Friday, August 31, 2012

Here and There Elder Care

This stateside visit I developed a new appreciation for certain amenities, among them elder care, and enriching activities available to women, children and the elderly. I’d like to do a series of entries comparing what is available for these groups in China versus in America.

You’ll note that I do not specifically include men in this list. Men’s enriching activities are pretty much the same across the board, and men have traditionally had more enriching activities than women, children and the elderly. Essentially, men eat, drink, smoke, play cards or chess (checkers, in China), participate in or watch sports… as they have on both sides of the ocean, for several thousand years. Only recently has any society focused on activities promoting the well being and socialization of women, children and the elderly. 

As Chinese society reveres their elders I thought it would be particularly interesting to start with activities and amenities targeting that demographic.

As far as providing essentials (housing and food) for the elderly:

In America there is a choice of options: retirement communities, assisted living, nursing homes for those requiring full time care, Meals on Wheels for shut-ins, homes for special needs patients such as those suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. There is also hospice (at home or in a specially designed facility) for terminally ill patients.

In China, providing those essentials to the elderly is left up to family.

In China, the family bears the brunt of medical and care costs. Only recently has China started a social security system. The government has appealed to its senior citizens to pay in a certain amount, about 300,000 Yuan per person, that will be disbursed to them incrementally. Many elderly (and their family members) see the fallacy of this system and have opted to not pay in. To my knowledge, the Chinese social security system is still in its infancy with workers only now being ‘taxed’, as they are in America.
America has had a social security system in place since 1935 The so-called Boomer Generation, those born between 1946-64, who have paid in their entire working lives are now receiving the benefits of their pay-in under that system. Through the Social Security Administration they also have access to Medicare, Medicaid and that program’s various parts: A, B, and so on.
In addition, surviving spouses continue to receive pension payouts – governmental (including military), career professional or private investment/wealth planning, until their death.
In China, surviving spouses of retirees receive only what their primary breadwinner was able to save. Retired government workers do receive a pension, but once that person dies the pay out stops. If there is a surviving spouse, he or she is left with nothing (NOTE: women do receive a special government compensation regardless of the existence of any spouse death benefit. I will cover that more extensively when I write the entry about women.).  There are no corporate pension payouts because, until very recently, there were no corporations. No such thing as a 401K, IRA – Roth or other, or any other type of employer-sponsored retirement provision.  
While I’m at it, let’s talk about estate planning. In America: the choices are many and varied. In China there is none. For those born prior to 1980, the oldest male child gets everything. Nowadays, with the one child policy, the only child gets everything. If that child is female and the family particularly traditional, all of the family’s wealth will go to her husband. If she is not married and is of marriageable age, it will revert to the next oldest family male (uncle, cousin, nephew, ect). If the family’s offspring is female and not of marriageable age, the family wealth will be held in trust until her marriage by the next oldest family male.
Rumor has it that that is changing, but tradition will most likely bear out for the foreseeable future.    
What about socializing?
In America senior centers are springing up everywhere. The Summit, in Grand Prairie, TX is a fine example of such a center.
The Summit features both indoor and outdoor activities. Outdoor activities include a communal garden, walking paths, landscaped grounds and a man-made lake. There is a well-appointed patio, complete with grill area and concessions stand. The patio is partially shaded. There are benches for those who enjoy sitting out in the sun.
Indoor activities comprise of a variety of sports amenities such as a swimming pool, exercise equipment, basketball, volleyball and pickle ball courts. There is another concession stand/snack bar, a room to play pool and table tennis, several rooms dedicated to conferences and/or classes. Board games, card games and crafts are also available. All of this is prefaced by an attractive lobby, in which armchairs beckon those who wish to sit around and socialize. In addition, The Summit offers lessons in gardening, craft making, cooking and other topics. Members are encouraged to lead these classes. As if that weren’t enough, they offer extra programs, such as wine tasting – complete with dinner, to its members about every three months. Dances are held every other weekend.
In my opinion, The Summit and facilities like it provide seniors an excellent opportunity to socialize and stay fit and active in their community.  
In China, there are no Senior Activity Centers, or anything of that sort. Seniors tend to congregate on the sidewalks and socialize on their own. On any given day you can walk any street and you are likely to find a group of seniors fanning themselves (in the summer) or bundled up (in the winter), sitting around and talking. There are outdoor physical fitness ‘playgrounds’, with exercise equipment that people, not just seniors, can make use of. Oftentimes you see small children playing on this colorful equipment. Many seniors farm small plots of land, if possible. Most take care of their grandchildren, if there are grandchildren to care for. They cook for their children and take care of the home. Most seniors walk or jog for exercise. Elderly women play mah-jongg or cards for entertainment. The men tend more toward checkers.   
Some seniors, discovering talents of each other form acting or music groups. They put on performances in parks, free to whoever happens to be meandering by. While in Chongqing with Gary and Mask we came upon such a group. A woman, regal in posture, with elegantly swept back hair was wowing the crowd with her rendition of Micaela’s heartbreak, from the opera Carmen. I stood transfixed. I have no idea what this woman did for a living, or if she even worked for a living (of course she did: she lived through the Great Leap Forward, when everyone worked!), but if it wasn’t singing/entertaining, her talents were wasted!
That is a picture of me with her, gushing over her performance while the rest of the senior group mills about in the background. Isn’t she beautiful?
Back to comparing, now.       
America has organizations such as AARP and ASA that are active politically, lobbying for senior rights. Their magazines publish articles of interest to that group and membership in such a group promises discounts in travels and entertainment, among other things.
China has no such organizations. To my knowledge, no one has even contemplated founding such an association or any type of publication dedicated to seniors. 
Final comparison: Whereas America has a strong religious foundation and many seniors rely on their church for socialization and enrichment activities, in China there is no officially recognized religion. Thus, socializing and activities conducted by or through a church group is not available to the elderly of China.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found American society ageist to the extreme: by 40 one is considered used up and age 60 is considered downright prehistoric. China reveres their elderly… but do virtually nothing for them.
With all due respect to China and their traditions, I find that America has much more to offer their seniors in the way of enrichment and social activities.
On the other hand though, one major criticism that Americans face is how they distance themselves from their families. It is fairly typical in American society for the nuclear family to establish a household onto itself and leave their parents and grandparents behind. And, while many Americans do care for their elderly relatives, all too often we hear that those relatives are shunted to a home of one type or another. It has become ‘old saw’ to joke about how the elderly are left out of family activity, or that kids complain about a visit to Grandma’s.
Furthermore, people in America tend to disregard their elders when it comes to enrichment activities, choosing instead to focus on the development of their offspring.
Offsping? Who said that?
Child development and enrichment is where we will go next.  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Heading North, Now

There are 2 weeks left till school starts. After all of the excitement of traveling south I almost can’t bear the idea of staying at home for that time, battling dust. In a fit of pique, and before I’d even gotten the entries written up from my adventures down south I went to the train station and bought tickets to Qingdao.

