people to establishments. That is too quick and easy to do, and it seems so polite, don’t you think?

And playing! The word ‘wan 玩’ – to play, is used in so many contexts over here! One invites adults over to play, or out to play. It sounds nasty but it only means ‘let us go hang out somewhere’! Heaven forbid if I invite a child over to play; I’ll be called lewd and obscene names and get a referral to a psychiatrist! Or arrested for allegedly attempting to harm a minor.

What about calling ‘em like I see ‘em? Here it is common to point, stare and openly comment on appearances, as you well know from all of my talking about having been designated ‘foreigner’, ‘tall’, ‘big-nose’ and the like. What if, while in Walmart or out and about, I start pointing my finger and saying ‘Fatty!’ or ‘You’re Black!’ or ‘You’re a badly behaved child!’ Or, if someone starts pummeling the tar out of me for making such comments and I start screaming ‘I didn’t know you would understand me!’ At the very least I could end up with an emergency room bill to pay that I won’t have the money for. I’ll have to go to jail for being destitute. If I don’t go to jail for causing a disturbance, first.

What if it just so happens I’m out and about in my negligee when I get arrested? And with my umbrella open to protect me from the sun to boot? First off, wouldn’t using an umbrella on a sunny day be a dead giveaway that there is something wrong with me? And then, isn’t it considered indecent exposure to go about in a negligee in America? And what will happen to me in prison if I go there in a negligee and they take away my umbrella? I’ll have no way to defend myself! And, if I’m in one of those holding cells where you can see everything the prisoner is doing, and they watch me squat down over the drain to use the bathroom and throw the paper in the trash? I will have to get psychiatrically evaluated all over again!

I’m scared.

I’m so scared I won’t know how to stop being Chinese. I’m really going to need your help.

Or maybe just bail money.

There is a New Man on Snack Street

First there is Battercake Man and Sandwich Girl whom I’ve always gone to for a quick meal. Oh, sure there are other culinary delicacies on Snack Street, some as overspiced as the rest of the food in Wuhan – to the point that you wonder if you are eating spices with a few noodles thrown in, instead of eating noodles that are supposed to be only mildly spicy.

And, let’s not forget that spice particular to Wuhan that tastes like dirt. That one is particularly unpleasant.

Mind you, Snack Street is a misnomer. For a few ‘kuai’ – a few Yuan, buying such a snack can constitute a quick meal, especially when rounded out by a side salad and a piece of fruit for dessert. These so-called snacks are pretty nutritious and very filling. They do fall short of a sit-down meal but they get the job done when I don’t feel like cooking.

Back to battercakes and sandwiches. At first my loyalty was divided between those two, side by side with their vendor carts and their tasty, efficient treats. They know how I like my food and I don’t have to ask them to prepare anything special. Just a battercake or a sandwich, hold the ‘lao dong’ – the super spicy hot pepper powder.

But now, there is a new man on Snack Street. He is a small, merry man who looks perpetually surprised. His smile, beaming out, welcomes customers and commentary. He likes to wander up and down Snack Street, chatting up his fellow vendors and store keepers. He always has a cigarette dangling from his mouth – a seemingly near impossible feat with that perennial smile of his.

His vendor cart is relatively new and the baskets thereon are new. Each basket, standing about 2 feet tall and 18 inches in diameter at the top, is labeled with the treat it contains. Every time I have been by his cart there are never more than a few snacks in each basket.

Of course there are plenty other new vendors on Snack Street. There is the woman who produces an exquisite breakfast sandwich consisting of a fried egg and some sort of wafer-thin sliced meat that I’ve yet to identify but that tastes suspiciously like bacon, topped off with lettuce and a savory brown sauce that taunts the plain bread she spreads it on with its richness. By the time she squeezes those two pieces of bread together and wraps the bag tightly around her creation my mouth is watering. Oh, how I love her breakfast sandwiches!

And then there is Steamed Bun Woman, busting hunger with her meat filled steamed buns. She and her vendor cart occupy its allotted space for the entire production day – 16 hours each day she can be seen creating buns and filling up her bamboo steamers. She offers buns with beef or lamb meat filling, 8 of them for 2.5Yuan. A better bargain cannot be found on Snack Street if you are looking for value for the money. Although her food is good and filling, it is rather bland.

That is why, after paying a visit to Steamed Bun Woman I always visit Fried Bread Man. He prepares what might be termed a bagel or a donut, but it is not sweet. He has a special, donut-shaped ladle that he scoops dough into and then plops it into the grease and deep fries it. I drool as I watch the plain white dough puff up into a golden ring that, while scrumptious, probably is not doing my arteries any good. The dough has some herbs in it and that is certainly a redeeming factor; I have been able to identify shallots and garlic in the flavor of his bread. After eating a few steamed buns it is really just the crispiness I’m looking for. Hence the marriage of Steamed Bun Woman with Fried Bread Man. For 4Yuan I get nearly twice the food I get from Battercake Man or Sandwich Girl, who each charge 3.5Yuan for their specialties.

But this entry is about the new man on Snack Street; he of the new, nearly empty baskets. I first made his acquaintance while buying some pineapple to make fruit salad with. He was loitering around the fruit stand at the corner of Snack Street and was completely surprised to first see a foreigner, and then to hear said foreigner speak Chinese. Of course I tower over this tiny little man, but his smile outdoes my size by a country mile. He and I soon engaged in a language exchange project, in which he would tell me the Chinese names of various foods and I would give him the English version.

I didn’t know at first that he had a cart on Snack Street. I only found that out because his cart was set up next to Breakfast Sandwich Woman’s cart. Of course, the first time I saw his cart he was chatting someone else up and was nowhere to be found, so I asked Breakfast Woman who that cart belongs to. Just then here he comes a’running, with his impossible cigarette dangling and shirttails flapping. He showed me what he had in his baskets. Oh! When he took the top off one of his baskets I thought I had died and gone to Street Food Vendor Heaven! The aroma wafting up from that basket would have been enough to make Gandhi break his hunger strike. Too bad I had already bought a breakfast sandwich; I surely would have partaken of one of his treats.

Of course, I have since visited his basket laden cart. Equally understood was the fact that Breakfast Sandwich Woman had to shout for him to come, as he was off meandering somewhere. When he saw that his customer was the tall foreigner his smile grew extra wide and he made sure he selected the very best meat filled bun he had to offer. After exchanging pleasantries I went on my way and he disappeared again, the Snack Street Social Butterfly.

The crust is light and flaky, baked to a golden brown. The filling has the ideal combination of texture, taste and temperament; the perfect complement to the crust that it nestles in. I finished it in four bites – it is not a big snack. Size wise, that is. In taste and culinary value it is at the top of my list. And now I understand why there are only a few in each basket. If they had to wait, steaming in their woven containers, they would not be as good.

