Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Fond Farewell

Monday morning, 8AM. Well, 8:10AM. The school changed our class start time because so many were having trouble getting to class on time. Would that be teachers or students? No clue, really. Sam just told me that this will be our schedule from here on out. Again, ambiguity: for the rest of the time this college operates or just for the rest of this semester?

I don’t have time to think of those things right now. Bad enough I have to wake up early, but I have 3 classes to teach today and a tutoring session this evening. Luckily I have my activities down cold. The classes should flow well today.

And they do. My first group, freshmen, love what I had planned for them: Help your Foreigner Friend. Matter of fact, all my classes, freshmen and sophomore are going to do the same thing. In groups of 3, they will be assigned some situation their foreigner friend needs help with. Visiting another country, planning a meal, planning a wedding, planning for their parents’ visit… all my students love role play. By giving only minimal instructions, they have free reign to dream their own scenario. Some take to it like ducks to water and plan elaborate scenes and others, shy, just have a conversation on the subject of helping their foreigner friend.

First class done. Now a twenty minute break, and then come the sophomores. Just time enough for me to run to Snack Street and get some breakfast. My stomach can’t stand food early in the morning, but come 10 o’clock I’m ready to eat. I think I’ll have a battercake today.

Now sophomore roll call. Hmmm. Green is not in class again today. He’s missed the last 3 weeks. He is my brightest student and my best speaker. Very unlike him to not attend. He loves my class! I’ll bet he would really like what we’re doing today. Wonder what is up with him? His roommate, Owen explains that he is having trouble at home. He doesn’t say what kind of trouble.

Class dismissed. This group is getting hard to manage. They’re skating. They’ve taken all of their major exams and the end of year is only 3 weeks away. Some might never speak English again. Such a shame they are being loud and distracting to those who want to participate in our activity. I’m a bit lenient come this far into the semester. Restraining them is as hard as restraining wild horses when those beasts get the wind in their noses. At best I can hope for participation. Engaging in role play with a whole heart is more difficult. I think I’m skating too. I don’t get after the talkers. I only want them to be quiet enough so that the group presenting can be heard.

Lunchtime. I have to drop the multimedia unit access card off at security in Building 2 on my way home. Just having eaten a battercake I’m not necessarily hungry, but I should probably eat something when I get home. With no company to walk with I mentally review my morning. This went well and that went only OK. Next week we’re going to…

“Hello, Sophia” Green hails me from behind. He is on a bicycle, wearing kicky looking slippers, cuffed khakis, a striped, short-sleeved shirt and his trademark black and white glasses. Same student, different kid. Green has got a new weight on his shoulders. It seems I’m going to find out what it is.

“I’m sorry to say I have troubles at home.” He starts. “That is why I have not been back at school these few weeks.”

“Would you like to talk about it?” Maybe Green doesn’t know, but I keep all kinds of secrets. Many students have found comfort in talking with me. Maybe all he needs is an invitation.

Instead: “I will have to leave the school.”


Education, the job market and the economy are very competitive in China. With more students than ever flocking to college campuses, and more young men and women vying for position at any university, instances when a student would voluntarily withdraw are practically non-existent. Especially seeing as a college education is vital for finding a suitable work situation, thus securing the family’s and his/her future. For many families in China, the children attending college now are the first generation to do so. Parents and grandparents, denied higher education, have scrimped and saved since their tot was born, or at least since tot-hood in order to finance the family’s one child, and his/her one shot at university.

And now Green, one of the finest minds and best English speakers I’ve had the privilege to work with, is voluntarily withdrawing.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I ask, desperate. He thinks for a moment, and then responds to the negative.

In China, any student’s one shot for a college degree is immediately after high school. It is not like in America, where anyone of any age can matriculate to just about any school, and study anything he/she takes fancy to. The possibility of a student in China resuming his/her education after withdrawing is slim to none. I’m not sure he would even be allowed to enroll again. By withdrawing, Green has given up any edge he might have in the competitive job market.

And here he is, pedaling his bicycle to the rhythm of my steps, with 2 years of study under his belt, and 2 more to go. “I will leave the school today.” He says. The wheels in my head turn like the wheels on his bike in an attempt to find some way for him to not have to take this drastic step.

