Monday, April 30, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt and Don Henley

You’ve GOT to be wondering where I’m going with this… right? Could there be two more disparate people in the whole world? Well, actually that is not exactly accurate, seeing as Eleanor Roosevelt is no longer of this world and Don Henley is very much a part of it.

One was a politician’s wife and the other is a rocker who was a founding member of one of America’s most popular bands, The Eagles. One was genteel and refined, born in New York City and educated at Allensworth Academy, outside of London. The other grew up in the tiny town of Gilmer, Texas and lived his young adulthood wild and on the road.

In spite of their differences, the two do have similarities. Both espoused environmental causes and both were heavily tied to politics. Mrs. Roosevelt for obvious reasons, Don Henley more out of a social conscience. If you’d like to learn more about either or both of them, please feel free to research them. We’ll wait. In the meantime I’m going to spend my allotted fifteen hundred some-odd words telling you why I titled this entry so.

Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’.

Don Henley co-wrote a song titled The Heart of the Matter, which features the lyric ‘One day he crossed some line and he was too much in this world’.

Today I think about dreamers versus those rooted in reality.

My friend Ken is getting married tomorrow. I was supposed to be at his wedding. If you read No Xi’an For Me (two posts back), you know I’m not going to be there, and why I don’t regret it.

Ken and I used to be best friends. While I was living in the States we would chat on Skype for hours at a time. He was a passionate young man, wanting to study and learn, travel the world and accomplish great things. And then he met the woman who would become his wife.

I’m not accusing her of or blaming her for anything. She is a lovely young woman, well deserving of a good husband who will treasure her and stay by her side. It seems that man would be my friend Ken, he who so believed in the beauty of his dreams that, until he met her was doing everything to make his dreams come true. Now he is thinking ‘apartment’, ‘baby’, ‘better job’, ‘more money’. He is too much in this world to make anyone’s dreams come true, save for his wife’s and parents’.

In China, it is only possible to dream until the pull of tradition exerts such force that it must be obeyed. Customarily, a man gets his education, gets a good job, saves some money, buys an apartment and maybe a car, marries, has a child and lives exactly as his parents and their parents before them did.

I’m finding that not many men defy tradition. They try to, at first, when the ink is still wet on their diploma and the whole world stands ready and open for them. Freed of the tyranny of education, out from under the pall of their parents and with China opening ever more to the West, to capitalism and offering more opportunities to brave young people who would take them, it is easy to see why dreamers dream big. For the most part they have no follow through.

Ken is an excellent case in point. He and I, dreamer extraordinaire, used to have so much in common. Now he is such a homebody that we cannot even relate. Not that that is anyone’s fault.

My friend and fellow teacher, Sam, also dreamed big. When I first met him upon my arrival in Wuhan, he was still a newlywed and his wife was expecting. Now, two years a husband and nearly that long into fatherhood, he confides wistfully that he sometimes longs for those old days when he was a dreamer, out to conquer the world. He is tied to his wife by love and social decree, to his daughter by love and obligation, to his parents by duty and to his job by necessity. At times he resents the burdens he bears. He longs for his dreams. I wish I had known Sam before he became too much in this world.

And now there’s Tristan: recently graduated, unattached, no marriage prospect in sight, working his second job ever, proud owner of a newly minted passport and dreaming big. Rather than seek love he seeks knowledge. Rather than saving money he is spending it all on books. Instead of remaining in one place he is planning his travel adventures. Tristan believes in the beauty of his dreams.

However, he has confided that he will get married. He will follow tradition, eventually. Maybe not in the next 5 years but he does plan on it sometime before he turns thirty. Even though he is of a scholarly and dreaming mind right now, there is no doubt that he too will bow to convention. He too will eventually be too much in this world.         

Tony has told me he does not want to be too much in this world… at least not for a while. He has dreams of distant shores, exciting travels, new tastes. He is possessed of a consuming hunger for knowledge. Tony is a traditional man at heart. He too will succumb.

Gary is one of the few men I know who has thumbed his nose at tradition, even now, beyond that ‘thirty years of age’ demarcation line. At thirty two, Gary does not even have a marriage prospect and has repeatedly said he does not want to, nor will he get married. His family forgives him only because his business supports the whole clan. That forgiveness is given grudgingly.  

Gary, Tony, Tristan, Sam and Ken. All male. Don’t I know any females? Well, sure! I have classrooms full of girls. I have friends who are female. We play badminton, take walks, go out to eat, and we talk a lot. What about all those single friends of mine who are female? Don’t they dream?

Sure they do! They dream of getting a decent, secure job within their limitations, marrying, having a child and living exactly as their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers before them.

Susan is a charming girl. Cute of face and trim of body, an intellectual powerhouse, more than well grounded in the English language and graduated as of last year, she wants to go abroad to study. But only so she can get a better job with higher pay. Her ultimate goal is to be able to support her parents comfortably. There is no doubt in her mind she will marry and bear a child. To not do so is unconscionable.   

Other women, such as Hellen and Daisy long for nothing more than marriage and a baby. Hellen has in fact advised her students to not do what she did: put her career first. Now she says she waited too long for a good marriage prospect. At thirty, she is considered an old maid, and will most likely never marry. Daisy, at twenty-eight is getting dangerously close to that mark. Fortunately she recently snagged a boyfriend who seems to be a good and willing prospect.

Most females in China do not dream. At least, not the same way that males do. Males see it as thoroughly possible to conquer worlds and make a difference in their life, in their culture and in the world. Most females only want the small freedoms newly accorded to women in China: the right to work, the right to select her own mate, the money to shop with, the choice of when to have a baby – preferably before age thirty.

Some girls, like Taffy, a student in my Business English class, do not want to get married or have a child. I wonder if she’ll follow through with that. There is such pressure for girls to marry, both from their family and from society. One reason is the dearth of marriageable females, due to the One Child Policy-driven excess of sons. Another is, with females not actually being recognized on their own merit in anything from family records (see No Girls Allowed, posted April 2011) to professional circles, females who opt to not wed are spurned by society and usually cast out of the family.

Such a disparity between male and female mindsets and social roles in China, isn’t there?

Kind of quirky that it was the preeminent Mrs. Roosevelt who quipped ‘The world belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’ while that very masculine Mr. Henley sings about being too much in this world.

It does seem that, in America the women tend to be more of the dreamers while the men are more rooted in reality. In China the exact reverse is true: the men dream while the women live rooted in reality.

Last time I saw Ken or spent any time with him was last year. There we sat: I, who walked away from everything to make my dream come true and he, who choked the life out of his dream to become only a semblance of the friend I used to spend hours talking with.

The light of passion had gone out of his eyes. His shoulders were hunched under the weight of obligation to family and tradition. He tortured himself over his inability to buy his girlfriend so much as a dress or a piece of jewelry because his job pays so poorly. His manner of speech was slow and ponderous, as though each word said, each thought expressed cost him unbearable effort. He had crossed some line and is now too much in this world.