Well? Are you hungry yet?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Price of Drinking

Drinking has never been a problem in China. It is a socially acceptable activity and there are several indigenous beers and liquors available for consumption. The problem is not that more people are drinking. No, drinking has only become a problem since more people have become car owners.

Over the last 10 years, as the economy has boomed, more and more people are driving. Alcohol related vehicle accidents and deaths have increased accordingly. Lawmakers have had their hands full with deciding policy: what should the legal blood alcohol limit be? What punishments should be imposed? How should these new laws be communicated and how to enforce them?

This is yet another aspect of China’s changing society. With all of the influx of wealth at the individual level, the government is faced with social problems heretofore unseen in this country and lawmakers are scrambling to make decisions to meet these evolutions before the next facet of change manifests itself.

This being a holiday weekend, International Labor Day, people are off work and out celebrating. In various major cities across China, roadblocks have been set up to catch offenders of the newly written drunk driving laws. As in America if a driver is suspected of being drunk he submits to a Breathalyzer test. However, here things go a little differently, depending on the Breathalyzer results. If he fails, the driver goes to jail, no discussion about it.

The penalty for a first time DUI is a 6-month mandatory jail term and loss of driving privileges for 5 years. When I say loss of driving privileges, I mean the offender’s license is revoked. At the time the crime is committed, the offender’s license is taken away. It is not like in America, where an offender gets to keep possession of their license and only have to count the months until they can drive again. Here, after 5 years a DUI offender must apply for his license, take all of the schooling and pay all of the fees again. Because the law is so new, I have no information about what happens to repeat offenders. Perhaps there have as yet been no repeat offenders because the law and enforcement of it is so new.

I do not know what happens with the perpetrator’s car.

Watching the news tonight I saw a segment on DUI and how it is handled. Among the snippets of information were interviews with offenders. One offender, now sober after a few hours in jail, hung his head and said: “I took other people’s lives in my hands by my actions. I have no right to do that. I deserve to be punished.” What a refreshing change from the pervasive attitude I’ve experienced from DUI offenders in the States! Another offender commented “I am such a fool to think I could safely drive my car after drinking! I should not have done that.” Maybe they were coerced into saying that for the sake of the interview, or maybe that was their genuine sentiment. From my experience, what these remorseful men expressed is pretty much in keeping with cultural standards.

There were only male offenders being shown. Don’t get me wrong: women in China do drink; they just tend to not do it in public. Therefore it is not likely to find a female who has been drinking at the wheel of a car. And it is even more unlikely to find a woman out in public who has been drinking to excess. At least not one who is old enough or rich enough to drive.

Here too is another change. A few days ago, while preparing a late snack I saw a young girl outside my kitchen window who was so drunk she could not walk. The male student who was with her kept trying to pick her up – physically pick her up off the ground. She was so inebriated that he could not get her pins back under her. She ended up getting sick in the small grass border under my window. After that he cleaned her up and was able to carry her away.

Another instance of drinking on campus: one evening while Sam and I were walking we saw a student walking with her young man. Her eyes were closed and her head was lolling on his shoulder. He had one arm around her waist and the other hand was clasping her arm, guiding her. Sam pointed this couple out to me and asked me if I thought she was drunk, or were they just madly in love? Having seen a student throw up under my window just a few nights before, some of my naiveté had been stripped away and I came to the obvious conclusion: the girl was drunk out of her mind and she had to be half carried, half guided back to her dorm.

How long before women who drink take to the roads? Good question. I couldn’t tell you. But, if this group of students, more privileged than any other generation in China has been is any indication, I would have to guess that, maybe in 5 years lawmakers and enforcers are going to have another problem. Where and how to incarcerate female DUI offenders.

What I don’t understand is that, in China driving truly is a privilege, and a costly one at that. The average car costs more than one year’s salary for most people and financing is virtually unheard of in this cash-based society. Earning a driver’s license is the work of two years, and a huge expense. Why would anyone risk all that by drinking and driving?

What I do understand is the severity of the penalties. I think they are wonderful. Let’s not give DUI offenders a chance behind the wheel again. Oh wait, you say: just because they lost their license they are not going to drive?

No, my naivete is not showing again. Remember that offenders are incarcerated for at least 6 months. No time to wait before a trial, because there is no trial. The Breathalyzer is proof enough of guilt. Immediately after being caught, you go to jail. No probation and no time off for good behavior. No being out and about and able to drink and drive for at least six months.

On top of that, it means that they will most likely lose their jobs and their families will lose their means of income – if the man was the sole breadwinner. If the man is single, he could lose his apartment as well as his job, and he would have to start things all over again. It is not simply a matter of officially losing driving privileges; it is a matter of losing everything you’ve built up in life. I don’t see anybody risking that more than once, do you?

Be My Friend, Go Out With Me!

You know, it seems like I've gone from boredom and loneliness verging on insanity to a revolving door of companionship and activity, seemingly overnight. Somehow it is hard to recall the winter months, when I would sometimes go for days without talking to someone, or someone directing conversation at me.

Is it because of Spring? Maybe because of the Teacher Seminars? Now I am busier than a one-armed paper hanger! Dinner engagements, badminton games followed by walks at twilight... my calendar fills up faster than I can keep track of it.

I am not complaining; I am marveling.

What I thought this experience should have been all along is turning out to be... the experience I sought. Nearly every day there is an invitation for something to do, ranging from dinner to a stroll around the ‘playground’ – the sports complex on campus. I am accepting them all, and making a few myself. I am reveling in the company that I’ve so long hoped and wished for, leaping from activity to activity until, replete, I fall into bed, only to get up and do it all again the next day.

I have to say: it is about time. It is not that I think people should have taken notice of me a long time ago and been inviting me out all along. However, as I pointed out in a recent Teacher’s Seminar and have mentioned before in this blog (see Meet ‘n’ Greet entry), I wouldn’t have known an English teacher on this campus if he or she came up and slapped my face. Thanks to these seminars, the teachers and I are finally communing and communicating. That, I believe is what is paving the way for a lot of these invites that I’ve been so eager for.

Of course, the students have been inviting me out all along. I’ve written about our outings and how happy I am to partake in their activities, difficult as it sometimes is to communicate or even find common ground with them. Other than typical Jiu Ling Hou behavior – some rudeness and arrogance, my beef is not with the students.

Yes, there is a beef in here. Not a whole side of beef, maybe just a filet mignon sized beef. In other words just a small complaint.

