Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

That’s It. Just:  Happy New Year.

My conspirators are online, standing by for this week’s posts. Can’t disappoint them.

Happy New Year to you and yours. May any pain you have lessen and all of your dreams come true. May we continue to enjoy each other’s company. 

Best Wishes!

Team Krejados. 

My New Best Friend

I’ve learned to live without a lot of today’s modern conveniences: climate control at the touch of my fingers, a fully equipped kitchen, furniture that is sized for people as big as I am and certain aspects of technology. I’ve adapted to living in a world where I can only communicate on a limited basis, where I freeze every winter and where the food culture is, in itself a totally different proposition. After twenty-some-odd years of driving I am now getting along on the bus. I’ve not owned or driven a car in 3 years. NEVER thought that would come to pass!

One thing I don’t think I could live without is the Internet. The power of having the world at my fingertips and a wealth of information, mine for the asking with just a few keystrokes and posing the right question is indispensable to me. To say nothing of the idea that, without instant communication with my friends and loved ones Stateside I would feel so isolated.

In all fairness I have to tell you that, even Stateside I felt the one modern convenience I would not want to live without is a computer plugged into the world wide web. Now I go further to tell you I wouldn’t have undertaken this adventure were it not for this bit of modern technology. Conjecture, to be sure but there is more than a grain of truth in that statement.

There are a few inconveniences with regard to Internet usage in China. Most notably: accessing my blog. On the other hand, not being able to see my own musings has led to a joyful, productive and ever deepening partnership between me and my conspirators. So, not all is lost. I do miss out on YouTube videos that people send me, though. YouTube is blocked here. Instead, China has its own video services: youkou and soukou, just to mention a few. I can’t watch all the videos I want to watch, but then again… do I really need to watch videos all day?

Other limitations: FaceBook. No sorrow or loss there… well, not much, anyway. If I had access to FB I would have known my friend Suzanne was in dire straights instead of hearing about her passing third-hand (see Oh, Susannah! Entry, posted June of this year). I might have known that my friend Lisa was having a rough time of things. I might have gotten pictures and updates from my family without them having to take the additional steps of emailing me. And so on, and so forth.

The FaceBook issue is water under the bridge now. I’ve canceled my page. No sense in keeping it if I can’t make use of it eleven months out of the year. And, I really don’t approve of their policies in general anyway.     

Over the years, since being indoctrinated to Google, I’ve gotten used to calling up their page, typing a few keystrokes and magic! On my screen pops up any information I could possibly want regarding the topic I’m researching. Now that is a tool I would not want to be without. Google is such a versatile instrument for someone in my position: far away from the country I lived in for nearly thirty years; a teacher who, at times, struggles for material. Someone who just wants to keep up with global doings without the filters imposed on China’s information outlets. 

But I have been. China and Google don’t get along.

Don’t get me wrong: I can access Google, but it is slower to come up and sometimes won’t yield any results, depending on what I’m searching for. If it does come up it is Hong Kong Google, still under the watchful eye of the Chinese censors. Gmail is another point of contention, it being my primary email server. Sometimes Gmail works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Aggravating as it is, I’ve limped along using Google all these months and years I’ve been here. One day, when I was hunting for something on the Internet with Sam looking over my shoulder, I expressed my frustration at Google’s slowness. Says Sam innocuously: “We usually use Baidu.” It didn’t occur to me till several months later, in a fit of pique to mutter: “Fine, I’ll use Baidu. I don’t want to shop or anything, though…” as I accessed their page.

I had been seriously misinformed about Baidu. For one, I thought it was only a shopping page, like other popular servers here such as Alibaba. For two, I thought everything would come up in Chinese. A lot of it does.

But a lot of it comes up in English, too. Matter of fact, where I had been trying to find the lyrics to my favorite Christmas song on Google with no satisfactory result, Baidu popped up not just with lyrics but a free audio device that I didn’t even have to download. AND, where Google could provide me no help with the song at all, I was able to listen to it via Baidu while the lyrics streamed by on the same page.

I went a little nuts at that discovery. I started typing in song titles that I’ve long missed since being here. They popped right up, added themselves to my musical cue and will play on command, with just a mouse click.

I went beyond nuts. I tested Baidu in ways fair and foul, asking for information that I know is restricted from the Chinese public. I had been misinformed there, too. While some of the more contentious matters I asked about truly were not available I was able to listen to music that might have been deemed inflammatory by Chinese censors. Most surprisingly, I was able to read an entire book via Baidu’s free e-reader, in English. A book that, at best would be deemed controversial and at worst condemned and never being allowed access to. No download required.

Baidu is my new best friend. With bittersweet longing I bid farewell to Google. Its valiant struggle is not lost on me. I chant ‘Jia You’ – ‘come on!’ in Chinese for its fight to maintain its place as worldwide #1 search engine.

Once Stateside I’ll be back to Googling. For the other eleven months I’m here, it is Baidu all the way.        

Self-Absorbed, Much?

Looking over the past few entries I see plenty about my doings, thoughts and feelings but precious little about China, culture comparison or anything even remotely related to vagabonding. Last I checked, that is what this blog was supposed to be about. With this post I intend to remedy that. But first…

I woke up today, experiencing a rare phenomenon. Sunshine streamed in not just from the living room and office side of my apartment but on the bedroom and kitchen side as well. This morning, for a brief time the sun was positioned in such a way that its rays trickled down between the buildings of our housing complex to flood my balcony and kiss my living room floor. And, at that degree it also struck off the fifth floor window in the building facing my kitchen, reflecting joy into that room.

Living on the first floor I’ve seldom seen my kitchen that bright, it being on the permanently shady side of the building. I decided to fling back the drapes in my room and enjoy my morning coffee in bed. Up only long enough for the kettle to boil, I scampered back to my heated bed, enjoyed my drink and read a chapter. After that, while the sunshine still prevailed at that unique angle, I headed to the bathroom for my shower. The warmth from the overhead spray, the brightness streaming in from the window, my general good feeling belied the fact that it is currently 8 degrees Celsius – about 47 Fahrenheit in my apartment. I’m not even shivering.