How sad. Another dreamer lost.               

Go Here, Go There, Look at This and That

Considering this is a blog primarily about travel, you would think that this entry would be about scurrying around, taking pictures and writing it up, right?


This blog is indeed about travel and cultural comparisons as seen through my eyes but this particular entry has nothing to do with traveling. Well, maybe if you stretch the definition or the idea, you could say it does.

No, I’m referring to all those times where I say ‘refer back to THIS post, or THAT entry, posted on such and such date for more on this subject’. Having had the pleasure of regaling you for nearly 2 years, certainly I’ve covered some subjects I revisit in newer posts.

I’ve told you before I don’t have access to my own blog. Any blog site originating in the west is blocked in China. Sure, I could pay for a virtual private network – VPN, but why spend the extra money? I could get access to Facebook (which I don’t much care about), YouTube (that, I do miss but there is an equally good video service on the Chinese networks I can watch videos on) and my own blog.

I don’t need to see my blog. I have these wonderful conspirators who delight in keeping it current for me. I’ve told you before I write the entries up in Word format, attach them to an email and that is how you get to see my musings. At least half, but probably more than half of the credit for this blog goes to my conspirators.  

Also, you should know I am not building a concordance. So, when I refer you back to any given entry I’m doing it by memory: “I KNOW I’ve written about this topic before!” and off I go, searching my archives. Usually I’m pretty good at remembering what entry addresses any given subject, so all I have to do is go into my ‘vagabond life’ file, find that entry, look at the date I wrote it and voila! I can now refer you back to the title, month and year.

The downside to that is, having written more than three hundred entries, remembering what I wrote in each entry is getting a little bit daunting. The upside to that is that I don’t have to worry about having memory problems. I can usually remember when I wrote about any given topic, and what title it posted under.

My daughter asked me today why I don’t just type ‘read more on that subject here.’ and insert a hyperlink to the specific entry I’m citing.

The reason is simple: I don’t manage my blog. I don’t even see my blog. If I were to want hyperlinks to past entries inserted my conspirators would have to do it.

I talked with them about that today. Although easy enough to do, neither they nor I think it is such a great idea, for several reasons.

The first one is that I would have to tell them which entry to link the current entry to. The second is that, if I didn’t tell them they would have to scan the entry to see if a link is needed before posting it. Or, I would have to tell them where in the entry the link needs to be inserted. Sometimes they are busy and don’t have time to take that extra step. In short, it is too much of a pain for all concerned.

The third and best reason not to is because of the page layout. The entire blog is on the right side of the page, broken down by month and year. As long as I give you the title, month and year of the referenced entry, you should be able to access it easily. For new readers it gives the opportunity to flip through some of the topics previously addressed and allows them to see some of the stranger titles I’ve dreamed up. For long time readers it allows flashbacks and maybe the opportunity to re-read a favorite entry or two.

And, there is one more reason: hyperlinks annoy me. Usually, if I’m reading something I don’t want to have to click on a link, lose the page I was reading, get side tracked and have to backtrack and do it all again.

The idea is to encourage readership. Sending you hither and yon to look at this and that entry by title, I am hoping for your greater enjoyment. If nothing else it serves to remind you that I do come up with wacky titles. The last thing I want to do is discourage you from thoroughly enjoying yourself.

The verdict is: no hyperlinks. I will keep on as I have been. It is easier for my conspirators, hopefully not aggravating for you and fun for me to go back and read previous entries. To say nothing of the challenge of remembering what state of mind I was in when I dreamed up any given idea.

Do you have any thoughts about this subject? Please let me know at:

OK, so there is ONE hyperlink!        

Friday, April 27, 2012

No Xi’an For Me

I started out with the best intentions. I bought my ticket to Xi’an as soon as I received my wedding invitation from Ken, my friend who lives there. He is finally getting married, much to his parents’ delight… or is it dismay? You’ll have to see the ‘When the Universe Speaks’ entry, posted March of last year to find out why I say that.

In any case, I did start out with the best of intentions. I bought a train ticket. I let Sam know I was going out of town. After teaching my two classes this morning I rushed home to pack, make sandwiches and get out the door on time. I didn’t get my dishes done but that’s OK. They’re rinsed and stacked neatly by the sink. I can do them when I get back. And I didn’t get to make my bed either. And my floor is a mess from the workmen who came and sanded down moldy spots on the walls. (Yes, mold already!)

I don’t know about you but I hate leaving the house in such disarray. But I did have good intentions. I was going to go to that wedding.  

I left the house a full two and a half hours before my train was to take off. Under normal circumstances that would have given me plenty of time to get to the train station. Even under abnormal circumstances that would have given me plenty of time. The circumstances were in fact just a bit abnormal: this is Labor Day weekend in China. Not a major holiday but a holiday nonetheless. Those who have time off are traveling. So, scoring a ticket was a major coup, as I said last post.

So here I am, with my good intentions and my train ticket. Zhanny was traveling home too, so we were going to ride to the train station together. She got to the bus stop same time I did. So far no problems, other than the bus being crowded to standing room only capacity. We arrived at Wuchang train station in plenty of time for Zhanny to make her connection. I had a bit further to go: to Wuhan station, in the north part of the city. That requires another bus connection and another hour’s ride.

Still no problem. Went to the back of Wuchang train station just as bus 540 was pulling up. I was the second person on the bus, guaranteeing me a seat. Except for that little migraine brewing, travel is getting good, folks! I popped some Tylenol, and then settled in and put away my misgivings about this trip.

What? Misgivings?

Yes. You see, I really didn’t want to go to Xi’an. Actually, that’s not true: I’m always up for a trip to Xi’an. I didn’t want to go to the wedding. Ken and I had a bit of a falling out last time I was in Xi’an and since then we’ve drifted apart. It has been over a year since we’ve communicated. He has not responded to any text or QQ messages I’ve sent him. Busy? Snubbing? Who knows? I gave up trying.

Only over the last 2 weeks, since he was sending out wedding invitations has he gotten back in touch with me. You can see why I’d be reluctant to go to the wedding of someone who treated me badly last time I went to visit, disregarded my attempts to establish contact for over a year and now invites me to his wedding.    

All of this is running through my mind as I enjoy my bus ride, sitting down on a packed bus. But I’m figuring The Fates are good: Zhanny and I meet at the bus station at exactly the same time. I make my bus connection with no problems, even getting a seat on the bus. Maybe I should shake off those misgivings and start looking forward to the trip. OK: let’s find a positive mindset.

I did not make my train.

Four things happened to detract me from my very best intentions. First was traffic. I anticipated that, and had budgeted time for it. Then there was an accident, snarling things up even more. That is OK. I budgeted for that, too. Then the bus broke down. Uh-oh, now we’ve got trouble.