As I’ve said: Green is a fine, intelligent young man, a fantastic scholar and an honorable human being. I’m sure that, had there been one, he would have thought of a way to avoid losing his university position. I give him ‘face’ (respect). I do not pry, even though I am sure there must be something I ca…

“What will you do?” I ask.

“Help my parents.” I am not sure what business his parents are in, or even if they have their own business. Again sensing that prying would be rude, I resist asking if he will help them with their concern or just stay home and help around the house. Maybe he means getting a job close to home to help his parents financially.

The worry etched on his face, the gravity of his tone, the burden stooping his shoulders. I have to find a way to lighten these in the last few minutes he and I have to converse.

All of the students that have danced through my classes. All of those kids who looked up at me, intoned after me, sought me out. Some so indolent they only came to class for their mid-term and final exams. Some so negligent that they talked, played games, or otherwise failed to participate. Some who are just wasting their parents’ money, attending college because their family has directed them to, or because it is what they are supposed to do. Those who really don’t care about their higher education or their future. Those little emperors or empresses. None of those is Green. Why is it that he has to leave when any of these others who took up space in my class got to stay?  

“I have to stop at the print shop” he says, curtailing our talk. I turn to face him.

He is now my equal. Not in age or experience, but in the fact that he is ‘a civilian’, making choices that he alone will suffer the consequences of. He is a man of the world now, not a student.

I hold my hand out to him. He takes it. We shake, heartfelt. Physical contact is meant to be minimal in China; that is a part of the culture. Maybe in deference to my culture, maybe because he wishes to linger. He does not let go.

“Attending your class has been the best. I’ve had so much fun and gained a good understanding from you” he says, solemn.

I try to hold back my tears. “It has been a genuine pleasure working and playing with you my friend. I wish the best for you and your family. If there is anything I can do for you… please… PLEASE contact me.”

He returns: “Please let me know if you change your phone number. I will let you know if I have to change mine.”

With that he releases my hand, turns his bike around and goes back a few meters, to where the campus print shop recently relocated.

Food has no place in my mind now. I rush home to commit this exchange to paper before I’m due to lead my next class.   

Green, I wish and hope for the best, for you and your family. I am always with you, and always here if you need me.       

From the Internet

It started innocuously enough. Two years ago Summer, one of my former students and now shopping pal gloated she had bought her new bag ‘from the internet’. I’m sure that is a direct translation from Chinese meaning ‘I bought it online’. Obviously one does not buy from the Internet.

The Chinese have taken to shopping online with a gleeful enthusiasm. In fact, the most modern gadgets or stylish clothing is featured only online. To wit: I have been searching for a floor lamp for about 2 months, since I rearranged my living room. Nowhere have I been able to find one. Over lunch the other day I asked Gary if he had any suggestions of where to look. He immediately pulled out his phone, logged into his preferred shopping site and pulled up several attractive floor lamps for sale. Had I wanted to, a few taps on the screen and a few bills exchanged from my hand to his, I could have been the proud owner of any number of floor lamps.

Starting last winter, during Spring Festival’s peak travel period, one could buy train tickets online. Now all sorts of travel tickets are available to the online customer. In fact, that is the preferred method of securing passage, encouraged by the government. One can still head to the train station or any train ticket satellite outlet to purchase a ‘piao’ (pronounced ‘pee-ow’, meaning ticket), but that is mostly for the internet challenged or those that do not have access, such as migrant workers.

And for travelers like me. I can now read enough Chinese to navigate a ticket purchase online but my bank card will not allow online purchases. When I attempt to pay for anything from cellphone minutes to a cute doodad spotted on TaoBao or Alibaba – China’s two premier online shopping sites, I get the message that there is a discrepancy with the name on my bank account.

There are several ways around that, the easiest being to simply open an account of my own, preferably at another bank, and to manually deposit funds there. My primary bank account was set up by the school, as specified by my contract, to credit my pay and debit for utilities. Any changes to that account must be done by the school’s manager of foreign affairs.  