The Chinese Meteorological Society announced earlier this week that this is already one of the most brutal winters in recorded history. Across Northeastern Europe and Russia several hundred have died and in the Northern regions of China, many more are succumbing to the cold. Roads are impassable from the snow. Traffic in large cities such as Beijing and Shenyang is delayed while road crews struggle to clear highways and byways of overnight snowfall. Flights are suffering and train schedules are disrupted.

With Chinese New Year, the country’s busiest traveling day looming, none of this bodes well.

Earlier in this blog I reported that the Chinese do not heat their homes. To an extent that is true. Homes in regions south of the Yangtze River have heat pumps, such as I have in my apartment but they are highly inefficient, as I reported in winters past. I have reason to know: I tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate the Western system of heating my spaces: closing my windows in a futile attempt to trap heat, and then running heaters for all their worth. These wall mounted units do provide a measure of warmth but they are costly and, quite frankly don’t do a very good job. Even when supplemented by a space heater, the temperature never gets above the mid-60’s (high teens, in Celsius). See “The Chinese System of Personal Comfort”, posted January 2011 for more on the subject.

Contrary to what I previously reported about living spaces not being heated at all, cities north of the Yangtze River do in fact have central heat. It is government administered and controlled, in an effort to manage carbon footprint and resources. In a lot of these buildings, especially the older communities, the central heat system is fired by a single or a series of boilers that services entire neighborhoods. Nevertheless, it is nice to have a heated interior, even if it is just into the teens (Celsius) or sixties (Fahrenheit).

The Southern Chinese keep windows open year ‘round. That was a mystery to me, recently solved my by frequent walks through the Over the Wall Community. In cold times, people burn coal or wood in small, portable stoves resembling large (about 2 gallon) cans with a conical top, leaving a 5 cm (3”) opening at its apex where flames jet out and sparks fly up. Usually they light them outside, where the whole jammie-clad family hovers around it. At bedtime, everyone migrates inside and the heater goes with them. It is not uncommon for the entire family to sleep in one room, or even to share a bed. Windows are kept open so the family does not die of toxic fumes. Apartments have no chimney or ventilation system.

This week I heard on the news that the Chinese government is considering moving the demarcation line to permit heat into regions several hundred kilometers south of the Yangtze. That would require major engineering, considering the construction boom in Wuhan alone. Several other cities are growing as quickly, if not faster. By the time the government concludes its study, if it does advocate for central heating in southern regions, every building will have to be reengineered for heat. That will not be a small task. And then there is the question of whether the system of community boilers will prevail or if the government will look toward alternate means of distributing heat, all while keeping its pledge to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and gravitate away from its consumption of fossil fuels.

These are things beyond this vagabond’s brain to figure out. I seek simple pleasures.

Come nightfall, walking down the dark alleys of my dear OTW community I can get a true sense of Old China. Dark alleys not wide enough for a car and not a streetlight to be seen. All over, in front of nearly every home such a stove as mentioned above throws its light, burning with the intensity of a primitive torch. Eerie shadows adorn the walls as people jockey for position and youngsters dance close to and then away from the flame. The family elders, seated on primitive, hand-hewn stools closest to the warmth, regale all while rubbing their work worn hands together. Middle aged and slightly younger clan members mutter and stomp their feet, bury their hands in their quilted jammie jackets and long for a spot closer to the ‘canned heat’.

With nodded greetings and ‘Wan An’ cheerfully exchanged I run the gauntlet. All too soon I am back in my modern apartment complex, the illusion of life hundreds of years ago dissipated. Stark corners, buildings with modern facings and double paned windows greet me as I pad my way through the quiet, bedded down complex. Unused air conditioning units hang on the buildings like malevolent leeches.

I know my apartment will only be a degree or two warmer than outside but I am toasty in my layers of clothing. As I dig my keys out I look forward to cozying on my heated couch, and later a righteous slumber in my heated bed. I will not shed so much as hat or scarf until time to peel back the covers and climb in. Vaguely I note that my windows hang open. Not flung wide, just enough for winter ventilation. They’ve been that way for months and I don’t intend to close them.  

Funny how my way of doing things has evolved. I find the Chinese method of keeping warm works better than my Western attempts of years past. I should have followed their example two years ago.     


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Kurling Up With Kindle

By all reports, this is one of the worst winters on record. From Texas, where most of my known friends reside to China, my adopted home thousands are enduring the effects: brutally cold temps, unusually strong, bitter winds, storms and all sorts of precipitation.

After hearing the broadcaster announce that several are reported dead and thousands are left without power in Texas I leap to the keyboard, doing a frantic search for their local news outlets.  Nothing conclusive there or on any national weather information pages. Opening my address book, I send everyone I know an email, asking if they and theirs are well and what the conditions are. It being just after midnight there and knowing that a lot of my friends are just now returning home from work, I hope for a few immediate replies.

I realize the irony of emailing them. If there is no power they cannot possibly receive, let alone respond to email (unless they have one of them newfangled smart phones). On the other hand, if they are OK and are suffering no service interruption, nothing wrong with dropping a line to let us know they and theirs are all OK, right?

I am not disappointed. Within moments a few emails pop up. All is well in ‘my’ part of Texas so far.

Thanks for the quick reassurance, y’all.

Knowing from our blog stats that readership now extends virtually worldwide I cringe at hearing several thousand have died as a result of this unusual weather phenomenon.

To our friends in Russia, who are also bearing the brunt of Mother Nature’s cruelty: We hope you are well and holding up just fine. Please take good care of yourself and each other. If possible, let us know you made it OK. Leaving a comment would be a great way to do it. Or you can email Thanks. Both for letting us know you’re OK, and for your readership and participation in our adventures.  

