Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tenth Anniversary Doings

This whole week our campus has bustled with 10th Anniversary doings. I’ve already told you about the preparations in the Ten Years Ago entry. Now I share with you the goings-on.

Before I go on: it would seem that I would post the two entries relating this event back to back. Because the celebration lasted all weekend, and I was under the misguided impression that the hike that wasn’t a hike was a part of our department’s celebration, I wrote those two entries before I wrote this one. One reason is that, while I did witness the Friday night festivities I did not bring my camera. It does not take such great pictures, being rather old, so I was waiting for some pictures to be posted on the school’s website. I figured I could hijack at least one to share with you.

Because it is so hard to select a single image or two to include with this entry, I offer you the link to the school’s website so that you can see them all. http://www.wpuic.net.cn/info/news/synry/5195.htm

The first picture is the assembled cast minus the Pop Diva, the second one is the Pop Diva and her entourage. The others are of other segments of the show. Some of the acts feature my students! Very exciting for me.

The picture I am including with this entry is one of the many banners strung up all over campus. Of all the pictures I took, I figured I should post the one people who read English can understand! 

On Friday night there was an assemblage of dignitaries that gave speeches, followed by a nice meal. According to Sam, a substantial number of the faculty was there, as well as most of the school’s administrators. Conspicuously absent from the event was Sha-Sha, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. She is now on maternity leave, expecting her baby in 2 months.

The meal was served in the newly completed Teacher’s Cafeteria, just one building down from my apartment. The more senior of the staff enjoyed the fancy, chandelier lit dining room but we teachers dined in private rooms too. The food was fantastic, featuring various meat dishes, in particular one stewed beef dish I would have been happy to slather myself with and lick off, so tasty it was. There was an assortment of vegetable dishes and of course, the requisite fish that most everyone at our table stabbed at repeatedly with their chopsticks, prizing large portions of tender meat.

If I did not eat any fish, how did I know it was tender? By the way people kept dropping chunks of it while ferrying it from the dish to their mouth. Liquor flowed freely during this luncheon and conversation was loud and jocular. Many did not pay attention to how they were eating. Some, either by virtue of laughter or under the influence of alcohol did not have such good control of their chopsticks. By the end of the meal there were dropped morsels all over the place. And on those nice tablecloths, too!

Victor did not come to the celebration and Sam was mostly otherwise engaged, chatting and enjoying himself with his colleagues. I did not feel like a fifth wheel necessarily, but I did wish I understood Chinese better so that I could at least laugh when everyone else did. That is purely my fault. I did enjoy the meal but did not converse much. That suited me fine. I sensed an impending need for quiet time, anyway. As long as everyone else was enjoying themselves… and we did all have a good time, it seems.    

Of course, the highpoint of the celebration would come on Friday night. Man, what a show that was! In spite of the rain…

There was singing and dancing. There was crosstalk and poetry reading. An icon of Chinese pop culture and her entourage made an appearance. She wriggled her scantily clad fanny through two songs, much to the delight of the students, collected an exorbitant fee and promptly left. It was gracious of her to show up at all; most superstars would not bother with an invitation to a tier 3 university, no matter how much he/she would get paid.

The kids had a blast. The stadium was jam-packed, both the stands and the infield area. A curious mannerism of Chinese concertgoers: they do not scream, stomp, clap their hands or whistle. They have these conical, telescoping, light-saber looking devices that they wave back and forth, not in time to the music. I have often alluded to the Chinese lack of rhythm; it is painfully evident when you have an entire stadium of people waving light sabers around in no particular cadence. It is enough to make one seasick, almost. If the stage had not been so well lit, the students waving their multicolored lights would have been quite a spectacle, even out of time. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, their glow was drowned out by the professional light racks illuminating the performers.

Have I told you already what cross-talk is? I believe I have, but I’ll summarize the concept again. Essentially it is a dialog between two or more opposing parties. It is generally meant to be comical but, as with all good comedy, it is rooted in truth. The participants dress in costumes reflecting their stance and their voice takes on the exaggerated tone of either the aggrieved or the champion of the issue being debated.

Although I appreciate the idea of crosstalk and have even made use of the concept in my classes (to great success, I might add), actually watching such a performance is lost to me. I simply do not understand Chinese well enough to catch the subtleties and nuance of the debate. Thus, while all those around me roar with laughter I study my nails and contemplate what color to paint them next.

Same thing with the poetry readings. Usually ten or twelve like-dressed participants stand on stage with binders and microphones, reading this poetry while gentle music plays in the background. Again, I appreciate the cultural significance of the activity but subtleties and nuance escape me.
Unfortunately most of the show comprised of crosstalk, poetry readings and skits. I had better luck understanding the skits because they are acted out. Feeling lost, and without direct companionship anyway, I left in the middle of the show. I did not have any bad feeling about it. I just didn’t feel up to watching a show I could not understand for the most part. Besides, it had started raining again.

I left the kids to their revelry and enjoyed the whisper of rainfall on the landscape.

At 10PM, once I heard the fireworks start I headed to the roof of my building. Now there was a spectacle I could enjoy! A full 20 minutes worth: reds, greens, purples! Loud bangs and ominous pops, each one promising a burst orchestrated to visually stun. Watching it from the solitude of my perch made the display more enjoyable instead of less.

Again I sensed I was entering a period of needed downtime. This whole week had a frenzied feel to it, with one whirlwind of activity after the other. Walking back down the 6 flights of stairs to my apartment I did not reflect on the day, the show, the fireworks or the kids enjoying themselves. My thoughts were more inward and self-involved: I conclusively proved that, besides the mostly absent Victor I was the only tenant in this building and, I had roof access. Not a bad deal.

I am proud to be a teacher at this school, and I am proud to have witnessed, at least in part, the celebration commemorating it. Now I should go home and recharge my batteries.          

KTV: The All-Chinese Pastime

In larger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, nightclubs and discos flourish. Wuhan is not a small city per se but here, nighttime entertainment consists of KTV. Daytime entertainment too, for that matter. I’ve explained the genesis and mechanics in the entry KTV, Then and Now posted February of last year. With Ms. C. and her friends was the first time I experienced KTV with adults instead of college kids. It was not as innocent an activity.

While still at the dinner table, and not too well focused by virtue of alcohol consumption, all members of the dinner party agreed that prolonging the evening would not be a good idea. It was already 8PM. People had jobs to go to the next morning and Ms. C.’s son, who had been with us all day, had to go to school. Our party included another woman whose daughter, only 9 years old, also had school the next day.

I was secretly relieved that the day was coming to an end. I have no idea how much was spent on the two extravagant meals, the rented car, and the liquor that flowed so freely. I imagined it was a substantial sum, maybe even into the thousands range. That made me uncomfortable, especially knowing that the entire outing had been designed and planned to impress me. Being underdressed for the occasion didn’t help, although no one said anything about my attire and everyone accepted me just fine.

The whole day was too rich for my blood, even though I spent no money whatsoever. I prefer quiet, low key pursuits and one on one, or at least small group activities. That is why I felt I was in over my head. I was ready to get back to my quiet little house and read a book or watch a movie. 

However, after purging herself of most of the alcohol and all of the food in her system, Ms. C. was open to the suggestion of finishing the night out at KTV. Suddenly, so were most of the others in our party. It seems they reversed their position as soon as Ms. C. did. My vote didn’t count. I was the honored guest. I was to go along with everything. And so it came to be that our cars caravanned to the local KTV.

