Thursday, June 21, 2012

Round Three

This refers to my third year in Wuhan, which has not even yet started. Talk about projecting!

Right on the eve of boarding a plane headed Stateside I sit down to write about being back here for another year. That is because I’ve thought a lot about what this third year will bring. How will I know what it will bring? Good question.

For one, I’m doing the money thing differently. After this summer trip I plan on traveling to the States over the winter break this year, instead of waiting till summer next year. For one, so I can be close with my loved ones come Holiday Season, although my winter break probably will not start until after New Year. I don’t think anyone will mind a delayed Christmas celebration though, especially if I ask nicely.

Being as most of my family and friends live in the southern regions of the States, it will put me in slightly warmer climes when winter is at its most brutal here, or at least in a place where the spaces are climate controlled rather than trying to keep myself warm in an unheated apartment. Or trying to travel around China during peak traveling season.

Remember the disaster of trying to get back in time to celebrate Chinese New Year with Gary and his family, and there was not a train ticket to be had back to Wuhan (See Nanjing in my Sights entry, posted January of this year)? I had other traveling woes too, such as finding a hotel room when everything in my preferred price range was booked. I had to pay for a luxury room… not something this vagabond likes to do. Sampling native cooking – all of the restaurants were closed because everyone had gone home to celebrate Spring Festival. I resorted to eating at chain restaurants during most of my travels.  

What does all this have to do with money?

In order to make winter travel possible I will have to take on part time work. If I tutor 4 students one night a week, I can charge them each100Yuan per session. According to Sam (and Gary), that is a reasonable rate. Cheap, even. And, I’ve actually been tutoring, first with Shelin (last year) and Susan (this year), but I’ve done it for free. Nothing wrong with charging for my services, right? That will be an extra 1,600Yuan a month. That will be my traveling money.

Going stateside over the winter break will free me up to do volunteer work during the summer, such as with or Doctors Without Borders. The first organization is active in China. Surely, with the way kids and I relate, and my growing ability to speak Mandarin there is something I can do to help them. The second is active the world over. With my language ability and my desire to help others, maybe that would be the way to go.

If nothing else, I can volunteer as a foreign expert English teacher in rural villages, where school is in session year round. Many times students in the country do not get the benefit of a native English speaker in the classroom because it is expensive to hire foreigners, and truthfully, not that many foreigners want to experience life that close to a bare bones existence. I welcome the challenge and would love to spend 2 weeks in this village and 2 weeks in that one, initiating young students to English spoken by a native speaker.

Sam presented me that idea when I was wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of my summer, once I come back from the states. I’ll have about 5 weeks left before school starts at the university and indolently laying around seems just a bit selfish, doesn’t it? Traveling around, with or without Gary would be a lot of fun, but… it is a bit self-serving, no? China has been very good to me and I’d like to give something back. Too bad Sam didn’t come up with that idea in time to make it happen this year. Fortunately we are early in the planning for next year.  

The main thing is that I have 2 uninterrupted months off during the summer and I can’t spend it all in the states without the risk of burdening my loved ones and overextending myself financially. Surely I can put that time to good use, couldn’t I? Not that visiting loved ones isn’t good. But, if I have the opportunity to see my loved ones over my shorter winter break I can spend my summer learning new skills, experiencing new things and seeing new worlds. To say nothing of incurring blog fodder. I do want to keep writing this blog. These experiences will take us in a whole new, exciting direction, don’t you think? And then there is the matter of helping others, something I dearly want to do.

So there is round three. Moneywise I am on track to return stateside over winter break already. I am ready to accept the challenge of one-on-one tutoring during fall semester.

I can’t wait to see how it will all pan out!  

Things That Randomly Died This Week

I must seem quite morbid, first reporting on my father in law’s death and then that of his wife. Shortly thereafter I talked about my own death (The Legacy, posted April of this year). Just this last week I shared my grief over my friend’s death.

I am not of a morbid mindset when writing this post. I’m reporting on things that have died premature deaths.

My cellphone. For some reason my cellphone just randomly shuts itself off. Battery indicator shows a nearly full charge, keypad locks itself after 10 seconds. So it is not dying because of a weak battery or because I’ve accidentally pushed the shut off button. It just randomly dies at weird times, for no specific reason. I’ve put a new battery in and given it a full charge; no help.

I’ve had this phone since the day I came to China. Maybe it is time to consider buying a new phone. I’ll think about it when I get back.  

My Kindle. Now that is not good news at all. I consider it essential to have plenty of reading material and was delighted to have an entire library in a fully portable format that could be supplemented at no cost via USB.

The first time it randomly died was over winter break, in Nanjing. I quickly jumped online to research ‘frozen kindle’ and found out it is a rather common phenomenon. By resetting the device – holding the slide switch in the ‘on’ position for 20 or 30 seconds it came back to life and my library repopulated itself. How do you spell Relief? I was overcome with it. My Kindle froze several more times during winter, but each time it recovered when using that ‘fix’.

I came to the conclusion that Kindles must be temperature sensitive and since then made an effort to keep my Kindle out of the cold winter air. Tucking it in my waistband or under my parka instead of carrying it around in my bag when out and about or traveling. Or, leaving my bed heaters on low and leaving the Kindle tucked in bed when I’m home. I’ve not had much of a problem with my Kindle locking up or freezing up since. Now, with warmer temps I don’t need to worry about keeping my Kindle warm. In fact, it has been working just fine. Until…

Not sure why but, since yesterday my Kindle will not work at all, not even with a reboot. Plugging it into the USB port on my computer doesn’t help (that was another manufacturer suggested ‘fix’). Matter of fact, the computer sees that a device is plugged in but cannot identify it. It seems the thing is now most assuredly dead. REALLY NOT GOOD!!! I will only have a small window of opportunity to resolve this matter, seeing as I will only be stateside for one month. Fortunately I still have 2 months left on my warranty, so it shouldn’t cost me anything but postage to return it. I hope Amazon can work a miracle and replace my Kindle before I return to China. 

