Thursday, April 25, 2013

Today, We Learn…

Let’s see: what to write about today. The weather? Banal. My classes? My students? Passé. What little trinket or treat I’ve indulged myself in or with? Not even. Food? Commonplace. My health? Oh, no! NOT another entry about the state of my health! Although recently I’ve been feeling really good.

Truth is, not much is happening around here. Students have settled into the long stretch between winter break and summer, where no holiday is long enough to permit travel home. Teachers are bearing down, nosing that old grindstone. So ‘vanilla’ is this period that there is really nothing timely to write about. I’ve not observed anything remarkable, done anything noteworthy. No one is exuberant or plunged into the gallows of darkness. Even the weather is walking a careful middle line: just enough rain, just enough sunshine, just enough of a temperature hike.

Yesterday I noted, with mild surprise that dusk did not come till after 7PM and night fell around 8:30. See how, within the steady march of time, life goes on complacently?

Don’t get me wrong: I have entries planned, and even sandbagged one or two, but they are time relevant. Like the one for Mother’s Day. Can’t really post that one so far ahead, can I?

I recall from years past, in this blog, occasionally suffering the same phenomenon. To wit that entry titled A Fallow Period from December 2012. I don’t want to write just for the sake of posting.

So now we wait. Through a new strain of bird flu and through the latest earthquake, we wait. KFC sales drop and camping gear sales grow. With camping a relatively new phenomenon in China, the people here are enjoying having a tent to sleep in on the sidewalk, instead of just throwing a mat down. Aftershocks and fears of burial in concrete assail them. They are not ready to chance a night in their apartments yet. I can understand that. 

We expats are reeling from the happenings in Boston and around the world. We wait. Soon there will be something to publish. Stay tuned!            

Sunday, April 21, 2013

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

Lancy came back to Wuhan for a few days last week. Of course, she and I would get together. Other than being pesky sometimes, she really is a sweet girl. I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see her. And so it came, on Friday morning, after I finished teaching my class that I lay eyes on her for the first time since she graduated over a year ago.

She has changed a bit. She is a little slimmer, holds herself a bit straighter and now wears a teal green eye shadow. Her hair, dyed brown while in school, has grown out and back into its natural glossy black color. Somehow she seems less girlish, more worldly.

She was walking around campus with Vivian and Rita, two of her former dorm mates. You’ll recall these two young ladies from the Seven Pony-Tailed Heads entry posted June, 2011. Lancy had earned only an associates’ degree, so she and her class graduated a full two years before others in her dorm. Vivian and Rita are on the four year program, so this is their last year on campus. In spite of their ongoing residency here, I’ve not laid eyes on them in quite a while either. They too seemed changed.

In fact, all of the students I’ve embraced and taught since I’ve been here have changed. Carrie, a precocious girl and advanced English speaker when she first entered my class two years ago now has the air of a wise matriarch. Sasuke, of the ‘Who will save Sasuke’ entry posted back in March 2011 looks completely different. Her skin is now blemish free. Her hair, long and flowing, frames her face in gracious waves instead of being pulled severely back. She is as skinny as ever though. Best about her appearance is that there are no new cut marks. She seems to have found balance in life.    

Sometimes the kids and I stay in touch and sometimes we don’t. Life tends to get in the way. Have you ever noticed that? No matter how much you want to keep in contact and what pledges you make to do so, often that speeding train called ‘Life’ just goes too fast to even have time to see the world go by. Summer and I have been trying to get together for a month. Her calendar is too full.

Vanessa, who, with Summer gave me so much comfort and was so helpful during my ‘head bashed open’ stint got back in touch too. You’ll remember those two from that series starting with ‘The Things I Do in the Name of Research’, posted December 2012. Vanessa now lives Shanghai and works at a KTV with her older sister. It seems that the student turned friend I was referring to in ‘The Sex Trade’ entry posted last month is not the only beautiful young woman caught up in the sex trade. Vanessa is a KTV hostess. Her job entails dressing up in fantasy-inducing garments and allowing drunken patrons to paw and slobber all over her. Her recent messages to me detailed her bewilderment at the grown up world.

The list goes on. Some kids I’ve had the pleasure of teaching are now entrenched in an entry level job with some factory or business. It is always great to hear from them and even better to see them again. Zhanny and Dash – remember those two, the original Cookie Cutter girls from my very first days at this school? They were my most constant companions. They are set to graduate this year. Their only obligation between now and mortar and tassel wearing is their thesis. They didn’t even return to campus after winter break. I miss them.  

When I stop to think about it, a lot of kids have danced in and out of my life. Estimate 30 kids per class, 4 classes per semester. So far I’ve taught 6 semesters. That’s over seven hundred eager minds… well, some not so eager. Still: 700 some-odd fresh scrubbed faces that, at some point or another have looked up to me, listened to me, talked with me, played with me and sought me out for advice.

Some, like Claire, Grace and Leo have confided their deep secrets to me. To this day I hold counsel on their dilemmas. I would never betray a student, or a friend. Many, like Stephanie, Surveniere, Tristan and Tony have openly wept, right there on my couch and in my arms. I still see Stephanie. She is a Junior this year, and the one I’m so concerned about because of what she does for a living. Tristan graduated 2 years ago and lives in Shenzhen, but we are in touch regularly. I was there for him while his father was dying, and again when Dad died. That was a long, tearful night. Of course, if you read this blog with any regularity you know Tony and I are in near constant contact but even he is set to graduate next year. He is currently doing an internship off campus. Most likely we’ll stay in touch; his home is in Wuhan.       

