Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Turkey Season is now upon us. My friends, I cannot believe how time flies! Sam recalled to me just the other day my first Thanksgiving here. I lived in the old dorm, what I had dubbed the Concrete Bunker. At that time Sam was my only friend in this school. He partook of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and corn, emphasis on mashed potatoes.

The Chinese have a love affair going with the potato, which makes it all the harder for me to understand why they serve it half cooked and soaked in oil. Every time I’ve made mashed potatoes or baked potatoes for one of my friends they have renounced their old, oily love and embraced the creamy smooth texture and flavor only a baked or mashed potato can offer.

So now here is the interesting question: when sweet potatoes come into season you can buy a roasted sweet potato from any street vendor that has a coal fired barrel to roast or bake them in. How come the Chinese have not figured out you can also bake or roast regular potatoes?

But I digress.

That first Thanksgiving, after Sam had agreed to enjoy a meal with me I made a mad dash to Metro. Only there could I buy canned corn, along with other traditional favorites. If I remember correctly I spent about 600Yuan on that little shopping foray that I didn’t need to spend. The canned corn proved a pivotal moment in my learning to live here.

After shelling out 38Yuan for just 2 cans of corn I lugged everything home, additionally plagued by buyer’s remorse. At that time I wasn’t as financially settled as I am now and 38Yuan was a lot to pay for 2 cans of corn, especially seeing as corn on the cob was in season and I could buy about 38 ears of corn for what I had spent on those 2 cans. I wasn’t really thankful for my rashness or my need, brought on by habit, to open a can of corn on Thanksgiving.

My goodness but I’ve come a long ways!

This year marks my third Thanksgiving in China. The first year I was here I built an entire lesson plan around Thanksgiving and delivered that lesson to Sophomores and Freshmen alike. This year I did not even mention Thanksgiving in class. The past 2 years I rushed to pay my 100Yuan deposit for the privilege of dining with fellow expats at Aloha’s Diner (the other 100Yuan had to be paid at the time of the dinner). Thought crossed my mind to go there again this year but… really: 200Yuan for a single meal and the privilege of mingling with expats?

No, thanks. I think I’ll save my money. And I’ll save myself the aggravation of mingling with people so clannish they won’t let their babies explore the wonderful world of socializing, even with people of their own race. I’d just be an outcast there anyway. I’ve not made any friends in the expat community. The one tie I had to it, Carrie Ann has, for some reason dissolved our budding friendship.

Besides, for 200Yuan I can buy food for a whole month.

What will I do this Thanksgiving? Good question. I’ve come down with laryngitis that I originally attributed to my allergies. My biologically induced muteness has since mutated into a wicked sore throat, and I’m starting to feel the twitchy muscles that imply I’m incubating a virus. So there is a good chance that I’ll probably be slurping hot beverages with honey, and soups.

It’s all good! I’ll be thinking of my family in the States with their loved ones, gathered ‘round the groaning table laden with bounty. I’ll be holding the babies and passing the cranberries in my heart. I’m sure they’ll know I’m with them.

You know who won’t be with them? My conspirators. They are taking off for a bit of a road trip themselves.

So now we post these few entries for you reading pleasure. In about a week they’ll be back and I’ll send them what I write up while they’re gone, and we’ll all catch up to one another on the flipside.

Till then, I hope the list of things you are thankful for is so long that it can circle the globe, at least several times. We can mingle your list and mine, blanketing the world with joy and gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!           

And Now, I See!

Yes, you guessed it: this title is derived from what could arguably be called the Grandmother of All Gospel Songs, the great and poignant Amazing Grace.

This has been a medically informative year for me. First I had to have my front tooth replaced. Fortunately it needed to be positioned into my denture, not into my face. I imagine I would not be so eager to recall or recount what must be a very painful procedure had I needed the implant directly into my gums.

And then came the bash on the noggin a few months back that resulted in intimate acquaintance with emergency medical procedure and the Chinese love affair with ‘injections’. After spending 7 (non-consecutive) hours in the Transfusion room of the local hospital I can assure you that the rumor of ‘injection love’ is actually true.

What astounded me about both of those forays into health/medical care was the cost. The facilities may not be top of the line and the amenities may be outdated by western standards but the systems are efficient and, most of all affordable.

Of course, I say ‘affordable’. The Chinese feel their healthcare costs are spiraling out of control. I suppose it is all relative. I’ve lived elsewhere in the world, where people are charged $10 for a bar of soap while in confinement and thousands of dollars for simple surgeries. Also, compared to many Chinese I earn much more money, especially for the paltry amount of work required of me. I see the Chinese healthcare system as more than affordable. I believe my actual phrase was ‘dirt cheap’.

And now I’ve had to explore the world of vision testing and corrective lens fabrication.

I’ve worn corrective lenses since I was eleven years old. Over time my eyes have gotten progressively worse. When Lasik surgery went mainstream I was seriously considering it because, as a former contact lens wearer who had to revert to glasses because of increasing astigmatism I was not enjoying sporting eyewear, no matter how fashionable or flattering. Ultimately I decided against Lasik because, as one honest doctor informed me, my eyes would continue their degenerative progression. Laser surgery would only detain for a while what was going to happen naturally.

I’ve had my current glasses for about 4 years. The optometrist that prescribed them for me was one surprised doctor, let me tell you. Prior to my visit with her I had been wearing trifocals. The reason I consulted with this eye doctor just a year after getting the trifocals was because I could not see out of any of the three ranges of my glasses.

The trifocals were too strong by far according to my eye exam, as compared to the lens test the doctor subjected my glasses to. Believing her scanning equipment to be faulty she sent her assistant next door with my trifocals, requesting that another doctor determine the prescription. Meanwhile she tested my eyes again.

