Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do Overs

Do I have some news to share with you! I’ve already shared it with some of you via email because I just couldn’t contain my excitement. Now I share with everyone.

Darrell and Samantha are expecting! Their little bundle of joy is due sometime in mid-April of next year. Let’s congratulate them and wish them the best.

And so my dynasty grows, as Marjorie says.

Yes, my dynasty is growing. Besides my precious Gabriel there is adorable Katherine, affectionately called Kat-Kat. You know them already. Darrell and Samantha have Zeva, the amazing dog I wanted to teach how to fly by throwing her off the balcony. Not really! They also have Marley and Kitty, but they are cats and somewhat less social than Zeva. Not that I or Darrell and Sam love the cats any less than we do the dog. And now Baby makes 6, as the saying goes. Although I do think that the baby, when she/he gets here will probably take priority over the animals.

For someone with life experiences like mine, this dynasty building is really heady stuff, you know?

I’ve been on my own pretty much since I was fourteen. That is when my mother decided I was better off in Germany instead of within an actual family fold (see A tale of Three Blankies). After moving to Berlin I was left to fend for myself: cooking, cleaning, education, socializing… everything. Soon I was required to earn my own money if I wanted clothes and then came the ‘pay half the rent’ mandate. I moved out of my mother’s house one month after graduating high school, when I was 17.

After my brief marriage of less than 5 years, I was on my own again, this time with two kids to care for. For the subsequent 16 years it was me and my kids against the world, a strange version of The Three Musketeers, although I do aver that Athos, Porthos and Aramis had less squabbling and infighting than me and my kiddos did. Probably because the Musketeers had a leader and I didn’t feel like I qualified as such.

And now I head up a dynasty. Can you imagine? A whole dynasty, for someone with origins as humble as these?

And yet… I’m not ready for it. I’m not ready for Darrell and Sam’s bundle of joy anymore than I was ready for Kat-Kat to join us. And I was especially not ready for Gabriel to put in an appearance ten years ago. Because, every time one of my children produces a child, it is another reminder that my time has passed and their time has come.

My time at experiencing life is over. I’m supposed to be settled in and established. I’m supposed to welcome my children’s progeny and be available to visit and babysit. I am supposed to be financially well off enough to help them out at least, if not treat them to luxuries they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. And I’ve never even had a shot at life.

No fair! I want a do-over!

Remember Do-Overs, from your days of hopscotch and marbles? Those times when you didn’t get the move quite right and felt you could do better? And you would wail, exclaim or shout: “Wait! I want a do-over!” Your playground friends would protest that the move you made was in fact legitimate, and if you got in a snit about it they would pack up their marbles, or take their rocks off the hopscotch grid and go draw another one on some other sidewalk and leave you behind?

I want a do-over for my life. There are songs I’ve not sung and dances I’ve not danced. There are things I’ve never experienced, like a lover’s romantic kiss or the Fall in Vermont. There are things I’ve never seen, like the Wailing Wall or the way the sun rises after a long, cold night on the Fjords of Norway. There are more personal things I’ve never known that I want to experience. There are things I know I could have done better.
And, I want my chance at being young, at being in love, at being free, at being open to anything. I want my unscarred heart back and I want my youth back. I don’t want to go from a life of hardship straight into being a grandmother, without the laughter, the love, the romance that should have been there but wasn’t. I feel like I’ve spent my entire life existing, but I’ve never really lived.

Is this selfish? Oh, boy, is it ever!

The thing is, time marches on relentlessly and events happen that you never foresee. I am the author of most of the circumstances in my life and if I didn’t do things in such a way to yield what I wanted and expected out of life, that is my own fault. I have to accept that, because the world is still marching on and events are still happening that I have no control over, like my children multiplying, or like my aging.

And yet…


I did get a do-over. China is my do-over, where I get to be free, unattached and unencumbered. I am taken care of by the University and I have minimum responsibility. I have time and money to satisfy my urge to travel and see and do. I have great friends to do things with. I am doing what I want and love to do for a living.

My friends are my do-over. I am bowled over at the richness they bring to my life, weaving the dull fabric of my existence with color and vibrancy and fine but durable threads of love and care. These relationships that I’ve never experienced before in my life save for with Marjorie, and even then I did not know how to appreciate her or our friendship properly. Savoring my friendship with you IS my do-over.

My children are my do-over. Now that we are all older and wiser, we are connecting on a completely different level. Gone is the spiteful longing of one sibling over another and gone is the fear that I’ve done something terrible to them that they will have to live in therapy to get over. They are fine individuals, making their way in the world. Having them in my life, and in such a way as we are, is my do-over.

Writing this blog is my do-over. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do with my life is write. Before the Internet, and blogging became a reality, writing was a difficult enterprise. Earning a living as a writer was limited to those whose talent is far greater and whose skills are far better honed than mine. With two children to support, I could never aspire to be a writer. And now I am one. You, my dear Reader, are my do-over.

Every day is my do-over. By virtue of having denied society its constraints and having followed my heart and my passion, every day that I wake up in this apartment, in this city, in this country is my do-over.

I am, and always will be Gabriel, Kat-Kat and now the new baby’s Mema. And, however more babies my children decide to have, I will be Mema to them, too. And I will love them and be happy at my children’s happiness. So maybe I’ll never have a romantic kiss or a loving marriage… the time has passed for certain things. I finally accept that. But I have plenty of loving relationships with no romance involved. I’m making my own choices and experiencing things that, for most of my life I’ve longed for or only dreamed about.

I’ve gotten my do-over.

When you were a kid and wailed that you wanted a do-over… did you get one?

How blessed am I that I did.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Tale of Three Blankies

In my life many things have brought me comfort. Your friendship. My kids. The thought that, no matter I’ve had to endure in my life, I’ve survived and overcome it. My blankies.

Yes, I have blankies. Each of them has a special meaning and, in one case a very long history. I’ll start by telling you of that one.