Why did I take this job?

I raised my own two kids with my heart and soul, my shoulders available to their burdens and my arms to embrace their fears. For nearly two decades I devoted myself to them, almost to the exclusion of all else. It almost ripped my heart out to watch them walk away. Even now that we have a great relationship I recall vividly how rent I was when they left home. Sure, neither of them left on the best of terms, what with teen rebellion and all but it was all I could do to let them go into the big, bad world.

I wonder if teenaged rebellion is a psychological tool designed to make kids leaving home easier on both parties? The kids get to look down on their parents, even hate them a little bit and the parents get to be glad those horrid little so-and-so’s are fleeing the nest. I just might be onto something with that theory, don’t you think?

Whether true or not, after my two left home I battled my emptiness, my loneliness, my longing to turn back the clock – just one year, or one month or even just a day so that we could be together again.

And now, here I am with group after group of kids that grow attached to some degree or other, and that I get attached to. I have them in class for two or more semesters, see them socially or just around campus for another two years and then, off they go. Sometimes I don’t even notice or see them slink away and sometimes they give me no choice but to watch.

I am always so surprised to see ‘my kids’ after a long absence. They fill my classrooms for the first two years of their university experience. They are all essentially still children: barely 18, their faces still rounded, their bodies still not fully matured. They are innocent of drink, sex, the power of money and much of the adult world. After those 2 years that we interact on a weekly basis, they are absorbed in their doings, and I go on to my next group of students. When I see them next, those students of years past, they look much older, as though they had come into their own. The transformation is downright shocking.

Recently I ran into several kids who graced my classroom in past years. I’ve actually made comment on how completely different they look. “Why do you say that?” they invariably ask. It is to them I dedicate this blog entry. They have forced me to think about it.

They have morphed from the children I taught into full fledged young men and women. They have learned from their forays into the adult world. Maybe, like Stephanie, they have tasted the power of sex and money. Or, like Tristan and Martin they know the pain of death and the sickness brought on by drink. Male or female, their faces are more etched, their eyes more knowing, their walk more assured. They appear, if not ready to take on the world then at least ready to find their place in it. I wonder if, upon their return to their hometown, their parents notice the difference.

After lunch I had to go downtown. Lancy had to get some rest before her big exam that afternoon, the reason she came to Wuhan. That evening she would board a train back to Dongguang and the life she’s made for herself there. Vivian and Rita had a job interview the next day; they were going to go prepare for it. Group hug! Right there, by the basketball courts we embraced, individually and then all of us together. Quite naturally, I kissed each of their glossy heads. Promises of devotion, of course, and of future visits that will most likely be kept, insofar as we are able to, what with our other commitments and if time and circumstances permit. And then we parted company. A few steps apart I turned back and watched them go, arm in arm and best of friends.

Even though they are not my natural born children they are still my kids. Let me tell you: it never gets any easier to watch them walk away.      

Cocktail Hour

Recently I read that the average cocktail in the average bar could run as high as $25 to $30 or more. A quarter to a third of a Bill for a mixed beverage? Why should I be surprised? When I visited my daughter’s book club last time I was stateside, she had a margarita that cost $18, and this was not a trendy bar in a social hotspot.

Still: $30 for a drink?

Not that I’ve ever been deeply into the drink or even the bar scene. Back in the day where I did go to places one shakes their ‘groove thang’, a Tequila Sunrise cost about $4. No wonder I’m suffering sticker shock at the going price of a libation, followed closely by the awe of: ‘people really pay that?’ Apparently so. Young Tom Cruise, in his role as barkeep in the movie Cocktail, would have made it rich without sliding across the floor in his tighty whities, at that price. Couch hopping not required.

In spite of my disbelief this article gave me pause. What about the drinking culture in China? Or the bar scene? Now that would be an interesting comparison, don’t you think?

Granted, I’ve not been to every little nook and cranny in China and I’ve yet to fully explore the large cities that are host to a large expat population. However, I have been to a bar or two. I have run the aisles of plenty of stores and I’ve ridden plenty of buses that crawl all over cities, and I’ve been all over Wuhan. I can honestly attest to the fact that there are indeed liquor stores in China, but they offer only 3… lines? Types? Of booze. More on them in a paragraph or two. In addition to those are more eclectic selections of the same variety: Snake wine, for example: Bai Jiu with a coiled snake pickling at the bottom of the jar,.

I say ‘jar’ because the one time I actually saw Snake Wine was at the cloisonné factory we toured several years ago. We had lunch in their cafeteria and they did offer Snake wine, as well as Tiger wine. Snake wine is said to enhance men’s sexual prowess while Tiger wine targets women’s libido. Both of these outrageous selections were paraded around the dining room on a stainless steel food handler’s cart, in large jars resembling restaurant sized pickle jars. There was indeed a snake coiled at the bottom of this jar.  

These spirits may well come in smaller packages but I’ve not seen them in any other incarnation. Remember: I’m not much of a drinker to begin with, so I generally would not frequent places that might offer such a selection. The few fancy restaurants I’ve been to did not have them on their menu or on display, and I’ve not seen it at any KTV I’ve been to.