Haven’t heard much of anything disastrous about northern Europe, but that doesn’t mean they too are not having to knuckle under. We send our best to you… a figurative blanket of caring and concern.  

To my adopted countrymen/women in China: All over our country, but especially the northern regions are being viciously lashed right now. We hope you hold up well and that everything is going OK. Our thoughts are with you. We send you warmth and good cheer.

Meanwhile I, in southern China am living in relative comfort. Sure, it is cold and the snow pelts down but I am safe in my apartment and cozy in my layers of clothes and warmed nesting spots. No power outages, no disadvantages. After cleaning up from my and Gary’s Christmas dinner party of last night, I get ready to curl up on my heated couch and read the afternoon away. But not before I voice my concern for all of you.

As I write this I realize the futility of my action. What could we possibly do for you, other than offer you the comfort of knowing you are thought of? Maybe that helps. Maybe that is enough.

‘We’ are my conspirators and I. Quite possibly ‘we’ also extends to the rest of the readers of this blog – those who are and those who are not affected by this terrible winter storm. I like to think that, since we are in our 3rd year of publication, partakers and publishers have become a sort of global family. We may not know each other personally or have any contact, but I feel like I know your heart.

Besides: being human beings, we should be concerned about one another anyway, right?

I’ve canceled my Lil’Uns class for this evening. I don’t want the little girls or their mothers to have to venture out tonight when they could stay at home, cozy up and enjoy an extra bounty of time that they otherwise devote to their everlasting pursuit of knowledge. I promised Lea, the administrator of our little school that I would work extra on Saturday, our next class, to catch up on today’s missed lesson. This decision offers me the extra benefit of not having to go out on such a nasty, cold day. I won’t complain, but I will miss my little girls.

Sam just left after delivering the school’s annual Christmas offering of chocolate and wine. Satisfied that I’ve done my best to reach out to you, I’m going to go curl up with my Kindle. Seems a good day to keep the drapes closed, simmer a nice soup and read the afternoon away, doesn’t it? I’ll try to keep from munching too many chocolates as I read. I hope you are equally comfortable.

Team Krejados           

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Inspired Bit of Teaching

I have to admit: with my growing responsibilities in the classroom, and now with a gaggle of girls under age 10 to educate at the Lil’Uns school, I’m starting to wonder where I’m going to get ideas from. And if I do get an idea, how I’m going to put it into practice. Especially with the group that I’ve had for 3 semesters, with whom I can’t recycle previously done activities, I’m really stressing.

This is nothing unusual. Since I’ve begun teaching I’ve experienced this ‘how many more rabbits are in my hat’ type of anxiety, and it usually manifests itself around this time, every semester.

I like to have my lessons planned out a week in advance, that way I can mentally rehearse them at lull times, say when I’m riding a bus or cleaning house. I do not like stepping in front of the class without knowing my material cold. I like even less not feeling inspired, cleaving onto something I’ve found in one of the online ESL workshops and trying to adapt it to my groups. Which is exactly what I did last week, when I was drawing a blank come lesson preparation time. I made myself swallow that bilious lump. We were going to do __________, and that was all there was to it and that would just have to be good enough.

See? The idea was so awful I don’t even remember what it was. I’m too lazy to get up and walk across my office to look at my teacher’s journal, so please just take my word for it that it was not up to my usual standard of material I like to present. With a churning stomach I slid into Sunday evening.     

Just before going to bed the idea hit me: Let’s write a story! I would provide the first sentence. Each student would provide the subsequent line, building onto what the previous student had written. It would challenge their creativity, test their ability to understand and use English and…

My friends, it did everything I wanted it to and more. These kids LOVED it! Come each student’s turn, he/she ran to the blackboard to write their one sentence. I had no idea they were so… twisted! But don’t take my word for it, read it for yourself.

SOPHOMORE 1 GROUP (the ones I’ve had for 3 semesters):

Mary came in, put down her bag and took off her coat. She went to her bedroom to pick out some beautiful clothes. Today is her birthday. She dressed herself, and then left the house. Going to her best friend Lucy’s house, she invited Lucy to go preparing for her birthday party. What a nice day!

Suddenly the phone rang: it was her boyfriend. He told her he had an accident. He said he will love her forever but he was dying. He said he wants to see her one last time before dying. Sobbing, she set out to the hospital. Unfortunately, another accident! As a result, they lay in the hospital together. When they woke up they found they were in a palace. Then they found they had switched bodies. Further, they had forgotten each other. (At this point, I wondered where the story would go! Read on to find out.)

Suddenly she woke up and found it was just a dream. She came back to life but her boyfriend did not. The doctor said he had become a plant man (clarification: ‘vegetative state’… but I had to leave ‘plant man’ in. That is just too cute an expression!). She was very worried about him, at the same time Lucy told Mary she was in love with him too. Lucy wanted to marry him and take care of him. Mary said she would bless them. The man woke up suddenly, then he knows everything, but said he loves a man named Nicholas more.

I only have 3 ‘boys’ in this group: Bryant, Nicholas and Bruce. That last sentence was written by my more mischievous ‘boy’ student, Bryant. You can imagine how we roared! Again I wondered: where are they going to go from here?  

The next student approaches the board…

The actress looked at the play script and couldn’t help laughing: it was really a complex story! The actress loves the writer; she thinks the man is so fascinating! Finally the angel appeared (? I’m not really sure what they meant with this sentence). Lucy married Nicholas. Mary married her boyfriend. The actress married the writer. All ended well. What a complex story!

And there you have it: 28 sentences of raw imagination, each building upon the other, with only the first sentence provided by me. I’m definitely going to repeat this exercise in class!  

On With the Show

One of the greatest perks of being a teacher of some renown is that I get invited to attend for free all manner of shows the students put on and have to pay to see. Of course all of the teachers get to attend shows for free but usually I am one of only a handful of teachers in attendance.