Amazingly my vision had improved rather than deteriorated further! I went from a -3.75 (right eye)/-3.0 (left eye) to a milder myopia: -2.0/-2.5. I went from needing trifocals to single focus lenses in one year.

Ok, that’s interesting. Wonder how that happened?

And now it is 4 years later. Here I am, again unable to see through my glasses. More specifically: I see better without them than with them. I’ve gotten in the habit of taking them off when I get home, and I hardly ever wear them in the classroom. Time again for a visit to the eye doctor.

Visiting such a doctor here has its challenges. Well, not many of them, only 2. Language barrier and cost. How am I going to read the eye chart? How am I going to answer the doc when he/she asks me “Is this better or worse”? “Can you see better with this one or (flip of a lens) with this one?”

How am I going to know what she/he is even asking me?

I had to have someone along. Zhanny and Dash fit the bill admirably. We were out together anyway and, as an added bonus, Dash also wears glasses. As it turns out, I did not need them to interpret for me.

Reading a Chinese eye chart is ridiculously easy. It consists of progressively smaller capital E’s, turned different ways. All I had to do was point which direction the E was facing: up, down, left or right. After reading the eye chart, and taking the standard glaucoma test and retina scan I was prescribed glasses half the strength of those I’d been wearing.

I am now down into the -1 range on both eyes. Again in defiance of the predicted doom of my eyes getting worse.

Really: How is this happening? I’ve not worn such a weak prescription since I was a teenager. I think I’m getting younger instead of older. At least my eyes are.

Now for the next hurdle: cost. In America vision insurance is hard to come by. Comprehensive vision insurance is even harder to come by, so I’ve gotten used to shelling out anywhere between $300 and $500 for an eye exam complete with dilation, a prescription and a full pair of glasses – new frames, lenses… the works.

Sticker shock in reverse: total cost for eye exam and full pair of glasses: 300Yuan… about $50. Not El Cheapo, bargain bin frames but fashionable, half rimmed frames with UV protectant, polycarbonate coated lenses, made overnight. The whole thing comes with a year’s guarantee included in the price.

I’m whipping out my wallet, hoping I can pay that low price before the doctor realizes he’s made a mistake and doubles or triples the originally quoted amount. My friends, on the other hand, are arguing about how expensive the whole thing was. Oh, won’t they ever shut up! I don’t want Doc’s attention to focus on the price!

Their haggling won me another small reduction. Still with wallet in hand and doing my best to conceal my astonishment I pay 100Yuan, all that is required to get the process of making new glasses started. The doc then said I can pick my new glasses up around 11AM tomorrow.

After classes the next day I went back to the optical shop. There was that same grinning doctor, pleased that he had rendered a service to the foreigner. He let me try on my new glasses. They did not even need to be adjusted to fit. The frames seemed tailor-made for my face and the lenses… the lenses were…

I am stupefied. I can now see clearly what I was only able to view distorted before. Well, distorted if I wore my glasses and fuzzy if I didn’t. While I gazed out the shop’s window in wonder and awe the doc picked out an attractive hardshell case, packed it with a microfiber cleaning cloth and carefully set my old specs in. A few minutes later and 200Yuan lighter I left his establishment, muttering ‘I can’t believe it, I simply can’t believe it!’

Part of my surprise certainly comes from my eyesight regenerating instead of degenerating. But the bigger part is that, once again I got away with quality, affordable healthcare at a much lower than anticipated price.

Teeth, eyes and hair. Sounds like I treated myself to a Beauty Series Triumvirate but in fact I received needed medical services. While the thought of setting a tooth in a denture, getting my head stitched up and buying new glasses put me in a cringe of cost worry, the actual price tag was much lower than I though it would be. I can now say that I am no longer afraid of needing medical services while in China from a financial standpoint.

Just keep me out of that Transfusion Room. Please!               


Cussing Like a Sailor

Sometimes, speakers of multiple languages find that some expressions are simply more powerful when uttered in a tongue different than the one currently in use. I find quite often that a healthy ‘Zut Alors’ (darn it, in French) hits the spot better than the wimpy sounding ‘darn it’. The German ‘Ich verstehe’ (pronounced ‘ish fair-shtay-uh) is more curt, and therefore more significant when said after being turned down for something I really want. Rather than say ‘I understand’, which comes across as palliative I’ll spit out a sharp ‘ich verstehe’. Considering my irritation scratched, I can go on with conversation rather than trying to convey my true feeling with its placatory English counterpart. 

As my Chinese vocabulary grows I find that more and more words in Chinese have the same effect. A wondering ‘Zhende ma’ (pronounced gen-duh mah) takes the place of ‘Oh, really?’. ‘Duo me ke bei’ (dwo muh kuh bay) rings so much closer to my true feeling than ‘what a pity’. ‘Ke bu shi’ (kuh boo shuh) works so much better than ‘You said it, Sister – or Brother!’ That Chinese phrase has the added advantage of being shorter, adding to its effectiveness.

I’ve recently incorporated a Chinese variation on the German ‘ich verstehe’ into my vocabulary. That phrase translates to ‘ming bai’ (ming buy), meaning ‘I understand the situation’. Said with proper tone, those two syllables convey more displeasure than even its German cousin.   

Is it any surprise then, that I incorporated ‘Ah-ya!’ into my vocabulary? In times when I get aggravated or flustered on a small scale a frustrated ‘A-ya!’, drawing out the ‘ya’ part comes flying out of my mouth. It feels right and it fits.