Still, that would have been OK. After all, I had built plenty of time into my schedule for such unforeseen events. I probably still could have made my train after the replacement bus got there, if only the driver didn’t drive as though it were Christmas. Or Sunday. Or Christmas Sunday. This was without a doubt the slowest driver I’ve ever had the pleasure or frustration to ride with. He drove so slow that two other Bus 540 blew past him. The rest of the traffic did too.

Nervously I kept my eye on the clock. We are now edging to 15 minutes prior to my departure time and we are still nowhere near the train station. Things could go either way. Maybe the train will be late. Usually they aren’t that late though: up to 30 minutes is as late as I’ve ever seen them leave.

When I overheard a fellow passenger on his phone confirm the train was leaving on time I gave up. No point in traveling all the way to the train station just to get turned away. At least I could get a refund on my ticket. No, wait! Can’t do that either. I bought the ticket presenting my stateside driver’s license as ID. I only had my passport with me now. No refund possible.

Going back to that When the Universe Speaks philosophy for a moment.

This trip has been fraught with misgivings. First, I didn’t really see why Ken would invite me to his wedding after being incommunicado for over a year. Second, to be perfectly selfish: what’s in it for me? Even if Ken did want a reconciliation, how would that work? He’s busy with his wedding. He doesn’t have time to make things right with me. And, I’d most likely be the only foreigner. That would kind of leave me struggling for conversation and company, seeing as the only person I know that speaks decent English in Xi’an is the groom, and I believe he will be otherwise engaged. Third: I had left my house in disarray, petty as that sounds, but add to that all the things I had to postpone in order to go to this wedding. Like planning my classes for next week, not doing laundry, not chatting with my loved ones and not writing my blog.

And then too: I’ve not been feeling so well these past few weeks. For some reason, my stomach has not been cooperating, leaving me feeling listless and blah. Not exactly optimal travel condition.

And then there’s money. I am planning a major trip stateside in about 2 months. My last name not being Rockefeller, I kind of have to watch my pennies carefully to fund that trip. Finally: Gary and I had planned to tour Xi’an together later this summer. We thought about moving our travel plans up and tie our trip in with the wedding but, at the last minute Gary got caught called away on business.

It seems to me that The Universe is saying, loud and clear: ‘Don’t go to Xi’an right now!’

Who am I to not heed such a directive?

I got off the super slow bus and got on the one that would take me back home. I sent Ken a text message, apologizing for not being able to make it to his wedding. He suggested I try to get another ticket but without being able to refund this ticket, why would I spend more money to get to a wedding I really don’t want to go to anyway?

No, I think I’ll stay in Wuhan this holiday weekend, nurse my recalcitrant stomach back to health and do things that are far more important to me: connect with my family, write blog entries, clean my house and prepare for my classes next week. I’ll go to Xi’an later this summer with Gary as planned. If permitted, I’ll make it up to Ken for having missed his wedding. All things settled, the stress disappeared. Maybe I didn’t need that Tylenol. Maybe I just needed a new plan.

Now… about that ‘listless and blah’ a few paragraphs back. Doesn’t that sound like a great name for a doctor’s office?       

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Goin’ To The Chapel, Gonna Get Married!

Of course, not me!!! Oh, I’m going to the chapel alright, I’m not getting married though.

And, come to think of it, there will be no chapel involved.

My friend Ken, he who lives in Xi’an, is getting married on Monday. A Monday wedding, you ask? Well, yes.

Remember that China is not rooted to a strict Gregorian calendar. Makes it kind of confusing for those of us who used to plan their weekend activities around when banks and post offices are closed. Here they’re open 7 days a week, from 7AM till about 5PM. It is kind of disorienting, as a matter of fact. I’ll talk more about that in a few posts from now, when I talk about other things I still have not gotten used to after 2 years in China.

Tuesday, May 1st is Labor Day in China. Many people have extended the holiday into a long weekend, starting their travel on Friday and returning to school or office on Wednesday. That made buying a train ticket a competitive sport, as always during a holiday here. Luckily I was able to score a ticket for a sleeper car to Xi’an on Friday. Ken bought my return ticket in advance for Monday night so that I’d be guaranteed a bunk on a train in time to teach on Wednesday.

Of course that means I will be in Xi’an longer than I anticipated. Originally I planned to leave on Sunday night and return on the Tuesday morning train. That way I would not have to incur a hotel room charge. As it turns out I will be in Xi’an early Saturday morning and leave out on Monday, after the wedding.

Which lends itself to logistical problems. It is distinctly uncomfortable to travel in ‘wedding appropriate’ attire, and I won’t have any place to change clothes after the wedding. And, how am I going to pack and transport wedding appropriate attire if I’m only packing an overnight bag?

You’ll remember from the George is Getting Married post, back in December 2010 that weddings do not take place in a chapel or church, but in a restaurant. Usually in a fancy hotel. Although no special attire is required I would not want to be the only one who shows up in travel duds.

I have all night to figure that out. I only have a few minutes to get this out to you though, so you come first. I’m sorry to say that I’m going to have to take a short blogging break to go attend this wedding, but I do have exciting things to report on upon my return so, stay tuned, OK?

Have a great week, everyone!    

Monday, April 23, 2012

Living A Piece of History

High from my wild success with my Business English class I headed outside. There was a momentous event transpiring. I wanted to witness it.

My friends, I am sad to report that I no longer teach at Wuhan Polytechnic University.

This latter-day career of mine that started so dubiously, on a shabby campus that made me wonder if I had made the biggest mistake of my life when I first got here, has taken off like a rocket. From having no idea how to even get to my first classroom (see The First Day of Class, posted September 2010) to my rousing triumph with my most reluctant group of students (see previous post), from the squalid Concrete Bunker I called home to this actual home that feels like mine… I owe everything to Wuhan Polytechnic University, who saw fit to give a middle aged woman with no teaching experience a chance.


Wuhan Polytechnic University is no more.

Today we witnessed the unveiling ceremony of our school’s new name: Wuchang Institute of Technology.

The owner of our school, now an elected city official (see Election Day, posted October 2011) has been pouring money into our campus. Not only were the buildings all repainted last summer during the break but new multimedia cabinets and other teaching equipment has found its way into the classrooms. Unfortunately the rooms I teach in are still devoid of such luxury. Never mind, I’m learning how to do without them. Gleefully and excitedly, at that.

Moving on…  

The school has bought up substantial parcels of land surrounding campus. That is where the new apartment complex other teachers and I reside in, the new gym and library have been built, the new administration building will stand and the new basketball and badminton courts are. All of these changes reflect the progressive march of our school to becoming a competitive center for higher learning.

No longer just a Tier 3 straggler are we! Our new name embodies our ambition to attract some of the finest minds in academia and some of the best students from around the country. The name, WIT… wait… isn’t there a similarity to an equally impressive school, somewhere in America?

Oh, yeah! MIT! Massachusetts Institute of Technology! In fact, if you just invert that ‘W’… which is actually appropriate, seeing as we are on the other side of the world. Yes, it is all a play on words and a ploy for renown.

