Thursday, February 28, 2013

Confoundings and Conveniences

Coming back from the States I always get into a state of confusion. Actually, I enter that state while still in the States. At some point in all my travels I usually start wondering whose couch, floor or bed I’m in/on. Not that I’m in any way angry about it but, upon waking after a day here, a week there and an overnight yonder, you can see why I would end up confused.

Immediately after figuring out where I’m at I reckon on what day it is. After last year’s nearly missed flight – well, in my case nearly missed, in Gabriel’s case missed for a fact (see The Importance of Plans, D, E and F, posted last year August) I’m not taking a chance on messing that up again.

I do get confounded. Not just about where I am or when I am but which cultural more to uphold. Is it proper to be ‘Chinese’ in America? Can I be ‘American’ in China? How about if I’m just myself anywhere I go?

Somewhere along the way, while in America, I get used to doing things the American way again. In my humble abode I shower a certain way: turn the water on, get all wet, turn the water off. Wash hair. Turn water on, rinse hair, soap bath pouf up, work up a good lather and turn water off. Wash up, turn water on, rinse, turn water off. Condition hair, turn water on, final rinse and I’m done. It saves a lot of water and it is vital for me to wash that way because in the winter I tend to run out of hot water very quickly.

Somewhere in the beginning third of my sojourn stateside I realize I am actually expected to let the water sluice on, even when I have no active use for it. Also, I start remembering how good it feels to have a seemingly endless supply of hot water. By the end of my time Stateside, I find myself lounging in my daughter’s Jacuzzi tub with all the jets blowing and water up to my chin. My China self would sniff disdainfully at such waste. My American self is already mournfully projecting the truncated showers I will be subjected to for the next eleven months.

Life in America is so convenient! Hot water flows at will with but a flick of the wrist from any tap in the house (labled ‘hot’. Obviously, if one turns on the ‘cold’ tap, only cold water will come out, unless there is a serious problem with the plumbing.) Here, unless I’m planning on using a lot of hot water (like showering or doing laundry) my water heater is switched off. When I do my dishes I just heat water in my kettle. Two kettlesful of water and I’m done with my dishes. 

In China, if I want some sort of convenience food, I have to get ready to face the world – hair, makeup, clothing (of course), and then I have to walk a certain distance to whatever food I’m hoping to score. Noodles or fried rice from a local vendor is relatively easy but if I want really extravagant junk food like McDonald’s or KFC I have to ride a bus for at least 30 minutes after running the gauntlet from the OTW community. And then there is the riding home, walking back from the bus stop, ect.

You can see why, if I’m besieged by a desire for hamburger or fried chicken I make a day out of it. No sense in going out for just a hamburger and coming right back home.

In the States, if you want a ‘junky’ late night snack, you simply hop in your car in any state of dishevelment or dishabille, shod or not and in a matter of minutes you are at a drive thru somewhere, ordering your heart’s desire. If you live in a city or suburb, it is just a matter of minutes. If you live further in the country, it might take you a bit longer but you don’t have to gussy up and face the scrutiny of whoever you might meet on the way.

Usually, while I’m lounging around in that Jacuzzi tub somewhere toward the end of my stay in the States I start thinking about how much more difficult life in China is. I start thinking: do I really want to go back to freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer? Do I really want to do my dishes and laundry by hand? Do I really want to walk or ride public transportation everywhere I go, be social when I don’t want to be and be accessible at all hours?

No, I don’t necessarily enjoy those aspects of my life here. At least, not all the time. However, living here I am afforded the chance to live the dignified life I saw for myself while still living in the States. When you’re on the other side of the world you can see the forest in spite of all the trees, so all the fallacies and incomprehension and adaptations I made in order to be able to get along in America are plainly visible to me here in China. Here I understand the way of life, the traditions, the culture. There, and anywhere else in the world I’ve lived, for the most part, I felt like an outsider looking in.  

Not that I’m saying Yay to life in China and Boo to life in America or anywhere else. While I admit I find life in America extravagant and more luxurious and convenient than life in China, I don’t believe everyone should come to China to live, or even embrace the minimalist lifestyle I feel so comfortable with here. Even while I think about how to permanently rejoin this society of luxury and convenience I know I am not serious. As soon as I get my feet back on Chinese soil I will feel more in my skin, more myself than I do in America.

Besides: can you imagine if everyone jettisoned life as they know it and came to China? Talk about overcrowding! And what of diversity? If everyone lived as we in China do, what difference would there be in being here or there? If everyone thinks the same, what would we talk about?

No, I don’t think everyone should think like me, do like me or be like me.  