In the infamous words of my friend Ron, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve been using this expression for about 2 years now, almost as long as I’ve lived here. When I say it in class or around any of my friends who are Chinese, they snicker and nudge each other, usually repeating the term in order to prolong the merriment. I thought they were doing it because they thought it was endearing of me to bark out such a typically Chinese utterance. Until I said it in my Little’Uns class.

They too laughed and nudged each other. I thought: “Wow! Even small children think I am cute!”

One of the parents approached me after class. She wasn’t angry exactly, more… shocked perhaps? Dismayed? Not really sure what was going on with her but she did get her message across clearly: I was not to use that phrase in front of the children anymore.

Come to find out, what I thought was a mild expression of frustration is actually a not so placid term incorporating fecal matter.


NOW I get why people have been laughing at me for the past 2 years. I’ve been cussing like a sailor and had no idea I was doing so.

In my defense I did not know that ‘A-ya!’ was in any way vulgar or crude. According to the textbook I’m studying it is indeed just a mild curse, something along the lines of ‘Dang it all to heck!’ also in my defense: I do not know any Chinese Marines or Navy personnel and thus could not possibly divine that that innocuous phrase is actually listed first in their lexicon of Sailor Curse Words and Phrases*.

Someone could have told me before now that I should have been in line at the tattoo parlor to get my stereotypical anchor emblem etched permanently on my forearm before being qualified to express myself in that manner. Sam? Gary? Chris? Tony? Ken? Where were you when I needed you??? I’m sure I’ve said it in front of them too.

Like parents who catch their toddler in some sort of naughty behavior they know they should correct but can’t resist laughing at, I suspect all my friends who are Chinese were wishing they had a video-cam going when I debased myself in that fashion. Meanwhile I, the hapless foreigner repeats ‘A-ya!’, to their great amusement.

Now I’m going to have to eradicate that one short, effective phrase of frustration from my vocabulary. After using it for over 2 years I think that will be hard to do. At the same time I will have to find and settle on an expression that does not represent language fit for a sailor, nor involve or imply fecal matter. Until I do I should probably stick to German, French or English utterances of frustration.

A-     ya!!! 

*          That I know of, there is no dictionary of Sailor Curse Words or Phrases currently in print, either in Chinese or in English. Please forgive me for leading you to believe such a tome might exist.          

Friday, November 16, 2012

Creepy Hospital

My poor Gary! After being away for so long he has returned back to Wuhan. Not in triumph but in agony.

While working himself to the bone in Shanghai he started experiencing pain in his upper abdominal region. After a few days the pain migrated to his lower abdomen. Now concerned, he consulted with a doctor who concluded he had appendicitis. He needed surgery immediately.

Gary flew home and checked himself into the hospital. He called me just after his surgery, still woozy but not goofily so, to let me know he was back.

I already knew he was back in Wuhan and in the hospital, and I knew what was wrong with him. Having somehow become part of the jungle drum network, I had no less than 3 friends tell me he was back and what kind of shape he was in. I didn’t want to steal his thunder so, when he called me I made all the proper expressions of shock, concern and awe.

Upon his declaration that he would be in the hospital till next week Wednesday I told him my next day off would be on Sunday. No lounging around for me on that day; I would head out to see him while he is still confined. He averred that I did not need to make a trip to the hospital but he saw the light when I assured him that he would gain a certain amount of ‘guanxi’ for being the only patient to have a foreigner visit him.

You see, I already suspected how the whole thing was laid out. He would be in a ward with 8 or 12 other patients. No privacy curtains, no private bathrooms, no heat. No fancy hospital bed with all these controls that would position him any way he wanted. And I was right. But it is even worse than I suspected.

I had to take a taxi to this hospital. So off the beaten path was it no buses ran even close to it. I asked Gary to text me the name of the hospital and the taxi driver did not know where it was. I had to call Gary and let him explain to the driver how to get there. I wonder how and why Gary chose that hospital over any more accessible ones. It is not close to his home, nor is it one of the dozen or so hospitals I know on sight from any given bus window. Could it be because that is the hospital that deals with failing appendices, mandating his confinement there?

I suspect it had more to do with cost than his ailing appendix.

This hospital was nowhere near as impressive or statuesque as any other hospital I know on sight, and definitely puny compared to the hospital I had my treatments in a few weeks back. At first glance it looked more like a convalescent care home or a nursing home than a hospital. There were 3 buildings forming a rough U-shape around an attractive open garden where patients, mostly seniors were sitting around in the pajamas, on benches or in wheelchairs, sunning themselves.

None of the buildings were taller than 6 stories. Their fa├žade was a uniform light grey and white, color alternating by floor. There were no directional signs and no massive flow of people marching in and out with varying degrees of purpose. I was at a loss on how to find him now that I had found the hospital.

I called him again. He had been watching for me at the window. Of course, I’m not hard to spot even wearing a hat, being heads and shoulders above most Chinese. After telling me to turn around and look up I was able to spot him at his window. It won’t be long before I am again in his company: an elevator ride up to the 4th floor and down the hallway about 5 or six rooms, if I counted those windows right.

I needn’t have worried. My friend Gary is a popular guy and he already had an entire cortege at his bedside. He sent one of his minions down to meet me. Said minion and I have long been acquainted, so we exchanged greetings in the lobby and caught up with each other’s doings while in the elevator. Now a short walk through an open expanse, then past the dialysis clinic and there, 4th room on the left was Gary, in the bed by the window in a ward of 6 beds.

It was better than I thought. I projected a ward with at least twice that many beds.