One could make the general statement: if you have liquor, show it. That is true whether in America, China or any part of the world I’ve been to. In China and at Chinese restaurants in America, alcohol suggestions are made in restaurant lobby areas, with decorative bottles sparsely positioned on a shelf behind the host/ess. In America, bars make a huge to-do of building an attractive display of available liquors. Cordials, Malts – single or double, Whiskeys – sipping or mixing… their popularity is denoted by the fill levels of the bottles. Even family oriented restaurants have a bar area.

In China, that is a moot point. You have 3 main selections: beer, bottled or canned. Bai Jiu, bottled. Wine (usually red), bottled. If you are out for love or sin, or just want to be companionable, you will partake of one of the three. All of them are served with seal unbroken. In the case of wine, the bottle will be corked.

Beer is generally consumed at ‘street level’. Let’s say a group of friends get together, either at a local restaurant or at someone’s house. Maybe you’re playing poker (not American style poker) or just shooting the bull. Beer will flow like… beer. Not much point in comparing it to wine because of the minimal choice of alcoholic beverages here.

Bai Jiu will make an appearance at just about any level or social strata. I’ve been to weddings that served Bai Jiu in fancy bottles, birthday celebrations that called for revelers to sip at least one glassful dispensed from an earthenware bottle; KTV, the time I went with Gary and also the time I went with Mrs, C (see ‘The Hike that Wasn’t’ entry, posted May 2012). Sam’s mother has challenged my Bai Jiu capacity in her own home. Victor and I were offered Bai Jiu at our very first meet and greet lunch, way back in 2010. If I remember correctly, Dean Tu opted for beer, even though Victor and I demurely requested tea. (See A Great Honor entry, posted September 2010)     

The ritual is always the same. First, the carton the Bai Jiu comes in is shown off. Apparently there is good Bai Jiu and lesser. The higher the price, the finer the drink. That is, fine as Bai Jiu goes. According to my son-in-law, a drink aficionado, it tastes like diesel fuel. But that is just his opinion. After proper appraisal and commentary of the grade/quality of the Bai Jiu, the carton is ripped open. Well, cut open. Ripping anything open is well nigh impossible (see Over the Top entry, a few posts back). Next, the bottle is evaluated. The more experienced drinkers will offer thumbs up, while the one hosting the event begs for compliments. Then the seal is broken and the Bai Jiu flows like water.

Here it is apt to make a fluid comparison because Bai Jiu, being colorless, does in fact look like water. Smells much stronger, though. The water comparison is only visual.

Depending on the size of the party, everyone either stands (large group) or simply raises their glass (small group). A toast is made and a challenge is launched. He/she who drains their glass holds it upside down, allegedly to prove the depth of sincerity at the toast they just made. At least I think that’s the case. I’m still learning about the drinking culture over here. From what I’ve been given to understand I’m failing miserably at Bai Jiu drinking because I’ve yet to drain a full glass in one chug. My failure aside, cheers go ‘round for the hearty drinkers, and thus the party is launched. Fortunately, after that first disdainful assessment of my drinking ability – or, more aptly ‘inability’, I’m left alone to sip – SLOWLY, my little bit of booze. The party goes on around me, full force.

I’ve only experienced red wine in two settings: over dinner at someone’s home and in a tourist bar at the hotel we were staying at. Both times the wine was served with a decorum diametrically opposite to the rowdiness of Bai Jiu. It is neither polite nor expected to drink more than one glass of wine.

What would the average Chinese make of the drink culture in America? What would he/she say when informed a single cocktail costs more than a whole case of the best Bai Jiu?

If the success of such companies as Starbucks is any indication, I’d say at least the younger, hip crowd would be willing to take it on. At such establishments it is not uncommon to see this trendy group spend over 100Yuan on a beverage and snack, and then leave half the food uneaten and a generous serving of drink behind. It seems they are already bored with the cosmopolitan experience of being seen in such a venue and spending outrageous amounts, only to waste half of their gains. There is a good chance they are looking for the next ‘high’, ready to arrive at and cross the next ‘western’ frontier. Could a fully stocked bar be it? 

Western liquors are available for sale here, primarily at Metro. Walmart is taking a slice of that pie now too: their redesigned stores boast a section that resembles a wine cellar, complete with dark paneling and subdued lighting. It is not targeted solely toward the expat demographic. Outside of these types of ostentatious display, I’ve seen (and bought) Bacardi Breezers at mainstream Chinese grocery stores, as far back as the first few months after arriving here. NOTE: one can buy Bai Jiu, Hong Jiu (red wine) and beer at any grocery store.

My very first trip to Metro I splurged on a small bottle of Baileys’ Irish Cream: 75Yuan. Of course, Sam had to try it (at my insistence). He did not remark favorably. The texture and taste was too strange for him. Based on his reaction and on my drinking experiences with the Chinese I’m guessing that an American style full bar with top-shelf liquor and mixed drinks might find it hard to gain a foothold over here.   

But… non-drinker that I am and so far out of mainstream, who am I to say?                        

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Family of Three

Recently, Sam and Penny made the hard decision to enroll their two-and-a-half year old daughter, Erica in kindergarten.

By ‘kindergarten’ I mean daycare, but not as it is known in America. Here, a child must be able to tell caregivers she/he has to use the bathroom. That is the only requirement to enrollment. That, and that the parents be able to pay, of course. Other requirements such as pick up and drop off times, medical needs and other considerations are negotiable.  

Why was their decision hard? Parents all over America and all over the world send their kids to daycare all the time. Kids younger than Erica, even. My own Bun, now 9 months old, spent a few weeks in daycare before Darrell and Sammi worked their schedules out so that Bun can stay with either mommy or daddy, instead of being consigned to strangers.