When I was fourteen, my mother suddenly decided she and I belonged in Berlin, Germany. Abandoning my siblings to her second husband, she and I left sunny Florida and went back to where she felt comfortable. I was lonely, missing my sibs. I had no friends until Marjorie made a reappearance in my life, but that’s another story. Because my mother was no longer attached to a military person – her husband, I had to attend a German school and thus was forced to learn German in a matter of weeks, or I would get kicked out of the only school that agreed to allow me to matriculate. In short, it was a very difficult time in my life.

To say nothing of the fact that I was fourteen, traditionally a hard age to live through.

My mother rented a small room from an elderly couple and we called that our home for several months. There was only one bed and, not being particularly close to my mother, coupled with the fact that I had already attained my lifetime height of 6’, I was not comfortable sharing a bed with her. She bought me one of those foam mattress beds that, during the day looks like a chair but converts to a sleeping mat at night by the mere act of unfolding it. You could say it was the forerunner to the futon.

For those of you that don’t know it, it does get cold in Berlin, especially if you are sleeping only inches from the floor. My mother bought me a red and white blankie. Somewhere I have a picture of me, on my floor bound bed with this blankie covering me.

When I married, my blankie came with me. Ditto for the divorce. For a short while it covered my daughter’s bed, and then my son’s. When they fought over it, I reclaimed it. This amazing blankie even survived the house fire that reduced everything I owned to ash because I had lent it to my oldest brother, a long-haul trucker. He had it in his cab somewhere on one of America’s interstates while everything else I had burned to the ground. He gave it back when he found out I owned nothing.

When deciding what to keep and what to give away in preparation for my move to China, keeping my blankie was a no-brainer. It had been with me through everything; of course it was going to China with me. We separated briefly, my blankie and me. I had to pack it in one of the footlockers and mail it to myself. When I opened that footlocker last year, upon arrival in Wuhan, my blankie was one of the first things I saw. I cradled my face in it and cried (see Welcome Home entry, posted in September of last year).

When moving into this new apartment one of the movers wanted to make use of my blankie to wrap something in it. Not on your life, Buster! That is when I gave him the drape. Now that the weather is turning cooler, my blankie covers my bed and still does a great job of keeping me warm.

I’ve had Red Blankie for 35 years, almost as long as Marjorie and I have been friends. It is still just as plush today as it was years ago. The only things wrong with it is that the red nylon trim is coming off and my brother burned a hole in it with his cigarette. Now THAT is one durable blankie, wouldn’t you say?

My second blankie is also red and white. And red, white and blue. One side is red with white stars and the other side has an American flag motif on it. I’ve only had this blankie for 4 years but the sentiment attached to it is timeless.

When I graduated college my friends threw me a party and showered me with gifts. It was a wonderful time. First the accomplishment of graduating college, a feat I thought was never meant for the likes of me, and then all of those parties. Not just my ‘civilian’ friends, but also my work friends threw me a party and gave me gifts. I’m looking at one of their gifts right now: a picture frame elegantly constructed: two panes of glass with the picture trapped between in, wedged in a metal base shaped in the likeness of 2008, the year I graduated. In it I have a photo of Gabriel, dressed in my graduation regalia and holding my diploma. Yes, I took that gift to China with me too, and yes it does bring back warm memories of the good friends I left behind. But it is not a blankie.

The graduation blankie is just as special. Handmade by Cathy, a friend who battles very serious health issues, it originally came with an indelible marker. At the party, each person got to write a message on the blankie and when the party was over, Cathy folded it and handed it to me. She told me I should take it to China with me and let my new friends sign it. What a great gift, and from such a wonderful woman!

I still have this blankie too. It covers the window bench in my bedroom. It was in the same footlocker as Red Blankie, and it too will be an ongoing part of my travels.

And then, there’s my sister’s blankie. Just when you thought all of the important blankies in my life would be red, this one turns out blue and white. After that first long, overnight ride on the Greyhound, I found I needed a blankie to cover up with. Granted the buses were plenty warm during the day, but at night, when ambient temperature dropped, it got downright cold. That first trip into Denver, I actually used my faithful black bag to cover up with (see Death of a Companion entry, posted in July of this year). I opened up the flap and covered my torso with it. If I had to, I could have traveled across the States covered by my bag, but why be uncomfortable when a small fleece blanket is only a few dollars at the Dollar Store?

As I was hanging out with Anita the latter part of my Denver trip, I mentioned going somewhere to buy a blankie. She consulted briefly with her husband, who went to their linen closet. He brought back exactly the kind of blankie I had envisioned buying for myself. “If this would work, we’ll just give it to you. We have so many of them.” Gratefully I accepted it.

Every night I had to ride on a bus I wrapped myself in my sister’s blankie. It felt like she was giving me a gentle hug, keeping me warm all through my travels. At the end of that monstrous road trip I thought about giving that blankie to my precious Gabriel, but in the end decided to take it back to China with me, in spite of weight concerns. It now functions as my pillow, or I should say a booster to my pillow which, in itself is not quite of satisfactory height.

And there you have it: a tale of three blankies. They will be my lifelong companions, as already attested to by the first red blankie that has been with me so long.

My son has a tale of three too, except his is a tale of three tables.

When he graduated from JobCorps he and I combed pawnshops and thrift stores to outfit his new apartment. Of the householdful of things we bought, only three end tables survived his tumultuous time in Oklahoma. Imagine my dismay when he moved back to Texas, driving a U-Haul truck. I anticipated my garage filled with his belongings, but when he opened the back of the truck, there were only those three tables. It became a running joke between us: he would be a lifelong vagabond, carrying his three tables on his back.

Funny: of the two of us, I turned out to be the vagabond. At least I chose blankies: they’re easier to carry. Darrell should learn to travel lighter!

