Monday, February 27, 2012

Normal, Usual

I’m back to my normal, usual laid back lifestyle of puttering around the house or around town, riding buses and teaching my 6 hours worth of class. Actually, I haven’t started teaching class yet because my first class isn’t till Wednesday. I’m not puttering around the house too much either: the house is too cold and the heating systems are too inefficient and too expensive to use.

I am going out and riding buses though. That is a nifty pastime. And suddenly I recall…

I wanted to tell you about this long distance bus I took from Shi Shou back to Wuhan! Talk about a cool bus.

Since arriving in China I have seen these buses storm by, where people aboard the bus are laying down. The buses are outfitted with bunks instead of seats, so that, on a long trip you can recline, sleep or just lounge around. I have wanted to ride such a bus for as long as I’ve known they exist.

My first attempt was in returning from Xi’an. The train tickets were all sold out. Why not try to buy a bus ticket? At that time my language skills were not sufficient to negotiate such a transaction so I enlisted Ken, my Xi’an based friend to help me. He turned from the ticketing window, dismayed. A ride on such a bus would cost me over 300Yuan. By comparison a train ticket was about 100Yuan cheaper. I opted for the train but had to select a different day to travel. Still, I never forgot about those buses.

And now it seems, through no design or planning of my own that I will be a passenger on just such a bus! I’m so excited.

The bus is outfitted with 36 bunks. They are arranged in 3 rows, 12 bunks to a row and in two layers – top and bottom. The bottom bunks are virtually at floor level while the top bunks command a nice window view. Two narrow aisles between the rows of bunks lend access to the rear of the coach. A handy map, positioned by the driver indicates the bunk layouts.

I was assigned bunk 19, a top bunk on the left side of the bus. To get down the narrow aisle I had to turn sideways; I am a bit wider than Ye Average Chinese. I hope my size will not cause any discomfort on my bunk.

No need to worry! The bunks are set up in such a way that one’s torso is at a 45 degree angle, designed in such a way that your upper body support becomes a cubby for the person behind you to put their feet or store their goods… a bit like a NASA berth. Each bunk has its own linens provided, to include a quilt and a sheet over the thin pad that serves as a mattress.

In theory the passengers are supposed to remove their shoes before tucking themselves in. Two plastic bags are provided for shoe storage. My boots are too cumbersome to lace and unlace in such narrow confines so I simply put a plastic bag over each of my feet and tucked myself into bed with my shoes on.

My larger than ‘average Chinese’ size did cause me some discomfort, mostly because of my feet. Had I taken my shoes off it would have been easier to maneuver my feet into some kind of comfortable position. However, my boots resisted conforming to the molded shape they were confined to so I did have to struggle some to settle in. The next challenge was to arrange my quilt in such a way that I would be covered. There really is not much room on those cots!

I’ve wriggled my way into several acceptable positions. Finding a comfortable position is not going to be as hard as I expected. Now to dig out my book and spend the 6 hour bus ride reading. NOTE: I would have spent the time looking out the window but it was dark out already, and the bus window was too dirty for me to see much of anything.

Just as I was getting settled in the bus driver turned out all the lights and started driving. OK… now to dig out my book and my flashlight and spend some quality time reading.

I didn’t get much reading in. Seems like constant visiting and rounds of company and touring left me wrung out. I was asleep before the bus even properly left Shi Shou. And I remained asleep until the driver turned the lights back on and declared we were in Wuhan. It was 1AM.

The city buses weren’t running, and no taxis to be found. I didn’t even know where in Wuhan I was! I spied a sign for a chain hotel that had a branch just 200 meters away. I slogged myself down a dark street, rented a room and continued my slumber.

Comparing these long distance buses to traveling for hours on Greyhound, I think I prefer these ‘bunk’ buses. Although the seats aboard a Greyhound are a bit more amenable to someone of my size and girth, the ‘bunk bus’ allowed for a reclining position and no one infringed on my space. As always, in spite of the dire warnings by all by Chinese friends, I have no fear for my safety or my belongings. I have yet to be bothered in any way while traveling in China… unless you mean because someone wants to practice their English.

I would travel on such a bus again. Next time I believe I will plan on footwear that is easier to slip on and off. Other than that, it was a pretty nifty experience!

And Now, Shi Shou

Martin is an avid and conscientious host. He is so conscientious he called me several times on the bus, sent me text messages and was even there to greet me before I actually got off the bus. He then walked me through the village, introducing me to most everyone there. It seems he is, in some manner or fashion kin to most everyone who lives there.

Shi Shou has one claim to fame. In 2009 a hotel chef was allegedly murdered by government officials to ensure his silence with regard to corrupt dealings these official workers undertook within the walls of that establishment. Two days of rioting followed. The parents of Tu Yuangao refused to allow their son’s body to be removed, demanding an investigation into his death. The police refused to investigate, stating that the young man had committed suicide. They offered the parents money provided they would sign a statement acknowledging their son’s death by his own hand. The parents refused. More citizens joined them in blocking entry to the hotel. During the debacle, the establishment was torched. Tu’s body was finally removed and cremated, and no money was ever paid to the family. The controversy still rages, with the family and most of the villagers believing their son was murdered, while the police assiduously keep a lid on any uprisings with regard to the skirmish. The whole incident is a blemish on the town’s peaceful, seemingly innocuous appearance. Its only visual indication is the husk of the burnt out hotel, still visible today (see picture).

There the villagers did everything they could to accommodate me and assure my comfort, draping my knees with a quilt and providing me with space heaters, and even a heated, luxuriously appointed room to sleep in.

I visited with Martin and his family for two days. Martin is also a former student turned friend who had repeatedly extended an invitation to his home. I had met his parents once, as they visited Wuhan to tend to him when he got sick. His mother is such a sweetheart and his father is generous and kind. They did their utmost to assure I would feel welcome and wanted. Not that I didn’t feel that way at Dash’s home.

Martin’s mother met her husband while washing clothes. Her village is across the creek from her husband’s and he fell in love with her, watching her pound brightly colored garments on the rocks by the water. They are still madly in love with one another. He has provided her with a beautiful, well appointed house. She in turn has made it a home complete with good smells wafting from the kitchen, cross stitched decorations on the walls and quilts that she made herself draping the beds. In the open parlor, the entrance to the house is a shrine to his relatives going back three generations.

Neither of these lovebirds has more than a rudimentary education, yet they are as happy and in love as any couple I’ve ever seen. They observe a traditional way of life in which she manages the household and he brings home the bread and all associated commodities. Their fine house is the best in the village, with high ceilings and a fenced in yard. The kitchen is large enough for a grand dining room table as well as ample counter space, ready to welcome modern accoutrements such as rice cookers, crock pots and a microwave oven. She, being very old school will have no such gadgets, preferring to prepare food in the old time way her mother and her mother’s mother has.

