Thursday, June 30, 2011

Name That Picture!

This is my way of introducing you to Carrie Ann and Olaf, as well we to Gary and Sun Ye.

After that sumptuous dinner in the courtyard of the only local restaurant we ate at while in Chengdu, Gary asked the waiter to take this group photo of us. We are all well posed and happy, having just enjoyed a delicious meal and several hours of good conversation together.

So why did I have that look on my face? Why do I look like I wish to commit grievous bodily harm on Olaf, who is grinning like he just won the lottery? Why did Gary ‘bunny ear’ Carrie Ann, and with such a poker face? How could Carrie Ann and Sun Ye maintain straight faces while the rest of us caper about?

Here is your challenge: I’m looking for an appropriate caption for this picture, or maybe even a small story about what might have been going through our minds at the time the shutter clicked. You can post them as comments to this entry or email them directly to me.

My conspirators and I will select the best, most fitting and most hilarious caption or captions and repost this picture with your words. It will the blog entry written by you, not by me.

Go ahead: give it your best shot! I can’t wait to read your submissions.

The People We Met

We met some very nice people during our stay in Chengdu. Whereas I am aware that, in Wuhan, people like to talk to me not so much because it is ME but because of my potential language ability, people in Chengdu seem genuinely friendly and open. We met so many nice people that telling you about them warrants its own entry. This is that entry.

Most notable is Gary. We met him and his friend Sun Ye on the patio at Starbucks. Yep, Starbucks again! It was a nice morning so we decided to eat our breakfast outside. As we lingered over coffee and made our plans for the day, two young men sat at the table next to us and promptly lit cigarettes. It was their right, the patio being the designated smoking area. Carrie Ann wrinkled her nose in disgust. She has a presumed allergy to cigarette smoke, though I’ve never seen her suffer any effects in all the times we’ve been out together, although we have been around smokers.

I suggested we move to another table because the gentlemen’s cigarette smoke was wafting directly toward us. She, in a loud voice, suggested we tell them to put their cigarettes out. Just as I was admonishing her that they had a right to smoke and we, sitting in the smoking area, should not inconvenience them, one of them overheard our discussion and told us, in English, that they would put their cigarettes out if it bothered us. A win for Carrie Ann turned out to be a win for us all.

The English speaker was Gary, a very nice man who, as it turns out, lives in Wuhan. He is a business man, head of his own export company. He had just sealed a major deal with a firm in Italy, so he had given himself the month off and had come to Chengdu to visit his friend. He would be leaving the following day, headed back to Wuhan, but was making the most of the fine weather by lingering outdoors and chatting away. We soon engaged in conversation and before you know it, we had exchanged contact information and made plans for lunch.

They took us to a fine local restaurant nearby. Sun Ye ordered all the food for us while Gary arranged for a table in the courtyard that was sufficiently shady. This being peak lunch hour I’m sure a certain amount of Guanxi flowed to ensure ours was a superb dining experience. And it was! Everything was delicious, including the company. This was the only time on this whole trip that we sampled local fare and it was all very tasty. Of course, in consideration to our foreigner taste buds, Sun Ye made sure to order food that was not too spicy.

All too soon our encounter ended. We made plans to get together once back in Wuhan, and then parted company. Gary called me before boarding the train the following day. He assured me that, if we needed anything while still in Chengdu I could simply call him and he would make things happen for us long distance. He also promised to invite us over once we got back to Wuhan. We are supposed to have a nice get together at his home this Saturday night. I’m so looking forward to it! It seems Gary will be a great friend.

Later that day, after roaming around the People’s Park and Tibetan Street we went off in search of Pete’s Tex-Mex restaurant, advertised in Lonely Planet as one of the top rated expat restaurants in town. Having spent a sizable block of time in Texas I can honestly state that everything from the décor to the food was indeed Tex-Mex. Tea was served in Mason canning jars, tortillas were dispensed from plastic tortilla keepers and fajitas were served on a sizzling cast iron platter, just like in Texas.

Each of us sampled our fare and rolled our eyes at the sublime pleasure of this delicious food. I had ordered only an appetizer, being still comfortably sated with the lunch so kindly provided by Gary and Sun Ye but Carrie Ann had fajitas and Olaf laid waste to some beef enchiladas. My stuffed potato skins and lemonade were so good that I declared I would willingly throw myself on the floor and kick my legs up in the air like a dying insect. Surely, with food this good I must have died and gone to heaven!

But the food and ambience were not the only things that made Pete’s so remarkable. Before even getting to our seats we met Ilona, from upstate New York who was there with six other University representatives from the Northeast States. They were in China to recruit students for their language exchange program. This was to be their last night in Chengdu before they moved on to parts unknown. Nobody suggested we dine together, which was fine. I certainly did not want to barge in on their group. But we did exchange contact information and Ilona and I have already exchanged an email or two. She will help me set up my pen-pal project for my students, with students from her schools. Also, she has promised to forward my initial email to several other schools that have an active Mandarin Studies program, so my kids should have plenty of correspondents next year. I’m so excited about that!

And then, there was Alyssa and MK, whom we met at the Bookworm. That establishment is part library, part eatery, part lounge and completely inviting for its intellectual atmosphere. If I lived in Chengdu, the Bookworm would definitely be my hangout.

Unfortunately, at this point Olaf and Carrie Ann had gotten into a little tiff. For the first time since the start of our trip we parted company. Olaf went back to the hotel while Carrie Ann and I hung out at the Bookworm. She pretended to not be bothered by her friend’s absence but I could tell, by the forced brightness of her speech and her manic joy at perusing the bookshelves that she regretted the fallout between herself and her good friend. I did my best to distract her. We sat in the Bookworm’s warm ambience, talking of books we’ve read and our plans for the future.

Upon arriving at that establishment I had lingered outside to have one of the few cigarettes of this trip. That is when I noticed this beautiful woman, conversing with an older man. Her hair was done up in a french braid from her hairline to the middle of her back. She wore a gray, Grecian styled, long gown with brown trim that highlighted the color of her eyes and the paleness of her skin. Not that I normally notice women in such a way but her beauty was remarkable, especially because it was coupled with an apparent intensity of thought. By her body language and mien I mused the conversation she was having with this older gentleman must be ponderous and thought-provoking indeed.

I had occasion to approach her later, when we were waiting in line in the washroom. I told her I thought she was a lovely woman and everything from her gown to her hairstyle was visually appealing. She thanked me and thus began an hours long debate on religion, philosophy and sociology: just the kind of conversation I hunger for! For several hours Alyssa, Chris – the older gentleman, Michael and I sat on the patio, talking, drinking and smoking. Carrie Ann did join us reluctantly, making me ever aware of her distaste for smokers.

Before heading out to the patio, MK and I had a brief conversation. She had overheard Alyssa and I talking in the washroom and, as a longtime resident of China had several pointers to offer me about negotiating employment contracts. She also knew several people she could put me in touch with for future job opportunities, should I decide to leave Wuhan. She and I also exchanged contact information and have already exchanged emails as well. This woman is a veritable fountain of knowledge, information and contacts! She will retire soon and divide her time between China and America where her 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren reside. They miss her terribly and want her to come home. I think she’s ready to, but by personal experience I can tell you that it is very hard to get China out of your blood once you fall in love with the place.

Just ask Alyssa, who vows China is her home. Ask Chris or Michael, who have each married Chinese women and have made their lives here. Ask Ilona, who comes back every three months for her educational outreach program. Ask Gary, who has been all over the world and still comes back to Wuhan.

Isn’t this a lovely group of people we met in the short time we were in Chengdu?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Panda Conservation: What are We Saving Them For?

Lifesavers save lives, sight savers save your eyesight and breath savers clean your breath so that it is not offensive to others. When that commercial comes on TV for the popular mint Breath Savers, I’ve always been fond of making the joke: “Breath Savers: what are we saving it for?” One can save their breath when making redundant conversation or trying to tell a teenager anything, I know. But otherwise, one must expend breath in order to live. So… what do we need Breath Savers for? Or are we rescuing conversants from our own halitosis?

Panda conservation is a different matter. Pandas need conserving. There aren’t very many of them left in the world – fewer than 2,000. So, the Chinese government has invested a substantial sum of money and other resources such as: biologists, geneticists and others specializing in animal husbandry to make sure the pandas continue to survive and thrive.

When I say survive, I am not joking. Pandas are called living fossils; the species is over 8 million years old. According to biologists, the species should have died out millennia ago. They are poor at breeding in the wild. Mating season for pandas is only about one month, somewhere between April and May. A lot of times the mating ritual yields no results. Between the lack of fecundity and bandits who are more than willing to risk a prison term for poaching the endangered panda, the future of the species is definitely questionable.

Pandas are crepiscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and at dusk. They tend to sleep a lot because their metabolism is so slow, thus they have earned the reputation for being lazy. They are actually quite playful when they are full of energy. They enjoy rolling around and engaging in ‘panda tag’, a game similar to human tag, just played with pandas instead of children. Although, I think pandas do not have set rules like humans do.

There are in fact two types of pandas: red and giant. ‘Giant’ is a misnomer because in fact these bears are not very big. They stand maybe 6’tall when on their hind legs; when sitting up they are no more than 4’ tall. Red pandas resemble a raccoon in size and appearance; in fact pandas and raccoons are genetically related.