Buses. Earlier in this blog I reported that buses in Wuhan are a paragon of efficiency, even in the face of poor maintenance. Seldom did I see a bus broken down the side of the road till around two weeks ago. Now I seem to see a broken down bus nearly every time I go out. I’ve even been on one or two buses that have broken down, most recently yesterday. Not one but two of the buses I rode yesterday broke down. I guess that poor maintenance I talked about in It Finally Happened, posted April of last year is starting to show.

Cellphone. Kindle. Buses. All random deaths. These next were not so random. In fact, I was instrumental in causing them. I guess you could say I am a mass murderer.

You see, the school finally made good on installing window screens. I’m not talking about shabbily made, back alley, claims-to-be-a-craftsman-but-is-really-just-someone’-relative made screens. These are top of the line, spring-loaded, retractable devices engineered at some facility, custom made to fit my windows and doors, and installed by licensed dealers. I’m talking really nice screens.

Prior to this installation my apartment was besieged by mosquitoes… as you might remember from when I told you about the coolest bed I’ve ever slept in, last month. Even burning a mosquito coil at dusk did not deter these pests. They were free to fly in or out of the house at will. And they did.

With the window screens installed, the mosquitoes were trapped inside my apartment. At dusk, just when they started their recognizance flyabouts I lit a mosquito coil and put it in the office, closing the door behind me. The rest of the house I bombed.

Holding my breath, I ran through the house spraying a noxious-fumed, toxic to humans spray guaranteed to kill flying pests. With the last of my air seeping out of my lungs, I ran into the office and slammed the door shut. After giving the spray time to dissipate – I had left the windows open and the screens shut, I went to check on the results.

Oh, the carnage! With the windows screened, the mosquitoes had no place to escape to. The floors were literally carpeted with dead mosquitoes. By the patio doors and on the window sills the slaughter was most evident. I could not estimate the number of flying vampires I deliberately killed with my wanton act of spraying. I spent this morning sweeping them up. I had to empty the dustpan after each room, such was the detritus.  

This evening I enjoy a virtually mosquito free dwelling. There are still a few that flew in when I opened the front door earlier, but the mosquito coil I’m burning is taking care of those. I don’t have near the swarm to deal with, like I’ve had since spring began.

NOTE: I was going to title this entry I Am a Mass Murderer just for shock value, to really grab your attention. But then, I thought of how the government computers scan for such words as murder, terrorist, and weapons and decided I did not want that close a scrutiny into this harmless narrative. At least not by the National Security Agency. I hope you will scrutinize closely.      

Friday, June 15, 2012

Oh! Susanna!

Funny how I’m plagiarizing a song about traveling and returning to loved ones on the eve of traveling and returning to my loved ones.

Unfortunately, this entry has nothing to do with homecomings. Well, maybe in a stretch it does. But not my return to the States which, by the way, will be in 5 days. This is a tribute to my friend and former colleague, Suzanne T.

I am sad to report that the world has lost a shining light: the indomitable spirit of Suzanne has been forever extinguished. Her incomparable laugh, her guileless smile, her sincerity… all gone, vanquished in her struggle against the health problems that ultimately proved too much for even one as strong-willed and optimistic as she.

Unbeknownst to me when I left Dallas, Suzanne had been in a medically induced coma to help battle the heart disease that was killing her. She woke up to find herself permanently wired to an external heart boosting device called an LVAD – left ventricle assist device. Her heart was too weak to sustain her life on its own so she became the Bionic Woman. She would spend the rest of her days wired to that machine.

That didn’t stop her from living. Using that portable device to maximum advantage, she spent at least 4 hours a day at the office, tended to her young children, took care of her home and maintained her relationships. She shopped and she went out to eat. Inasmuch as the limitations of the LVAD allowed, this woman lived and enjoyed her life. Upon finding out that I lived overseas she finagled my email address from someone and reached out to me. That is just the type of woman she… was.

Man! It is hard to write about her in the past tense!

She is the one that initiated the long distance dimension of our friendship, but I partook of it with delight. She was not ashamed of sharing the details of her physical woes and medical trials. After one particularly long email in which she shared with me the specifics of her struggles, with special attention given to the fortitude and dedication of the medical staff that treated her, we enjoyed a good joke about her being so Sci-Fi. From then on till the last, our running gag was how she loved me from the bottom of her sci-fi heart and how I could see to the bottom of her LVAD heart.

There was no tiptoeing or pussyfooting around Suzanne. She had accepted her condition and we talked about it openly. That was another quality that made her so great.

After moving into my new digs last September and losing internet connection for 4 months, she and I drifted apart. At least, so I thought at the time. Using the internet café computer, I had sent her several emails that went without reply. My time on the rented computer being both short and precious, I chose to spend the time I had communicating with those who responded to me and those I could actively chat with. After those few unanswered mails to her, I did not write her again.

Do I feel like a heel now!

I learned that she suffered a debilitating stroke last November, reducing her to permanent wheelchair status. Whether she could still access email or even make use of a computer from that time on is not known to me. Maybe, if I could access her Facebook page…

That is all conjecture now.