While she does in fact make use of a rice cooker, hot water is boiled over a ceramic coal fired stove, dishes are washed in cold water and all food is cooked using a single wok.

There are modern concessions in the home, however. A computer connected to the internet, a hot water heater in the bathroom downstairs, and a second bathroom upstairs that, as yet has no functional plumbing.

I cannot fault Martin or his family for their graciousness, their welcome or their efforts to see to my comfort. I blame it on weariness. Travel weariness – having gone so many places in such a short time, and being around so many people. Not just the wedding and the visiting, but being on buses, on trains, on the streets of the various cities I visited this winter break. After a while, all the noise and the putting on ‘the face’ is quite tiring. By the time I got to Shi Shou I was worn out and ready to not have someone in my immediate vicinity for every one of my waking hours. And, even though Martin’s mom is adorable, sweet kind and generous, she is affected with this… need? Habit? I’m not sure from where it springs but she likes to physically link herself to me at all times. Nothing wrong with companionship or physical contact but I need space, and now I need downtime.

I had meant to stay at Martin’s for at least 3 days but found I only had enough fortitude and reserve for an overnight stay. I made my apologies and expressed my regrets. On one level I do indeed regret my painful introversion. It makes it necessary for me to claim my space and find quiet to recharge my batteries. I could tell my hosts were disappointed but, better I leave now while I can still maintain appearances than linger longer than I have strength or resilience for.

Upon word of my early departure Martin’s mother made sure I had all manner of goods to take back to Wuhan with me. Some oranges and apples, a few yoghurt drinks, some home made sausages and, of all things a whole, cut up chicken, some ginger and a stick of cinnamon. These last few were because I had commented favorably on her delicious homemade chicken soup. Apparently, I would be unable to procure a chicken for myself so I had to take a ‘country’ chicken back to the city with me.

The house shoes she gave me as a gift. She had made them herself. All in all, I left Shi Shou burdened with about three times the weight I arrived there with.

Before escorting me to the bus station, the family opted to treat me to a luxurious meal at the finest restaurant in town. I was honored. And, because I was leaving prematurely, everyone who wanted to meet the ‘family foreigner friend’ was invited to dinner as well. In all we had 8 people seated around the table.

I felt sorry for the poor waitress. Once we placed our order she had to keep coming back to let us know that something we had ordered was not available. She always offered to substitute it for something else, which was good of her, but on the last few forays into our private dining room, the poor thing got yelled at a time or two. Not her fault things on the menu were not actually in the kitchen! And then she got yelled at for taking too long to bring the food. I have to admit: it did take quite a while before our table was laden with anything to eat. Not that I was in a hurry, mind you…

Yes I was! I was in a huge hurry! By now I had a physical need to be in my own space and place! I wanted 8PM to get here quickly so I could board the bus and be left alone with my thoughts!

I’m sounding like a broken record but that is honestly how imperative this feeling was. So, you can imagine my disappointment when, not only did the entire coterie escorted me to the bus station, and then waited the 30 minutes till I was able to board the bus. And then they all accompanied me onto the loading dock to see to it that I got safely on the bus. And then they stuck around outside, entreating the bus conductor to personally see to my safety.

I feel like I’m being smothered. I think there is such a thing as too much hospitality. I’m really trying to not be negative about my visit there, which actually was quite pleasant except for my overwhelming need to reclaim my space and my thoughts. Only once the bus actually pulled out of the station did everyone wend their way home.

Maybe the discomfort I felt at being too accessible, and the feeling I was being invaded is what made these two entries so difficult to write. They are done now, and at least one of them has given rise to another entry I hope you will find interesting.

The Village People

Add Image

Who remembers discoing down to that musical group comprised of a policeman, an Indian chief, a sailor, a biker and a construction worker in the late 70’s/early 80’s? This blog entry has nothing to do with disco, that group or that era. I’m going to talk about the villages I visited during my runabout Winter break.

I’m dying to tell you how the first week of school went. I’ll get to that in a few posts. I just feel like, if I don’t write/post these travel events, I probably never will and they are pretty exciting!

The villages are the type that I described a few entries back, in The Demise of Sophie the Kid. The type where, unless I had an ‘in’ I would be deprived of experiencing. Tiny little villages that are so small, they are not even featured on the map of China.

Hong Hu (pronounced hong who) is a smallish township that serves as a hub to several even smaller villages, one of them being Bai Miao (pronounced ‘by miao’ – sounds like a haven for cat lovers, doesn’t it?) Dash, my former student and now friend, whose family lives in Bai Miao had invited me to her brother’s wedding. What an extravaganza that was!

After only a 2 hour bus ride from Wuhan I got off the coach and stepped onto the dusty streets of Hong Hu. A few minutes later, a yellow-jacketed Dash flew into my arms, long hair streaming behind her and tears of joy brimming in her eyes. She was ecstatic that I would come to her home! And I was delighted to see her.

She led me across the road and over a bridge, all while apologizing that she hadn’t used English very much these past few weeks and thus was having difficulty communicating with me. Never mind, Little Dash, we can speak Chinese as long as you don’t use your dialect and you speak slowly. I did not anticipate conversation to be an issue during this visit, and I was right.

The first clue to that effect was that we were going to ride to her village on a motorcycle. No, she did not pilot the bike and neither did I. Her uncle was waiting for us astride his machine, and all 3 of us were going to roar into town on that 150cc powered steed. Imagine it: this motorcycle is not big to begin with, and there is the uncle piloting and then me, twice as large as the uncle, and finally Dash sitting behind me, hanging off the back of the seat. No one took a picture (to my knowledge) but in my mind’s eye, it must have been quite a sight!

It was quite a ride, too. The winter cold had not yet abated and indeed this day was one of the coldest. My uncovered face and ungloved hands quickly turned red, my nose started running like a tap and my teeth started chattering. Dash was able to tuck her hands into my jacket pockets to keep them warm, and I, big as I am served as windbreak for her. She shouted at me as we sped past fallow fields that most everyone in her village owned a motorbike out of necessity. We went on in this fashion for several kilometers. I consoled myself with the thought that surely there would be some form of heat at our destination.

There was food and the greeting was warm and kind, but there was no heat source whatsoever once we got off the bike. Nowhere in the entire house was there a heater of any type to be found. Strange? Unusual?

After having gone to great lengths to describe to you the typical Chinese home and the construction thereof, you might think it would not be so weird for a home to not be heated, in spite of your western sensibilities. What I omitted telling you is that most homes do have some sort of heat, usually portable.