For as comical as I’m making this sound, this was a truly momentous day, not just for the school but for me. I realized a fierce pride and loyalty to this establishment that has been so generous to me, among other things granting me free rein to teach as I saw fit and according me such gracious living quarters.

The rain that had pelted down on my way to class this morning stopped just in time for the unveiling ceremony. Quickly, maintenance rolled out the red carpet. The cadre of students designated to attend this momentous occasion were all decked out: some in sports gear, others in traditional Chinese costumes for reception of dignitaries.

They started arriving around 9:30. The Street, lined with red flags and flower girls saw a parade of black cars, shiny in spite of the recent downpour, from which disgorged a host of VIP. After a small fanfare, the speeches started. Soon, in spite of my best efforts I couldn’t see or hear a thing for the thronging masses chattering excitedly.

I went back to Building 1, where my next class was. From the balcony on the second floor I heard the pop of the fireworks and the music blaring. I watched as the crowd dispersed. Some, in business suits, strode purposefully back to the Administration building, just across the small park I used to look out at while living in the Concrete Bunker. Others, mostly kids, were strolling leisurely, some arm in arm and recounting their experiences being on the front line and watching the veil fall to reveal the school’s new name. A few looked up, saw me and waved. Smiling and barely containing my tears, I waved back.    

I can’t describe the emotional soup I was trying to puzzle through. Not even when the bell rang and my next group of students awaited my wisdom could I put my thoughts together. I had no idea what I was going to tell them. My heart was so full.

These kids that I’ve known and taught for 2 years, my favorite class, looked at me expectantly. Tomorrow they will take their career-determining test, the TM4. They are all nervous and scared, and more than a little stressed. On the board I had written “Midterm: Give a 2 minute speech on ‘The Thing You Are Most Proud Of’.

I opened my mouth and let the words tumble out.

“Today, the feeling is indescribable. My students, my friends, you are living a chapter of history. You are no longer students of Wuhan Polytechnic University. Today you have the honor and privilege of being students of Wuchang Institute of Technology. Think about it: Years from now, you might want to show your children your college degree… what will it say? You might go to the internet to tell them of your old school. You will not be able to search for our school under the name we’ve known it by all this time. You’ll have to remember it in your hearts. And that is important, for under that old name is how we all met, isn’t it?

My friends, I can’t tell you what it means for me to share this moment in time with you. We started at this university at the same time, and we’ve witnessed such a great event together. We have a saying in America: ‘My heart took a picture’. I look at you now and… my heart is taking a picture.”

I heaved a sigh at having instilled an appropriately decorous mood. I could see on their faces that, only then did they realize how momentous this occasion was. The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. No one even touched their cellphone. The silence washed over us, bonding.

Time to change the subject. These are serious students, and they have a portentous exam to take the next day. I felt I had to address that topic. Implying their ordeal, I asked them: “Are you scared?”

Out of the quiet and before a chorus of ‘No!’ chimed one small: “Yes!”

Dear little Jennifer. I asked her what she was afraid of. She answered: “Your love. It is so large!”

That’s it! The dam burst: I’m in tears and laughing at the same time. Such a precious child! I gave her a hug, and went on to tell the kids that I thought it was not fair for them to have to struggle for mid-terms when they had a much larger, more impactful exam the next day. I strode to the board and crossed out what I had written. A shout of joy arose.

I then told the kids mid-terms would be postponed till next week. They could use this entire lesson period as a study period. I would be available to answer any questions they had or help them with anything they might have difficulty with. Gratefully they sank into their books. For the next forty five minutes the room was filled with the dull roar students reading passages, pages frantically flipping and hurried consultations. A few of them raised their hand for help. I was happy to assist them.

Before our class period was over I gave them some test taking tips. Relax. Get some sleep. Be prepared. Eat a good meal. Take time to understand what you are reading. Most importantly: Be confident. Believe in yourself. Trust yourself to do a good job. Then I sent them on their way. Those that wanted a hug got one. The guys, Evan and Jason got ‘high-five’ed and clapped on the back. I would have hugged them too, but they are too ‘boy’ for that. The last one to leave, little Jenny kissed my cheek.

I stood in the empty classroom, finally feeling like a teacher.              

My Great Success

In the two years I’ve been teaching, I’ve found I dread teaching the Business English class the most. These students really don’t care much about learning English, or maybe they lack the confidence needed to become truly engaged in their studies. They are only in school for 3 years, if you count the year granted to them for their thesis preparation. For all intents and purposes, their formal college education ends after their second year. Their efforts earn them only an Associates’ Degree, hardly a cloak of invincibility when tackling the competitive job market.

They have other things on their minds: shopping, boyfriends, fashion, fun. They use their cellphones liberally during class to send text messages, play games and even to chat on QQ, China’s premier chat service. When they do speak up most of their dialog is in Chinese, or it is so quiet I can barely make out what they’re saying. A lot of them just don’t bother coming, especially if they are scheduled for the first class of the day.

Tina and Georgina are students in my Business English class. They are probably the most extreme example of what I’m talking about here (see entry of the same name, posted last week.) Other posts that reflect my despair over this particular group of students are titled Parties 2 and 3, posted December 2010 and First Came a Plant, posted May 2011. 

In all I’ve had 8 Business English groups, 2 each with the same bunch of students. Victor and I trade classes after Winter Break, if you’ll remember, and my last year freshmen are my sophomores this year. Add 2 groups of freshmen for this year to get to 8. Not that doing all that math is necessary.

Not all the students in these groups are indifferent. Lancy, Taffy, George, Jeremy, Stephie, Cooling, Isabelle, Annabelle, Tulip… they are/were good ones. Others, like Banana, Lily, Sunny, Angel and Kathy started out interested and just lost their verve somewhere between getting shuttled between Victor and me. They still come to class, but getting them to speak is a herculean task.

Since inheriting Victor’s Business English class after Winter Break, I’ve dreaded Friday mornings because that is when I have to face that impertinent, negligent bunch. Not the best way to cap off a week of teaching, not the best way to start the day and certainly not something I enjoy doing just before meeting my most exciting class, the English Majors’ Sophomore class. That is how my schedule is set up and that is what I have to deal with and that is that, no remorse and no recourse.

And so, I deal with it.

The first few sessions this semester my students trickled in, in dribs and drabs. Of the twenty five I expected, twenty three showed up. Within 3 weeks of class, my attendance rolls were down to twelve. Again I was rolling my eyes and despairing over how to reach this group, how to make class interesting, how to engage them.

And then, something happened. I’m not sure what. By week 5, my attendance almost doubled. They were coming in late, but they were coming. By week 8 I had nearly a full complement. Now week 10 everyone is coming to class, even my lone male student Bobby and that bothersome twosome, Tina and Georgina. Granted, those two still attempt to disrupt the class but at least they are showing up. I’m amazed.

