Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winding Down

Feeling like I've gotten all out of Shenzhen that I was meant to or
going to get, I reminded myself that I had a 25 hour train ride ahead
of me. I would need some food, or else hope the train concessions have
palatable food. Train food is very expensive. I don't like having to
spend money when I don't have to, even if my prevailing attitude is
'Why not? I'm on vacation!' so I headed to the Walmart close to my

Herb flavored crackers, The Laughing Cow cheese, 3 bowls of Ramen
noodles and fruit from the vendor stand would hold me in good stead.
That, along with the two hard boiled eggs I intended to pilfer from
the hotel's breakfast bar would do me fine on the train. Well, I'm not
going to pilfer anything. I am going to pay for them as part of my
breakfast; I'm just going to not eat them for breakfast.

OK, now that I've made that clear, I'm headed back to the hotel.

Wait: back to the hotel? Yeah, I really don't feel like riding more
buses and seeing more shops blaring techno music, and restaurants with
their overpriced fare. I've gotten an adequate feel for this city and,
quite frankly I'm ready to move on. Besides, I'm itching to get my
fingers on a keyboard. I already have notes for 8 blog entries. Before
walking back to the hotel I had a nice lunch at a cafe where a young
dancing beauty charmed and captivated me. You'll see a picture of her
when I do the picture montage.

Walking a little more to settle my lunch, I saw nothing had changed
from shopping and eating. I headed home to type.

Now Back to China

On my last full day in Shenzhen I really didn't feel like going out.
Shopping and eating, eating and shopping... that is all there seems to
be to this city. I even asked the stylist who was doing my hair if
there were going to be any public New Year celebrations. She said
nothing public was planned for the city. Well, darn! Still, there is
one temporary walking street I have been meaning to investigate, may
as well go there. Not really up to it, but may as well, just to have
something to do.

While waiting for bus 306 I was compelled by my bladder to absent
myself from the bus station for just a few moments. When I came back
bus 97 was loading. Its destination advertised Huang Bei Ling Village,
one of the few tourist 'must see' destinations listed in Lonely
Planet. Because my plan was to venture to that walking street I passed
on the chance to board this bus, but then thought better of it, but
then decided to leave it up to fate: whichever bus materializes first
- another 97 or the one I originally intended to take, 306, would be
the day's destination. My money was on 306 as it travels fairly often.
In fact, in all my time in Shenzhen I hadn't seen bus 97, even though
I had been at that stop nearly every day.

Apparently I was meant to head to the village. 97 preceded 306 but
they both pulled up to the station at the same time.

There really wasn't very much to this village. It did indeed have a
village-y feel: lots of alleys off the main road, which in itself is a
misnomer, being a narrow, two-lane, winding road. Traffic on this
narrow road was further impeded by fruit vendor stalls extending into
the road and pedestrians ambling along because the sidewalk was
impassable. And, this road is only about 3km long. All too soon the
bus arrived at the end stop. All passengers debarked.

Was this really all there was to it? After the positive write up in
Lonely Planet I expected more. After all, that tour guide manual does
not glow about much with regard to Shenzhen; that this village got a
positive review led me to anticipate more than there perhaps actually

Instead of immediately boarding the bus again, I decided to walk down
a few stops. Logic, reason and experience dictate that pretty much all
there is to see you can see from a slow moving bus window, but in this
case I was wrong. Scanning the roof lines I spied what appeared to be
the remnants of a temple, and two older buildings. I tried to gain
access to them, or at least to the larger temple like building, but
the gate was locked on one side and access was blocked on the other.
Through the fence I could see that it was newly decorated for the
upcoming festival. I asked the policeman guarding that access what
that building was. He told me that it was indeed formerly a temple. He
went on to assert that it was closed till tomorrow, the actual New
Year day. Too bad! I would be gone tomorrow. I guess I won't have the
chance to see inside it, but I did take some nice pictures of the
roofline and what I could see of it through the fence.

I wished him Happy New Year and moved on. In spite of the village
feeling I got at first, signs of modern intruded: a child with a
McDonald's bag, a whole plaza dedicated to Walmart and again:
shopping, shopping and more shopping. Sigh! I got back on the bus
headed back to the hotel. I never did make it to that temporary
walking steet. All it seemed to have was stuff for New Year anyway:
couplets, gifts, and decorations. I could to Walmart to see that!

A Part of Their World

On this, my last full day in Shenzhen I woke up to a feeling of
foreboding. Wonder why?

Because my room has no window and the overhead lights are bright
fluorescents I use the TV to wake up to - the light is gentler, and
comes from the wall, not overhead. The noise soon proved too much and
I turned it off again, after switching on the bathroom lights. It
seems a quiet day will be on order. After getting ready I went
downstairs for my breakfast and email check. Now I know what that
feeling of foreboding is all about.

On the 17th of January a retirement party was held for 3 members of my
former work family: 2 colleagues and my esteemed boss. One of my
contacts from that former life of mine had sent me a link to their
flickr account so I could see all the pictures.

It should come as no surprise that I am still in touch with them. You
don't spend nearly 8 years with someone or a group of someones, mostly
day in and day out, and not have them imprint themselves on you. And
now, with rumored plant closings and with that organization suffering
cutbacks and financial trouble, complete with jobs threatened and good
people in danger of losing their livelihood, they are on my mind quite
a bit. Looking at those pictures was rough on my heart, let me tell
you. They brought back all the good times we had: jokes shared and
conspiracies discussed, the times we broke bread together, the smiles,
the laughter and yes, even the bickerings and conflicting
personalities. All were called to mind. As usual, the good prevailed.
With these memories came the thought of: "you idiot! Look at what you
left behind!"

That thought was especially poignant because, here I am, alone in a
strange and not so fun city. I live alone when I am in my home -
Wuhan, and here they all are, gathered in the same room we always had
parties in, with the tables configured just the same way as when I was
there. And I recognized every single face, even those who had retired
while I still worked there, and those that transferred out shortly
after I left.

What would have happened had I not left?

Steve would not be in Maintenance, where he should have been all
along. He would still be the most valuable Operations supervisor on
the swing shift and his maintenance management talents would have gone
wasted. "I've never been so glad to see someone get out of here" Steve
confided to me, adding that he was sorry I left.

Kevin F. and Derrick W. would still be working the swing shift, both
to their detriment and both out of loyalty to me. "I'm hanging on till
you leave and then I'm transferring out." Their words, not mine. Kevin
now works at a plant much closer to his home, and Derrick works the
day shift. His personal life has substantially improved.

And, when out of loyalty to my boss I asked Clayton what he thought
about leaving Federal Service in general and this plant in particular
to take this teaching job in China he concluded his supportive speech
with: "If you're not going to be here I'm not going to hang around
much longer." Again: his words, not mine.

And I would still be ducking all manner of non-significant management
drivel and wishing I could feel fulfilled.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy I made my move and I'm enjoying my
life here. But sometimes I miss that other world where everyone smiled
when they saw me approach, where I wasn't such an oddity or a
curiosity. I have joy here, where the kids are happy I'm here to teach
them about English and American culture, where I feel like I'm making
a difference in people's lives and where the neighbors treat me like a
neighbor. Where people let me know they're thinking of me, judging by
the phone calls and text messages I get. Where, for a few Yuan I can
have a tasty meal or for a few more Yuan I can hit the road and see
something new.

Now, as I move sylphlike through this city I think of what I left
behind. Guys and Chamica, I miss you. I carry you in my heart. Ron,
George, Clayton: I wish you the best for your retirement plans and I
hope we stay in touch even after you are free of the five day a week
grind. I hope you find retirement as exciting and charged as you
anticipate it, and I hope and wish all of your plans come to pass.

Paul McS: I am sorry you did not get a Christmas card. I hope you do
not feel too left out.

I like the idea of us all playing the cards dealt us by the Fates. I'm
glad we had the chance to meet and work together, and I'm glad we are
friends. I'm sorry that the pall of plant closures led you to
retirement perhaps sooner than you wanted or anticipated. Cliff,
Kevin, and everyone who is waiting to see what is going to happen: I
hope what happens is not drastic and debilitating to you and your
family, or your future.