Most Chinese prefer to not run their heat pumps/air conditioners, if their apartment comes equipped with one. However they have no problem buying and using space heaters. In the more traditional homes they have coal burners that the family gathers around to keep warm. In Dash’s home there was so such luxury. My hands, red and cold from the motorcycle ride, remained cold and, at some point simply quit obeying my brain’s instructions to them. By the end of lunch I was unable to grasp chopsticks and feed myself. They did not warm up again the whole time I was there.

The stopover at Dash’s home stopped being fun after about 2 hours. Although it was great visiting with her for the short time we got to visit, that forbidding cold actually made me feel ill. Only upon hearing Dash say that there would be a hotel in the not too distant future did my misery lighten up a bit. But then, it was still several hours until we actually made it to the hotel, and it was not exactly a star-rated establishment. It too was a concrete shell with single paned glass windows that served only to trap cold.

Other than the short time we had together after lunch, Dash was busy with wedding preparations. She being the daughter in her traditional family, a lot of the grunt work was left up to her. Decorating the bridal suite, helping prepare food, coordinating visitors and entertainment, dealing with the caterers and seating the guests for meals was all on her list of things to do. At one point she said I should make myself at home and make use of the home’s only computer, located in the bridal suite.

I wanted to help her decorate, or clean, or arrange tables… something that would get my blood pumping to generate heat but, as honored guest I was not allowed to do anything. Even when I got Dash to relent and let me help her, other relatives stepped in and declared I should do nothing. That was quite a conundrum, I tell you. So, by invitation, I sat and froze and my mood got worse and worse.

It didn’t help that most of the people of that village, having never gone further than the hub-town of Hong Hu, had never seen a foreigner up close and personal. I was the object of curiosity: people unabashedly staring, the more audacious getting up front and personal, touching my hair and my clothes. Being as I towered over everyone there, my great size was quite the topic of conversation. Everyone had the same question: is ‘it’ a man or a woman? To everyone’s delight I spoke Chinese, and even got onstage to sing a song for the wedding. Nevertheless it was ennerving to be stared at and pawed to that degree.

I’ll describe the wedding in a separate entry, but for now I’ll tell you I was glad to leave this tiny community behind. Not that Dash, or anyone else was cruel to unkind to me. The cold and the conditions made this visit untenable.

Strangely enough, there were cars aplenty when we were leaving, both for the hotel on the night before the wedding and after the wedding itself. I couldn’t help but wonder: if there were cars to take people away from Bai Miao, why was there not a car to get us there, instead of us freezing astride a motorbike?

I would never convey to Dash or her family that I was in any way uncomfortable. When we parted she apologized for not having any more time available to truly make the most of my visit. I reassured her that I understand perfectly that she would be busy, and maybe during her brother’s wedding was not the best time to visit her home. I am welcome back and may actually return there… when the weather is warmer.

For now, I am in a heated vehicle, headed to the bus station, on my way to Shi Shou.

Whereas understandably, I was not the center of attention at Dash’s house, although under different conditions I suspect I would have been I was certainly the focal point of the village of Shi Shou. With no wedding and nothing else but daily life going on there, the big foreigner’s appearance was indeed the sight.

In spite of my best intentions I am going to have to write this in two entries. How do I manage that? No matter how I try, I always end up ‘talking’ much more than I envision. Maybe it is because I wish to make these images as graphic as possible.

Your next entry will be the visit to Shi Shou. And then I’ll describe the traditional wedding in a later post, once I catch up on everything else. I doubt seriously that tradition will change before I commit my experiences to ‘paper’.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Could I live There?

A while back those of you on my email list received a jubilant message that proclaimed I have tenure. Dean Tu has offered me an open-ended contract to teach at this school. Specifically his words were: “You can stay here as long as you want.”

Naturally I am ecstatic at having a measure of job security. In spite of my vagabond pretentions I am well aware that the job market is tight the world over. Even ESL teachers, as high a demand as there are for them have to compete and struggle for a good position. In other institutions I would have to work much harder, maybe even a whole forty hours a week! I would not have the great position and the perks I have with this school. Having just moved into this brand new apartment that does feel like home, and now that I am familiar with this city I would hate to have to move on so soon. And, I’ve become attached. To Gary, Mask, Tony, Evan… I have many friends here. To Sam, to the other English teachers and especially to the kids.

Getting real for a moment: I have health issues in Wuhan. My hair falls out at an alarming rate because the air is so dry and I have to pop Benadryl sometimes three times a day in order to breathe. I am comfortable here but maybe it is not the best place for me to be. Eventually I will have to consider moving on. Besides, I have to remember my goal of vagabonding around. That is supposed to mean no roots.

In this entry I will revisit all of the cities I’ve been to so far since moving to China. I’ll make a list of good and bad things and decide: CILT (could I live there)?

Starting with Wuhan: There are some things to see and do. Centrally located; it is easy to visit other cities from here. Enough foreigner commodities and enough foreigners to satisfy. Easy to navigate. Food is not necessarily good but I do like a few indigenous dishes. People are friendly. The climate is not too extreme but the air is rough, causing breathing problems. Winters tend to be harsh. My current job is a gravy train. CILT: irrelevant. I live here already.

Xi’an: there is plenty to do and see, good shopping and a lot of ‘foreigner’ commodities. The people there are friendly, it is easy to get around and I have lots of friends there. Indigenous food is fantastic. On the downside, temps tend to be rough, and it is not centrally located. CILT: YES! In spite of the cold temps and the Western location, I have dreamt about living in Xi’an since the first time I visited that city.

Yi Chang: Its main claim to fame is Three Gorges dam. Being so close to such great bodies of water the temps are iffy and the weather is usually damp. The food is delicious and it is an easy city to navigate. The people are very friendly. There are not many foreigner commodities and not much to do. CILT: If I had to, but I’d rather not.

Xi Shui: No major claim to fame, not much in the way of foreigner commodities and, for that matter not many foreigners. It is a semirural area demonstrating little progress. The people were friendly but reserved; I suspect if I had gone there on my own I would have met with a lot of resistance. The food is OK but not particularly remarkable. It is not easy to navigate; no major infrastructure (although there are buses). CILT: No. I would feel too isolated.

Chengdu: A very cosmopolitan city with plenty to do and see. Lots of foreigner commodities and a fair amount of culture. Food, what I tasted of it was very spicy. The weather was great and the people were friendly. Easy to navigate. CILT: probably. Well… yes. Wouldn’t mind it at all.

Chong Qing: Cosmopolitan in the extreme, with the people exhibiting a competitive, nouveau-riche feel. They were not necessarily friendly. There is plenty to do and see, and plenty of foreigner commodities. For that matter, there were plenty of foreigners. Indigenous food is good. The layout is complex and, I suspect not easy to navigate in spite of the ample buses rumbling around. CILT: no. I did not like the way this city felt.