I am here by personal choice, living a life that feels right to me. While I do enjoy my short sojourn into the lap of luxury and the life of excess I perceive America to be, I am always glad to be back here, to where life is real for me. That would make my perception of life in America an illusion. At times I believe it is, especially when I read about the poor who have virtually no chance at redemption or betterment, the mistreated, the misdiagnosed and the misfortunate who crowd every city and overshadow any and all aspects of American life. In fact, I do true Americans a disservice when I reduce their life into the scope of the 30-odd days I spend visiting my loved ones.

Let me always remember that. 

Interlude. Or: Things That Freak Me Out in the U.S.

Just as I get acclimated back to Chinese life and doings I reflect back on my time in the states, time that passed far too quickly. A while back I wrote about things that, even 2 years into living in China still freak me out (see eponymous entry, posted May 2012). Now I will share the things that freak me out when I go back to the U.S.

No people: Living here and going about, you get used to seeing people everywhere. Pedestrians striding either purposefully or meandering leisurely. Women dancing in the street at dusk and men playing checkers or poker. Seniors sitting and absorbing sunshine or chasing their grandchildren, Children of all ages scurrying about. Buses are crowded, malls are crowded, restaurants are crowded, markets are crowded. In short: people everywhere.

In the States nary a soul can be seen. Wide, paved avenues suffer traffic only at peak times a day or special occasions. Mall parking lots are half empty except on prime shopping days like Black Friday or the day after Christmas. Sidewalks for the most part are completely devoid of pedestrians. In Albuquerque I literally felt like I was in a ghost town for the lack of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Not even a meandering dog, let alone a pack of them to be seen. Of course it was Superbowl Sunday when I was there but still… In Albuquerque and everywhere else I wondered. WHERE IS EVERYBODY???     

This observation comes from having visited no fewer than 10 cities on this trip alone, but this experience is not unique to this visit. Every time I have returned to the States the biggest crowd of people I see during my sojourn stateside is at the airport. After that, the people just seem to disappear.

High countertops: because I visit my son’s house first I always exclaim over the height of the counters in his kitchen and the vanity in the bathroom. Being used to thigh-high countertops here and having made my peace with them, I am literally shocked to find these gargantuan-height countertops while stateside. Even after staying with Darrell and Sammi for 10 days before moving on to the next loved one’s house, I marvel at the height of the counters everywhere I go. Whereas here I’ve resigned myself to chopping meat and vegetables at arm’s length, stateside I actually have to bend my arms at the elbow to prepare food! The awe persists through the last visit, usually my daughter’s house on the other side of the continent from Darrell’s house. That means that, all across the country I walk into kitchens and bathrooms and gasp in wonder at the height of their surfaces.

For everything a gadget: one of my favorite stateside stores is Bed, Bath and Beyond. They have EVERYTHING!! There is a tool, implement or gadget for anything you might want to do from scrubbing vegetables to giving yourself a neck massage. And kitchen gadgets! Not only is there a gadget for everything, but they are displayed from floor to ceiling!

My kitchen, considered luxurious and appointed way beyond what is necessary by Chinese standards, would be seen as primitive by the standards of the homes I visit while stateside. Pantries full of food! refrigerators bigger than I am, loaded to the gills and with extra deep freezes in the garage! Cabinets sheltering glasses and dishes for all occasions! Flatware enough to allow twelve to dinner and not have to wash a single fork between courses! Crockery and cookware housed below those dizzyingly high countertops! Small pots, big pots, stock pots, dutch ovens, 3 or 4 different sizes of frying pans! How is it that I only get along with one wok and one pot? 

Strainers, grinders, food processors! Garlic press and tea eggs! Egg separators, egg cookers, egg poachers, egg carriers and 2-minute microwave egg cookers. All that, just for eggs! Imagine what all there is for meats, vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, breads, snacks and beverages. It just boggles my mind, all the things that I do without over here. And I haven’t even talked about baking gadgets and bowls and dishes and pans and appliances yet!

I feel downright deprived. I actually considered buying some gadgets stateside and bringing them back with me but… so used am I to one meat cleaver, one paring knife, one filet knife and one all purpose knife to use on either my plastic cutting board (for meat) or my wooden cutting board (for everything else) that I’m afraid I’d get back here, pull my gadget out of my suitcase and find no use for it.

Besides, most or all of those things are made in China anyway, so if I really wanted anything, I could buy it here. Metro has some pretty cool kitchen stuff. I just haven’t found justification enough to part with the cash. Metro stuff is pretty pricey. Stateside, gadgetry is kind of inexpensive.

Excess: going hand in hand with the ‘gadgets galore’ phenomenon that takes me by surprise every time I visit the States, the excess of everything leaves me dumbfounded as well. Not to say that there is no excess here. Quite the contrary: the Chinese are rapidly catching up in the excess department the more capitalistic/materialistic they become. Food excesses in particular.