A small aside: I’m a bit worried about the utilities debit. Since I’ve lived here I’ve not paid for electricity or water, as per my contract. Sam suspects that my utility usage might be rolled in to the cost of utilities for the admin buildings right in front of my building. I’m worried that the mistake will be discovered and I will soon be hit with a massive debit for all utilities I’ve consumed since living here. I keep urging Sam to get the powers that be to study the issue and make reparations now rather than later, when I would owe thousands of Yuan. I think he’s secretly laughing at me and prolonging my good fortune by not reporting the discrepancy. We’ll leave that one alone and let the chips fall where they may, being as there is not much I can do about it other than report it to Sam.

Back to online shopping.

That is not a new global phenomenon. Even while still living in the States several sales people told me while out shopping that brick and mortar stores carry only mainstream sizes and if I wanted clothes or shoes to fit me I would have to buy them online. On my yearly returns stateside, more and more I am hearing that same refrain during my stock up shopping ventures.

The problem is that I am of extraordinary size. Girthwise I’m about a 14, with a shoe size of (men’s) 10 1/2. Women’s shoes remain out of reach for the most part. As reported in The Quest for Shoes, posted August of 2010 I am virtually impossible to fit. So, even though I might wear a mainstream size 14 or less at my waist, at 6’ in height I tower over the average person, male or female. Finding clothes long enough is the challenge.

Shopping online may be all well and good for retailers and the average customer but, with my dimensions I really need to try things on, more so than the average size 8 shopper with normal feet. I understand that I can always return my purchases if they don’t fit. But imagine the aggravation or constantly ordering online, waiting for delivery, finding out my selections don’t fit or don’t look as good on me as I thought they might, and then having to send them back, wait for a credit to my bank account, shop anew, repeat cycle.

And what about quality defects? Shopping online does not guarantee you will get a top of the line item. Because you cannot inspect anything prior to purchase, you are liable to get any old thing of any quality. If poorly made or badly rendered, the shopper has to go through the whole return cycle, as illustrated in the above paragraph.

In China, with enterprising startups looking to make a fast buck, cheating is commonplace. Who is to say that what is represented online is what you will get? Or even that you’ll get anything? To combat that problem, the Chinese government quickly got proactive.

Your credit/debit card has a hold placed on it for the amount of purchase. Upon receipt of goods, you inspect your purchase. If it meets your approval you are to go to a website and enter a code printed on the purchase invoice. If you have a SmartPhone, you can scan a barcode. The hold funds are then released to the retailer. There are still many ways for retailers (or anyone else) to cheat and many loopholes, but at least the government is doing something to combat online fraud. 

Back to shopping and returns. Imagine how that aggravating cycle would work for me, here in China, if I could even purchase clothing online. With my still limited ability to negotiate because of my language skills, along with the problems due to my bank card, and the fact that online commerce here is not as regulated as in America. Shopping online would be an exercise in frustration for me.

The good news is that Google Chrome has a ‘translate’ feature. If I go to Alibaba or TaoBao the browser will detect the language and offer to translate it into English for me. The bad news is that the translation is poor, or even downright comical. I can still muddle my way through the Chinglish, but then have the bank card issue to deal with

Again back to shopping, and now broadening the range…

Buying train tickets: because most of the premium seats are sold online, and sell out rather quickly, I (and the poor migrant workers) who must present at a ticketing agency are left with the dregs. The dreaded hard seats or even worse, being reduced to standing in the aisles.

Buying plane tickets is out of the question for me. I believe I explained that process in a previous blog post but rather than chase through my archives I’ll recap: One spots a good fare online, calls the travel agency, negotiates purchase, a courier brings the tickets in exchange for cash. That is one more task that Sam (or Gary) must manage for me. So frustrating!

With summer break looming and my vagabond heart coming out of hibernation, imagine my consternation at realizing I don’t know how to buy passage for the Yangtze River cruise I planned on for my first adventure of the summer. And then, turning on the computer and reading an article that expounds on the growing online shopping business.