Now that the teachers and I are pursuing activities together, going out and about town, they seem overwhelmingly concerned with my welfare. How could I possibly get around town by myself? And what about communicating? Not everyone can speak English, you know. Do I know how to get on a bus, how to get to where I’m going and how to get home? People are so worried that I’ll get lost and stranded, a lone foreigner trampled into the gutters of Wuhan and swept away by those ever-diligent sweeping women with their twig brooms.

Where was this concern six months ago, when I needed help understanding the bus system and trying to learn where everything was at?

I’m not blaming anyone. Let’s be clear on that. The English teachers may well have been curious about me and may well have wanted to invite me out but, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t. That is nobody’s fault. I didn’t know any English teachers so I couldn’t have invited anyone out. Again, no one’s fault.

No, the fault lies in the fact that now, even though I have demonstrated proficiency at boarding and riding buses and getting around town while in the company of my new companions, they still insist on treating me as though I were a newcomer to the system. They tell me which bus to take, which stop to get on and off at, general safety rules and, for pity’s sake, how to hang on to the handles so I don’t fall down when the bus makes its sudden stops.

Even though I have demonstrated proficiency at speaking and reading enough Chinese to get by, I get treated as though somehow I would probably still get lost and end up maimed or killed on the street because they believe in my inability to ask for help directions. Therefore I must be accompanied every second, even if it means that my companion must go all the way back to the school to see me safely home.

Newsflash, everyone! I’ve been navigating the streets of Wuhan alone pretty much since I’ve been here! Please stop treating me as though I were 5 years old and helpless!

Helen, a wonderful woman in every respect is one who is guilty of ‘protecting’ me. We had gone out together and had a great time. We went to Guiyin Temple that I had visited recently on my own. Not only had I been to the temple by myself, but I had gotten there and home by myself. Apparently the assertion that I could get around by myself did nothing to convince her. She felt compelled to point out which bus we should take (we did not take the right one, bus 907 from campus would have gotten us there directly).

When I tried to reassure her that I would be just fine getting home alone, she expressed doubt. I even pulled the bus schedule out of my purse and demonstrated that I could read it. Her comment: ‘But, it is in Chinese!’ I couldn’t help it… with a bit of sarcasm I replied: “Really? Thank goodness! I would hate if it were written in Korean; that would mean we are not in China anymore!” My tone went over her head. She had to quiz me by testing my Chinese reading ability. And do I know which stop to get off at? Well, if the bus driver calling out the name of the stop is not enough to clue me into the fact that I’ve reached my destination, I could always look out the window. Once I see the blue buildings on the left-hand side of the road, I know it is time to get off the bus.

Another instance of unnecessary mothering came when I invited Daisy and Martina to dinner at my house. I’m not sure what they were expecting but, judging by their expressions they certainly did not expect me to know how to cook Chinese food. ‘Where did you learn to cook Chinese food?’ Daisy asked me. I told her I had been cooking Chinese food since I lived in America and, now that I actually live in China, it is that much easier for me to do so. Apparently cooking Chinese food is supposed to be so difficult that a foreigner couldn’t possibly master the intricacies thereof. Daisy and Martina had to go inspect my kitchen. Might there be a secret Chinese chef hiding in my cabinets? I showed off my staple goods: cooking wine, both light and dark soy sauce, vinegar, various meat marinades. And, I displayed my supply of fresh ginger, garlic and onions, all bought recently at the farmer's market. They Ooh’ed and Ah’ed at all the proper places.

My façade never slipped but inside I was saying: “oh, come on now! It is not so hard to buy ginger and garlic! It is not that hard to mix a few ingredients in a pan and serve them! Could we please just go sit down and enjoy our meal now, before the food gets cold?”

Here is the beef: I am eager for companions. I welcome invitations and I look forward to making a few invitations myself. I am delighted when they are accepted, and look forward to having a great time once we are in the thick of things. But please… PLEASE!

Do not treat me as though I was helpless and I need people to guide me everywhere and speak for me. Please do not think that I have been hiding in my apartment, terrorized over those big bad buses for the past 7 months. Please do not act as though you have been accorded corporeal responsibility of me and every facet of my well-being.

Just be my friend. Hang out with me. Trust me to ask for your help if I need it. Until then, let’s just enjoy each other’s company.

Isn’t that a fair enough request to make?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Friday the 13th, Part 2

Ozgur waved as she passed me by, riding her bike. I, still grinning about the fortuitous meeting, waved back. She turned left and I went right, to the grocery store. I bought my pasta and a few other little things and boarded the bus back to campus to wait for Helen.

WOW! This bus is brand new! I didn’t get up and check the odometer or anything but I could tell: the seats were all clean, the hand rails still had tread marks on them and weren’t worn down to the metal and it didn’t squeak and groan like all the other buses. Not only did the air conditioner work, but the driver had turned it on. All the seats were taken though, so I did have to stand.

No, wait! Someone is waving me over! He had his bags occupying the seat next to him but pulled them onto his lap so I could sit down. How nice! Now I get to ride home seated in air-conditioned comfort. That is when I started thinking about things.

I had a seat on the bus on the way to Hanyang, and a seat on the way home. A good day for transportation. Somehow, my change of plans due to Helen’s phone call and all of my dilly-dallying put me in a position to re-meet Ozgur, a woman so open, friendly and kind. Is this serendipity again, or was I simply meant to have a good day?

Who knows what the Fates have planned?

Somehow, in spite of the auspicious start to my day a niggling bad mood was rising. I think, because of all of my recent social activity, I really needed some downtime. The idea of meeting with Helen was causing me stress even though she is very nice to help me negotiate the purchase and tailoring of that dress. Even though I really enjoyed talking with Ozgur and her friends, it was in the back of my mind that I just really wanted quiet time. I can tell I’m going to have to plan on some quiet time, and soon!

So, having only been home for a few minutes, when Helen shouted through my window that it was time to go, I reluctantly put my book down and grabbed my purse. She is helping me after all; it is not like I can tell her to go away. I was just going to have to make sure that this is a quick, short outing. Not something that is going to turn into a dinner and a return to campus after sunset.

On our way to the security gate Helen told me that I had two packages waiting at the building by the gate. Could I sign for them before we leave campus? Well of course! That is great news, and it picked my spirits up. I had been waiting for these packages and they’ve finally arrived! And on Friday the 13th, at that! Fully aware that Helen was waiting for me at the gate I still took a minute to cut open the bigger package to make sure the books I had ordered were inside. Nothing like getting a new book you’ve never read before!

Now I’m in a better mood. Other than Helen attempting to nursemaid me through the bus ride and across town it was a pleasant outing. My new dress fits me very well and is very flattering, and I even bought a hat to go with it. However, when Helen suggested that I go to her house for dinner and revealed all of her plans for the evening I did tell her that I had other business to take care of. It was not a lie: I did have to verify my bank account so that my patient and kindly friend/tax preparer could finalize my tax returns. It was simply a matter of sticking my card into the ATM machine and seeing if I could access my account, but still: as long as I was in that neck of the woods and the bank is right there, why not take care of the business and buy my downtime while I’m at it?