I say this just having come back from a birthday luncheon that cost over 1,000yuan. Perhaps 25 to 30 people in attendance.  

Here we were, in the fancy restaurant at the biggest table I’ve seen since being here. The lazy susan alone was at least 2 meters in diameter and the whole tabletop must have measured 3 meters across. Food, food and more food! The wait staff kept bringing dishes: duck, fish, this soup, that stew, braised pork and fried bread and glutinous rice balls and… I had to stop counting. The ‘bai jiu’, that clear wine reminiscent of moonshine was flowing like water and, being the only foreigner, I was toasted as much as was the birthday boy (Sam’s father). I begged off after only 2 glasses, citing conflict with my allergy medication.

At the end of the dinner, all bai jiu bottles now empty and a few bottles of red wine drunk too, the waitstaff came in to clear the dishes… but not before Sam’s parents asked for takeout boxes. Discreetly, after all the guests had left they packed up all the leftovers and took them home. I’m certain they will get eaten, if not by the household members then by friends and/or neighbors that drop by.

That brought sharply to mind the time while I was at a loved one’s home and the fridge got cleaned out. Stacks of plastic containers housing leftovers were emptied out… into the garbage. Why, those leftovers were barely 3 days old! Why throw so much food away? And “This is past its expiration date: into the garbage it goes!” – even if the product is still good. I couldn’t get over that.

And the list goes on: whereas I’m wont to reuse a paper towel till it is no longer useful, that same paper towel in the states would only see one usage before being discarded. Of course it depends on the towel’s usage. I wouldn’t reuse it if I had just cleaned up something potentially dangerous like blood. But if I’m only mopping up some water, why not let that towel dry and reuse it?         

Medicine for everything: losing your hair? There’s a tonic for that. Suffer from anxiety? There’s a pill for that. Erectile dysfunction? Lowered libido? Inhibited hormones? Heart palpitations? Arthritis pain? Depression? Digestion? Dry skin? Dry eyes? Chapped feet or lips? Step right up, folks! We have something for everyone! Don’t listen to that disclaimer that says your toenails could rot off or your lungs collapse or your liver or kidneys could fail or you could experience dizziness or blindness or an altered genome if you take this product.

I am perpetually amazed that there is a drug for every condition. Most drug commercials are a minute long because of the FDA mandate disclosure of all possible side effects and the urging to consult with your doctor before taking these medications or engaging in these treatment plans. “Only your doctor can tell you if (insert name of medication here) is right for you…”

Don’t get me wrong: in China there are also advertisements for treatments and there is medicine available here. Matter of fact, one can buy antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription. OTC brand – yes, that does stand for Over the Counter offers pretty much everything you can imagine, very little of it requiring a prescription. If I’m not mistaken, sexual enhancement drugs are not promoted in any way here (there might not be any, for all I know). Most television commercials cover innocuous drugs like nasal spray for allergies or analgesics for pain. Mostly we see commercials for herbal remedies, none of which urge you to consult your doctor.  

Prior to leaving the States, one of my favorite movies had been Blast from the Past. I found it a great story about a family that lives underground for 30 years, coming to the surface only because food stores are getting low. Brendan Frasier gets on that lift, emerging in what used to be his backyard but is now a new age church. Having been trapped underground, in the gentle existence his parents knew in the mid-sixties for all of his life, imagine his shock at finding out what the world was really like!

With the help of his ‘girlfriend’, played by Alicia Silverstone he brings his parents to the surface. Of course he could not introduce them into mainstream society so he spent some of the money from the bonds he had cashed to outfit an exact replica of their belowground living quarters above ground. But for one frenetic time when his mother witnessed what the world had become and got totally freaked out by the experience, the parents spent the rest of their days in their tranquil nest.
That is how I feel when I return to China after my frantic month in the States. It is wonderful seeing everyone but life there is… well, it is now too alien for me. I need my low countertops, minimal meds, enough food for 3 days with no waste, and people everywhere.    

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Shout of Sunshine

It is so quiet here. The kind of quiet that presages a good, soaking rainfall and indeed the sky looks as though readying for a downpour. In this preternatural silence I launch a shout of sunshine: two noteworthy stories about two remarkable women that I met in the course of my travels.

Tina: beautiful… radiant, even. We met onboard the flight to Dallas from San Diego. The plane was not crowded. How unusual! Of course, traveling off-season, just past the Holidays, when everyone was vacationed out and worn out (fed up?) from this Season’s greetings, it was bound to happen. Makes me believe that traveling in the off-season is truly the way to go. That, and the low airfare prices. I was able to score no fewer than 6 plane tickets for just under $900, tax and all. I’d say that’s not too bad, wouldn’t you?