Across the world, I hold my breath and wait for your news.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Artist's village and Walking Street

Now that I have a way out of a city that has turned out to be a not so
fun wandering, I decided to expand my sightseeing. Recalling Lonely
Planet's few destinations worth seeing in Shenzhen and realizing I had
already found a few of them along the bus 306 route I decided I would
venture back onto that bus. First stop would be Artists' Village, an
area occupied by artisans and with shops filled with art. I planned
all that while still disoriented from sleeping in my otherwise
comfortable cubicle.

Breakfasting on the 2nd floor patio showed that the weather
predictions might come true: the sky was overcast and the wind chilly
and moisture laden. Maybe I should consider something indoors to see
if the weather would clear up. I should have my hair done. That seemed
like a safe option and salons abound in this neighborhood where my
hotel is.

The salon I selected was staffed by an older male stylist who declared
at once that he could in fact transform my gray into deep auburn
tinged locks. To make a long story short: he did a FANTASTIC job! My
hair looks great, no lie. I have to admit, after the Uberblond
experiences of last year I was truly leery of entrusting my head to a
salon in China again. Thanks to this experiment I resolve that good
hair care is possible, as long as I go to a salon away from campus
where there are experienced techs.

One thing of interest came of this experience, other than having great
looking hair: the stylist's son goes to school in Wuhan! At a college
just down the road from mine, he is majoring in Economics. Like every
other student in China he is required to learn English, so when my
Chinese language skills faltered his parents - the stylist and the
cashier, called him into duty to translate. When we found out we are
neighbors in the same city everyone in the salon visibly relaxed and
conversation flowed. The boy and I exchanged contact information and I
invited him to our campus for any English activities we might have.

Thrilled with my new hair and bolstered by these friendly natives -
well, transplants... Like everyone else living here, they are not
originally from Shenzhen, I hit the streets. A quick lunch consisting
of an egg and spinach wrap, bought from a street vendor and some
mandarin oranges purchased from the fruit stand next to him in my
hands, I headed to a nearby park bench to enjoy my feast. It seems the
weather decided to break and the sun was peeking through what was left
of the clouds. Hunger abated, it was time for Artist's Village.

Every building is colorful. Greens, red, orange and blue welcomed me
into the neighborhood. At the start of the village is a large plaza,
dominated by a large, official looking building. Said building was
closed, as I discovered most shops were, presumably for the holiday.
There were not many people out and about either. That suited me fine;
I didnt' want a bunch of crowds to compete with.

Quickly, rather too quickly I coursed the entire village: main
throughfare, alleyways and all. I had to be missing something; I could
feel it. I meandered slowly down the last lane and hazarded a look
over my right shoulder, down an alley. There it was.

At the end of this alley stood an ancient building, the only one in
the village. According to Lonely Planet this is the last vestige of
the formerly exisiting fishing village, and indeed it was on a creek.
It apparently had been recently renovated and currently housed a
gallery. Sadly I was not allowed to take pictures, even of the
structure, while I toured the inside but I did get pictures of the
outside. I'll post them when I get back to Wuhan. For now the
important thing is to transcribe my notes. I have no less than 8 pages
of notes to write about. Not too shabby for a non-tourist attractive
town, is it?

Now satisfied that I've seen everything relevant in Artists' Village I
headed back toward town to take in Walking Street. Known as Dong Men -
literally East Gate, it throbs with throngs of people. At least, that
is what I've seen when riding past it. And, Lonely Planet said it was
one of the few must sees while here.

Well, if Lonely Planet says so...

It is in fact a hyper crowded shopping complex. People everywhere!
Bargains boldly advertised! Smells of food and sounds of blaring
techno music! I walked through two of the main throughfares... well,
more like I was carried through with the tide.

My good humor was fast dissipating. This is truly not my scene. There
are no gentle street market vendors here. No courtesies and no
exchanges of goodwill. There is loud, progressive selling. There is an
abundance of merchandise piled on the floor for people to paw through
and find bargains with. There are trendy people with the latest
hairstyles, pretty boys and fashionable girls. There are more people
than I want to encounter during a single outing, let alone the last
exploration of the day.

As soon as I could I made my way out of the maze of noise and people,
back to the main road. Instead of waiting for the bus at the attendant
stop I walked uphill for two stops, so as to not have to fight to
board the bus. I was back at the hotel by 5PM, long before dark and
way before I had to worry about being out after dark alone, as per
Lonely Planet's warning.

All in all it was a nice day with one or two happy surprises - the
hair and the ancient building being the surprises in question.
However, those two nice events were balanced out by two not so
pleasant ones: the monkeys and the woman who lost her son. As soon as
she realized her child had gone missing she ran around, pawing people
aside and screaming for her child: "My son! My son! Who has seen my
son?" She brushed past me, unseeing. I felt terrible for her. If I had
seen her son I surely would have helped her. Other people commenting
on her did see her son but perhaps could not help. As I could not help
either I got out of her way.

For some reason the Chinese find animal cruelty amusing. I found that
out at the zoo last year. This monkey show was no different. Three
monkeys on leashes, the owner whipping them for discipline, the
monkeys hissing. People ringing the show, laughing. The monkey
torturer tied one monkey's hands behind his back and put a blindfold
over its eyes, and then leveled a gun and shot it - a toy gun, and not
'for real' shot it. The monkey, being well trained, flopped onto its
face without even its hands to break the fall. I was disgusted but the
rest of the crowd was amused. Please note that I saw the show in
passing; I did not stay and watch.

Other than those two unpleasant events it was a nice day. I spent the
evening on the hotel's patio, comfortable, warm and sheltered from the
rain that did finally materialize.

Nanjing in my Sights

With Lonely Planet's admonishment - Danger, Will Robinson! - lurking
in the back of my brain and Gary's invitation to spend Spring Festival
celebration with him and his family resting bitterly in my craw, I did
not want to stay in Shenzhen longer than necessary. Being as I
couldn't buy a train ticket back to Wuhan till at least the 25th,
eight days would decidedly be longer then necessary. Even if the
weather forecast did not call for rain over the next few days, as it
was currently doing. Warm temps or not, there has to be something
interesting and engaging to do, other than ride buses all day.

While still at the ticketing window I did some fast thinking.

Nanjing is only 6 hours away from Wuhan by long distance bus and even
closer by train. If I could get to Nanjing, I should be able to find a
bus or buy a train ticket back to Wuhan, perhaps even in time for the
New Year celebration party at Gary's house.

Besides, I've long wanted to go to Nanjing. it is both historically
and culturally significant. The name itself translates to 'South
Capital'. It was the Capital of China for several dynasties. There is
bound to be a lot of iconic architecture and preserved monuments.
Furthermore, in Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking is where the
Japanese massacred the entire city's population, the reason why the
Chinese revile their Eastern neighbor. There will surely be edifices
to commemorate that event. Finally, as one of China's oldest cities,
rivaled only by Xi'an and Beijing itself, there will most likely be
many touristy attractions.

Quickly, mindful of the hoards of people in line behind me to buy
their tickets I asked the agent if she had tickets for Nanjing. She
pulled up a ticket for the 22nd, at a price of 236Yuan. Now that was
amenable and affordable! I handed over the cash and left the window
with my coveted ticket in hand.

I was proud of myself. Not only did I find my way out of my quandary,
but I did so completely by myself, and in Chinese. I am the coolest
foreigner ever! The best Vagabond in the history of vagabonds!