Most would say this woman suffered terribly, all while holding on to hope, till the end of the end. To me she was the epitome of grace under fire, courage in the face of the unknown and indomitable in spite of her failing body. I aver that Suzanne did not suffer. She was afflicted, and severely so but with her outlook, her disposition, her positive attitude and courage, I like to think that suffering had no room within her.

Strange to say but I do not grieve her loss. I know she is in a better place, resting peacefully and laughing her musical laugh. If I listen closely, I can hear those peals reverberating in the heavens. My heart has all the pictures it took of her over the years and memories of her only need to be called up and savored. And I still love her, to the bottom of her LVAD heart. Except her heart does not need an LVAD anymore.            

I sure could use one of her hugs right now.


Construction goes on around the complex where I live. I am still the sole occupant of my building but slowly, other units are getting populated. As more people buy apartments around the development they are outfitting them for long term use: custom wooden trim and light fixtures, select flooring and maybe even tearing down a wall. Somehow it was deemed a good idea to dump the debris in front of my stairwell.

This picture is of two women scavenging through the rubble, retrieving potentially useful fragments. They hit the mother lode with rejected wood and flooring pieces. For about 2 hours they picked through the pile, throwing their bounty to the side and then bagging it up to haul away.

I have written before about people, usually old women who pick through refuse for recyclables (see Made in China entry, posted December 2010). This is taking the trash-picking effort to a whole new level.

There is a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in China. The problem is exacerbated on one side by tradition versus modern life, and on the other the ‘little Emperor’ syndrome.    

Little Emperor syndrome is what this generation is afflicted with. Each family is allowed one child. That child has two parents and up to 4 grandparents, each vying for favor. The child is treated to anything and everything he/she wants, and even things he/she doesn’t want. As individual Chinese wealth and buying power grows, so does the marketing of frivolous goods and luxury items. It is a vicious cycle, not uncommon to even America. Not one of my students is deprived of a cellphone and many of them have their own top of the line laptop computer. Designer clothing, accessories, games, money to burn… you name it, and some, if not most kids have it.  

So, on the one hand, you have tradition, which dictates you really don’t need that much to live. A wok, a hotplate, some food, one or two changes of clothes, a dwelling in which to secure your few possessions and house your extended family is enough.

And then, there are the Little Emperors. To deny the little darling is unconscionable. Thus, money must be earned/made/found to afford everything, including education for the family scion. And let’s not forget the immediate funds needed to take care of the elderly parents.

While most in the city enjoy buying power and comfort, those in rural settings or communities such as the Over the Wall Community lean more toward tradition. That is where these scavengers come from.

They are mostly uneducated beyond the minimum required by law, with no hope of earning more than a few thousand Yuan a year. While that is plenty for a traditional life, it is not enough to satisfy the growing restlessness to keep up with the next Little Emperor. Or the neighbor who just bought a new car.

So they scavenge. After a full day of working in the fields or around our campus in menial tasks such as street sweeping or landscaping, they hit the trash cans and debris piles, ferreting out what is even minimally salvageable or anything that could be sold to the recycler.

The art of scavenging has gotten so competitive that I am asked for my recyclables before I even have a chance to put them out. The other day, coming home from an outing one of the OtWC women to whom I had previously bequeathed a bag of recyclables accosted me to ask if I had anything to donate. Unfortunately this was just after my return from Xi’an and I had nothing recyclable.

Construction goes on. The debris pile outside my kitchen window grows. Again today the scavengers plunder. Such is life in this increasingly materialistic society.      

From Conundrum to Predicament

After having a blast with Gary in Xi’an I came home, all ready to write. Xi’an is the city of my dreams and Gary is the best traveling partner ever; I should have plenty to write about… right?


The conundrum: I’ve written plenty about Xi’an throughout this blog. What else could I write about it without being redundant? Not much has changed in the city formerly known as Eternal Peace. Even the buses to get to the tourist hotspots I took Gary to run the same established routes.

I could write about Gary. It being just me and him on this trip we had much more opportunity to converse on a deep, personal level but, without his express permission, I am not comfortable publishing any of the observations I made about him or any of the personal disclosures he confided.

Just as I was debating this point, I slipped from conundrum right into predicament. I did find a workaround for the conundrum but was not satisfied with my efforts, even though I had already written 2 entries for posting – one of them about some of the fun times/highlights of my trip with Gary and the other about the air quality in Wuhan the day after I got back. As I always do when I get stuck for a word or phrase I walked away from the computer. Dinner needed fixing, anyway.

While I was in the kitchen the computer spontaneously rebooted itself. OH NO!!!

No big deal, I reasoned. I have my Word program set to ‘autosave’. Once I open the application again, it will prompt me to examine the documents and ask me if I want to save them. I went on cooking dinner.

After enjoying a fine meal of chicken breast sautéed in butter with onions and garlic and some steamed green beans, I returned to the PC and opened Word. There it was: a nice, daunting blank page that wanted only my words to turn it into an actual document.

Wait a minute! Where is the prompt to recover my lost entries?

The entries were indeed lost. No amount of searching for them or reopening the application called them forth. In sheer frustration I walked away.  

To end this predicament and get on with the blog, I’ll recap in a nutshell what those two entries were about.