Tina! No more digression: let’s just talk about Tina, and later Caroline.

I worried that my enclave of silence would be disturbed by this cherub of a woman who smiled her welcome when I sat down in her row, one empty seat between us. I need a buffer of silence to digest the visit I just had before taking on another round of socializing. Of course that doesn’t help me meet people, hear their stories and promote my blog. It is a constant wrestling match between my needs and my needs. That would be ‘silence’ for the former and ‘blog promotion’ for the latter.

How is it I keep getting away from Tina?

No more distractions. Here goes:

During most of the flight I absorbed myself in my Kindle, communicating that I was in no way open to conversation. Only at the end of the flight, when the pilot treated us to a landing that actually freaked me out a bit, even for all the flying I’ve done, that Tina and I locked eyes and exchanged conversation. Retrospectively, I wish I had given her more attention.

Tina and Craig met years ago. He was her first love. He moved away to Nebraska in 1989, taking his feeling for her along and leaving her grieving for what could have, and maybe should have been. He returned for a ‘hello’ visit in 1991 but quickly left again, for whatever reason. Twenty-one years later they reconnected via Facebook.

Four months ago he called her, asking: “if I fly you out here, would you come see me?” Heart soaring, Tina agreed. ‘Out here’ was DFW; the flight I met her on was that flight. No wonder this precious soul was glowing! I can just imagine her anticipation, can’t you? With proper, authentic sincerity and awe, I asked Tina if I could relate her story in my blog. Blessed woman! She snatched my writing pad and sketched notes out. From these notes I inform you. 

We just landed at DFW. Not wishing to be voyeuristic but hoping to witness these two hearts’ reunion, I scanned the crowd at the baggage carousel. She was not hard to find. Locked in an embrace reflecting a lifetime of devotion and ‘could have been’s, there stood Tina and Craig, pressed close enough to be one body. Craig rained kisses down on her from beneath his battered Stetson. She shed tears and returned his ministrations just as fervently. I went on, gratified to know that such a love withstood the distance, times and trials life hands us all. Soon enough my focus shifted from this great love story. I was being tackled by my diminutive sister who was also beaming with love and longing. Not that of a lover, obviously, but of one who cherishes her family.

Now a short tribute to Donna who, every year comes to the airport at close to midnight to pick me up. Thank you, Donna. I hope one day to collect you at the airport and treat you to a one-of-a-kind visit to my home. You make me feel so special and loved. I hope you know you are loved, too.

As amazing as Donna is, she is not the other woman I wish to tell you about. In fact, I believe she would wilt away under public scrutiny. Instead I’ll talk about Caroline. Caroline, of the mystical hazel eyes and luminous smile. She, the very embodiment of twinkling personality, tradition and goodwill.

Caroline is a writer. Not of great tomes or magical fables but of greeting cards.              

She is not employed by Hallmark, American Greetings or any other greeting card publisher. You will not find her works online, for free or at any price. However, if you happen to be a postal employee, especially at the North Texas Mail Processing plant you are likely to run across her handiwork, especially around Christmas but also at any other occasion that calls for greetings. Any holiday excluding the 4th of July, Caroline will dump upwards of one hundred fifty greeting cards in the mail stream.

Greeting cards? Over 150 greeting cards? Hand written and addressed, with postage affixed and everything? Who does that anymore? Who, besides Caroline? Not many, I’d venture to guess.

How did she get started with this tradition?

Playing bridge. She was unemployed at the time and a group needed a fourth for bridge. A friend called her in. She enjoyed the game and savored the company. That is where the whole greeting card hobby/habit started.

Caroline sends out cards for all occasions besides holidays (excluding the 4th of July): birthdays, anniversaries, children’s birthdays, pet birthdays, ect. You name it, Caroline has got it covered. If you are on any of her three lists, you will receive greetings.

She maintains hand written lists. I asked if she ever thought of going digital, either to create a spreadsheet instead of all those hand written lists, or to send out e-cards. She exclaimed that she doesn’t even own a computer. All of her lists are painstakingly maintained. She updates her lists by the cards that come back stamped ‘undeliverable’. Also, she stays personally informed about people’s status: who is still married, who is still alive, ect. She showed me her lists. I was impressed, not just by the detail but by her script. Beautiful penmanship!     

She is an accountant by trade. That might explain her methodical list making and maintaining. Or maybe she is just that well organized. She would have to be in order to keep up this traditional form of greeting.

How and where does she find all of these cards? What is the criteria for being deemed a ‘good’ card? Would she ever consider designing her own cards?

