Monday, July 30, 2012

Visible Status

One of the first things that struck me as soon as I touched foot on American soil is that people in America visibly proclaim their status.

Most notable was a family of what appeared to be of the fundamental religious sort. The women wore home made dresses topped by pinafores, with bonnets on their head. The family’s girls wore similar garb but did not wear the head coverings. None of the women wore any type of adornment: makeup, jewelry… not so much as a wedding ring. Their shoes were plain, the type that is commonly referred to as ‘old lady shoes’. 

The men were more conventionally attired: shirts and slacks, and a variety of footwear ranging from athletic to loafers. Also, it seems they were allowed more flamboyance: they wore wedding rings and watches, and they sported different lengths of hair although none wore theirs excessively long.

This group grabbed my attention but was by no means the only group visibly displaying their status. Women who are Muslim wore their burqa, women who are Indian were wrapped in their sari. In these cases too their men were more conventionally dressed – conventional to western culture, that is. Slacks, button down shirts and loafers or sneakers, with a modicum of jewelry. 

Looking further: businessmen proclaim their status by wearing suits and pulling expensive travel cases. Prior military, or even current military usually wear or carry something camouflage: a duffel bag, combat boots or, if active duty, wear a complete uniform. People from the South wear tee-shirts with Dixie oriented slogans and blue jeans. Some wore cowboy hats.

And so on. I conclude that, in America, people of special interest groups display their interest visibly, almost as a challenge. Consider people who are homosexual (rainbow banners/stickers on their car), people affiliated with the Marine Corps (USMC or Semper Fi stickers on their car), people who are Mexican, people’s political affiliation (bumper sticker for their current candidate, this being an election year), people who enjoy and support gun ownership with their NRA shirts, stickers or pins, people who ‘heart’ dogs or cats or books or…      

All of this proclamation is very strange to someone who has lived in China for the past 11 months.

The Chinese do their best to not stand out in any way. They even have a word for that phenomenon: he (pronounced ‘hre’). In its purest sense, ‘he’ means ‘with’ or ‘and’, as in ‘you and me’ – ‘ni he wo’.

Since the dawning of Chinese society several thousand years ago people were encouraged to hold their head down, work for the collective good and not proclaim any kind of status lest they be ‘made an example of’. This held true during the feudal times as well as during the early years of the Communist party. It is such an ingrained part of being Chinese that it still goes on today.

One obvious exemption: nuns and monks. They have the… right? Obligation? to display their status by wearing robes representing their status and religion. However, it bears noting that, from circa 1950 until the 1980’s, when Deng Xiaoping realized the cultural significance of the country’s founding philosophies, being a monk or a nun was a dangerous occupation.

The only other exception to the ‘keep your head down’ rule was fingernails and skin, and that, to an extent, was beyond a person’s ability to control. Only the emperor and his concubines, people who did no manual labor whatsoever, and even went so far as to have eunuchs to dress and groom and feed them wore their fingernails long. The longer the nails, the longer that person’s hands have been unused, indicating that person has been a part of imperial court.

Dark skinned people were obviously those who toiled outdoors while fair skinned people could afford the luxury of shade of some sort. Maybe they were officials or bureaucrats who spent the days indoors. To this day fair skinned Chinese, especially women are more desirable than dark skinned Chinese. 

Nowadays in China you might recognize a businessman because he is carrying a murse (a man’s bag), and by the type of cigarette he smokes. The way he holds his cigarette is also indicative of his status. Although he might sport jewelry of some kind, it is unobtrusive. He does not wear a suit or bear any other distinctive ‘marking’. He is just as likely to ride a bus as he is to rent a car or own one outright. In general, whether male or female you cannot tell a bureaucrat from a salesclerk, a student from an office worker or a waiter from a shop keeper.

Service uniforms – police, military, railroad or bus and even street sweepers are in no way distinctive from male to female, other than females have the option of wearing skirts. The shirts and slacks are not tailored to accommodate gender.

You could say the Chinese are masters of assimilation.