Gary and I had such fun! He is hands down the best traveling companion ever. The trip was not a whirlwind of activity, nor was it dull and mellow. At times we packed in action and sightseeing and at others we were content to spend an hour or two relaxing in each other’s company, battened in comfortable silence. I read my Kindle and he played around on the Internet, accessed on his SmartPhone. Every so often he would read me an anecdote or a humorous response someone had posted on his Weibo miniblog, China’s equivalent to Twitter.

We both aver that Xi’an food is the best. Beijing food is too bland, Sichuan food too spicy. Xi’an food is just right and that is saying a lot, seeing as we’ve both traveled extensively, and not always together.

Because we wanted to experience the most within the least amount of time, the first day there we over-ordered at restaurants. With no way to keep our leftovers (no fridge in our hotel room) we had to leave a lot of food behind. Ashamed at such waste we vowed that, for the rest of the trip we would not waste any more food. We kept our word and, in the end enjoyed our gastronomic forays that much more by not being riddled with guilt or attempting to eat ourselves into a coma.

Platonic friends of opposite gender sharing a hotel room calls for a measure of coordination and concession. Who gets the bathroom first being the main one. By the time we left Xi’an we were operating as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. I showered while Gary packed and then he showered while I packed. He checked out of the hotel while I ran next door for our morning coffee, both of us emerging from our respective facilities at precisely the same time. While on the bus to the airport he managed the coffee condiments while I doled out the full cups. It was like a synchronized dance, neither of us missing a step… or a hand-off.

We had to get up at 4:30AM to make the first bus to the airport at 6:00. Our flight was scheduled for a 7:15 departure, arriving in Wuhan at a little past 11:00. Needless to say, upon arrival we were starving. Once liberated from mass transit needs and before hailing a taxi we decided to have a nice bowl of noodles. Again that seamless operation. Gary ordered while I fished money out. We sat down at the same time, me handing him a pair of chopsticks from the bin nearby. We start eating…

Only to be assailed by another patron interested in my foreignness. While I’m shoving food in my face he peppers me with questions: What country am I from? Can I speak Chinese? How old am I? Do I have any children?

Gary witnessed the depth of my frustration at being constantly under scrutiny while in Xi’an. At any given monument or hotspot people would flock around, asking me to pose for a picture or 3 with them. While in ‘tourist mode’ I never object, but while I’m enroute or while eating I do tend to get a bit snippy about it. I told the man I was French – easily substantiated because I speak that language fluently. Usually Chinese people are deterred from questioning me further once they find out I’m not from America and I don’t speak English.

Not this guy. He continued with the standard questions. When he got to “Do you have children” I answered him “I have two”. That is when Gary piped up, saying he was my son. My interlocutor then zeroed in on him.

Gary is full blooded Chinese. He looks, acts and speaks the part. So the man asked about him being my son – I, who do not look Chinese at all. The first question was if Gary’s father was Chinese. Without missing a beat or cracking a smile, Gary wove this intricate story about not having a father because I adopted him out of an orphanage at a young age and raised him abroad. He only spoke what little Chinese he remembered prior to being taken out of China at the tender age of 7. The rest of the man’s questions were met with puzzled looks and ‘so sorry, I don’t understand’.

Leaving the noodle stand, Gary commented on how he now comprehends exactly how tiring it gets for me to go anywhere and being the subject of such scrutiny. Meanwhile, I’m marveling at how completely he fell into the story of his adoption, thus rescuing me from interrogation. See? Seamless.

I’m guessing that, by the time we get one or two more trips under our belt we’ll have a whole tragic story worked out about how I, the valiant single mother adopted poor, unwanted him from the orphanage. How we lived abroad and how generous I am, returning him to his homeland after years in France so he can attempt to find his real parents. Sated, we relaxed in our taxi, laughing about how we’re going to work all that out.

We spent the afternoon at our favorite tea shop after which Gary saw me safely home. You would think that, after one week in close proximity we would be ready for a break from each other’s company. Apparently not the case!

The next morning, all ready to resume my life I liberated myself from my mosquito tent bed, threw back the drapes and promptly ran around the house shutting all the windows. The sky was an ominous yellow, lending the impression that I was living in a sepia toned world. Everybody in Wuhan scrambled for a breathing mask. By 9AM, all the stores were sold out. Conscious of my Benadryl assisted breathing and not wanting to make it worse, I stayed indoors all day. 

I still don’t know what exactly rendered the air that creepy yellow. Rumors abounded about some sulpher or chemical gas leak – Wuhan is, after all an industrial center. Xinhua News released a statement about it being the result of a relatively harmless crop burn. It even made the international scene, being reported on Yahoo News. The next day the air was clear. Nothing new to report.    

And there, in a nutshell you have the two entries that were lost by the untimely reboot. Come to find out, I like this entry better than the two entries that were lost. This one flowed, as opposed to struggling to write the other two.

Yes, I do struggle to write sometimes. That is another reason there are long gaps between one entry and the next.            

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Headin’ Out Again!

Guess what? Gary found an incredibly good deal on plane ticket to Xi’an! We’ll leave this Wednesday – that would be tomorrow, and come back on Sunday.

I am so looking forward to shepherding him through my beloved city! He only went there as a small child and has virtually no memory of the place. I can’t wait to amaze and wow him with Muslim Street, the Drum and Bell Towers, the City Wall… everything that makes Xi’an so… so… Xi’an!

So off I go, dear readers. Tomorrow early I will be on a plane.

When I come back it will not be to tell you about Xi’an. You already know all about it from the posts I’ve already written: Muslim Street, Wild Goose Pagodas, Big and Small, How I spent my Chinese New Year and others.