My standard classroom methodology is to bound with enthusiasm, use exaggerated facial expressions and body language, talk about culture, current events or matters of interest to the students, ask for input and expect participation. That does not work with this bunch. In part because they feel their English skills are so poor, and in part because their English skills really are so poor that they only understand half of what I was saying, if that. I realized I need to come up with something different if I’m going to reach this group. 

A few weeks back, operating under the idea that these kids are not awake at 8AM, I decided to give them quiet work to do: worksheets that they can do in pairs or singly. For the first session, from 8:00 to 8:45, they worked on preparing for whatever exercise I had planned for that lesson. Interview role plays, ‘what if’ scenarios, surveys, picture assisted speaking assignments or dialogue exercises. The critical, most effective balance seems to be ‘quiet work, then speaking work’.

These kids are loving it!          

Being as the class is mostly female (Bobby had yet to put in an appearance), for midterms I chose a topic that most girls from anywhere in the world have thought about since they were little: their dream wedding. The plan was to have them draw a picture of their perfect wedding, and in the second part of the class, from 8:50 to 9:35, each student would get a chance to describe their drawing to the rest of the class. I brought colored pencils, paper, tape, scissors and construction paper of various hues for them to unleash their creative side with. Their excitement was palpable! I ate it up.

Unfortunately, last week I had laryngitis. Leading a class when you can’t talk is not an ideal situation, so I let them draw and create for the entire session, instructing them via my class monitor to bring their drawings back the following week, thus postponing their mid-term exam.

Today I had a full roster: everyone came to class, even that elusive Bobby, my lone male student. Not only did everyone show up, but most of them showed up on time. And, not only that, they were eager to get up in front of the class and talk. Some even volunteered to speak. All first time occurrences for this group. In the 2 years I’ve taught them, I have never known any of them to volunteer to do anything, especially not get up in front of the class and talk!

It was so hard to focus on their spoken words while marveling at their turnabout. I know this sudden reversal is not due to the fact that they all just woke up today and decided to be my dream students: engaged, enthusiastic and eager. No, this had a lot to do with the way I’m conducting this class. And the way I’m conducting this class has a lot to do with the way they need me to be, in order for them to learn.
Let me tell you: I love the challenge of finding activities that will stimulate and motivate this most difficult group. I get to let my imagination run wild. Whatever scenarios my fuzzy head dreams up and my practical mind can put into a classroom perspective is what the class ends up doing. My Business English class has gone from being my most dreaded engagement to my most exciting, stimulating commitment.

No holds barred here: after all the students talked about their dream wedding I took the podium and confessed my feelings. I shared with them how enormously proud I am of them for having made such an about-face. I made it perfectly clear that they get all the credit for their efforts, and for giving me such a challenge. I told them how I used to not want to come to class, but now that they are my most exciting group. I find I can’t wait for Friday mornings. I thanked them for helping me become a better teacher.

Oh, if you could have seen their faces! These kids shone with the brightness of having their efforts acknowledged. They sat up straighter, pushed their hair out of their face, shushed their seatmate if she started talking. Not a single one looked at their cellphone. They smiled, they made eye contact… for the first time since meeting them last year, they were thoroughly present, in body and in mind.

Before I could be overcome by emotion I dismissed my class, even though we still had about 15 minutes. There was something very exciting going on outside… see next post.


The Legacy

Today I received news that shook me to my core. Just prior to her death my former mother in law, Jeanine left very specific instructions that I was to be given something of hers. What could it be?

Let’s back up a little bit. You know by now that I held both Russ and Jeanine in high regard. In a lot of ways they and their children were the model family to me. The epitome of what the bedrock of society should be. For the short time I was among them they accepted me into their fold with hardly any questions asked. That was over thirty years ago.

At some point during my brief inclusion into their clan I had apparently gifted Jeanine something. Her dying wish was that it should be returned to me.

Talk about being emotionally sucker punched in the best possible way!

My own mother saw to it that every shred of family heirloom, or anything that could be considered an heirloom went to those who cared for her during her final days. As neither I nor my siblings were a part of her life, I saw that as fitting even though it hurt. In spite of her I do have some things that I remember as having been in our home while growing up. When I packed up and left for China I gave those to my children.

Among them: preserved newspapers from the city of my birth, Bordeaux, chronicling the end of World War II. A series of original edition hardback comic books. Some fine linens and silver. A musical jewelry box.

I have that last with me. The rest of the loot I divided up between my two children.

Other things of mine my kids have: my music collection – one favorite artist’s CD collection to one child. The other one received my other favorite artist’s works. One received newspapers that I had contributed articles to and the other received a book of poetry a poem of mine was published in. I gave my daughter all the family pictures for safekeeping and my son some practical items that have been in our house since his childhood. Each got a snippet of Planty-plant, the only houseplant I’ve been able to keep alive. Even that ivy has special significance: it was gifted to me on the day Gabriel was born.  

At the time I was doling out these treasures Darrell remarked that it felt like I was dispensing of my worldly goods in the face of my death. A gloomy statement to be sure, but one not far off the mark. Living as a vagabond, I’ll have nothing material to bequeath them when the death knell sounds for me. 

Now I am on the front line for mortality, as described in the Mile in their Shoes entry. Russ and Jeanine’s passing remind me that I too should plan a legacy for my family. I feel like both Darrell and Jennifer have had the best of me. We have precious memories to share and now they have the few material things that we’ve collected through the years. And, of course, there is this blog. 

What about Gabriel and Kat, and now Ben? I intend to leave something for each of them. Something that harkens back to my childhood days. Something that, amidst their sorrow they can cling to and know that their Mema loved him or her especially. So much so that this one particular item was destined for their hands only. Much like Jeanine planned on leaving me that which I had gifted her, all those years ago.

I had long decided that Gabriel is to receive my Red Blankie (see A Tale of Three Blankies, posted November ’11). It is my longest held possession, and it has the added characteristic of having traveled all over the world and having survived the house fire, as well as keeping me warm here in China. My legacy to Ben is as yet undecided, seeing as he is so newly arrived.

Originally I had intended to gift Kat my mother’s jewelry box, one of the few things I have of hers. Upon hearing that Jeanine left me a gift, I’ve changed my mind. I feel that whatever that gift is should end up in Kat’s possession.

Kat and all the grandkids will eventually have an academic understanding of their great grandmother – my mother. She was not a warm, loving, giving type of person and I would just as soon spare them any painful, emotionally devoid tales. Or, for that matter, emotionally rending tales. Simply telling them they had a great-grandma that was born in France and lived in Germany should suffice. But Jeanine! She of the big heart and thoughtful consideration, with her ability to sucker punch me from the Great Beyond… 

A legacy is more than a tangible item, in my opinion. It should symbolize the best that a person was, and that those characteristics are to be carried into future generations. It should have a history significant to the person or family it represents. With this interpretation it is easy to see why I prefer that Kat receive this gift Jeanine had expressly intended for me rather than that which my mother never intended to bequeath to anyone, least of all me. Therefore, Kat gets Jeanine’s gift.