Last night was an exception. Everyone from the school’s owner to the Dean of the English department was on hand for the choir competition. I was but one face at the forward placed table meant for dignitaries.

The joy of attending these shows has not paled. Nor has my awe at how talented these kids are. The last show I attended, about a month ago was not a reflection of that talent necessarily – I don’t think I even wrote you about it, so dismal were it. Last night’s show, full of pomp and with all the performers in costume was not dismal at all.

From the first parting of the curtain till the final bow the concert was a feast for the eyes and a treat for the ears. The first choir, traditionally arranged on risers, with the girls clad in shimmering purple gowns that contrasted the boys’ black tuxedos drew an excited gasp. Their vocal performance was no less stunning. Unfortunately they only had the stage for two songs. But then, each group only performed a maximum of two numbers. This was a competition after all, not a concert.

Students from each of the school’s departments – electronics, industrial mechanics, Finance and Accounting, Engineering, Language, ect., took their turn onstage. One group, a traditionally male dominated field (I think it might have been Electronics) had a male only choir clad in white with a golden dragon on the breast. They sang with a female soloist in a shimmering gown of gold whose vocal prowess knocked my socks off. She was more than a match for a choir of men, no matter how soaring their melodies.

The curtain closed after each group’s rendition. While the outgoing group descended stage-right the next department’s choir took the risers from stage-left. That gave me a few minutes to look around, taking in the sights.

The entire stage front was festooned with golden and white balloons, woven into shimmering silver garland that was itself wound around flashing Christmas lights. Where the footlights would be on a professional stage were potted plants, effectively concealing the feet of the first row of choir members.

During these intervals hostesses, clad in traditionally Chinese dress of red silk with white fur stoles refilled the guests’ tea. Granted the cups were of the paper, disposable variety. That didn’t stop the gesture from being regal. The young ladies filled and refilled the cups with proper decorum during each break.

Cigarette smoke wafted over from the middle of the dignitaries’ table. The BigWigs were smoking light freight trains all during the show. I hope the camera, on a platform directly behind those VIPs did not pick up the smoke curls. That would make for an eerie video, wouldn’t it?

To my right, beyond Victor’s unoccupied seat, a tibble of toddlers assaulted the plates of snacks positioned at intervals for the muckety-mucks’ snacking pleasure. They almost stole the show. I mean that literally. After divesting the closest snack plates of their fruits and candies, leaving only the sunflower seeds they developed an interest in the golden balloons adorning the stage. The least shy ones, coincidentally older, raced to snag shimmering balloons before being hauled back to their minders. We thought they were adorable!

Wonder why Victor never comes to these shows? I know he gets invited too.

The English department’s choir was all female. I have to admit I’m not really surprised, considering how few males I have in any of my classes. They wore crimson gowns trimmed in silver and a lot of makeup. I recognized several of my students among the group and surreptitiously waved to them. I know they saw me by their attempt to not smile as they sang. After their performance was a different story… they smiled and waved back. Unfortunately neither their selections nor their performance was remarkable.

It was during this group handoff, while the curtain was closed and the little ones were subdued that the question came to me. What would be worse: to be blind or deaf? Sometimes we take such gifts for granted. Most of us are born with the ability to see and hear, but do we ever consider what our life would be like without sight? Without sound?

While still appreciative of the rest of the show but not necessarily focused on it – my department sang, who cares about the rest of the competitors? – I rationalized.

Here I am, at a show that is both visually and audibly satisfying. If I could not see I surely would have missed how the adorable babies toddled away after snagging their bounty from the VIP bowls. The shimmer of gowns, the uniform enunciations of the singers, even the smoke’s ethereal dance would have been lost to me.

Going further: if I were blind I would not be able to read the traditional way… but audio books and Braille books are available. I can already type without looking at my fingers, so writing would not be that big a deal. Ditto with navigating my house; I do that with the lights off all the time. Getting around town might prove a challenge save for the sidewalks that all have a textured lane specifically to help guide the blind. I could always ask someone at the bus stop which bus just pulled up.

As I understand it there are countless accommodations and conveniences for people who are blind. There are millions of people who are blind that competently manage their life, mostly with a minimum of help.

And there are workarounds for people who are deaf, too. Sign language, alarm clocks that strobe rather than bleat (some do both), closed captions and subtitles, just to name a few.

But if I had to live, never hearing music again. I’m not sure I could do that. What compares to a soaring melody, to the passion of an aria, the joy of a chorale, the effusiveness of a catchy tune? How could I pass on the first tentative gurglings of my grandchildren, or the first time they call for me by name?

The curtain opened again for the final number. This group was dressed in Chinese military uniform that I am familiar with, having witnessed Freshman Military graduation 3 years in a row. They brought the house down by singing not one but two patriotic numbers. After the last note rang out the house lights came up and people made to leave. Hardly anyone was on hand to see the groups be awarded their prize according to rank.

Our department dean, Tracy and I exchanged final remarks. She lives a distance away from the school and had to be back here at 7:30 tomorrow morning. And here it is, after 9PM! She said she was going to take a taxi home. I wished her a safe travel.

And then I was promptly mobbed by some of my students who ‘worked’ the show: the gofers, the cleanup crews, the performer escorts and even some that had purchased a ticket and were in the audience. It took about 45 minutes for me to disengage and head home myself. On the way home I again pondered my choice of sound over sight. For all the sensory riches, both experienced tonight and in the world in general I’m fairly certain that, if I had to lose one, I’d rather it be vision. What about you?

I do know one thing for certain: Victor is an idiot for missing all these shows.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Voices of Christmas Past

The year is 1981. December 1981, to be precise. The place: Berlin, Germany. I was but a young lass of 19 then. Thin, leggy and pregnant to bursting. At that time I did not work. I was a proud wife of a military man. Berlin was a divided city, with an ugly grey wall marking the boundary between freedom and tyranny.