And then I sat outside, considering my new kettle of fish. Nanjing is
going to be cold. Wuhan type cold, requiring layers of clothing. But,
on the other hand there will be cool things to see and do. Plus, I'll
be staying in a hotel with free heat and as much hot water as I want.
Maybe, instead of heading right back to Wuhan for Gary's party I'll
just kick around Nanjing for a while. Gary already expressed his

Next hurdle: this train ticket is for a hard SEAT, not a hard sleeper.
Well, I'll have to sit up for... 25 hours and 36 minutes! Well! That's
a long time to sit on a train. But on the other hand, I'll be on the
train on the very night of the festival. Maybe the train won't be
crowded to over capacity and I'll be able to slouch some. Also, it
might be fun ringing in the new year with a trainload of people. That
would be a sight to see, no? Besides that, 25+ hours on a train is no
worse than 25 hours on a Greyhound, and I did that this summer.

And, I don't even have to worry about food. I can go to the local
Walmart, right across from my hotel and buy some noodles and snacks,
go to a fruit vendor and buy fruit... all in all, it might be a fun
experience. I'll have my Kindle fully recharged on the last night I
leave Shenzhen, and I can bundle up and stay warm, and... and...

The spirit of optimism is running away with me. I'll be out of
Shenzhen on the 22nd! WooHoo!!!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why Shenzhen?

Ah, my first full day in Shenzhen! Waking up in my cubicle
disoriented... wait: disoriented?

Sure! It is very disorienting to sleep in a room with no window. You
can't tell what time it is by the light filtering in because there is
none. And there is no ventilation. Because the temperature was just
right I didn't turn on the climate control system. Now, at wake-up, I
find the air stuffy and close. Flipping a few switches made short work
of that problem, even though the air now circulating was canned.

Back to the start of this entry: my first full day here, fully rested
and now oriented thanks to the fact that I can see outside from the
hotel dining room deck. That's right: the second floor of the hotel is
dedicated in part to the entertainment of its patrons. That is where
the computers are, where one can purchase a quality meal for a
relatively low cost, watch TV or play foosball or pool, or just lounge
on the deck. The weather being glorious I ate breakfast on the deck.

After that meal I headed to the computer stations, read and responded
to emails and then researched Shenzhen. What is there to do or see

The city of Shenzhen was built on the ruins of a small fishing village
along the banks of the river. Designated a special economic zone in
1980 by Deng Xiao Ping, he who brought about the economic revolution
in China after Mao's death, the city was born. Gone is virtually any
vestige of Bao-tong, the village that was home to maybe 400 people.
Because of its strategic location - near waterways, a gateway to Hong
Kong and a hub to cities deeper south, this metropolis is now home to
all manner of commercial ventures, trade companies and financial

From what I could read on various websites there are few traces of the
original village left and there are virtually no iconic architecture
or traditional/historical landmarks. In desperation I consulted, a go-to site for travelers like me. The news was
not encouraging. In their overview report of the city they said that
Shenzhen is a city most side-stepped by travelers. Because of the huge
disparity between the wealthy and the poor it is even dangerous,
especially at night. WONDERFUL!!!

Reading that made me so glad I came here.

Surely there has to be something to see and do here. Let's see what
Lonely Planet lists under 'Attractions'. There's not much. Beyond food
and bars, there's Artist's row, Huang Bei Ling, a smallish village,
and... they recommended a day trip into Hong Kong.

So why did I come here?

Climate first and foremost. It is warm here, in South China. Ease of
train ticket purchase was the next reason. If I could not get a ticket
here I would have gone to Kunming, another city in the south. Finally,
many of my former students who have now graduated have come here to
make their fortune. I wanted to see what it was all about so that I
could tell them I visited their city the next time we talked.

Didn't I think to research it before coming here? Well, I would have
if I had had time. I didn't. I figured: why not? It is a warm climate;
let's just go with that and the spirit of adventure.

Now a mite discouraged by the Lonely Planet disclosure I decided the
safest, and possibly most fun thing I could do is ride buses. I can
spend 3 days doing that; there are plenty of buses to ride.

What about getting back to Wuhan? Or, maybe going somewhere else?

OK, first course of action: to the train station to see if they have
any tickets. Either back to Wuhan or to another destination. Off I go.

I was encouraged by the people walking out of the train station with
tickets in their hand. The previous morning, when I tried to buy my
ticket there were no tickets being sold and the scrolling marquee only
advertised local tickets. Now the marquee is full of choices and
people are buying tickets. All of the ticketing windows were populated
and all of the lines are full of eager hopefuls. I am encouraged. But,
come time for me to ask about tickets the agent informed me there
won't be any tickets back to Wuhan till after the 25th, and then, only
for 'soft sleepers', the pricey luxury berths. At over 500Yuan apiece
that was both more than I wanted to spend and more than the 300Yuan I
had on me.

Here it is, only the 18th! I did not relish the idea of staying here
for over a week, in a city that has little to do and is dangerous at
night. Quickly I shifted gears and asked the ticketing agent if there
were any tickets available to...

At a Glance

Looking out the window of bus 306 I found the pace in Shenzhen much
more relaxed. Although quite cosmopolitan, people strolled around
rather than rushing here and there. Appearing as though this were not
one of the most important cities economically, the population lolled
about, enjoyed the sunshine on park benches and lingered at outdoor
restaurants and coffee houses. The people, especially women were
dressed fashionably. The men sported top fashion hair cuts. Everyting
about this town looked well satisfied, affluent and cared for. Overall
the city has a colorful, lush appearance with a cosmopolitan feel.

The climate here is subtropical without the humidity. Today's
temperature was in the low 70's. Quite a change from Wuhan's freezing
temps! Palms and banana trees lined the wide boulevards; elephant ears
provided ground cover. The women here do not seem to fear the sun. I
saw only a few unfurled umbrellas protecting from the sun and women
did not crowd the shady side of the bus like they do in Wuhan. A
strange observation perhaps, but a distinctive one.

All the usuall shopping and eating venues exist here that exist in any
Chinese city: Meters/Bonwe, 361, and various shopping malls exist
alongside the more expensive international shops like Cartier and
Dolce and Gabbana. Closer spaced than in most chinese cities you will
find the standard Starbucks and KFC, the requisite McDonalds' and...
Burger King!

Needing a bathroom but loath to return to the hotel in search of clean
facilities, and knowing that Western eateries usually have the
cleanest ones, I chose to lunch at Burger King. Before ordering my
meal I asked for the restroom and was told there was only a hand
washing sink around the corner from the counter. You should note that
'restroom' is called 'hand wash room' in Chinese. Perhaps the cashier
thought I only wanted to wash my hands because I used that
designation. Because I now wanted a flame-broiled burger in earnest I
ordered food, vowing to seek out the next Starbucks in search of a
clean bathroom. While eating I made notes for my next blog entry. Then
went in search of a restroom again. Finally found one at the KFC in an
underground mall. Without ordering any food I made use of their
facilities. In retrospect it would have been quicker to go back to the

With the advent of New Year, squat mandarin orange trees adorned the
sidewalks and building entrances. For those of you who don't know,
mandarin oranges are actually oranges. They are not tangerines that
are packaged in syrup and canned, as my daughter thought. They grow on
low bushes in this warm climate. It is customary to take such a tree
into one's home to bring blessing for the new year. Everywhere people
were scurrying about with their trees.

Time to board the bus now. Bus 306 promised the longest ride for the
fare so that's the one I boarded. I found all the buses I rode during
my stay in this city were clean and well maintained, uniform as to
their interior, make and model. The seats, though hard plastic were
comfortable and hugged even my more ample posterior, as opposed to
buses I've ridden in other cities. None of the buses I rode while here
were crowded to beyond capacity. In fact they were almost empty, even
though a few times I was riding during what would be considered peak
traffic times. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that this is
a holiday season. Maybe, during regular life the buses do get super
crowded. Nevertheless I enjoyed comfortable rides everywhere I went.

The stops were announced by recording, as they are in Wuhan and
everywhere else I've been, but with one major difference: every stop
was announced both in Mandarin and in English instead of just the
tourist attractions. Which brings me to another observation: during my
entire stay here I was not stared at, pointed at or otherwise remarked
upon. It seems foreigners are a more common phenomenon in Shenzhen
than in Wuhan. What did bring comments was the fact that I speak
Chinese. Many people I conversed with commented on that approvingly.