Oh, yeah! Sometimes my personal issues come to the forefront and it seems I forget that this blog is about cultural comparisons between China and The West, not about me and my convoluted family. Maybe I should tell you how legacies are decided in China.

Truth is, they’re not. In families established prior to the 1980’s, before the One Child Policy was instituted, everything went to the male heir. If there were several sons, the eldest got the bulk of the estate and the remaining brothers received either progressively less, or their portion of the inheritance was decided by the eldest male. Females received nothing at all.

Nowadays the sole heir gets everything from both sides of the family. If that heir happens to be female, she still gets nothing. All financial and material goods are left to her husband if she is already married, or to her future husband for when she does get married. If she never marries the family fortunes and worldly goods revert to other relatives, usually brothers or male in-laws of the deceased.

Before you choke on your outrage let me add this: slowly, that tradition is changing. With Chinese society belatedly realizing the value of daughters, more and more inheritance is passed on to females. Fact is, daughters are more likely to dispense of the family fortune equitably than males are. I don’t see a tidal wave of change coming about. More like an erosion of tradition. Maybe, by the time my students reach the age where inheritance is a real and immediate concern to them things will have changed sufficiently that my former students who are female will in fact be designated sole inheritors.

Of tangible heirlooms there is not much to dispense of in the traditional Chinese family. During the Great Leap Forward all family heirlooms were destroyed and anything the family might have had of any significant value, financial or otherwise, was seized or destroyed lest one be thought of as bourgeois. However, that was over sixty years ago and the Chinese are once again stockpiling material goods. There might yet be tangible heirlooms to be passed down.

That is how things happen in China.

And now, for Ben. Still thinking on that one. Seeing as I don’t have much in the way of material possessions, it is a tough call on what to dedicate to him.

I’m really going to be in trouble if any more grandchildren come along!   

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tina and Georgina

As you know, I am in the habit of reporting on remarkable students: Tony, Evan, Bailey, Tulip, Summer, and of course my Cookie Cutter Girls: Dash, Zhanni and Lilly have all been featured in this blog at one point in time or another. These are kids who, through their sunny disposition and massive intellect have caught my attention.

Tina and Georgina are not at all like them.

These two girls are insolent, rude, disrespectful, impertinent and negligent. They alone make me dread Fridays, when once again they will prance into class – or not, depending on their mood; not participate, argue with me and generally disrupt the class.

I had these two in my class last year and was floored by their attitude. At that time, Tina was my class monitor, somewhat akin to a teacher/admin/student body liaison person. Class Monitors are to assist the teacher when needed, such as erasing the board or making sure the classroom has chalk. If there is a media center that is not working the class monitor is supposed to contact maintenance and assist the maintenance tech or the IT tech in getting it running again. If there is an announcement to be made, it is filtered to the class monitor, who delivers it to the students.

Being a class monitor is a serious duty, requiring a lot of time, energy and effort. The best students vie for this position because it looks really good on the resume. And only the best of the best are chosen. I was surprised that Tina was seen fit to be given the position.

Last year, as my class monitor, I called on her several times to assist me. One time in particular I needed a textbook, and none of the students had brought one. Understandable, because I do not teach from a book. However, in this instance a student had emailed me a question regarding a text in the book. Logically, and, as I should have, I asked Tina to go get a book. She replied, without getting up: “Why me?” “Because you are the class monitor” I spluttered, shocked at her defiance.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Tina at her finest. Now, allow me to present Georgina.

I believe this girl is only in school because her parents want her to have a college degree. From what I can gather of her she couldn’t care less whether universities exist at all, or whether our university in particular burned to the ground with all students, faculty and administrators perishing in the blaze. She is an impudent piece of work who seldom participates in activities, only shows up to class for the attendance grade and, while in class spends the entire time on her cellphone, doing who knows what.

I recall my own student days, way back in time when we had to bring our own hammer and chisel to class, and the school provided the stone tablets. We had a teacher who got so angry at one of the boys in my class that she took his fountain pen and threw it against the back wall, where it shattered and spewed ink everywhere . His ring binder, books and book bag followed in short order. I was terrified. Especially because I sat in the back row, and all of the things flung to the back wall bounced off and hit me. I still cannot fathom what that boy was doing to make the teacher so angry, but I recall her actions now, with Tina and Georgina occupying the back seats in my class. I would like to snatch Georgina’s cellphone out of her hand, dash it against an opposite wall and grind what is left of it under the heel of my boot. Maybe that would get her attention.

By the way: I still remember the boy’s name in my class that had so angered my teacher. He was Michael Guether, a large, hulking boy with a pasty complexion and a surly disposition. If he weren’t my age I would see fit to introduce him to Georgina.

I was relieved the first half of this year at finding Victor was cursed with these two in his class. That relief was short lived as I am now cursed with them.

The first day of the semester they did not bother to show up for class. I breathed a sigh of relief: maybe they decided they were too good to come to school and just dropped out of college altogether. A girl can hope, can’t she? But then I noticed about 8 other girls didn’t show up either. My joy was short lived. The second week they paraded in about 15 minutes late with no excuse or apology, their retinue in tow. Of course, they are getting docked for their time, but they added to the aggravation because I had to get them caught up on what we were doing.

Victor has a way of dealing with such students: he ignores them. I daresay other teachers use that methodology too. I cannot adopt those same tactics. I feel if these girls are in my class it is my duty to engage them, not just give them an attendance grade and let them do what they want. If they do not participate I feel I should encourage them to leave the class, and penalize them for lack of attendance as well as no participation. Why should they get a grade for just showing up, when they don’t do anything?

This past Friday the class and I were setting up for an activity that would span 2 weeks’ sessions. The little so-and-so’s showed up late – again! Come time for them to choose the role they were going to play in the second part of the activity next week, Tina declared she didn’t want to do it that way. She wanted to participate on her own terms. Georgina held up a pack of tissues and ran for the bathroom, thereby avoiding being selected for a part in the role play activity.

I know what I should have done. I should have told Tina that we are not going to do the activity her way and she would not be exempt from doing it the way all the other students were going to do it. And then I should have cornered Georgina upon her return to class (2 minutes before the bell dismissed them) to assign her a part in the exercise.

I did not do any of that. I was too shocked at Tina’s insolence and Georgina’s sneakiness.

The sad thing is that I have some really great students in that class who actually enjoy the things I plan for them and participate wholeheartedly. Those two cast such a pall on the rest of the class that, when they do show up to class everyone else just kind of shuts down. It is not right or fair that these two should rob everyone of their joy of learning. I am just going to have to psyche myself up and be ready for them the next instance of insolence or rebellion they show.

Any suggestions?

I Want a Boyfriend!