As I was fluent in German I took it upon myself to volunteer with ACS, nascent do-gooder, I. The American Community Services agency welcomed newly arrived soldiers and their families to this unique city and saw to their social and psychological needs, among other things. My responsibilities included showing the wives around, helping them shop ‘on the economy’ – meaning in local stores, teaching them bus routes and just generally getting them acclimated to being so far away from their home and families.

Besides being away from everything and everyone one loves, being deprived of tradition and celebration rituals is one of the most demoralizing things an expat can be subjected to. Therefore we at ACS did everything we could to make sure Christmas was done right in the Berlin Brigade family: gifts for unaccompanied soldiers and men who have not already found girlfriends, shopping trips for the wives and community parties, complete with food, drink and, of course, Santa for the kids.

Santa had a spot of honor in the PX lobby. For those unfamiliar with military terminology, PX means Post Exchange – the shopping center that caters to the military. You want to see a mob scene? Go to the PX in the weeks prior to Christmas. Unbelievable! And the line of tots wanting to sit on Santa’s lap? Well, I’ll tell you: that Santa player had to be one patient and enduring individual. I know of this because Santa was an ACS volunteer. He was a friend of mine, even though I disremember his name after all this time.

I do remember Bernie’s name, though. It was Bernie – a colonel, or was he a major? Another detail that escapes me now. It was Bernie, the ACS director that clomped down into our office, located on a sub-floor of the Berlin Brigade compound. Bernie flung open the door, let in some cold air and a few snow flurries, while exclaiming that we were surely in a pickle now!

Santa had passed out. The ambulance took him to the military hospital. Later, we got word that heat, dehydration and stress had done him in. But that was later. The pickle was now. Where were we going to find another Santa?     

For those of you who have never filled that suit, playing Santa can be a very demanding role. The suit is hot, the beard itchy. Little, squirmy children climb all over you. Some pull your beard and others poke your belly – presumably to see if it really would shake like a bowlful of jelly. Nervous tots tend to wet and more nervous ones tend to cry and slide right off Santa’s lap. Most were too shy to say anything. Those that were not shy were sly.

Mostly, Santa benefits the parents. Little children really don’t care where they are at as long as their family unit is stable and they can make friends with other kids their age. Santa’s being in Berlin meant a lot to the parents, able to take that snapshot of Little Billy, Susie, Bobby or Sally to send back home. Remember, this is 1981: no personal computers and no instant upload. Video chat dwelled in the realm of science fiction. These cameras that captured Santa and Tot were called Instamatic, or Polaroid. They took real film that had to be wound between shots and required flash cubes. Santa’s patience had to be near inexhaustible while restless bottoms squirmed on his lap, so that Mom or Dad could capture that perfect holiday picture.

How do I know all about what Santa had to endure?

When Bernie came clomping down those step, flinging the door open with one hand and pulling his hair out with the other, I was in the office. As he dramatized around, wondering where an 11th hour Santa could be found, I was wracking my brain. As the minutes leaked by, an idea came to me.

“Bernie,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

“You’re a girl.” He practically decapitated me with the incredulity in his voice.

“Well, I know that. But I am built for the part right now, and with the beard and being seated most of the time, who is going to know?”

“Give me a ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’”

Me, possessed of a rather deep voice anyway, tucked my chin into my breast and dutifully intoned.

“Well, you’ll do, I guess. You’ll have to; there is nobody else.”

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how I celebrated my first Christmas with my daughter, now 31.

When I tell you the children like to poke Santa’s belly, I was not kidding. By no means was it a joy to have countless sharp elbows driven into my expectant belly. It is even less fun when the baby that belly is incubating gets irate and starts moving around. More than one child yelped in surprise and leapt off my lap as my daughter rolled around inside me. I guess kids don’t expect Santa’s belly to fight back.

One of the more sly children hung back, presumably disbelieving in this purported Santa. As I had to do with so many others, I reached forward to coax him onto my lap. Pull him onto my lap, if it came down to it. Per Bernie, my instructions were to be a good and welcoming Santa. Perhaps Bernie had an idea I would turn out to be a curmudgeon later in life? I was truly doing my best to be a welcoming, friendly Santa but that one tyke… he tested the very limits of my patience.

Leaning forward when hugely pregnant is not an activity I recommend. This devious little… child deliberately hung back, forcing me to reach out to him. Just as I grasped his wrist, he stepped backward. ‘What are you going to do now?’ his look communicated. Well, there wasn’t much I could do with a 10-pound baby sitting on my bladder that felt ready to let go about 45 minutes ago.

Precious, darling child. I remember him well.

But the one I remember best is the little boy who inadvertently jogged his elbow into my side, causing an involuntary groan of pain. Immediately contrite, he started crying. OH, NO!! What kind of Santa am I to make children cry? I did my best to console him. Unfortunately I totally forgot that I was wearing a red suit, a beard and that I was supposed to be a man. My voice slipped into its normal upper register as I cooed soothingly, hoping to calm him down.

Well, I got him to shut up but only because suddenly, Santa sounded suspiciously female. He had been potty trained – something I was grateful for, but he had not been trained to assimilate a Santa gender confusion. He looked at me in disbelief, slowly slid off my lap and crabbed sideways toward his mother, his eyes never leaving my face. Fortunately this lovely woman had already gotten the shot she wanted, so she was more than happy to take her tot in tow. As they were leaving the Official Santa Enclosure – the mock up ‘North Pole With Armchair’ that is the bane of every fake Santa the world over, I heard him tell his mother, voice filled with awe: “Mommy! Santa is a LADY!”

That was it. End-of-pregnancy heat flashes and having my baby play football with my bladder apparently wasn’t torture enough in repayment of my kindly and selfless Santa act. This kid had to make me want to laugh hysterically, to boot! I told a nearby ‘elf’, also an ACS volunteer that I needed a break. She hung out the shingle that said Santa would be back in 30 minutes. I took myself to the nearest bathroom, making sure I unbuttoned my costume so that people could see I was a woman going into the ladies’ room, not some twisted Santa pervert.