This two page article, badly translated (or, badly written in English – not sure which) talks about shopping centers disappearing. Because so many are now shopping online, China predicts that actual shopping centers will become ‘try-on outlets’, where customers window shop, maybe try garments on for coloring or style appraisal, and then go online to buy..

Is all this online commerce good or bad? Good for the retailer, bad for those already feeling the squeeze of a depressed job market. Bad for consumers like me who, in the near future might have to resort to custom made clothing and restricted travel options.

I can see the practicality of online travel ticket shopping. Travel hub lobbies less crowded, less vehicle traffic, more convenience, etc. And I can see the economic reasons for such a move, from the retailers’ perspective. Less inventory means smaller stores, less overhead and fewer personnel.

That part about restricted travel options may well be the worst of the deal, as far as I’m concerned. What do you think?                

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Card of My Own

You would think that, seeing as I’m taking to the keyboard on Mother’s Day that the card in question is a Mother’s Day card. Not so… although I have received plenty of accolades.

Happy Mother’s Day to you, if you qualify. Happy Mother’s Day to single fathers. Happy Mother’s Day to your Mother, your Grandmother and to all the mothers that walk the earth. Happy Mother’s Day to Mother Earth, for that matter. 

That should cover the topic.

This card that I’m writing about has to do with a recent discovery of mine: the second Metro store in Wuhan (see Tidbits entry, posted March of this year). Entering and shopping this Metro is more rigorous than at the other store, the one more frequented by foreigners. Because this is a ‘membership’ business, much like Costco or Sam’s Club in the States, both stores require a shopping pass. At the one most foreigners are familiar with and frequent, such a pass is issued to anyone, no questions asked. Chinese patrons must fill out the information: name, address, business, phone number. Foreigners simply hand the blank pass over, the entry checkpoint clerk enters the pass number into the system and the cashier, upon checkout, scans that same barcode. Not sure why this formality, unless it is to track the number of guest shoppers.

For this newly discovered store, I am required to at least write my name and phone number on a blank pass. I don’t mind. It is only a formality. I’ve never been turned away. But… wait!

This checkpoint clerk asked for my passport. That’s going a bit far, just for a bit of shopping. Wouldn’t you think so? The sad thing is, I don’t usually go about with passport in hand. That’ s too valuable a document to run around town with. For ID purposes, my Foreign Expert’s Certificate, resembling a passport, is plenty. I handed it over, hoping for the best. And then I mused.

I woke up with the feeling that the day could go either way: good or bad. So ambivalent was I that, instead of bounding out of bed, determined to go out I hesitated, even though I did need a few things that are sold exclusively at Metro. Such as whole grain linseed bread. Nothing like whole grain texture to stay regular. The nutty flavor of linseed bread is satisfying whether as a sandwich or with just a patina of butter. I make it a point of having two slices a day. Can’t do that if I have none, can I?      

And there were a few other things I needed that could not be found last time I made my monthly Metro pilgrimage. I had gone to the more popular store, where finding goods can sometimes be a hit and miss proposition. It being the more frequented establishment, that kind of stands to reason.

For today’s excursion I opted to take my backpack rather than my shopping cart. I wasn’t out for a whole ‘stock up’ shopping trip. I figured at best that the little I needed would fill my pack about halfway. I took my sweet time transferring from my purse to my pack the few things I would need to shop with: wallet, ID, bus pass, umbrella – rain was predicted for the day. Dragging my feet. Not really feeling it, I set out.

So now, the clerk has my ID and is doing something with it. Entering data in her computer. What is going on? That has never happened. All I want is some linseed bread and some stuff to make food for the student group coming by that Friday night. Don’t see why the big deal.

I wait and wait. My earlier ambivalence turns into certainty of a bad day, what with Murphy’s Law and all. Now watch: I’ll get back to the bakery section and there will be no linseed bread, like at the other store. Or worse: I’ll be denied entry altogether. Such were my thoughts: storm clouds in my head while outside, the day got more and more gloomy.

Par for the course.

Until the clerk came back with my ID… and my very own Metro card!!! With my name on it, and everything! After two years of loyal patronage, I finally have a membership card, and it didn’t cost me anything! I couldn’t believe it!