That city has long been calling my name. It lies about 5 hours southeast of Beijing by train, on the coast. It is mostly known for its beer, exported worldwide, even to the states. If you are in the mood for a pricier-than-most imported beer, you can try a Tsing Tao. I’ll be going to the monastery that brews it, so I’ll be able to send you pictures, if you’d like.

Hmmm… beer, brewed in a monastery. Smacks of Germany, doesn’t it? There is a reason for that.

A little over a hundred years ago, before the Boxer Rebellion when China was occupied by various European countries, Germany claimed the northern coast for itself. The Germans, as did all the other occupying forces, brought their culture with them. That includes gastronomy, religion, architecture and, of course, beer. As a matter of fact, during August and September, Qingdao sponsors a beer celebration in what they call Old Town: what used to be the German section of town.

You can be sure I’ll visit there, but don’t count on my drinking a lot of beer. I’m just not a drinking kind of girl.

Also, there is a lovely coastal region to explore, and a modern inner city. I’m looking forward to discovering all of these treasures. Unfortunately I am going alone. The bestest traveling buddy in the world, Gary is stuck in Shanghai on a job. But he, and you are with me in spirit.

Let’s go see new things! The overnight train to Beijing leaves Wuhan in about 6 hours. Are you packed?

We’ll spend twelve hours in Beijing and catch another train to Qingdao. That is my only moment of disquiet. We’ll end up in Qingdao at about 2AM. Might be a bit tough finding a hotel room at that time of night. I’m sure we’ll be fine though.

By ‘we’ I mean you and I. You are with me in spirit, as always.

This blog hiatus gives you plenty of time to digest the previous 5 entries, where I talk about the adventures down south. When I come back, in about 5 days I’ll be writing about Qingdao.

See you when I get back!  

Looking Over the Pictures

While looking over the pictures, trying to choose which ones to include for the Snack Street I felt that my words alone did not do the locale justice. Not often I discredit my own writing abilities but this is truly something you have to see to believe. So again I treat you to a pictorial entry, this time of that great gastronomical venture.

You’ve read the description, now here are the sights:

That’s How Snack Street is Done!

I’ve written about Snack Street by my school. I believe I’ve also told you about Snack Street in Wuhan, where you can sample all of this city’s indigenous fare. It is quite the attraction, not so much for tourists but for college students. A popular hangout for young people, it rambles for a few city blocks and then connects to the equally popular shopping district Si Men Kou.

I don’t particularly care for that area because of the crowds and because it seems the only food indigenous to Wuhan that I truly love is Re Gan Mian and deep fried glutinous rice balls, both of which I can get practically anywhere else around the city, and for much cheaper.

But I do like to eat, and I’ve found I have a weakness for food in Wen Zhou. So, when Gary told me his friends were treating us to a dinner at the famous Wen Zhou Snack Street I could hardly contain my excitement… or my drool.

First let me tell you: Snack Street is a misnomer. It is not so much a street as it is a dining hall of epic proportions. The building is as large as an airplane hangar and along 2 of the walls various chefs, in their allotted stalls, prepare their specialties before your very eyes.

Massive, steaming cauldrons of soup. Giant woks, sizzling full of meat and vegetables. Noodle stalls. Baked goods. Fried goods. Raw goods. Tofu dishes and seaweed creations. Whole fish, live and fresh for the catching. Fresh fruit, attractively arranged. A dessert section. Booth after booth of culinary delights. Anything you can imagine, and dishes that defy imagination can be found on Wen Zhou’s Snack Street.  

Here is how it works: you are greeted at the door by a chorus line of wait staff. As you make your way along the stalls, you make your selections which the discreet waiter following you duly notes. You are then invited to sit in the giant dining hall or, if you are a member of a large party or would prefer a private dining room you are escorted upstairs and such a room is accorded to you. As the various chefs prepare the dishes you selected, your waiter/waitress brings them to your table or to your private dining room hot off the grill, out of the wok or cauldron. 

We were a large party and so chose a private setting for our meal. Being the guests of honor, Gary and I got to select most of the dishes. Our friends selected a few dishes they thought we might like to sample as well. In all, we ended up with sixteen different gastronomical adventures. 

It is safe to say that, if any of us went hungry that night, it would only be our own fault.

My friends, I declare that I could cheerfully live in Wen Zhou for the food alone. Of course, the people are wonderful too but, OHHHH! The food! The food is so good I could slather myself with it and lick it all off. It at least ties for first place with Xi’an food if not knocks Xi’an out of first place altogether.

As usual a Chinese meal, when properly done involves a time commitment of no less than 3 hours. We spent longer than that nibbling, talking, toasting one another. Private conversations broke out around the table as the meal wound down. The children in attendance, two little girls started running around and playing. At one point, Gary’s cousin’s wife took her SmartPhone out and started watching a television program. That is not considered rude over here.

Soon enough even the little snacking stabs at the leftovers stopped, a clear signal that the meal was over. We had spent a little over 4 hours at the table. One final toast and our party broke up and went downstairs. The waitstaff, their duty done for the night, were scattered around the dining hall, making their cleaning rounds and sweeping the floor. The chefs and their helpers were scouring their implements, making ready for the next day’s onslaught.

For Gary, this would be the last time he would see his friends for maybe years. He lingered over his good byes. One by one, the groups got into their taxis. Those who had their own car drifted to the parking lot. We hailed our own taxi back to the hotel for our final night in Wen Zhou.    

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coming into Wen Zhou

Coming into Wen Zhou as we did, by car, gave me a unique opportunity to cast my eyes all around. Unlike coming into town on a train or a long-distance bus, which usually follow main arteries, we came in on a smaller industrial/residential avenue. One of the first sights that caught my eye was a large, domed building on a hill, topped by a Christian cross.

Remember that, as a group the Chinese are not a particularly religious folk. However, Wen Zhou’s population, I found out later is, by last count, 15- to 20% Christian. Very interesting statistic and most likely accurate, seeing as there was a large, obviously Christian edifice visible from a distance on a well traveled road.

On the day that Gary was preoccupied with business I set about exploring the town. By sheer dumb luck I rode the bus that took me straight to that large church. Instead of riding the bus to the end of the line like I normally would, I decided to get off and explore this area.

Turns out that that particular region of Wen Zhou is in fact the religious center of the city, as proclaimed by that high profile Christian church on its hill. It is surrounded by Taoist and Buddhist temples, behind and across the street, respectively. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Walking toward the stairs that would take me up the hill there was what might be interpreted as a sacred fountain. In perhaps the greatest act of irreverence I’ve ever witnessed, a man was using that basin’s water to wash his car. I couldn’t resist: I got my camera out and snapped a picture. And then I climbed the stairs.

Invisible from the road and tucked behind the Christian church was a Taoist temple. Now THIS was strange. The Tao is an inclusive philosophy, which means that you are welcome to believe in that school of thought as well as any other doctrine you see fit. Christianity, on the other hand is considered exclusive: you either believe in the Holy Trinity as the be-all and end-all of religious wisdom or you are not Christian. That these two religious houses shared a hill is remarkable, in my opinion.