I still couldn’t tell you where ‘local’ was. We started at the school and went to Hanyang, a place I am very familiar with. Somehow Ms. C. held the opinion that, even after 2 years of living in Wuhan I still wasn’t getting out much and had no idea where anything was at. I didn’t correct her impression. That would have been rude. From Hanyang we traveled out to the countryside. That was when I declared myself truly lost.

The point of this entry was finishing the night at KTV, not whether I had my bearings. Which, in fact I did, having only slowly consumed two glasses of wine with lunch and one small glass of bai jiu at dinner. Everyone else was pretty much toasted, except for the Audi driver and the kids. This merry band stumbled into the extra fancy KTV lounge.

That is where things took an uncomfortable turn. There was some groping and passionate kissing going on. I was not a part of it and neither were the kids. We were just witnesses. I can’t imagine their level of comfort or even if they were uncomfortable witnessing adult behaviors such as drinking to excess and scenes with sexual overtones.

It really wasn’t a sleazy scene going on in our KTV room. Just occasionally a male hand found a female breast and once, Ms. C. and her male friend kissed passionately. Everyone kept all their clothes on. By American standards, the goings-on in our room were tame.

We all took turns singing, we danced, drank some more – beer, this time, and we had a chaperone or two. One of the KTV employees, dressed in a ‘naughty schoolgirl’ uniform – short plaid skirt, white blouse, knee socks and patent leather shoes, functioned as DJ. Another employee of the establishment, in orange pants and a tee-shirt, and carrying a walkie-talkie radio joined us when duty didn’t call her away. She was also kissed and groped by the other man in our party.

I was decidedly out of my element. Not only do I prefer less profligate doings but I am, and have always been uncomfortable in group adult situations. Not that I’m a prude or that I’m unknowing about what goes on in the adult world. I would just rather not be a witness to it. And, if I am to partake of adult behavior I’d just as soon there were no one else in the room with me and my partner, especially not children under the age of fourteen.

This was an interesting glimpse into the world of China’s nouveau riche. There seemed to be a manic fervor to the whole day, as though by sheer force of will and with enough money spent a good time could be had. The food, the drinking, the activities and the physical intimacy, what there was of it almost seemed contrived. Maybe that was why I didn’t really relax or feel like myself during the whole day.

I did not get ignored in favor of physical intimacy at KTV. I joined in on the toasts, personal and group. I was invited repeatedly to sing, even though I sang in English and everyone else sang songs in Chinese. I was invited to dance and even danced by myself occasionally.

The dancing was another sore point for me. Remember when I told you Chinese music seems atonal and arrhythmic? The Chinese are used to that sort of arrhythmia and their dancing reflects it. I, having always been tall, do not take kindly to being led while dancing. The men kept trying to lead me out of time to the music that I kept stepping in time to. It took a while to allow them to lead me in their syncopated choreography. That was two strikes against my dancing efforts. Again, I did not get ignored, I just didn’t fare well in this portion of the day’s activities.

Thankfully they ended soon enough. I stopped looking at the clock when we went into our KTV room and didn’t look at it again until we were in the car, on the way home at a little after 11PM. Seeing as our dinner at the converted greenhouse finished a little after 8PM, I concluded we spent nearly 3 hours in our KTV booth.

I felt bad for the kids who were along with us on the whole outing. Not only must they have been confounded at the complex undertones of the day but they must have been exhausted from participating it all. And they had school the next day.

My suspicion about the car and driver being rented for the day was finally confirmed at the end of the night, when we dropped Ms. C and her son off first. A few hugs and a sincere testimonial on my part to the good time we had, and she made her way unsteadily to her apartment, her son propping her up. Her male friend and I got back in the car and the driver dropped me off next. I’m not sure if I committed another social faux pas by not getting in the back seat with him once there was room available but I don’t think it mattered seeing as he was either drunk or very tired. He promptly fell asleep. The driver and I rode along in silence.

The next words I spoke were to give instructions on where to drop me off. I elected to walk along The Street and across campus, rather than to trouble him into driving me right to my door. Ms. C.’s friend woke up long enough to wish me goodnight and shake my hand, and then he crawled back into the car and fell asleep. The driver opened the trunk, gave me a case of what I thought was tea but turned out to be lotus soup and wished me good night.

By the time I got to my apartment I had such a terrible headache I could barely turn my head. Without turning on any lights I made my way through the house, shedding clothing and closing drapes. Still in the dark, I took 3 Tylenol, washed my face and went to bed. As I was falling asleep I reflected on the day’s events. Missing from my homecoming was the warm glow of a day spent in convivial company, as is usual when I go out with friends. What I felt was a relief that it was all over.

That, and the monster headache.                

The Hike That Wasn’t a Hike

Social Etiquette Rule #1: Always Overdress. People in China, especially women, overdress for every occasion, unless they are toiling in the fields. For train travel, for work, for class (teachers and students, not societal class), for a walk down the boulevard, you will see women in fashionable clothing, mostly dresses and always in heels.

Social Faux Pas #1: I dressed for a hike. I was told it was a hike up a mountain, so I dressed accordingly: in lightweight capris, a tee-shirt and good, sturdy shoes. I’ll tell you what we actually did a few paragraphs down.

Social Etiquette Rule #2: Always bring a small but significant gift for your hostess. While she may insist that you need bring nothing, at the very least a bottle of wine or a gift of food is expected.

Social Faux Pas #2: I did not bring a gift. I had very good reason to not do so. I was given the impression that this was to be a social function of our department and, seeing as I didn’t know how many people would go or even if anybody who outranks Ms. C. professionally would be going along, I reasoned no gifts were necessary.

Social Etiquette Rule #3: Always Agree. Once invited, you must realize that the whole occasion is planned to impress and please you. Lavishing compliments is the norm, whether you feel like you’re in over your head or not. (What do I mean by that? You’ll find out.) You, the guest, should enthusiastically agree to anything that is suggested because the entire outing was planned around what you presumably like or want.

Social Faux Pas #3: When taken to a very fancy restaurant prior to what I presumed was going to be a hike, Ms. C. declared that she had chosen that restaurant for us to lunch at so I could eat Western food that, surely, I must be longing for. Although everything looked and smelled wonderful, I completely forgot my manners and told her I actually prefer eating Chinese food. We went to an equally lavish restaurant next door, where a wedding was taking place, to eat Chinese food. We did not crash the wedding. We lunched in a private dining room on the second floor.

So here I am, lagging behind Ms. C who is dressed in finery and accompanied by her friends, grousing and grilling myself at the monstrous social faux pas I’ve already committed. With 3 of them under my belt right off the bat, I was determined to not make another. That is how I came to eat fish, even though I detest and cannot stomach even the smell of seafood.

Let’s rewind.

The invitation was to go hiking on Sunday. It was extended by the English Department’s assistant Dean and the implication was that many teachers from our department would go. I agreed to the outing enthusiastically. All of the teachers have been so busy this year that we’ve hardly had a chance to socialize. A nice hike, perhaps followed by a good meal was the impression created. That is not at all what happened.

Ms. C. and I agreed to meet at the school gate and there is where we did meet. She arrived in a black Audi sedan. That was shocker #1, and my first clue that this would be more than a hike with colleagues. The finery she was attired in was clue #2.     