Shenzhen: nice climate and friendly people, enough foreigner commodities. Easy to navigate, but not much to see or do. Its main claim to fame is being close to Hong Kong. No indigenous food to speak of and no indigenous culture. The outlying neighborhoods tend to be kind of rough and there is an air of… desperation? Hopelessness? Not a traditional city. CILT? No. Wouldn’t want to.

Nanjing: Old timey, established feel with few major commercial centers, plenty of foreigner commodities and plenty of foreigners, easy to navigate. More than enough to see and do. Some construction but not to the point that the city is cloaked in dust. Climate is about like Wuhan but the air is substantially cleaner. The people are not very friendly but the men are handsome (I am female, after all!) I don’t have any idea what the food might be like. CILT: yes. Second place after Xi’an.

Hong Hu Bai Miao: tiny village with only one school. No foreigner concessions and no other foreigners. Only a few small shops, selling daily goods. Easy to navigate only because it consists of one road, running north/south. Remote in the extreme; difficult to get to and even harder to leave. No restaurants; the only indigenous food I sampled was at individual homes (very tasty). CILT: no. Too small and too rural.

Shi Shou: Small town with no foreigner concessions. Only one school, but it does have an English program. People are friendly and the food is delicious. One small commercial center. Not much to see or do. Not easy to navigate. CILT: no. too small and remote.

Beijing: Very large and fast paced. Weather is disagreeable. There is plenty to see and do, plenty of foreigner commodities and plenty of foreigners. Lots of employment opportunities too. Fairly easy to navigate. Not well located for vagabonding. CILT: no. It is too large and too fast for me.

So there you have it. I would not mind staying in Wuhan for its central location, the friends I’ve made and the job security I have. If not for the health issues I might well make this my pied a terre and just vagabond from here.

Xi’an and Nanjing are closely tied for first place, followed by Chengdu. The other places were nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

I intend to return to Nanjing this spring, when the weather breaks. I’d like to get a feel for it ‘under normal operating conditions’ and not in holiday mode. Also, it would be nice to explore some of those landmarks and memorials I saw from the bus windows. For climate alone it might win out over Xi’an.

Nah, Xi’an is still the city of my dreams.


I had to go to Beijing to renew my passport. It would expire this year and without it… well, you can imagine what happens to a waiguoren who doesn’t have a valid passport. I don’t want to be that waiguoren, so renewal is in my better interests. Besides, it just makes good sense to have a valid passport when abroad, doesn’t it?

Sam would accompany on this trip. That promised to be a lot of fun. He likes to travel and is a good friend to boot. There is always an air of wistfulness about him whenever I tell him about my travels and adventures. He has confided that, before getting married he would travel with one or the other foreign teacher all the time. My predecessor, Byron, is often mentioned.

I’ve wanted to invite him several times but felt it would not be proper for mixed gender colleagues to travel together. And, the fact that he now has a family does put a crimp in things. So, using this official piece of business to invite him along to Beijing was the perfect vehicle. We pitched the idea to Dean Tu last year, during the meeting in which he informed me I could stay at this school as long as I wish. Dean agreed to allow Sam to travel with me and would even reimburse some of his costs. My costs are all mine because, for me it is personal business, nothing to do with the school.

By now Sam has confidence that I can manage my own transportation arrangements. Because he was in his hometown, Xi Shui, visiting with his family for the New Year celebration he asked me to buy his ticket when I bought mine. He also recommended a train that would likely suit our schedule. Unfortunately that train was sold out, but I was able to buy a ticket on an express train that would take us only 10 hours to reach Beijing, instead of riding all night, as we would have to do on the train he suggested.

Here is something interesting and new: one has to present ID in order to buy a train ticket nowadays. Especially around peak travel times such as Spring Festival or the National Celebration Week in October, ticket scalpers abound. The government’s effort to stem the tide of scalpers involves each buyer presenting ID, and that traveler’s name or ID number being printed on the train ticket.

In my case, not having an official Chinese ID card I have to present my passport. I did not know about his change in the law when I first started traveling this season, and I did not bring my passport with me to buy tickets. However, I did have my Texas driver’s license, and that was identification enough to allow me to buy my ticket to Shenzhen. Being a quick study, I have learned that, from hence forth I must present my passport to buy a ticket. But only for the train or for a plane ticket. For a long distance bus ticket, you still don’t have to present ID.

Because I did not have Sam’s ID I could not buy his ticket. A flurry of text messages flew back and forth between us. I’m not sure how, but he managed to get a ticket on the same train as me. Remember: this is peak travel season; often train tickets sell out within minutes of them becoming available.

Sometimes I believe that Sam is actually magic. He has a way of making things happen…

We met at the train station; laying eyes on each other for the first time since Winter Break started nearly 5 weeks ago. Other than his hair being professionally styled it was same ole’ Sam: cherubic and cheerful, eyes nearly crinkled shut because of the ear to ear grin he was sporting.

One of the reasons I wanted him to accompany me on this trip was because he attended university in Tianjin, a city on the outskirts of Beijing. Several of his college roommates now live and work in Beijing, and he has not seen them in the ten years since his graduation. They have kept up with each other, though. Going to Beijing would afford him the chance to see his friends, all while serving in the professional capacity of helping one of the foreign teachers.

We arrived at 10PM and debarked to the biting cold northerly wind. I was intellectually prepared for the cold but in no way was I ready for it physically. Beijing is much colder than Wuhan. Sam had made hotel reservations at a house near the train station but, because my consulate appointment was early the next morning I felt it would be better to secure lodging near the embassy. We took a taxi to Embassy Row and scouted for hotels from there.

Scouting was the right word. Almost nobody we ran into spoke Chinese! Being close to the center of Foreigner Country with all those embassies around us, I got to make use of my various language skills while Sam stood idly by. At one point we did find a small store that Sam could ask directions from. While there I asked him if he was hungry and he just kind of went nuts! He wanted noodles and sausage and crackers and a little bit of alcohol to warm himself up with. I settled for some crackers. I had packed food for the train, and double the amount in consideration of my traveling companion, but Sam didn’t want anything I had packed.

Now truly laden we head off in some vague direction that the shopkeeper had gestured in. It took us a while, but we finally found a place to lay our head for the night. Warning, all: hotels in Beijing are expensive! It cost us nearly 300Yuan apiece for a room of shoddy standards. Neither one of us cared: we were tired and out of that terrible, cold wind.

Interesting observation: there were more Chinese at the American embassy applying for a visa than there were Americans transacting any type of official business. In fact, besides the clerk who interviewed me I didn’t see very many Americans at all. There were plenty of people from other nationalities though. Thanks to my appointment and American citizenship I got to breeze right through security and to the head of all the lines. In all I spent less than 45 minutes on official business. After that, Sam and I walked to Long Peace Street, one of the city’s more famous boulevards.