I was right in my imaginings about everything else, though. No privacy curtains and no private bathroom. Two fluorescent lights hanging from a high ceiling in the middle of the room. An IV support pole hung over each bed – remember how the Chinese love giving ‘injections’. Some of the beds had metal side tables. Gary’s was wood, as was another bed’s across the room. One of the patients was snoring loudly. Another was ambling about, a female visitor – his wife? – in tow. The other beds, although assigned, were not occupied. Their covers were tossed back, as though someone had just gotten up. I suspected those other patients were outside, catching the sun. The only other furniture in the room were a few hardback chairs and one round table, where Gary’s other visitors were currently playing cards and munching on the fruit I was sure he would have, considering my own experience with fruit-giving in the case of illness.

There were no fancy monitors or gadgets mounted on the walls over each bed, like you would see in American hospitals. There was one older model CRT-type television mounted from the ceiling in the far corner of the room There was a nurse call button behind each bed, belatedly installed, judging by the conduit lines snaking down from the ceiling. The walls themselves were light blue and white, the white starting about 4 feet off the terrazzo’ed floor. A nice crop of mold was growing where the wall met the ceiling, over the bed across the aisle from Gary’s.

The beds were indeed hospital beds, with the capability of being cranked up so the patient can sit up or cranked down for maximum comfort, come sleep time. When I say ‘cranked’ I mean exactly that: each bed had a crank jutting out from under the footboard. Gary asked one of his friends to crank him up so that he could converse with me in relative comfort. I cracked my shin on that crank when walking past, on my way to join him for a cigarette.

Smoking is not allowed in the individual rooms but is permitted in the open air landing across from the dialysis clinic, close to the elevators and stairs. Most Chinese being heavy smokers it would not do to deprive them of their nicotine during confinement. I would hate to meet a crowd of ill, riotous smokers in need of their fix… wouldn’t you?

It was while waiting for Gary to finish his nicotine fix what we heard first a small child’s wail, and then a mother’s lament echoing down from the floors above. I could understand, by the progression of her howls and by the few words I could make out that her son had just died. Gary confirmed my interpretation of the vocal drama playing out above us. Apparently her son was 9 years old. What he succumbed to we could not make out.

Both of us were disturbed by her cries. Gary stubbed his cigarette out and, with her distress plainly audible and mirrored on his face we went back to his room. Still her heartrending cries of grief could be heard, now as a spooky reverberation off the concrete walls.

What a creepy scene! The old style ward set up, the mold encroaching down the wall, the high ceilinged room, the fluorescent lights, the old, 4 bladed, nicotine stained fan, the IV poles, the antique beds, 4 of them with covers thrown back, the man snoring across the way, my poor friend, pale and rail thin under his bloodstained comforter… were it not for the sunshine streaming outside, the set up would have been a perfect stage for some ghost story or horror movie.

My normal inclination would be to make light of the whole thing. Bring on the laughter and good cheer! Of course, Gary cannot indulge in laughter on his first day post-op. It would be too painful, with his stomach just having been cut open yesterday.

So why did I choose to say out loud that the whole scene was creepy and reminded me of some horror movie? My poor friend grew about 4 shades paler, admonishing me for my admittedly accurate observation. He had to spend 4 more nights there; he didn’t need to hear about how sinister his current environment is. I thought it might be a good idea to leave while he still had sunshine and good-natured, not so graphically imaginative friends around. 

Once again accompanied by one of those friends who, lucky owner of a car, drove me back to the main road, we saw the grieving mother sitting outside, her head cradled to an older woman breast. She was still wailing, her whole countenance an expression of grief. I don’t know how she will sleep tonight, or for the next few nights.

Feeling her sorrow I turned away. We left her, Gary and Creepy Hospital behind.     



Street Level

With my new teaching gig now progressing smoothly, I can breathe easier and write you more often. It feels great to be back with you.

Of course, because of my new teaching gig I am riding in taxis no fewer than 4 times each week. My taxi rides have given me a whole new appreciation for traffic, drivers and the idea of getting around in general.

Riding around on a bus helps make one blissfully unaware of just how zany traffic is in Wuhan. Riding in a cab has the exact opposite effect. Traffic and driving skills are much more noticeable when you are sitting closer to ground level, with only a thin sheet of metal and a few pounds of plastic between you and that oncoming car. I doubt that any of these cabs have any type of airbag protection.  

It seems no one holds to a lane. Many take up two lanes and take a middle lane to make a turn. When merging into oncoming traffic, that oncoming traffic is of no concern to the driver making the turn. It appears to be assumed that no one really wants to hit anyone. Buses weave around with just as much enthusiastic alacrity as do compact cars.

Driving here is done in the spirit of ‘whatever will put me ahead of everyone else’. Not quite sure why everyone wants to be ahead of everyone else, because with all the cars jockeying for first place they end up bottlenecking at the next obstruction and no one gets anywhere. Nevertheless drivers tend to make lanes where there aren’t any, squeeze 3 cars into 2 lanes and everybody inches forward with the greatest of synchronicity.   

If I were to take the bus to my teaching gig I would only ride 11 stops; about 35 to 45 minutes. Taking a taxi takes about an hour because the taxi can take ‘shortcuts’: tunnels under major intersections and roundabouts. The shortcuts are convenient in the sense that they allow the car to avoid the red-light gang up - inching forward with all the other cars and pedestrians bold enough to weave among the stationary vehicles. They do not work in the sense that, once away from the intersection or roundabout the cars all have to merge together again. I suppose one could say that is a more legitimate reason for traffic jams.

I’ve written before about how taxi drivers tend to cheat foreigners by offering them a flat rate to their destination. Usually that ‘flat rate’ is much more than the actual cost of the trip as calculated by the meter. Or, the driver will take the longest route possible to the destination, thus incurring a fat fare. Neither of those ‘cheats’ are possible anymore.

The cars are now equipped with cameras and two way radios. The cameras record whether there is a passenger onboard. Woe to the driver that does not engage his meter with a fare plainly visible on camera. If the driver is taking the longest route possible the radio will squawk, whoever at the other end asking the driver where he/she is going and what the fare’s destination is.