That is changing nowadays, though. With conspicuous consumerism becoming the norm, flaunting your status and wealth has changed the ‘keep your head down and your thoughts close’ mentality. Clothing, accessories such as shoes, bags and jewelry, hygiene and grooming all quietly but emphatically advertise status. Electronics proclaim your wealth. Obviously if you own an I-Phone you are ‘better’ than someone who owns a run of the mill Samsung. Where you live and how your apartment is outfitted, what you serve for dinner and what you do for entertainment all underscore your place within this rapidly evolving, class craving society. 

People are judged by what type of car they own (if they own one). When word got out that Victor bought a car last year he was the envy of all the teachers till they found out he bought a small Chevy Aero. Had he bought any type of Toyota but especially a Camry he would have proclaimed status.  As it is, with his practical but by no means luxurious conveyance he is actually a laughingstock on campus. Poor Victor! And here he thought he had stepped up on the esteem ladder!

The Chinese have a long way to go to meet or beat the American passion of proclamation. I daresay that, in some ways they will never go beyond the level of status declaration they currently display. A lot of that has to do with the lack of religious and political freedom they have, as well as the suspicion the government has regarding fringe groups.  

Besides, it is very hard to throw off thousands of years of cultural tradition.

The Importance of Plans D, E and F

This is going to be an interesting entry, comprising of a matter before I left China and one just prior to my return. My head is once again faster than my fingers, so I hope I can get everything written the way it sounds in my thoughts.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve saved a substantial amount of money in anticipation of my trip stateside. Originally I was going to convert the bulk of these funds into American currency, thus being assured I would stay within a certain budget while flitting about and stocking up on what I would need for another year here.

Plan A was to withdraw funds from my Chinese bank and deposit them into my international bank account. That way I would only need my HSBC bank card to assure a steady cash flow while stateside. That plan failed. I could not deposit any funds because my HSBC account is strictly an online account. I could transfer funds into it online for later ATM withdrawal, but being as I did not have my account’s online access information – a full 2 years after requesting it multiple times! – that plan pretty much disintegrated.

Plan B was to convert the amount I had planned to deposit from Yuan to dollars prior to leaving Wuhan. That too failed because no Chinese bank had that level of American currency on hand. As Sam mournfully informed me, one has to schedule such a transaction. Neither of us knew that going into this affair, so we ended up running around from bank to bank in my last days in Wuhan, trying to find a bank that might perchance have such an amount of foreign currency.   

Plan C was for me to take all that money – Yuan, in cash, stateside with me, and then convert it as soon as I touched down on American soil. Not an effective plan being as currency exchange rates stateside would not be as lucrative for me as conducting the exchange here. To say nothing of the danger of carrying large amounts of cash while traveling. 

Sam, as always, was indefatigable. I, worn out from the heat, the boarding and debarking of buses and the stress of it all reasoned that I had funds waiting for me stateside in the form of an IRS return. Much as I did not want to spend that money I would be kind of forced to, because I would not be able to deposit it into my HSBC account as I had anticipated, for the same reason I was not able to deposit funds while in China. It is strictly an online account. I can only transfer funds into it. I cannot make any outright deposits.

That international bank deal seems to not be working out as I had planned. I can tell. Still, it is nice to know that I have a little nest egg, a cash cushion in case things don’t work out as planned.

On the day I flew back  to China, they didn’t. Here is what happened:

Reasoning that I was visiting Tampa before my longer stay in California, Jennifer and I worked out a plan in which Gabriel would fly to California with me to enjoy the last of my visit and to meet his new cousin, Benjamin (AKA Bun). We had a great time. Somehow, in the thick of it all I was under the impression I was flying back to China on Monday. More specifically, Gabriel was flying out on Monday morning, unaccompanied, back to Tampa. Twelve hours later I was to fly out of the same airport. The intent was to make the airport run as hassle free as possible for Darrell and Sammi. I had the times right but the day wrong. It wasn’t on Monday that we were supposed to fly but on Sunday! 

So, here we are, enjoying the last of our time in sunny California. Gabe spent the night at his aunt’s house while Sammi and I talked and drank wine till nearly 3AM. Darrell was asleep on the couch and Bun was down for the night. A great time was had by all. Later that morning our sleep was shattered by my daughter, calling from Tampa, asking if her son was on the plane home, as scheduled. 