And, through it all, Tony

I know a lot of students on this campus, although I teach only a fraction of them. We have over 12,000 students here and my classes comprise of an average of 30 students each. Multiply that by 4 and you will see that I only teach 1% of the student body. But I am well known all over the school. Not bragging here, just making a point.

Between English corner and English club activities, student gossip and being a lone foreigner on campus when Victor is not here, I have a measure of fame. Seldom can I walk across campus or on the grounds without being hailed, invited to conversation or to some activity, or being asked how to improve English skills. Some students are genuinely friendly and interested in me, while others have an agenda.

One of the students that had no interest in taking anything at all from me is Tony. I met him last year at English Corner, when he was a freshman. He monopolized the conversation by comparing American versus Chinese education systems. His English skills rate far above the average student in this school, but that is not was makes him so remarkable.

Tony has an unbelievable depth of understanding and wisdom for one so young. He can express ideas that my contemporaries do not grasp or ponder. In short, this kid is amazing. A true gem of academia.

He is not an English Major and is not in any of my classes. However, he does seek me out occasionally and we have long conversations about politics and government, history and philosophy. Like I said: this kid is deep. Not ye average frivolous college kid at all, is Young Tony.

We were not able to keep in touch this summer, as I did with several other kids, but upon returning to China and turning on my China Mobile cellphone, I saw I had no less than 4 messages from my young friend. He wanted to know how I was doing, if I had come back yet, could we meet and have a dinner together to catch up?

Of course we were going to catch up! Tony is one of the kids whose progress I want to follow, and help along if I can. Not every day one meets a Tony. And that’s how I came to enjoy dinner in this extraordinary young man’s company, a mere 3 weeks after coming back from the States.

Tony is a sophomore now, so his classes started at the end of August. By the time we were enjoying our dinner, he had been in class for almost a month. After catching up with the chitchat and our news, he dropped the bomb on me.

Remember that English speech competition I helped judge before leaving for the summer? I wrote about it in the …. Entry. Well, while I was judging the English Majors, Tony was wowing the crowd in the other room, the one with non-English Majors. Naturally, he stole the show and took the top spot.

Now, as China prepares for its annual English Speech competition, each school across the country has been invited to offer up a candidate. Our school enlisted Tony. This fine young man was proud to bursting at the honor, but sweating the challenge. He wanted to talk with me about it. Now, I’m the one honored!

We talked at length about strategy and the competition in general. It seems that each region will host a competition and that winner will go on to the national competition in Beijing, held in the springtime and televised. It works pretty much in the same way as the competition in our school did: each speaker is given his/her topic 15 minutes before their turn to speak, and they have 3 minutes in which to give their speech. Tony has a good shot at walking away with top honors from this. He is anxious to do a good job of things. I recommended he take a sabbatical from the part time job he worked all summer. Also, he should forgo all unnecessary activities in favor of preparing for this event.

This was all unofficial advice, friend to friend. Or, teacher to student. Two days later I officially became his mentor, when Sam contacted me about this subject and asked me to join the coaching team officially. Now I’m reeling! First, having the honor of helping achieve something potentially great for the school and the camaraderie of being a part of a team of coaches. But mostly I was overjoyed at the prospect of working with this most excellent student, this fine young man with such a great mind.

We’ve been at it for the last month. Two afternoons a week, Tony and I meet. I have instructed him on the mechanics of speech giving, how to structure content, how to present himself and his topic. Naturally, he grasped these concepts like a baby grasping her father’s outstretched finger. Truly a marvelous student. I can’t say it enough.

The part that just knocks my socks off, blows me away, drops my jaw – whatever cliched phrase you want to use, is how this kid just GETS things. How many kids do you know that you can speak to metaphorically in their second language, and they draw a correct conclusion? How many 20-year olds do you know that you can draw analogies for and they get the meaning? Not just GET it, but expound on it? Every time I have the pleasure of working with this kid, I am struck by how profound he is.

Here is a fine example. One of the topics offered up for the official competition is ‘What are your views on life?’

Remember: he and I have already discussed the mechanics of speech giving; now we are going over topic and content. Some of these topics are way beyond his age level to discuss with any authority, and he was getting overwhelmed. Understandable, this is an overwhelming topic. He was afraid that he would not give the judges what they want (see how his mind works?), and thus fail.

“Tony, you’re only 20. What do you know about life? For you, life is a candy store. You’re too busy tasting all of the candy: a piece here, a piece there, this piece and that piece…” He interrupted me to conclude: “And then I realize that all the candy is sweet, so I have to choose my candy based on something other than sweetness. Right?”

Did your jaw just drop? Mine did when he blurted that out. I know adults who do not have that level of understanding. And that’s not even where I was going to go with that analogy, but it worked better than what I was going to say to illustrate my point.

With just 3 weeks till competition, Tony is really feeling the pressure. He has a school sponsored internship that he must participate in 6 days a week, 8 hours a day, with no absences allowed. He is coordinating secretary of the English club, and a member of the handwriting club. He is class monitor, and cannot delegate the role for fear of losing it forever. And he has this speech preparation.

His father told him: “Son, if you try your best and are comfortable with the results, then you can say you have done what you can.” I told him at our last meeting: “I almost agree with your father. You only have 2 more weeks to try your best. On competition night, you must DO your best. Do you understand the difference?” I could literally see the wheels turning.

He then looked up at me and said “Yes, I understand. You’re right.”

After talking with him for about an hour about being so overwhelmed I asked him: “How do you feel now, Tony?”

He thought for a moment, then replied: “Lighter. I feel much lighter than when I came here earlier.” And indeed he was sitting straighter, his gaze was more focused and his whole being appeared unburdened. See what I mean about amazing?

Don’t worry, you’ll hear about Tony again.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The blog Blurb:

My dear friends: living in a construction zone has its challenges. Noise, dirt, being far removed from everything... and missing you. I miss writing you every few days.