Both types of pandas like to sleep in trees. I don’t know for sure why but I suspect it is because it makes it harder for predators to see them while they are asleep. Giant pandas curl up in such a way that only the black part of them is visible to the ground below and red pandas have a black underbelly to trick predators into not seeing them. Neither species of panda is especially sociable but the red pandas especially are not communal animals.

At one time, pandas were carnivores. Some undetermined time centuries ago, pandas changed from carnivore to herbivore. Scientists do not know why. I wish they did; it frustrated me to no end to learn this fact and not be told a reason for it. The poor pandas and scientists must be even more frustrated than I got; pandas only absorb 20% of the nutrients of the bamboo they consume by the pound before it is ejected. In the wild pandas eat fruit, leaves and tree bark to supplement their diet; in the conservation area they are fed a special ‘bread’ cooked up in the panda kitchen and served to the ever hungry animals daily.

The panda conservation park, for all of its size, cannot grow enough bamboo to feed its population. The park managers buy bamboo from local farmers and use the park-grown bamboo as a supplement to what they buy. I do not know how much bamboo an average sized panda consumes each day, but if they are only absorbing 20% of the nutrients, it is no wonder their metabolism is so slow!

Do I sound like an expert on pandas? While not an expert exactly, I know much more about pandas than before. Actually, this daylong trip to the panda conservation area made me angry. I came to learn about pandas and see some of the playful little bears but walked away with more questions than answers. While I did get to see some pandas I grew impatient with the tour groups who insisted on shouting, clapping their hands and making noise to attract the panda’s attention so they could get a good, face-on photograph or two of a panda. Not only were the tourists shouting and whistling but the tour guides were urging their charges on and joining them in the noisemaking! Our little trio ended up racing through the park ahead of the tour groups so that we could enjoy the pandas in their serene environment, and enjoy the quiet of the park without shouts and whistles from every direction.

As we did not have a tour guide, most of what I learned in the conservation facility came from signs posted around the park. Most of the questions I was left with came from the documentary shown in the panda theater about breeding, and the nurturing of baby pandas. Most unfortunately the research center was closed for maintenance but there were two theaters showing short documentaries that gave me few answers to the many questions I had, like:
· What is a giant panda’s life expectancy now?
· What is their average fecundity?
· Why did they migrate from Northeast to Southwest Asia, and why are they now concentrated in Sichuan province? (besides the obvious answer of: because that is where the conservation area is).
· Why do they only absorb 20% of available nutrients from the bamboo they consume?
· Why did they change from carnivore to herbivore?
· What is the current ratio of male to females in the panda population?

Some answers that I did get are:
· Pandas reach sexual maturity at 5 years of age.
· In the wild a female will seek an acceptable mate; in conservation females are presented with a succession of males. If no mate is accepted, the scientists will use artificial insemination, but only during the set mating period between April and May.
· Because pandas are reluctant breeders the males are usually stimulated using a combination of electrical stimulation and massage to ejaculate (how would you like to have that that job?) The semen is then collected and inseminated.
· Gestation period for expectant pandas is uncertain because of their rotund body shape. Also, the clever pandas know they will receive preferential treatment – more food if they are thought to be pregnant. Some of this breed have been known to ‘fake’ a pregnancy.
· All panda cubs are born clinically premature. They emit constant loud screeching sounds that bewilder their mothers. Sometimes the mother ends up killing her cub because her maternal instinct does not awaken until the cubs are about one month old.
· Cubs are either single or twin birth, seldom do pandas produce more than one cub per pregnancy even though they are most often artificially inseminated.
· The mother raises the cubs until 18 months old and, once that maternal instinct kicks in they are quite loving and devoted to their baby, seldom leaving it.

I guess it is fair to say that, if scientists do not have the answers to all the questions they have they cannot be expected to divulge that information. I just wish they did not raise the questions in my mind because now I really want to know these things!

I thought about it all the way back to Town Center. Slowly my anger cooled and I vowed to do more reading on pandas, if only to satisfy my curiosity. Surely there has got to be more information out there!

One thing I am not curious of: pandas are a dying breed, and only the conservation area stands between them and extinction. It is expensive to maintain this park and to continue to study these creatures and a lot of people besides the government make sizable donations to the park. Most notably Jackie Chan. He donated one million Yuan to the park and adopted two cubs, meaning that he alone pays for their care and upkeep.

Yep, Jackie Chan and his good, good heart strikes again. So, when you watch the movie where he dresses up in a panda costume, rest assured that, for him it is not just a costume. He bills himself as father to the two pandas he adopted. Maybe he wears his panda costume to their birthday parties.

But you don’t need to go to that extent. Just educate your young about pandas and, when they come to visit your city, be sure to visit them and please, make a donation. If not, there might not be any pandas around for our grandkids to marvel over.

Arrival Chengdu: First Impressions

Carrie Ann and Olaf both napped on the plane but I am not very good at sleeping in a moving vehicle, regardless of how fast it is moving or how high the altitude. No nap for me! After the two hour flight I was eager to debark our craft and start seeing the sights. My travel companions were too fuzzy-headed from sleep to have that same level of excitement.

Here is another throwback to air travel of yesteryear: the plane parked on the tarmac and a bus met us to take us to the terminal. Imagine a huge parking lot with a plane here and there, and regular, city sized buses circulating between them, ferrying passengers to and from their planes. How long as it been since you’ve seen that?

Chengdu airport is undergoing expansion. They are not tearing down the old airport to build new and they are not adding a wing or two (pardon the pun); they are building a whole new airport to operate in tandem with the current facility. Perhaps the new building will have standard terminal approaches where each craft latches onto the building like a newborn animal onto its mother’s teat. For now, I am charmed at feeling the wind on my face across the great expanse of the tarmac and seeing nothing but open space and planes taking off in the distance. This carryover from old times, when air travel was new, exciting and mysterious presaged our visit into ancient Chengdu.

Carrie Ann does not enjoy public transportation, even in Wuhan. Maybe especially in Wuhan. When we go out we tend to taxi everywhere which is convenient, I’ll admit, but could get costly if one does it all the time. In this instance I could see her point though: coming into a strange city and not knowing anything about the public bus system, I would probably take a taxi into the city too. Fortunately, throughout this trip we took turns paying for cabs and if the fare was exceedingly high, like it was for some destinations we had planned to visit, we shared the cost. Besides, I’ll remind you that I don’t usually just jaunt off to what for me would be a luxury weekend, so I thought it would be OK to splurge on taxis this trip.

Chengdu impressed me from the get-go with its wide boulevards and tree lined avenues. Traffic stayed in its designated lanes. There were no horns honking and no cars or buses taking advantage of traffic breaks. An interesting difference between Chengdu and other cities I’ve visited: traffic lights. Pedestrians have the traditional red-amber-green light system normally used for vehicle traffic and cars only had one light that changed from red to green and back. Also, there were stop signs here! I had to capture these essential differences for all to see. The drivers seemed more relaxed behind the wheel. Even though we arrived around lunchtime no one seemed hurried or frenzied.

Looking out the taxi window I did see the luxury shops described in the previous entry. It seems there is a lot more money in Chengdu than in Wuhan. Taking in the sights, it just barely registered that Olaf and Carrie Ann were discussing our accommodations. More specifically, our lack of accommodations. We had no reservations for our next 3 nights! Where were we going to lay our head and park our luggage? Why didn’t anyone tell me about that? I could have done something about it before leaving Wuhan!

Actually I’m kind of glad I did not make any reservations. My traveling companions being much more discriminating than I am, I would probably have gone and reserved something that they consider substandard and we would have been in the same position: no place to stay. We decided to discuss our lodging options over lunch. Great idea: I’m starving!

As written in the previous entry, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, an area well known for its especially spicy food. I am not happy eating overly spicy food but I was looking forward to trying it. The area we were walking, Jing Li Street had plenty of restaurants serving local fare. I could tell it was local because my eyes teared up involuntarily from the spicy smell wafting out from them. Maybe they would have something mild on the menu; I don’t want to cry through my lunch!

My fears proved groundless. We ended up eating at… Starbucks. Yep, good ole Starbucks, whose penchant for establishing themselves in or around cultural centers and tourist attractions is causing them big trouble in Beijing. They want to open a store in the Forbidden City – the last emperor’s dwelling, much to the chagrin of traditional Chinese who do not want one of their most impressive cultural relics sullied by the archetypically Western, green and white mermaid. The debate rages in Beijing, but in Chengdu I was just hungry enough to agree to a hyper-expensive lunch at the mermaid store on Jing Li Street.

And that’s when I found out that Carrie Ann does not much care to try indigenous eateries. In fact, this whole weekend we ate Western food at expat oriented restaurants, save one notable exception which will be an entry all its own.

Starbucks in China is like Starbucks anywhere else. Same food, same coffee, same affluent clientele either working their computers or reading their books while sipping their lattes. I had a Cesar chicken wrap with a mineral water for a grand total of 44Yuan. VERY pricey! I could have eaten for two days on that amount of money in local eateries. But, one has to go along to get along, as they say. Two thirds of this travel trio want Western, so Western it is. All weekend long. I did draw the line at McDonalds though, Carrie Ann’s favorite for breakfast.