Maybe it has to do with my ongoing progress in learning Chinese. At least a little. But so far, no driver has tried to cheat me when going back and forth to the New School.

Since I’ve started taking taxis on a 4-times weekly basis, I’ve only had 2 women who were drivers. If my limited experience into the wonderful world of cab riding bears any significance to the statistic I can conclude that taxi driving is, or has been till now a male dominated profession, with women only just breaking into it (braking into it – pardon the pun).

A distinct difference between the men and women who chauffer me back and forth is that the men seem to want to converse. The drivers who are female are content to know my destination and, with grim determination, focus on the road, getting me there as fast as possible.

Most of the drivers ask me the standard questions: what country am I from, where is my family, how much money do I earn, how tall I am… ect. One driver in particular, a rather attractive man, asked me if I was married, if I had a boyfriend, if I wanted a boyfriend. ‘NO’ to all of the above and double “NO!” to the last one. After that he turned up the radio and we conversed no more.

All of this taxi riding has made me wonder if I should consider buying my own mode of transport. I wouldn’t want to drive a car in this traffic. Nor do I want the expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle. But I wouldn’t mind a little battery powered scooter. Word has it one does not need a license to ride one. Wuhan has incorporated bike lanes on all major thoroughfares and battery powered scooters are allowed on them. Motor scooters are not. If I bought a batt-scooter I would not have to worry so much about traffic, especially if I just stick to the bike paths or ride on the sidewalks. 

I’ll give that more thought when winter is over. Wouldn’t want to be that exposed to the elements and I certainly wouldn’t ride in rain, snow or slush. So, for now, it is taxi after taxi.       

After every frenetic ride through town I stagger out of the cab. I have to coax my legs back into action because I sit so clenched up. You would too if a double decker bus was forcing itself into your lane on your side of the car and the taxi you’re riding in is determined to not allow the bigger vehicle to take its lane.

All of this makes me wonder: What does all that driving in adverse traffic conditions do to the drivers’ nerves? And… all of the taxis I’ve ridden in so far are standard shift. I wonder how the drivers’ left leg feels after pumping a clutch in that kind of traffic for twelve hours?   


Monday, November 12, 2012

I miss Walter Cronkite

I may miss a lot of things – miss in the sense of omit, not in the sense of longing for. I might forget to commemorate a birthday or an anniversary. I might overlook a holiday or maybe forget an event… but, Dear Readers, you will never catch me missing Veteran’s Day.

I suppose that, deep down I am a patriot. I firmly believe that our Veterans’ efforts to preserve all that is right and good about America deserves to be recognized, even more than it already is. Think about it: they give their lives, or at least what innocence they held before being faced with the possibility of having to take a life, dying or witnessing death on a battlefield. We only give them one day, and grudgingly at that. One whole day to acknowledge everything they’ve done for us and our country. 

I can’t let that day pass by without writing about it.

Now, in my third year as a blogger I wonder what else I can say that I’ve not already said about Veterans. I don’t know very many of them personally. And, I wonder what I could write that would be as poignant, heartfelt and meaningful as what I’ve already posted for the past 2 Veteran’s Day entries. Tonight, while cooking my dinner it came to me.

I miss Walter Cronkite.

I didn’t know him very well. In fact I didn’t know him at all. While he was in his heyday I was a selfish young tyke. Later, as he mellowed into a journalist of the highest caliber I was only just becoming aware of world events. But, at twenty some-odd years old, who really cares about what is going on in the world?

The reason I miss Walter Cronkite is because, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, he signed his news broadcast off with “And that is the news on this, the Nth day of the hostage Crisis in Iran.” He made it his personal mission to never allow the American people to forget that there were Americans being held against their will in hostile territory.

Again I assure you that this blog is not, nor does it aspire to be political in nature. I do have to mention the politics of the Iran Hostage Crisis, but only briefly, so that you can get a sense of why that time was so impactful to this then-young woman who was trapped in a bad marriage and had two children to raise.

I blame nobody but myself for my poor selection of a mate, and I don’t blame him wholly for the quality of our marriage. We were both simply too young. Sure, there were other factors involved that ultimately led to the dissolution of our union but our youth played the biggest part.

Another big part of what was wrong in our lives was his job: he was an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army. At the time I did not realize it – how could I have, young as I was? – but being a grunt is not exactly easy work. Being a grunt in times of world turmoil is even more stressful.

When Ronald Reagan took the presidency in 1981, he was determined to send military troops to Iran and ‘get our people home’. President Carter had tried various means to get the hostages freed, mostly by applying economic and diplomatic pressure on the Iranian government. His attempts yielded nothing but political strain between the two countries because the hostages were captured by a rebel group, not by the mainstream government. In fact, President Carter called the hostages "victims of terrorism and anarchy", adding that the "United States will not yield to blackmail".

When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office my then-husband whooped with glee. He was going to see some ACTION!!! He was going to WAR!!! He was going to KICK IRANIAN BUTT!!! (except he did not say it so mildly.) He danced around the living room, spilling beer and spewing other such nonsense. I huddled in my baby daughter’s room with her in my lap, terrified.   

I did not wholly understand what was going on in the world but that frisson of fear left me disquieted and disturbed. The drunken outbursts from the living room did nothing to assuage my anxiety. Only Walter Cronkite, with his mellow baritone, gravely reporting the nightly news and signing off with his tribute to the hostages lent me some comfort. His voice gave the impression that, no matter what, things would turn out alright.