The school administration is really trying everything they can to get me connected again. Sam wrangled permission for me to use the English Department's office so I can access their wireless network. Unfortunately, while my old laptop will access the network, it will not transmit anything. Apparently my wireless card is configured to a different frequency. It sees the network but won't transmit anything.

Sam volunteered his laptop, but he is writing his thesis and needs his computer. As you can see, we're trying really hard but so far, nothing is working.

Nothing to do but walk to this Internet cafe, about 2 km from my house, and access the internet from there. So, twice a week I'm sending blog entries to my conspirators, who have the patience of angels. They faithfully and dutifully post whatever I send them.

I sent them this. In my heart, you are watching, watching... maybe growing discouraged. Have I decided to quit writing? Is there nothing new to share? No, my friends. No way am I forgetting you, and there's plenty to share. Just no quick way to get it to you.

For now, until I get connected again, look for new entries toward the end of the week. I plan on making the trek to this Internet bar on Thursdays and Saturdays, when my schedule is lightest. There will be new things to read then. I promise.

Thanks again for going with me on this adventure. I could not do it without you.

Thinking of you;

Your vagabond writer

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Election Day

On my third official day as lone resident of this construction area I woke up to eerie silence. Normally I’m greeted by the clang of hammers, the buzz of saws and the whir of drills. The silence was rather refreshing!

I should have been up at 6AM and get ready to greet my first group of freshmen. Yes, once again I have the dubious honor of hosting the 8AM session on Monday mornings. However, the entire campus and the construction site have been shut down for elections.

Wait: elections, in this communist country?

Many people mistake communism for a form of government when in fact, it is an economic system. China is officially known as the People’s Republic of China. Therefore its form of government is republican and its economy is communist. Or, as the leaders of this country are famous for saying, capitalist with Chinese characteristics. It has been so since 1980, when Deng Xiao Ping opened China to the West by inviting trade partnerships and commercial ventures.

Yes, the Communist Party still reigns supreme. Yes, you must be careful what you say and do and you do not have free reign to everything on the Internet. There are no illusions of freedom here; the Government does monitor and control a lot of things. But this is a republic and all across China, in townships big and small, elections are held.

They are even elections like you are used to, with several candidates on the ballot. One huge difference is that no massive ad campaigns are launched. Another major difference is that a candidate does not have to be rich, just have good standing with the Party and a lot of guanxi. As a voter, unless you personally know the candidates, you do not know who is running and what their platform is. Ostensibly, they all represent the Party. That would be the communist party.

And in fact, each candidate must be a Party member in good standing in order to be placed on the ballot.

So, if you do not know who is running, how do you know who to vote for? The answer to that is simple. With a one-party system and that party vetting the candidates, it logically follows that each candidate must be trustworthy or worthwhile. And, one candidate is as good as the other. In theory the law of averages will dictate the outcome of the election. In fact, it is a popularity contest.

As I understand it (and I may well be wrong), the names of the candidates are virtually unknown until you are presented with a ballot. Of the candidates on the ballot, you simply select a name. If you happen to know one of the candidates, that is who you vote for.

Nowhere on campus or around town did I see any political propaganda, nor did anyone tell me anything about this election until Sam sent me a text message on Sunday night, telling me all classes were canceled for Monday morning due to elections. It was only on Monday, after the fact, when he dropped by for tea and conversation that I got the real scoop on how elections are run.

In this election, two of the candidates are directly affiliated with our school. One of them is our school’s president, and the other is the landowner the school sits on. Everyone affiliated with the school – every administrator, teacher, student, maintenance technician and construction worker were instructed to vote for the former so that, if our man was elected, our school will receive more government funds. If they felt it was necessary to vote differently, then they should vote for the latter candidate. That way, at least the school will derive some benefit. As far as our school was concerned, the third candidate did not matter at all.

Are you shocked? Why should you be? Its not like Americans have never bought votes before. Let’s take a trip back in time, shall we?

Remember, from your history classes in school, about the red ballots versus the blue ballots? As the good folk from the community headed into the voting hall, they were handed either a red paddle or a blue paddle. They had the chance to make a choice but, more often than not, they simply accepted the paddle they were handed and, when the electorate shouted ‘Who votes for Blue?!’ all those bearing blue paddles raised them and were duly counted. That was followed by the shout ‘Who votes for Red?!’, and all those bearing red paddles raised them and were duly counted.

That was back in the days when the country was mostly illiterate. People could not read the names on the ballots and that is why colors were used. That system went away the more people became educated. Next came the buying of votes, somewhere around the early 1900’s. The population comprising of immigrants who, afraid for their lives, did as they were told.

Sometimes, entire factories of workers were told who to vote for. Sometimes they were paid a dollar to vote for a certain candidate. To those who lived in tenements and others, who lived in impossible to imagine poverty and squalor, that dollar meant the difference between the family starving that week or being able to eat. To others it meant being able to pay the rent for some mean room with no facilities and to still others, it paid for the doctor to examine the baby with her insistent cough.

If you worked in a certain factory you were instructed to vote for a certain candidate. After you cast your ballot it was examined and, if it was found that you voted for the wrong candidate, you lost your job. Furthermore you were blacklisted and could not find work anywhere else. Upton Sinclair does a beautiful job illustrating all of this in his landmark novel titled The Jungle.

Back to China and their elections. On a national level, such as determining who will succeed President Hu Jintao or any other high office occupant, their successors are already being groomed for the position with no election necessary. Once accepted into the Party, a person is deemed OK by their book and they are fully into the fold.

A candidate’s educational record, military service history, personal finances and life, including his marriage is off the record. Indeed, a country leader’s spouse makes very few appearances and has no political clout whatsoever, as opposed to, say, America’s First Lady, who is expected to have an agenda and be highly visible at her husband’s side.

One interesting story to that fact is the next rumored Prime Minister and his betrothed. She is a mega-star in Asia, singing her heart out and dancing her feet off. She will have to either give up her career as an entertainer when she marries or break off the engagement. Right now speculation runs high on which path she will choose.