In spite of the Western atmosphere and food, we did enjoy our time at Starbucks and, more importantly, decided on accommodations. Carrie Ann has a Lonely Planet traveler book; an indispensable tool when traveling. How have I been living without one all this time? Well, OK: maybe it is dispensible. But it certainly made finding an acceptable hotel much easier. I may have to invest in one.

We parked our luggage in our rooms and set off for dinner. The lunch at Starbucks was satisfying but not filling and by the time we got to our hotel, unpacked, walked around a little and found the city segment we were looking for, we were hungry all over again. Carrie Ann and Olaf wanted barbecue from an elusive restaurant in a major shopping district. We did find the restaurant but it had merged with a Chinese barbecue restaurant that we did not find appealing at all. We settled instead on Korean barbecue, also quite tasty. For those of you who do not know, Korean barbecue involves cooking food on the grill built into the table. It is quite good and very filling; before you know it you’ve eaten more than anticipated and are groaning with the discomfort of your excess. Fair warning to those wanting to sample Korean barbecue: get there hungry and don’t order too much food!

The waitress and floor manager insisted on showing us how to cook but Carrie Ann, who had lived in Korea already knew the traditional way to cook and shooed them away. Once they finally got the message that the foreigners wanted no fawning they left us alone and we enjoyed our meal.

After dinner we were all exhausted: getting up early, flying in, walking all over the place and the late meal all served to put us on the sleepy side. For once I did not mind the cab ride back to the hotel. A quick shower and it was ni-night time for me!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Air Travel in China

I usually do my traveling through China by train or bus. These modes are less expensive than air travel, although those depots and sometimes the conveyances leave a lot to be desired from a cleanliness standpoint. I have a passing acquaintance with airports in China though. I’ve flown into Beijing several times and into Shanghai. It is not like I am a total stranger to the airways here, but I am not as familiar with flying as I am with riding. And, I’ve not often flown out of cities; I tend more to fly into them. That makes a difference.

One aspect of air travel that is not different whether you are flying in or out is cleanliness. These airports are fantastically well maintained! I’ll get to that in a minute.

Because of Carrie Ann and Olaf’s limited time we opted to fly to Chengdu. By train it would have been a twenty hour journey one way; by the time we got there we would have just enough time to rest up before coming back home so they could resume their work. If we were going to maximize our visit we would have to fly.

The plane tickets cost us 1,250Yuan each, quite a bit more than I’m used to spending on a weekend jaunt. Matter of fact, it is a little more than a quarter of my monthly salary! But on the other hand, how often do I just jet off somewhere for the weekend? I suppressed my wince and paid Carrie Ann back for my ticket. Olaf, being in a position of responsibility within his company, has been assigned a car with a native driver. That would get us to the airport.

I’m kind of liking this: my travel arrangements made for me, and being chauffered around. Already I’m spoiled with more luxury than I’ve had in the last ten months!

Rather than spend the night at Carrie Ann’s, it was decided that Olaf’s driver would pick me up on the way to the airport. That worked out well because I did have things to do at home and spending the night away would have made it impossible for me to get them done. The poor man hates coming out here because the roads are so bad. He shudders every time he goes over a pothole and does his best to navigate around them. In my neighborhood though, sometimes the whole road is a pothole and there is no navigating anything. I feel his pain.

Once we got onto the Third Ring Road, the highway encircling the city that would take us directly to the airport, the driver unclenched his jaw and we started making really good time. All of us were high on the anticipation of our weekend. Excitement was rampant and laughter rang out as we enjoyed the prospect of this getaway. All of us except the driver, who didn’t understand a word we said and was not excited at all.

Being as I retain the memory of air travel in America, I was a bit worried about getting to the airport in time for security checks. I anticipated long lines, having to partially disrobe and half unpack my luggage. I imagined the traffic congestion in front of the terminals as everyone in the city arrived at the airport for their early morning flights. I was so far off the mark it was as though I had never flown before.

There were no crowds and there was no traffic. We pulled up at the terminal building with just 10 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to take off. I almost fell over when Olaf said “Great! We’ll have time for a cup of coffee before boarding.” Um… what about security checks and patdowns? What about removing shoes and laptops? What about disguising fluids and dodging lines?

No such thing here. We breezed into the terminal and I was struck by its airiness and cleanliness. The floors were glossy clean, the advertisement booths graffiti free, the lighting gentle and inviting. Nobody was lounging around on the floor or shouting into their cellphone or running to make their flight. Here and there across the wide open area cleaning personnel could be seen pushing a dustmop or cleaning off a trash can. Is this actually an airport terminal?

Well, yes it is. I can tell that by the service counters that have luggage scales mounted into them, clerks seated behind the desks and the conveyor belts for luggage directly behind them. There is a security checkpoint right there, where you deposit your carry-on to be scanned. There are no lines upon lines of people waiting to clear security and there are no agents pre-verifying your right to travel. Everything is open, calm and procedural.

If more than 5 people stand in any one line, another security clearance clerk is brought into service. Service is expedited by a security agent walking the lines of waiting passengers with his electronic wand, ready to sense a metallic disturbance on each person. Once your ticket and identification has been verified you put your carry on onto the x-ray conveyor, after removing your laptop, of course. You are not instructed or required to disrobe to any degree. While your bag goes through its cursory, non-intrusive investigation you are invited to step forward. A smiling agent waves his or her metal detecting wand over you and if nothing is detected, you are free to go. You claim your bags from the ejecting conveyor and follow the wide, uncluttered concourses to your gate.

Being as I’m used to train or bus travel, I had forgotten that I could not carry a bottle of Listerine on the plane with me. No problems! I was asked to open my bag so that the agent could see what that large liquid mass was instead of being hauled off to the side and the agent tearing into the suitcase. Rather than confiscating my mouthwash and having to submit to a more intense scrutiny because of my oversight (if she tried to sneak mouthwash on the plane, what else is she hiding?) I was allowed to go back to the check-in counter with my bag and check it. All I had to do was show my ticket and I didn’t have to wait in line at all.

Because there is no need to be at the airport hours ahead of your flight’s departure the waiting areas and secure areas are uncrowded and quiet. Such a different atmosphere from American airports! Because of the lack of shouting, frustrated people in the concourses (who may or may not still be arranging their clothing) we did indeed have time to grab a cup of coffee, but we did have to get it to go. Our plane had started boarding fifteen minutes ago and we were the last passengers to execute that final formality. Nevertheless we were greeting with smiles and welcomed warmly onto the filled craft.

This is truly an airport experience worth writing about, don’t you agree?

No long taxiing to the runway and no wait before takeoff. Within ten minutes of sealing the craft we were airborne. Just after hitting cruising altitude the skycaps started serving breakfast and beverages. Such a pity! I left my wallet in the overhead compartment and I would have to get up and get some money if I wanted to eat. And I did want to eat; I was rather hungry. Wait a minute! I’m not seeing any money change hands or anyone declining food or drink. Aren’t they going to charge me for my meal?

Nope! The food and beverages are included in the price of the ticket. While you can’t have as much breakfast as you want, you can have as much to drink as you want. The beverage cart went through the plane twice. At no time were the skycaps rude or demanding, nor did they act harried or put upon. They were lovely, gracious and appeared happy to provide refreshments.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what I remember air travel being like in the not so distant past. Imagine finding it in China, where life is so regimented and rigorous! And, this was not an isolated experience, either. Flying back was exactly the same: streamlined check-in procedure, cursory security process, comfortable flight with complimentary snacks and beverages served by gracious hosts.

In about two weeks I’ll be boarding a plane for a substantially longer flight. I wonder, when I land at LAX… will I have this same degree of cleanliness in the terminal, this calm sense of purpose from my fellow travelers, the same quiet authority from the uniformed agents, the same open spaces to navigate baggage claim?

What do you think?

Destination Chengdu

I taught the last of my classes nearly two weeks ago. I tallied my grades and turned them in last week. I am now waiting on my extended residency permit to be approved by the regional government office and after that, I will be America bound. What to do in the meantime?

Well, travel! I am a vagabond, even if a pretentious one.

I had long wanted to visit Chengdu. The only thing I really knew about that city is that there was a huge Buddha statue carved by a blind monk. I wanted to go see it. As far as Chengdu was concerned? Well, a city is a city is a city. While most cities have their particulars, each city has shops, people, roads and tourist attractions. I’m coming to realize that a lot of cities look alike with their chain stores and franchised restaurants; it is the feel of them that are different. I did not anticipate a special vibe from Chengdu like the one I feel when I visit Xi’an. No, the only thing I really wanted to do in Chengdu is go see that giant statue carved out of a mountainside by a blind monk in the 700’s.

And I did see it; you’ll read all about that experience several posts from now. First, about Chengdu and how I came to go there.

While visiting with Carrie Ann she expressed the idea of burning her four days of leave before the end of the school year. Being as her schedule is much more rigorous than mine, she has to plan her ventures more carefully than I do. She opted to take two days in conjunction with the weekend, which would give us four days to discover and explore together. She also invited her friend Olaf, a German native who is on assignment in Wuhan for his engineering firm. Strangely enough, Olaf had just told her the day before that he wished to visit Chengdu before his China assignment ended in five weeks.

Chengdu it is, then!

成都 Chengdu – pronounced ‘tchung-do’ is a 2,000 year old city. Relatively young by Chinese standards, nevertheless it boasts a rich history and culture. It is the Capital of Sichuan province, located in Southeast China. The name of the city means ‘become a capital’, so it lives up to its name. It has made staggering progress in modernization and industrialization, now being home to companies like Motorola, Microsoft and Siemens.