Being in Beijing is almost like being in America. There are plenty of shopping venues like The Gap, Birkenstock and Rockport. Restaurants like Fatburger and Dominoes, as well as other iconic fast food joints, even that ever popular McDonalds. Strangely enough, although in most other Chinese cities you can spot a KFC on nearly every street corner I didn’t see a single one in the capital city.

There are ‘foreigners’ everywhere in Beijing! Not just around Embassy Row but all over town: shopping, eating, strolling.

I had been to Beijing in 2008, the first time I came to China. I remembered it as a vibrant, fast moving place with an undercurrent of desperation. Just like Las Vegas, the people of Beijing struggle to make a life there while the tourists get caught up in the glamour and pizzazz. And, like Vegas, there is a lot of pizzazz to get caught up in.

I remember quite a bit from when I visited this city 4 years ago, so I became the tour guide and Sam the avid tourist. For some reason he was not interested in very much: he did not want to ride through the Hutong – ancient Chinese neighborhoods whose alleys are so narrow they must be navigated on foot or by bicycle. He did not want to climb the bell tower or the drum tower although we did go see them.

He did want to visit Tiananmen Square, specifically the Mao Ze Dong memorial. Unfortunately we only got to walk around the building housing his tomb; the memorial building was closed. We took in the rest of Tiananmen, the largest public gathering place in the world, and then took off for other sight seeing destinations.

The highlight of this trip for me was watching Sam cut loose and have fun. He is mostly a serious young man, family driven and goal oriented. He and I have had a measure of fun, but not to the extent that he had while visiting with his college roommates. Over dinner they rehashed their glory days and poked fun at each other. Sam drank not one but two beers, getting rosy cheeked and garrulous. I got to participate too: I asked them what, as roommates was the most fun prank they pulled on each other. That line of conversation elicited some insane giggling!

We finished our visit to the Capital by eating roast duck, the city’s food of renown. I wanted to treat him to the restaurant I remembered from my previous visit. The duck was indeed delicious but let me tell you: that was one expensive bird! I spent right at 300Yuan for one duck; no trimmings. By comparison the meal that Sam’s friends treated us to the night before only cost 240Yuan and we were served 7 dishes. I got a little angry at being ripped off at a ‘tourist trap’ restaurant but, what was done was done and Sam had leftover duck to share with his beloved Penny. You guessed it: we took not just the leftovers but the carcass home! Wouldn’t you, for that price?

Sam and I parted company on campus. For him duty called even though it was Saturday; he had a meeting to attend. I just wanted to go home and rest from all the traveling I had done these past 5 weeks, and get my thoughts in order to share them with you.

I’ve gotten my rest. I’m still doing the sharing.

Bad Blogger!

I am a bad, bad blogger! I should be writing and writing, but…

See, I have this insistent need to keep this story in order. And, to do so, the next thing I have to write about is my trip to the small villages, Hong Hu Bai Miao and Shi Shou. The problem is I just can’t get a feel for how I want them to turn out. More specifically: I do have a feel for how I want them to turn out; I just don’t seem to be able to achieve it.

I’ve started writing that entry twice, and both times they have not turned out flavorful and informative. To me they come out ponderous and not fun at all.

I enjoy writing, and I hope and want you to enjoy reading what I write. If I don’t feel good about publishing an entry, I won’t publish it. That means that the narrative – this blog, comes to a standstill. That is why I call myself a bad blogger.

So, what say I do this: I let go of that part of the story, kick it down to the boys in the basement and get on with what I already have formulated in my head that is ready to see print. That way you are not bored with pedantic prose and I will not feel like I’m publishing for the sake of publishing.

I’ll get back to the villages and tell that part of my trip the way it should be told, once I can get it right. I promise. There are some very interesting and fun cultural aspects to the wedding I attended while in Hong Hu, and there are some insightful observations I made in both Hong Hu and in Shi Shou that I want to share with you.

For the sake of keeping things moving though, I’ll progress on to Beijing.

Pack your bags! Here we go…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Sometimes when I undertake a long journey, regardless of the mode of transportation I end up feeling dizzy. Not alarmingly so, just enough to convince me that I should not do too much. Thus my first day in Nanjing was spent not doing too much. Riding buses mostly, but I did walk through a very nice park. Unfortunately the wind was very cold and, coupled with the dizziness from yesterday’s train travel I decided that would be my only venture out.

Wait! I’m getting ahead of myself!

Bolstered by yesterday’s positive experiences – meeting Theresa and Emre, finding that nice restaurant and tasting hot ginger coca cola for the first time, and locating Metro without having to try, I hit the streets full of anticipation.

First things first: buy a train or bus ticket. Thanks to Theresa I know how to get to the train station but, as it turns out I didn’t have to go there. Along the way to the subway station I spied a kiosk that sells train tickets. I was able to buy my ticket there without having to hassle with a crowded station and shouting attendants.

Small aside: my hearing is getting terrible! In part that is because I went to my share of rock’n’roll concerts in my youth, but also I find that, if my allergies don’t behave it affects the pressure on my ears, making it hard to hear things. When I get in loud environments I have trouble hearing somebody speak. Therefore I was doubly grateful that I did not have to buy my ticket at the train station.

I should take a picture of a train station ticketing office, so you can see what I mean. They are great, echoing halls where people shout through the windows to the ticketing agents, they shout on their cellphones and they shout at each other. They shout when they don’t get their desired ticket. They make quite the ruckus, I tell you.

OK, back to the story now. Nanjing really seems to be a town that agrees with me! First, the good luck of my first day there, and now that luck seems to persist while buying the train ticket. Let’s see what else I can score positively on.

That is when I jumped on some random bus, found that lovely park and walked around. That is when the dizziness manifested itself and I decided to just sit on buses for the rest of the day and view the city from that vantage point.

That is when I discovered that Nanjing has so much to offer one cannot possibly see it all in one stay. I knew that this city was rife with history, it having been the capital of China during 6 dynasties and the site of the Nanking Massacre, when the Japanese slaughtered every man, woman and child in the city on their way through the country during WWII. It is the capital of Jiangsu Province and will host the Summer Youth Olympics in 2014.

Nanjing feels like Berlin, Germany. A regal, long established city with a distinctive chronicle, Nanjing has a noble, timeless feel to it. In part because it is not built up like other Chinese megalopoli and in part because of its long history, Nanjing feels like it can and will endure for centuries. Even aged birch trees lining the streets appear to have been there forever.

The air here is remarkably clean. All industry is confined to the outskirts of the city and there is only minimal construction. In fact, when China’s central government bureau approached Nanjing’s political body about tearing down and rebuilding some of the older apartment communities the residents and the local government rebelled. That is why the skyline is relatively uncluttered. The buses are all well maintained for being the waddling things that they are, although they are not as uniform or well kept as the buses in Shenzhen. This city has 3 established subway lines and 3 train stations: two at the outskirts of the city and the main one at city center. All of this works to keep the air in Nanjing free of pollutants.