Traditional Chinese culture dictates that a child stays within the family fold until mandated by law to step into the world and start his/her formal education. Grandparents from either side are enlisted, and delight in the care of their charges. Sometimes the grandparents fight over the privilege of that ward. Other times the baby’s parents fight over which of their parents will be accorded this great privilege.

Not so in Sam and Penny’s case. From Erica’s birth in 2010, theirs has been a struggle. Penny is a nurse. Her work schedule consists of 12 hour, rotating shifts. Some days she might be home, and some nights might see her gracing her abode. She usually gets one day off between shift rotations. She might work a series of night shifts only to have to return to the hospital for a mandatory daytime class to keep her certification current. Either way this poor, exhausted young mother has a very demanding professional life.

Sam’s job is not much easier. In order to make ends meet he teaches at 2 different universities. Not only does he have to make sure never to get overlapping schedules but he has to make sure he is able to meet the demands of each institution he is contracted to teach at. On top of his teaching duties at our university, he is responsible for the foreign teachers, with all that that entails: their safely, comfort, and administrative needs, to include registering us (Victor and me) with the city officials every year. Fortunately for Sam, Victor and I are both good foreigners, mostly taking care of ourselves.

If it were only a case of Penny and Sam doing what young parents all over China struggle with, there might not be a blog entry. Their situation is exacerbated by the fact that none of the grandparents live within commuting range of the young couple. They all live about 2 hours away.

Usually that would be no problem. A schedule would be worked out in which this grandmother or that one would come stay with the family, caring for the baby. Of course, the grandfather pitches in. Penny’s side of the family does not have a grandfather to offer up, but there are a few aunts and uncles that can pinch hit when needed.

Sam and Penny have tried every combination of live in help during Erica’s short life. Those solutions proved only short term. Penny’s mother was uncomfortable away from her town, province and home. Sam was just as uncomfortable with his mother in law in the house, not being familiar with the customs of her village and the routine of her life. Sam’s parents have stepped up to bat more than once but both of them have thriving businesses of their own and could not stay away long term. Besides, Penny and her mother in law didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. The aunts and uncles could only help so much because they had their own lives to live and jobs to work.

Baby Erica ended up being shuttled to one grandparent’s house after the other. Penny ached to hold her child. Sam was… stoic. In the thick of family fights and expected to be the voice of reason, he had little time to indulge in his heart’s yearning for his small girl. At times, forlornly, he would confess: “I miss her…”

I knew things were getting bad for him last year, when out shopping with me. My first question was why he volunteered to take me shopping in the first place: he, an avowed detester of the sport. Not being one to look at gift horse in the mouth, or, more aptly said: to turn down a friend with whom I’ve gotten to while precious little time with, we spent the day together. Being ever conscious of how little free time he has, I rushed through my purchases, sure that he wanted to be home. Imagine my thoughts when he flat out said: “I don’t want to go home. There are too many people there.”

That’s bad. A man who seldom sees the wife he adores, gets to enjoy his baby even less often than he gets to see his wife… and does not want to be home with them?

After two and a half years, both of them were at a breaking point, but for different reasons. What did it for Sam was the night that Penny spent crying for the longing of her child, so often absent. No matter what, he resolved to find a way that his child’s mother would never spend another night in tears. 

He looked into daycare, a state-certified campus close to his home. Not only did he find it satisfactory but the price was actually much less than he thought it would be: about 500Yuan a month, plus the cost of food. There were openings and, after a successful interview, Erica was accepted and enrolled.

Last week was her first week there. Tremulous and trepidant, Sam deposited his future’s legacy into the competent arms of these caregivers. Anxious at her reaction to this new environment he called to her as she toddled into the fray of children: “Daddy has to leave now!” She turned and waved bye-bye, not a tear in her eye.

All day he kept a nervous eye on his phone. Not a single call from the daycare. That evening he picked her up. “Baba!” she shouted, smiling. She rushed to him. Only the strictest standard of decorum kept his eyes dry but there are no edicts about hearts soaring. His flew to the heavens. Walking home together, father and daughter, he listened to her jabber about her first day among new friends.      

At times Sam has confessed that Erica can be a naughty little girl. More specifically she is quite clever. Knowing her time with her parents is limited, she resorts to pity tactics to gain physical closeness. “My leg hurts”, she would say. Some days it would be a stomach ache and other days she would feign sleepiness to get her parents to carry her. In her own way, I’m guessing Erica was expressing missing Mommy and Daddy as much as they missed her. Since she started daycare she has not had any sore legs, stomachs or excess fatigue.

This break from tradition, daycare, is not good only for Baby Erica. A few days into the experiment Penny marveled: “Look at us! We are just a family of 3, making our life our way.” Sam, at peace now that his baby is happy, his wife is content and he gets to bask in his loves, echoes her sentiment. Sure, they have hard times and they have to juggle things around but they’re making it work, and they’re doing it together. That alone takes their relationship to a whole new level.  

Sam and Penny are just one couple who is finding that breaking with tradition is a satisfying option. Chris and Julia, another couple who teach at our school (See The Great Baby Race, posted April last year) have ‘fired’ both Chris’ parents and Julia’s. They have a nanny come in 5 days per week to care for their baby Eddie and do light housekeeping. Julia stopped by recently, telling me of this new development. She and Chris are ecstatic at running their household their way, with no parental interference. I’m guessing that, once Eddie is old enough to use the bathroom on his own, he too will go to daycare.