Its traditional culture – spicy foods, embroideries and brocades distinguish Chengdu from other Chinese cities. It is the start of the Southern Silk Road. Chengdu, like Los Angeles sits at the bottom of a topographical bowl and is ringed by mountains. Industry is strictly controlled so that air quality remains healthy. Indeed all of the buses and taxis are natural gas powered and tractor trailers are discouraged or even fined for driving through the city rather than following their designated routes.

Chengdu is home to about 10 million people. It boasts a thriving expat community as it is the home to many consular offices, including an American one. Although traditional Sichuan food defines the culture, there are many ‘foreign’ eateries that serve anything from Indian food to Tex.Mex. Nightlife pulses at clubs such as The Shamrock which offers all you can drink for 88 Yuan, or The Bookworm, a more sedate and intellectual setting that features a well stocked library of books written in English, as well as a fully stocked bar and a menu that offers anything from spinach salad to bangers and mash. Many students, after graduation from the city’s universities choose to make their home in Chengdu because of its progressive, urban lifestyle.

Shopping, a trademark of contemporary Chinese cities is exciting at such areas as Chun Lu Street. There you will find several hundred stores and large malls selling everything from basic household items to luxury goods such as jewelry from Cartier, perfume from Guerlain and clothing from top of the line designers.

If you are into ‘tourist shopping’, buying souvenirs, you should visit Jin Li Street. It is part of ‘old city’ Chengdu but has been completely renovated. While the buildings maintain their ancient architecture they have all been modernized with electricity and indoor plumbing. Most buildings house restaurants or shops. Paved avenues make strolling this area feel like you are in Shanghai in the 1920’s.

Chengdu is home to many temples, most notably Wuhou and Wenshu temples. Both are within city limits and display relics of traditional Buddhist worship and culture. Each temple is surrounded by cultivated grounds that beckon with their lush, green shade on steamy, hot days.

For temples outside the city limits you can visit Mount Emei (峨眉山) or Mount Le Shan (乐山). Mount Emei is one of the four Buddhist sacred mountains in China. Not only is it home to over 30 temples on the mountain but also home to several monkey tribes. The peak of this mountain, at some 3,000 meters above sea level is usually buried in clouds, making you feel like you are on top of the world.

Le Shan, meaning Happiness Mountain is where the giant Buddha statue sits. Well, was carved from. The statue is 71 meters tall and faces the convergence of the Dadu and Qingyi rivers. While the sight of the Buddha statue is magnificent, the opposing view – the rivers and the city across the water, is equally spectacular. The giant Buddha is not the only attraction to Le Shan; the temple at the peak of the mountain rests on its own timeless reverence.

For more natural recreation, you can enjoy visiting the giant panda conservation area. Sichuan province is home to the dwindling panda population and the Research Base is located close to the heart of the city. The pandas are fed early morning because they are crepuscular animals – they are most active at dawn and dusk. To make the most of your visit, you should visit before 9AM. After that, those lazy pandas don’t do much more than sleep. Although, the park is lovely and well worth walking through, even if you don’t get to see pandas eating or playing.

There is 人民公元 – The People’s Park, where people gather to dance, stroll, boat or just hang out. It lies in city center, within walking distance from another traditional walking street. It is a bit like Central Park in New York; a patch of loveliness in the middle of the city.

There’s Tibetan Street with shops and restaurants. There’s The Valley of Nine Villages (九寨沟) with its crystal clear waters, waterfalls and mountain scenery. There’s ‘Wide and Narrow Alleys’ (宽窄巷子) district, a re-creation of ancient a traditional Sichuan neighborhood. There’s the brand new subway line that will take you through the heart of the city, north to south. There’s museums and bookstores and… and…

The more I read about Chengdu the more excited I get about visiting. I want to see it all! Don’t you? Let’s go!

Everybody Wears Flipflops in the Rain

It is rainy season in South China. Whereas the Northern provinces are suffering in terrible droughts, the South has been inundated. Villages are being evacuated, crops are ruined, farmers and homesteaders alike are in despair over their waterlogged losses. In the cities, people are paying up to 40% higher prices for what vegetables and fruit are available. All over China, under the cloud cover, hovers an atmosphere of anxiety and doom.

Again I say: life is not easy in China. There is generally a ‘feast or famine’ situation with any aspect of living here. This time of year we are flooded with rain, which could result in economic famine for the farmers and businesses.

It has rained for nearly two weeks straight in Wuhan. Not a nice, gentle spring rain but torrential downfalls interspersed by steady misting. The pavement has been wet every day and one day, there was a lake of rain in the lane separating my apartment from the park. And there is no sign of the rain letting up.

Although rain does not bother me particularly, I am concerned about this phenomenon. How much rain can we endure and still maintain soil and subsoil integrity? Although buildings here are solid concrete, how can they not suffer structural instability if the underlying soil is grossly eroded? How can we avoid disease such as dengue fever and E. Coli if the trash pits are flooded and trash is now flowing freely into common thoroughfares?

I tend to want to stay home when it rains. Not just because I don’t like getting wet; I have an umbrella to help keep me dry. No, I don’t like to go out because of all of the mud. The ongoing construction displaces a lot of soil – another reason to be concerned about subsoil displacement and integrity. I don’t have so many pairs of shoes that I can afford to ruin one or two while frolicking in the rain and mud.

Construction workers wear rain boots: what the British call Wellingtons, or Wellies. They are large rubber boots that you wear over your basic shoes. Although the wellies are rather large and might be big enough to accommodate my lunky feet, they probably are not big enough to fit my feet while I’m wearing shoes. Besides, they are not attractive footwear at all. Nope, not in the least charming. I’d just as soon go barefoot.

And that is a strange phenomenon. The Chinese, normally so health and fashion conscious, run around in flipflops in the rain. All over campus, young and old alike can be seen or heard splashing around shod only in cheap, plastic flipflops. Some of the women will venture out in more fashionable, elevated ones but essentially, everyone wears what is tantamount to what Americans consider shower shoes.

Whatever happened to ‘You must keep warm and drink more hot water’ that every single Chinese person I’ve come in contact with has cautioned me to? Shouldn’t proper footgear be considered keeping warm in a downpour? And what about coming in contact with floating garbage, mud and other vermin that might lurk in puddles of standing water? Apparently it is not an issue.

I posed the question to my Chinese Mommy, Zhanni. She had ventured out in the rain to visit with me shod only in flipflops. What purpose is there to wearing flipflops in the rain?

As it turns out, it is quite a logical explanation. Chinese people don’t want to ruin their good shoes, so they wear flipflops and then wash their feet once they arrive at their destination. And then, they take their good shoes out of the bag that they carried them in and dress their feet properly. “Well” I argued, “that… makes sense!” As far as the fact that rain is actually pretty dirty water, especially if garbage is floating around in it? Well, they’re just careful to not touch the garbage, that’s all.

What about dengue fever, caused by mosquitoes who are in fact water loving insects? Not a problem there, either. They burn what is called a mosquito coil that dissuades those pesky mosquitoes from biting. I can attest to that; I burn a long lasting mosquito coil every night to keep from getting bitten. There are mosquito coils in America too, I’m informed. But they are supposed to be for outdoor use. Here they are used indoors and the outdoor mosquitoes fly around, scot-free.
I wish I could train mosquitoes to stay outside and not be subjected to my mosquito coils. They just won’t learn.

What Zhanni said makes a lot of sense, in an odd sort of way. Rather than ruining your shoes, run around barefooted. I remember allowing my kids to put on their bathing suits and go splashing in the rain barefooted on several occasions, and it never hurt them. Of course, we didn’t have floating garbage to contend with, just oil slicks. And everyone knows oil and water don’t mix; it was just a matter of keeping the kids wet and the oil never affected them.

Oddly enough, Martin did not wear flipflops during that major downpour. He had sent me a message asking me if I wanted to join him and several of my other students. They were playing and splashing around in the sports track, which is set in a bowl like depression on campus and was currently under about two feet of water. I elected to not join them, so they came over. The girls were all wearing flipflops but Martin had shoes on. More importantly, his shoes were dry and mud free, even after the walk across campus in the rain. How did he do that?

He told me he had taken off his shoes to play in the rain and then dried his feet. While walking across campus he was just very careful where he stepped and avoided puddles. If he did have to cross a puddle, he did so on tiptoe, thus he did not splash any water around.

When I was a young girl in France, I used to read a comic book series called Asterix that was set during the the Roman empire. The main character’s sidekick, Obelix had an explanation for the strange Roman behavior these Gauls were subjected to: These Romans are crazy.

Just call me Obelix. These Chinese are crazy.

Monday, June 20, 2011


No, I’m not going to plagiarize the novel of the same title by Fletcher Knebel written in the ‘60s. Although the title is nearly the same – his tome does not have an exclamation point after the word ‘vanished’ my story has nothing to do with the political intrigue he spun over half a century ago. My tale is a little… darker, shall we say.

I’ll admit that, being ever the optimist with my cluckings of serendipity and the many joyous and amusing tales I recount, I may at times convey the impression that everything is rosy and fine, and that life is sweet in China. While this is in large part the truth, at least where my experiences are concerned, actually life is hard in China. Ask Jenny, who had her entire purse stolen just today.