Black Audis are not so uncommon in China, but owning one on a teacher’s salary is. Perhaps her husband is well situated. I looked at the man piloting the vehicle. He was dressed only average, in jeans and a Polo shirt. He seemed hardly a man that would earn the money required to buy and maintain such an expensive car. He also did not seem the type of man that Ms. C would be married to. He didn’t seem eminent enough. I suspected that the car and driver were rented for the day, another clue that this outing was designed to impress. It is not uncommon to rent a car with driver for such occasions. However, Ms. C. acted as though the man driving were her husband, to an extent: her son was in the car and the man addressed him as though familiar with him. She conversed with the driver vivaciously, directed him where to go and even handing her cellphone over to talk with someone.

That ‘someone’ turned out to be a friend of hers who would be joining us on the outing. While I was under the impression that the driver of the car was her husband I thought it was a friend of the family we were picking up, especially since the driver got out of the car to cordially greet our newcomer. Operating under that assumption, I was a bit surprised when I turned around to find Ms. C. with her hand on his knee and his hand covering hers. That was my second clue that the car and driver might be a rental. But the driver did join us for this lavish luncheon and sat next to her son. Also, he joined us for the dinner we partook of 4 hours later and again sat next to the boy. He just didn’t talk much. The child didn’t talk at all. Again, the relationship between him and Ms. C. came into question. Ms. C and her son barely interacted at all.  

Sometimes, context clues are just not enough.

The food! No less than thirteen dishes crowded the lazy susan. Glutinous rice balls, beef with vegetables, pork knuckles in stewed sauce, 4 different vegetable dishes, salad, a succulent stewed pork with robin eggs and more. Of course, no Chinese meal is complete without a fish. A whole fish: head, eyeballs, fins and all. There was also crispy-fried glutinous rice snacks, a traditional snack that resembles pancakes, and fruit for dessert. I was never more glad to see a plate of watermelon in my life. It signified the end of the meal. The food was far richer fare than what I am used to, but delicious nonetheless. Even the fish did not taste bad. Remember: I had already committed 3 social faux pas. I was not going to admit I loathe fish. So I was stuck eating a generous portion of fish that was placed in my bowl.  

The eating was convivial, the chatter much. More of Ms. C.’s friends – two women, one with her daughter, had joined us. All were interested in the foreigner. Especially my hostess’ male friend, who asked me what I thought of him. Being as I had only just met him I did not have long to formulate an opinion but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Regardless of what I thought, I was supposed to compliment. I did.

Hopefully, after this sumptuous meal we would go hiking. After an hour’s car ride and meeting several of the friend’s friends, we did. But first, we toured a movie studio set way out in the country. That was pretty cool.

The hike itself was halfway up a hill that had the temerity to call itself a mountain. I never broke a sweat, so gentle was the slope. The other women on the outing were nearly undone by the effort. I suppose I would be too if I walked up an incline in heels, holding a parasol. Ms. C.’s friend – that man who, even now remains nameless was dripping with perspiration and called for an early descent before we climbed even halfway up. I was a bit disappointed about that but did not let it show.

Once back to where the cars were parked it was time to go eat again. Not by my stomach’s calculations! A mere 3 hours prior we had pushed ourselves away from one table groaning with food. Now we were headed to another?

This one was in a converted greenhouse, way out in the country. Its specialties were all things seafood: fish stew, fish flavored rice balls, whole frogs sautéed with vegetables, calamari, clams, and, of course, a whole fish, head and all. A token nod to other poor creatures cooked whole: quail, served from beak to foot, duck, complete with bill, a turtle, recognizable by its shell, and the requisite vegetables. I stuck to the vegetables.

Again our driver joined us for the meal and acted as host. As with lunch, liquor flowed freely. This time we were joined not just by the party whom we lunched with but by 3 other men, employees of Ms. C.’s friend. Bai jiu, that clear liquor akin to moonshine was liberally dispensed. Having learned the art of drinking bai jiu from prior experience with the beverage, I have to admit that I committed a fourth social faux pas by not downing a whole glass at a time with each toast given. Instead of chugging I sipped. I was forgiven this transgression because I am a foreigner.

Ms. C would not have been forgiven, and our car’s driver, acting as host, had filled her glass to capacity. By the end of the meal she was decidedly three sheets to the wind and promptly retired to the ladies’ room to throw up.  

I figured that would be the end of the festivities. We went to sing KTV instead. More on that next post.               

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Coolest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In

It is my bed, the same bed I’ve slept in since I’ve been here. The same bed that horrified me with the condition of the mattress (see Welcome Home entry, posted September 2010).

It doesn’t have a new mattress or box spring. The frame, headboard and footboard are the same as when I first came here. It has not been moved to any particular location since I moved it from the large room to the smaller one a few months back. Reasoning that I only need a bedroom to sleep in, I decided to use the larger, sun-filled room as my office and the shaded, smaller room as a bedroom. That turned out to be a really good idea because my space heater heated the small room efficiently and I did sleep very well this winter.

What makes my bed so cool now, when it is the same bed that I had to resign myself to sleeping in when I first got here?

I’ve always wanted a Lawrence of Arabia, Princess Style bed, complete with draped veils. I now have it, for a wholly practical reason. I got tired of being dinner. More specifically, being woken up to be dinner.

The mosquitoes here are fierce, and when they bite it hurts badly enough to wake me up from a sound sleep. Lately I have been so attuned to mosquitoes biting that I wake up when I hear a mosquito whine in preparation of biting.

Sure I’m burning a mosquito coil in the evening, which does a great job of disturbing mosquito central nervous systems. Instead of biting, they fly into walls and crash land. Each morning I have to sweep up mosquito carcasses (?) all over the house but apparently China has an unlimited supply of mosquitoes. Once the mosquito coil burns itself out and the fumes dissipate those flying pests rule the day once more. From about 5AM on I can forget getting any decent sleep. Unless I’m covered head to toe, I will be bitten. Even covered up I’ve been bitten.

I can’t stand to have my face covered up. So, I’m constantly slapping myself in my half sleep, trying to discourage mosquitoes from sucking my blood and possibly giving me dengue fever or some other such disease.

No, things can’t go on this way. To thwart these pesky mosquitoes I bought a tent-like net for my bed. It tucks under my mattress and soars to a height of 1.5 meters. I have plenty of room to sit up, stretch or anything I need to do. I can now sit in bed and watch the mosquitoes get frustrated at smelling dinner but not being able to reach it.

As you know from the Babies, Here and There post a few entries back I had bought a mosquito net but it was too small for my bed. The new one is the perfect size but required an engineering degree to understand how to install it. It was a frustrating 3 hours, well spent. I now have a cool looking bed where mosquitoes cannot bite me.

However, it does have its disadvantages. Imagine having to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. And, I can’t sit on my bed or throw clothes on it anymore. One thing I really miss is throwing up my arms to open my drapes first thing upon waking – as you can see, my window is right behind the headboard.

It is still the coolest bed I’ve ever slept in. Now I’m sleeping particularly well, knowing I’m not going to get a dreaded, mosquito borne disease. And my face is not sore from having to slap myself.

UPDATE: Sam has conveyed the school’s intention of installing bug screens on all my windows. When, I don’t know. Still: YAY! Maybe that will help cut down on some of these mosquitoes.