Of course, in those days we didn’t have to worry about Santa being a pervert. Or anyone else, either. It seems those were gentler times, when kindness was a matter of course and community meant people gathering together.

Nowadays, community seems to imply some sort of social media. Many other things have changed since my stint as Santa. Digital photography and smartphones pretty much guarantee that family everywhere will get to see pictures the minute a tot hops onto Santa’s lap. Most likely, some elderly relative would be on the other end of that phone, with Mom or Dad encouraging Terrified Tot to ‘Say Hello To…”

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, just in time for jubilant citizens of Germany, so long divided, to reunite for their fist Christmas together since 1961. That may well be the best, and greatest change of my little Santa story.

Well, maybe the best after my daughter’s arrival, a few weeks after my turn as the Man (Woman) in Red. Jennifer was born a few days before Christmas. I had never before, and have never since received such a beautiful, meaningful, life altering Christmas gift.

And I have never shared this story with her. So this year, my Christmas gift to her and to you, Dear Readers, is this story. One that, for some reason I’ve never seen fit to make a part of our family Christmas lore.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! And especially to you, my Bug.            


A Fallow Period.

My friends, this has been a fallow period, at least as far as writing you is concerned. Those with whom I email with regularly will testify that I’ve even slowed down in that department. Don’t doubt for a minute, Dear Reader, that you are most certainly on my mind as I strive to find topics of interest.

Truth is, my life has become pretty mundane. I’ve not traveled since Qing Dao. I’ve not done or experienced anything remarkable of late. I have been keeping my nose to the grindstone. In fact I am teaching more this year than in the past 2 years combined.

Not only do I have my usual allotment of University students but I am also teaching a Lil’Uns class twice a week, and an extracurricular class for Speech Competition Preparation two evenings a week at the University. My first session with that group will be tomorrow evening. Stay tuned for more about it in a later entry.  

The challenge in my particular position as ESL teacher has been creating a curriculum from scratch. At first dismayed but now elated about it, this school has given me full latitude to conduct my classes as I see fit. Thus they’ve not given me any books to teach from. I’ve had plenty of practice coming up with material for the University groups. Matter of fact, I am just recycling previous lessons from semester to semester because I have different students each semester, except for one group that I’ve had for 3 semesters so far. I want to tell you something remarkable about them, after I expound a little on my Lil’Uns.

I believe I told you before that I am teaching them ‘complete immersion’ style: no Chinese at all. And, I am not using any type of prepared materials. Each week I am creating from scratch what we will use in the classroom. Talk about a challenge! First because I’ve never taught little ones. Second, because I have to make it age specific, while still addressing the needs of students who are more advanced and engage those students who are not as prepared for learning English. Third challenge is to maintain continuity in subject matter while introducing new vocabulary, concepts and aspects of what would be relevant and interesting to 7year olds.

Some, like Kate and Autumn are doing exceedingly well. Others, like Christina and Amy have to be coaxed into participating. Sandy and Angel are proving to be much more imposing. Christina is the oldest of the group and I fear she knows much more English than she’s letting on. Sandy is a very angry little girl who knows virtually no English whatsoever.

The reason Sandy is so angry is because her life consists of learning. Her mother feels that she should embrace a life of music. Thus, Sandy spends hours at the piano each day. She does not get much time to study anything, including regular school subjects like Math and Chinese, and even less time to just be a little girl. Another byproduct of her continual piano banging is that she is not very well socialized. She picks fights with the other girls and exhibits very aggressive behavior. Because my teaching style incorporates a lot of playing and what would be considered an informal class structure, she tends to disrupt the class more than take part and, come time for her to participate or perform, I have to devote more time coaching her than the other students.

There you have the nuts and bolts of the Lil’Uns class. In future entries I’ll write more about them. For now I want to get to other aspects of my teaching experiences. Let’s move on to that university group that I’ve had for now 3 semesters.

Once I learned how to do it University teaching became a snap. Since those fumbling, awkward, terrifying days when I first declared myself a teacher, it seems I’ve hit on a successful formula: games, activities and engaging topics. My delivery of material is more polished because I feel so much more comfortable leading a class. And, because Victor and I used to change students every semester I only had to come up with 13 weeks of material to teach. Recently, (the unpleasant, two L’ed) Hellen has taken over student group allocation. She has not rotated the students from Victor to me, as had Sam in the past.

I’ve had the group in question for their entire freshman year, and now lead them in their sophomore year. Obviously, recycling curriculum is not going to work with them. We’ve already covered my entire repertoire of lessons, games and activities. I have to come up all new stuff for them. I admit I’m not doing too badly, although it is rather stressful. In a way it is a welcome relief. Recycling material makes for a bored teacher, in my opinion. Some of my colleagues who have been teaching the same material for far longer than I’ve been a teacher report feelings of burnout. So, I’m grateful to have to engage my brain.

Here is the interesting thing about this particular group. They are far more vocal and eager to participate, much more fluent and free in their use of English than the group I inherited from Victor, who barely want to say a peep. I’m not bragging. Other teachers have observed the same thing.

I put it down to how I engage the students, as opposed to Victor, whose main teaching method is lecture, meaning he does the talking and they do the listening. I contend I don’t need to speak English. I already know how. It is my students who need to get comfortable with the language. So, many of the activities we do deal with them doing the talking.  

This entry is supposed to be about a fallow period I’m having, and here I’ve just spewed about 800 words about teaching.

That is what makes this period fallow. I’m not doing much else besides teaching. Actually, teaching is the easy part. Coming up with things to teach is challenging. Preparing for lessons eats up most of my free time.

In my opinion, teachers are public speakers. Like every public speaking gig, teaching is essentially performing. Teachers have to engage their students, keep them interested and impart knowledge. It is much more demanding than being a traditional performer, such as a singer or dancer. Audiences of such performers are there because they enjoy those types of performances. Students might not like school or, in the case of a lot of university students might just be burnt out on learning.