Here people speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, the dialect of
Southern China and Hong Kong. In fact, the Chinese of New York City
and San Francisco speak Cantonese, a harsher version of Mandarin. With
a little bit of strain I can understand Cantonese, or at least
recognize it when it is spoken. Though some of the words are
completely different, most of what I can catch only consists of
elongated tones rather than the more musical 4-tone range of Mandarin.
Most of the older people I encountered spoke Cantonese.

Other observations from the bus window: few scooters, either motorized
or battery powered. Dedicated bike lanes incorporated into the
sidewalk design, but I did not see many bikes. No errant pedestrians
ganging up to challenge traffic for their right to the road and no
errant dog packs. Here dogs seem to be pampered pets on leashes rather
than filthy pelted service animals of the junkyard variety as I'm used
to seeing in Wuhan.

The bus I was riding took me along the Hong Kong border. Maybe that is
why I heard so much of that dialect. Across the lake I could see that
fabled city and contemplated a day trip there. Maybe. Maybe.

Go South, Young Woman!

The title of this one is a parody of 'Go West Young Man'. Of course
the obvious difference is that I am not a man. The less obvious
difference is the direction. To the West of Wuhan lie Chong Qing and
Chengdu, both of which I've already explored and written about.
Although I wouldn't have minded returning to one or the other, there
are several other cities to explore in China. Besides, after the cold
of Wuhan, I'm ready for some warmth. So, south it is.

Even though this is peak travel season in China with New Year/Spring
Festival right around the corner I was able to score a train ticket
for the very next day to Shenzhen. A sleeper car train ticket no less.
Quite a coup for this time of year! All of this within one day of
getting my internet connection back. Not bad, I'd say.

The train was not due to leave till 8PM. That means I have all day to
chat my normal round of chatting, as well as clean the house and pack,
long before I have to be at the train station. Knowing the buses and
traffic patterns, even now that the main road construction is
complete, I resolved to leave the house at 5PM. That would put me at
the train station by 6PM, in plenty of time for my train. Next, the
debate ranged over luggage. Wheeled or carry only? Take my faithful
laptop or depend ont he good graces of the hotel I would be staying

In the end, I packed Chinese style: minimally. One change of clothes
and several changes of underclothes in my trusty black bag, and one
bag of food. A whole bag, just for food? Sure! You should see how the
Chinese pack their food. Bowls of dried noodles, fruit, snacks and
some even bring whole home-cooked meals. I was only bringing a few
linseed bread sandwiches and 6 hard boiled eggs, some cookies and some
fruit. And some chocolate for my sweet tooth.

the next decision: walk across campus to avoid mud or take the quicker
way through the over-the-wall village to the bus? Over the wall, I
say. I can chance a little bit of mud in favor of getting to the bus
stop quickly. Besides, campus would be too depressing with everyone
gone, and going that way would be twice the walk. Just as I started
onto the muddy, unpaved part of the road that separated the community
from the greater world beyond a taxi was leaving. Having just realized
that I had forgotten my bus card and knowing I didn't have any single
Yuan bills for bus fare, and the leaden sky drizzling down to boot, I
took it as a good omen that this cab was just starting its shift, and
from my neighborhood, at that! The driver agreed to take me to the
train station, so I settled into the heated, weather protected
vehicle. On the way to the train station he confided that he is in
fact my neighbor and has seen me tramp through on the way to the bus
stop. It gave him a sense of pride to have intimate connection with
the foreigner and gave me a sense of community that my neighbor was
driving me to the train station.

Waht a way to start my traveling!

This train experience was the best I've had so far, bar none. The
train station was not overly crowded as has been in my past travels.
As soon as I got to the waiting room my train started boarding. I made
it to my car with no cattlelike herding and found my bunk with no
problems. No one stared at me or made comments, as I've grown to
expect from past trips. In more ways than one I was traveling
incognito. My bunk was a middle bunk, kind of hard on a long body like
mine but not terribly bad. Usually I go for the top bunk; there tends
to be more head room. All in all, not too shabby a trip... except for
the weird dreams and being woken up at 5AM.

Arriving in Shenzhen after what I now deem poor sleep and too little
of it, I tried to buy my return ticket. The plan was to only stay in
Shenzhen for 3 days. Gary had invited me to spend New Year festival
with him and his family. I had every intention of being there. The
Chinese train system had other ideas. There were no tickets back to
Wuhan. Well, now that was a pickle. Kind of killed my plans, didn't

First things first. I am now in Shenzhen and must find lodging. Off I
go, looking for the hotel I had scoped out on
According to the directions it was within walking distance of the
train station, but according to past guest reviews it was going to be
hard to find. I did not find that to be true. Only after one
misdirection I was able to locate it by its colorful blue and yellow
exterior. By the time I got there I was sweating: it is substantially
warmer in Shenzhen than Wuhan. Of course I had to dress in layers
while still in Wuhan or risk freezing on my way to the train station
and aboard the train. As soon as I was introduced to my room I
divested myself of all but my outer layer of clothing.

Next I acquainted myself with the hotel and the amenities my room
provided. The room itself was a cubicle. 8x8, no window, just enough
room for a double bed and a small desk. The attached bathroom was
clean and equally economical of space: a shower stall with curtain, a
sink and a Western toilet. Everything was very clean. A small
television was mounted on the wall at the foot of the bed. No other
amenities that I've grown used to, such as a kettle for hot water, a
blow dryer or a place to hang or put away clothes. And no window. That
was rather strange. 2 public-use Blow dryers and mirrors were
festooned by the elevators. The hot water dispenser unit was housed in
a nook just beyond the blow driers, in a space where one might find an
ice machine in an american hotel.

Dizzy from poor sleep the temptation to sink onto my bed and nap was
great but I vetoed the idea. I didn't want to spend my first day here
asleep. I went in search of a cup of coffee and, sitting on a
sun-dappled bench, pondered my options. Usually I research my
destination before deciding to go there but, having won my internet
connection just hte day before buying my train ticket I did not have
time to do so. Still dizzy from poor sleep but now wired on caffeine,
and knowing virtually nothing about Shenzhen I decided to spend the
day riding buses.

Riding public transportation is a great way to meet a city. Resolving
to take the bus with the longest route I paid the 3Yuan fare and fixed
my eyes out the window. Within walking distance of my hotel I spied a
Walmart. Good thing: not being able to buy a train ticket out of this
city for the forseeable future, I'm going to need a lot more

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Recently a good friend informed me via email that his hard drive had crashed. Could I please send him the link to my blog again?

I am always pleasantly surprised… nay: shocked! When I find out people are reading my blog, even now, in its second year. To tell you the truth I have no idea how many people are actually following my adventures nowadays. Some of my friends and my daughter have posted a link to it on their Facebook page, and I have heard that some look forward to each and every installment. Let me take a moment to thank each of you.

Thank you.

For my part, I can’t not write. If I abstain, even for a few days it feels like I’m missing something and soon enough I’m back at the keyboard, pecking away even if I have nothing interesting to write about.

These past few months, with nothing much going on, I’ve had nothing much to write about. Truth to tell, I’ve not done much that is especially remarkable lately, especially in the vagabond milieu. With no internet connection and not enough Chinese under my belt to hold a decent conversation with anyone, let alone a travel agent or other official, I had a hard time researching destinations and making reservations anywhere. So, I’m doubly surprised that you would follow this blog, even though to me, looking back on the last 4 months’ entries, it seems mostly dull as dishwater.

But now, I’m connected! By all the winds of fate it happened on one Sunday afternoon, after I sent all my contacts an email telling them I would soon be connected. I literally stayed home, day after day on the promise that the ‘Internet Men’ would be here. And, each day Sam had to rescind his promise. There was a part missing. There were no techs available to do the install. There were problems.

There was apparently no problem with them coming on a Sunday, when I figured no one in the school’s IT department was working. I had made plans with a friend and had left the house by 10AM. That’s when Sam texted me to ask if I was home: the techs are here to do the install.