But let me tell the story the way it happened, so you can get the best possible picture of what I mean.

Jenny, or Zhanni – pronounced the same way, is one of the original Cookie Cutter Girls (see entry from October of last year ). She is one of the many students whose presence in my life has outlasted the curiosity of hanging out with ‘the foreigner’. Way back when, during our first outing I had dubbed her My Little Chinese Mommy because she always takes such good care of me and even now, while convinced that I do a good job of surviving in Wuhan, she still expresses concern over my well-being. She is one of the few who saw to it that I did not shrivel up and die during those terrible, lonely winter months.

Her resemblance to young Audrey Hepburn is so remarkable that I am at times startled by it. Not just by her facial features – despite its Asian cast but by the grace and poise she carries herself with and by the genuine goodness of her heart and her… for lack of a better description, I’ll use that oh-so-cliché’ed phrase ‘inner beauty’. She is a lovely young woman, through and through. It is my pleasure to be her friend.

She and I had planned an outing to Mo Shan (Mo – to wear down; Shan – mountain) ‘Worn-down Mountain’. I was to prepare egg salad sandwiches for lunch along with all the trimmings. She would search the Internet for our itinerary. We would take off at 8:30 on Saturday morning, get there in time for lunch, enjoy our American style meal and then walk through the park until about 4PM, whereupon, exhausted we would head home.

Here is where serendipity comes into play. Although I was terribly busy yesterday I did take a few minutes to boil the eggs and make the salad. Good thing I did because the power went out overnight all over campus. Had I waited until this morning to boil the eggs we would have been sandwich-less. I took that to be a good sign, an indication that we would have a joyous and carefree outing.

At 7AM Zhanny texted me: ‘The weather might not cooperate today. Do you still want to go?’ Of course I want to go! Why pass up a chance to picnic at Worn Down Mountain? And so we set off, only one hour behind schedule.

The weather really was not cooperating: rain threatened constantly from the leaden sky and a cold, harsh wind gusted from the north. Soon enough both of us were chilled and, while waiting for our next bus transfer we decided to reverse course for an indoor destination much closer to campus.

That doesn’t mean our outing was ruined. Quite the contrary! We chattered, laughed and played on the various buses as though we were contemporaries rather than my being old enough to be her mother. This handsome boy became her boyfriend while the attractive man sitting next to him became mine. Several men who, for some reason persisted in presenting us their posterior as we sat and they stood earned mock pinches and pushes on their butts. Zhanni laughed till she cried and I… was just enjoying being my normal self.

Soon enough we got to our revised destination and I instructed Zhanni on the art of sandwich making. She was delighted at her newfound skill, reporting that she had often seen sandwiches eaten in movies but never knew how to make them. Her first taste of egg salad brought a smile to her face and she gobbled two sandwiches up. Hungry girl! I, more moderate in my consumption due to waistline considerations, limited myself to one sandwich, but I did finish the rest of the salad. It was nice to have egg salad again, even though the relish used to flavor it was homemade and tasted just a bit off. This was the first time I had made egg salad since I left the States.

Our hunger sated – Zhanni’s uncomfortably so, we decided to review our itinerary to Mo Shan. We intend to go another time, when the weather is more conducive to playing outdoors. I asked Zhanni to show me the notebook that she had written directions in and that is when disaster struck! Her cute little purse, tucked by her side while we ate our meal, had vanished!

This was the first time I’d ever seen her face crestfallen and near tears. As she reached for her purse her face registered first surprise and then shock, slipping right into dismay as she sprang up to better inspect the bench she had been sitting on and finally dissolving into near tears as she realized her pocketbook was gone.

While I aver that I do feel safer here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, I do admit that this is not the safest place in the world to live. Crimes such as theft and purse snatching are on the rise. I’m constantly being told about this person or that having their bag, wallet or cellphone taken, sometimes by force. I’ve even written about it before (See Honor System entry). But this is the first time I’ve personally encountered the phenomenon.

Zhanni, smart girl that she is, immediately filed a report with Mall security while I stood just outside their office, formulating this entry in my head. Watching her – tiny, delicate and beautiful in contrast to the seven or eight uniformed men standing around her, I felt a personal anger caused by the betrayal and violation she must certainly feel.

Nevertheless the day ended well. Zhanni, after filing her report, put the whole incident in perspective. Everything taken, including the purse is replaceable. Fortunately she had not been carrying her bankcard and… she was actually kind of relieved! She’d been wanting a new cellphone anyway. See why I say she is a remarkable young woman?

The outing ended with smiles all around. This picture was taken just before boarding the homeward bound bus. When we got back to campus we found that we still had no electricity so, after Zhanni left I wrote this entry long-hand in a notebook. As daylight waned I lit candles to continue composing. Sometimes, when the urge to write hits you just gotta go with it any way you can.

Come to think of it, this notebook might be a nice, personal gift I can give my friend to commemorate our outing. She refused to allow me to replace at least her purse, so maybe she will accept this handmade gift. I hope so.

And you should check out that book by Fletcher Knebel. It is a much better tale than mine, politically relevant and significant still today. Well worth the read!

Friday, June 17, 2011

On the road again.

Travel is happening! I'm off to Chengdu, home of the National Panda Conservatory! You'd better believe there's going to be some good stories to tell; just wait and see. Till then, my conspirators and I say... Have a great Day! We'll see you on Monday.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse

I’ve gone a long way to introduce you to some of my students, but I’ve barely said anything about the teachers, have I? Isn’t it about time I do so?

There are far more English teachers than just Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse. There’s also Chris, Julia, River, Miller (who just got married), Juliet, Amanda, Berry and Ms. B., just to name a few more. But, if I put all of those names in the title it just wouldn’t have the same ring. Also worth noting is that Mouse is not an official teacher’s name. It is a nickname I’ve accorded to Martina, a tiny little teacher who looks like a student herself. I’ve named her that because, the first time we shared a meal together, she ate like a little mouse. Quick as lightening her chopsticks dart into a bowl as she snips a bit of food, and like a flash it disappears into her mouth. She then munches while contemplating her next foray into the prepared dishes. Just like a little mouse.

Daisy and Mouse room together, work together and are probably closer than sisters. They were roommates in college years ago and since then have taken jobs at the same college. Daisy is 27 years old and gorgeous. She has an elegant face and thousand year old eyes that give her an aura of timeless beauty. She is more mature than her little Mouse roommate who looks about 18, but is in fact 25. Daisy longs for a boyfriend, which makes me wonder why her long-time friend Louis, who is clearly crazy about her, has not filled that role. When I posed that question to her she said she would think about it. I hope it works for them. They would make a lovely couple.

Chris and Julia are the world’s cutest couple. They met on campus, while rooming in the same dorms that have since been allocated to the foreign teachers. Julia used to occupy my apartment and Chris had the apartment 3 doors down. Their love affair was not explosive but a slow progression to the steady, slow-burning passion that symbolizes lifelong commitment. Chris’ devotion envelops Julia; within his love she blossoms and shines. Julia hardly seems grown up because Chris’ tender confines.

I don’t know very much about River other than he is a badminton fanatic and that he is married, but his wife lives far away. He is a handsome man, intelligent and well-read. When we have our seminars he is the one who usually raises philosophical questions.

Berry is nothing short of a sweetheart. Standing perhaps 4’10” and weighing at most 87 pounds fully clothed, soaking wet AND carrying her book bag, she is, in my opinion the embodiment of precious. She has lively dark eyes, darker than most Chinese, and a smile unrivaled for its combination of mischief and sweetness. Berry likes to stay in touch. She sends text messages occasionally, to the tune of ‘I miss you! What are you doing today?’ She is married and has a 2 year old boy. Recently her father was very sick. She and I kept a constant barrage of messages going: “How is he doing today?” “Much better, thank you. He ate a little bit this afternoon and now he’s napping.” She lives in constant terror of her father passing away, but while her little boy was in the emergency room getting stitched up from a minor accident, she opted to attend the Teacher’s seminar. She said she missed our talks and came because she knew her husband and father would take good care of her son. See what I mean about being a sweetheart?

Helen, with one ‘L’ or two are not my favorite characters. The one-L’ed Helen tends to be rather bossy and talkative, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. She likes to take over peoples’ lives, planning entire evenings for them and telling them how to live. I should know; I’ve been ‘Helen’ed. She is married and also has a small boy who is utterly delightful, if not a little bit spoiled. This Helen is the one I wrote about in the Be My Friend entry who insists I know nothing about China, Wuhan or how to get around even though I’ve proven otherwise. She feels compelled to keep me in sight at all times in case a bus runs over me. Maybe I find her disagreeable because she seems to see me as on par with her son.

Hellen is not a pleasant person at all. She is opinionated and judgmental, and it seems she spares no one when criticizing. She has a long, harsh face offset by bangs, tight lips that barely force smiles out and a narrow blade of a nose. She has accompanied me on several outings at the behest of other teachers both because they fear I will get lost and because she lives close to campus. It appears that, in Hellen’s eyes I cannot do anything right. The dress I had made is too big and makes me look dumpy. When I ride on the bus and stand in the doorwell I need to move because it is not safe. That doesn’t stop her from standing in the doorwell though. Presumably it is safe for her but not for me. I do not wrap Zong Zi correctly (See Seven Pony-tailed Heads Day entry). I waste too much. My eating habits are unhealthy. The list of my shortcomings goes on an on.