All is well with the bank, and all is well with Helen. Of course I had to show her that I actually had an ATM card for that bank before she accepted that I might have business there, but all is well nevertheless.

Getting to a bus that would eventually take me home was just a matter of minutes. However, this being rush hour I anticipated having to stand all the way home. So, imagine my pleasure at finding a nearly empty bus that would take me to my connection stop, and then getting off that bus only to find that my next bus had pulled up right behind me and I got to be the first person on? I got seats on every bus I took on Friday the 13th, even in rush hour!
Riding home I decided on a light, crisp cucumber/tomato salad for dinner. That would involve a short stop at the farmer’s market but that caused no pain. I’m always happy to chat with the farmers and they get their little bit of cachet when they are seen chatting with me. Evening brings a whole different crowd of shoppers to the market so the farmer whose stall I always visit got double the ‘guanxi’ she normally would from my visit.

Dinner could not have been better. Frying up a bit of leftover steak to go with the salad and sauteeing some garlic, green pepper and mushrooms with it rounded out the meal. Thus energized I did my dishes and went on a mosquito killing rampage. Then I took pause and reflected on my day. In all, it was an excellent day.

So much for ugly superstitions about Friday the 13th.

Friday the 13th

I didn’t even notice it was Friday the 13th. I just remembered that this would be the first day that I won’t be able to talk to Gabriel for one month. His family is in transit to the East Coast and he won’t be anywhere near a computer for that long. My heart is feeling tiny little fissures of breakage from missing him so, but now I can get out of the house early, instead of waiting until after noon for our conversations to be done.

There’s always a bright side, even when things are so dark.

Although I was ready to leave the house at 10AM, I still dilly-dallied around until a little after 11. Force of habit; I’m not supposed to leave before I can talk with my Gabe-Gabe. I made myself walk out before noon. Boy, is this habit going to die hard.

My original plan was to go to Hankou, to Computer City and look around, and then walk to Helen’s for a pizza. Helen’s is a Western restaurant run by a charming woman who is a student at the nearby University. She owns/runs the restaurant in her spare time… what spare time? I don’t know how she does everything she does. It is not like she’s going for an easy degree; she is studying medicine! She has internships to do, as well as write papers and attend classes. And, oh by the way, she runs a restaurant that serves some of the best food I’ve had since living in Wuhan.

My plans got scrapped before they got started. One of the English teachers, also named Helen needed me to meet her at 3PM on campus to go have a fitting for a dress I was buying. As she had coordinated the purchase, I felt her request had weight over my plans. I decided to go to Hanyang and buy Western style pasta for next week’s Teacher seminar instead of going to Hankou. I’ll be making pasta salad for the seminar.

Do any of you have a good recipe for pasta salad? I could use it; I haven’t made it in a while.

Because my original plans included lunching, I had brought a book. The trip to Hanyang was not as long as the trip to Hankou normally is so I was not hungry yet. I sat on the boardwalk, enjoying the sun and reading my book. An hour or so later I started making my way to the grocery store that sells Western goods but looked to the right and spied an Italian restaurant. ‘I can have my pizza there’ I thought. Off I go, trying a new restaurant.

The restaurant is rather small at this foyer level, although there is more seating available upstairs. All three small tables were taken; the only table not occupied was a long, bench type table that would have comfortably seated 6. Not sure whether upstairs was open for seating at lunchtime, I stood at the bar to order my food. After the waitress had noted my selections she encouraged me to make myself comfortable at the long table. I turned to do that and… why! There is Ozgur!

OK, I know you’re going to ask: what is an ‘ozgur’?

Not what, who. Who is Ozgur? She is a woman I met several months back, when life was hard and I was doing my best to only give you light-hearted news so you wouldn’t see the depth of my despair. I didn’t write about meeting Ozgur, her daughter and her brother in a Pizza Hut over the winter break because I was embarrassed.

I had gone to Pizza Hut for a meal even though it is so expensive to eat there because I craved human companionship, and Pizza Hut is one of the few restaurants where it is socially acceptable for a woman to dine alone. Even though the waitresses are not my friends, at least they speak to me and there is something to be said about being spoken to when you are so abysmally lonely. I ate my pizza and my salad with my eyes glued to my book, only looking up when the waitress was talking to me or when I needed to call her for something. As I was paying my bill I looked over and noticed people who did not look Chinese. Boldly I walked over to their table and introduced myself.

With no hesitation whatsoever, Ozgur smiled and introduced herself, her daughter and her brother. She invited me to join them for their meal. Ashamed and embarrassed as well as full from having just eaten a pizza and salad, I declined her offer but stuck around, talking with them until their food arrived. By that time we had exchanged names and phone numbers.

In the intervening months I did not call her. I was simply too embarrassed to have barged in on a family enjoying their outing, and I didn’t want to be reminded of that terrible, lonely time when I had to pay for people to talk with me. She didn’t call me, either. She has a full life with a husband, a child and a complete circle of friends to keep her fulfilled.

But, to my amazement, here she is in Hanyang, in another part of town and in another pizza restaurant! Our eyes met and our mouths broke into smiles of recognition. Quickly we embraced and exclaimed at the coincidence. She invited me to join her for her meal, this time I accepted joyously. She said she was waiting for 2 other friends and with me, it would make us a foursome for lunch. While waiting for everyone else we got caught up on each other’s doings.

The pizza was not fantastic but the company was. Very seldom have I ever participated in a women’s luncheon so I took careful notes in case the occasion ever arises again. We parted company after about an hour and a half. Ozgur and I promised to stay in touch. I intend to keep the promise this time.

There is more to be said about Friday the 13th, but I don’ t want to overdo the length of this post so… here we go again: a post in two parts!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vagabond, or Not?

Something is really bothering me. Well, a few things are really bothering me but I want to talk about one specific bother: the vagabond life.

By definition, a vagabond is someone with no home, no roots and no ties. A vagrant. A tramp. A person aimlessly drifting from place to place. Reading these last few posts I realize that I sound less like a vagabond and more like a homebody.

I think I have mis-titled my blog.

In my mind, this vagabond life of mine was supposed to incorporate a lot of travel: riding the rails, boarding buses, seeing what there is to see and doing what there is to do. It appears that while aspiring to be a vagabond, I overlooked the fact that I need to earn a living, and in order to do that, I have to incur some ties. Like: being at the same place at the same time the people who hired me expect me to be there. And, actually performing the functions that they hired me to do, or else they would fire me.