What should have been the most exciting moment of the week ended up being frustrating and aggravating. No, not home! On a bus, going to meet my friend! “Never mind” says Sam. The techs did not need me to be home as long as I had everything ready and laid out for them. That, I did do.

Now I wonder what an ‘Internet Man’ looks like. Because I wasn’t home when they got here, I guess I’ll never know. I should have hidden a video camera to capture that elusive image.

When I came home from my outing, full of anticipation at connectivity I saw a dining room chair, dragged to within 3 feet of the front door. That is where all of the cabling runs into the apartment. On that chair was a wireless router, all plugged in a blinking. Along the living room wall electrical wires and CAT-5 cabling was strung up in a particularly inordinate fashion.

After changing out of my muddy shoes (rainy here; mud everywhere!) and into my house shoes I ran all over the apartment: to the office to turn on the computer. To the living room to turn on the TV. Back to the office to verify connectivity. Back to the living room to verify internet television reception was working fine.

With but a few tweaks and tucks of wire, everything works like a top. Now I just need to settle down from being so giddy and actually sit at one appliance or another to enjoy my newly installed window into the outside world.

My first act of internet access was to read and respond to emails. Some got short-shrifted and others got a lengthy reply. Others, like with my daughter and my conspirators, I sent the promise of a nice videochat the next day. And then I read the news. Or, at least, the headlines. I now know that a cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy and the captain is in big trouble because he abandoned ship before all the passengers were safely off the craft. And I know it is Awards Season in Hollywood, and I know Jon Huntsman has dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination. Sprinkle in a few suicide bombings in the Middle East, a major economic summit in Asia and the usual who is dating/breaking up with/wearing whom (that last for the Awards Season in Hollywood), and I now feel au courant!

So, beyond those first frenzied forays into the digital outside world, what do you think my next act was?

I’ll tell you. Within 24 hours of being connected to the outside world again, I researched and bought a train ticket. This vagabond is traveling again!!!

I have to admit: now that I’m connected and because I’m so comfortable in my cozy little apartment, it was very tempting to just stay at home. Think about it: temperature hovers in the mid 40’s by day and into the 30’s at night. Everyone – students, administrators and construction crews are gone to enjoy the holidays. The housing area is preternaturally quiet. I could enjoy peace, shelter from the elements and have full access to the outside world with just a few keystrokes or the push of a few buttons on the remote control. Why leave?

Because I feel dull as dishwater, that’s why! NOTHING is going on! And I’ve been plagued with wanderlust for the longest time. I’ve wanted to go somewhere, see something, do something that does not center on anything related to teaching, going to the vegetable market or the internet bar! In short, it is time to travel again.

So now, during China’s peak travel season I hit the rails. I lucked out and got a train ticket for a southerly destination, leaving today. I’m packed, I have my little bag of food all ready to go, the house is clean… and it is only 4PM!!! My train doesn’t leave until nearly 8PM. It will be an overnight trip and, even more fortunate: I was able to get a sleeper car ticket. I won’t have to sit up all night, witnessing the madness that I’ve reported on already several times throughout this blog.

Where am I going?

Well, you’ll just have to wait till I get back to find out. I already gave you a hint: it is a southerly destination. I chose it because of the weather: it is warmer than here in Wuhan.

So, loyal fans, readers and friends: thank you for your continued interest. I promise things are going to get interesting again. Starting in about 5 days, when I get back from… OOPS!!! ALMOST spilled the beans!

When I get back, we’ll meet again. Till then, best wishes and hearty greetings, and again many thanks to you.

One final note:

Happy Chinese New Year (January 23rd)! Ring in the Year of the Dragon in style, would you?

More on that Prepaid Electricity Deal

Since the When the Meter Runs Out post, you (and I) know I am on a prepaid electricity plan. By that I mean I am to monitor my electric meter and when it starts getting low – say reflecting 100 units remaining. I’m supposed to let Sam know and he will call… somebody to replenish my electricity supply.

Whatever those units reflect – Yuan, watts, or simply ‘units’, I have no idea. Last time my meter was replenished (i.e. last time I ran out of electricity and had to spend the night in the cold), it reflected 999.99. I have been informed that 1,000Yuan are put toward my electric account, so I suspect that number reflects Yuan. However, for the sake of convenience I will describe that number henceforth simply as ‘units’.

To say that this plan is inconvenient is to understate the matter. My electric meter is outside, in the stairwell. I walk past it every time I leave the house and every time I come back home. Since my least desire is to run out of electricity I check it compulsively, both on the way out and on the way in. Maybe I need not be so compulsive about it.

As the number of units wind down to zero my meter reflects a blinking red light that flashes progressively faster the closer the number depletes to nothing. Thanks to that flashing light I get a quick visual of how close I am to needing a recharge without opening the meter cabinet and standing there, waiting for my meter to scroll through its 3 different readings. But, I don’t want to run out of electricity at an inopportune moment. So I keep a close eye on the meter.

It takes approximately 40 units of electricity to power an average day: run the heater for 12 hours, heat a tankful of water, turn on various lights and make use of cooking appliances, maybe watch a movie or spend some time on the computer. With 100 units left, I figure I have roughly 2 days leeway for that recharge on my meter, that way I won’t run out of electricity should someone drop the ball.

I thought that, once the meter reflected 100 units, it would be a simple matter to call Sam for a refill. That happened on Monday morning, when I got down to 110. He tried calling… whoever he was supposed to call, to no avail. He then sent a text message and we got on with our day.

Since Monday, being mindful of my nearly depleted supply of units I was extra careful with my electricity usage. I only ran the heater for 6 hours and did not get on the computer at all. No extra lights turned on and I even turned off the humidifier. It only took one night for me to know that I don’t want to spend another without bed heaters, and I certainly don’t want to wake up to the prospect of no way to heat water for a sponge bath or tea.

Now it is Tuesday morning and the meter reflects 43 units remaining. Just a little over one day’s worth of electricity units available to me. Now a little panicked I send Sam another text message. About an hour later he responds with: “Your meter has to go completely to zero before they’ll recharge it. Crap!”

What do you think my response to him was?

“I really, REALLY do not like this prepaid system!”

I was holding back.

I’m trying to think of a time or a situation where I was in a similar predicament. The closest I can come is back in the dim old days, when I lived in a trailer with no heat and had to use a kerosene space heater to warm the place up. When my five gallon jug of kerosene ran low, I refilled it. I did not let my heater, or my gas tank run completely out before a refill.

Nor would I let my car run out of gas and then call someone to bring me a gas can. Would you?

The only other comparable situation I can think of was when I was driving a forklift powered by an LP gas engine. Then we had to let the bottle of gas run out, leave the stalled forklift wherever it died, remove the empty bottle and trudge to the cage where the full bottles were stored. But even then we did not run out of full LP gas bottles before ordering a refill for our empty bottles.

Bottom line: this prepaid electricity system makes no sense to me. More specifically: it sets me up for at least a day of misery with no electricity until someone gets the message that I need a replenishment.

I’m not even sure how that works! Now that Sam has put in the replenish request and… whoever is aware that I will soon need more electricity, has the request cued up in some computer system, to happen automatically as my meter hits zero?

Or am I going to have to wait till the lights go out and the heater dies and then call Sam again, so that he can call… whoever for that recharge? And what if Sam is busy and doesn’t get that text message right away? And what if… whoever the person or entity is that recharges the meters does not get the message right away?

I end up cold and shivering in the dark, that’s what.

All I know is that, while I do not run the heater at night I do want and need my bed heaters. And, I do like to wash myself first thing in the morning and have at least one cup of hot tea. Conclusion: I do not want to be without electricity overnight. Ergo I must time my electricity depletion to happen sometime before noon so that… whoever has all afternoon to recharge the meter.

So here it is, Tuesday evening, 7PM. I have been out all day, trying to not use all my electricity. I planned that before I knew I HAD to use up all my electricity in order to get more. While riding home I calculated that I will have to run my meter down to approximately 15 units this evening. The bed heaters only use 1 unit, so I should wake up to 14 units on the meter – enough for about 1 hour of heat and water for washing and for tea.