Now, just one question remains: do mosquitoes have/leave carcasses?

Ten Years Ago

There is an electric vibe on campus these days, and it has nothing to do with impending year end.

Maintenance is working double and triple time. The whole campus is festooned with banners and streamers. The student clubs are scurrying about, doing their part: cleaning up billboard cabinets and trash cans, scraping old postings off bulletin boards. The broom wielding women are cleaning the streets up as they’ve not been cleaned in a long time. Landscapers are meticulously pruning trees and trimming bushes. In the evening, they are watering the flowers and greenery areas. Even the basketball and badminton courts got new nets. Painters are touching up light posts.

The sports complex grounds, under water just last week from excessive rain have been dried out to make way for the giant stage being built. Today contractors started rigging up lights and bringing in sound systems.

Yes, the excitement is palpable.

Ten years ago this week, our school opened for business. The campus consisted of Teaching Buildings 1 and 2, the Machine Shop building, two dorms – one for boys and the other for girls and one administration building. All of these surrounded the small park that I used to look out at wistfully come nightfall when I first came here. Beyond the administration building was open country. Well, farmed country.  

The Street was nothing but a dirt road. Here and there a shop or two catered to the neighborhood. There were only a few restaurants and no street vendors to speak of. The old way of life in China prevailed.

Nowadays The Street is an asphalted two lane road. Shops and restaurants line the sidewalks, themselves filled with meanderers young and old, some native to the neighborhood and some only collegiately transient. The trees, planted just last year give The Street the appearance of timelessness, as though it has always been this way.

Campus has grown from the original 6 buildings to a total of 5 teaching buildings, ten dorm buildings, 4 landscaped parks/nature areas, 2 ponds, 2 sportsplexes, 2 dining halls, 2 outdoors basketball areas, ten tennis courts, ten badminton courts, 5 volleyball courts, a library and gym just completed this year, a living complex for the teachers where I am proud to hang my hat, a teacher activity center… and more to come. Enrollment has grown from those first few hundred admittances to swell into the tens of thousands.   

This week marks our school’s ten year anniversary. My friends, the event will be celebrated in gala fashion. I’m proud to be a part of it, and I’m proud to be your eyes and ears for this event.

Don’t worry: you won’t miss a thing. As it happens, I will record it and tell you all about it. It will almost be like you are right here, with us, celebrating, reveling and being regaled.

Happy Birthday to Wuchang Institute of Technology!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In My Lifetime

I must have a ponderous mindset this week. I think it is due, in part, to a conversation I was having via email with a friend. Among other things, he maintains that feminists have really messed up things for intergender relationships. Nowadays women don’t even want protecting, he says. And then there are those who bristle at car doors being opened for them, meals being bought for them, other small courtesies paid to women exclusively based on their gender. His most inflammatory remark may well have been that women don’t want to be protected or taken care of anymore.

This blog does not, and has never aspired to be political in nature. However, in examining social mores on both continents, sometimes I do have to put aside my desire to project light-hearted humor, roll up my sleeves and get serious about some of this reporting. This is one of those times.

In my lifetime, I informed my friend, I have witnessed great strides toward leveling the playing field between the genders. At one time, not so long ago, women had to get permission from their husband in order to work, to have their own bank account and/or credit card, get a driver’s license and have surgery. I know this because when I set out to do those things I met with that implacable resistance. I had to ask my husband for a note allowing me to open my own bank account, and that after having to obtain written permission to work. I gave up on the credit card. I didn’t want to shame myself by having to write out a third note for my all-powerful, favor-dispensing husband to sign that would allow me to have the same privileges he, and all other men enjoyed by virtue of having been born anatomically correct for those rights.

Throughout history and throughout the world, women have been consistently granted less privilege, less power and fewer rights across the board. To this day, statistically, men outearn women in like job fields, are granted better promotions and enjoy greater social privilege and status. A great case in point is a man who enjoys the company of younger women. Such a man is called a stud and is hailed as a hero among his brethren. A woman in a similar position, enjoying the company of younger men is called a cougar: a predator, sleek, devious, preying on the unsuspecting. Cougars tend to be ridiculed. Studs are applauded and desired.

In this allegedly classless society I am now a part of, there is supposedly no distinction made between men and women. During the Great Leap Forward, both men and women were beaten and tortured with equal fervor. Both men and women were sent far away from home and family to work in fields for ‘correction’. Both men and women did whatever work the government assigned them. And the government assigned work gender indiscriminately.

Both men and women wore traditional cotton clothing, what was referred to in the west as ‘pajamas’ but were really styled after clothing of the Tang dynasty. The material was cotton, either dark blue or olive drab green, the cut and style boxy and unisex. Shoes were equally drab and unisex. Both men and women took part in kitchen activities: cooking, cleaning and serving food from communal tents. To my knowledge, women were not allowed a single feminine concession: long hair. I believe that that decision was later reversed, mainly from watching films of that era. I have no firsthand account of such a reversal.

Prior to The Great Leap Forward women were indeed second class citizens. Valuable only as slaves or chattel, most times if a family had enough girls to serve their needs they either abandoned female babies or killed them outright. Females did not have the right to an education but they were expected to marry well and serve their husband and his family with devotion and care. Rare was the woman who worked in a factory and even more uncommon was a female in any type of civil service position, let alone a government position. However, they were allowed to work in their husbands’ shops or concerns, and some could infiltrate higher social order positions in the role of concubine.  

Mao Ze Dong was in fact a champion of sorts for women’s rights. He decreed that females would be entitled to at least a high school education, alongside males. He put women in the workforce where, traditionally no woman had ever worked. Most importantly, he abolished the practice of concubines. That was really ironic, seeing as he had no less than 4 mistresses, and a wife.

What has happened to women’s rights in China since his demise?

Around the same time I was forced to obtain my husband’s permission in writing to open my own bank account, in the early 1980’s, baby girls were still being stoned, drowned or aborted in the desire for male heir, here in China. At the onset of the One Child Policy, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiao Ping initiated what is called the Spring Blossom Project. I’ve made reference to it before in the Tulip entry, posted December 2010. It entails financial and other incentives for parents of baby girls. Another protection for females, albeit indirect, later followed with the interdiction of gender based abortions. Doctors do perform ultrasounds and amniocentesis to test for any genetic or health concerns, thus they know the sex of the baby. To this day they are forbidden by law to divulge that information to the parents.

So that takes care of females, both in the womb and up to eighteen years out of it. Beyond that…          

I have personally witnessed women working in construction and factories, in agriculture (as farmers in the fields and at the markets), in white collar work such as banking, the tourism and hospitality industries and in government positions such as: police, military and civil workers. Of course, in academic fields too. Shopping malls are lousy with female sales clerks. Women are even politically active and hold high office, although currently all the national political positions are filled by men.

I daresay that, in China, there are very few professional fields that women are not a part of. Granted, in some fields the ratio of men to women might be larger – in the mining or construction industries, for example, while in others, such as the academic field or hospitality industry women outnumber men.

Whether China has an equivalent to America’s Affirmative Action program, and whether the women in any given field earn pay equal to men’s is unknown to me. I would have to do much more extensive research to report accurately on that. What I can tell you with a degree of certainty is that there is and never was a Women’s Movement here, and no one woman or small group of women had to go out on a limb to demand equal treatment, equal rights, suffrage or anything else for all women.