Instantly I felt my mood reversing. Maybe today is not such a bad day after all.

More strange looks as I ran the aisles. I’m still on the idea that not many foreigners know about this outlet, judging by the looks I get and the fact that there are no other foreigners. Believe me: I’m not going to tell them! Let them have their hit and miss, sometimes poorly stocked, more crowded store. The store that I frequented for 2 years that never saw fit to extend me membership to. I’m keeping this one a secret.

Not that I generally consort with foreigners, anyway.

Now at the bakery section I’m overjoyed to find 8 packages (9 slices each) of linseed bread. I buy 6 of them. There is also butter. 3 packs ought to do it. Now for the stuff I needed to prepare Mexican food for the study group I had coming over tomorrow night. Yep: everything I need is right there. The whole time I’m relishing the idea of brandishing my new card at the checkout.

I head there directly, conscious of the fact that whatever I buy I must tote. Ceremoniously I present my card for scanning. The cashier aims her laser gun at the barcode as though it were no big deal. I’m guessing for her, it wasn’t. The computer beeps approvingly. I will be allowed to buy stuff as a full fledged member of the Metro shopping group, not just as a visitor.  

Now I’m in the lobby, packing my things. The backpack is a bit heavy and bulky, but manageable. More so than a shopping bag would be. I help an old woman secure her two industrial sized jars of honey for the transport home. Metro has shopping bags for sale. Unless you bring bags, you are stuck either buying one or toting your purchases as best you can. Maybe she didn’t know that.

Now I shoulder my pack. It will take me about an hour to get home. I should make it back to campus in time for the night class I teach. During the bus ride, in my head I formulate this entry.

NOTE: it was on this bus trip that I saw those outrageous orange and leopard print moccasins of the last entry. My brain must have been in writing mode!

Getting off the bus well in time to make it to class, I walk through the OTW community. Mindful of the possible rainshowers predicted for today that never came, I had put on my hiking boots. It sure felt good to have a full pack nestled against my back and boots on my feet. It woke up my inner vagabond, made me miss good, old fashioned hiking. I vowed to get a long hike in, someday soon.

Once home I put my stuff away, prepared for class and then pulled out my Metro card and stared at it, smiling. I don’t know why this small gain was so monumental to me. I can only ascribe it to membership being a wonderful thing.

How did I get a whole entry out of a piece of plastic the size of a credit card?               

… Of The Week

Recently, in an email exchange with my good friend and constant correspondent, I seem to have dismayed him by disclosing that I showed my students pictures of the People of Walmart site as a tool to emphasize how different fashion is in the West. His response to my disclosure: “Won’t those images project an unfair image to yor (sic) young Chinese at how most ‘normal’ Americans dress and act in public?”

Yes, and no. I can understand why any solid American citizen would want American culture presented only in the best of forms and I can certainly side with him in thinking that I’ve radically changed my students’ perception of America. However, it is not me taking those snapshots of normal, everyday Americans out shopping, dressed and coiffed as they see fit. Those images are published for the entire world to see.

And it is not just the PoW site that is showing America in its most derogatory light. Television shows, politics, news stories and other websites also do damage to the world’s view of America. I author none of those.

I do write this blog though. And, to give America her due, China also has her weirdoes, albeit newly emerged.

With greater freedom and more disposable income, the Chinese are experiencing life such as they have never known it. The freedom to dress as they want, wear hairstyles that veer sharply away from the traditional, buying power… all of these are relatively new to Chinese society. It shows.

Because nowadays, even just in the two point five years I’ve been here, Chinese culture has changed so much, I had been kicking around the idea of writing this entry. Originally I was going to title it: ‘Lifestyles of the Chinese Nouveau Riche’, expounding on how people with newfound wealth are dealing with the sudden ability to buy whatever they want, and the fact that whatever people with money want to buy is suddenly available.

What does a Chinese nouveau riche spend his/her money on, after buying that second or third apartment (condo), that second or third car, and all the clothes their closets can hold? This is where ‘outrageous’ comes in. Because there is such a proliferation of wealth in certain parts of China, mainly in the big cities, more and more we are seeing nose-thumbing at convention and tradition, more of a ‘manifest destiny’ attitude.  