These daycares are a burgeoning business all over China. As more young couples opt for this relatively modern childcare choice, more and more centers are springing up. But what happens with the grandparents, denied their charges? Or, more specifically: denied their due of caring for their grandchild?

I don’t have enough information to answer that. What I can speculate on is that, with fewer grandparents pandering to their grandchildren, the reign of ‘Little Emperors’ – children with 2 sets of grandparents indulging their every whim is going to be short lived. Those of us who dreaded the thought of teaching those entitled little emperors are actually pretty happy about that.  

By the way: I had the honor of giving Baby Erica and Little Eddie their English names. As they grow into them we find their names suit them very well. Do I have a thing for ‘E’ names, or was it just coincidence?



Over the Top

Strangely enough, the Chinese don’t seem to be acquainted with the ‘Less is More’ philosophy. In itself that is a paradox, considering the relative simplicity of the typical home over here, especially the kitchen.

As you might know from past entries too numerous to list, the typical Chinese kitchen consists of: a wok and a pot, a round-head spatula (to better cook in a curved bottom wok), a meat cleaver, maybe a knife but definitely a cutting board, a ladle, a few sets of chopstick and a few bowls. There is some sort of heat source for cooking; usually a one burner device, either gas or electronic. Automatic rice steamers are ubiquitous but crock pots are a novelty. Other more recent additions include glassware, refrigerators, a two burner, in the counter cooking surface and dual sinks. Some of the more traditional kitchens do not even have a sink. Countertops are also a fairly new innovation. I’ve been in kitchens where food prep happens on the floor. In those kitchens, often you would find a rickety wooden table serves as the lone surface. Sometimes the dining room table is called into service and sometimes, vegetables are sorted outside, on the tarp-covered ground. I see that a lot in the Over the Wall community.

Mainly because till now, not much has been available to the aspiring chef. But also because traditionally, the kitchens were simple affairs, almost literally a throwback to the days where cooking happened in the main room, over the fire. Only the most elite of citizens had a separate room for cooking. In some villages and even in some parts of Wuhan, cooking happens outdoors, in summer and in winter. For example: shopkeepers have a gas burner, built into a metal stand, and cook outside their shop so that they do not have to close up shop for lunch and lose out on a potential sale.

I made my first discovery of the ‘Less is More’ paradox when reviewing student compositions. I am an Oral English teacher, so normally I would not see anything the kids write. However, because of their many qualifying exams students have to take and their terror being commensurate to the importance of the exam they’re facing, I volunteered to look over and critique their writing.

A lot of their writing style is inane. Adjectives and adverbs liberally sprinkled throughout, sometimes two or three per sentence or noun/verb being described. Detail upon detail, to the point where I grew disinterested in the topic and greatly concerned with the effects of my teeth gnashing from frustration at all of these over the top descriptions. “Let’s get to the meat of things!” I would often mutter after crossing out the upteenth adjective.

And then there is enumeration: “Firstly…; Secondly…; and my personal favorite – or antonym thereof: “Last but not least…”

Not one of my students has failed to tell me that their teacher instructs them to that style of writing. Now I’m dumbfounded. My students are being instructed by my colleagues to produce these rapes against the very language they are sworn to teach?

The one ‘L’ed Helen bore that out. When I was coaching Tony for speech competition she instructed him to flower his speech with adjectives, the more the better. Horrified I countered her edict. Fortunately I was armed with a tome from our very own school library about giving speeches that, among other things specifically instructed successful speech givers avoided the use of excessive vocabulary. Along with my panicked counters I was able to show her in writing that such liberty with the language would be sure to cost us rather than aid us in earning any kind of good score. She let it go… that time. But I’m betting she still instructs all of her students to write flowery – nay, weedy! - prose.

Conundrum: I am sworn to teach English, and I aim to do it well. That means correctly. The poor students end up confused when their native-speaking English teacher tells them that such writing is a miscarriage of literature but they will lose points on their exam unless they perpetrate exactly that crime. Taking the issue up with Sam is not much help. He is sympathetic to my dilemma but cannot relent, for the judges will subtract points from any student’s composition that is not replete with useless, tiresome descriptions, catchphrases and clichés.

From there, the spectrum widens.

At restaurants: If one door greeter/hostess is good, then 6 must be better. Thus, when dining out, patrons must run the gauntlet of no fewer than 6 but sometimes up to 10 beautifully clad young women, all shouting “Welcome to our establishment” while gracefully bowing and waving diners in.

In stores: If one sales clerk is good then 4 must be better. When out shopping, even in big box stores I never have any trouble finding a helpful assistant. They hover around, ready to recommend a product, extol its virtues and show off its features. That applies to appliances as well as to toothpaste, shampoo or brand of noodles. In clothing stores the effect is doubled. Not only will the salesclerk help you find something to try on but they will band together and praise your new look. There might be a method to that particular madness. I always feel compelled to buy when faced with a dozen sales clerks who are all recommending.

In traffic: If one bus is good, then two buses must be better. More than once, to avoid a crowded bus I’ve let the first one go, knowing that, within a minute a second bus of the same line will pull up, virtually empty. It has become more or less a sport for me to find a seat on every bus I ride. Usually, I win. Sometimes I give up my seat – to an elder or a parent with his/her young asleep in their arms. That’s just to keep the game interesting.