While presenting my perspective on feminists’ actions to my dear male friend in that email exchange, I had to admit I got a little hot under the collar recalling the humiliation of being asked how many days off I would need each month for my period by one prospective employer. Or having the note that I composed for my husband to sign being challenged at the bank because my handwriting did not match his signature. They thought I had forged the note. I kind of had to: my former husband was, and to my knowledge still is functionally illiterate.

For some reason, it makes me even more indignant that it was he who had to give dispensation for my actions when he wasn’t even capable of spelling ‘dispensation’.

I am not the only woman who endured such degradations. This type of discrimination has gone on for centuries and slowly, by the efforts of those random Margaret Sangers, Gloria Steinems, indeed even those Betsy Rosses and (who petitioned for suffrage?) throughout history it all turned around and slowly, oh so slowly, women have come to enjoy equal rights, and privileges nearly equal to men.

I am afraid that the girls of today, who, for the most part aren’t even aware of how their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had to live with ‘home-corrections’, swallow the humiliation of being handed an allowance and having to ask permission to do something as personal as a day surgery procedure simply accept equal rights as their due.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I can’t decide. Maybe I should have another conversation with Mandy and Yolanda, those two girls who averred they are not, and will never be mentioned by name in their family’s history (see No Girls Allowed entry, posted April of last year). They never batted an eye, felt no outrage and accepted their exclusion on the basis of tradition.   

I did tell my dear friend that, if women have worked so hard to level the playing field, even resorting to extreme tactics such as far-right feminism, how is it women’s fault that men have not adapted to gender equality? He, being generally fair-minded, conceded my point. What a great friend!             

Babies, Here and There

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Julia and Chris, the young couple who raced my own Darrell and Sam to the delivery room (See The Great Baby Race entry, posted last month). This was my first time seeing Julia since her confinement and the first time laying eyes on their baby, Tian-Tian. I have seen Chris in the interval; he is already back to work. He has shown me pictures of his baby but nothing could have prepared me for the breathless beauty of their child.

Before I actually beheld him, Julia met me at the door, clinging tightly to me. I hugged just as fast. I suspect she sees me as more than just a good friend and confidante. I certainly feel a maternal protectiveness and love toward her. Chris looked on until I snaked an arm away from his wife to include him into the embrace. We stood that way for a while. Before letting go, I rained kisses on both their heads. They are truly precious to me.

From there the afternoon progressed: holding and caring for the baby, talking girly stuff (or, if you will, mother-daughter stuff) with Julia while Chris divided his attention between helping his mother in the kitchen and helping Julia with the baby. Not put out or put upon at all is Young Chris by this double duty. He would gladly do this and more, so deep is his love for his wife and his commitment to his family. He is a fine young man, and he helped host a pleasant evening.

This entry would have gone much differently had I not paid a rare visit to Starbucks today. The steadily falling rain, coupled with a lack of internet connection at home (again!) drove me out of the house for fear that boredom and melancholy would engulf me, should I stay. I would rather visit any other café than that franchise but I had to exchange a mosquito netting tent I had bought for my bed at Walmart, and, here in China where there is a Walmart invariably there is a Starbucks.

There is also a McDonald’s, but their chairs are not conducive to curling up with a good book and whiling away the afternoon, sipping tea and reading. Furthermore, why would I want to eat anything from McDonald’s, when I can get a Chicken César wrap and a cup of tea from Starbucks? A little more expensive but much better tasting, and with comfortable chairs.

After assuring my patronage by plunking down nearly 50Yuan for the above mentioned treats I selected a comfortable seat across from two computer jockeys facing their laptops. They confirmed those chairs were vacant and invited me to sit. Perhaps they were reassured by my supposed inability to understand anything they say, them being Chinese and their mouths set to rapid-fire speaking mode. I didn’t care to eavesdrop anyway.

Across the aisle, in a large group seating section were three mothers who were Caucasian. Each had a toddler playing around, thus occupying the whole area. They did not visibly acknowledge my presence, just as I did not try to connect with them. Foreigners in China have a strange habit of ignoring one another, presumably so that their own ‘authentic Chinese experience’ does not get tainted. Yes, even at Starbucks, foreigners tend to not mingle.

Getting comfortable, I pulled out my phone to answer a few text messages. While doing so I noticed one of the babies from across the aisle ogling me. I smiled and waved at Little Mr. Baby. He smiled back, cute little guy that he was. I smiled again, waved again and said “Hi, Baby!” Delighted with this new game, my little friend widened his smile.

We could have played on forever had I not glanced up, still smiling, and caught the young mother’s baleful eye. Mind you I had not moved from my seat, leaned forward or in any way gotten any closer to her baby. That little tyke had made no move to cross the aisle, had not started crying and had not indicated in any way he was fearful or in danger. I have no idea what that young woman was thinking, but she set my mind to thinking… thus the tone of this entry.   

Let’s be perfectly objective here: I am a big woman. At 6 feet tall in my bare feet and weighing in at a solid one hundred ninety pounds, little of it fat, I cut an imposing figure. Some might even say an intimidating figure. Short of the NBA lineup and the mythical Amazon tribe I am bigger than most, on any continent. My hands are big enough to palm a basketball. I already told you about my dauntingly large feet in The Quest for Shoes, way back in August of 2010.

Nevertheless I enjoy being attractive and feminine. I like wearing jewelry and makeup, I enjoy styling my hair and, while I don’t exactly wear clinging, revealing clothing I am easily recognizable as a woman by virtue of my anatomy. However, I am aware that I could easily be mistaken for a man, just for my size. In fact, if I was to wear a bulky jacket, omit the earrings and not dab on the little bit of makeup that I’m never seen without, I would, more often than not be called ‘sir’.

I go to great lengths to minimize my intimidating appearance. I modulate my voice into a softer contralto range, even though, when speaking seriously my voice does tend to dip down into lower registers. Not as far as bass; more like an upper-range tenor. I smile a lot and make eye contact. I use non-aggressive body language. I suppose that is why children of all ages do not perceive me as a threat. Their parents, on the other hand…

No, scratch that. Parents of Chinese children delight when I take any type of notice of their baby. They encourage their offspring to mingle with the tall, smiling stranger. Many invite me to hold their child. Knowing what an honor that is I gladly consent, always. Invariably they will take a picture or 5 of their child, smiling up at the large, foreign stranger who is smiling at him/her.

Parents of Caucasian babies react to me in the exact opposite way. While their children also show no fear and are in fact drawn to me, should I interact with their child they are immediately wary and protective. They admonish their child to ‘not bother’ me and hastily gather their progeny, even when said child cries and resists being forced away from someone they felt drawn to.

I have no idea what quality I possess that draws children to me. And I have no idea what drives parents of Caucasian children to fear and avoid me. I am well aware that there is much written about kidnappings and children being harmed. The list of cautions against strangers wishing to mingle with children is miles long.

Apparently such a list does not exist in China. Not only do I not encounter avoidance when making eye contact with any person who is Chinese and, in fact have to be cautious lest I be embroiled to a greater degree than I wish, but the warmth, sincerity and open respect I enjoy by their treatment leaves me that much more dumbfounded when encountering the blatant iciness of people who are Caucasian.