Of course if I get fired, then I can truly be a vagabond. I wouldn’t be able to be a vagabond in China; the Chinese don’t even like Chinese vagabonds. They only want foreigners that are willing to work for their keep – go figure! I want to stay in China and I am willing to work for my keep, it is just the more I work, the less of a vagabond I get to be.

Another aspect I totally overlooked while dreaming of vagrancy: I’m not as young as I feel (or act or look). Society says I only have a few more productive years to go and then it is out to pasture with me. Well… a few means about twenty. But still: unless I want to burden social systems or worse! My children, I’d best get to earning some money. Not just enough to live comfortably now but enough to live comfortably when I’m released from my societal obligation to work.

Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t believe that vagabonds think in terms of their retirement.

So: am I a vagabond or not? Well, I aver that I have a vagabond spirit and a homebody body. Beg pardon but I like having a bed to sleep in and I like a few creature comforts. Not many; just a few will do me. I also like to not be hungry, and I like having a bath regularly. Here is another odd quirk about me: I like respect. Not just self-respect, which any self-respecting vagabond may well possess, but also respect from my fellow man. All of these things would be unattainable if I didn’t have at least a few ties. I guess you could say I am a vagabond with pretensions.

So, if I have a vagabond heart while incurring and maintaining some ties to society, why haven’t I done anything about it? With my minimal working schedule and my accommodations provided for me, this set-up is a vagabond-at-heart’s dream! But I’ve not vagabonded nearly as much as the situation allows for. Why?

The first few months here I spent my time getting acclimated, learning my way around and holding fierce debates with myself over whether I’ve made the worst mistake of my life, walking away from everything I had in the States. The next few months I spent in front of any available heat source, and I had no desire to face the world outside where there was only cold air blowing and snow falling. Recently I’ve had to try to figure out what was trying to kill me (see Plain Stir entry) and then I had to get my body back in shape and moving – both from the panic of what I still think was near-death condition and from being virtually sedentary all winter.

And now? Now I’m saving every Fen (penny, in Chinese) I can in order to return to the States for a visit in a little over 2 months. And what will I do while in the States?

Ah, that is where the vagabond comes in! I will go from place to place, on the bus and by train, seeing the ones I love and the sights along the way. I will have no ties and no obligations, no commitments and no deadlines. I will be living with what I can carry – or roll around in my super-convenient roll-around duffle bag. I will be mostly dependent on the goodwill of those who might welcome me in for accommodations. I will have money to buy food so I won’t be hungry, like ye average vagrant might be, and some of that money will go for inexpensive but clean hotels along the way. I won’t have to beg for fare money and I won’t have to stow away on buses and trains because I can pay for my tickets. That is a bit of a relief. But still: it will be more of a vagabond’s life than I’ve lived here. The ‘vagabond with pretensions’ theme persists, I see.

When I return to China after the summer visiting those I love Stateside, I vow to do more traveling and sightseeing than I did this year. I will ride those buses and rails to exotic sounding destinations like Wu Dong Shan, Shenzen and Guizhou. I will go see that giant Buddha statue by the river in Chongqing. Maybe I’ll even go to Urumqi and see the Gobi desert… in the summer months, of course. It will be too cold in the winter months do to so.

Maybe my blog isn’t mis-titled after all.

The True Origins of Spring Cleaning

It seems that the weather here went from longjohns and jackets to tank tops and shorts almost overnight. Seriously: one day I am bundled to my chattering teeth and the next I am panting for relief from the heat.

In my apartment, this refrigerator I have been living in all winter, conditions are no different. I had expected it to take several months to warm all of this concrete up but it seems, in a matter of weeks I am casting off my quilt and sleeping under just a sheet. I’m not complaining – heavens no! I’m just stating my case as dramatically as I can.

With the advent of spring, naturally I am throwing open the windows and welcoming the warm, fresh air. I am not welcoming mosquitoes, flies and other vermin but they come anyway, in spite of the screens. It seems Spring is a come one, come all proposition. I am glad that wasps do not exist in China, at least not in this region. They definitely would not be invited in.

Something else I am not very enthusiastic about, that welcomes itself into my home and takes up on every horizontal surface: dust and dirt. I cannot imagine anyone welcoming those two in, but that’s beside the point. I do not welcome them but they come in anyway.

Remember when I told you that, rain, snow, sleet or shine there are women that sweep the campus every morning? They do a very good job keeping our campus clean: no fallen leaves or detritus from student revelry will be seen as long as these women patrol with their twig brooms and home made dust pans. It is not a problem: I thank them for keeping our campus neat and tidy. Unfortunately, in the process of sweeping the campus they are raising a dust storm which finds its way directly into my ground floor apartment windows. Open windows, now that Spring is here. Screens do not stop dust so it just comes right in.

And thus we come to Spring cleaning. It is said that, after homes have been shuttered for the winter months and heated with coal and wood that March, the time when it is warm enough to open windows but not warm enough to encourage bug life, was the ideal time to clean. Makes sense, and I probably wouldn’t dispute it.

Another source reports that the genesis of Spring Cleaning comes from the Jewish tradition of ridding the house of all leavening agents prior to Passover, when eating leavened bread and other such treated foods are forbidden. As convention goes, the house is cleaned top to bottom and on the eve of the start of Passover celebration, grains or crumbs of leavening agent are hunted by candlelight to make sure that the house is truly free of blasphemy.

However Spring Cleaning got started, I’d like to offer my own theory. On the first few warm days of Spring, when the weather is comfortable enough to throw open the windows, you see just how dirty the house got. Of course in the winter you didn’t really care because it was too cold to venture into every room in the house. You just used the bathroom for its utilitarian function and did minimal cleaning, cleaned only what you had to in the kitchen so that, when you prepared food you did not poison yourself with a salmonella bacterium, and the room that you hung out in the most, you cleaned only what you had to so that you wouldn’t set fire to the apartment using the space heater. But now it is warm enough for you to use all of the rooms in the house regularly again. So now, it is time to clean them.

I thought about that as I chased dust bunnies and swabbed my floors clean recently. Maybe if I had cleaned my house all winter it would have generated body heat – movement does that, you know. Maybe I would not have resented Ole Man Winter so much if I hadn’t felt compelled to huddle in, next to or in front of anything that provided me warmth and wait the day out until I could crawl under my quilt and into my heated bed again.

Of course, that is easy for me to say now, while the mercury registers a comfortable 75 degrees and I am sitting around in a tank top and capris. Recalling that, not so long ago the mercury stopped at 45 degrees in here and stubbornly refused to climb any higher seems academic, like a pain from an old injury, long since recovered from. While in the thick of winter I daren’t have plunged my hands into buckets of water or crawled around on these cold, cold floors on my hands and knees for any reason, no matter how big the dust bunnies got.