Then I will find out if my meter will replenish because of the request Sam has already made or if I’m going to have to initiate the rounds of notification again. By tomorrow evening I should have a full meter.

This system is insane.

Now Wednesday, and with a completely depleted meter I can tell you how things work.

There is no ‘system’ in which a request for recharge is queued. A fellow comes by, whips a card out of his wallet, inserts it into a conveniently hidden slot on the meter face. The meter is then reset. It only takes a minute to do so. After the fact this ‘meter man’ instructed me to call Sam if I run out of electricity during this six-week holiday and he will be right here.

Sam assures me that this fellow is on the compound 24/7. If that is the case, why did I have to freeze my baguettes off that one night? Furthermore, do I want to take the chance that he will not be here within a 4 hour window for a recharge, should I need one?

I’m just going to have to be really careful with my electricity usage. That’s all there is to that.


Admittedly a lot of my entries appear self-involved of late. As I explained in the Phone Man Talkathon entry (posted September of last year), blogging is, by nature a self-involved endeavor. However, I do concede that, of late my entries are nothing but self-involved. Not because that is the direction I wanted this blog to go, believe me!

Over these past few months I have felt completely disconnected: from my friends and family, and from the world. I do not know what movies are playing, what’s new on the music scene, what is trending or what is going on in the world. All of that has to do with the fact that I’ve not been connected to the World Wide Web for the past 4 months.

With no internet connection I cannot catch up on current events, listen to music stream in from – a free, streaming music site, read the news or see what is currently in theaters. I have not delved into topics that interest me and currently cannot speak with any authority on any subject, lest the information I have is outdated. Furthermore I cannot reserve a hotel room or research the best way to travel somewhere, or even find places to go. I have not been anywhere since forever. Some vagabond am I!

In short, I feel like the world’s most boring person.

All of that is about to change. I’m supposed to get connected soon. Can’t wait!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Precious and Little, and Precious Little

“Dear Mama, I am glad to tell you that I got second in the Lesson Competition. I won my Teacher’s certification. I couldn’t be a success without your help. You did me a great favor. Thank you!” Lancy

You are much more than an English teacher to me. Not only in the last year but for the rest of my life. Happy New Year!” Tony

There are things I cannot talk about with my mother or my friends, but I can talk to you.” Vixen

Looking back over the past 4 months of blog entries in an attempt to organize my archives, I realize I’ve told you precious little about my job and how it is going this year. Now that the semester is over and before I take off on my travels, I feel like I should correct that oversight, don’t you?

I still contend that I’m no great shakes as a teacher but I do aver that I am a very effective mentor.

As a teacher, one addresses a classroom full of students, some who want to be there and some that don’t. Some, like Alan in my freshman class this year, stated on the very first day of class that he hates English.

What does one do with the Alans in class? I thanked him for his honesty and told him I hope I could make this class interesting for him in spite of his dislike. I never got the chance. I’ve not seen him since that first session. To my knowledge he did not drop the course. Sadly, I had to fail him.

With other students who have no interest in English but attend my class anyway, just for the grade… well, I have to make the distinction between willing and unwilling students, and focus on the eager minds that absorb knowledge like a sponge while maintaining some sort of order over those who would disrupt the class because they are busy chatting or playing games. I’ve learned that much. But am I making a difference? As far as teaching anyone anything, who can tell?

Had Alan kept attending I would have had some kind of marker of what kind of teacher I am. Effective? Fluff? Somewhere in between? Could I have kindled some sort of passion for language or learning in him? I’ll never know.

My students like me. I have no doubt about that. I can’t cross campus without being arrested by one group of students or other. Some want the hugs I liberally dish out and others just want to practice their English outside the formal session setting. Mostly I get a feeling of acceptance and inclusion from these kids. Not just because of them detaining me when I am spotted on campus but also because of the text messages I get, like the ones above.

Lancy was in my Sophomore class last year. She has since graduated and is now looking at the big, bad world with trepidation. Her major was Business English, which earned her an Associate’s Degree. Usually a Bachelor’s is required to pursue her dream - a career in teaching but her exceptional language skill gave her the edge and ultimately put her over the top, to win the position she so coveted.

Before competing she confided in me that she lacks a lot of the skills needed to win this contest. She and I had a series of meetings, during which I gave her a blank lesson plan template, taught her how to fill it out and how to prepare a lesson. I showed her the notebooks I use – sort of like a teacher’s log to record my classroom activities and the students’ response.

You should know that, because foreign teachers are considered panache I am not required to turn in lesson plans or even maintain a log. If you’ve been following this blog since its inception you know that I don’t even have a book to teach from or a curriculum I’m required to follow. I keep a diary so I can look back and see what I’ve done and how effective it was.

I shared all of this and more with Lancy. Brilliant mind that she is captured the essence of what she heard and put it to good use, securing her future in a field she loves by placing 2nd in competition. She thanked me for her success, even though it is all her doing.

I believe everyone knows who Tony is (See Speech Competitions – Tony). It seems he and I have a mutual admiration society going on. I was impressed with him from the first conversation we had, when we discussed the political and educational differences of our respective countries at English Corner last year. Anyone who has the guts to broach such topics in open forum, and can speak knowledgeably with regard to those concerns merits attention, especially when said individual is a lad of 18, using his second language to discourse.

It was while preparing for the speech competitions that he and I really got to know one another. I already knew he is possessed of a phenomenal intellect. He learned during that time that I am not just an English teacher – his words, not mine.

Although I do like to borrow that phrase sometimes, like when I impressed my students with the food I prepared for our Christmas parties this year. “Not just an English teacher” I mocked, “but also a chef!” Thirty little piggies agreed wholeheartedly. Back to Tony now.

I think of him as my Chinese son. I am interested in his overall development, not just as an academic but as a future leader. This kid has so much on the ball but, like any sharp projectile must be properly honed, focused and aimed. For that reason not only do we spend a lot of time talking about greater life matters such as philosophy and history but also about practical things like harnessing one’s energy and choosing one’s battles.

In a lot of ways Tony reminds me of that Cat Stevens song “Father and Son”. If you’ve never heard it or aren’t familiar with the lyrics, I urge you to google it and take a listen. Beautiful song and much the way I feel about this man-child.

Vixen is a name I’ve accorded Stephanie, a young woman who has yet to realize how powerful she is.

If she tops out at 5’ tall I’d be surprised. I believe my Gabriel, at 10 years old is taller than she. When I first met her, last year in my freshman class she came across as a sassy, girly child who loved to flit and play. She has since developed into a well grounded young woman, holding down a job and excelling in all of her courses.

One of my few male students, Martin (known in my circle as Monkey) is but one of the few who are completely entranced with her. For her appearance alone she has the entire male population on campus drooling after her. Her face is a perfect oval, with her miraculously clear skin smoothed over high cheekbones. Wide-set, oval eyes give her the impression of a fawn at daybreak and, when she breaks into a smile she has the ability to brighten even the gloomiest day. What troubles could such a young woman have?

Plenty, as it turns out. Last year, both during winter break and over the summer she confided to me that her family situation drives her to the brink of despair. With our winter break approaching I told her last night, after dining together that I was worried about her returning home. Last year while at home she sent me a panicked text message, asking if I thought it would be a good idea for her to run away. This year I felt she and I should talk about things before she boarded that train destined for home.

That is when she told me there were things she couldn’t talk about with anyone but me… and then burst into tears. All during the meal I knew there was something dark hovering around her. I want to reach her before it is too late.

There are plenty more students like Tony, Lancy and Vixen. Grace, who has a boyfriend and can’t bring herself to tell even her best friend. Vanessa, too distant from her mother, can talk to me. Summer, who vented her heartbreak to me before she even thought of broaching the subject with her roommates. Claire, who gets advice from the four corners of her world and can’t seem to pull it all into one cohesive circle. Carol, who so badly wants to be a psychologist but is being pushed into teaching. Jonathan, Tristan, Kevin, Hector, Lucy, Jeremy, Christina, Gayle…

All of these kids who have sat in my class and now look to me as a mentor rather than a teacher. Have I taught them anything about English? Maybe not, but I am certainly privileged in helping them make sense of things as they stand on the threshold of the rest of their life.