Here, it is perfectly OK for me to give a small treat to any child I encounter on the street, be it a street I travel often and am well known on or a street in some small village I’m visiting. The parents do not snatch away the goodie to inspect it microscopically later on. More likely, the treat will be preserved as something given by The Foreigner. Stateside, paying attention to someone’s baby without invitation stirs suspicion and giving candy to a child is a social faux pas, indicating anything from possible pedophilia to attempted kidnapping.

Sadly, I admit that it is true: such actions have led to tragedy in the past. The trusting child, unaware that bad people inhabit this world, has reached for that candy and gotten snatched up. Not just in the Western world are kids snatched though. In China children are kidnapped too. So why is the nature of people who are Chinese more open and trusting than that of their counterparts who are Caucasian?

And what is wrong with delighting in the beauty of a child of any race or ethnicity, especially if such delight is manifested from a safe, non-threatening distance?

I would have thought that young mother today would have smiled benevolently at her child who was learning how to be social and meeting not a menacing stranger but one who exhibits only safe, comfortable behaviors from afar. It pains me to think that this innocent child will eventually be stilted and stunted by his parents’ prejudice. Even sadder: he might not be much safer in this world, for all their caution, admonishments and care.  

On the other hand, I did get to hold Tian-Tian again last night, before leaving. Mr. Baby was being a bit fussy. Both parents had told me their little prince was giving them trouble when it came to sleeping. It seems he never wants to. I had an idea that Little Tian-Tian was probably a bit gassy seeing as he is breast fed and does not burp after meals. I demonstrated a way to hold him at a forty five degree angle, all while rocking him on my knees and chattering softly to him. To their surprise and delight, their baby was asleep within 2 minutes. Of course, out came the cameras. Naturally, I smiled my most engaging smile. 

He stirred when I handed him off to Chris, who tried the same technique I had just demonstrated. Tian-Tian fell right back to sleep. Relieved, Julia and Chris bade me farewell and put their baby to bed.

See? Babies love me and I mean them no harm in spite of my imposing figure. Why can’t parents of Caucasian babies realize that?             

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day

Sometimes it is hard to believe how fast time flies. And it does fly,
my friends. Why, just yesterday I was wishing you happy Valentine's
Day, and now we're up to Mother's Day. Soon it will be Father's Day...
How fast it is all going!

The downside to this entry is that it is not composed in a thoughtful
manner, in the peaceful environment of my own home. My internet router
has suddenly decided to stop working, so now I am back to slogging to
the internet cafe. This isn't a long-term thing; I'm hoping the IT
people will be out sometime this week to fix it.

So, no touching, meaningful, thought provoking message here. Just one
simple wish, uttered with sincerity:

Happy Mother's Day to you!

If you don't qualify, please extend this greeting on to someone in
your life who does.

Things That, Even After Two Years I Cannot Get Used To

Even as I sit here, reflecting on how bored I am, I have to ponder on those Chinese customs, traditions and doings that, even 2 years into this gig I simply cannot get used to. But first…

Why am I bored? I’ve got 5 weeks left to teach. Can’t believe how fast the school year went by! I have all my material planned for all the classes I have left. I’ve been pretty much everywhere in and around Wuhan and played all the badminton I want. I can still play more badminton. It is not for lack of players that I don’t play. Usually, if I’m not playing it is because of the weather. I could travel around a bit, go someplace I haven’t been yet, but I’m saving my pennies for my stateside summer adventures. And, there are still buses I haven’t ridden, restaurants I’d like to revisit, friends to go see one more time before I jet out of here.

I remember feeling this way about this time last year. Maybe not bored but… restless would be a better word. After I had bought my plane tickets I was ready to get going. I’m the type of person who, once a plan is in place or a decision has been made waits only for the execution of said plan/decision. Well, that’s actually a misnomer. I DON’T wait. That is in fact my problem. I am not a patient person. If I am called on to wait you will find one impatient, bored Krejados. And that is where I’m at today.

How better to cure boredom than to keep my mind active? In that spirit, let’s revisit some things that, even after all this time living here I simply cannot get used to.

The impromptu way people just drop in. I believe it is just a matter of being a part of the community, or how friendships work over here. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, and even while out with Gary or Ken, dropping in on some poor, unsuspecting friend is modus operandi. Dropping in is perfectly acceptable… to most people. To me, it is still an annoyance.

Dining Protocol: It took me a while to get used to specifics of dining. While dining at a friend’s house one mustn’t finish all the food for fear of showing the hostess to be inhospitable. If there are no leftovers it means the hostess did not provide enough food for her guests. Bad hostess! On the other hand, if you go out to eat you are expected to finish all the food you order, or you request a take-out box. The difference is that you paid for the food in a restaurant and were invited to your friends’ home. Your friend should be compelled to over-serve.

Another interesting take on dining protocol: now that I am familiar with my standard group of friends, like Gary or Sam, dining protocol has changed just slightly. Last time I was at Sam’s house, he and his mother in law cooked a sumptuous dinner. What seemed like midway through it, he got up and went in the living room. And he didn’t come back. Bad enough he was wearing his jammy shirt at the table – something I’m completely unused to, Sam-wise, but leaving the table while Penny, her sister, his sister, brother in law and I are eating?

Later he explained that I am now more than revered guest. I am friend, almost family so he did as he normally would when around his family: he said: “You eat slowly” and got up. I did hear him say that, I just didn’t expect him to get up from the table and leave me at the mercy of his family members, conversing in their regional dialect that I don’t understand.

Chicken heads and feet: No matter how often I encounter it, I simply cannot get used to seeing chicken heads and feet swimming around in my soup. Maybe in time I could make my peace with the feet but the heads, complete with beak and comb are just too much for me to take. I think they will always freak me out. Ditto with buying an uncooked chicken from the market with everything still attached.

Kitchen protocol: People who come to my house wonder if I ever cook anything because my kitchen is clean. By that I mean grease free. Of course I cook. I just clean everything as best I can once the meal is over. I have to season my wok regularly, otherwise it will rust. Because I scrub it, with steel wool if necessary, until no food residue remains. Chinese people do not have to season their wok because it stays oiled from the last meal or dish they cooked. Their method of cleaning a wok is to run it under cold water, swish the spatula around, scrape off remaining bits of food and start cooking again. Cutting boards, cleavers, plates… all receive the same treatment. Dishes are rinsed under cold water before and after use, and are put away wet. I try not to think of this when I enjoy a meal at a friend’s house.

House cleaning: No matter how hard I try, I cannot keep my house clean or dust free. If I dust the table, the cabinet will need to be dusted. If I dust in the living room, all the dust migrates into the dining room. If I dust mop at 9AM, by 10AM it looks like I’ve done nothing. If I’m not dealing with dust I’m dealing with moisture. All winter dust was a problem. Now that spring/summer is here, with its storms and humidity, I have to be careful of excess moisture. My kitchen floor was literally wet the other morning, when I woke up. Unfortunately I had not swept up all the dust the night before. Now my kitchen floor has muddy footprints all over it, and I’ve tracked moisture all over the house. I give up. People who come to my house are just going to have to deal with either dust or moisture. Otherwise, keeping up with it is a full-time, never-ending job.