I was torn: which one to explore? The sun was setting and I didn’t have much time. I have toured all manner of temple in every Chinese city I’ve been. Not that I’m jaded to the idea of temples or in any way disrespectful toward Taoism or Buddhism but, after all, a temple is a temple is a temple. I chose the Christian church, being as this was the first time I had been up close to one in China.

The church sat a bit higher than the temple did so I climbed a little bit more. It looked like a relatively new building, constructed perhaps in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, right after China opened its doors to the West. There was no stained glass, just simple windows covered in a mirroring, UV reducing film. By pressing my face against the windows I could reach I saw that it was outfitted with pews laid out in the standard pattern: two rows of pews on either side of a wide aisle leading up to the altar. On the side of the altar was a stand for the choir. Along the back wall, a giant pipe organ. In short, a typical Christian church.  

I leaned against the parapet and looked out over the city. Across the street was another temple. Most interesting: two temples and one Christian church, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Widening my scope I spied another building in the not too far distance, also topped by a Christian cross.

What is up with religion in Wen Zhou? Most any other city I’ve visited, even temples are discreetly tucked away and Christian churches are as hard to find as matching snowflakes. Here, religion is virtually flaunted. Why?

It could have a lot to do with the fact that, being an industrial as well as a port town, many foreigners came to set up shop and brought their beliefs with them. Eager to please the money-bearing industrialists, churches were set up in quick order. That might explain the Christian churches, but what is the story with the temples?

If the lords of business get to go to their prayer houses, then so should the serfs. At least, thus goes the philosophy. So, while those who ascribe to the Christian doctrine attend services in their house of worship, those who bow to the Buddha or are empowered by the Tao can go pray at their temple. At least, that is the conclusion I came to after researching everything I could on the subject.

NOTE: China is still pretty closed mouthed about its religious activity and indeed bills itself as a non-religious country. There is not much information to be found. This oversimplification is mostly conjecture on my part, I’ll admit.

While still on the upper rampart of the Church I looked down to the street below. I thought I had witnessed irreverence before. During my brief tarriance up top, that first car had pulled away and two more pulled up for their washing.

Maybe they were taking ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ to a whole new level? 

Change of subject now, and this is scary. It might well be attributable to my religious building exploration of the day before.

The next morning, after Gary left I lounged around in my jammies, sipping tea. My hair was freshly washed but not yet dried or styled. No makeup or jewelry on. Then came the knock on my door. The police wanted to see my papers.

In all of my travels and in all of the time I’ve been in China, never once have I been asked for my papers after showing them as a matter of course while registering for a hotel room.

Having grown up in Berlin, Germany during the time of the cold war, when The Wall was up and the ‘free’ part of Berlin was one hundred fourteen miles behind communist lines, I have an instinctive fear of the police asking for my papers. It doesn’t matter what country I’m in. Even while in the states, on those rare occasions when I got pulled over while driving I was terrified of the authority figures.

And now, here in China, for the first time ever, I’m being asked for my papers. And I just had to be in ultimate dress down mode for the occasion. Braless and jammied is not exactly the way I would want to make the acquaintance of a Chinese jail.

Of course I’m writing this up with a bit of levity but I have to admit: I was scared. Gary’s friend had reserved the room and checked in for us. At no time was I called on to show my passport when checking in. If anyone was going to be in trouble it would most likely be the innkeeper or Gary’s friend being as my papers were/are in order. Only a novice vagabond travels around with incomplete or invalid documentation, after all.

Turns out it was just a random sweep of the rooms. Apparently. The occupants of the room next to mine also had to show their documents.

Maybe there was no connection to visiting a Christian church for the first time ever and having my papers checked for the first time ever. But, you never know… and, having grown up where I did you would know that anything of that nature is possible. I was jittery for hours after that encounter with the police.   

Wen Zhou

Gary returned from Shanghai around noon the following day. He asked me to meet him in the fashion district. I could leave my bags at the hotel, he assured me. That was a good thing because, originally we were only going to stay in that hotel 1 night. He extended our stay for the time I was to be there alone but checkout was at noon and they wanted their room back. Not knowing what Gary’s plans were I was unable to negotiate with the desk clerk. A quick phone call to my friend, who then made a quick phone call to the hotel front desk took care of everything. All I had to do was make my way to the fashion district. No problems.

It is a good thing that Gary was able to negotiate a later checkout time. I was packed and ready to go but he had left all his stuff there, taking only what he needed for his overnight stay in Shanghai. We’re good friends but not so good that I’m comfortable going through his things or packing his suitcase.

The purpose of our meeting in the fashion district was twofold: give him a chance to revisit his customers there and to see if, perchance I might be able to find anything in my size. No luck, as always… except for that blouse I found last week. He walked away with a fall line sure to impress his customers and a nifty pair of green sandals for himself. In an odd way they matched what he was wearing perfectly.

Back to the hotel, settle up on the bill. Pack our things. Have a quick meal at KFC: not that good. Wanted more picker-sticker bread! Load up the car and now, on to Wen Zhou, about a 4 hour drive away.

Wen Zhou is a tier 3 city, like Wuhan. As is Hang Zhou, it is an industrial town. It has a population of about 3 million, approximately 15% of them Christian. That is a significant statistic that I will get to in the next post or two. Wen Zhou is known as the birthplace of private economy because that is where the home manufacturing and small factory trend started. It is also a port city, being closer to the ocean than Hang Zhou, which ships its goods down the Yangtze before shipping out internationally.

The first night we were there we spent it in an outlying district, Wen Zhou East. This is where Gary lived and worked his first 2 years back from studying abroad. Our visit there was purely for pleasure, for him to visit with his friends.     

This part of Wen Zhou is a mean town, where people are said to drink the beer and eat the glasses. No sidewalks, no tree lined boulevards. Nothing nice, mild, genteel or inviting about this part of town. No traffic lights and no traffic rules: you brave traffic as it comes to you. If the drivers are not drunk or otherwise distracted, you might just survive crossing the street.

Besides drinking beer, KTV is the main pastime. In fact, that is where Gary found his friends: drinking beer at the KTV. They had already been at it for several hours, our arrival having been anticipated for earlier but again, we had met heavy rainfall and had to drive substantially slower than normal. We were escorted to the room his friends were at but midway there he was assaulted by two of them who unabashedly threw their arms around him and greeted him effusively.

This was a first for me. I’ve seen Gary among friends, among family and among business partners but I had never seen him cut loose and be totally caught up in the fun. He was like a completely different person! I’ve never seen him smile so unselfconsciously or sit, limbs akimbo. Again and again he was toasted and he returned the toasts till I wondered about his ability to drive (he reassured me we would stay in this part of town tonight: no driving necessary). He even sang a few songs at KTV, one of them a lovely duet with a girl he had dated years ago.

We left that KTV room a mess: spilled beer and spit sunflower husks. Dice flung about everywhere. A platter of fruit, now sadly wilted, on the floor. Full ashtrays and empty bottles. To be fair to Gary and I, most of that was existent before we even got there but we contributed our little bit.