Never. She avers she has no talent for design, although once, she did commission a special card for one of her contacts. A card is deemed ‘good’ if it is humorous. However, with a rare frown she explained that, for her recipients past the age of sixty it is very difficult to find a good card. Her words exactly: “there are no ‘good’ cards for people celebrating their 60th or beyond.” She should know: she shops year ‘round for cards, going as far as to the neighboring cities. Mournfully, she related how her favorite card store in Arlington, TX closed its doors. A sign of the times, to be sure but still: what a shame.   

What about postage? Chuckling, she told me about the time the mailman rang her doorbell a few weeks before Christmas. At his feet were two postal tubs full of her cards. Because she had selected outsized cards that year she owed more money. Dutifully she applied the required postage and dropped all the cards back in the mail stream. “Postage is getting to be tricky to calculate” she confided.    

How many actually respond to her greetings? “Not as many as you’d think”, she replied. However, she does relish the responses that she gets and sometimes gets feedback from unusual sources.
One time she attended a funeral, dutifully signing the attendance book. Another attendee, a family member of the deceased, seeing her name a few lines up searched her out to thank her for all those years of greetings. Guess who is now on Caroline’s list.

Would she ever consider stopping? Only if she ran out of money, she said with a twinkle.

This year Caroline thought about not sending out Valentine’s greetings. Her own love is gravely ill. She just doesn’t have the heart to send out clownish greetings of love while her Hank lies in hospice. It nearly broke my heart to hear her, valiantly staving off heartbreak by cloaking herself in optimism. That dark cloud passed quickly. Because of an overwhelming demand for greetings she will satisfy her public by sending out yet another round of cards.

Caroline inspired me. I have many friends who would love to receive a hand written missive from the other side of the world. And, what a gift to make: a tangible testament to undying friendship. There is no reason for me not to do it. I have my loved ones’ addresses. This year, I resolve to emulate Caroline. Exercise my penmanship and shower my loved ones with a hand written greeting or two.

My cards will have to go ‘airmail’, I hope on a flight that suffers a less scary landing than the one that caused me to finally talk with Tina.

Upon touching down our plane fishtailed wildly, from the left to the right of the runway. I can handle in air turbulence but not fishtailing on the ground at over one hundred miles per hour. It was not as though my life flashed in front of my eyes or anything so dramatic, but I did experience a frisson of fear. Maybe the fates intended it so that I would talk with Tina, and thus present you with these two very different tales of love.       


Frank’s Question

While visiting with Darrell and his family I had the pleasure of meeting Frank and Alice. Wait, NOT Alice. Somehow I always call her Alice but her name is Laura. I don’t know where, how or why I came up with Alice.

She doesn’t even look like an Alice. When I met her I asked her if she had a twin named Alice – that would have been too freaky, no? Might there be another close relative named Alice? Upon her witness I found that she is not even remotely related to anyone so named, leaving me dumbfounded as to why I persisted in thinking of her by that name.

Either way she is quite a lovely young woman: gregarious and engaging, just like her husband. That is important to me because, in the event something should happen to both Darrell and Samantha, Frank and Laura will be Baby Ben’s parents. I don’t want anything to happen to Darrell or Samantha, but it is nice to know that my sweet grandson will be well taken care of in the event of.

Frank is a highly intelligent man, witty, curious and thoughtful. Upon meeting me for the first time, he already had several questions ready about China, Chinese culture and life over here. As most of you know, I encourage such speculation. It gives me a chance to dig in, really research a topic of interest – maybe something I hadn’t before given any thought to?

I was able to answer most of his questions, and Laura’s as well, right off the cuff. The one I couldn’t readily answer was: “is there an orphanage for unwanted baby girls?” It seems Frank had read about an altruist who ran such an establishment.

I remember reading about this man and his social works too, but the ‘baby girl orphanage’ smacked me as wrong. So I did some research.

Frank, here is your answer.

Baby girls are no longer officially stigmatized as ‘less desirable’ in this society. With the recent discovery/realization that daughters are often better caretakers of elderly parents, and the fact that the government offers incentives such as money for education and extracurricular development for parents of baby girls under the Spring Blossom Project, coupled with the fact that, almost thirty years into the one-child policy there is a dearth of marriageable women, Chinese society is slowly turning away from the ‘male heir’ principle. Indeed it is illegal for a doctor of expectant parents to reveal the sex of the baby when ultrasounds are performed.

That is the official, or the party line, if you will. The unofficial story is glee at bearing a male heir, even today when males of marriageable age are having trouble finding a partner and are actually looking beyond China’s borders for suitable mates. The Chinese being endogamous to a fault, marrying a foreigner – someone from, say, Taiwan or Thailand, or even Korea is not necessarily appreciated, but most understand the need for it. If not for those ‘foreigner’ women, how would the family name be carried on?