Fluorescent lights: I am very happy that the Chinese are so environment-conscious. I have an on/off switch for my hot water heater: if I need hot water, I turn the switch on and wait 30 minutes after which I have a whole fifty-four liters of hot water at my disposal. What I can’t get used to is that creepy, bluish fluorescent lighting that lends a stark, daylight realism to everything. All of my overhead lighting is fluorescent and the two lamps I bought also have such light bars. I looked for incandescent lamps, but they are very hard to find. When I look in the mirror (hung at Chinese height), I look like some sort of monster because of that terrible overhead lighting, coupled with the fact that I have to scrunch down to see myself. Wonder if I could get them to rehang the mirror to ‘foreigner height’?           

Being unable to shop: It seems like every day a new shopping center is springing open around town, each one more glitzy than the last. I have a lot of fun discovering these new shopping ventures and then surprising my friends by taking them to places they’ve never been before. What I can’t get used to is not being able to buy anything. Not for lack of money but for lack of things that will fit this giant frame of mine. Giant, by Chinese standards. Here is a good example: hiking boots.

My old hiking boots, bought in the States last summer, are completely sprung. I wonder how many kilometers one has to walk in order to completely wear down the sole of a pair of hiking boots? I thought I would try to replace my hiking boots over here because such stores – outdoor outfitters like camp gear and extreme sports equipment, new passions for the Chinese – are now open almost everywhere. Chinese people are getting larger. Therefore it stands to reason that there might be larger sizes available. No such luck. Where are all the larger Chinese buying their things? Or are they still not as large as I am?

Being stared at: Last year I was (bottle) blond and even uber-blond, and I got stared at A LOT. Carrie Ann told me that, if I went darker, i.e., not blond I probably would not get the attention my blond tresses were garnering. I took her advice to heart. All year I’ve been reddish-brown, and… I STILL get stared at! True: I have explored the Over-the-Wall community and they are all curious about this fearless foreigner who tromps through their neighborhood with impunity, and I have gone other places I’ve never been before, even places where other foreigners frequent. Maybe I just have a complex.

I ponder these things, being as my trip stateside is imminent. Next, maybe I should write about things that, after 2 years I cannot seem to live without? What do you think?   


Moving Day

I could have sworn I’ve written an entry titled so, seeing as I’ve moved, Victor has moved, the English Department offices and others have moved. I went searching in vain for an entry with that title. And then I remembered: I headed the entry chronicling my move Four Carts, Eight People. The assertion I made in the previous post about not suffering memory problems was a bit hasty, it seems.

On the other hand, all is well because now I can title this entry as I have. And, just to ease your mind, it is not me that is moving but Sam.

Sam and Penny own a nice, well appointed apartment about an hour and a half away from our school. The commute it tiring, even more so now that their baby Erica has come back home to live. Till now she had been in the care of one or the other grandparent, over 2 hours away. Her parents only got to see her on holidays, long weekends or when the custodial grandparent came to visit. 

Penny has had enough of spending too much time away from her baby. I can’t blame her. She is also tired of having to commute so long, spend ten hours on her feet nursing people back to health in the hospital she works at and coming home exhausted, only to find her daughter sound asleep. She feels she is missing out on the best part of Erica’s life. Baby Erica being eighteen months old, I have to agree with her.

Penny wanted to move closer to her work. She can’t help that someone else has to care for her child. That is a fact of life when you are a working parent. But the situation is unnecessarily exacerbated by having to spend over 2 hours on the road, getting to and from work. A sensible, logical argument.  

Sam is also tired of the commute and missing his baby, but he is willing to endure it because their apartment is in a quiet, relatively undeveloped part of town and close to his part time teaching job at another university. However, due to Penny’s insistence he too has seen the advantages of moving. He has caught moving fever.

Sam and Penny’s decision prompted me to ask: how does one move in China? No such thing as U-Haul here. Of course, I knew from my own untraditional move that anything can be used, even handcarts and human labor. Occasionally I’ve seen people pushing bicycles laden with everything from beds to refrigerators going down the road. It seems any wheeled conveyance can and will do, come time to move. But what is the norm?

I asked Sam.

Generally, people don’t change addresses very often here. If and when they do feel that compulsion, they generally don’t take everything in the house with them, as is standard in America.

In Sam and Penny’s case, they are leasing their apartment, fully furnished, to her sister and mother who will take care of Erica while her parents work. Sam and Penny are only taking their clothes and a few personal effects, like their wedding album and Baby Erica’s picture album with them. They are moving into a fully furnished apartment, complete with kitchen utensils, dishes, appliances and linens.

In China, when moving it is customary to divest one’s self of just about everything: furniture, appliances, amenities, utensils. Only personal belongings like clothing and books are kept.

A realtor generally manages the move. It is very uncommon to find apartments listed in the paper or online. Those listings are usually only for people who own an apartment and are looking for roommates. One has the choice of leasing a furnished or unfurnished apartment. If it is furnished, the realtor will detail to what degree. Will there be furniture but no appliances? Will there be furniture with appliances but no amenities? What about cooking utensils and linens?

One can rent an apartment that comes complete with dishes, glasses, chopsticks, a wok, a cutting board and meat cleavers. The basic Chinese kitchen does not come equipped with much more than that. The list of appliances might include a refrigerator, a rice cooker and a microwave oven. Again, not much more than that in a traditional Chinese kitchen. A vent hood might already be installed.   

By amenities I mean a hot water heater, heat lamps in the bathroom, whether a gas cooking unit is installed and if so, whether it requires bottled LP gas or if the gas is piped in. Other amenities might include bed linens, extra storage closets and extra light fixtures. Some apartments are nothing more than concrete walls with either laminate or tile flooring. Closets are usually not built in, unless the apartment has been customized. Each room might have an overhead light. Maintenance is counted as an amenity: who changes light bulbs, and that sort of thing.

You might be wondering why I’m so explicit about the cooking unit. Some apartments do not have any means of cooking anything. The tenant has to buy a one– or two-burner countertop unit and arrange for bottled gas delivery. Or they can make do with an electronic hotplate, as I did in the concrete bunker.

Incidentally: I’m still making do with an electronic hotplate, even though my apartment has a dual burner gas cooking unit installed. The gas has not been piped in yet. Workmen just installed the meter two weeks ago. Maybe in a few months…

Back to moving in China.      

Rent price is determined by location of the apartment within the city, as well as size and by what is included in the lease. Obviously the better located, better outfitted, larger apartments command a higher price than those stripped to whitewashed concrete and laminate or tile flooring. In Sam’s case, his new apartment leases for 1,700Yuan a month. It is situated close to Penny’s hospital in a working class area in Hankou, the premier shopping district in Wuhan. It comes fully furnished with appliances, amenities, a fully equipped kitchen and linens (including bath towels).

In contrast he is leasing his fully furnished apartment for only 1,000Yuan a month because neither Penny’s sister nor mother has a large income. In return they will take care of Baby Erica while her parents are at work. That last is to make up the difference between what Sam and Penny are paying out for their new digs and what they are getting in rent on their apartment. Whether that is equitable is not the question. Baby Erica will be cared for by family and will be closer to her parents.

I have to wonder: with the Chinese becoming more affluent, sometimes owning 2 or 3 apartments and amassing status symbols like fine china, crystal, jade sculptures, wine collections and other expensive decorations, come moving time are they going to insist their treasures move with them? Are they going to start developing attachment to their stuff and want it to go where they go? Will they even consider moving as a lifestyle?  