As for our town election, I do not know who won. It is not that the results have not been published, it is only because I do not know the names of the candidates. Therefore I could not tell you if our school president won, or the landowner or whoever the third candidate was. I can tell you that Sam finds the election process in China distasteful. I find it sociologically and politically significant.

The Morning After

After my sponge bath last night, made possible by boiling one kettle full of water and mixing it in a plastic tub with two parts of cold water, I went to bed and woke up glorious. I’m in my new apartment!

Oh, Lordy, did I have my work cut out for me! While my furniture was tucked away inside the concrete bunker that never got any direct sunlight, I never noticed how dirty it was. I did go through it and clean all of the mold but it seems years of grime and cigarette smoke sheathed the exterior of what could be fine pieces of cabinetry and accent pieces. I never knew exactly how dirty it was until I saw the furniture in direct sunlight during the move. Also, all of the fixtures and all of the horizontal surfaces in the apartment needed to be cleaned. The windows were all dirt streaked. The floors were dusty.

The Chinese have a strange understanding of the ‘move in clean’ concept. Actually, they have a strange understanding of the concept of clean to begin with. Their ‘clean’ and my ‘clean’ are clearly not on the same page.

I know this by experience, first in Della’s kitchen when she felt that running meat under cold water and then preparing it for cooking on an age old, never-been-washed cutting board was acceptable (see Oxymorons sans Paradoxes entry, published in October of last year). My second experience came from Carrie Ann, who has a woman to come in and clean each week. Although Carrie Ann has a cabinet full of cleaning supplies, they are never touched. I actually watched the Ayi (Chinese for ‘Auntie’, as such women are known) clean everything from windows to floors with nothing but disinfectant and water. My latest experience with Chinese cleaning standards came when the school hired a cleaning team to tackle my rat-infested apartment. They too only hosed everything down with water and wiped things up, leaving mud streaks all over everything even though I offered them a full range of cleaning supplies.

Why should I be surprised to find that there is no such thing as a move-in clean in China?

I moved into my first apartment ‘as is’, with all of the grease left over from the previous tenants. I’m sure you remember my horror at discovering that, as recorded in the ‘Welcome Home’ entry published last year in September. This moving in was equally frightful, minus the grease.

The drapes and floor are new, so not much needed to be done there. However, there was a substantial amount of dust and dirt on the floor, and again, the furniture needed to be completely cleaned. On this, my first official day as tenant in my new apartment, I endeavored to tackle the cleaning before unpacking anything except for my cleaning supplies.

Famous last words. Because of that vow, I ended up living out of suitcases for another three weeks. But that is another story.

With no internet to distract me and no television to watch, I had nothing to do but clean. I started in the living room. It took no less than three rags and nearly half my can of Pledge to get the two bookshelves, the television stand and the end table clean.

By the way: have I told you I have found Pledge, Windex and Clorox? Those, coupled with the pinesol-smelling disinfectant Walch and the ever-popular Mr. Muscle, which is in fact an S.E. Johnson product, comprise my cleaning arsenal. And, in honor of my new laminate flooring, I added a nice floor care product. I am so ready to clean!

Too bad my rubber gloves have a hole in the index finger.

While my hands went to work on the cleaning my head went to work on where to put everything. My new kitchen is substantially smaller than my old one. It will not accommodate the washer, the dryer, the refrigerator I will get at some future date and everything else I had in my old kitchen. Where to put everything?

According to the movers and the maintenance crew, my washer belongs on the balcony just off the dining room while the dryer should go on the balcony off the living room. I had no choice where the washer is concerned; outside on the balcony is where the tap is. The dryer became a bone of contention between us. Not that I use my dryer that much, but I couldn’t see wasting the heat it generates during the winter months. Furthermore, who wants to go outside in the dead of winter with their arms full of cold, wet laundry?

They finally relented and allowed that the dryer could go in the kitchen. Upon later speculation, during my first cleaning day, I saw that leaving it there was impractical because I would have no room for a refrigerator if the dryer stayed. Maybe I could move it into the spare bedroom/office? That would be a great idea, except for the fact that I moved the monster wardrobe out of the dining room and into the hall.

It is OK, really. The wardrobe only takes up half of the hallway; I can walk down the other half. Matter of fact, I can even open up the doors to the wardrobe with no problems. What I can’t do is move the dryer down the hallway. So, on the balcony it goes, where there is no outlet. Looks like I won’t be using my dryer anytime soon.

On with the cleaning, cleaning and cleaning.

That first day I got the living room and dining room completely cleaned and unpacked. In case you’re wondering what I had to unpack for my living room and dining room: my books and gifts out of the footlockers, my television and DVD player set up, my shoes went into the shoe cabinet in the dining room just around the corner from the front door. I also unpacked my lamps rather than spend my first official evening in my new apartment under the glare of overhead fluorescent lights.

Now, at day’s end, I sit on the world’s ugliest couch and look around. The entertainment center, comprising of two matching bookshelves and one TV stand, gleam in the mellow lamp light. The glass doors cast their opposing furniture’s likeness in muted glow. The floor glistens, reflecting the darker wood of the furniture. Across the room in the dining area, the table, perfectly centered under the overhead light fixture is set to host a meal. The shoe cabinet stands a quiet sentinel to all that would venture in or out of my abode. It too received a thorough cleaning and glows proudly. There is no hope for the world’s ugliest couch.

So: that was the living room and dining room cleaning, all done up in one day. Now I just have the bathroom, the office, the kitchen and my bedroom to clean and unpack. I should be done in about 3 weeks.

Four Carts, Eight People

The school’s officials are overwhelmingly concerned for my comfort and safety. They always have been… mostly. Sometimes I do get the impression that that is not the case, but in all honesty I realize that Dean Tu has more to worry about than some screeching foreigner, and Sam has such a plateful of things to handle besides my concerns. If issues pertinent to me are not handled promptly I can either feel neglected and uncared for, or I can take the high road and realize that I am not the top priority on the agenda.