That had a very positive effect on me. I found that, within one day of my arrival there I had no allergy symptoms whatsoever. But I was tired. So tired in fact that I did not think I could brave another restaurant or stand another moment of cold. I returned to my hotel room and had one of my linseed bread sandwiches, along with a bowl of noodles I had bought for my train ride. That, some mandarin oranges and a cookie would do for my dinner.

The next day is when the bottom dropped out. Thinking I’d try the hotel cafeteria’s breakfast, I made my way to the second floor, where the hostess stopped dead in her tracks upon the sight of me. I asked her if I could still get breakfast; it was going on 9:30AM. She replied well, we don’t have much left. Before I could go see what was left she asked me if I had a coupon. “No, but I have my room card” I answered. “You can’t use your room card. You have to go downstairs and get a coupon from the front desk” she informed me, and then turned around and left.

That’s strange! The day before, when I asked the desk clerk where I could get food she said there were plenty of restaurants around but she did not tell me about the hotel’s restaurant, and certainly did not say a word about coupons. Well, I’ll just go and find someplace else to eat. There was this nifty restaurant that looked like it was carved out of the hill not far from the hotel. It had blue painted doors and white facing, and one had to climb a narrow set of stairs to get there. I saw it from the bus window yesterday. I wanted to get there, so I climbed.

The hostess met me at the doorway and asked me if I wanted coffee. “No, I’d rather have tea” I replied and, before I could say I wanted to order food as well, she directed me upstairs and closed the door in my face! I went upstairs and found only a beverage menu. If I were only thirsty, I would have been happy to stay there; the atmosphere was cozy and inviting, for all that the hostess was rude. But I really did want lunch so I left after telling the waitress I wanted food as well as drink. I thought about opening the door to the lower level and just walking in but decided to not patronize this establishment at all.

I’m not used to being snubbed. Usually the Chinese are all very friendly and open to me. I found the people of Nanjing to be abrupt and in fact rather rude. I thought about that as I looked through the bus window. There did not seem to be many people smiling or enjoying life. The bus passengers seemed harried and downtrodden. Women especially seemed misfortunate. In every other city I’ve been to women, especially elderly women tended to congregate and chatter away. Middle aged women like to dance in the street or at public squares come sundown. Here there seemed to be more lonely older women and women traveling singly. Interesting observation…

I wonder if all this standoffishness had something to do with my being a foreigner? There are many students from other nations studying at the great and renown University of Nanjing and there is a good chance that the locals were fed up with foreigners getting drunk and ugly… that is, presuming those students do in fact conduct themselves that way. Maybe native Nanjingers just don’t like people who are not native Nanjingers? That wouldn’t explain the lack of smiles and women chattering together, but it would certainly explain why they were unfriendly to this non-native face.

In desperation I sought out foreigners and posed the question to them: do they find Nanjing to be unfriendly? One person I talked with named Paul said that he found the people of Nanjing to be pleasant, and he has lived here for 6 years. For him it was the people of Shanghai that seemed rude and abrupt. From there, he and I enjoyed very pleasant and stimulating conversation.

As always when visiting a new place I try to sample the local fare. There were not many restaurants boasting local cuisine that were open and I found no street vendors at all. It was probably because I was there during the biggest holiday season this country celebrates but, even at that park I went to the first day I was here there were virtually no vendors selling food.

I ended up eating most of my meals at restaurants that target foreigners. Emma’s was one, and the other was a sportsbar whose name I can’t remember. I do remember the food was delicious though.

In spite of those negative experiences I like Nanjing and have every intention of returning in the Spring, when the weather warms up. For now it is time to catch a train, head back to Wuhan and get ready for a wedding.

Not mine.

Nanjing First Impressions

My train ticket specified Nanjing West as my final stop but there was nothing stopping me from getting off the train in Nanjing City Center… except for the thought that I may as well start visiting the city in the West and travel from one end to the other. One factor against that idea was that we pulled into the city at nearly 4PM, close to dark. It was cold and I had no hotel reservations. I would have to go hunting, and quickly. And meet success quickly. All of these deliberations took me too long and I missed my chance to debark in the middle of the city. I left myself no choice, it seems.

Exiting the West End station was not encouraging. I am used to train stations being heavily populated: by travelers, by beggars and by guards and police. This station appeared to be nearly forgotten. It looked old and decrepit, no restaurants or food vendors, no information booths, no amenities… nothing! It was like I had arrived at The End Station rather than the west station of the former capital of China.

I attempted to buy a ticket to Wuhan from the lone ticketing agent. She informed me I would have to return tomorrow because tickets had not yet been released. REALLY didn’t want to return to this dismal place!

I walked outside to figure out what my next move should be. Obviously I had to find accommodations quickly. Night was falling and I didn’t want to be stranded outside. My plan was to jump on a bus that would take me to city center and find something, a hostel or a chain hotel. The first thing I saw when I walked out of the train station was not a proliferation of people and a hub of transportation like in all the other cities I have visited. What I saw was…

METRO! Imagine that! Here I am, in a city I’ve never been to before and I find the very store I needed! And why did I need Metro so badly? Because I was running out of bread. Not money, actual bread. I have been having problems with my stomach for over two years now and I’ve found a combination of lactobacillus drinks like Yakult, coupled with two slices of this type of linseed bread per day keeps my body functioning properly. Woe is me if I should default from this regimen! Metro, here I come.

I did not find the exact type of bread I usually buy but they did have whole grain pumpernickel that would do in a pinch. I bought two loaves (they are very small; only 10 slices per loaf). Unfortunately, after I paid for them I found one of the loaves was moldy and that is how I got not only a replacement loaf but an additional loaf for free!

Now that I have my stomach’s needs met I asked a woman at the bus stop which bus I should take to city center. She directed me to #16. I figured I would ride that bus until I saw tall buildings that would characterize the city’s commercial center. Surely there would be a hostel or hotel around there somewhere!

Nanjing is surprisingly level, as opposed to other cities whose centers are defined by high rises and sky scrapers. This city observes the more traditional neighborhood/village type of layout. Each ‘village’ or city district has its own schools, hospitals, government offices and ‘flavors’, for lack of a better word. And, the apartment buildings are, at most, 5 stories tall.

I didn’t realize I had come to expect every city in China to be vertically built up until I came to Nanjing. Clearly I wasn’t going to find City Center by identifying large commercial conglomerates like there are in Wuhan or Shenzhen.