I really tried to like her. The sad truth is that I see a bit of myself in Hellen, the way I was years ago: snippy, arrogant, judgmental and opinionated. Rather than fight with her I opt for tolerance and understanding. I can do it for short periods. So, imagine my horror when she suggested I rent her a room when I get my new apartment this fall!

It started with a conversation between Chris, Julia and me. We were discussing the new apartments that we would move into this September. Although Chris and Julia already own the apartment they live in now, they want to buy one of the apartments being built for teachers close to campus. Hellen jumped in and sighed: “I cannot afford a new apartment. But Sophia will have a two-room apartment; you could rent the other room out to me!” for days I was possessed with the fear that Hellen was serious and actually thought I would want to room with her, and with the idea that I could not give up my living habits and take on a roommate if it was somebody I wanted to live with, let alone someone so totally contrary. I hope she was joking and forgets that she said that between now and September.

Let’s see: who did I forget? Amanda and Ms. B. Both have experience with America. Amanda’s husband went to Chicago last year to study and Amanda became enraptured with the city. That is understandable. She does not see any downside to America at all and wishes to live there forever. I hope she realizes her dream and I hope she never has to see that America, like China, has her problems.

Ms. B is the assistant dean of the English department. She is closer to me in age and we relate famously! Her daughter is currently studying in Florida. That is another thing we have in common: our children are far away. I don’t know too much else about Ms. B other than, after associating with either Helen, she is like a warm summer breeze carrying the scent of honeysuckle and magnolia. I would gladly spend more time with Ms. B. but she is in fact very busy in her personal and professional life. Suffice to say that we like and respect each other, and the door is open for more companionship in the future.

There are more English teachers on campus, but these are the ones who have, of late, reached out to me. I’m glad to know them – even the Helens. Perhaps next year I will be able to associate with more of them or work more closely with the department and get to know everyone.

At least now I have more colleagues to talk about than Victor or Sam. Isn’t that a relief?

Seven Pony-Tailed Heads

This week was Dragon Boat Festival。That is a time when, after months of practice, people race a boat called 龙舟long zhou – literally dragon boat and it occurs on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. No surprise that it is called the Double Fifth Celebration. The boat – actually a skiff, is a long, light water craft traditionally found around Asia. A typical crew consists of 20 rowers, a steersman and one drummer to set the pace for the rowers. Come festival time the boats are decorated with dragon heads and they are painted in vivid colors: red, blue, green and gold. Come race time, the rowers also wear colorful costumes to reflect their team membership. It is quite a spectacle! For practice they just use an ordinary skiff and wear ordinary clothing. The only feature that stays is the drummer… and of course, the rowers.

As with all festivals in China, Dragon Boat Festival has its traditional food, called 粽子 – zong zi, pronounced dzong dzuh. It is a dumpling made of glutinous rice surrounding either a meat or a sweet filling, such as a date or red bean paste, and is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed until the rice binds. There is a certain measure of skill in the making of zong zi, and that is what this blog is all about.

But first I want to tell you the origin of the festival.

Two thousand years ago, the poet 屈原 – Qu Yuan, pronounced Chew Yuan was an advisor to the emperor’s cabinet and much loved by the people. Unfortunately the Emperor did not want to listen to the great poet and he drove the country to ruin. Qu Yuan, not being able to stand his beloved country being brought asunder by the greedy and stubborn emperor, pitched himself into the river in a fit of agony. The people started throwing rice into the river so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. Fishermen ran their boats up and down the river in an effort to distract the fish from eating the body as well.

Now you know why Chinese race boats and eat rice dumplings on Festival Day even though, by now, I’m sure Qu Yuan’s body is no longer relevant. They no longer throw rice in the river, though.

But what of the 7 pony-tailed heads?

Well, there were actually more than 7 pony-tailed heads at my house that night. We were discussing Dragon Boat Festival and what-all it entails in class, and I asked my students if anyone knew how to make Zong Zi. Several of the girls averred that they do in fact know how to make them, and volunteered to teach me. What a great learning opportunity for me, and what a great theme for our End of Year party! We scheduled the party for the week before Dragon Boat Day.

I had barely hung the lights up in the living room and gotten the refreshments ready when, all in a crowd the kids descended upon my apartment. Like a whirlwind they took over my kitchen, going through everything I had laid out, purchased or otherwise prepared and arguing about the best way to chop the meat, soak the rice, fill and steam the dumplings and what we should serve them on.
It was actually quite comical. Rita, from Outer Mongolia province had a different way of chopping meat than did Nemo, who is from an Eastern province. Vivien, whose mother was apparently more strict than all the other girls’ mothers, kept cautioning the others to proper kitchen etiquette. Pharchenal liked sweet dumplings and wondered if we would make any, or were we making only meat dumplings? Maggie didn’t think there would be enough food so she and Grace went to the local market and bought several bags of pre-made foods like regular dumplings for boiling and buns for steaming.

Apparently Maggie and Grace hadn’t noticed my kitchen’s limitations. With my one hotplate, we could only produce one food at a time. And that created another set of problems. Were we making Zong Zi and having snacks or cooking a meal for all to enjoy?

Suddenly, Rita, Vivien, Nemo and Pharchenal found themselves shunted aside so that Maggie, Grace and Rockrose could take over the kitchen to make a meal. The Zong Zi making became secondary, and that caused them to argue even louder than before, this time with the bossy Maggie/Grace team instead of with each other. The rest of the students in the living room clamored for a meal.

I stood there non-plussed. I don’t know what I was expecting… maybe a nice, quiet, step-by-step demonstration of how to make Zong Zi. Maybe I would even get to make one or two myself. I was genuinely curious and wanted to learn, but there was no learning opportunity in my kitchen that night. I never even got to touch a bamboo leaf. There were only photo opportunities. So I took pictures of the seven pony tailed heads that were leading their fierce debates over the proper way to make, wrap and tie Zong Zi as well as the proper way to steam buns and dumplings. And, let’s not forget about the argument over who was dominant in my kitchen: Zong Zi makers or steamed buns and dumplings?

Picture it: water everywhere. Glutinous rice, soaking in a bowl on the window ledge which is now not accessible to the ones who needed the glutinous rice. Steam flowing from the wok on the hotplate. A pound of bacon, chopped and marinating in a bowl too close to the electronic hotplate and risking ruination. People popping in from the living room with chopsticks in their hands, wondering when the next batch of food would be ready to eat.

Do you see why I say it was quite comical?

As suddenly as the activity started it ended. All of the dumplings and steamed buns had been eaten, all of the snacks and most of the beverages had been consumed. A group of students, led by Maggie started cleaning the living room and another group, led by Pharchenal cleaned the kitchen. I’m still standing around, trying to get a word in edgewise. By 9PM, everyone had left my house.

Somehow, twelve Zong Zi survived. One dozen undersized, plaintive looking glutinous rice dumplings sat on my counter, neatly wrapped and tied off with cotton thread. I found them to be a pitifully small yield after the hubbub of activity that lasted for over 3 hours.

And I never did learn how to make them that night. But I think the girls had fun.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sophia’s Bar and Grill

Off I go to Metro again, that fabled store of foreigner goods. This time I have Shelin and Zhanni in tow. They are both curious about what a ‘foreigner store’ might look like and what one might find there.

Originally Zhanni, Dash and I were going to head out together. You’ll remember Dash as another of the Cookie Cutter Girls. She and Zhanni are virtually inseparable: they room together, have all their classes together, text and phone each other constantly. However, Dash is much more active in campus activities so that makes her unavailable sometimes, especially now as the school year winds down and so many activities need coordinating and planning. Zhanni and I usually attend the activities Dash helps behind the scenes with, and our contact with her is limited to waves and smiles across the auditoriums. The three of us do get together and play badminton quite a bit, though.

I’m going to have to write about Dash soon. She is phenomenal. You’ll have to wait for the Dash entry to find out more about her.

Let’s talk about Shelin for a second, though, before we take off for Metro.

Remember Shelin? I helped tutor her to success for her IELTS test (see Shelin Passed entry). She had been silent for a long time after that fabulous dinner we enjoyed together with her parents. I put that down to the fact that she’s a young lady with dreams to pursue and a boyfriend to cling to, to say nothing of good parents that help form her security network. My feelings weren’t in any way hurt by her neglect of me; we had a piece of business to take care of together and that was the extent of our relationship.

Imagine my surprise when she turned up again! Skinny as ever and gracious as a cat, there she was on my doorstep, smiling and beaming on that sunny day. She wanted to let me know in person that she had been accepted to a university in England and she would be headed abroad soon. I threw my arms around her – gently, because she’s so dang fragile she just might break. I’m so proud of Shelin! We spent some time on the Internet so she could show me all about her college.

I did tell her that I was waiting for Zhanni. Our plan was to go to the ‘foreigner store’ and then have a bite to eat on the town. Unperturbed, Shelin invited herself along. I didn’t have the first problem with that; I’ve learned that, the more traveling companions I have the merrier outings become. Besides, that would give Shelin and Zhanni a chance to become friends, too.