With products: if a little glue is good, a lot must be better. Whereas stateside, it suffices to pull both sides of a package simultaneously in opposite directions, here one must take scissors to get to the goodies inside. I have tried repeatedly to open a package without scissors to no avail. Not only is the glue sealing the package such that the seam will not part but the packaging medium – plastic, paper or cardboard is of material so dense that it will not tear. Nothing short of a sharp knife or a pair of scissors will give you access to what you purchased.

This doesn’t apply (tee-hee!) to just packaging. The glue that binds labels and price tags onto products will not dissolve, even when soaked repeatedly in hot water. My drinking glasses and cooking pot, that I’ve owned since I moved here and all of which has been repeatedly soaked and washed in boiling hot water still bear their advertising labels and show no signs of peeling away.

It doesn’t stop there. When Mr. and Mrs. Wang came to dinner they brought with them several kilos of fruit – when a lone apple would have done the job, and a beautiful tin of biscuits – cookies. I’m never averse to any kind of sweet and soon, upon my return from the states wanted to nibble a nice cookie or two with my evening apple.

The metal tin was taped shut. That was to be expected. After cutting the tape (and leaving a nice gouge in the tin with my knife) I encountered a plastic film sealing the cookies in their beds. Again with the knife, carefully cutting along the edges to peel this film back, all the while knowing I was going to need the knife or scissors again. Each cookie, nestled in its well with other, like-flavored cookies was individually wrapped.  

Those cookies were the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided to write an entry dedicated to this phenomenon.

Now I understand the Chinese custom of never opening a gift in front of the gift giver. In fact, the traditional way to receive a gift is to toss it to the side and not pay it any attention. The decorous Chinese will focus on his/her visitor instead. The first time I encountered this I was nonplussed. Did my gift recipient not like gifts? Was she ashamed at having nothing to gift back? Was she afraid to not express proper gratitude because of the language barrier?

No, no and again no. It is because everyone in China expects to have to tackle wrapping with anything from a blow torch to a bandsaw in order to access the actual gift. I’m guessing this woman must have been quite surprised that she could rip open my gift wrap without the benefit of any sharp implement. I do know that she was satisfied with the gift, even proud of it because, upon a subsequent visit to her home it was prominently displayed

I’m going to wrap this entry up… pardon the pun. Fortunately, you will not need anything sharp to open this up with. It is yours but for a few mouse clicks.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Evening Hours

I have to face it: sometimes children are mistreated in China. As much as I’d like to paint the picture of a society that loves and treasures and protects its children, there is evidence to the contrary. Like this poor child who, most likely on the way home from school is reduced to shrieking agony and driven by vicious tongue lashings along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. When I reported earlier that the Chinese love their children I was not misguiding you. For the most part, there is love, peace and harmony. Children are raised in a stable, happy environment. But not every child. Not our community howler. Or the child I saw while out just a few days ago who apparently had so angered his grandfather that the senior turned in disgust and stalked away. As the toddler – he could not have been more than 3 or 4 years old – entreated “Ye-Ye! Ye-Ye!” (Grandfather! Grandfather!), hands outstretched, beseeching and trying his best to catch up, several times the man turned, his face a mask of disgust and rage, and shooed the child away. I felt like hitting the old coot and scooping up the little boy.

Although there is a tendency to brusqueness throughout Chinese culture that trickles down to parent/child relationships, there are plenty of parents who exhibit tenderness. Sam and Penny are great examples, as are Chris and Julia, Lea and Long Ge and most everyone I know and see.

The truth is, domestic violence is a real problem in China. The subject exploded onto the global stage a few months back, when an American woman married to a Chinese man broke the barriers of silence by reporting, in depth, her tale of humiliation, ridicule and physical attacks. She is not the first, or the only woman to be abused. All over China, it seems women are the catch-all victims of their husband’s ire, ill temper and frustration. Especially in smaller villages, where women have less status and fewer resources than in the cities.  

While walking through the OTW community one day I personally witnessed one woman striking back. The man was walking away from her. She ran after him, clad in pink quilted jammies depicting the ever adorable Hello Kitty motif, ponytailed hair askew and face contorted and bathed in tears, she seethed at him. Now only an arm’s length behind him, her blow landed between his shoulder blades. He neither slowed nor responded.

Just last week another woman on the bus tearfully recounted. Not sure what her deal was but I clearly picked up the word ‘husband’. I guess she was describing some marital injustice, apparently so grave as to warrant crying in public. The women around her murmured but offered no physical comfort like we in the West would: a hug, a sympathetic pat on the arm or even a proffered handkerchief.

Traditional response to such exhibits: gawk. Many times I’ve wondered what was at the center of this or that cluster of people. I was disturbed to find it was a fighting couple. The police tend to not get involved. Socially, domestic violence is still considered a ‘hush crime’. You don’t talk about it, you don’t report it and no one does anything about it. Instances of reported domestic violence are so new that there are no statistics. Perhaps none would be compiled. To track this phenomenon would be to admit it exists. Does China need or want another social ill ascribed to its reputation of poor human rights observance? I don’t think so. In China as in America some 50-odd years ago, domestic violence is a source of shame. Most women and certainly no children would want to bear the indignity of authoring a police report.   

There have been instances of child abuse so dramatic that they are reported in the national news. As with spousal abuse the trend, now seen in light of ‘abuse’ rather than plain domestic management, has no real statistics. But there is a growing awareness.  