Not being able to tell much from the scenes passing by or by the map of the bus route I decided to get off at some random stop and try my luck. Surely there would a hotel nearby, or someone to direct me to a hotel! As it turns out, my timely deboarding resulting in meeting Teresa, a young woman who I would swear is my vagabond twin.

She also stands 6’tall, has brown hair and green eyes, and wears glasses. She attracted my attention because she had a pack on her back; clearly she was a traveler and she was headed somewhere. In fact, she is a student at the world famous Nanjing University, and she was headed to Shenzhen. We giggled a bit when I told her I had just come from there. Discoveries and disclosures continued: She is actually German, born and raised in Berlin, Germany! How crazy is that? I was also raised – in part – in Berlin! She speaks French by virtue of having lived there for two years. Wild! I was born in France and speak the language fluently! And, of course I knew she spoke English because that is the language I addressed her in.

I always make it a point to ask any Caucasian I approach if they speak English. It would not be fair for me to presume that every Westerner I met automatically speaks English. I resent it when people assume that, just because I am a westerner, or ‘waiguoren’ that I can only be an English speaker. Fortunately for me, they all do. That is how I get away from people who want to practice their English by saying I speak only French, or only German. TeeHee!

Back to the story now.

When Theresa asked how I could just plunk myself into a city and not have an agenda I explained to her my normal routine. Pick a city and go there, trusting my luck to finding accommodations and friendly faces. She commented that I must be really brave to take a challenge like that. “There is a very fine line between bravery and stupidity, and sometimes I’m not sure what side of that line I’m on!” I replied. We had a nice chuckle from that but, a lot of times that is true, at least in my case.

She directed me to the closest hostel, on Shanghai Street before showing me how and where to board the subway. That is when we made all those disclosures and had a bit of nice conversation. I rode with her to the City Center train station, the one I thought about debarking at. And then I used the very same token to ride the subway back to where I originally started.

By this time, snoozing on the twenty five hour train or not, weariness started catching up to me. I trudged up and up the street and had yet to run across Shanghai Street. As soon as I saw another ‘foreigner’ face I asked if he spoke English and asked how far I would have to walk. He wasn’t sure but knew I should just keep walking up the road. Of course we introduced ourselves: Meet Emre! Nice to meet you Emre, I’m Kathy!

For safety reasons I never give my real name out when I travel. Kathy does come close though; it is my middle name.

I finally found a Motel 168. I had hoped for a hostel but, having read the reviews of Nanjing hostels online I knew they were not well reviewed by other travelers. The only advantage to staying in a hostel would be price and I was just as happy paying a little more for a comfortable room, as opposed to saving a few Fen to have a cold room and a shared shower.

That room was indeed well appointed and comfortable. I was ready to enjoy my stay here; all I needed was food: a nice hot meal would do. I had passed a KFC on the way up here. Familiarity and carbohydrates: the perfect 1-2 knockout for travel fatigue. Backtracking, I found a funky eatery that I hadn’t noticed before and vowed to try it on my next dining foray. KFC was but a few meters away so…

I stopped dead in my tracks, chastising myself for being utterly ridiculous. I’m here to experience new things and I am in search of food, so why not go to this local eatery that looks to be so cool? Emma’s it is then! I passed through the stone portals and climbed the wooden stairs. That is where I tasted the goodness of hot ginger coca cola.

And that is when I met Emre again.

Here’s Your Valentine!

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day! Happy Valentine, Everyone!!!

Reading over last year’s post in this blog I found it to be rather gloomy and dark, in spite of the lightness this day is supposed to commemorate. There is a reason for that: I was going through a really rough time. Thanks to all my friends, all those who are a strong presence in my life and all those who love me, the bad time is past and hopefully banished forever.

Now out from under that cloud and definitely in happy spirits, I’m going to break my traveling chronology to write about some of the greatest loves I know.

Let’s see: historical great loves…

Antony and Cleopatra. Jesus and Mary Magdalene. David and Bathsheba. George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis.

Cleopatra was, at the time the richest woman in the world. Antony and Octavian (later Augustus) shared the governing of Rome after it fell into anarchy and civil war following the assassination of Julius Cesar. In order to strengthen Rome’s strategic and military position, Antony needed money for the campaign he planned against the Parthian Empire. He summoned Cleopatra, who did not take kindly to being summoned. Nonetheless she finally relented, sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge filled with flowers and redolent of oils and perfume. She knew what she was doing… Antony took one look at her and was done for. Although he was married to Fulvia, who remained his wife and spearheaded the campaign against the Parthians, Antony sustained his relationship with Cleopatra for the rest of his life.

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s relationship. Bible scholars tend to agree nowadays that Mary was at least Jesus’ right hand ‘man’, but most likely his thirteenth disciple. Much of this is open to question but the one fact remains: apocryphal writings reveal a deep love between the two.

David’s love for Bathsheba is no less controversial. Bathsheba, at the time married to Uriah, was bathing in a courtyard when David first saw her from his rooftop vantage point. Overcome by her beauty, he became enraptured and sent for her. When she informed him that she was married he ordered her husband, Uriah to be sent to the front lines of battle where he was killed. Bathsheba then ‘became’ his and their love endured.

George and Martha Washington. So captivated was George with his Martha that he proposed marriage after knowing her only 3 weeks. She accepted and they remained together, in love, until his death in 1799. Upon his passing she declared that she had no more trials to go through. She averred she would soon follow him and in fact did so, 3 years later in 1802. During those intervening years she closed off his study and the rooms they shared together, keeping herself to a third floor suite of rooms in Mount Vernon. The memories of shared spaces were too much for her to bear.

Do such great loves exist today? Certainly!

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They knew of each other since working together in their early Hollywood days but did not get together until 7 years later, when they met again while filming The Long, Hot Summer. Paul, recently divorced, proposed to Joanne and they kept their promise to each other for over 50 years, till death did them part in 2008 when he succumbed to lung cancer. Theirs was a remarkable relationship, being as Hollywood marriages tend to endure less than the flavor of a stick of Juicy Fruit gum.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They met on the set while filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith. At the time Brad was married to Jennifer Anniston and Angelina had just adopted her second child. Their on screen chemistry sizzled in such a way that the rumors started flying long before the relationship allegedly began. This is pure conjecture on my part but I don’t think either one intended to fall, and fall so hard for one another. It seems The Fates had other plans.

And here they are today, still together with their 6 kids, having survived all the tabloid muck and all the hatred from those who love Jennifer Anniston and feel like she was betrayed, and all those who believe Angelina is a filthy man thief who will dump Brad as soon as the next good looking guy comes along. And they still seem crazy about each other, and devoted to their family.

“Oh, yeah! Sure… those are historical loves and Hollywood loves” you say. “Don’t you know anyone personally who has a great love story going?