But now… now I have a need for cool, clear water on my hands and bleach solution on my clothes. Now I like being in each of my 4 rooms, no matter what their function. Now I welcome brightly lit rooms and enjoy lounging in my living room. Now I like to go into my bathroom and I like to take showers that last longer than 3 minutes – now that I have a hefty supply of hot water.

Now I need to be able to walk around barefooted and the only way to do that is to clean the floors regularly. The dust still comes in. But everything else is pretty much clean in here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Picture of Obstinacy

As I stood in line waiting for the bus that would take me back to town from The Gardens, I first heard and then saw this little girl. Maybe she was tired and overwrought. Maybe she didn’t want to walk anymore, or maybe she didn’t want to wait in line for a bus. For all I know, she didn’t like what her mother was proposing serving for dinner. Whatever was plaguing her, she was definitely letting her mother and the world know she was displeased.

It started with a long shout. I didn’t exactly time her but it seems that she took a deep breath and maintained her one note shout for as long as she had air in her lungs. And then, she stopped dead in her tracks and refused to move another step. Her mother, not much taller than she is, did her best to persuade her to get going again.

As we were all lined up single file to wait for the bus and this little drama played out in the open area where the bus would eventually pull up, all of us were witnesses to this spectacle. We probably would not have noticed had the girl not shouted but because of that long cry, our attention was riveted.

Her mother stroked her shoulders and talked with her, and then grabbed her arm and tried to pull her along. No dice, Daughter pulled her arm away and planted her feet. Then, Mother put her arm around her and talked some more, and then pulled again. Again Daughter planted herself. Over and over again Mother tried to convince Daughter to get moving; repeatedly Daughter refused to move. At one point it seems mother was close to losing her temper. She grabbed her daughter’s hand and pulled mightily. The child wrangled herself free and planted her feet again.

This went on long enough for me to decide that this would be an interesting blog entry and to vaguely formulate it, and for me to grab my camera and shoot this picture. This was the upteenth time that the mother tried to coerce her child to move and the girl refused to go.

Children resisting parents has been going on for as long as parents have been raising children. There is nothing surprising about that. And, children defying parents in public is also nothing new. Anyone who has been to a grocery store or to a Walmart has seen such spectacles. Maybe you even threw a fit yourself when you were a child, or your children have displayed their temper in public. Remember how embarrassed you felt? How did you deal with it?

In China, such public displays of childhood obstinacy are unusual and rare. ‘Face’ – respect and decorum, are so important in this society that, even if you are in pain, a grimace is all that is socially tolerable. Our little pig-tailed shouter did not give her mother face, nor did she maintain face. That is what was so surprising about this little display.

How is it that this girl totally flouted culturally acceptable behavior rules? Has she never been taught about face, or has her mother been overly permissive with her enough times that the girl dominates the parent? How is it that she doesn’t care about her public persona when, in China, such a persona is generally very carefully cultivated? If she doesn’t give her mother face in public, how is their private relationship?

Other children waiting in line with their parents were well behaved and respectful, even if they did run around and play a bit. I daresay that they might have been as shocked as we adults were while beholding this little show. It seems to me that maybe, they could have surrounded our little Drama Queen and shamed her into acting right. Peer pressure is one way to get kids to fly right and behave in this society.

I am scared to think that newfangled child rearing methods in China allow more permissiveness and indulgence toward children that previous generations have experienced. As parents all over the world have discovered, indulging your child has disastrous consequences. Not setting boundaries for your child has long lasting consequences on their behavior, not just as children but as adults. Considering the attitude of the ‘Jiu Ling Hou’ generation that I talked about in the Bah Ling Hou entry, you can imagine that, if Chinese parents become even more permissive than the parents of jiu ling hou children, Chinese society is headed for…

I’ll leave that to your imagination. Living in America and seeing the effects of an overly permissive parenting style, you can pretty much tell that there is going to be a culture clash between tradition and modern attitudes in this society.

I am surprised that someone did not go talk to the girl, especially one of the bus monitors or some other official. Here, it is not uncommon for total strangers to berate other people’s children for public displays of misbehavior or mischief. I think we might have been too shocked to do anything but watch. Or perhaps that is another manifestation of the changes in Chinese society. I felt terrible for the mother. She was withering by the minute.

Finally our little shouter got moving. I don’t know what motivated her to do so. Maybe she got tired of being a spectacle or maybe her mother told her that if she kept standing there she would get hit by a bus. Whatever it was that got her moving did not seem to be a compromise between what she wanted and what her mother wanted. She crossed her arms and stomped off, well ahead of her mother. And she refused to stand close to her mother while in line, either. I lost sight of her eventually, as she darted among the passengers in an effort to stay away from Mom. Soon enough the bus pulled up and the boarding of passengers took front stage.

I’m glad this little girl was not on the bus I got on. I didn’t want to watch her not give her mother face anymore.

The Best Places

It is said that the best things in life are free. I contend that the best places in Wuhan are far away.

For example: Aloha restaurant, in Hanyang. Although I only have to ride one bus to get there, that bus ride is nearly 45 minutes and involves a stretch of the Third Ring Road, a road that loops around the city. Or Metro in Hankou. Getting to Metro takes over one hour and involves at least 2 buses and, if you don’t catch the right bus in front of campus, it also involves a one-kilometer walk to catch the direct bus to Metro. By comparison, one can take the circuitous bus from the train station and be Metro-bound for an hour and a half, part of that through the most crowded area of Hankou.

My latest find is the Botanical Garden. Located in the Hongshan district, it is at the very end of the bus 402 line. Getting there involves catching a bus in front of campus, preferably bus 202 that goes straight to the train station, where I then board bus 402 and ride it till the end of the line. The entire time spent reaching the Garden: 3 hours.

You might think: three hours just to get to the botanical garden? Insane! Guess what? I agree with you. But, on the other hand, there are so few places to hang out in Wuhan that don’t involve crowds, shopping, eating or drinking that the Botanical Garden is a welcome relief.

I had tried once before to get to the Gardens but I had misread the bus itinerary and got off the bus 3 stops before I would have gotten there. This time I was bound and determined to go, even though it was Sunday, and a holiday to boot. I should have remembered that getting out on Sundays and on holidays is an exercise in frustration because of all the crowds. To go out on a Sunday holiday is insanity. I should have remembered.

Nevertheless, the weather was beautiful and I was primed to go. Come what may, I was going to the Gardens today.

After stopping by my favorite snack stand for a bowl of Re Gan Mian and conversation, I made my way to the bus stop. Bus 202 came by shortly after and it was very crowded, but I didn’t mind standing. It is just a short bus ride to the train station, and I would be sure to get a seat on the bus that would take me to the Gardens.