Mostly, I take the high road. Sometimes, such as when rodents promenade on my legs while I slumber, I do become a priority to the school. It is a fair balancing act.

You’ll remember from the previous entry that the day after the Great Rat Romance Sam and I visited Dean Tu. While we sat in his office he made a series of phone calls: to the construction site manager, to the lead building foreman, to… who all he needed to make phone calls to in order to figure out which unit would be ready the soonest, so that I could be moved out of the dorm.

Victor was less of a priority because he does not actually live in his apartment. He has accommodations in the city and only stays on campus on the days he has to teach. Besides, Victor does not have a romantic rat crawling up his leg at night.

By the way: someone joked that the rat must have been male because I do have shapely legs. Surely the rat appreciated the climb? I can laugh about that now but it wasn’t funny at 3AM, when the rat was doing its crawling.

OK, enough of the rat.

On to exciting new things, like moving day. When I got the text message from Sam that Moving Day would be early the next morning I could barely contain my joy. I sent him back such an exuberant message he called instead of responding in kind so that he could hear my joy instead of read it on his phone.

The next morning I got up early and had what turned out to be my last chat with Gabriel. I then visited Snack Street for a breakfast sandwich, and then sent out a message to all of my email friends and contacts to inform them I would not have an internet connection for a while. After that, I disconnected my computer, packed up my bed linens and zipped up the suitcases I had been living out of for the past month.

And then I waited.

The move was supposed to happen early in the morning. The 23rd being a Friday, all of the maintenance crews were in a hurry to get everything done so they could start their weekend.

Still waiting…

Sam sent a message saying the moving crew would come by at 2PM. Some pressing maintenance issue had come up and the ones dedicated to moving me were needed elsewhere. No problem. A return to Snack Street for some lunch and then I spent more quality time with my new best friend, the Kindle. (LOVE my Kindle, by the way!)

Finally, the knock on my door! Finally, Sam manifests himself with a moving crew in tow.

My friends, I have made some moves in my life. I have moved across the States and I have moved from one continent to another. I have moved across town and I have moved next door in the same town. I can honestly tell you that, for all of the moves I have made, I have never moved in quite this way.

It seems all of the trucks were tied up on other projects, but the school was determined that I would be moved today. So they sent 8 people, 4 of which were pulling handcarts. Green, two-wheeled handcarts that are used to collect garbage around campus. They look like a backward wheelbarrow, with the handles in front to pull it with instead of in the back to push it. The compartment is about twice as deep as a wheelbarrow’s. That is what was going to be used to haul all of my earthly belongings across campus and into the new construction area. Once there, the handcarts would be offloaded and my possessions, along with the furniture that came with my old apartment would be placed into my new apartment.

I’ve never been moved in this fashion. Have you?

After I got over the shock/dismay/amusement/disbelief at how this proposed move was going to happen, I started panicking. What? The world’s ugliest couch was moving with me? The smelly wardrobe and the broken coffee table? The shaky dining room table and its four Playskool chairs? What happened to new furniture for the new apartment? Oh, that would come later, Sam told me. After an assessment was done of what would be needed to properly outfit the new quarters.

Like a swarm the movers entered the dorm and started grabbing stuff to put in the carts. My stuff was easy: it would fit inside the carts. Remember: I only own two footlockers worth of goods, a large suitcase and a laptop case. Since living here I’ve acquired an oven, a space heater and a small grill. That is the extent of my worldly goods. The rest belongs to the university. Larger furniture items like the couch, the bookshelves, the untenable wardrobe and my bed would ride on top of the cart. One mover said he needed something to protect the TV with. Another mover pointed to the couch cushions. Good enough: one cushion was thrown at the bottom of one of the carts, the TV placed face down on it and the other cushion was placed on top.

Wait: did they clean the carts of garbage before they put my stuff in there? I didn’t have time to check.

One mover said he needed a cloth to protect… something. I’m not sure what needed to be wrapped up but in a fit of inspiration I climbed up on the desk and took down a drape. After removing the hooks I handed it to the mover. He scrambled into the other room with the cloth clutched in his hand.

By the time I climbed down from the desk the caravan of carts and movers had already loaded up and started their trek across campus. On a Friday afternoon, just as all the students were getting out of class.

Oh, joy! At least it wasn’t raining.

I hustled to catch up with them. I had already been handed the keys to my new kingdom and had to grant the movers access, so they could unload their carts and make the journey again. It took two trips to move me across campus in this fashion.

Upon arrival at the new apartment the moving crew took a cigarette break while I, the laggard, hastened up the five steps to unlock my door. For the last time I enjoyed the echoing chambers, the empty, serene expanse of laminate flooring, the gold and champagne colored drapes at either end of the living area. Just a few puffs from now and there would be arguing and shouting and cursing.

Not from my mouth. From the movers. With no input from me at all they were deciding where to place all of my furniture. “The couch should go here” one woman exclaimed while, across the room a man berated his partner for putting the bookcase in the wrong place. The wardrobe posed the biggest problem: it would not fit into my bedroom. They placed it in the dining room. Why not? It fit there! Who cares whether it is proper to stalk into the dining room after a shower to get your clothes?

On the second trip I overheard one of the movers pulling his cart say to his partner: “This is the first time I’ve ever moved a foreigner!” I felt like replying: “That’s fine, this is the first time I’ve ever been moved by handcart!”

The move took one hour. That includes both trips across campus, the loading and unloading of furniture and my treating everyone to cigarettes and drinks. At 3:23 sharp I closed my door and surveyed my kingdom.