What I am going to tell you about is how Gary saw the city, and his reaction to it.

Now I have to go pack and eat dinner. It will be an early night tonight for an early wake up call tomorrow. I’m so excited to be traveling again, and with my best traveling buddy that I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to sleep. Another thing that might keep me awake…

Why, WHY do people consider 5AM a good time to wake up???  

Homebody, Much?

In recent correspondence with my stateside friends, many have expressed the idea that I may well be ready to come back to the States. Even Sam suggested that I might be ready for a change of scenery.

Truth to tell, after reading news reports of the naked cannibal squatting by the side of a major highway to enjoy a snack of face, I’m kind of scared to come back.

OK, that is overdone. I’m not scared somebody is going to snack on my face, unless it is my new grandson, sucking on my nose. And that is not an exaggeration: I have video of my niece’s baby sucking on my nose. When an infant, my own daughter liked to suck on my nose. In fact, I’ve had several babies enjoy sucking on my nose. It is rather comical, not frightening at all. I do wonder, though: why do babies like sucking on my nose?

Be that as it may, am I ready to head back to the States?

I am ready to travel again. I aver that I’ve not been much of a vagabond so far this year. I’ve only made one major trip during this year’s sojourn in China: with Gary and Mask, to Chong Qing. Besides that I took several small hops: to Nanjing, to Shenzhen and then out to the countryside, to Shi Shou and Hong Hu Bai Miao. I haven’t been anywhere since school started again in February.

What kind of vagabond doesn’t travel? Why have I mostly just stayed home, only venturing out and about in Wuhan?

Two main reasons, the first being my stomach. For the past year, off and on, I’ve had stomach trouble, with the inevitable accompanying psychological malaise. I may start the day comfortably, but more often than not my abdomen would be painfully distended after even the most meager of breakfasts and would only get worse as the day went on. Anything I ate made things worse. The resulting doldrums made it hard for me to be enthusiastic about chasing off to anywhere.

My second reason is financial. Granted I’ve earned good money this year and saved plenty. If I were staying in China to spend it, thirty thousand Yuan would represent a substantial traveling opportunity. However, when converted into dollars, that is not a huge sum. Mindful of the fact that I am going to replenish my Benadryl supplies and replace some of my wardrobe that is worn out, as well as wanting to treat for my loved ones to the occasional outing while stateside, that money might not go far at all. My final financial concern is that I won’t get paid again until October 10th. I will have to have money to live on when I come back to China.   

Fortunately it seems that my stomach and I have reached a truce. For the past week, every day, I’ve woken up in a state of physical comfort. By having 2 servings of probiotic yogurt each day, and avoiding fried foods and products containing wheat I manage to not feel bad at all. It appears that I cannot eat whatever I want to anymore, without paying a price. Or maybe I’m just getting older and my body is acting accordingly.

With good health seemingly restored, and after having spent months experimenting on myself as to what my stomach will or will not tolerate, I am again ready to hit the road. These last few weeks the urge to travel has revisited. I’m ready for it.

I’ve longed to go… somewhere. Other than my abortive attempt to get to Xi’an for Ken’s wedding last month I’ve not even contemplated traveling. Now that school is out I am free to go, as soon as I turn my grades in. That will be next week. I’m contemplating like mad!!! 

I’d like to visit the upper regions of China that are too cold to visit during the ten months the school year spans. Places like Dalian, Qing Dao, Hohhot, Tianjin and others. I’d love to go to Mongolia, both Inner and Outer. In fact I have several friends, former students who live in those regions and would welcome me to their home with open arms.

Gary insists we spend what I will have left of the summer once I return traveling the southern regions. I’m not sure why, when the weather is hotter down south. It has nothing to do with his business concerns. He is obsessed with Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Xiamen. Of course we will take our trip to Xi’an this summer, once I get back from the States.

Am I ready to travel to the States?

Hard as it may be to believe, I don’t miss being in America. This way of life, this culture, this home I’ve made for myself is my reality. I remember from last year, having been in the States that I couldn’t wait to come back here. It seems to me that being in America means turning the dial on my life to ‘suspended animation’. I enjoyed the visiting and all the hugs. I really enjoyed spending time with my loved ones. There definitely wasn’t enough of that. Looking back on last year’s trip, I even enjoyed that grueling Greyhound expedition I took across the country… for the most part. The one thing I didn’t feel was that I was home.

I didn’t feel that until everywhere I looked, the writing was in Chinese, the people were Asian and the food… ah, for good, authentic Chinese food!  

Yes, friends and family and loved ones await. I can’t wait to see them and spend time with them. If I have to go to America to do so, then I am America-bound. While in America I will most likely rediscover things that have slipped my mind about the joys of being there. For now though, I board buses with the regret that, in about 3 weeks, everywhere I go, Chinese will not be spoken.

It is an equitable trade off.         


Friday, June 1, 2012

This Way of Life

Sometimes, before you know it you have adopted a way of life so completely different to the way you used to live. Over time, your habits change and, next thing you know, your mannerisms are completely different and your ways of doing things are such that you’ve only read about them in books.

I found myself in that position today.

After yesterday’s Day of Silence I decided today would be a great day to get some stuff done around the house. I needed to do some dishes up, and the dust needed battling again. I had this nice cucumber and some tomatoes I was going to put in with that home made dressing concocted last week, and there was this tee-shirt I needed to hand wash, and while I’m at it I may as well wash the mud off my jeans cuffs…

Dishes: done. Dusting and dustmopping: done. Cucumber and tomato salad? I’ll wait till after I get the laundry washed, that way the clothes have longer to hang outside in the sunshine to get that extra burst of sweetness. While they dry I’ll chop veggies and make salad.