OK, NOW we can go to Metro. Both girls were surprised at what a relatively short bus ride it is. Soon we were walking through the widely spaced aisles of that mysterious, mythical store that they had both heard of but had never been to. The first thing I noticed is that Metro has a stock of summer inventory, to include grills. Charcoal, electric and gas grills fill the seasonal shelves at the front of the store that were so recently filled with Christmas merchandise.

Oh, really? Grills? Hmmm… let’s just think about this, now. Summer is here. Grilling is what one does in the summer. Grills are available for purchase. Ergo, I must purchase a grill.

Which grill? That is the question. I could charcoal grill on my patio thereby creating tantalizing smells to rival the street vendors’, or I could purchase an electric grill for indoor use, that came with a pan so that I might also use it to fry bacon and eggs for breakfast.

I opted for a small electric grill, which now obsequiously resides on my countertop. Its green makes a lovely contrast to the deep red of my electronic hotplate, and matches my refrigerator. It is not a big grill, but it is big enough for me to cook a meal on for myself and maybe one dinner companion or two. I love my grill.

I did not buy it on the day Shelin and Zhanni were with me. I figured we were going out to eat after our adventures at the foreigner store and I didn’t want to have to lug it around town. Besides, Zhanni would never have let me carry it; she would have done all the lugging. So, it is fair to say that I did not want to burden Zhanni with a grill during our outing.

Oh, yeah! Our outing! Zhanni and Shelin were duly impressed with the foreigner store. Zhanni liked the huge meat cleaver that she could barely pick up; several times she returned to it and hefted it. Sometimes, she scares me with her love of potential violence. Her favorite exclamation, uttered with a broad smile on her face, is: “Do you want to die?” said in either Chinese or in English. Like she could hurt anybody, small as she is. Needless to say, this is all in jest but… Why did she like that meat cleaver so much?

And why were the girls surprised when I flipped over finding aluminum foil? If I’m going to own a grill, I have to have aluminum foil and there it was, tucked in with other paper goods and baggies. I flipped because I did not expect to find aluminum foil but, as with so many times before, Metro surpassed my wildest dreams. I bought two rolls on the same day that I became a proud grill owner.

Zhanni and Shelin are certainly charming and cute. But by far the cutest anecdote relating to my grill is this picture of Martin and Stephanie. They had come by just as I was getting ready to grill some chicken. They had never seen a grill before, and spent several minutes just staring at it and commenting. You can see by the smile on their faces that they thought sliced bread was nothing compared to this innovation. My guess is that, when they finally get their own homes, each will own a grill.

Zhanni, Dash, Shelin, Martin, Stephanie…Aren’t they precious?

About the ‘Bar’ part of the title to this entry. Victor came by last night, after wrapping up a joint end of year party we hosted for our students. I served him some wine that I had had in the fridge for about a month. The bottle had been given to me by a dinner guest. That was all the booze I had in the house because I’m just not much of a drinker. I guess I’m not much of a bar-keep, either!

More Pictures for I’ve Been Remiss!

I’ve Been Remiss!

I am a writer. My focus is on the written word. My job is to paint pictures with words. Sometimes, when I take pictures that I would normally include with the blog entries, I completely forget the pictures and send only the words, considering my job done.

Enter conspirators! Not only are they responsible for making the blog publicly available, but they also act as my editors.

I’m always happy to see them pop up in my email. Not only are we partners-in-blogging but we are very good friends. I daresay that, short of having the same blood flowing through our veins, we are family. They are supportive and kind, lending me courage when mine falters and strength when I feel like I don’t have anymore. So imagine my surprise when I read that they were chiding me for being remiss! Gently chiding to be certain, but chiding nonetheless.

Their comments do not chafe. What chafes is the slap I gave myself in the forehead for being remiss. So we cooked up this idea. We’re going to try something new. This is a pictorial blog of all the pictures I’ve talked about but neglected to attach.

Both of these go with The Good News and the Bad

Those ubiquitous street sweepers

Construction debris. Note the dust cloud being raised by the oncoming vehicles!

Both of these go with the I’m Going to be Arrested entry
A man walking in jammies

A woman walking in her negligee
These two should go with the Bailey entry:
Bailey, passed out from the exhaustion of being Bailey. She is being mocked by Stephanie, who hardly ever smiles. Wonder why?

This should have been attached to the Green Street entry:
The Street, with its newly planted trees. You can see the construction for the new highway on-ramp in the background.

As you well know – I hope, I try to keep my entries to about a page and a half – somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 words. I note that this entry is 3 pages long. But it is mostly pictures, so I don’t think you’ll mind the long entry…will you?

As for anything good concerning this blog, thank my conspirators. They’re the ones that reminded me to send these visuals. I like to think that my words are enough to give you a good picture of what I’m talking about but, being as a picture is truly worth a 1,000 words… let’s say I’ve written a 7,000 word entry and call it even, shall we?

In the future I will not be remiss. I hope. Words are my game, you know. In a way, I’m undermining myself to send pictures. Think about it!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Good News and the Bad News

Well, the good news is that they are finally finished with the section of construction on the main road in front of our school. It had been in progress over 6 months and I was wondering if the scaffolding would be a permanent part of the landscape. My question has been answered: the view is now clear of scaffolding.

The bad news is that there is now so much dust I have to hold my hand over my nose and mouth at the bus stop. As though the pollution in our neighborhood was not excessive we now have enough dust to… well, I don’t know what dust is good for, but there is plenty of it. Do you want some?

I wish I could have pulled my camera out of my bag in time to snap a picture of the couple on their scooter, zipping down the road. I was standing at the bus stop when I saw this: the man was driving and the woman was sitting behind him. She had her right hand on her face, covering her nose and mouth and with her left hand she had reached around her husband’s face and covered his nose and mouth. Her skirt was left to flap in the wind. It was a hilarious sight, especially since, directly behind them were those ubiquitous street sweepers in orange jackets and pointy straw hats, raising a cloud of dust by sweeping with their ancient looking twig brooms (see picture).

Strangely enough, most Chinese wear face masks to prevent the inhalation of dust but it seemed that today, no one was wearing one. Most people stood far back from the road so that they wouldn’t be clouded in dust. Unfortunately that means that the bus drivers did not see any passengers who wanted to board their bus and they just drove on by.

Thus a comical dance ensued. People got tired of the buses just bypassing the bus stop so they stepped closer to the road – AFTER their bus had already passed. Presumably they were going to make sure that the next bus stopped for them. Soon enough the dust cloud raised by passing vehicles forced them to retreat again, and again they missed their bus. Luckily I was brave enough – or foolish enough to face the dust so I was able to flag down my bus and get on with no problem. I was headed to Hanyang to do a little shopping. I needed some staple goods and the stores near campus do not sell what I was looking for.

The good news is that I have a friend to lunch with in Hanyang. Remember Ozgur, from the Friday the 13th posts? Well, she lives in Hanyang and invited me to call her whenever I headed that way. We could have lunch, visit and talk. What a delicious prospect to meet with her again! Besides, I had an ulterior motive to meet with her. One of my friends who teaches at another language school on weekends asked if I would be available during the summer months to help her coach the kids. Of course, you all know I’m headed Stateside and thus I would be decidedly unavailable during the summer, at least to teach anything in China but I did promise to contact one of my foreign friends and see if she would be available to take my place.

The friend I had in mind was Ozgur. Her English is not only passable, it is quite good and I’m sure she would enjoy the opportunity to teach, especially since the group she would be teaching is about the same age as her own daughter. I had planned to pitch the idea to her over lunch, all while enjoying her company while we snacked on bruschetta.

The bad news is that Ozgur was in no shape to meet with me, for lunch or anything else. Unbeknownst to me she was expecting the last time I saw her and on the day I called she had just been released from the hospital. She had lost her much wanted baby.

Contrary to what I cheerfully reported a few posts back babies are not being born all over the place. Some are being lost and leaving their grieving mothers to cope with the heartbreak. Ozgur was devastated at losing this baby. Her daughter is now 6 years old and she badly wanted another child before her daughter grew too old to appreciate a sibling.

This lovely and gracious woman spilled her tragedy to me, right there over the phone. It seems she needed someone to talk with. I did not mind one bit being the person she turned to; I only wish we had been face to face so that I could hug her close to me and give her whatever comfort I could. Brave and strong soul that she is she did not cry while telling me about it, I’m the one who had to hold back tears. So sorrowful was her tale and so mournful her tone that I could not help shedding a few anyway.

Ozgur had a very philosophical approach to it all, in spite of her grief. She said that millions of women lose babies; it happens every day! Yes, my dear Ozgur, that is true. But this was your baby and your pain is unique to you. Now that you’ve shared your sorrow with me, I carry half of it. I cry for you.

As soon as she is sufficiently recovered to travel she will go to Turkey and visit her mother. She will return to Hanyang in August, after spending a month in her mother’s loving care. We made plans to meet when we return from our travels.

Please keep Ozgur in your thoughts and prayers as she and her family go through this difficult time.

I ate my solitary lunch at the very restaurant she and I had met at just a few weeks before, and then I went shopping. Going home I did not have to wait for the bus as all; it pulled up just as I was crossing the street and walking up to the stop. The bus driver did not have the air conditioning on and we all sweltered, even though the windows were open and the dust was flowing freely. I did not get a seat on the bus this time.

The bad news is that the roads are still in terrible disrepair. There is no good news to counter that with.