Nevertheless, like every competent performer, I have to be completely familiar with my material and rehearse it till I can deliver it for maximum effectiveness. So, with having many more creative challenges this year than in years past, and having so many more demands on my time calls for me to be almost constantly in the business of teaching: either preparing, mentally readying myself for, or actually teaching.

So, I’m not doing much else these days. But that’s OK. I’m enjoying this plateau of keeping my head down and my nose to the grindstone. It feels good to be immersed in something so rewarding and productive. It has been a long time since I’ve felt so vital and creative. It is so gratifying to light my students up, give them food for thought, and then watch them leave class with a smile on their face and brimming with excitement. The Big’Uns, the Lil’Uns, the ones I’ve had for 2 years. All the same. If I needed testament to my worth as a teacher I only need to watch my kids leave class. What a feeling!  

Besides, my nose is too big. It needs to be ground down.    

For all that I feel I’m reaching when writing these rather mundane entries, I am happy to hear from my conspirators who maintain our blog that you still enjoy these anecdotes. Thank you, thank you and thank you ever and again. Of course, I always welcome your feedback, questions and comments.

Before I leave you, I’d like to address the comment made on the “Cussing Like a Sailor” entry from a couple of weeks back, about the word “A-ya”.

I too thought that A-ya was just a mild expression of exasperation. According to the textbook I’m learning Chinese from, that is exactly what it is. Recently, Sam endorsed my belief. Perhaps the dismayed mother who chastised me made more of it than it really should have been. As in the West, Chinese sensibilities range widely. There is a good chance that this particular mother did not want her child to pick up on expressions of frustration, being as it is more traditional for people who are Chinese to swallow and endure whatever comes their way. Or, she might have felt that teachers should never express frustration in front of her charges. Again, I’m not really sure where she was coming from with regard to my saying it in class. 

Thank you for your comment. Any time you have a question, would like for our blog to address a certain aspect of Chinese culture or a current event, please feel free to let me know. Either by leaving a comment or addressing me directly at: I will be delighted to research and expound. Especially during fallow periods like these.              

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Half My Arsenal

A lot of times when emailing my word document entries to my conspirators I wonder if, when I write a title that could be perceived as threatening, or that contains a word meant to trigger the National Security Administration computer’s alarm to a potential threat, if someone in Washington intercepts my entry and reads it. Today’s entry, containing the word ‘arsenal’ certainly would qualify.

If so: Welcome, dear Shadow Reader. I hope you enjoy my musings.

Of course, all of you regular readers know that I mean no one any harm, least of all anyone in America or America herself. I do enjoy the possibility of being read in Washington though, and by a top agency such as the NSA, at that! Don’t worry: I don’t try to trip their very often.

To satisfy curiosity: this entry has to do with winter garb, not weaponry.

It has started getting cold around here. Although I do have to say that so far, the temps have been mild compared to winters past, when I was bundling up to my eyeteeth and still freezing. This year I’m barely into my longjohns. And here it is, literally one hour before December 1st!

That is the arsenal of which I speak. After 2 winters here I am now used to the idea that there will be no ambient heat for the next 4 months or so, even though, while enjoying the warmer temps of the other seasons the cold of winter became a matter of conjecture. I harbor no real memory of how bad it really was. Isn’t that the way the mind is designed to work?

So here I sit, toasty warm and snug as a bug in a rug, writing you. Beside my desk, in its storage packaging is my space heater, as yet unused this season. I don’t anticipate having to use it, either. What is so different this year from years past?

First guess is that I finally feel wholly myself. Since having arrived here 2 years ago I’ve been feeling ‘punky’, because of stomach woes and because of allergies, both afflictions that endured. It seems the stomach problem is gone and now the allergies are under control. Score 2 points for me.

Next guess is that I’ve redefined how to tackle the issue of keeping warm. Whereas in the states we are used to heating our spaces, in China one heats one’s self. I wasn’t very good at that… till now. Now that I’ve gotten over the idea that I should heat up whole rooms at a time – and not being really successful at it, I’ve formulated a scheme of heating only my nesting sites: my desk chair, the couch I lounge on while watching TV and my bed.

Here is what gets me. The first year I was here I learned of bed heaters. They resemble an electric blanket but are placed as a mattress pad would be. After Sam educated me to them I immediately bought one for my bed and, for that first winter in the Concrete Bunker my bed was the warmest place in the house. Why I didn’t think to buy similar heaters for my chair and couch till now is a mystery. I’m putting it down to being not quite myself.

But now I am myself, and thus have mattress pad-like heaters in all places I park my derriere. Even though the ambient temperature in my apartment is right about 55 degrees Fahrenheit I am comfortable. Even my hands and feet are warm.

I’m not having to dress in layers now. The last 2 years I felt like the Michelin Woman, bundled as I was. My shoes barely fit for all the socks I was wearing and, for that matter I could barely get my shoes on because I was too padded to reach my feet. And still I was miserably cold.  

Not a problem this year. I am wearing a pair of longjohns under my regular clothes but I’m not so bundled that I could be auditioning for the role of the younger brother in A Christmas Story.

Like General Patton surveying his troops I inspect my winter wardrobe, standing at the ready. I still have socks with wicking action, woolen socks, fleece lined undergarments and oversized outer garments in my defense against the chill. Beyond that I have my parka and my Gor-Tex lined sports jacket, my thermo-insulated gloves, leg warmers and a variety of scarves. None of which I’ve yet called into service.

I am wearing a hat already but then, I’ve been wearing a hat since I saw fit to dash myself into a metal pole, splitting my head open. I have to hide the fact that I barely have any hair on top of my head, dont’cha know. Now the hat serves a double purpose: keeping my head warm while concealing my stubble.   