Whilst washing my shirt is when it happened.

I started thinking about all the things I do differently now, from when I lived in the States. A few months ago I bought a shopping cart so that I don’t have to carry my heavy bottles of yogurt on the bus, off the bus and down those alleyways home. In the states I would have been mortified to be seen pulling such a cart.

Other things: Since I’ve been here I’ve not used a dishwasher, even when I was visiting stateside last summer. I’ve ridden in a car maybe a handful of times and driven not at all. Boiling a kettleful of water for small chores (washing face and brushing teeth included), rather than using hot water from the tap. Forget that prepackaged, prewashed, prepared bag of veggies, either frozen or refrigerated (such as lettuce). Now I head to the farmer’s market every few days for fresh produce. I’ve long forsaken the clothes dryer in favor of hanging my clothes outside, even in the winter. And now I’m handwashing my clothes.

I recoiled in horror: what is happening to me??? I’ve become… *GASP!* I’ve become MY GRANDMOTHER!!!

I’ve adopted a lifestyle much more in keeping with turn of the century America – that would be the 20th century, not the 21st. Forsaking modern conveniences in favor of doing things the old-fashioned way, even when there are machines available to do my work for me? Walking and taking the bus rather than calling for a cab to take me right to my doorstep? Cooking and eating in every day instead of going out? Getting on my hands and knees to mop my floors?

In the states I never would have dreamed I would prefer handwashing clothes to throwing them in the machine or throwing them out and buying new if they start to look dingy – a common former practice of mine. I certainly cannot afford to just throw clothes away anymore. Who knows if I’d be able to find anything here that will fit me?  

I do have a washing machine and I do make use of it occasionally, if I let my laundry pile grow. But, as long as I keep up with it I only have to wash one shirt or one set of undergarments at a time. Why use the washing machine for that?   

I had to laugh. I am living more in keeping with this anachronistic society every day, even after years of conditioning to modern conveniences and progressive attitudes. I guess the Chinese matrons and I can have competitions on who can hang their wash out the fastest, or the earliest.  

Could I go back to living where every modern convenience is available to me, and if so, could I go back to routinely using said conveniences? I honestly don’t know.

Let me go check on the laundry and start peeling veggies for my dinner while I think about it.       

Beggars and Rain

It should come as no surprise that beggars abound in just about every city of every country around the world. Wuhan is no exception.

According to reports and rumors worldwide, beggars earn a decent, if not a handsome living by dressing shabbily and appearing unkempt and unfortunate. They shuffle amongst affluent people in high end shopping areas and tourist hotspots, demanding spare change with varying degrees of aggression. I have to admit that here beggars are pushy, but also rather subtle. They shamble along until they see a likely prospect whom they will then approach and nudge with their tin cup or plastic bucket or whatever they are using to collect their bounty, all while mumbling blessings or… maybe a begging catechism. I’ve not been able to understand them well enough to make out what they are saying. More specifically, I don’t care what they are saying. I make it a point to not be assailed by beggars.

That is surprisingly easy to do in spite of the fact that I am a foreigner. In their eyes I must be rich, a tourist, a bleeding heart and, most of all, unknowing of the customs of the land. Imagine their surprise when I do what Chinese people do: I turn away. Even when they nudge my arm I turn my back to them and if that does not discourage them, I walk away. Sometimes they pursue me and sometimes they don’t.

I have to admit that being foreign, I am a specific target rather than just a possible prospect. Most often those craven creatures spot me and make a beeline in my direction. I am not hard to spot, being taller and bigger than everyone else around. In truth, they’re not hard to spot either. Their path is marked by people parting like the Red Sea when Moses raised his arms.  

Let me tell you of two separate encounters that did not follow the script. The first one was last year, while I was sitting at an outdoor café in a prime shopping area. There I was, sipping tea and calculating my grades for the end of the semester. The weather was particularly fine that day and the mall was thronging with shoppers. Along comes a beggar. I did not see him approach because I was focused on my task. He rattled his tin cup on my table. I ignored him. He then nudged my arm with it. I turned away. He nudged me harder, turning up the volume on his mumbles. I turned fully toward him and told him, in Chinese: “I don’t have any money. I am a foreigner. I need money to get back to my country. You give me money, OK?”

That earned me some curses.

The next incident happened just a few weeks ago. Again I had chosen a fine day to go out. This café was in another premier shopping district in another part of town. I was not sitting outside this time, but I was sitting by the establishment’s plate glass wall. A woman, hobbling along on a crutch entered the establishment to beg from me specifically. I ignored her, figuring store personnel would drive her out. They didn’t. She positioned herself in front of me and shoved her begging bowl directly under my nose, between my face and my book. I picked up my purse, got up and walked toward the counter. She left.

Just as I was returning to my seat my phone rang. I stepped outside to take the call. Again this woman fell on me like a beast of prey on a helpless creature. I turned away. This one was really persistent: she hobbled around and nudged me again. I turned again, and walked away. She started following me. Just then another woman saw her and yelled at her. I’m not sure what all she said but I distinctly made out the sentence: “Just because she’s a foreigner you cannot chase her and annoy her. You must leave!” She continued yelling for a few minutes. I shot her a grateful look while finishing my phone call.     

You see? That is why I like rain. Beggars do not come out on rainy days. Most people do not go shopping on rainy days, either. Hence, if I go out on rainy days I am neither panhandled, nor do I have to deal with crowds who stare or people who want to practice their English skills.