NOTE: when I say ‘foreigner women’, I mean in the least a woman who is Caucasian or some other ethnicity/race. A woman from an Asian country is acceptable but a woman from Japan is decidedly not appreciated. A woman from the Middle East is also not favorably featured as a marriage prospect. She should at least have features that could be mistaken for authentically Chinese and be willing to convert to or uphold a traditionally Chinese way of life.

The orphanage Frank was questioning was a house for undesired children: children with some sort of difficulty. Either a physical or mental/psychological impairment.

While overall the stigma against baby girls has been at least officially lifted, the shame of bearing a child less than perfect remains, and it is very strong. Parents of deaf, blind, physically challenged children or, as parents are later to learn, mentally incapacitated children of either gender are summarily rejected. Summarily and formally, so that the couple can try for another, more perfect child.        

On the surface that sounds cold and calculating, but again: one must consider this fact in context with the society that propagates that action.

If you are only allowed one child, and that child accounts for your family’s entire future, it would be necessary for that offspring to not be in any way deficient. Each person must compete for scarce desirables in today’s China. Jobs are no longer assigned regardless of gender or ability. Education is a must for proper social positioning and maximum earning potential. If your child is in any way ‘less than’ the other children, he/she cannot possibly win out in the struggle for a dignified, successful life.

Add to that the lack of resources for people who are handicapped. Throughout most of China, people who are physically challenged are just now earning benefits and access to everything available to people who are otherwise healthy, well formed and mentally competent. Here, there is no such thing as handicapped parking and not much in the way of any other concession for those gifted (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with less than perfect bodies/health.

There are audible signals at crosswalks and markings along every sidewalk so that the blind can safely navigate their daily life. However, I’ve yet to see a person who is blind work anywhere, be it a government office or a shopping mall. People who are deaf have even fewer resources given them, and admittedly are much harder to detect because their disability is not readily visible. I have seen people sign their conversations while out and about town but personally do not know of anyone who is deaf that is gainfully employed either in the public or private sector. And I’ve yet to see anyone who is physically challenged fill any job slot.

Of course, I realize I am just one person in one middling large city that is situated in the center of a very large country. I can’t be everywhere at once, monitor everyone’s actions or witness everything. My information is limited to my personal experience and what I can find out with my  limited ability to read Chinese.

Often I turn to Sam or Gary for input on these subjects. They are obviously more informed than I am. From both of them I got the same information: although the tide is turning, it is turning very slowly to regard the handicapped as less than desirable in the job market or elsewhere, including personal relationships.

Of course I’m always ready to amend or outright retract something I’ve reported in error. Please bear that in mind. This whole entry might one day be refuted.

One of the more spectacular notes to underscore how wrong people are in regarding the disabled as completely useless is the couple who perform a ballet routine. She is lacking one arm and he lost a leg, yet they dance with passion, grace and skill comparable to the finest of well formed dancers. They were recently featured on China Has Got Talent. Simply google ‘China’s Got Talent Disabled Ballet Dancers’ to see them in action. I promise they will take your breath away.

Besides this couple there is a troupe of dancers who are deaf and/or blind as well as physically challenged. You can read about them here:  

Of course, if you google the topic you are as likely to come up with negative reports as positive ones. That might be worth bearing in mind. I have no opinion on such reporting, other than it promotes the media’s desire to project China as a country with profound disregard for human rights. 

Clearly there is hope for, and sunny days to come for people in China who are physically disadvantaged. Last semester I personally witnessed no fewer than 3 people on our campus alone who are physically disadvantaged in one way or another. That is 3 more than there were 2 years ago. However, until such people are actually socially accepted, they will remain on the fringes, most likely finding their place at an orphanage. Let’s hope the people on staff there truly are charitable and kind.

And there is your answer, Frank.

Any more questions? Please send them to, or post them in the comment section of any given entry. I will do my best to research and find an answer for you.           

Monday, February 11, 2013

First stop: Oceanside, CA

To feed my hunger for holding Baby Bun I decided to spend my first ten days in America with Darrell and Sammi, rather than just make a pit stop at their doorstep prior to moving on across America and reserving my more lengthy visit with them for last, as I did last year. The downside of that is having to return to California anyway to fly out of LAX and back to China, with no extra time to see Darrell or Bun again, even though I'm so close. The upside is that I get to spend my first, most eager and energetic days with my son and his family.

Besides, weather being a consideration during this winter break visit I considered the storms currently afflicting my next stop: Dallas. I didn't run away from China's winter blast only to be blasted by the cold in Texas. This gave me a chance to outwit the weather. Mission successful on that count, by the way.

And to lay out my stateside travel plans, buy what tickets I needed to buy and generally get all of my ducks in a row. I already wrote about all that a couple of posts back (See 'Playing Pinball, dated January 2013).

Now, Oceanside.