Well, no, because I thought we weren’t flying out till the next day!

Leaping off the couch at the sounds of Sammi and Darrell’s discussion in the kitchen, I stumbled to my travel papers and looked at the date. July 22nd, fly out date for both me and Gabriel. I did not get that wrong. What I did get wrong was that the 22nd was not a Monday but a Sunday. THAT very day!

My first selfish thought: my flight is still secure. I wasn’t to fly out till 11PM. It would have been substantially more expensive and more difficult to rebook that flight than rebooking Gabriel’s. In the meantime, Darrell jumped on the phone and managed to get Gabriel on a flight back to Tampa the very next day, and only for a small rebooking fee of $100. That was the exact amount of cash I had left, and it was meant to cover the ‘unaccompanied minor’ fee to get Gabe back to Tampa.

FYI: in case you didn’t know, kids can fly unaccompanied by family but it does cost. For that small fee and a small forest worth of paperwork you can put your child on a plane and he/she will be supervised from point of origin to destination by a specially trained flight attendant. Identification is required to pick up your child once the trip is complete.

Fortunately, rebooking Gabe’s flight turned out to be easy. Paying for it was a different story. Neither Darrell nor Sammi had that much money on their respective credit cards, and a panicked phone call to Jennifer yielded the same answer. Of course, I have no credit cards, having divested myself of all such things prior to leaving for China 2 years ago.

Again, Darrell’s quick thinking and connections prevailed. He appealed to a friend who lives downstairs to offer up the credit card in return for the cash I would provide. Tom and Judy had no problems helping out, once the situation was explained. I handed over my $100, Judy handed over her card, Gabe’s reservation was secured and now all is well…

Except for one thing: I had no money to pay for Gabriel’s ‘unaccompanied minor’ fee. And I had no extra money to give him for food or drink while in flight, and nothing extra to give Darrell and Sammi for the expense and trouble of making an extra trip to the airport. Here again, flexibility prevailed. I used my HSBC card to withdraw money from that seemingly useless account.

Except for Gabriel’s heartbreak at having to see his beloved Mema get on the plane instead of my heartbreak at witnessing my beloved Gabriel board a plane for Tampa, all went well. Darrell and Sammi were compensated for the extra gas and time they will have to spend taking Gabe to the airport the next day, and I even had the cash to leave them a small gift, tucked somewhere safe in their apartment for discovery once I’m gone. Had we not been flexible in our thinking and actions, especially Darrell, we would have been stuck with all of our carefully laid plans that didn’t work out. Thus the importance of having more than just a plan A, B, and C.

And now, a funny: after everything was resolved I hugged my Darrell close. I just wanted to let him know: “Somewhere in your apartment, you will find a small gift.”

He replied, dismayed: “Oh, No! We’ll never find it!” referring to the fact that neither he nor Sammi have time for in depth housekeeping with their schedules, especially now that Little Bun takes up whatever free time they once might have had.  And, they weren’t that great at housekeeping to begin with. Fortunately Sammi is in on the joke. She is the one who hid the gift.

The subsequent laughter at his repartee was a great stress buster.       

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Now with Ads!

If you have been a fan, reader or visitor of this blog for any amount of time you may have noticed that our blog now contains advertisements.

I have been sharing my adventures with you for almost 2 years now. Over 350 topics we’ve talked about together. That, in itself is remarkable. I can’t thank you enough for making this journey with me.

Last year, while Stateside, my conspirators and I were kicking around some ideas, both for our blog and for my future as a writer. Much as I love to write and share my experiences, it is not a very lucrative career unless you are in the Stephen King or J.K. Rowling set. I am most definitely not in that league. Fundamentally I write for the love of writing.

Why shouldn’t I profit from it? And so the idea was born. Hastily, before boarding the plane back to China I signed up for Google Adsense, an app that would both guarantee my blog entries would receive preferential exposure in your Google searches and would pay me, should you click on an ad linked to any of my pages.