Do we even have a Walter Cronkite reporting the news these days? Has any news anchor made it a point of reflecting how long we’ve had troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or how long those ‘actions’ have been going on? Do the deaths of our soldiers get reported anymore? Do we even know how many have died during the past ten years our troops have been over there?

Our government has spent trillions of dollars maintaining a military presence in those lands. Our troops have quietly been ferried in and out of their Stateside duty assignment to bases everywhere from Tehran to Tikrit. Some of those soldiers have completed 3 and 4 rotations overseas. When they come back they try to resume the life they left behind. Hard to do when the memory of sleeping on gritty sand is more prevalent than the feel of a comfortable bed. Even harder to do when psychologically fractured.  

From my admittedly challenged viewpoint, these goings on get absolutely no media coverage. China doesn’t exactly allow for comprehensive news reporting from other lands. 

This year’s presidential race has been run and won. For better or worse our country is subject to another 4 years of a democratic president. The newscasters, once again reporting with a gleam in their eye or mock sorrow etched on their faces talk about what could be considered trivial doings: the Kardashians and the Honey Boo Boos that apparently merit more airtime and more media attention than do our troops.

Will any of those news hawkers discover within themselves the integrity to close his or her broadcast with “… And that is the news on this, the Nth day of military action in the Middle East.”?

No wonder I miss Walter Cronkite.        

Peeling the Cultural Onion

Since my wrangle with the metal pole that left a distinct crease in my head – ah, what a horrible itch sensation! – I’ve been challenged by certain cultural norms.

From the moment of my injury well-wishers have instructed me to get more rest. They communicate by means of telephone, instant message and actually coming to my door. If I don’t respond to the text messages in a timely manner or if I don’t answer the phone panic ensues, presumably because of my inability to respond due to my injury. Invariably a visit to my home will follow. Usually, if they pay a visit they bring some sort of food. Invariably their advice is: GET MORE REST.

I would love to have done nothing more than rest during those few days after my injury. Unfortunately I was busy answering the phone, sending text messages and answering the door. In the latter case, not only did I answer the insistent pounding on my door but was ‘forced’ to entertain as well. With all that that entails, such as maintaining a clean house, being properly clad and made up, and having snacks at the ready. All while being admonished to GET MORE REST.

How can I rest if I keep having visitors, well meaning as they are?

In traditional China it is very uncommon for someone to live alone. Even singles ‘room’ up, i.e., take on a roommate. Owners of larger apartments take on boarders. It seems that living alone is a Western phenomenon.

In the Chinese mindset, they see me as being surrounded by people, just like they are. They do not see their visit as an infringement of their GET REST edict because, if a Chinese person had suffered a similar injury, he/she would be sequestered in a bedroom while the rest of the family or household entertained in the living room. Usually a visitor will poke their head into the sickroom, assure themselves that the afflicted person is well taken care of, utter their gentle admonishment: ‘Get More Rest’ and then carouse to their heart’s content with the rest of the household.

It seems to have escaped my visitors that there is no ‘rest of the household’ for me. I AM the household.

Another facet of this phenomenon manifested itself when Lancy, one of my former students turned friend who graduated last year, insisted one of her friends who still lives on campus pay me a visit. Being as I was traveling to and from the hospital those first few days after my injury (for my ‘injections’, as you’ll remember), I was unavailable for visits.

Lancy called me several times each day, expressing the wish that she could take on my pain, that she had been the one injured, that she could be here to take care of me. Her greatest wish was to be assured that I was in fact OK. Even though I averred with progressive degrees of insistence (and irritation) that I was fully functional save for my incapacitated left arm and my banged up head, she remained dubious in my ability to survive such a traumatic event.

She doubted my word. The reason she wanted her friends to actually lay eyes on me is to assure for herself via her friend that I was in fact not as damaged as she envisioned me to be. Did she think I was lying to her when I told her I was perfectly fine? I saw Lancy’s insistence as an example of not ‘giving me face’ – respecting me. How many times do I have to tell her I am well and not in mortal danger?

In her eyes I was minimizing my pain and the extent of my injuries so that she would not worry about me so much. Everyone I talked to saw her behavior as perfectly acceptable. According to Chinese culture it is standard for one to minimize one’s tragic circumstances, thus necessitating the caring party’s obligation of gauging for themselves the actual state of the injured or sick person.

After finally connecting with Lancy’s friend I called Lancy to reassure her the visit had in fact taken place. Her relief was evident in her lighthearted tone. She assured me that her friend had already called her and assured her I am in fact OK, not minimizing anything for her benefit. I fumed.   

Lately I’ve been made aware that, somehow I’ve slipped back into the Western mindset. Take people at their word. Keep your distance. One should make plans in advance or, if spontaneous activities are in progress, do not allow intrusions.

Such was the case when Mr. Wang, the school’s head of maintenance busted in on a dinner Summer, Vanessa and I were enjoying.

I had not seen these two lovely young ladies since the immediate aftermath of my fall. It felt strange to go from seeing them every day to not seeing them for an entire week. I wanted to catch up with them, maybe have a nice dinner and talk about something else besides my shaved head and plastered arm. We were at a restaurant close to campus when my phone rang.

Mr. Wang asked where I was. “At a restaurant just off campus” I informed him. “Great! I know the place. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.” “But…” I spluttered, “I’m having dinner with friends” “No problem, we’ll join you!” he replied, undaunted. He and another student soon appeared. They rearranged our outdoor table because seating was only sufficient for 4 people, ordered more food and… carried on as though it had been planned all along that they would join Vanessa, Summer and me.

I was outraged, especially when the student he brought with him, a shy girl who barely said two words and ate hardly at all started playing with her phone and ignored everyone, unless someone addressed her directly. Thankfully Mr. Wang does not speak very much English and my Chinese is limited, so I did not give vent to my feelings. It was a good thing, too.