Gary is in such a predicament. Currently he owns 3 apartments: the one he lives in now and one newly constructed. The third one is still in the building stage. His current apartment is already condemned. When the City starts excavating for the subway in the next year or two, he will have to surrender his current digs. He will get fair compensation for it. Being as his building is slated for destruction he is going to have to do something with all his stuff. Is he going to sell everything and buy new, or transport it all to the new place? I guess only time will tell.  

If I were to move, I too would probably divest myself of anything extra I’ve acquired since living here. That is not much: oven, space heater, grill and crock pot. By Chinese moving standards even my two foot lockers full of stuff are considered excessive.

Good thing this school has granted me tenure!                

Sunday, May 6, 2012

City Wedding v. Country Wedding

Ken’s wedding now 6 hours past, and with me not in attendance gives me time to tell you the difference between weddings that happen in the city versus those in the country. I have attended a wedding in the country over Winter Break but that whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth (not from the food) so, as I recall, I promised to tell you about it in the Village People entry (dated February of this year) but never did. Now is the time.

Country weddings are tinged by whatever ethnic minority culture that occupies it. There are 56 minority cultures in China, most of them centered in the country. Each culture has its own traditions and rites.

I described a typical city wedding in the George is Getting Married entry, posted December 2010. City weddings tend to be more universal, the theme being: look how much money we have. Indeed, in order to have a successful wedding the most expensive cars are rented, the most lavish accommodations are reserved and the most costly food is served.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

In a country wedding the bride is called for by the groom and paraded through town. Traditionally wedding gowns were red, and a square of red cloth covered the bride’s head and hid her face, but even in the country they have now adopted the western ‘white wedding’ type gown. Usually the gowns are rented, so the country bride has to be very careful to not get mud on it while walking down dirt lanes. The procession includes a marching band playing traditional music, and dancing girls. At the end of the line come the groomsmen who play out long rolls of popping firecrackers, dragging the streams along until they are depleted.   

City weddings also make use of the gown rental system but there is less of a worry about getting it dirty because the bride is not paraded around on foot. She and the groom go directly from the apartment to the rented cars and head off to the banquet hall. In the city the cars take the most circuitous route, but drive all the way to the dining facility. It is rather comical to watch a fleet of black cars, decorated with flowers and, somewhere in the procession a videographer is hanging out the window or sunroof, filming everything. In the country they drive directly to the village but stop short of it. Everyone in the wedding party gets out of the cars and walks to the groom’s home, playing games.

City weddings also incorporate games, as described in the ‘George is Getting Married’ post. In the country the games are a bit more ethnic. The wedding I attended, the elder male relatives, with painted faces and their hair done up with flowers, at times try to capture the bride to deliver her to the wedding home. The intent is to disrupt the procession and hurry the wedding along, before the bride has time to change her mind. The groomsmen and attendants try to stop them by shoving them out of the way, blocking their path and even removing their shoes and socks. The marching band and dancing girls have resumed their oddly discordant musical renditions, and will continue to play and dance all the way to the groom’s home.   

Country weddings do not make use of a banquet hall or restaurant. People have houses in the country, so usually weddings are held there. I should specify that weddings are held at the groom’s house. Invariably, the banquet is held outdoors. Nevertheless here too lavishness seems to be key: the caterer serves dish after dish. The meals are the sit down variety by necessity. It is difficult to eat a traditional Chinese meal standing up so there must be enough room for the whole wedding party. Sometimes the entire town is invited, so the banquet tables are set up on the main throughfare.

In the country as in the city, the bride and groom do not eat with their guests. They spend their time serving the guests and circulating. Another commonality is the gifts offered to the new couple: money. That offering is made in a red envelope. A typical sum is 200Yuan per envelope. In the city the mothers of the bride and groom count the money behind the scenes while the glitzy celebration goes on in the forefront. In the country, the groom’s mother and father ceremoniously count the money in front of all the guests. The new couple stands to the side, looking on.

In the city, once the meal is over, the city wedding is also over. The new couple stands at the door of the restaurant, wishing everyone a safe ride home and proffering cigarettes and candy. In the country there is music. Karaoke and traditional music play long into the night. Sometimes a country wedding celebration can last for days. Strangely enough, music does not factor in to a city wedding.  

In the country the bride is allowed to change her clothes for the dining and festivities portion of the celebration. In the city the bride wears her gown all through the celebration.

Can you imagine her discomfort? 

One of the biggest differences between weddings in China and in America, besides the lack of reverence and religion, is that in America the bride and groom are served first and are the focal point of the event. In China the exact opposite is true: the bride and groom serve everyone and in fact, never even become the focus of the wedding. The parents, the family, guests, games, accoutrements and attendants are more important.

One very amusing game played in a country wedding is when the bride tries to gain access to the bridal suite. Those rooms are occupied by the younger male relatives of the groom and they will not open the door until the proper amount of money is handed over. There must be a red envelope for everyone in the room. The bride has to guess how many are in the room and hand the envelopes through a crack in the door. If she guesses wrong she has to keep trying until she ‘pays’ all of her new, young male relatives to gain access to her rooms. Once she has gained access she is allowed to change her clothes. Of course, the young male relatives leave before she does, and she is attended to by the female relatives of the groom. 

The particular wedding I attended, it did not seem the bride enjoyed herself very much. When the male relatives attempted to ‘kidnap’ her she slid off their backs and took off running by herself. She ran in the right direction – toward her future husband’s home. I asked my friend Dash why the bride ran off. She told me it was because she was from a different ethnic group, whose wedding traditions were a bit more sedate. It was cold outside and the poor bride, dressed only in so much froth and lace, was getting tired of messing around. Can’t say as I blame her.

A few other details: in both country and city weddings, photography takes place months before the actual ceremony. I touched on that last year April, in an entry called Sunny + 70 = Frolic. I’d like to get a little deeper into it, if I may.

In America, wedding photography tends to involve elaborate posing with various members of the wedding party and family, taken during and after the ceremony. Candid shots are taken during the reception.

In China wedding photography is done months up to 6 months in advance. Only the couple are photographed, and not in wedding finery. Photographers interview their customers to decide on a  theme, and then they – the couple and the photographers, select an array of costumes ranging from the bizarre – a zoot suit, complete with spats for him and a flapper dress for her – to the artistic. Sam and Penny’s wedding had a nautical theme. I witnessed a bride wearing a traditional Korean costume being photographed atop a wall. Various props are used: toy guns, guitars, plastic flowers, fans and the like. The couple strikes curious poses, giving the appearance of fun. Sometimes the bride is photographed by herself, but not the groom.  

Hair and makeup are done in the studio before the whole entourage hits the streets for their photography session. By entourage I mean photographer and assistants (at least 3), makeup and hair artists (for touch ups), and the bride and groom. Wedding photography is a day-long affair. 

According to Sam, a wedding is quite an accomplishment. He and Penny let me watch their wedding video (actually shot on the day of the wedding). Neither one looked particularly enthused throughout the whole shindig. Sam said it was because it was such an exhausting day, about midway through it all he wanted to do was go to sleep. Of course, he is glad he is married but wished the whole event could have been a little lower key.

But, when in China, and when the theme is showing off and lavishness…  

Here’s wishing Ken and Della a happy union and a long life together, even if you and I weren’t there to celebrate with them.