Darrell and Sammi no longer live in Oceanside. They have moved to the more eclectic and affordable town of Mesa. In spite of my familiarity with Oceanside, I missed it. So, going back, I got to view it with unjaded, touristy eyes.

On the day we went, the sky over Oceanside was impossibly blue. The sidewalks were clean and the feeling is laid back in spite of its many restrictions (no smoking in public areas, curbing dogs, speed limits ect), artsy and retro. Blatting Harleys shared the road with beautifully restored classic Detroit steel and beach cruiser bicycles: heavy, colorful frames, wide tires and swooping handle bars. SUVs drove by with surf boards snugged to their roof racks or jutting out of back windows. I got a general feeling of contentment from the people.

Our goal while in Oceanside: to breakfast at the Beach Break Cafe. It has become a tradition of sorts for us to enjoy a meal there - specifically breakfast. In fact, it appears that is the goal of every Oceanside dweller and visitor. We had to endure at least a twenty minute wait, standing on the sidewalk outside this establishment with others who have made taking their weekend meal there a part of their lives. No harm done; one can help themselves to the coffee bar and sip their favorite java brew while they wait for their table.

It is well worth the wait, not just for the food but for the atmosphere. I've yet to witness a discontented or discourteous patron, let alone meet a surly staffer. Everyone is just so darn happy to be there! And with good reason: in spite of the prices - they do tend toward the steep, the quality and quantity of food served makes the splurge well worthwhile.

One of the more unusual menu items: Banana Crunch french toast. The egg-moistened bread is rolled in cereal before being fried to perfection. Omelets are generously proportioned, using 4 eggs wrapped around a variety of fillings. You can have potatoes cooked any way imaginable, or opt for some form of bread - toast, English Muffin, ect. Being ravenous (and being the one treating my family to this meal) I opted for one of the more lavish menu choices... and ate almost every bite, even the meal-concluding coffee cake. Darrell and Sam had to help polish that off.

Had to? Hah! They dug their forks in even before my insistence for them to do so! I did take some leftovers of that gargantuan meal home. In spite of my best intentions to thoroughly enjoy everything I had ordered, it proved too much for even me. That worked out perfectly because, somehow I had gained a substantial amount of weight prior to returning to the States that I was determined to lose. Even while shoveling minuscule tastes of coffee cake in I berated myself for eating most everything that had been set in front of me.              

Groaning because of my self inflicted discomfort but not letting it flag my enthusiasm for the day, I visited the restaurant's bathroom, a visual treat. I regretted not bringing my camera.

Cameras in the bathroom are a running joke between Gary and me. During our initial, get-to-know each other meet in Chengdu I wanted to take some pictures from the second floor balcony of the Starbucks where we had breakfasted (See Chengdu entries dated June 2011). Mostly, Starbucks tends to put their bathrooms in the greater seating areas, and in China, those lounging spots are usually upstairs. Further, they like to install their establishments in touristy destinations, adapting their iconic interior to a 'culturally correct' exterior, thus making such pictures well worth the ribbing one could encounter from having a camera handy when coming out of the bathroom.

It would have been a good idea to bring my camera to the Ladies' Room in the Beach Break Cafe. It is painted with a vividly colored variety of sea life frolicking against a background of aquamarine and dark blue. Fishes and seahorses bear expressions ranging from lust for prey to ecstasy of life. Or... consumption? Lots is left up to the imagination in beholding these scenes but it is definitely worth seeing and certainly worth a picture or two. Not that I think of Gary every time I visit a Ladies' Room but feeling justified in doing so this time, I rued my lack of visual recording device as I took in that scene.    

I had to limit myself to commenting to Sammi how appealing and engaging I found the washroom facilities to be. She agreed with me that they are indeed worth notice.

So, my fellow travelers: if you should find yourself in Southern California, in the vicinity of Oceanside and are craving a one of a kind dining experience I highly recommend the Beach Break Cafe, home of the Beautiful Bathrooms as well as the Banana Crunch French Toast. Be sure to get there early for quick seating or, if you enjoy lolling around and waiting for your table, get there whenever you'd like. After all the feeling is totally laid back. Don't forget your camera when visiting the washroom!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Gone Fishin'

Those of you who know me well know of my aversion to fish or anything to do with anything even remotely associated to fish or seafood. For those of you who don't know me that well, please refer to previous blog posts such as A Great Honor, published in September 2010, or any of the Qing Dao blog entries, published January/February 2012. Or I could just tell you about it right now, real quick.

I have a strong aversion to anything that has to do with seafood with the possible exception of seaweed, which does tend to creep into a lot of Chinese cuisine. It has been a lifelong loathing, harking back to the days when, as a child my mother forced me to eat fish. Said portion of fish was somehow bad, made us all - sibs and me very sick and now, to this day I cannot stand even the smell of fish.