Gary’s former boss, who had passed out at the KTV room had recovered sufficiently to take us to a surprisingly fine hotel for such a rude town. In fact, it was the nicest hotel we stayed in our whole trip. He had booked us adjoining rooms. I excused myself into ours while Gary went on to the next room to further enjoy the evening by playing cards and perhaps drinking more. It was great to see him have a good time with his friends.

The next day, his hangover alleviated only a little by coffee and a long shower, we went into Wen Zhou proper.

Wen Zhou looked like Wuhan must have prior to its building craze. Virtually the entire city is edificed with that sinister looking tiled buildings, testimony to the era of Sino-Soviet relations. There are no ‘ring roads’ here, what in America would be a looping highway around the city. Everyone drives surface streets and they are not well surfaced. There is virtually no government money spent here, perhaps because the population is minimal, and perhaps… well, perhaps they just haven’t gotten to that town yet. There are plenty of bus routes I was to discover later, and a lot of iconic Chinese architecture.

There is money in Wen Zhou though. It is quiet money, evidenced in the type of cars driven: Aston Martins, BMWs, Audi and others. There is not a large proliferation of shopping malls, like in most major Chinese cities and very few shops that I saw that sell internationally trendy merchandise. Most shops serve their neighborhood or their district.

Also, there is not much in the way of foreigner restaurants. Whereas in Wuhan McDonalds and KFC abound, one would be hard pressed to see such in Wen Zhou. That did not hurt my feelings at all.

In Wen Zhou proper, Gary was all business again. Apparently the act of renewing a car registration is not a light-hearted affair. It took him nearly all day to do so, and in the end it didn’t quite happen. A hurried visit back to the hotel room, a jump onto the computer, a few cuss words and a quick snatch of papers and he was off again, presumably back to the car registry bureau. Little did I know that he wasn’t registering the car but actually selling it.

Selling the car??? How were we going to get home??? Leave it to Gary to take care of business: he had looked into buying plane tickets back to Wuhan before he even contemplated selling the car.

See? It is a good thing I didn’t bring that large thermos jug full of hot water (see previous entry).     

Hang Zhou

For Gary, this was to be a working vacation. Mostly business with evenings reserved for fun. What time in the evening the fun was to start was debatable being as his business – meeting import/export trade customers, might last till the wee hours.

In China it is common to mix business with pleasure. A leisurely meal, an evening at KTV, maybe even just walking around the city or the business’ facilities all constitute a business meeting. The pace is relaxed and the feeling is convivial. Only the uninitiated would believe that business is not taking place. How one conducts him/herself during such business dealings is as indicative of future business prospects as the dealings themselves. I, having been invited along, was by proxy a part of these business meetings even though I contributed virtually nothing tangible.

Once we arrived in Hang Zhou Gary became all business. Not by changing clothes but by a subtle change in attitude. A voice pitched deeper, and more authoritative. A serious mien, at times deepening to a frown. Phone calls lasted longer, and were more specific in topic. We barely got installed in a hotel before it was off to meet some customers. That was no mean feat, seeing as we got there past 9PM… after driving for twelve hours.  

Hang Zhou is the capital of Zhe Jiang Province with a population approximately the size of Wuhan’s. It is considered a ‘core city’ of the Yangtze Delta because it acts as a hub to various transportation means: overland, by water and rail. It being a more textile driven town, it boasts a large fashion district. That is where we found Gary’s customers.

They immediately treated us to a fine dinner, followed by a night in a club. This was to be my first time in a nightclub, complete with strobing lights, throbbing bass and writhing bodies in… probably twenty years! And, it was to be my first foray into Chinese nightlife beyond the occasional, genteel outing to the local KTV.

Let me tell you: I may be twenty years out of practice but I was still able to totally get my freak on! True that the decibel level was disturbingly high and granted I may well have been the most out of place person in that club, being the only foreigner (and the only female). Nevertheless I attracted the attention of one of the club dancers who, after emitting an appreciative war-whoop made his way across the dance floor to match his gyrations to mine. What a feeling! Letting go, I dropped my arm onto his shoulder, threw my head back and swung my hips in ever wider arcs. The crowds loved it! So did I. 

Coming off the dance floor I was greeted and toasted, not the least by my buddy Gary, who had never seen me cut loose in quite that way.

My excursion onto the dance floor broke the ice. I had felt the weight of the stares before, when we first entered the club but now that I’ve shown myself to be so… ‘with it’? ‘cool’? ‘hip’? not quite sure what to insert here – people had no problem approaching me. Soon I had an entire line of young men waiting to introduce themselves and chat for a few minutes with this dancing queen.

Chatting at such a club is about as possible as sunbathing in Antarctica. Doable, but not easily. Fortunately, smiling and nodding a lot got me the required mileage.

For as fun as this flash back to my youth was, it was time to go. I had been up since 6AM, sat in a car all day, worked to build ‘guang xi’ with Gary’s clients and shaken my ‘groove thang’. Gary was also tired. He rescued me from the long line of courtiers. We went back to the hotel and slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted.  

The next morning, early, he was to head to Shanghai, 180km away. He would be gone overnight, which gave me nearly 2 days to explore the city by myself.

I found Han Zhou (pronounced Hran Joe) to be a pleasant city to walk around, even though the temps were a bit hot and muggy. Adjacent to our hotel was a lovely park, threaded by a canal, where I decided I would picnic for dinner, making do with the last of our road trip food for a meal. Walking further down the main road where our establishment was, I quickly found a bank and replenished my stash of cash, something I had not had time to do before leaving Wuhan. I kept my eye out for a cellphone store where I could reload my phone, my minutes being nearly spent.

I had no luck finding a phone store and the weather was simply too hot to walk around. I resorted to my usual tactic to see a city: ride a public bus. Heading to the nearest bus stop I found bus K355 to be both appealing and nearly empty. I decided that would be the bus I would ride. As luck would have it, the stop I came to was the first stop in the long route that this bus travels: all the better!

The second stop along the way I found a phone store. Isn’t that how it always goes?

Instead of getting off the bus and wasting the entire 2Yuan fare I rode the bus to the end of the line. Good thing I did: it took me to the old part of Hang Zhou, where ‘real life’ happens. Snaky alleys, grocers boasting their wares in the street, vendors pushing their carts, fragrant smells wafting along behind them. Meat hanging in the butcher’s windows. City seniors fanning themselves on shady street corners. Vehicles – buses and trucks - caroming down narrow lanes. Can’t get enough of this China! I was enthralled and overjoyed, both at my dumb luck at having found this area on my first time out and at having spotted a China Mobile cellphone store in this district, just 2 stops away from the end of the line.

Just as I got off the bus and started making my way to that store Gary called to let me know that his friend/business partner had just reloaded my phone, so that I didn’t need to worry about taking care of that small chore. I was to repay that kindness by having dinner with the client that night, while Gary was still in Shanghai. The money would be discreetly reimbursed during dinner.