Footprints, dust and dirt everywhere. Sticks of furniture where no furniture belonged. No refrigerator and no stove. I was going to have to get busy if I hoped to get to bed at a decent hour. For the next 4 hours I pushed, pulled, dragged and carried things around. My last official act of the day was to make my bed. At the end of this long but admittedly different moving day, all I could think of was taking a hot shower and falling into my newly made bed.

Bad luck for me: no hot water!

Playing Catch-up

My friends, it has been forever since I’ve written anything and yet, so much has happened in this intervening time.

The school year has started. The new crop of freshmen has graduated their boot camp training and now sits in classrooms. China has celebrated the first of its major fall season holidays. I’ve taken a trip out of town with some fantastic friends. I have moved into my new apartment and I’ve gotten new furniture.

I’ve made notes of all of this, but have not typed a single word about it. Nor have I been on the email bandwagon for the last three weeks.

There’s a reason for that. While in the old apartment, there was a certain distasteful twist to sitting down and writing. I’ll get to that in a minute. Since moving into my new apartment, I’ve not had an internet connection. In fact, since moving into my new apartment disorganization has ruled the day.

The move was originally supposed to happen in August, while I was stateside. I kept joking to all and sundry that I was not exactly homeless, I just didn’t know where I live. As it turns out though, I did not get moved out of the old dorm until September 23rd, after the Great Rat Romance.

Mind you, I was not in love with a rat. The rat seems to have been in love with me. I first made its acquaintance as it perched on my dryer, staring boldly at me when I entered the kitchen. I grabbed the nearby flyswatter and smacked the dryer – not the rat, for fear that it would catch my swatter with its pointy little teeth and tear it to shreds while it was still in my hand. At the resounding ‘Thwack!’ on the dryer, the rat got a little scared and ran down my dust mop handle to hide behind the washer.

The next day I found my rat friend in my desk drawer. I had to get something out of my desk drawer and saw the rat inside, just as I was reaching my hand into the drawer. Luckily I looked down in time to see that rat brat turn tail and escape. I slammed the drawer shut and was done writing for the day. No way was I going to sit at my desk with a rat lodged just inches from my leg and only a thin piece of composite wood separating us.

Later that night, I heard the rat rattle around in the desk drawer. The noise woke me up from a sound sleep. That was the first time I woke up that night. The second time was when he was running up my leg as I lay sleeping in my bed. I felt a strange weight on my knee and kicked my leg out, only to hear a plump plopping sound as the rat hit the floor and scurried away.

Now I’m horrified! Vowing to not sleep another wink the rest of the night, I stand guard against any more rat incursions… until my eyes betrayed me. I was just downright sleepy! My eyes grew heavy and again my head hit the pillow. I’m blissfully snoozing away, until I head a terrible screech and scratch. It sounded like a rat tango competition was going on under my bed.

Again I turn on the lights and grab what was nearest at hand: my Pedi-egg with handle. Kneeling in the middle of my bed while trying to look underneath it, like a B-movie heroine just before the monster manifests itself. There I am: whimpering, terrified, disheveled and clutching a 12-inch plastic Pedi-egg, as though the rat needed a pedicure more than a slaying.

The sound was not coming from under my bed, as I had originally thought. It was coming from the bathroom, where the rat was climbing the doorjamb. It leapt into my room from a height of 5’, landing approximately 2’ from my bed and immediately scampering underneath it.

That was it. No more sleep for me! I sent Sam a panicked text message and stayed awake the rest of the night, armed with my Pedi-egg in one hand and my broom handle in the other. Every time the rat showed its face I jabbed at it with the broom and it scampered back behind my desk.

That morning, Sam and I visited the Dean’s office to tell him about my horrifying night. The school put me up in a hotel for 3 days, until they could conquer the rat problem. They also hired a cleaning crew to clean my apartment, so that no more rats would feel compelled to call it home. And, they rushed completion of my new apartment so I could move out of that terrible, moldy, rat infested dorm.

I hope you pardon the disorganization of my thoughts. Partly because it has been so long since I’ve written anything and partly because I cannot access the master folder where I keep all of my draft blog entries, I’m having a hard time remembering what I’ve told you and what I haven’t.

Did I tell you that, just days before leaving for the States Sam instructed me to pack up my old apartment because I was going to be moved while I was gone? With just 3 days left before flying out in July, that was a mad scramble. So now I’m telling you: my new apartment was not ready by the time I returned to China at the end of August. My running joke about not knowing where I live was irrelevant. I lived in the old apartment, with mold, rats and everything packed and ready to move for a whole month after I came back.

Moving Day came on September 23rd. The move will be the subject of the next entry, which will include my thoughts on the Chinese concept of ‘move in clean’. So, from August 28th, the day I returned to Wuhan until just a week ago – now being October 14, I have not touched a computer keyboard. Instead I have been living out of suitcases. Or, if you include my stateside trip, I’ve been living out of suitcases for just about 3 months.

And that’s where things stood as far as my accommodations until 3 weeks ago, the day of The Great Move.

Because I really am trying to keep this blog in some kind of chronological order, I’ll finish this entry up by telling you about Freshman Graduation. I can do that much at least, to get the stream of events going again.

As you know from last year’s ‘The Freshmen are Coming!’ entry, posted in October, the Freshmen hit campus a week after the rest of the students do, and they drill, boot camp style for two weeks. This activity culminates into a formal graduation ceremony, with all of the school’s leaders and two foreign teachers in attendance.

This year’s graduation was no less impressive, with some noteworthy differences: it was cold and pouring down rain instead of so hot you could hear yourself sweat. Those poor kids had to stand at parade rest in the rain for 2 hours as dignitary after dignitary made their speeches. The students expressed their dismay by shouting and groaning when a new speaker approached the podium. So much for military-style decorum.

Another noteworthy difference between last year’s graduation and this year’s: instead of some poor graduate losing a shoe, someone lost their hat. And speaking of hats: the kids threw their berets up before the muckity-mucks left the arena instead of waiting till we were all gone.