Well, I can’t say people never want to speak English on rainy days but I can tell you it doesn’t happen as often. Mostly, if people go out on rainy days it is for a specific purpose. They keep their head down, their umbrella up and their mind on their task. They really don’t care if there is a whole legion of foreigners dressed in feather boas doing the Can-Can while playing Dixieland jazz.

Well… they MIGHT care, if we foreigners were foolish enough to undertake such a scene, especially in the rain. Some foreigners might be but I’m not.

Ever since a few weeks ago, when I got in over my head socially I’ve been finding ways to lay low. I guess I must be in a frame of mind that calls for long stretches of solitude lately. Even running the gauntlet of the Over the Wall Community is taxing, especially now that I know there is an English speaker there who might pounce and detain me when all I really want is to dispense the minimum social graces to earn a quick shortcut to the main road (see last entry to read more about my recent frame of mind).

Here too the rain is helpful. Most of the OtWC people linger indoors rather than along the road. For those looking out their window, my umbrella makes me incognito: just another passerby. In the rain I am not expected to make small talk. I do like everyone else does: look for the next place to step so I don’t get my shoes soaked. As long as I don’t physically run into anyone, everyone is happy to let me go without the requisite pleasantries.

Today we had a nice rainfall. It was so nice it deterred nearly everyone from going out. This rain fell in sheets gusting so hard that anything not protected by the angle of their umbrella was immediately soaked.

I grabbed my bus card and my shopping cart, anticipating a day unhampered by prying eyes, curious stares and the allegedly downtrodden. I was out of yogurt and a few other things anyway. Actually, I timed it perfectly so that I would run out of things just when our rainy day was due.

Strangely enough, the weatherman’s predictions seem correct here. When called for rain, it does in fact rain. I’ve grown to depend of these accurate predictions to plan my outings.

I did have a nice day out. No crowded buses, no crowded restaurants… I wasn’t just out of yogurt; I was out of pretty much everything. I had to get some breakfast from somewhere. And then I lounged at a nearly deserted café for a few hours, just me and my book and a nice cup of tea.

By this time the rain is no longer falling steadily but pelting down vengefully. It is a virulent downpour, reducing visibility and forming not just puddles but channels of water where gingerly mincing through is not an option. We are now at a ‘get soaked to the skin’ setting and the dial is stuck. I’m loving it.

Remorselessly I drag my impermeable, 4-wheel drive, fully laden shopping cart behind me along deserted sidewalks. My pants legs and my left arm, unprotected by my umbrella (from pulling the cart) are soaked. The temperature was just right to make such conditions enjoyable rather than miserable. I decided to prolong my walk a few bus stops regardless of wet clothing.

Until I realized that I was wearing my size 16 jeans. I have such a large size for the length but they have come in quite handy lately because my recalcitrant stomach’s tendency to bloat later in the day. My stomach has been behaving these last few days, so…

My jeans, water-logged on this rainy day, started slipping down my hips. I had gotten out of the habit of wearing a belt because of my gastro-discomfort. I probably should have worn one, today. The heavier my pants got at the cuffs the lower they slid down my hips. Soon I had to stop every few steps to pull them up.

Close to home and anticipating puddles, I stopped under a bridge to cuff my jeans up to mid-calf. While doing so one of the OtWC residents warned me they weren’t merely puddles anymore; the alleys were under water. I believed her, after seeing flooded streets on my bus ride back home. Thanking her for the tip I carefully made my way along.

Let me tell you: she wasn’t kidding. Fortunately, some of the residents along the worst stretches helped me. They waded through in their rain boots to pull my shopping cart while I minced along on strategically located stones and bricks.

Maybe my fears of the OtWC’s stifling need to connect are out of proportion. They are most likely being nice to me. I certainly appreciated their help today.

And I thoroughly enjoyed my rainy day, beggar-free outing.        


A while back I wrote an entry that dealt with people being ‘too much in this world’ (see E. Roosevelt and D. Henley entry, posted this year in April). It is about people, dreamers, who need to live in their own world to make their dreams come true. Once they cross some imaginary line, they become ‘too much in this world’. They give up their dreams in favor of living by society’s creed.

By no means am I too much in this world. I’m not that much of a dreamer, either. I am just so painfully introverted that, when the outside world comes crashing onto me I must withdraw. It takes long periods of silence and aloneness for me to regain my balance and ability to face the world again.

Such an instance of ‘too much world’ happened during these past 2 weeks. Beyond teaching my regular classes, and extracurricular activities such as the tenth year anniversary party and English corner meetings, I’ve had dinner with Chris and Julia, a visit with Zhanny and Dash, that hike that wasn’t a hike (posted a few entries ago), shopping with Lucky (a former student turned friend), coffee with Gary and Lee, guest lecturing high schoolers at a day school and now the Over the Wall Community.

For someone as introverted as I am, that is a lot of social activity in too short a period of time.

Please note that I am not anti-social, and never was. I have learned to be much more social since moving to China, living amongst a people where every minute of every day is shared. In fact, compared to the level of social activity I engaged in while living stateside, you could say I am now a society lady of the first order. But still, as an introvert I do need large amounts of quiet time. 