Another year of not seeing my blog. Another year of my conspirators managing it for me. They did tell me that no ads have appeared on my page yet but we reasoned that it was because Google needed to review and approve my application before placing ads.

More recently we… well, my conspirator discovered I was supposed to insert a certain script into my blog profile in order to incorporate the ads into my page. Being as I am far less computer savvy than said conspirator, I left that task in his capable hands. After all I am the Artiste! The Dreamer! The Weaver of Fables, Funny or Not! Details do not interest me and mundane tasks, such as inserting scripts do nothing for me at all.

You have my conspirator to thank for now being able to see these ads. He is the one that figured out how to do all of it. Believe me: it is far more complicated than simply dropping a line of script into a profile.

And, should you decide to click on any of the ads, I will earn a few pennies. Not much at all, really. Unless you decide to click on every single ad and get all your friends to do the same.

I am just as happy if you continue to share this adventure with me, whether you click on an ad or not. Either way, I will keep on writing. I hope you will keep on reading.

Thank you.. 

Oh, Darn!!

I should have made note of where I left off in my narrative before returning to China, where I can’t see what I have and have not written! However, I have made notes and, as is my habit once I write up a topic I’ve made notes on, I write either ‘done’ or put a giant check mark by the notes dealing with that topic. So, I have a rough idea of what I’ve covered. Should I by chance report double – repeat an entry, please overlook it. Maybe I’ve written something new that I neglected to include in a previously posted passage.

While I’m at it, let me share my feeling with you, as the Chinese say.

A thought/feeling came to me that I never expected: I wondered, for the first time, if across the ocean is truly where I belong.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my life over here and I love learning new things about the culture. In fact, I love the culture and writing all about it, and sharing those musings with you. I am in fact happy to be back here, even though the school year doesn’t start for another month.

I think was is getting to me this time, this homecoming is that, while stateside I spent my time with loved ones exclusively. I did not travel around, take any circuitous routes, buses or anything that would in any way delay or hinder my spending time with those my heart holds dear. Once with them, each in turn, there was not that wild carousel of going here and there, seeing, doing and getting worn out. As such, being surrounded and filled and suffused with the joy of those precious to me from coast to coast I had little time to miss all of the things that endear me to China.

And now I find myself missing my American ‘side’ all the more, for all the time spent with them. Though I rationalize that, if I returned to America to live, I would most likely not have the freedom that my current circumstances provide me. I would not have the quality of life I enjoy here, and I would have to take care of myself rather than have a Sam or a Gary make all of my arrangements for me and shepherd me through my various toils and travels. Still I miss waking up every day to Little Bunbun’s cries and Gabriel’s teases and KatKat’s mischief.

It was wonderful to enjoy my visit while it lasted, but I have to get it through my head that a visit does not a permanent situation make. Bun will not always coo and smile toothlessly. Gabriel is going to move into his tweens this year. Kat is going to daycare. While, in itself the kids growing up is not bad or wrong, my expecting things to remain as they were during my visit, and to have all of the free time and leisure to spend with them is.

Another challenge: both of my kids live on either side of the country and most of my friends live geographically in between. Where to settle down, should I even contemplate returning? How to get back on my feet?

No, I’m just missing them, I conclude. It is just a matter of so much of a good thing making me wish I could enjoy that moment in time forever. In my heart and mind, I will. By and for all practical purposes, here is where I am, where I live and, as I’ll find again when the school year starts, where I belong.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A New Writing Venture

With the Great Baby Race entry posted in April of this year, I hit upon a formula that I find engaging and challenging to write: direct comparisons between American and Chinese cultures and ways of life, with each facet having its own paragraph.  

I so enjoyed writing that entry that I intend to follow that format when comparing senior care, women's and children's activities in both countries. Later... when I'm done traveling and have the quiet I need to compose them with the thought and consideration they deserve.

Curiously enough I've found something out during this visit Stateside. After living in China for almost 2 years and being completely immersed in that culture, I find a new appreciation for certain aspects of the American way of life. Mainly for the resources available to seniors, women and children. Not that I'm deliberately overlooking men but, quite frankly, their way of life and enrichment activities have not changed that much over the years and across the miles.