Now flush with cash and a phone full of minutes I had nothing left to do but enjoy the sights. To be honest, there weren’t that many sights to enjoy, at least not along that particular bus route. This being an industrial town, much like all those others along the southern coast of China, it did not have much in the way of noteworthy architecture or attractions. Still it is quite pleasant, with tree lined boulevards and quiet waterways lacing through the city.

Without much else to do and only an hour and a half before dinner with Gary’s business partners, I made my way back to the hotel. Walking back from the bus stop I spied several people enjoying what I call ‘picker sticker bread’, a type of unleavened bread topped by various herbs and served chopped up in a small brown bag, eaten with stick akin to a toothpick, only longer. Soon enough I came to that vendor’s stall. 

I’ve eaten this type of snack plenty of times before in Wuhan, but never has it been quite so tasty. In Hang Zhou they make this bread with a sweet chili sauce that gives it a mildly spicy yet sweet flavor. Also, they are much more generous with their greens, including large chunks of pepper and leek. I could have made an entire meal out of that snack alone but I was due to meet ‘the clients’ for dinner, so I refrained from getting a larger portion. I did go back the next day for another helping, though. 

The dinner was quite an affair, with the hosts speaking no English to speak of. We were reliant on my limited Chinese speaking ability and one of the dinner companion’s translation software, downloaded to his SmartPhone. Although we did have a few laughs we all agreed the food was not that tasty. Afterward they were headed back to the nightclub we went to last night for a night of dancing but I begged off. They took me to my hotel before tripping the light fantastic.

All’s well that ends well. A long shower and a good night’s sleep awaited me.      

First Road Trip in China

Unless you want to count the long distance bus trips I took, this will be my first actual road trip by car in China. I was so excited!! I prepared for it much like I would prepare for a road trip in America: a small stash of clothing and food: hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, sausage, fruit and veggies. Don’t forget the cookies and chocolate for dessert!

Gary had packed water and Sprite, otherwise I would have brought my large thermos full of hot water for tea. As it turns out, it is a good thing I didn’t.

Yes, me and my bestest traveling buddy Gary are hitting the road! He had to return to WenZhou (pronounced ‘when joe’) to register his car and renew his insurance. Why Wenzhou when he lives in Wuhan?

In China, you register your vehicle and maintain the insurance in the place where you bought the car, not where it is garaged. Registering a vehicle implies having it inspected therefore, every 2 years he must drive the car back to where he bought it. Aggravating, isn’t it? 

The plan was to drive straight through, no stopping. In that way, the food stash was a great idea because it was a twelve-hour trip, not counting the stops we made for the typhoon-driven rainfall. More on that later.

As camping and day tripping are relatively novel concepts in China, coolers and other such outdoor gear are in short supply and not something you can buy at your local store. I made use of a vinyl bag that my friends had given me while stateside. It has an outside zipper pocket perfect for packing ice and a larger inside pocket where I put the food. Because the bag is vinyl it did not leak water at all. Because of the separate pockets the food did not get wet and, with the top folded over, the bag worked just like a cooler.

I don’t know what Gary had planned for provisions or meals along the way but my ‘cooler’ packing turned out to be the thing that impressed my travel buddy the most. Until I told him how we could heat the sausages: on the engine manifold, wrapped in aluminum foil. That sincerely impressed him.

I find the interstate highways in China much like the ones in America: closely resembling the Eisenhower Interstate System. Their system of numbering interstates eludes me but the road signs are the same: green for directional, blue for advisory, brown for tourist attractions and so on. Traffic signs are more like European ones: Merge, Start/End of Highway, speed limit signs all harken back to my time in France and Germany. Thus upcoming road conditions were not a mystery.

As I’ve noted before (see Lang Lang Madness, among others), all traffic signs are both in English and Chinese. Gary did not have an answer as to why that is even though he did affirm that not many foreigners drive the highways in China. The only thing that would probably stump the English reading motorist would be the explanation for traffic signs such as ‘merge’ or ‘yield’: ‘Intermingling traffic ahead. Please use caution when cars come to you.’ There were also several signs that warned: ‘Choose lane according to destination’

Nice of the Highway authorities to warn the unsuspecting, English reading motorist of such possibilities but wouldn’t “Caution: Merge Ahead” be so much simpler?

I’m given to understand that not many Chinese partake of fanciful road trips. That is due in part to the cost of gasoline: over 7Yuan per liter. It cost Gary over 400Yuan to fill his gas tank. Another reason for not taking road trips in China is toll fees. All the highways we went on were toll roads, and indeed all the highways I’ve run down in long distance buses charged toll fees.

Here’s how it works: unlike in America where you get a paper token that denotes your point of entry, here you are given an electronic badge, much like a security badge. It is programmed with your point of entry. Once you get off the highway you are charged like in America: by the distance you’ve traveled. It cost Gary between 115 and 150Yuan to cover the highway distances between Wuhan and Hang Zhou.
A note about these toll roads: I’ve heard it reported that many citizens are angry about the ongoing tolls. As in America, toll charges are meant to offset the cost of building the road. Once the road is built, maintaining it falls under the purview of the government… or, if you prefer, the taxpayer, being as the government pays for road maintenance out of tax funds. However, many if not all of the roads are still charging a toll. Not sure if there’s been an outcome to this debate but when/if I find out more, I’ll certainly let you know.

The final reason why most people do not road trip in China: no vacation time. Unlike in America, the Chinese do not accrue vacation time in addition to paid holidays. For the most part they only get National Holiday off – first week in October, and time off for Lunar New Year celebration. These are the two big holidays in China and if people travel they would rather make use of mass transit, such as trains or buses. In the long run it is cheaper and faster than driving one’s own car… if one even owns a car.   

Let’s talk about that typhoon rainfall for just a minute.

Gary, like so many Chinese drivers, is very cautious. He does not exceed the speed limit and observes all of the traffic laws, even that most annoying one that states: ‘if you are in the passing lane your left blinker must stay on at all times.’ The same rule exists in France. Nearly drove me crazy, hearing the blinker kilometer after kilometer while passing a long line of trucks.

The entire coast of South China is primarily a shipping port, thus most South China cities are crowded with factories. Stands to reason that the highways would be lousy with long distance trucks, doesn’t it?

But that doesn’t answer why I was not inspired to safety at Gary’s driving skill in the pouring typhoon rain. A few things led to my disquiet about that: not turning on headlights when turning on wipers, not being able to read road topography (if the road is darker it means there is standing water on the road), getting freaked out when passing cars splash his windshield and, perhaps the most curious, not knowing what that little switch at the bottom of the rear view mirror was for.

He had commented that he was bothered by the headlights of vehicles behind him. When I suggested simply deflecting the mirror he nearly had a cow… until I showed him how to reposition his mirror by flipping that switch the other way. Amused and amazed he seemingly forgot he was in the driver’s seat and flipped the switch back and forth, back and forth, while the car slowed down and the rain poured outside. I made sure my seatbelt was securely fastened. 

We did stop in the worst of the rainfall. Visibility was down to about 3 meters beyond the hood and a rest stop was just coming up anyway. Besides, we hadn’t been out of the car for 6 hours; it would be nice to have a good stretch.