I always give myself a day to psyche myself up for my classes. Being as that is how I earn my bread and butter, I’d better be in top form for that. Therefore I do not schedule anything for Tuesdays, being as I teach Wednesdays through Fridays. Beyond that…

Visiting with Chris and Julia is always a pleasure. That visit came immediately after a socially fallow period, so I was able to deal with it relatively easily. The tenth anniversary celebration that weekend is when I started feeling pressure. The throngs of people, the noise and activity, the constant need to appear happy and excited, even if/when I was, drained me. From there, everything went downhill.

The hike that wasn’t a hike: I had to talk myself into going. Such pep talks generally involve telling myself: “It is only for a day… not even a whole day, just a few hours, C’mon, you can manage a few hours, can’t you?” It was made worse because the event did last for an entire day and it was more of a social occasion than an actual hike (see entries posted about it).

Fortunately, shopping with Lucky was not a huge ordeal. She, like me, does not feel compelled to fill every minute of togetherness with conversation and noise. Mostly, we were content to walk along in silence. I really appreciated that, and told her so. She confessed that, for her, living in the dorm with 5 other girls is literal torture, what with all the noise, activity and closeness. Even her best friend Angel got on her nerves recently because, as Lucky was dressing to go out alone, Angel invited herself along and chattered the whole time.

Each of the subsequent events – dinner with Zhanny and Dash, and coffee with Gary and Lee were, in themselves, tolerable. They did not entail a great social effort on my part, being as with the former group we watched a movie and ate dinner and Gary is the friend I am most comfortable with.  

Now we are up to guest lecturing at the day school. By this time I’ve had 2 weeks of nearly constant social activity, along with teaching my classes and other obligations. My batteries are depleted. I desperately need some quiet time.

When Mrs. C. said we would have to meet at the school gate at 8:30 in the morning on Saturday to get to the school on time I balked but, by social rules I did owe her because she had treated me to the ‘fabulous’ outing the weekend before. To my great joy she decided we should reschedule the guest lecture. I went back to my quiet apartment on Friday afternoon, after having taught the last 2 of my 4 classes for the week, relishing the whole weekend of quiet I was planning for myself.

I envisioned stretching out on the world’s ugliest couch with a glass of tea close by, maybe a nice plate of watermelon to snack on, reading my book in my comfortably cool apartment while the world went on with its doings over the weekend.

So why did I answer my phone that evening?

Ms. C. said we could meet at 8:30AM instead of at 8:00, as originally planned. Yes, she would come pick me up. After hanging up I groaned, immediately feeling the stress. Getting up early AND getting back out in the world, just when I need quiet time! Oh, no!

Fortunately the lecture did not take that long. After speaking for about an hour and a half, the teacher dismissed his students and invited me and Ms. C. to lunch. A very good lunch, I might add.

Even as I was dreading the prospect of spending the rest of the day in company, Ms. C. announced she was calling a car to take me back home. I was so relieved I’m sure I did not hide my feelings very well. I was home at 2:00PM.

But then I thought: here I am, all dressed up. Why not go find one of those murky, off the beaten path cafés that I like to go to and read the afternoon away? I did enjoy some nice reading time, but I had to ride a crowded bus home. That is why I usually don’t go out on weekends.

And then, I had to walk through the Over the Wall Community to get home. Well, either through there or across campus. The OtWC is the lesser of two evils. At best I get stared at. At worst I get talked to, to which I can usually say: “Sorry, I don’t understand.”

Remember: I’m at the end of my social rope here. I cannot stand the idea of engaging in another conversation or pretending in any way to be social. I NEED DOWNTIME!!!

I also need dinner, and fresh green beans are in season. I’m thinking a nice, grilled chicken breast and some steamed green beans. While walking home I stop by one of the farmers’ stalls that has some nice green beans. He is not at his stall so someone goes to fetch him for me. In the meantime, trying to minimize time spent mingling, I kneel down and start selecting my beans.

Like cormorants on a carcass, the locals descend on me. Over my head they start discussing the foreigner, how the foreigner must cook her own food, how they are so lucky their foreigner buys from them instead of ‘from away’. I could handle all that.

What I couldn’t handle was the English teacher who materialized, translating everything everyone said for me. And asking me questions too, like: how long have I been in China, why did I come here, where do I live, could I share my phone number, would I like to come guest lecture at his school???

By this time I am in a frenzy to get away. I feel like a panicked animal, ready to scratch and bite my way to safety. It takes all I have to maintain polite countenance and conversation. I want to run away, literally, from this English teacher who negates the fact that I cannot speak Chinese by virtue of his speaking English, thus forcing my prolonged involvement.

Only after surrendering my phone number and vaguely gesturing in the direction of my apartment building am I allowed to break away. My thoughts are drastic: “I can no longer walk through the community to get to the main road” or maybe I should only go through during weekdays, when that English teacher is likely to be in school.

When I got home I switched off my phone, but only after 3 incoming text messages. Today, 2 days later, it is still switched off.

After a good night’s sleep I feel a bit recovered, but by no means recharged. That will take much longer. Today, I lounge on the world’s ugliest couch, reading my book. That feeling of peace that deserts me after prolonged periods of social engagement is starting to creep back. Another few days should do it.

Wait a minute: I’m lounging on the world’s ugliest couch?

After obsessing over its ugliness for nearly 2 years I took a Magic Eraser to its fake snakeskin upholstery and put the cushion covers in the wash. While it is still not the world’s most attractive piece of furniture, it is now much more presentable and does have the added benefit of allowing me to read while propped up, which my new couch, the screamingly red one that belongs in a piano lounge does not.

I’ve made my peace with the world’s ugliest couch. And, while reclined on it, reading, I seek peace from the demands of the world.

I should be OK in a few days.