But Sam… Sam would be able to tell if I’m a good teacher or not. According to him, I am the best foreign teacher he’s ever had the pleasure of working with. He told his students that last week, when I guest lectured in his classes.

Maybe I am a good teacher. Those journals I keep make me a good teacher. The kids being receptive in class shows I’m a good teacher. And I certainly seem to have a way of reaching the kids. The ongoing relationships with them show I’m both a good teacher and a good mentor.

But, just in case I get too big for my britches I have to remember the billboard posted on campus that praises my virtues to the heavens… but lists my birthdate as 1942, making me 20 years older than I actually am.

That tells me I had to live 70 years to acquire the wisdom needed to teach these kids!

Over the Wall, a Whole New World

Nobody could ever accuse me of being industrious and hardworking. While I am certainly capable of hard work when the occasion calls for it, I assure you that I am in fact a lazy person. But, being lazy has its merits. For example: a lazy person will find the quickest way to complete a task. Tada! Thus is born the concept of efficiency. At least, that’s what my good friend Ron says. I agree.

For a long time after moving into my new apartment I used the excuse that I had nothing to cook on to get out of cooking my own meals. In fact I’ve had the same cooking equipment I had in the Concrete Bunker all along; I just didn’t want to walk all the way across campus and up The Street to the farmer’s market, and then carry everything back. Ditto with getting on a bus, going to a major store and then carrying everything home again. I did do it occasionally, OK! Twice! But I didn’t enjoy it. That is why I kept eating out (see Dogfood and Dry Noodles entry).

Once I got tired of eating dog food and noticed the noodles were making me fat and sluggish, I realized I had to change my ways, while still maintaining my lazy lifestyle.

As this housing area populates, people are going to need to buy food. Do they walk several kilometers to the outlets I know about? Will they continue to do so?

Looking through my kitchen window I keep seeing people with sacks of vegetables, coming from the path that I usually take to get to the internet café. They have to be getting those veggies from somewhere, but there was nothing there! Just the abandoned construction area, the small garden patches I cut through to get to the little courtyard that houses the café and a wall segregating an older residential area from the campus and construction zone. It is a long wall, going as far as the eye can see.

Wait! There is a break in the wall! Beyond this wall is an older community. I could see that by looking over the wall which is only about 7’ tall. And, hidden behind an abandoned shed is a narrow walkway leading into it. Surely the people in that community had to have some place to buy food, right?

Righto, Sophia! Now backtrack and tell everyone how you learned that this is so!

You should know that in China, only major stores sell produce. In neighborhood shops it is like it was 50 years ago in the States: the butcher sells meat, the baker sells bread, the milliner sells hats and the farmers sell produce. Another distinction: whereas the term ‘produce’ defines all agricultural products including dairy, in China there is a distinction between fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Here, dairy products are mostly defined in terms of yogurt. Milk is the chemically protected, vacuum packed type that is sold on shelves rather than in dairy cases, butter is generally not used and the Chinese consider cheese the grossest substance under the sun. Therefore cheese is virtually non-existent. Eggs are sold at the farmer’s market.

Fruits and vegetables are further subdivided. Fruit stands are plentiful, especially around campus because the kids like to snack on bananas and oranges, and they have an extraordinary love affair going with apples. Veggies can only be bought at the farmer’s market. Even at the farmer’s market there is a distinct separation between fruits (sold out front) and veggies (sold within the building).

On the menu for the Piggie’s party was the tomato and egg soup, remember? From a previous shopping expedition I had the eggs but not the tomatoes. No problem I reason, I can just go to the fruit stand in the courtyard where the internet café is. She sells tomatoes… except that day, she was out of tomatoes.

Now I have to either go across campus, up The Street and to the farmer’s market or I have to find out where all those people are getting their veggies from. I asked Fruit Stand Woman if there was a place close by that I could buy tomatoes from. She gestured vaguely toward that ‘behind the wall’ community.

No more putting it off. I have to put myself out there, possibly get pointed at and ostracized and surrounded by a bunch of people who were going to ask me a lot of questions I don’t understand.

I eased through that narrow walkway and into another world.

The Street is pure glitz. It is a college community street: all the shops and restaurants target students. While there are grandparents on The Street tending their progeny’s progeny, or quietly ambling around, one doesn’t get much sense of community. Not like the over-the-wall community, anyway.

Here, old folks can be seen sitting in the least dappling of sunshine, talking and listening to traditional Chinese music. Nary a car navigates these narrow lanes. Children are safe playing in these streets; their mothers look on while washing clothes by hand, in plastic tubs. Women meet to gossip while men linger on street corners, smoking and bantering. No air conditioners hang from the buildings but the air is rife with a smell of smoldering coal. There are not too many restaurants and only one street vendor. A few small shops offer minimal goods. It is life in a small town in America, circa 1940… except we’re in China and everyone is Chinese.

Two streets over is the vegetable market. By far not as regal as the one on the other side of campus, it still offers pretty much everything one needs to cook a satisfying meal: an assortment of ‘in season’ vegetables along with a small butcher’s stand. Next to the butcher is the egg vendor. At the entrance is a small fruit stand on one side and a ‘prepared foods’ vendor on the other side. She has a lot of tofu and roast meat. Across the lane is the dry goods store where one can buy rice by the kilo or a large jug of oil.

The first time I went there no one even pointed or stared. In fact, I had to ask two different people how to find the veggie vendor. With no fuss whatsoever they gestured toward which alley I should walk and told me how to get there. I did not hear any whispers of ‘waiguoren’ and I was not treated in any way badly.

That was a nice reflection on how much my Chinese has improved.

The second time I shopped this community was with Summer (see Twelve Days of Christmas – What Happened Next entry). As always happens when in company of one of my Chinese friends all conversation is directed toward them and I get to just stand by, even though I am the one actually transacting. The third time I did hear some ‘waiguoren’ talk, mostly from children. At the market everyone, shoppers and farmers alike gathered ‘round to quiz me. Not a problem, as long as they speak Standard Chinese and not the Wuhan dialect. They were as delighted with me as was I when I felt their acceptance.

Since that walk with Summer I have used this route to get to the main road. Especially now that the main road construction is complete and all the bus stops have moved – more on that later.

Today was an exceptionally beautiful day, weather wise. Although chilly the sun beat down and the wind was minimal. I decided to head out, see what there was to see and do what there was to do. Of course I followed the by now familiar path through the over-the-wall community. Since that last shopping venture when the farmers and citizens grilled me I have felt at ease ambling through.

At ease! My friends, you should see how ‘at ease’ things are now! A pair of seniors from the community was sunning themselves just outside the wall. As I passed by I smiled and said Ni Hao! They invited me to sit and join them! They even had a low stool I could perch on. How cool is that!?!

Their invitation set the tone for the rest of the walk through the neighborhood. A young mother washing clothes smiled her greeting and introduced me to her young son. He and I conversed for a few minutes, after which I congratulated her on how cute her baby is. On the corner, in the street… anywhere there was a patch of sunshine people were in it, enjoying the day. A group of old mothers smiled and nodded, I waved back and wished them a good day. The lone street vendor cast his greeting; I returned in kind.

Since living here I have never experienced this level of acceptance from the older community residents. As one said: “Look, there goes our foreigner!”

Our foreigner. I belong to them. I am a part of their community. I love it.

Dog Food and Dry Noodles

When I lived in the Concrete Bunker, located at what is now the back of the school there were ample food and shopping opportunities. Just two minutes’ walk led me to Battercake Man, Breakfast Sandwich Woman, Steamed Bun Girl and Fried Bread Man… and many more food vendors whose treats I never have sampled. If I wanted a quick meal all I had to do was walk a few feet, spend a few ‘kuai’ and a hot and tasty snack was mine. See ‘New Man on Snack Street’ entry, posted on for more on these characters.