Sure I do! I know lots of people who, while not halves of a whole would not be complete without their partner.

Ron and Ann. George and Chris. Mel and Roberta. Gene and Gloria. Chuck and Marjorie. Karl and Michelle. Jim and Carol. Richard and Mary. David and Julie. Russ and Jeanine (you know about Russ from the Numbing Pepper entry, posted last November.)

These are people I actually know, who live and breathe and, with the exception of Russ occupy the earth today. I have had the pleasure of their company, of being in their home and of witnessing firsthand how deeply connected they are to each other.

It was OK for me to talk about the historical love stories and the Hollywood love stories. Those are public figures and their togetherness is on display for all the world to see. I have quoted and/or summarized previously published materials when writing about them.

I cannot go into details about the relationships of my friends. They have not given me permission to, and I wouldn’t even if they let me because their personal life and their relationship are private. You’ll just have to take my word for it that these couples exist, their love for one another is deep and their bond is a living, breathing thing that they sustain with hard work, tolerance, understanding and patience.

This Valentine’s tribute is for the great loves in my life. You know who you are. You should, you are mentioned 3 paragraphs up! As you celebrate this Lover’s Day, I applaud you for all the dedication you give each other and all the effort you devote to keeping your love alive.

And for those who do not have such a love to call your own?

It is OK to not be ‘half of a whole’. Long gone are the days where coupledom is mandatory and long past are the times where a woman alone stood no chance in this world.

What about if you want a love of your own?

There are no guarantees. I hope you will have it someday, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I hope you are not pining away, waiting for someone to come and sweep you off your feet. I hope you are enjoying your life as it is now and, when that love does come around you will discover new dimensions and levels of joy.

“OK” you say. “One more question: Why not list Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in those Hollywood loves?”

Because their love was more of an addiction to one another. It was dangerous and dark and stormy, unhealthy and unsustainable. Undoubtedly they loved one another, but there were demons around and between them that conspired to drive them apart. Those demons were successful.

There might be something to the names, too. You’ll note that, with all the successful love matches the man’s name just ‘fits’ before the woman’s. In Liz and Richard’s, it is the other way around.

Now I’m just being silly! I should wrap this up. Here goes:

I wish for you, for everyone an addiction-free love that lasts and lasts. But more than that, I wish you peace and happiness, no matter what your love status is.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

China, the Country of Concrete

I remember thinking, during last year’s cold, cold winter that all the dwellings here were nothing but cold traps. No matter what facing the building has, underneath is nothing but concrete.

As opposed to all of the buildings built during China’s alliance with the Soviet Union, all of the new high rises in the cities are built to appear more or less ‘western’: elaborate cornices, bright paint or even brick faced, roof gables and dormer windows. Some buildings even have what appear to be chimneys gracing the rooftops. Balconies give a Mediterranean feel to those lighter colored edifices. On a sunny day you would think yourself perhaps in the south of France or maybe even in Spain… but for the laundry hanging out the windows and the climate control units hung on the walls. And then it hits you: you’re in China, these buildings are made of concrete and only offer the illusion of elegance, affluence and modernity. Underneath, they are nothing but concrete.

Somehow, that thought depresses me.

I thought about it again as the train hurtled through city, town, village and hamlet. In the city new buildings are being built all the time. And, I had prime opportunity to witness said building practices because my own apartment complex was not finished when I moved in last year. In the country, building practices are more evident than in the city because the houses are mostly falling apart.

In America we are used to seeing houses built in layers: a wooden frame filled in by aspenite, and then draped in some external weather resistant material: brick veneer, vinyl siding or, in the poorest of circumstances, tarpaper. The frame is then filled in with insulating material and indoor materials are added: drywall or, as was the case several years ago, plaster and lath. More recently the entire structure is wrapped in insulating material, with extra attention paid to the roof.

In China, if the dwelling is not built exclusively of concrete it is constructed of cinderblock and then coated in concrete. There are no insulating materials used at all; either during construction or added as an afterthought. Unless you consider foot-thick walls insulating. There is nothing between the dwelling and the open heavens, other than tin or aluminum roof panels mounted on roof joists. None of the houses I’ve seen or visited have ceilings as a barrier between the roof and the habitable part of the house. Obviously, attempting to heat these homes would be an exercise in futility.

In the country I saw very little external evidence of modern accouterments. Very few air conditioning units hung on the sides of the buildings like leeches, as opposed to the city buildings. A few houses have rooftop mounted solar water heaters. Most country dwellings were nothing but four walls and a type of roof to protect against the elements. Nothing protecting anyone against brutally cold temperatures and cruel, cutting wind.

Most collections of houses were by some body of water. My guess is that there was no plumbing in the structures. Indeed, behind some of the houses I spied a smaller shack – concrete, of course that must enclose the outhouse. Some of the houses must have had fireplaces or fire pits because I did see some houses with chimneys. Most likely the latter. I cannot imagine anything so grand as a fireplace in some of these abodes. Probably, the fire pit is used both as a heat source and to cook with.

A lot of my students come from homes like that: no indoor plumbing and maybe even no electricity. There is a good chance that they’ve never had their own room, their own space and maybe even their own bed. A lot of them have never owned more than one or two outfits at any one time in their life. Toys such as we know them are a completely alien concept to them. They played with what they could find: a branch became a spear, mud became a grand meal, a piece of string became a golden, magical thread. Mostly, they worked: the boys in the field and the girls in and around the house.

No wonder they are enjoying university life so much! No wonder they don’t mind being packed into the dorms, six to a room! No wonder they don’t think anything of having to fetch hot water from a collective dispenser at the end of the hall! No wonder they don’t see their college accommodations as being substandard!

For those people who establish themselves in the city after college – and, to my knowledge just about everyone does! They do so in part because their village is outmoded, outdated and life there is too hard. Yet, while living in the city they maintain that way of life to a certain extent. Even though climate control is available they do not use it. Even though hot water is available they still do dishes in cold water. Even though they have shower facilities they still use a plastic tub of water to bathe, and brush their teeth using but a mug or bowl of water. Even though they have washing machines, they still wash clothes by hand.

For some reason, probably because of my former father-in-law Russ’s passing last year Thanksgiving (see Numbing Pepper entry, last year November), I’ve been thinking a lot about people who live in rural Minnesota, Wyoming, Wisconsin, the Dakotas… and how their way of life mirrors the Chinese country way of life, to some extent.

As I remember the farmhouse in Minnesota where I first met my former husband’s family, it too was bitterly cold with only one wood stove as a heat source. That house did have electricity and indoor plumbing and even a washer and dryer – fortunately! However, there are still some families in America who live without even such amenities. Their numbers may not be as prevalent as in China but, to my thinking, there is not much difference between the American way of life years ago and the Chinese way of life today.

Except for all that concrete.