I should have set my rose colored glasses aside a long time ago. Many times I’ve reached out to affectionately pat one of my students and he or she flinches, as though readying for a blow. Not a normal reaction when one is raised in a household filled with peace, harmony and love. My Sandy, from the Lil’Uns School is an angry little girl. She loves her mother but feels compelled to act out in order to receive attention. She loved working with me because I gave plenty of hugs and smiles and gentle touches. Upon arrival to class she would literally launch herself at me. Every dance we danced and every song we sang in the course of our lesson she had to stand next to me, holding my hand. She even fought the other little girls and pushed them away if they threatened to interpose themselves between her and me. I miss Sandy. I hope she is well. More so, I hope she finds happiness.  

8PM: another lull, punctuated by the gentle murmur of conversation as the seniors from the OTW community return to their side of the wall after their nightly constitution. Sometimes laughter from happy children. Sometimes more animated conversation as couples or groups of friends amble past. During this time, strange noises in my building. Things being dropped, doors slamming, windows being either thrown open to welcome the night air, or closed against its chill. Visitors will sometimes call on one or the other of my neighbors. From those apartments come a blare of TV and sometimes a gleeful shout. Safe within my walls I imagine a friendly card game, a shot of Bai Jiu shared or just a group of people watching a soccer match on TV. Parking lots and roofs of cars are awash in fluorescent lighting cast down from the undressed windows of occupied apartments. From the back of the housing development, where the pond is, music ricochets. Now that the weather is warmer, the women again gather to dance for fitness.    

I get a lot of writing done during this time. Surfing the internet is once more impossible. Everyone is online; connections are slow. From several open windows I can hear the chirping of instant messaging via QQ. Somewhere in the building someone is showering. I can hear pipes whistling and water going down the drain.

11PM: most of the community is bedded down. Now come the drunks. They shout, they rage, they argue, they rev car engines and peel out. Sometimes fighting breaks out. One night someone struck someone else’s vehicle. It was deliberate. I could hear the engine revving, tires squealing and then peeling as the clutch was released. A second later, the dull clank of one car hitting another. Sounds of backing up trump angry shouts. Another squeal, another thunk. And then, the whine of an engine being driven too fast in reverse. Finally, speeding out of the complex. Somewhere, a woman sobs.   

I try to not pay attention to these noises. I do remain vigilant. Just because I’m not a major player in this community, I could still become the object of someone’s resentment. I live here rent free, utility free, everything free, and alone. All other occupants had to pay a pretty penny for their bit of real estate. One day I might become a target. I’m not saying I live in fear, but I have developed a new appreciation for the bars on my windows.

Just outside my balcony a man, by all appearances drunk, weaves his way though the parking lot and pauses to regurgitate. I’m not worried. The early morning clean up crew will hose down and sweep up the detritus of tonight’s revelry. I can finally get online without having pages time out. Now’s the time I answer emails. And then I play my 2 crossword puzzles, a game of scrabble and maybe a Word Find. Love those word games! Love to keep the mind sharp!   

1AM: finally, all is quiet. The campus police ride through in their battery powered golf cart, the roof rack strobing red, then blue. Again the only sound is the grind and thump of distant construction machinery. Occasionally there will be someone coming home, even at this late hour. It is so quiet I can hear a crepe soled footfall, the flick of a lighter or the snick of a door latch. This is the time I choose to take out my trash, particularly if I have a full bag of recyclable materials. The trash picking seniors tend to get an early start and I like to have things ready for them. This is the time I enjoy my slice of night air. Sometimes I’m actually surprised to see stars and the moon.

I look around this community that for so long I was sole inhabitant of. I remember the eerie feeling of living in a ghost town. Buildings only half finished, gaping openings where one day windows and doors would be installed. Construction debris everywhere. Plots of dirt devoid of greenery. Now trees are in bloom, bushes and shrubs boast foliage, and there is actual grass growing from what had been desultory looking sod when first laid.

Several balconies house plastic tubs. More than one clothes rack sport garments hung out to dry. From the 5th floor a light still glimmers: a night owl like me, churning away. Windows, now filled with glass reflecting the night’s light sternly cast judgment down. “What have you humans created?” “What have you wrought this time?” they seem to say, from on high.

Indeed. What is this microcosm all about?          

A Day in the Life Of

6:30AM: whether a day I have to get up early or not I am awakened by the women from the OTW community who come on campus and into the housing area to clean it up. They chatter like magpies as they unlock their metal carts, chains clanking hollowly, and disperse to their individual areas of responsibility. My neighbors are getting ready for and then leaving for work. Just outside my bedroom window, in the parking lot a man coughs up the effects of last night’s cigarettes, expelling the ravages from his lungs in a none too quiet gargling and spitting routine. With just a small parking lot outside my building, drivers are having to get creative in stowing their cars for the night. Sometimes they block each other in and a barrage of angry cussing, punctuated by honking horns will ensue.  

My apartment complex has been slowly filling up over the past few months. In my building, in my stairwell I now have neighbors on the 5th and 6th floor. I can hear them as they clomp or clatter downstairs, depending on whether it is a man or a woman doing the descending. Women tend to wear fashionable footwear – heels, mostly. Men, with their more solid shoes have a more resonant tread. Keys jingle. Sometimes, someone will knock something metal, maybe their hot water thermos against the iron hand railings. The echo reverberates up and down the stairwell. Thanks to concrete construction, every sound carries.