Scratch that! Getting on the bus 402 on the weekends calls for the skills of a pugilist and the patience of a saint. This bus line is very popular on weekends because it hits all of the tourist hotspots. Even though there are monitors to make sure people act at least civil while waiting for the empty bus to pull up, they do nothing to make sure that civility reigns while people are getting on the bus. Pushing, shoving and fighting are still the norm. So aggravating! We’re all getting on the bus, people! Can’t you behave a little?

You know, I’ve come to believe that bus boarding is considered an Olympic sport to the Chinese. I honestly think that they have fun with all the fighting and pushing and shoving. Especially this younger generation. And generally I don’t mind all the pushing and shoving. Mostly I’m not impacted by it because of my sheer size and my ‘foreigner’ status.

What I do mind is people reserving seats. If it comes down to fighting to get on the bus, seats should be on a first come/first serve basis. Although there were several vacant seats when I finally fought my way onto the bus, people were reserving them for their friends who were still caught up in the struggle at the door. I ended up having to stand until the first major shopping stop in Hankou. That did not put me in a good mood. I didn’t mind having to stand, but I did mind people reserving seats. I cheered myself with the knowledge that I would be riding to the end of the line whereas most of these seat reservers would have to fight to get off the bus so they can go shopping.

Soon enough I did get a seat and enjoyed the rest of the ride to the Garden in relative comfort. However, I was surprised that the bus was still so crowded at the end of the line. And then I remembered: Sunday. Holiday. Of course people are going to seek destinations like the Botanical Gardens. But surely the Gardens wouldn’t be so crowded that touring it would be unpleasant, would it?

Actually, it wasn’t. Other than attractions like hothouses, flower beds and the major paths, there was enough room in the Gardens for everyone. I chose less crowded paths and enjoyed my time tremendously. As a matter of fact, I was impressed.

The Wuhan Botanical Garden is not so much a study in and display of botany as it is a 75-hectare fauna conservation area. There are several paths that wind through areas of wild growth and naturally situated plant life. There are distinctly delineated areas such as bamboo and conifer areas, but mostly it seems that greenery grows, unorganized and free. I can easily imagine myself, on my days off, coming to the Garden to roam recessed paths. The Botanical Garden will be my new hangout, in fact. No more wondering where I could go that doesn’t involve crowds or spending money.

But, back to what I saw on this introductory visit. It seems that the Chinese ideal of touring the Gardens is to take as many pictures as possible. Some, it appeared, snapped this picture, and then rushed on to the next picture worthy item to snap it. Posing family in front of foliage also appeared important. “And here we are in front of a cactus. And now here we are in front of a tree. The next three pictures are of us in front of the waterfall.” Really: what do they do with all these pictures? One particular photographer did not even seem to behold or admire what he was snapping. With his camera set to ‘macro’ setting he rushed from bloom to bloom, capturing it forever on his media card.

In the back areas of the Gardens, it seems anything is allowed. There were vendors selling buckets of noodles for picnics, bottled water and other snacks. Cotton candy and bubble toys for little ones. Tea and soda stands stood at nearly every intersecting path. The strangest thing I saw was this man, who had strung a hammock between two trees and was taking a nap with his young son. It takes a trusting soul to sleep this soundly in a public park, doesn’t it?

The coolest part was the little cars! Do you know those little Tyco plastic bubble cars that most every toddler in America has driven? Well, here those cars are battery powered and adults drive them all over the Garden! For some it seemed to be their first driving experience and they didn’t keep to the path too well. Again we pedestrians had to be wary of vehicle traffic. And in a park, at that!

The outing ended with an hour-long wait for a bus. Here the bus monitors did make people line up for the bus; no pushing or shoving. Although I did get a seat, I gave it up a few stops later to a father cradling his sleeping child who was reduced to standing in the aisle. I regretted giving up my seat because my feet hurt from all the walking I did, but I ended up getting to sit soon enough, so not all was lost and I was comforted by knowing I had done my good deed for the day.

And not just that. I was also comforted by the idea that I had found a nice, new hangout.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

First Came a Plant

Today was my ‘early day’, the class I teach at 8AM. I always dread waking up to the music of my alarm, no matter how cheerful the music is. It wasn’t so bad this morning. That might have been because I spent a great day out yesterday with George and Yoyo (see previous entry).

This particular group of students is the hardest to manage. They just don’t seem interested in whatever lesson or activity I have planned for them. All 28 students cram themselves in the last 3 rows of the classroom; thus I am forced to abandon the blackboard or the computer unit in the front of class, and sit on a table two rows down from them to address them properly.

They are all very concerned about an important test they will have to take in June called CET4. Like the TM 4 for the English majors, the CET4 measures proficiency and skill for the Business English majors. This test centers on vocabulary and listening skills. The students have a list of 5,000 words that they must be able to spell, interpret and use in a sentence correctly in order to pass the test.

Most often, these kids are poring over their word list, and today was no exception. As a treat (and a break for me), I had decided to show them a movie to sharpen their listening skills. With dismay I noted that maybe only a third of the class was actually paying attention to the movie; the rest were working on their word list. Several times I had to remind them that they were supposed to be watching a movie; they were getting quite loud, conversing with each other. In Chinese, at that! And here I thought this was an English class.

On the positive side, they were all working on their word lists and at least hearing English being spoken. On the negative side, the movie went virtually unnoticed. I could tell because, when the funny parts came up, only one or two actually laughed. To be perfectly fair, the room was flooded with sunshine and, even with the curtains drawn, it was really too bright in there to see the screen well.

Are you wondering where the plant comes in yet? Why did I title this entry so? I’m getting to it!

After class I returned home, ate some breakfast and had a chat with my Gabriel. And then, while I was still dressed for outdoors I went to do my marketing for the week. Feeling very ‘Hausfrau’, with my shopping bag slung over my shoulder and wallet clutched in my hand, I made stops at the farmer’s market, the supermarket and the stationary shop (to buy notebooks). When I got home I changed clothes and started on the house. Sweeping, dusting, cleaning and putting a load of clothes in the machine to wash. Still feeling very much the hausfrau, I have to admit.

Setting my dining room chairs out on my patio, I took the quilt off my bed and stretched it out over the chair backs in the sunshine to air out. Today being one of the few days where dust wasn’t flying around Wuhan and the air was clear, I figured it was a good day to do so. I came back into the house and decided my plant needed its kiss of sunshine too, so I gave it some water and put it on the window sill.

I smiled with pleasure at these small tasks. The red of my quilt intensified the sun shining in through my window and my plant, with its new leaves, dressed my windowsill in homey pleasance.