It is not me who is looking for a boyfriend. That cry resounds all over campus, especially from the older students who remain unattached. Of late, my favorite Cookie Cutter girl, Zhanny only ever talks about all things boyfriend: how to get a boyfriend, a longing for a boyfriend and wondering why she doesn’t yet have a boyfriend.

Quite frankly I’ve wondered about that too. This girl is flat out gorgeous – remember: she is the one who resembles a young Audrey Hepburn, and she is smart, sailing through her classes with high marks. She has never had a boyfriend, although she has fallen for a boy who already has a girlfriend.

When I first came here two years ago many of the kids were unattached and wanted to remain that way, as instructed by their parents. Public displays of affection around campus were few and far between. It was shocking to find the occasional couple holding hands while strolling around. At the time I found that rather surprising, seeing as college is the time when kids start breaking from tradition. That was my first taste of exactly how deeply rooted tradition is in this culture.

Nowadays, freshmen are falling in ‘love’ and pairing up just about as soon as they get here. They are not shy about flaunting their status as a couple, either: nestling on park benches, necking, walking hand in hand and arm in arm, even wearing each other’s clothes to the extent that fashion and gender tailored wardrobes permit. The sophomores are doing their best to catch up, although they are being more conservative in their parings-off and manifestations. Some of the juniors, Zhanny and Dash included are left out in the cold.

Why don’t these lovely, smart young women have boyfriends? They are in college, away from home and surrounded by males suffering from testosterone overload. I decided to find out.


The courtship dance is much more involved in China than it is in the Western world. Over here, a girl cannot (or should not) simply approach a boy and ask him out. Neither is it acceptable for a girl’s friend to approach a boy on her behalf, as would be common in the States. Here, girls are expected to remain passive and wait for the boys’ approach. They do have the right to accept or reject an offer.

It is not common for a boy to approach a girl while she is with her friends. Such approaches are made one-on-one. That puts the boys in somewhat of a conundrum because, generally, the girls travel in gaggles, or at least in pairs. Once a boy does manage to approach a girl it is generally with a harmless invitation, such as a walk after dinner, a game of badminton or maybe to study together (if they are classmates).

Another challenge the boys face is that a lot of these girls are shy to the point of being unapproachable. They wouldn’t yell ‘fire’ if their hair was ablaze and they would simply die of mortification if they were seen in any way other than beautiful, haunting and unattainable. This model of womanhood is ages old here, and pounded into these girls from day one of cognizance. To walk around holding hands with a boy or even be seen in the company of a male would guarantee they would shrivel up and blow away from shame.

This phenomenon goes so far as to include the boys in my sophomore class. Recently we did an activity in which the kids mingled about the room, asking each other questions I had prepared in advance. Harmless, innocent questions that had nothing to do with love or lust, in case your were wondering. My two male students were left talking with each other while the girls bounced from crowd to crowd, chattering away. When I encouraged a few girls to go speak with the boys, they blushed furiously and squealed “No! I’m too shy!”

Remember Evan, from speech competitions? He and Jeremy had to be prodded and led by the arm to a group of girls. Even then they stammered and stuttered out their questions until they got into the spirit of the game. After a few minutes they got much more animated, but I did notice they stayed with the same group of girls for the entire activity.

Interesting to note that, when I conducted the same activity in both my freshman classes, the girls did not have a problem engaging the boys, and the boys had no problems approaching the girls. In fact, any activity I’ve assigned my freshmen, neither gender had a problem approaching or working with the other. Some girls even prefer working with their male classmates.

We’re talking about a one-year difference in age. Why are the freshmen so liberal while the sophomores are so much more grounded in tradition?


Traditionally, relationships are arranged. The whole family gets in on the act, arranging meeting after meeting and pairing after pairing until all parties, including boy and girl are satisfied with the match. Youths do not bounce from person to person, dating, sampling, ‘hooking up’ or gaining experience. Generally a person has only one or two relationships in their lifetime. They usually marry the first lover they have. It is very uncommon to have had more than one lover before marriage. I’m not saying that many are virgins when they marry (as was the case a mere twenty years ago) but they are certainly not wildly experienced in love or relationships.

That’s rather refreshing, isn’t it?

Now that so many more people have access to extra-familial experiences – college, work or living with relatives other than parents, and far away from home, the introduction method still prevails.

It would be acceptable for Dash to introduce Zhanny to a relative or someone from her village, for example. Or, I could introduce her to a student in another class. Or, a male relative who is studying at a different college in Wuhan could introduce her to a roommate. The important factor seems to be that introductions must be made.

Bottom line: one cannot just walk up to someone who is unknown or unrelated and strike up a conversation. Meeting someone on a bus or while out shopping is completely out of the question, no matter how the pulses race. The whole Western ideal of love at first sight or ‘eyes meeting from across the room’ is virtually impossible in this exceedingly traditional society.

Makes you wonder how anyone ever manages to find a mate and actually move into the marriage stage, doesn’t it?


Chinese law decrees that males are eligible for marriage at 22 and females may marry at or after age 20. This is to ensure that people will complete their education and at least get started on a career. Before a girl’s family will consent to a marriage the boy must prove that he at least has an apartment and a job that pays enough to support a family. If he has a car, all the better.

It is of paramount importance for all parents – the bride’s and the groom’s to agree to the match. If, for whatever reason one set of parents is displeased with the match, most likely the marriage will not take place. There are exceptions to that, though. For example: Sam was introduced to Penny by his orthodontist. His parents did not think too much of her but noted how devoted the young couple was to each other, so they let the marriage take place. Penny’s mother was satisfied with the match. Usually, if the girl’s parents are displeased no amount of swaying, begging, pleading or convincing by either party will change their mind.

Upon marriage a woman does not take her husband’s name. The child of that union will take her father’s name, especially if that child is male.

If a woman is not married by age 30, she is generally considered unmarriageable and will remain single for the rest of her life. A divorced woman stands little chance at remarriage, no matter what age. If a man is unmarried by that age he is under constant pressure to do so. Gary, at 32, routinely fends off his relatives, pleading business concerns and a recently broken heart. Being as his business is doing so much to support the family financially his marital status is excused but the family tortures him at every occasion nonetheless.

Daisy, one of my colleagues (See Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse entry posted June of last year) is unattached and 28 years old. She badly wants a boyfriend and would love to get married. Her family is going to great lengths to ‘make an honest woman out of her’. She had a boyfriend earlier this year, introduced to her by another colleague but it didn’t play out. She wants me to introduce her to Gary. I thought about it but decided it wouldn’t be wise on my part. What if it didn’t work out?


I cannot comment on the role of sex in relationships because talking about sex is not done openly here, as it is in the States. I can attest that sex happens and, as I am given to understand it does not play the same role in the relationship as it does in the west. Here, relationships seem built more on the idea of companionship.