NOTE: it is law to turn on your 4-ways when driving in adverse conditions to let other drivers know that adverse conditions are coming up. Signaling to exit the highway means turning those 4-ways off. Gary forgot about that, simply veering off the highway when the ramp came up. Fortunately he did not hear my gulping in fear.

Small note about rest stops: they are not like rest stops in America. More specifically, they incorporate all of the rest stop features you might expect, such as: restaurant, small convenience store, gas station at one end, public bathrooms. But they are distinctly Chinese in that they sell things like tea sets and other porcelain ware instead of pillows, blankets and local region souvenirs. The restaurant is only open at mealtimes and instead of a bottomless cup of coffee you can get all the hot water you want for tea or that bowl of ramen noodles you just bought at the convenience store. You can also buy vacuum packed snacks like peanuts, dehydrated fish, duck thighs and chicken feet at that store.

All in all, other than those obvious indicators of being in China, it was a road trip, much like one could make in America or any other country. Other than the typhoon causing some disquiet, it was a nice reunion and a fun, relaxing time spent in the company of my good friend.

Let me tell you about HangZhou, next.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

I Can See Your Underwear!

For the longest time I have held the belief that Chinese people, who so love to copy western fashion would not take to the idea of exposing their undergarments like many youths in America seem to think is so fashionable these days.

I am now convinced I must revise my opinion. And not on the basis of winter apparel but of what appears to be considered fashion this summer.

I’m bringing winter garb into the picture because it is not uncommon for women to go about in form-revealing tights and figure hugging tops during the colder months. They are a bit bulky because those articles of clothing are fur- or microfiber lined. Nevertheless the woman’s figure is clearly depicted although not an inch of bare flesh is visible. To make the visual easier, think ‘Cat Woman suit’ and you’ll have the right idea.

This discussion has to do with the ongoing breakdown of what, till now, has been considered acceptable by this society and its government.  

While I don’t project males adopting the ‘sag’ look anytime soon, it seems women’s fashions subtly encourage the flash of a bra strap… or even the whole bra. This summer, in China, fashion means wearing see through garments, net meshed tops or open backed apparel. All allow for a generous display of lingerie beneath.

On more than one occasion, while running the streets of Wuhan recently I’ve seen women wear dresses so sheer as to be completely see-through, and they were not wearing a slip underneath. Not only in Wuhan but also in Xi’an was this trend noticeable. It is not uncommon at all to see a black bra under a light colored blouse, or brightly colored panties under a light colored skirt. Twice while in Hanzhou and Wenzhou I saw women who were wearing a top with net meshed back. One was wearing a black bra underneath and the other woman wore a red bra that screamed against the whiteness of her skin.

I wonder if it is an intentional fashion statement or a fashion faux pas on the part of the female? Is it supposed to be sexy?

Whether by mistake or design, it certainly makes a statement on the liberation of females in China. Whereas before, women’s clothes were sexy by virtue of what they conceal, now they seem racy because of what they show. Form fitting silk garments with high necks that highlighted the sleekness of their figure have been cast aside. Gone is the modesty that has dictated their wardrobe choices till now. And apparently the government’s call for modesty and virtue, as well.

Still, I wonder. Traditionally, the Chinese home does not boast a plethora of full-length mirrors and the lighting is not that great. A woman may well dress in something that might be considered light and frothy,  socially acceptable and be absolutely unaware that she is out and about, appearing unclad once in direct sunlight. Or, at least, not sufficiently clad. That might explain women going forth in see-through clothing with their undergarments plainly visible.

Or, it may just be that women intend to walk around with their underwear plainly visible.

As for the deliberately revealing clothing, one can reason that if the store sells such apparel there must be a measure of approval on the part of society and, if that particular garment is selling well, there must be a demand for it. That might help explain the sudden surge of exposed flesh.

If women are going to wear open backed tops, why wear a wide strapped, 4-hook bra underneath? Doesn’t that take away from the effect? If the top is open backed, shouldn’t the exposed back be bare? Wouldn’t that be sexier?

Am I just an old fuddy-duddy?

I recall the days where Madonna and Cher pranced all over the stage in venues from coast to coast in their mesh-netted clothing and barely there underwear. Well, barely there in Cher’s case. In Madonna’s case the underwear was most definitely there, with foot-long spikes jutting from the cups of her bra. But Madonna and Cher, among others, are performers whose acts are choreographed to shock their audience. These women in China are not of such an ilk. I presume they are women like every other woman who may or may not be married, may or may not have a job, a child, and elderly parents to care for. They may well be ignorant to the fact that walking around, exposing a wide, 4-hook bra strap is not really sexy so much as trashy… at least in my opinion.

How far is this going to go? Is Chinese fashion going to go so far as “People of Walmart” style – where people wear whatever they feel like and to the devil with societal acceptance/approval of such choices? Or will the Chinese government step in and start regulating the fashion industry, as they did the media and communications industry when television started showing too many ‘self-absorption’ programs and not enough programming that promoted virtue and morals that more closely reflect this country’s culture?

Who can say? Not me. what I can tell you is that I find this trend disturbing.

Don’t you? 


Friday, August 10, 2012

And Now, They Really Are Getting Bigger!

A couple of years back, when I first moved here and first started with this blog, I wrote a post titled Those Fat Chinese. I’m going to pick up on that subject again, mainly as a part of what I would normally write about what is the same, what has changed and what is downright new upon my return to Wuhan.

Egads! Has it been years that I’ve been here? I’m afraid it has… How time flies!!

Last year, well… last school year, before I left for the States I had noted in passing, and remarked to Gary and some other friends how much bigger the Chinese people are getting. Not just in height, which mainly seems to afflict the boys, but also in girth.

Since coming back from the States, I am noticing it more and more. Young ladies with muffin tops over-swelling their waistlines, poochy bellies, entrenched bra lines, larger posteriors, chunkier thighs. Men with moon faces and size XL shirts that still do not quite conceal or cover expanding waistlines. Little kids aren’t exempt from the weight gain, either. I’ve seen some downright pudgy kids since I’ve been back.

Don’t get me wrong: overwhelmingly, Chinese are still svelte and trim, and the population as a whole has a long way to go before obesity is declared a national epidemic here. I’ve only seen a handful of people who could be considered obese, and none that would be called morbidly obese.

-          Remember, for the smaller Asian frame, a weight gain of 30Lbs would make them obese.

How did this happen?

I don’t think fast food is wholly to blame. Not that there isn’t a proliferation of  McDonalds’ or KFC – I dare you, at any time of the day or night (because some restaurants have now gone to 24 hour service) to find an empty McDonald’s in China and, for that matter dare you to try to find an empty table at a McDonalds’. While we’re at it, let’s throw in Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, Papa John’s, and all of the other imported fast food joints that do brisk business over here.

No, I don’t think fast food is wholly to blame and I’m not pointing the finger at Coca Cola, Pepsi and all of the other sugary drinks here, although the Chinese consume them by the liter. To be perfectly fair, the Chinese have their own sugary drinks: ready to drink teas, juices and their version of Gatorade, just to name a few.