Stay tuned for those. In the meantime...

My friends, I’ll make no secret of this: I’ve wondered if this blog should be finite. Beyond the fact that many of the ‘firsts’ that I enjoyed (or suffered through) and shared with you have already passed, how many novel topics can I write about with regard to life in China before the subject becomes stale? What if there’s nothing left to be said? Or worse: what if there are still things to say but they come across as trite? What if I lose my narrative powers?

I believe Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original Star Trek television series had it right when he made the decision to end Star Trek after only 3 seasons. He said he had just run out of things to say. The storyline had run its course, much to the dismay of viewers who became completely enthralled by the futuristic premise and the underlying topics of peace, learning, cooperation and growth. To say nothing of all those cool gadgets, many of which now exist. Cellphone, anyone? How about a scanner?

Sure wish transporters exist. It would make getting back to the States to visit my loved ones so much easier. 

Has the Vagabond Blog run its course? My daughter, also a blogger, insists it is still fresh, entertaining, informative and engaging. The feedback I get from you, dear Readers, says pretty much the same thing. Ergo, not only are there still things to write about, but I can still write about them with power and authority. So the Vagabond Blog continues. After nearly 2 years of publication, comprising of over 300 entries, I write on. Thanks to you, ever and eternally, my Dear Readers for continuing to enjoy it with me.

Incidentally: My daughter also said she would let me know if I start missing the mark as far as blogging is concerned. She’s a peach.   

How strange then, after bolstering me with the assertion that my blog is still vital and entertaining, that she would be the one to suggest I take on yet another topic?

She didn’t exactly suggest it. We were chatting one night, late for me. That would be early afternoon for her being as we are polar opposites, timewise. We were musing about family humor, specifically our family’s own brand of humor.

LIGHT BULB MOMENT! I typed ‘we should write a blog about it’. She responded with: “yeah, we could call it…” and thus the idea for my daughter and me to co-author a blog was born.

And so, without further ado, we invite you to join us as we reminisce and educate you in the inner workings of our language. Be the first to learn what a poopin is, how to use an oinker and when to throw garbeg on the grown.  Read The Lexicon of a Strange Family, at Each month we will feature a new word or phrase, complete with etymology and discussion.

This is going to be so much fun! We hope you will enjoy it too.   

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Broken vows

Today I break my vow of silence to tell you about a fantastic group I met yesterday: The Page Turners. They are a women's reading group in Tampa, FL who get together once a month (approximately) to discuss the book that they elected to read at their last meeting.

When I say 'meeting' I do not mean a stuffy boardroom, nor do I mean someone's house, gracious as it may be. Each meeting is held at an eclectic restaurant around Tampa. Yesterday's get together was at Byblo's Cafe (, in a trendy neighborhood of that city. 

I had the pleasure of addressing this club. Of course, I mentioned our blog. Everyone expressed interest and indeed are interested in learning more about China, the culture, teaching and living in a country that is so vastly different from America. Many had questions that, unfortunately there was no time to answer thoroughly. While handing out my card I invited each person to write me directly...

And that gave me an idea.

Blogging, by nature, is a solitary endeavor. And, it is a fairly self-centered undertaking. I can't legitimately report on other people's experiences, can I? Unless I interview them and get their permission to write their thoughts.

Thanks to the women of the Tampa Page Turners Club I got the inspiration to ask you: what are you interested in? What do you want to know about China? Which aspect of the culture would you like to see compared with America?

I invite you to email me at with your requests. What do you want to know about? What can I explore and report on for you?

And, if you happen to live in the Tampa area and enjoy a good read, good company and good food, please feel free to visit the Tampa Page Turners' website at for their next meeting place, and what they are reading. I'm sure they'd be delighted to meet you, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I can't believe I did it again! I have got to get in the habit of posting that the blog will be on hiatus while I travel around, finding new things to write about. It is not fair to you to page over, only to find nothing posted for, now... about 3 weeks?

So sorry about that. I now post this to inform you that I am on hiatus for another 3 weeks visiting friends and family stateside, after which there will be new things to read. I promise.