And then there is the space heater, my gel-pack hand warmer and my electric foot warmer. All of these things in my winter arsenal are as yet unused. For now I am happy and toasty with just my heating pads, strategically located.

For the worst of winter’s dreaded icy blast, in January/February, I will be stateside. Not that it doesn’t get cold in the states but I will be in the southern states where winters are traditionally milder. And, in the states people heat their spaces instead of themselves. I’m looking forward to sleeping in a bed that does not require warming and dining in restaurants with windows fogged by steam and warmth from within.

Yes, I gloat. C’mon, Old Man Winter. I’m ready for you. You may already be here but so far, I’m only using half my arsenal. When you start with your antics I’ll be completely decked out. You’re not going to get the better of me this year!            

Cream Puff Junkie

I’m fortunate to say that, throughout my life there is very little I’ve addicted myself to. I’ve picked up and put cigarettes down about 4 or 5 times. While living stateside I got hooked on Chipotle’s burrito bowls. For a while, when things were really stressful I enjoyed a mixed drink – only one per day, but I looked forward to it with wanton glee, parsing out the minutes until mixing and enjoying it. That was quite a few years back.  

Fortunately for the addict in me there were several Chipotle restaurants on my way to work, so I could go to one on this day and to another the next. Or, I could have a burrito bowl for lunch one day and dinner the next, thereby avoiding the people who worked the lunch shift. With the mixed drink ‘addiction’ I would usually buy a large bottle of whiskey that would last me about 2 months. Liquor stores being plentiful I could go to different stores each time my supply of hooch got low and thus didn’t need to worry about people thinking I was a teetotaler.

See how I have the addiction mentality going on? I don’t want anyone to espy my satisfying a craving.

And now, there are cream puffs. They have always been my favorite treat but, in consideration of my waistline I would not buy them very often. Until now.

I blame Jackson, a former student of mine. I had no idea he would turn out to be my pusher. One day I met him on The Street. He had just been to a bakery and had a bagful of puffs, from which he offered me one. From then on I was hooked, conclusively and irrevocably. I made him show me which of the 3 bakeries on The Street had those wonderful treats. After he complied I dismissed him, sauntered casually into the store and bought a half ‘Jin’ – about 500 grams worth.

I say ‘casually’. Back then I don’t think anyone intuited I was a junkie. I think they thought I was just a nice customer. A nice, frequent customer. A nice, frequent OBVIOUS customer. Being the only foreigner for miles around makes me stand out a little bit. No masquerading for me; I’d never get away with pretending I was someone else. And there is only one bakery around here that makes and sells cream puffs.   

In China they make cream puffs with real whipped cream, injected into phyllo dough and baked to perfection. Not too sweet and plenty creamy. If eaten properly cream ends up everywhere but, OH!! The heaven of them!!

When I lived in the Concrete Bunker, close to The Street I would make the excursion about once a month. I really felt too bad to enjoy any type of food addiction when I lived there. Since I’ve moved to the back of campus I feel much better but I seldom walk The Street anymore. A few weeks ago I was there again, first time in a long time. I was meeting Zhanni and Dash for a dinner. Dash works in a cellphone store right next to Cream Puff Bakery.

What did she do to deserve such luck?

Instantly I was reminded of how much I love those cream puffs. Because they are filled with real cream they are very perishable, so oftentimes before, when I had occasion to walk The Street they were sold out. Now that the weather is colder and the puffs keep better, they are available into the evening hours. OH, Joy! OH, Rapture!

My stomach is behaving and I’m feeling like my old, healthy, happy self. Oh, Trouble!!

Now that I’m out 4 evenings a week I can satisfy my cream puff craving. It all started so innocently. The taxi driver overshot the street that I normally walk to get through the Over the Wall community, my usual way home. I had him drop me off at the head of The Street. Meandering along, enjoying the sights and…

There you have me, Ladies and Gentlemen: I am ‘casually’ walking into that bakery for the first time in months, after those cream puffs. Of course the clerk remembered me; I am somewhat of a memorable character around here, if you’ll recall. The clerk and I chatted for a little bit. She commented on how much my Chinese has improved since the last time I was in her shop. I made disparaging comments about my language ability, as per custom over here. All the while I was calculating how many cream puffs were in a half-‘Jin’ (8) and how I would divide them out to maximize the pleasure of having them. Trying to keep my eyes from rolling in their sockets or otherwise appearing too eager, I paid my 6Yuan, snagged my ‘fix’ and – hopefully – casually sauntered back out.

It was all I could do to wait till I got home before sticking my hand in the bag, snagging a puff and sucking the cream out of it.

Now, I’m ashamed to say I am well and truly hooked. I must have cream puffs every day. I look at my stash and contrive excuses to go buy more when I start running low. There being only one bakery that sells them I have to keep coming up with excuses to justify my purchase so that nobody will perceive I’m a junkie. Even worse: I’m buying them more frequently because now, only one cream puff at a time no longer satisfies. Two per allowed occasion: for dessert after breakfast and again after dinner.

The last time I bought some was last Wednesday. It is now Friday night. I am down to 4 puffs. Is tomorrow evening too soon to put in another appearance at the store?

I sidle up to the fa├žade and try to appear nonchalant when looking in. Fortunately for me the cream puffs are in the very first display case, so I can spot them easily from the sidewalk. The baker’s assistant is making waffle cookies right there, in front of the store. He gives me a reason to stop. I chat with him a few minutes before appearing to notice the puffs. I then hail the store’s matron, who comes over, beaming. And what would the big foreigner like today?

“She wants a half-Jin of cream puffs” the assistant announces, in none to low a voice. Cheerfully the baker grabs a plastic bag, paws my puffs into it and then heads to the scale to weigh them. Adding insult to injury the assistant shouts: “Just a half-Jin! Should come out to 6Yuan!”

It’s no use trying to hide my need. They’re on to me.    

Mortified, I pay up, swallow my drool, duck my head down and go home, all the while thinking: “Where am I going to get my fix now?”