That Cheap, Made in China Crap

Every time I read an American news article about manufacturing, GDP, retailing or anything connected to those topics, invariably the reader comments center on the American job situation and the dismal economic outlook. More than one person will comment: ‘Buy Made in America’ products only! If the article talks about retail sales especially, most comments center on ‘that cheap, made in China crap’.

I do understand that the job outlook in America is pretty dismal. I can see that the economy is faltering. My heart goes out to everyone who is feeling the pinch. America does need jobs and American people need to work. Not just for their livelihood and the economy, but for their self-esteem. I understand that this is a very controversial subject and I don’t want to address the controversy, even though I have clear opinions about it

No, that is not what this blog entry is about. I’m addressing ‘that cheap, made in China crap’ that apparently displeases so many people.

I will admit that, in some cases, products that are made overseas are manufactured to the lowest possible quality standards and with the poorest materials. Not just in China but in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Cambodia or any other Asian nation whose workers are recruited to produce goods for overseas consumption. But somehow China is always the target. Nobody ever says ‘that cheap, made in the Philippines crap’.

Let us remember that the American consumer is wise: he or she wants the best value at the best price. Does that mean a quality product? No, not necessarily. So, sometimes the best value at the best price is a cheaply produced product that is not designed to last. Also, let us remember that consumers seek the lowest price for what they buy. That means that retailers, in order to obtain and maintain low prices to keep up with customer demand, has had to move production overseas.

The sad state of affairs is that, between safety and environmental regulations, and transportation legislation, it is cheaper for American companies to recruit overseas production. A good friend once told me that America has legislated itself out of work. There is a grain of truth to that.

But, what about ‘that cheap, made in China crap’? I’ve lived in China for the past 10 months and yes, there is plenty of cheaply made crap. But there is also an abundance of quality goods. They are a bit more expensive though. The average Chinese consumer does not shop at high end retail stores, they are pretty much akin to the Walmart crowd Americans are so familiar with. Even though there are plenty of boutiques here, their products are priced to sell and attract their fair share of customers. Not everyone goes to Walmart. How is it that the Chinese can live with cheaply made crap and make it last?

True, it is not the quality that I have been used to but these goods are serviceable and, if taken care of and not abused, durable. But… isn’t that like anything else? If you take care of something it can last forever?

Chinese consumers have more money to throw around than ever before – I’ve said that a lot throughout this blog. Some people here shop like there’s no tomorrow and some even embody the ‘shop till you drop’ motto, especially at Western New Year holiday when the stores are open for 24 hours straight and prices are slashed. Wu Ma Lu, a shopping district in the Hankou section of Wuhan specializes in merchandise that targets that demographic. Sometimes the goods are overpriced and sometimes they are priced right for the quality they represent.

Consumers here don’t mind spending a few ‘kuai’ on an article of clothing that they know will only last a season. After years of deprivation and economic hardship, they are after quantity, not necessarily quality. And there is something to be said for the magic of buying power, isn’t there? Even the medical community says that it boosts endorphins. Putting that in layman’s terms: it simply feels good to buy yourself something, doesn’t it?

In China it is all about buying power. But then, isn’t it the same in America, too? Do we really need more than a few pair of shoes? Do we need a closet full of clothes? Do we really need big screen TVs with surround sound? Do we really need all that stuff they sell at the mall? For that matter: do we need so many malls that all sell the same stuff, store after store?

From a practical standpoint and from all that I’ve read recently, we do not need all the things we have. Countless articles report on Americans scaling back their lifestyle, getting back to basics and making do with less… and finding a measure of contentment in the process. Many Americans that make the jump into an expat lifestyle – be it in China, Korea or elsewhere are finding that less is in fact more and the less you have, the less you have to take care of. That’s not such a bad deal. I can personally testify to that.

But what about cheaply made goods? They do have their place in a minimalist lifestyle, you know. Perfect example: in America, sandwich bags are several mils thick. In China, baggies are so thin you could easily rend one after the other if you’re not careful. So, I’m careful when using baggies. And guess what? They get just as airtight and preserve my goods just as well as American baggies. I can even reuse my baggies with no problem. Not that I necessarily have a need to, but I’ve been known to, on occasion.

Plastic tubs are another fine example. It would be nice to have all manner of crockery to serve food in, especially if I mass-produce salads, or I’m serving chips for a party. But these plastic tubs, costing just a few kuai each do the job just as well.

Here’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve just recently been acquainted with. When I show off goods that I brought with me from America, my Chinese friends first ooh and aah over them, and then they look for the label, which invariably says ‘Made in China’. They get a good laugh about it. In their fashion they are noting the irony of my showing off something that I brought from America when in fact it was produced right here, sent abroad and brought back. They’re right: it is ironic.

And talk about irony: Enter Judy. She is a Chinese woman who is married to an American businessman. She and her family lived in New York for some twenty years, where she first fell in love with, and then learned the art of wood-fired pizza. As her husband approaches retirement, she has come back to her home town – Wuhan, and opened up a chain of Western-style restaurants specializing in pizza. The first time I patronized her establishment my dining companion, Juliet introduced me to Judy, who wanted to make sure my first visit to her establishment was most comfortable and enjoyable. In that spirit she not only turned on the air conditioner but also switched on the overhead fan.

When turning on the fan the knob came off in her hand. I expected dismay or maybe a bit of embarrassment. Instead she turned, with a devilish grin on her face and chortled: “Cheap, made in China crap!”

It seems not even the Chinese are immune to quality deficits.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Campus Newspaper

This is a university campus; of course there is a newspaper. It comes out monthly. I’ve seen copies of it floating around and have even been given copies of it. It seems to be a nice publication: red banner headline, nice pictures, and presumably great stories. Presumably, because they are all in Chinese and I’m not that good at reading Chinese yet. However, judging by the veracity that students and faculty alike display in reading it, the stories must be good. Surely they are not just looking at it for the pictures… like I do.

There are two reasons why, of late, I’ve become interested in the campus newspaper, and they are both self-aggrandizing. The first reason is that I will be featured in the next edition because of the Teacher’s Seminars I have been hosting for the past few weeks. There will be a write up and a picture, which will certainly make its way into this blog. The second reason is that I have been asked to contribute an article to this school year’s final edition. It will be translated in Chinese of course, but you don’t need that courtesy. So, without further ado, here is the article that I presented for publication in the year’s last edition of the campus newspaper:

A Year in China

China is where I wanted to be. Maybe not in Wuhan, but Wuhan was the chance presented to me and I took it. Except for the dust and the temperatures I have had no reason at all to regret my decision to come here.

It didn’t feel that way at first. Like many of the students coming to this campus for the first time I looked around and wondered what sort of situation I had gotten myself into. I had abandoned a good job in America where I had professional respect, good pay and easy work. I had abandoned my friends and my family. I had abandoned guaranteed social security. I had abandoned my comfortable life to come… here???

Many students describe our school as an ugly old woman with a beautiful heart. That might be a cruel description but in many ways it is apt. Unlike Wuhan University, people would not pay 5Yuan to tour our campus. Unlike Wuhan University for Communications we do not have a lake, a boat and new buildings. Unlike all of the other universities in Wuhan, our school has heart and soul that, sooner or later compels each person here to loyalty and love for this institution.

I had preconceived notions of what teaching in China would be like based on what I read on the Internet from other teachers. I had an idea of what living in China would be like based on what I knew of China, what I had seen in movies and by firsthand experience of visiting. None of my preconceived ideas were correct.

For example: I was not prepared for the loneliness I felt the first few months of living here. Everybody did their best to make me feel welcome and included but, being one of two foreigners in this entire campus and this entire neighborhood was a very hard burden to bear. I was not prepared for that burden to be so heavy. It nearly sent me running back to America.

I was not prepared for the confusion. As a first time teacher I had hoped for a little guidance, or some direction. Maybe even a little bit of supervision. And then I realized that the school officials trusted me to do a good job and felt that I didn’t need to be supervised so closely. It took me a long time to get used to having that level of trust, and even longer to accept this great gift.

So many things nearly sent me running back to America those first few months! Most of them were ideas that I thought were going to be true, but in the end disappointed me. Fortunately, many more things kept me here. Like…

My students: I have never met a group of people that I instantly liked and wanted to be around. I have never had the opportunity to work with such intelligent, optimistic minds who carry the weight of the future on their shoulders with such grace while living with such verve.

My fellow teachers: although it took us a while, we finally found our common ground and started enjoying our relationship. Together we have found professional respect as well as enduring friendship.

Our school administrators: until I came to this school I thought administrators such as these only exist in books and movies. Our school administrators have done everything they can and have gone beyond what is necessary to ensure my comfort, safety and happiness while working in their school. Any request I made was quickly satisfied, usually to a much greater degree than I hoped for.

The fact is that, working in this school is my dream come true. It is not the dream I thought it would be at first, but it is a much clearer, much better reality than my simple, unformed dream was. How many people actually get to live their dream?

Now, with just weeks before semester’s end I walk around campus. Here and there students shout their greetings, some even walk a ways with me. As we walk together in the evening air I feel the muted beat of our school’s beautiful heart; the beat that unites teacher and student alike in our love for our ugly old woman. I look up toward Building 2, where I held my very first class. The setting sun reflects from the window of my former classroom.

I imagine the sun’s reflection as the twinkle in our old woman’s eye.