Apparently, if one is a good friend it is acceptable to invite yourself into an already ongoing dinner party. As long as the newly arrived guest pays for everyone, as Mr. Wang did.

Relating this incident to Sam, I expressed how I could not get over how rude this girl was. While focusing on her rudeness I implicated Mr. Wang’s behavior as equally outrageous. Poor Sam! It took him nearly an hour to make it clear to me that it was not rudeness but comfort and familiarity that brought Mr. Wang to our table that night, and allowed that girl to play on her phone rather than take an active part in the dinner.            

I was confused. Till recently I had been treated as revered guest and now people just drop in, expecting to be welcome? Whether I am at home, totally unprepared for guests or out and about with friends?

I was raised with a certain etiquette that demands decorum, politeness and, most importantly, distance. One does not visit someone’s home without announcing oneself. We cannot just randomly crash a party in progress. Phone calls after 9PM are the epitome of rudeness.

Ladies and Gentlemen, for the first time I fully understand the meaning of ‘let’s not stand on ceremony’. All of the above listed acts of decorum are designed to keep people at arm’s length. The Chinese way of life dictates that, after a certain period of ‘ceremony’, people are accepted as ‘familiar’, and are treated to behaviors normally reserved for intimate family members.

I flash back to the time when, during a visit to his house Sam changed into him pajama shirt, cooked dinner and then walked away from the table, leaving me there with his wife, mother in law and sister (see Things That, Even After 2 years’ entry posted May of this year). Back then he explained this custom but I took in his lesson intellectually, with no real understanding of the extent of the phenomenon. 

Zhanny and Dash just dropping in. In my Western mindset they were intruding on my home/time/life because I was not prepared to greet them. They were always nonplussed at my irritated reaction to their gesture of familiarity. In their minds and according to their tradition we have been friends long enough. I should be able to welcome them at any time.

“It doesn’t matter” is the standard response to my shamed, aggrieved apology for my dirty house, my appearance or my inability to provide snacks. When a Chinese friend says: “It doesn’t matter” they truly mean that it doesn’t matter. If we were living together they would see me without makeup, dressed in comfortable ‘home’ clothing, with a house in disarray and with no food laid out.

When I came here I wanted more than anything to learn about and adapt myself to Chinese culture. Yet here, when faced with probably the most generous display of Chinese friendship – being treated like family, I react adversely. It is time for me to peel that cultural onion, get one layer closer to the heart of being Chinese.

Do I like it? So contrary to my upbringing and way of life is this brand of familiarity that, on the surface I am tempted to revert back to ‘revered guest’ status. But then I think about the silent tribute to friendship these behaviors display.

Looks like I’m going to have to teach myself to be prepared for guests at all times.    

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shopping With Impunity

I aver that I’ve never been much of a shopper. That is, shopping as a pastime, hobby or therapy has never been my thing. When I moved to China shopping opportunities were the least of my considerations because of my intentions of living a scaled down, bare bones existence. After all: how much should one accumulate when anticipating a vagabond existence and working on a year to year contract?

Since my declaration of tenure around this time last year I’ve settled in to the idea of having a somewhat permanent home at this university. I’ve bought a few amenities, like: a space heater, an oven, a crock pot, a small countertop grill and other household odds and ends.

Well, the space heater is not an amenity as much as a necessity. When your living space gets down to the 40 degree Fahrenheit range, you kind of need some heat. Other purchases I’ve made along the heating milieu: bed heaters, foot and shoe warmers and a hand warmer.

All in all I’m doing pretty well at not accumulating junk. And, so far this year, I’m doing pretty well at staying warm.  

One thing I am accumulating is money. I don’t mind that at all. Mind you, compared to what I was earning in America, and indeed what is considered poverty level income in America I am far below that bar – I earn the equivalent of about $6K per year, give or take a few $100 depending on currency exchange rates. I think there is a direct correlation between not shopping and saving.

Well now, there’s a ‘Duh!’ statement!

In the past, 2 main factors kept me from going on wild spending sprees: money and the fact that I would have to carry home whatever I bought. Some items I’ve lusted after are just too unwieldy to take on a bus, my principal mode of travel. Sometimes, when I am tempted to buy ‘stock up’ levels of food at Metro I remind myself that I will have to carry home everything I buy.

And the bus is not the only ‘carry it home’ obstacle. I have to walk to the bus stop from Metro or wherever I’m shopping at, and then from the bus stop to my house. Each stretch is a little over a kilometer long.

Recently I bought a handy-dandy shopping cart. It is basically a shopping bag on a wheeled frame. It can tote up to 4 bags of goods, if packed carefully. So now, if I intend to do ‘stock up’ shopping, or if I foresee something heavy in my shopping bag I simply take my cart along and only have to worry about pulling my arm out of socket, tugging the loaded cart onto buses and then home.

My other primary deterrent: cash. Still mindful of my advanced age and the need to save for some sort of retirement, I am frugal. Till now I’ve only had my university pay to rely on and I still count only that income source as actual money in the bank.

What has changed is that I started taking on extra teaching jobs.

More specifically: through a mutual friend, Gary has helped pave the way for me to start my own school. It is a total immersion curriculum, meaning no Chinese is spoken. We use gestures, signs and drawings to express ourselves. Concepts such as ‘Past, Present and Future’ verb tenses are expressed in context with ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’. The focus is on proper pronunciation and grammar usage. Vocabulary building is a by-product of the elementary grammar lessons.

I teach Little’uns - 7 year olds, as well as adults. The adults are mostly interested in the spoken language, the so called ‘tourist English’: how to navigate situations like hotels, airports, restaurants and shopping. Preparing for their classes is a snap. So far we’ve only had one lesson because the adults cannot agree on a specific time or day to meet.