I've not suffered from the lack of Omega 3 fatty acids, from what I can tell. Therefore I conclude that there is no harm in my not eating fish or seafood. Not that I would disparage or discourage anyone who enjoys the experience. I would have no room to talk, probably because they are richer in Omega 3 fatty acids than I am.

Fish is a huge deal in China, as you might know. I've reported before that fish is ceremoniously served: head, tail, fins and all. When someone invites you to dinner you are guaranteed the first bite of fish. When you invite people over you are most likely going to get a fish to cook. In the winter you can order a 'delectable' fish soup and in the summer, strolling around, you can snack on fish flavored chips.

Junk food junkie that I am, I don't even like fish flavored chips.

Remember a few posts back, how I described my last few days in Wuhan as frenetic and disorganized? Part of that was because I had the joy of hosting a dinner for Mr. Wang - the school's head of maintenance, and his wife and son. Sam came along, of course.

Because I was so close to leaving China I hadn't done any major planning for this event. I figured on serving a Western style meal: soup, salad, entree and dessert. Sam suggested serving only western food might be a bit weird for the Wangs, and that I should order a few (more Chinese) takeout dishes from the school's cafeteria. I always respect Sam's view on what would be proper or customary when dealing with my colleagues or any of the school's staff, so I sent him out in the bitter wind and pouring rain to get take out, while I busied myself cooking what I had in mind to fix.

You might think I got my sweet revenge by making him trudge outside. It wasn't meant that way. Besides, I forked over the money, so you can see that I had no malicious intent at all. It was truly just a matter of timing and disorganization on my part that Sam had to suffer by going out. In fact, if there was any discomfort associated with that dinner party, it was in my preparing for company while keeping in mind that, less than 2 days from then I would be on a plane and not only had nothing ready but was hosting a dinner party.

None of that has to do with fish. Here is where the fish comes in.

Mr. Wang is remotely acquainted with my family. He knows I have a son and a daughter - considered double happiness in China. He is aware that I have grandchildren and is prepared to share in the adoration of  them. I'm fully prepared to let him. What he was apparently not aware of is laws regarding transporting fresh fish intercontinentally.

He had in mind to gift me a fish. More specifically, gift my son a fish, which I would hand carry on the plane all the way to America. To him, and indeed to most Chinese a gift of such magnitude is reserved only for the most esteemed and well thought of. Thus my son was to receive a fish, but not any of my friends, nor my daughter.

Not that my daughter is in any way less thought of. Tradition dictates that sons are revered while daughters are tolerated. Mr. Wang is a very traditional Chinese. Thus my son was to receive a fish. My daughter would only receive greetings. A good thing, all in all. I think that fish would have been pretty ripe after the overseas plane ride and all of the visiting I planned on across the States.

Mr. Wang told me over dinner that he had intended gifting my family (my son) a fish but learned from Sam that Customs would confiscate his precious offering. Disconcerted, he flayed himself emotionally for having nothing to gift my family. While understanding his crestfallenness, I had to work really hard to suppress my gales of laughter. I could just imagine presenting myself at Customs in Los Angeles, begging them to not confiscate my fish! Worse: I could imagine queuing up to board the plane for a 20 hour overseas flight, fish in hand.

In defense of that mental image, I say: passengers are allowed one personal item and one carrion. Or is it one carry-on? The airlines aren't really clear on the topic. Maybe I would have gotten away with my fish.

The long and the short of it was that I came to America fish-less. However, there was fish on the plane.

That is what was served for dinner on the flight. I smelled it from 6 rows up and immediately thought: surely they are not serving fish in an enclosed cabin with no fresh air ventilation, are they? Well, as surely as I thought that, I ended up with a meal of fish. Trying to contain my nausea I asked the cabin steward if there might be something else to eat.

Fortunately I was able to ask in Chinese. I have the sneaky suspicion that, had I asked in English I might have been told there was nothing but fish to eat. Presumably thanks to my language skills the offending fish plate was whisked away and I was presented with a less malignant meal of stewed duck and green beans with rice. Really wasn't bad at all... if it weren't for the wafts of fish aroma coming from all over the cabin.

All of this is really more fish than I care to blog about in one entry. However, there is just one more topic I'd like to cover before I put this one to bed: sweet revenge.

I did get a revenge of sorts on Sam. Remember: he ran out in the cold to procure traditional Chinese dishes for the Wangs, who might not like eating a purely Western meal. The traditional Chinese cafeteria food was barely touched while the food I prepared... well, let's just say only good manners and decorum kept Mr. Wang's son from picking up the serving bowl and licking it clean. Sam even admitted my food was tastier than the cafeteria food.