First, I believe to blame is that the Chinese government is now pushing people to eat more wheat-based products, claiming that rice is not that healthy. How strange! This civilization alternately thrived and survived on a rice-based diet for centuries, and now the government says rice is not healthy? Nevertheless, people are following the advice to eat more wheat. It shows.

Prepared foods are another distinctive area to blame. Whereas traditionally, cooking fresh veggies with just a little meat and served with rice was the norm, nowadays there is so much more variety to the Chinese diet. No matter what size supermarket, even those on The Street and in the Over the Wall community offer a variety of frozen, prepared foods that only need a few minutes in the microwave. Instant noodles and vacuum packed meats, loaded with preservatives crowd store aisles. People buy them up. Convenience is everything. It is all a part of the new age lifestyle… 

New age lifestyle? The capitalist lifestyle as a whole. What do I mean by that?

Traditionally, Chinese life was very physical: lift that bale, tote that barge type stuff. It was common for children to walk for miles to school and for people to trudge for hours to get to their work assignment. Scurrying here and there on the orders of the commune leader, the police and even chairman Mao and his direct subordinates was also physically demanding. Add to that a lack of food and you have a pat solution to keeping a population underweight (and nearly dead).

Not until very recently has life become comfortable for the Chinese. Only in the last twenty years or so have they not only had an excess of money but an excess of leisure time.

Nowadays the affluent city Chinese spends a lot of time in front of a computer, either at work or at home. While out and about the status flaunters flock to Starbucks with SmartPhone, I-phone or some other device that will do everything but cook a bowl of noodles in hand, and spend a leisurely afternoon just sitting and networking or otherwise entertaining themselves. And let’s not forget video games for the youngsters.

Used to be, people could get their exercise running for a bus, or fighting to get on the bus, or fighting for a seat on the bus, or standing on a bus, but now, as the city and the need for more transportation grows, so the infrastructure grows. One hardly has to wait but a minute before another bus comes along. Several bus routes parallel each other so, if a bus 577 is too crowded for your taste you can always catch a bus 805 (which is a nicer bus line, anyway). Or you could just jump in a cab.    

The proliferation of taxis and POVs also contribute to the expanding waistline effect. As recently as 10 years ago in Wuhan, parking a car somewhere was not a problem because hardly anyone had a car. Now you’re lucky if you can get anywhere, for all the cars and resulting traffic. If you’re in a car, good luck finding a parking spot. Of course most places, from restaurants to shopping malls offer valet parking for free, so you don’t have to worry about parking your car in the ‘lower 40’ and having to walk to your destination. 

And it’s not just cars and taxis, either. Hardly anyone rides a bike that you have to pedal anymore. A battery powered scooter costs only a few thousand Yuan and the jump in the electrical bill is minimal… especially if you can plug into someone else’s meter or socket. Also, you don’t have to pass a road test or get a license to pilot an electric scooter on the roadways. If you want a gas powered one you will have to register it, but that is only a couple hundred Yuan and, with the Chinese attitude getting more and more aggressive and individualistic, people are opting for those more powerful conveyances.

All of these transportation options mean that the Chinese are walking less, moving less and, by association, carrying less.

Why carry a 50Lbs bale of cloth if you can strap it onto the back of a scooter? Why pull a handcart bearing a 100-kilo load of vegetables to the farmer’s market if you can get a motorized trike to do the heavy work? Why carry your groceries when there are wheeled carts that you only need to pull behind you? Why carry your child everywhere when there are now strollers to accommodate kids up to 4 years old?

Yes, strollers have started to make it big over here. That is unfortunate because they, and those wheeled grocery carts take up so much room on already crowded buses. You can imagine, I’m sure…

 In the evenings, after a quick cleanup from a prepared food dinner, people park themselves in front of the TV that now offers over 100 channels of everything from game shows to ‘reality’ TV, with a liberal sprinkling of movies and soap operas. They snack, they sit, they…

They get bigger, just like any other human being all over the world whose life is mostly sedentary, and who spends their time taking in high calorie food and drink.

Unfortunately, being fat is considered good in Chinese culture. It is a sign of health and affluence. But how long before ‘fat’ becomes ‘unhealthy’? How long before the government declares an obesity epidemic? How long before the combined effects of fast/prepared foods and sedentary life actually endangers longevity here? How long before we start seeing more and more people suffer from weight related health issues? How long before Chinese fingers are too fat to punch phone keys to order McDonalds’ or KFC delivered to their front door? (Over here, several fast food restaurants, as well as traditional eateries deliver).

I’m really worried. I saw a drive thru McDonalds’ in Hanyang the other day. Can other restaurants be far behind? 

Yes, the Chinese are getting bigger. That is not just my estimation, either. The most damning evidence of this trend came the other day, while I was strolling through a shopping mall. Usually I don’t try to buy anything because everything is too small for me. But…

Look! What a nice blouse! Why… it looks like it could fit me!

And it did. 


Back in the Saddle

No, not the writing saddle. The traveling saddle.

Tomorrow morning early (6AM???!!!???) I will get up and prepare for a weeklong road trip with my traveling pal, Gary. He has to take his car down south and has invited me along for the ride. Why he always has to go so early is a mystery. I think he is deliberately trying to adjust my body clock to a conventional rhythm. I like it just the way it is, but I guess I’ll have to get used to rising early anyway, when the school year starts.

In the meantime…

We will visit at least 4 towns on the way, and finish in Shanghai, where he and I will part company. He will stay and do some part time work with another company and I will take the train back. Or, maybe I’ll take the train somewhere else and do some more exploring. May as well, as long as I’m on the road.

That means that this blog will once again be on hiatus. That’s not a bad thing. After all, it is a blog about travel and Chinese culture and I have to live it to write it, don’t I? So, I’m living it, and I will write it.

While out on the road I will be pondering some finer points for a trilogy of entries that I’ve been researching about elder care, advances in women’s resources and children’s enrichment activities in China compared to America.

That idea came to me when I visited several facilities in America. I wondered what China had to offer its senior citizens, how far women have come in society and what this country has to offer children in the way of extracurricular and socialization activities. With school being out for another month, Gary being otherwise engaged and Sam and my other colleagues/friends being unavailable for interviews, I was at a loss on how to research these topics effectively.

And then there was something buzzing around my skull about eastern versus western religious art. Are you wondering where I’m going to take that one?

I have drafts, not ready to publish yet. I want to make sure my information is correct. So, you see, my friends, I have not been idle.

But now, I’m taking a break again. Time to hit the road, live the life and report on what I see and experience.

Let’s meet back here in one week. Till then, consider these fat Chinese.

See you soon!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Spirit of Highway Robbery

Or would that be skyway robbery? That would be the case with Spirit Airlines.

I remember one of my very first plane experiences. We flew on TWA back to France when I was but a young tyke. A beautiful woman wearing a dark blue uniform with a pillbox hat leaned down to me, smiling and handed me a toy to play with once aboard the plane. Looking back it was a cheap affair, a thin vinyl sheet affixed to an 8”x10” piece of cardboard. Pieces of red plastic, shaped like letters, houses and animals adhered to that one white sheet of vinyl through the miracle of static electricity, completing the play set. I adored it.