I meet with the “Little’uns” each Saturday afternoon for 2 hours and each Wednesday for 1 hour. The one hour midweek class is used to reinforce the previous Saturday’s lesson and to review any worksheet I might have assigned. There is always time to read a story during the midweek class. The kids get a big kick out of story time.

They also like the fact that we use music a lot in class. The ‘Days of the Week’ song, sung to the tune of The Addams Family. We danced and sang The Hokey-Pokey when we learned about body parts, articles of clothing and left/right. Ring Around the Rosy worked well for our Left/Right lesson too: we spun either left or right. And then we have our Goodbye song: ‘So long, Farewell, It is really good to see you…”, taken from The Sound of Music.

I earn an extra 200Yuan/week per student for my efforts. I have 6 students in my Little’uns class and 4 adults who want to study tourist English. Even if I shopped like Imelda Marcos in a shoe warehouse I couldn’t spend that much money in a single shopping spree.

I’ve had a comfortable padding of cash since the school year began. I’ve already bought my plane tickets for my annual America pilgrimage and still have a nice cushion left, in spite of the unplanned medical expenses. I went shopping.  

My wok being inconvenient when cooking certain dishes, I’ve long wanted a frying pan. I need a container for my tea. The one I’m storing tea in now is not airtight and the fragrant leaves lose their flavor too quickly. I wanted a new, larger bed heater so that I could put the two narrower heaters on my couch and chair – a different attempt to stay warm this winter. I wanted a tea decanter that would fit on my candle fueled tea warmer – the teapot I have is too wide on the bottom and the teapot Sam gave me is very decorative but too small to be serviceable.

And there were other things: Sacs of candy for Halloween. Some cleaning supplies I cannot find in the local markets. Other odds ‘n’ ends stuff, nothing major.

So I went shopping. Dragging my empty cart behind me I mentally reviewed the list of things I wanted to buy. Once at the store, I dropped whatever I wanted into my shopping basket with no qualms whatsoever. When I got to the register, the cashier rang up my purchases totaling over 600Yuan. I did not bat an eye as I handed over the cash.

Dragging my loaded shopping cart to the bus stop I did not feel a single drop of buyer’s remorse. What I did feel was a novel sensation for me, with regard to shopping: glee. I had just shopped with impunity!

I did not fear running out of money or pulling limbs out of socket from having to carry all that I bought. I had the satisfaction of being able to meet all of my needs and my few wants. Barely at the bus stop, my coach pulled up. Crowded as it was, I had a time with my loaded shopping cart and finding room to stand comfortably. No matter! In my head I was already composing this entry. The title, Shopping with Impunity stayed with me all the way home, even as I walked the dusty alleys of the Over the Wall community.

But then another thought intruded: I am ‘nesting’. Slowly, this apartment is turning into an actual home.

What kind of Vagabond nests?                 

More than I Can Chew

Determined to not let finances deter me from my annual Stateside pilgrimages, I had to take a good look at my earnings. I’ve said this before: not too shabby for life over here, but definitely not in the Rockefeller category once I leave China. If I hope to continue seeing my loved ones during that annual opportunity afforded me by the University, I’d better get on with some more earning.

I’d always had this idea about teaching a total immersion type curriculum, where nothing but English is spoken. Of course, the students would have to either have a good grasp of English to begin with, or be young enough to adapt to communicating with gestures and pointing. It was a challenge I was eager to take on.

Gary to the rescue!

He was instrumental in getting my New School off the ground. With the help of Dragon and his wife Lia, who are providing me with the classroom and the students I now teach a class of 6 Little Ones two days a week. In addition to that I have Dragon and Lia’s 11year old daughter to tutor twice a week. We have tried adding an adult curriculum but adults are too fickle. They have busy schedules or, as in most cases they don’t really want to learn English, they just want to know what I call Tourist English: how to travel, how to shop, what to eat in a restaurant, ect. 

This is an exciting time for me. Brand new students, open to new learning experiences. It is like a blank canvas, just waiting for me to splash paint on. Three weeks into it, this gig is looking pretty sweet.

The downside to that is that all of my mental energy and most of my time are consumed by thoughts of teaching. The creative bursts feel great and I love transforming my visions into actual documents that my students will learn from. But on the other hand… I’ve not written anything for you in… about 3 weeks. Round about the time I started this gig.

And the frustration goes farther. I have no time to grocery shop or to hang out with friends. No time for emails. If I make the time, my thoughts are plagued by what I’m going to do in any or all of my classes. This is a vicious cycle that has got to end.

Last Tuesday I hit upon a solution. On Tuesday, you’ll recall I get up early to teach both of my sophomore classes at the University. I have dedicated that afternoon and evening to curriculum creation and class preparation. The rest of the week I don’t think about school or teaching at all. If I do have a random idea for teaching pop up during the rest of the week I make a note of it and move on.

Organization is a big factor, too. Till now, with only freshmen and sophomores to teach it was easy to maintain 2 notebooks with vaguely composed lesson plans. Besides, being on my third year of teaching here I can pretty much recycle any given lesson of previous years.

Now that I’m teaching a wider grade range, with more diverse materials and going off-campus for half of my teaching endeavors I constantly find myself scrambling around to find whatever it is that I need for any given session.

I bought a magazine rack. It has 4 slots: one for freshmen, one for sophomores, one for Little Ones and a last slot for the adults, should we ever get that class off the ground. Whatever class I’m teaching that day, simply grab all the prepared materials from the slot and head out the door.

So now I’ve got my tizzy under control. Create the material on schedule, store everything in its proper slot.

So now, back to you.