One could describe China’s love, dating, courtship and marriage rituals as archaic as best. Imagine love in the ‘40’s in America, add a double dose of tradition and you’ll have the way things go around here.

As I write this entry I keep thinking of more things to talk about, but I’m already running a bit long. So, in parting I will talk about Martin, a sophomore who lives with his girlfriend off campus, without his parents’ knowledge. And Tony, who has a lovely young woman named Joanna to share life with, but they live in their dormitories and do not put on public displays of affection. Nor to they do everything together or make each other the center of their lives. There’s Stephanie, whose boyfriend had a previous lover. She cannot stand the idea that he is not a virgin and is considering breaking up with him because of it.

Love, sex, marriage, tradition… what a salad! What is going to change? What will prevail? Things are changing so fast I can’t begin to tell you. I will wager that Zhanni will ask about boyfriends again next time I see her.

Wanna bet?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Great Baby Race

In America, my son Darrell and beloved Samantha await the arrival of their little bundle of joy, scheduled for early next month. In China, Chris and Julia, both teachers at this school and good friends of mine also anticipate the coming of their child. I am caught in the middle: In body with my Chinese friends and in spirit with my son.

The Great Baby Race is ON! Who will make it to the delivery room first?

Sam’s due date it the 11th of April, as is Julia’s. If I were a betting woman I’d bet on Julia. Not that I have anything against Sam’s ability to labor or Baby Ben’s desire to enter the world, but only because I know how each of these countries handle the birthing process.

Sam and Darrell will most likely welcome Ben in a birthing suite, using natural methods. Julia will be scheduled for a C-section. Chris will not be present in the operating theater. Believe it or not, more than 70% of the women in China deliver under anesthesia. According to Sam (the Chinese one, not the one who is currently incubating my newest grandchild) it is because they choose that method, but I’ve also read that most obstetricians choose it for their patients due to hygiene concerns and possible infections. Also, the doctor can make more money performing a C-section than assisting in a natural birth.

And here I was wondering how Chinese women stay so slim-hipped!

After delivery, Darrell, Sam and Baby will spend a total of one night in the hospital. Just long enough to make sure mother and child are healthy and well. Julia will spend a week to 10 days in the hospital recovering from surgery. She will not be allowed to handle her baby during that time as it might prove too stressful on her incision.

Darrell and Sam will have insurance and payment information paperwork to deal with prior to hospital admittance. Chris and Julia will not be allowed to leave the hospital unless their bill is paid. That would be about 8,000Yuan IF it is a simple procedure with no complications.

Once home, Darrell and Sam will go out of their way to make sure their baby has a sanitary environment. They’ve already banned Zeva, Kitty and Marley, their furry children from the nursery. They have plenty of hand sanitizer around and plenty of soap and lotion to keep their hands clean and soft. Any and all relatives will have to be disease free and wash their hands before holding Little Ben.

Chris and Julia, six months proud owners of a brand new apartment in the same complex I live in, have yet to move in. The smells and toxins of the new building might prove too harmful for Baby. They are still living in their 5th floor walkup over Snack Street (see Strange Superstitions, Odd Suppositions entry, posted December 2011) Whether they will take possession of their new apartment once the baby arrives is not known. If the fumes are too toxic during pregnancy, there is no telling at what point they will be safe for Mom and Baby.

Sam will not doubt want a shower as soon as she gets home. She is a beautiful girl, meticulous about her grooming. She likes to be clean and feel good. She glories in her healthy head of hair (she has BEAUTIFUL hair!).

Julia will not be allowed to wash her hair for one month after delivering. It is said/thought that the head is the ‘entry point’ of the Qi (pronounced ‘tchee’), the life force that animates us all. To wash a woman’s head that just gave birth could incur a possible disruption of the Qi, causing all manner of infirmity or imbalance.

Sam has the option to breastfeed or not. Quite frankly, I’m not sure which she chooses. Julia’s only choice will be between the left and right breasts for the first 3 months of her baby’s life. There is no formula geared toward newborns however, there are formulas available for babies 3 months old and up – traditionally the time mothers return to work.

At 3 months old Sam and Darrell may introduce cereal into Baby Ben’s diet, if he is a particularly sturdy, hungry baby. Shortly after that, they can give him some pureed fruit. By the time Chris and Julia’s baby is three months old he or she will have already tasted soft boiled eggs, mashed fruits, potatoes, rice porridge and will be starting on vegetables. There is no such thing as prepared baby food here. Babies eat what people with fully developed digestive systems eat, just in softer form and no spices added.

At one month old, the fine down on Baby Ben’s head will just be falling out, making way for that ultra smooth silk babies’ heads naturally sprout. At that same anniversary, Chris and Julia will welcome all of the relations on both sides of the family to ritually shave their baby’s head. That ritual, done for luck and blessings will be the first access the extended family has to that baby. Over here, there is no such thing as a stampede of friends and family coming to call for the first month of baby’s life.

Sam and Darrell have long known they are welcoming a son. They have decorated their nursery accordingly and have chosen a name that is unique within both families, yet honors both sides. Chris and Julia are forbidden by law from knowing the sex of their child in order to prevent a gender-preference decision to abort. Traditionally the oldest relative from either side of the family will name the child. More recently parents have lifted that particular corner of the tradition veil, choosing to name the child themselves. More often than not, Chinese babies are nameless for the first few days of their lives, sometimes up to that first month when relatives come to call.

Sam and Darrell have enjoyed a baby shower or two. Thank you to everyone who has plied my son’s family with gifts, especially if that gift is diapers – one of the most costly aspects of having a new baby around. Chris and Julia will not have to worry about that cost. Pretty much from birth on the baby starts his/her potty training, as described in More Chinese Idiosyncrasies entry, posted December 2010.

Another cost Chris and Julia will not suffer is daycare. Once maternity leave is over, either Julia’s or Chris’ mother will move in and take over childcare. The new parents’ only cost will be supporting their parent. In some cases the baby is taken to the grandparents’ home, sometimes as far as two hours away, meaning the new parents only get to see their baby on occasion: if they travel or the custodial grandparent travels. Darrell and Sam will have childcare costs to worry about when Ben turns about 6 months old. Sam’s paid maternity leave ends after twelve weeks. Darrell is entitled to paid paternity leave. He plans on taking his leave after Sam has exhausted her entitlement, thus extending Ben’s time in his home environment.

Chris and Julia are also entitled to parental leave, but theirs is not a paid leave. The longer they stay gone, the less their annual salary. With childcare so handy and them living so close to the school, Julia may well return to work after that initial month and just take advantage of ‘milk leave’. That strange but aptly named leave is the extra hour a day of paid time a new mother in China is entitled to stay at home from work to feed her baby. For obvious reasons, Chris is not entitled to ‘milk leave’.

And so the Great Baby Race is on! Who will deliver first? Whose baby will have more advantages? Whose baby will… pardon the pun… come out ahead???

Please forgive me for that last. I blame it on New Grandmother Fever.