I must have, to still remember it. I believe that that one experience flying set the standard for all subsequent flights I have been on. To date, only the Asian flights come close to the memory of that one luxurious flight, when we were served quality food and all the drink we wanted by gracious hostesses (back then, there was no such thing as a male flight attendant).

Korea Airlines exceeds that standard. Each passenger is greeted upon boarding and, within one hour of take-off, everyone is served a beverage and a snack. Prior to getting that snack attractively attired attendants make their way through the cabin, handing out small zippered pouches containing disposable house shoes, a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. Headphones, pillows and blankets were already on the seats, laid out prior to us passengers boarding. Within 2 hours of takeoff we are eating a quality meal, served on real dishes and with real (not plastic) cutlery. Wine, should one desire to partake, is included. Two hours prior to landing one is offered a choice of breakfast meals, either Asian (porridge) or Western (omelet). From the over-the-top service to the quality food, all is included in the price of the ticket. No extra fees for baggage, food, snacks or alcoholic beverages. 

Onboard entertainment is provided to each individual passenger, also free of charge. Each seat comes equipped with a remote control programmed to navigate the extensive menu of choices displayed on the seatback entertainment systems. I played Yahtzee while my neighboring seatmate flicked through movie previews.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what flying is all about, and what it should be: an occasion, an affair, a memorable event.

Spirit Airlines also provided a memorable event, totally unlike the Air Korea experience.

I’ve been given to understand that Spirit Airlines offers a $9 fare to certain destinations. I can see where that would be an incentive to book with them: that is a remarkably low fare. Just remember that old adage: you get what you pay for. 

Where does the skyway robbery come in?

With Spirit it starts early. $15 convenience fee for booking online. Of course you are welcome to address the agents directly at the ticketing counter, but that will cost you $5. Not only did I have to pay the $15 but also the $5 fee because I do not own a credit card and thus could not check in using their automated system.

What did I need a credit card for? Because I was checking my bag. They charge a $38 fee for that. And that is just if your bag weighs less than 40 Lbs. If it weighs 41 to 50Lbs that checked bag fee goes up to $45. In fact, their checked bag fee goes all the way to $100 if your bag is particularly overweight.

I am getting ahead of myself. I am reporting on things I didn’t find out till my second attempt to fly Spirit Airlines, out of Dallas. Maybe because that particular flight outraged me so. Well… that attempt to fly. More on that later.

The one Spirit flight I did participate in was no less disheartening. Their ‘fee card’ as I have dubbed it included fees for everything from a simple canned soda to taking advantage of extra legroom seats.

Being as I am rather long it would have been nice to have extra leg room. The seat I was assigned had so little legroom my knees dug into the seat in front of me. I am used to being too long for Chinese buses but, as I recall I do fit in seats on American conveyances. Not so on Spirit planes. By the time we touched ground my knees and shins had bruises from the seat in front of me. Not because that gentleman reclined into my space but because those planes are that crammed full of seats that there is literally no leg room for anyone.

How much does it cost to have a seat with extra legroom on a Spirit flight? It depends on how long the flight is. If it will take more than 2 hours to reach your destination, plan on spending $75 for a seat upgrade. That is a little pricey for my blood. Maybe, in order to ease the pain of squishing myself into one of these no-legroom seats I should have a drink. No, wait! At $6 for a simple glass of soda, not even a whole can but a glass, I think I’ll go thirsty. And hungry, too. Snacks are expensive aboard Spirit planes: anywhere from $2 for a small can of Pringles to $4 for a bag of Combos.  

Spirit Airlines charges you for just about everything they can. I didn’t try to use the bathroom in flight but wouldn’t have been surprised had they charged a fee for that, too. 

For all that I’d like to keep bashing on them, I do have to say that, on that one flight I was aboard, the attendants were friendly and courteous. Maybe they suffered at the idea that they served such a poor master.

I can’t say how the service was on the second Spirit flight I was due to catch out of Dallas because I didn’t make it on that flight, even though I arrived at the airport over an hour before that flight was due to leave.

I arrived at the airport at 0630, in plenty of time to make my 0740 flight. I attempted addressing their automated check-in machines and they recognized my reservation but, because I was checking a bag and didn’t have a credit card for them to debit $38 from I had to cancel my automated check-in and stand in line. I queued up at 6:37 precisely.  

There were only two attendants manning the counter, and the line coiled substantially. I waited 43 minutes for my turn. By the time I presented at the counter they had called the flight and I was not allowed to check in. For all intents and purposes, even though the plane was still on the ground and in fact going through its boarding process, I had missed my flight.

“What can you do to get me on another flight?” I asked.

“Next flight to Tampa is 2 days from now” replied the agent, not making eye contact.

“What can you do about reimbursing me?”

“Nothing. We don’t offer refunds at all.”

“What can you do about making this right?”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

And so it went. I asked for names and was told it was against company policy to divulge that information. I asked for a supervisor. She informed me she was the supervisor. I asked for a phone number. She stated the phone number is on their website (it is but it is very well hidden).  Any concession I asked her to make, she demurred.

Apparently Spirit was very happy to accept my buying a ticket and deliver no service whatsoever. However, I am relieved to tell you that my experience was nowhere near as bad as that of the family behind me.

Kendra, Chris and their children were also headed to Tampa. They got to Dallas via Spirit only to find out they were too late to make their connecting flight (also a Spirit flight). They were instructed to present at the counter, and were told the same things I was: no other flight till two days hence, no refund, no exchange, no customer service and no satisfaction. Their baggage was on its way to their final destination but they were stuck, unable to do anything about their missed flight. To add insult to injury, Spirit not only canceled the rest of their trip to Tampa but also their return trip tickets!

After the magic of Air Korea it was difficult for me to stomach such treatment. Fortunately I did not have to stomach it for long because, just a few counters over United Airlines had 7 agents waiting for business. For a mere $295 I was able to guarantee myself passage to Tampa that very day.

Chris and Kendra had no such luck. I wish there had been more I could do for them. It broke my heart to hear Chris tell his girls that he will make it up to them, and to hear him tell his lovely wife to call her father and inform him they would not be coming.

This is a long post, I’ll admit. There’s more to report, such as the passenger who presented at the United counter behind me, decrying Spirit vociferously. Or the Starbucks cashier who commented to her barrista whether there were still people running around the airport, angry about their Spirit experience. Or all the comments/complaints I read online about Spirit: flights overbooked, canceled due to maintenance issues, no refunds issued for canceled flights, and even the Veteran who was denied a refund due to a missed Spirit flight (his experience was similar to mine, Kendra and Chris’).

I bill myself as a travel writer and I do travel extensively. The Spirit experience was, without a doubt, the worst travel experience as far as customer service goes. I recommend that no one patronize this airline that practices the Spirit of skyway robbery with no shame whatsoever.