As usual, something stayed my hand… till the perfect platform presented itself, in the guise of a pair of shoes. Espying these shoes gave me the format I wanted for this topic.

Here are the rules: I cannot comment on a general fashion trend. What I present in this entry must be a specific spectacle I’ve seen this week. I cannot make use of something I’ve written about before either, such as people going about in their jammies, or wearing see-through clothing. The … whatever of the week must be an original sighting, in the past week, of strange attire, appearance or act. I’ll start with those shoes.

Shoes of the Week: Leather moccasins, dyed orange, with a leopard print upper, spotted on the bus. Worn by a man who complemented the outfit with a faded and scuffed pair of jeans rolled up to calf-height, a wrinkled, white button down shirt with rolled up sleeves and ‘bed-head’ type hair, dyed henna. Those shoes stood out dramatically against the paleness/blandness of the rest of his attire, but matched his hair color nearly perfectly.

Dress of the Week: A silver paillete mini dress, worn with black hose, towering black high-heeled sandals and an oversized bag. This dress was spotted out on Sunday afternoon, around 3PM. The whole front of the dress was covered in sequins; the back of it was black. The outfit would probably be acceptable as evening wear, but stood out like a sore thumb – or a scream in a hushed theater among all of the other, more conservative outfits in that shopping district.

Even Sam winced at that one.

Hairstyle of the Week: A beehived, hyperteased ‘do on a woman whose hair was dyed the color of copper. When the sun shone, one could see through her hair as though seeing the world through a gossamer weave. When she turned around, her face was overly made up, in the fashion of a harlequin. She was rushing to an empty seat on the bus and left grumbling (cussing) because someone beat her to it.

That hairstyle is tied for first place with the woman who had spit curls arranged on a cushioning bed of hair atop her head. The back portion of hair was pinned into a French twist. The only reason the beehive was mentioned as the ‘do of the week’ is because that head of hair was dyed. This woman stuck with basic black… although it too might have been dyed, if only to cover up the grey. But at least it was colored traditional black.  

I’m beginning to think I should go out with my camera at the ready, to snap pictures of these sights. Seriously: can’t make this stuff up! This week, with all of these strange sights, I almost regretted not having one.

Oversized of the Week: A woman who rivaled me for girth, maybe even outdoing me. She wore an orange voile shirt with fluttering sleeves, black mini skirt with black tights and lunky platform shoes. As she stepped the skirt crept up to precarious heights, threatening to expose her. Every few steps she pulled her skirt down, all while keeping her eyes on her cellphone. 

Makeup of the Week: Seen on a woman who… might enjoy drinking, or maybe suffered allergies. Her face was puffy, especially around the eyes. Her foundation makeup was most likely intended to conceal the eye damage but had the reverse effect. It didn’t do much for her general complexion, either. To add to the damage she wore dark eyeliner and green eye shadow. Her cheeks were brushed (painted) with a blush too rosy and her lips were altogether too glossy. This woman might have been in her late 40’s or early 50’s. She was certainly trying hard to look much younger. It did not work at all. 

Color of the Week: Hair dyed purple in front and blond in back, spotted at Starbucks. Remarkable because it is difficult for dark, coarse Asian hair to take an ashy blond color, and then… purple? Originally Sam thought it might be a ‘foreigner’ woman wearing that hair but she was in fact Asian. Whether Chinese or not is not known.

Outfit of the Week (men): A suit and tie, complete with dress shoes, worn by a man who was exercising a shovel in a pile of dirt. Not a small pile, either. The outfit itself was not strange, only the fact that the wearer was a laborer made it strange.

NOTE: Outfit of the week differs from Dress of the week in that either gender can wear an outfit but dresses are the exclusive purview of women… at least over here. At least for now.

Outfit of the Week (female): Flower pattern top with polka dotted bottom, complemented with blue slippers, worn by an older woman. The top was orange, red and black and the leggings – not pants were black with white polka dots. The top was not quite long enough to conceal the woman’s bulging stomach or her crotch, where the poor leggings bunched up, nearly screaming focus on that part of her body.