And, if I had any ‘little’ shopping to do, say for a bag of chips to go with my battercake or a flashlight to eat by in case the power went out, I just directed myself to the store whose doors were conveniently located between Porridge Woman and the corner fruit stand and pick up whatever I needed. The Farmer’s Market, the supermarket, and various other shops and restaurants lined The Street making for, at the very least a colorful promenade if not a self-sufficient little world.

I like my new apartment, but I kind of miss that setup. I don’t have near the food choices or shopping opportunities anywhere close now that I live at the back (or what is now the front) of campus.

Now, living in what really does feel like a home – except for that I have no gas to cook on and my electronic hotplate just died, meaning I have now only my grill, crockpot, rice cooker and ovens (microwave and radiant), you might wonder what I’m doing for food.

I’m eating dog food at least three nights a week. Relax, it is not Alpo or Pedigree or even that reviled Wally-World brand Ol’Roy. For that matter it is not really dog food.

‘Dog Food’ is a slang name given to a buffet style restaurant where one fills a plateful of food from a steam table laden with a variety of dishes and pays for it by weight. Your container of ‘dog food’ is accompanied by a same-sized container of rice. Voila! Instant meal! There might be anywhere from forty to sixty five dishes to choose from: eggs with tomato, tofu dishes, vegetables with or without meat flavoring, spicy and unspicy dishes, meats, fried foods like lotus and glutinous rice balls. There’s fish and duck and beef and pork and chicken and sausage. No horsemeat, frog legs or pig ears. Those are reserved for the fancier restaurants downtown.

I’ll get back to dog food in a minute. Let me expand my food choices first.

Of course I could always walk to those old haunts on Snack Street, and on occasion I do. When I don’t mind braving bevies of boys and gaggles of girls stopping me every few feet to talk, or walking across campus with me till I get to my destination, and then walking all the way back across campus to my little house and then… then, the food is cold. So going to Snack Street is out unless I want to walk and eat at the same time.

Incidentally, living so far removed from Snack Street means I missed out on fried pumpkin this year. Fried pumpkin is only available for a few weeks in November. Now THAT was a yummy treat!

From where I’m at now all I have to do is walk the narrow trail as though I were headed to the internet café. That establishment is in fact at the back of a little courtyard lined with no less than 3 dog food restaurants, one tea shop, two fried rice stands right next to each other, one fried noodle shop and two other noodle shops that make my favorite noodle dish – Re Gan Mian. There are also a few vendor carts. One offers jerkey’d duck parts – duck parts roasted till they look mummified and the other offering barbeque. Fried barbeque.

At the entrance of this courtyard is a vendor who makes a snack that is somehow both baked and fried. From morning till evening he and his partner can be found rolling out dough, slathering it with a spicy paste and then sprinkling a tiny bit of cabbage onto the paste, and then rolling the concoction up to resemble a bun. The buns are placed in a pan containing about one centimeter of oil and then placed into an oven that resembles a beehive. While the dough rises from the heat of the oven the outside of the bun gets crispy in the oil. When eaten hot these snacks are right close to heavenly.

Rounding out the vendors in this courtyard is a fruit stand that also sells a variety of munchies that range from corn snaps to peanuts, sold in bulk. This is where I buy those fabulous roasted sesame crackers that I am now addicted to. They are not so much crackers as roasted sesame seed nuggets. They go with soups, salads, by the handful… pretty much any way you want to eat them. Every few days I approach that vendor like a druggie needing her fix. He already knows what I want and doles it out to me in the quantity I specify. I used to just buy a half kilo at a time but between my serving them to the occasional guest and munching them by the handful myself, they were going too quick. Now I buy them a kilo at a time.

To sum it up: there’s dog food, noodles, fried rice, fruit and fried/baked snacks, accompanied by munchies sold by the kilo. The healthiest thing to eat is dog food. The rest of the choices make for too much fried. Not to say I’m not a fan of fried, ‘cause I sure am! But that’s not necessarily healthy.

I need to either expand my food choices or start cooking again.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas – New Year’s Eve and Footnotes

Saturday morning found me at the internet café again. After that I disappeared again – took myself off the grid. I took down my laundry and just relaxed. Only later that night 11:45, to be specific, did I gear up and send out text messages to everyone in my phone. Almost immediately I started receiving messages back, in Chinese and in English.

Some were simple – Happy New Year! Others were more complex and devoted. The most touching one came from Tony: I am more to him than just a teacher, not just for the last two years but for the rest of his life.


Two weeks before Christmas Lancy, a student in my in my sophomore class last year and who has since graduated presented me with a grey scarf she had knitted herself. Her visit was preceded by a series of text messages pledging undying respect and love. She calls me her second Mom. I’m honored. Lancy is one of those people who will go far in life but will not make headlines. Cherubic, and with more heart than any one person should have a right to, she helped make my transition to life in Wuhan much easier. Apparently, even though she is no longer a student here she intends to continue our relationship. She started by inviting me to her hometown for Chinese New Year. I’m honored.

She is not the only student who has graduated that manifested herself this Holiday season. Remember Jonathan (How Rude entry, posted January of last year)? He called to wish me happy New Year. After graduation he and his best friend Tristan moved to Shenzhen to look for work. They are both established down there and working for a good firm. They will both also return to Wuhan for Chinese New Year. If I happen to be out of town while they are here, we agreed that I should come to Shenzhen to visit with them. That would be my pleasure, both because they are great kids (men?) and because Shenzhen is south of Wuhan and much warmer.

Sadly Tristan’s father passed away about two months ago. I was aware that he had cancer but did not know it had consumed him. I asked Jonathan to extend my condolences. Also I learned that Jonathan and Mary broke up. I feel terrible for Mary, who once confided to me that Jonathan was the love of her life. I wonder how she is doing… but have no way of contacting her. It seems that Jonathan doesn’t even speak with her anymore. I didn’t dare ask him for her contact information, intuiting from his tone and the fact that they are no longer in touch that the breakup must have been less than amicable.

After my teaching obligations were done I decided to go to Nanjing for a few days of rest and relaxation. The strain of the holiday proved to be too much for me. I couldn’t see myself packing, boarding the train and going anywhere. Between being sick and being worn out I only wanted to stay home. So, no trips for me.

That’s OK. During these six weeks off I’ll have plenty of opportunity to travel. Besides Lancy I’ve had invitations to visit Martin’s home town and spend time with Susan in Yi Chang. Gary, Mask and I are planning a two-week getaway. As always, Xi’an awaits. Just writing about it I’m starting to get that travel itch.

At some point between Christmas and New Year I got to talk with me son. While chatting online with Jennifer she got the brilliant idea to call her brother and ask about his holiday plans. And then she got really ingenious and put her phone up to the computer’s microphone. Darrell and I talked for about 15 minutes in this manner. It was great to hear his voice again!

But then, he got a brilliant idea himself. He bought a phone card and called me! We talked for nearly two hours, just like the good ole days when I lived in Texas and he could pick up the phone any time of the day or night and talk to me.

After all the computer problems he’s had and the months and months of being incommunicado, it is just wonderful to know that, at any time my phone could ring and it will be him on the other end.

I can’t wrap this up without mentioning everyone who sent e-cards and emails, and those who made time to chat with me during these holidays. I’d rather not reveal my entire email address book but let’s just say that I’m still trying to catch up on my correspondence.

So there you have it: My Christmas in full detail. Sure, I’m away from family but I have to admit: I’ve gotten more than my share of hugs and gifts and love this year.

Instead of Christmas Eve, Christmas night and the day after Christmas, my Christmas went on and on and on, to the point that I was overrun by the spirit and quite nearly wrung out by it.

And now it is New Year. What will this Year of the Dragon hold?

Who knows. All I can say is that I hope your Christmas was as full as mine. For this new year I wish that all the love you spend comes back to you thousandfold, all your ventures prove profitable and that your heart and mind are filled with peace and joy.

Happy New Year!