An unformed thought skipped through my head as my gaze went from my little plant around the rest of my house. First came the plant, and then I hung a picture. I strolled into the kitchen. The new pot I had bought gleamed in the dishrack and fresh vegetables, today’s bounty from the farmer’s market lay on the counter, ready for cooking. The clean smell of bleach wafted from the bathroom, where I had just scrubbed. My bed, freshly made save for my quilt, waited only for nightfall to welcome me back into its embrace.

That’s how it starts, folks. First comes a plant, and then you hang a picture. Pretty soon you’re buying things for the house, and fussing over how much sunshine your quilt gets. Next thing you know, you have a home, not just a place to lay your head.

And that’s what it feels like to be here. Not just an apartment, but a home. MY home. I feel more ‘home’ here than I did in the home I was buying in America, than in the apartment I was renting prior to moving to China or pretty much anywhere I’ve lived in my entire life. This is my home. And the irony is that I don’t pay a thing for it; it is mine only on loan, as long as I have this job. And, I won’t even be in these same four walls next year; I’ll get a new apartment. But still; fussing about and doing my simple chores gives me a homey feeling. I like being here.

Now: what am I going to do about these students of mine? That is what the notebooks are for. I had noticed many of them using scraps of paper or the backs of their word list to make notes on. I bought each one a notebook so they can copy their wordlist into a composite document. Until their test, we will pursue activities that center around that all important test criteria, activities like spelling bees and word definitions. Their upcoming midterm exam will… have nothing to do with their spelling list. But I will make it easy on them. I only want the answer to one question, which they will each have to give orally:

Why do you sit in the back of the classroom?

An Evening with George and Yoyo

Do you remember George and Yoyo, my two young friends from the Zoo (See A Day at the Zoo, Part 2). Last October when I went to the zoo, I met this lovely young couple who not only accompanied me through the zoo but comforted me and wiped my tears away when I cried because the animals were so mistreated. George had even warned me that that show was not entertaining, unless you like watching cruelty to animals, but I had to be a glutton for punishment and go see it for myself.

Over the Chinese Holiday season and through the busy and not so busy months we fell out of touch. And then, Yoyo manifested herself again! One day she appeared in my inbox, all fresh and pert and pretty and sweet. She invited me to dinner; with joy I accepted.

Her big news is that she had gotten a job! She was so excited and wanted to share every detail of her employment with me, starting with a tour of her office and meeting her coworkers. What a lovely group of women they are! They all wanted to know if I use Skype and if so, what my Skype name is. Naturally, I shared that information with them. My contact list grows…

While waiting for George to get off work, Yoyo and I walked around the neighborhood where she works. Poor little thing! She was so nervous about us talking again that she had spent hours making notes about what we could talk about, and how to say things correctly in English! I told her – in Chinese, that we are good friends and there is no need to be nervous. She could even speak Chinese if she felt more comfortable using her own language because I had learned a lot since our last meeting.

Visibly relieved, she put away her notes and from there, our conversation flowed naturally, as though we were lifelong friends seeing each other after a long absence. Switching back and forth between languages and only occasionally using her dictionary, she told me of her doings since our zoo adventure: finishing school, finding a job, presenting her parents with the news that she would stay on in Wuhan after graduation to be with George instead of going back to her native province. Her mother was a bit heartbroken but her father took the news well. He only hopes and wishes for her happiness. If she finds it with George, then here is where she needs to be.

And here with George is clearly where she belongs. He finally got off work and called to let her know where to wait for him and how long it would take for him to get there. From the second I saw these two together again, I knew they were deeply in love and intended to spend their lives together. For together they are: as inseparable as though physically bound. If either of their parents has seen them together, they surely must know that George and Yoyo is a good match.

George is much more handsome than I remember him being. Or, it could be that, freed from the burden of school and out of winter clothes bundling he appears freer than he did on our first meeting. Yoyo did point out that he now styles his hair in such a way that makes him look a bit taller. I thought there was something different about him… No matter what the change, he is a fine young man, inside and out. He too intended to make the most of his evening with his foreigner friend: selecting a great restaurant for us to dine in, taking us for a nice walk along tree-lined boulevards in the cool evening air and making sure I was in need of nothing at any time. He even asked if he was walking too fast and if my feet hurt, as though he would carry me on his back should I be in pain!

One funny anecdote: he asked me if I knew what the road we were walking along was called. “Shui guo lu” (Fruit Street) – I replied. He, surprised, asked me if I knew about this street’s history. Presumably it is where fruit vendors of yore came to ply their trade. No, I had just read a street sign designating it as such. We had a good laugh and he told me not only about the history of Fruit Street, but also what it meant to him personally: he had grown up in this neighborhood and could testify that, at one time, fruit vendors abounded. As a young boy running the streets he would pilfer a sweet treat and then run into an alley to enjoy it. The look on his face – bashful grin, contrasted by a mischievous twinkle in his eyes told the story better than his words ever could.

I wish I had more dinner companions! Authentic Chinese food is so good I would gladly eat in a different restaurant every day, if I could. It is not ‘proper’ for a woman to dine alone in China, so I have to wait until companions can be found or until I get invited. Such a pity! This evening, my dinner companions, while thrilled at presenting me with traditional foods that I had never sampled before, spent a fair amount of time reveling in each other. They kept up a steady prattle of conversation between themselves, almost as though they were drowning into each other but loving the experience of it. I enjoyed watching these young lovers in the business of being together and did not feel left out at all. Sharing this level of intimacy is a sign of friendship in China. How George and Yoyo shared with me that night!

The evening came to an end by pursuing buses. As it was after 9:30, catching a bus that would take me home presented a challenge. A lot of buses stop running after 10:00. Because I would have to make a connection to a bus that would take me to the campus, we had to run all over the neighborhood to find just the right bus. After a marathon hike we finally found bus 577. Soon enough it pulled up. We exchanged hugs and I shouted “thank you” as I boarded.

Side by side, my young friends walked home.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I Took a Break

I took a break. Well, not exactly. My conspirators took a break. They have a lot going on right now and I did not feel it was fair to burden them with taking time away from all of their doings and goings-on to post blog entries.

I have been busily writing about my doings over here, and soon you will read all about them, I (we) promise. Lots of good things coming up; I hope you will enjoy them.

Admittedly we should have posted this at the front end of the break. It would only be fair to you. But, as their business matter had only come up suddenly, we did not have time to plan for it and keep you informed. I apologize for that. Please let me turn the clock back and make that right. If I could, I would.

In the meantime: I have realized that blog writing can be a very selfish endeavor. Whereas it is truly my pleasure to keep you updated, I have to confess that I miss your side of the conversation completely. Not by any fault of yours, of course. That is just the nature of blog writing.

So: how have you been? What have you been up to? Please share with me. I’ve missed you so much.

But I’ll be back soon with more news and observations of life and goings-on in China.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.