Immediately following the ceremony, Sam took Victor and I to see our new apartments. WOW! Last year I got a new computer. This year I get a new apartment! And it looks like an apartment, not a converted dorm room! It had drapes already hung, a balcony off the living room and another off the dining room. It had windows and actual rooms, with doors! Oh, yeah: living there is going to feel like a home. Victor and I can’t wait to move!

As he and I walked back to our dismal dorm rooms from the construction site in the pouring rain, I saw a forlorn pile of discarded hats by the entrance of the sports complex where, just hours ago, Freshmen had marched and dignitaries had spoken. That is another difference between this year and the last: the students seem to have less respect and awe for the ordeal they had just undergone.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


As you can see by this abbreviation for ‘People’, I am going to try to keep this one short. There is not much more to tell, in the ‘people’ category, anyway. As I’ve commented before, I am road-weary and bone tired. Not very observant and getting rather negligent in recording impressions.

Besides, as I write this I’ve already been back in China for one month, and there are things here to talk about. So I want to summarize the final leg of my stateside trip and start talking about China again. That’s what you’re really here for, right? Me, too.

So let’s finish talking about people.

Combining the idea of China with my Greyhound experiences, I have to remark that I did not see very many Asian people on the bus, and not many out and about while visiting those various cities, either. One notable exception was a man who was Korean, seated next to an American youth that carried on and on about how much he loved the Asian lifestyle and culture. He neglected to say which Asian culture and his seatmate was far too polite to correct him as he combined all of China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia and Singapore into one lump of humanity, ascribing distinctly Chinese locations to Japan and Korean food to China.

There was the Indian family aboard the bus going to Denver. The portly patriarch snored patchily while his wife crocheted by his side. Their teenaged children sat behind them, watching movies on their laptop. At one point, during a pickup stop that was to last only as long as it took to take on passengers, the husband asked Alan, the bus driver, if his wife could go into the terminal to use the bathroom. It seems the onboard bus facilities were too distasteful for her. I agree: they are nasty.

Alan got on the P.A. system once the bus was back on the road and chastised the man publicly. And offensively. He said something to the effect that he had announced prior to stopping that no one was to get off the bus at this stop, and that the man should learn proper English because this was the United States of America, where English was spoken. I was humiliated for this man and told him, at the next rest stop, that I intended to complain about Alan. There was no need to publicly humiliate him, or make that statement, seeing as the passenger in question spoke very good English.

Other than these two – the man who was Korean and the family who was Indian, I did not see many people who were Asian until right around Washington, DC.

And then there was the twosome I dubbed ‘The Princess Couple’. These people had either no experience in the rough and tumble world or they had no knowledge that riding Greyhound can be a humbling experience. To be sure, the young man was devoted to his lady: he kept his arm around her, made sure she was covered when it got cold overnight on the bus, fed her morsels of food and waited for her outside the bathroom door. They waited until all other passengers had boarded the bus, standing apart from the crush at the door. Being last to board, they had to take seats in the back of the bus. That was obviously not pleasing to them. They returned to the front and claimed that their ticket reserved them seats number 5 and 6, when we all know there is no such thing as reserved seating on the bus. Unhappily they trekked back and took seats apart, until somebody felt sorry enough for them to change seats so they could sit together. If this were a fairy tale, they would have been the perfect couple for the lead roles.

Riding a Greyhound is not a fairy tale. It is dog eat dog aboard the Big Grey Dog. We all poked fun at our Fairy Princess Couple. I hope they were not too disillusioned at the harshness of the world.

The last remarkable character to talk about is the woman who got thrown off the bus, sometime during the wee hours of the morning. In all of my travels, all of the drivers have said that being overly loud on the bus will earn that passenger guilty of noise a spot on the highway and a chauffered ride back into town, courtesy of the local branch of Highway Patrol. I had yet to see it happen. And I didn’t really see this happen either, due to extreme sleepiness. Was she being overly garrulous or over querulous? Only the driver knows, being as he was the one bothered enough by her loquaciousness to take on the shocking act of putting her off the bus alongside the highway. There might have even been a small child traveling with her. As I said: details are sketchy because I was so very sleepy. I know it was night, I know the driver put a woman off the bus, I know she screeched in indignation and I think there was a small child involved. I went back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that no one could accuse me of being too loud. Unless snoring counts.

Besides, I don’t even know if I snore. I’m asleep while doing it, if I am in fact guilty of doing so.

One more person to talk about, but he was not aboard a bus. I met him at the terminal in Washington D.C., where again I had a layover. He stood about 6’2”, had sandy blond hair cut military style and was dressed in a striped tee shirt and jeans. He followed me outside and asked if I might have a cigarette, and then he told me his tale.

He was in Afghanistan when he got word that his mother had died a month ago. It took the Army and the Red Cross two weeks to release him of his combat obligations and return him stateside, to his port of entry – the military base he had shipped out from. After two weeks of out-processing, turning in all of his military gear, he was back on the streets and trying to get home via Greyhound. He had virtually no money to his name and unexpressed grief in his heart.

I had bought a carton of cigarettes to give away as gifts to my Chinese friends. As he told me his tale, omitting the obvious – that he would still have post traumatic stress syndrome to deal with, along with getting reacclimated back into American society, all while dealing with the loss of his mother, I thought that one of my Chinese friends is going to have to live without receiving a pack of American cigarettes. He talked on while I unzipped my duffel bag, dug around and gave him a pack. He broke down and cried. It seems my simple act of kindness touched him, reducing him to tears.

I leave you with that image. And with the thought that there are all kinds of people in America. We don’t know their story, their deeds, their pain, or their joy. All across the nation, people brush by each other daily and sometimes we see, sometimes we listen and sometimes we even make a connection.

Each of these travelers made an impression on me. Others, whose faces I recall but whose names go unknown, continue to live their lives and be remarkable in their way. At least I hope they do. They helped make this road trip a memorable experience for me.