I have neighbors on the first floor in the stairwell next to mine. We share a wall between bathroom and bedroom. I can’t hear distinctly what they are doing, but I can’t miss the fact that they are up and doing. Toilet flushing and taps running indicate that they too are getting started on their day.   

If I don’t have to teach that morning, I usually manage to get back to sleep.

9AM: I wake up refreshed, thinking about how to organize my day. I’ve gotten in the habit of sitting up in bed, doing gentle stretching exercises. On this laminate-over-concrete floor I really can’t exercise safely. The floor itself is still too cold and concrete has no give. I might end up injuring myself. Exercising in bed is the perfect alternative. But for about an inch of foam, it is nothing but a board, covered in fancy horsehair quilting. Perfect for exercising. As I count out my reps, clatter from the offices one building over waft in, trying to distract me. I’m used to the office noises; they’ve been there almost as long as I have.

So have construction noises. On the other side of the OTW community a new living park is under construction. In the distance I can hear the repeated thumping of a dirt compactor, the occasional whine of a grinder against metal and large trucks rumbling into the site, and then growling back out, their load dispensed. Work goes on twenty four hours a day. Construction sounds are so monotonous, so repetitive and so common they have become ubiquitous. 

From 10AM till about 11, save for that constant backdrop, all is quiet and all is well. From 11:30 on, I can hear the sound of cleavers hitting cutting boards as people start preparing their midday meal. Shortly thereafter come the sounds of metal – woks coming out of cabinets, being rinsed off and put on iron gas burners. Scraping sounds, frying smells. Mostly good, but sometimes somebody will fry a fish. I tend to lose my appetite on ‘fish days’. After lunch and wash up, denoted by clattering crockery and splashing water, a rest period. Uncanny silence permeates. Even construction noises are stilled for the noon break.

There is no doubt I am now a part of a community. That is to say: I live in a community but, being a foreigner I am not exactly a part of things. I hear a lot and see a lot. I don’t see even the elderly going out for a walk during noon rest time. It seems everyone is down for the count.  

During lunchtime it is difficult to do anything on the Internet. Most everyone here has a wireless connection. We all broadcast on the same band, clogging the network. Only after everyone returns to work at 1:30PM, I am again able to surf the ‘Net. Following a flurry of voices, engines and footfalls on the pavement as everyone reverts to money making status, again that deep silence, underscored by the rhythmic thump of machinery in the distance. Sometimes I am lulled to sleepiness. Usually I resist napping.

My next door neighbor one stairwell over likes to wash clothes during that time. She washes her clothes in the bathroom. I can hear the water draining as she repeatedly dumps the contents of her washtub out, and then I hear water whistling through the pipes as she fills it again. I know when she is wringing her clothes out: I can hear the water patter down. From the sounds I deduce she washes her clothes by hand. Nearly every day is laundry day for her.  

4PM: people start coming home, bearing small plastic bags with crowns of vegetables peeking out. Soon will come the sounds of chopping and rinsing. They are harder to distinguish this time because children are returning home from school. Freed from the tyranny of education and basking in the great outdoors, they give their liberty free rein: shouting, running, playing. Some are interrogated by their parents and grandparents. Those sedately pace next to their elders. On the other side of the housing area, at the basketball courts enthusiastic spectators shout ‘Jia You! Jia You! (gee-ah Ee-yo)’ – ‘Go on! Go on!’ There must be a game going on.

Between 4:30 and 5:00PM. The office workers leave. Those that live offsite hurry for the shuttle buses that will take them into town while those that live in the complex wend their way home. The bulk of the community folk arrive. Children set about their homework. I can hear mothers admonish them to stay on task. Chairs scrape floors as the little ones settle in and apply themselves. Cars come and they go. Doors slam, music plays, engines rev. We exchange the cars of the day workers for the cars of those that live here. Sometimes a car alarm will go off. People don’t necessarily park their cars close to where they live so the alarm keeps blatting with nobody to shut it off. Amidst all the other sounds, this one is particularly irritating.

During this time I start rousing out of my afternoon stupor. Even though I usually don’t nap, these quiet afternoons put me almost a twilight state, like a dimly lit stage waiting for the actors to bring it to life. Lounging on the couch, I see a neighborhood cat trespass onto my living room balcony. Mr. Orange Tomkitty must think something in my house smells enticing. Kept out by the screen, he rubs up against my partially open door and meows. A passing maintenance man on a bicycle inadvertently frightens him away.

Now looking out my kitchen window, waiting for the kettle to boil I see grandmothers toting their charges’ book bags while the young ones scamper about. I start getting hungry. So is everyone else.

Between 5:30 and 6:30, nothing but the clatter of crockery and the clicking of chopsticks. Again construction noise is stilled during food break. Every once in a while a youth from the OTW community will come through, dribbling a basketball. That hollow thunking provides interlude noise for evening’s doings.

6:30PM: a child screams as though tortured. Walking up the main avenue that travels between buildings the length of the housing area, I hear her first from my kitchen window, and then an amplification as her cries are chambered between edifices. The sound then comes from the living room side of the apartment and travels, hauntingly, till she reaches home. Interspersed among her wails an adult voice intones. Whatever that adult is saying seems to send her to ever greater paroxysms of agony. For 5 minutes or so we are treated to the sounds of this child, screaming and crying. You can almost set your watch by her.

I’m not sure I wanted to get this intimately familiar with Chinese community living. For the longest time I harbored this vision of harmonious cohabitation. Everyone is polite. Everyone gets along. Children are revered and never, ever tortured or abused.