In fact, many people wear mismatched patterns: checks on top with plaid on bottom or vise versa, flowers with stripes, solids of clashing colors or a reasonable outfit with mismatching shoes, as in: the shoes don’t match the outfit. They do match each other.  

These are just a few strange sights that caught my eye this week. To be perfectly fair, the Chinese tend to present themselves well and, when I talked with my students they all averred they would never go out badly clad. However, I am only one person, in one region of China, in one city, out and about on my small rounds. And I don’t go out every day. The People of Walmart website invites people from everywhere there is a Walmart, even in China, to send in their weird sightings. So, there is more weirdness to be seen online at that site than I am reporting here.

But… if I am one person, in one region, reporting on my experiences of one week exclusively, wouldn’t that indicate that there must be more strange doings out there that I am not present to witness?

Remember: these sightings do not include the ‘normal’ display of jammie clad, or see-through clothing, or men with their belly air conditioning that are commonplace here, and that I’ve reported on before. 

So, to give America her due: strangeness is not exclusively assigned to American society. As Chinese become vulgar with wealth, they too are becoming outrageous in their presentation. Will they go so far as the People of Walmart?

I have a hard time imagining a Chinese man wearing a neon blue bikini in public, or wearing a pink dress and earrings (unless he is what is known as a ‘ladyboy’). I don’t believe any Chinese would wear a clown outfit or some of the otherworldly garb seen on the PoW site. But then… who knows?  



Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dog And Butterfly

NOTE: We will be on hiatus this week. My conspirators are going to visit their mothers, so we post our Mother’s Day entry a bit early, and we’ll catch you again next week. Take good care of yourselves and each other till then!

See the dog and butterfly / Up in the air he like to fly / Dog and butterfly below she had to try…

So goes the chorus to a song I’m shamelessly ripping. I loved this song from the first moment I heard it. Gentle melody, soulful guitar, smoky vocals… what’s not to like? The song, by Heart, was released in October of 1978, just before my mother and I parted company for good.

My mother had rare good moods in those days. I was the only child left at home, and, at 16 years old, nearly fully raised. My world, then as now, was defined by music. Back then, those dim, dark days of analog broadcasts and transistor radios, CDs were insurance against a poor retirement (and had much more yield!) and all good music was heard on vinyl. Cassette players were vanguard – Sony had just that year introduced the Walkman.

Good Heavens am I old!!!

Because my mother was having one those rare good days and because, no matter what our history, I needed a connection with her, I took a chance. Music was my chosen bridge. She and I both loved and related to music. And so it was, on that rare, good day, when my mother had just finished her breakfast and lingered over her last coffee while smoking her after meal cigarette, while the sky was blue and a gentle breeze wafted I dared approach her.

“Mother, would you like to hear a beautiful song?”

“Sure, why not?” she conceded. Right then I knew this would be a ‘good mood’ day.

I turned down the volume and unplugged my headphone. Now, floating alongside the cigarette smoke drifted the ashy vocals of Ann Wilson: “See the dog and butterfly / Up in the air he like to fly…”

Mother erupted into laughter. Laughing? At my beautiful song? What? What the…? HUH?!?

After the chorus and onto the second verse, my mother mopping her tears even as she gusted more merriment, now unable to sit still for the gales, soon bent over double. Because of Dog and Butterfly, through the air they like to fly.

I take my music seriously. I was prepared to get deeply offended. After turning down the radio I asked her, carefully hiding my wounded ego, what she thought was so funny. She confessed: “I heard that line and in my head there goes a beautiful butterfly, fluttering over a meadow…” She simulates the motion, her hand fluttering gracefully from left to right.

“And then there went the dog, flying right behind it!” This time her head bobbed ponderously, tongue poked out and panting like a dog. Her arms were up in the air mimicking the paws of a flying pooch. That was all she could get out before breaking down again.

I was miffed. This is MY music she’s making fun of. THIS piece of music, so peace invoking, that I chose to share with her. To build a bridge with. To try to connect with her, all the while knowing the clock was ticking and I would soon be out of her life for good. This attempt of mine to reach out to her and find something to share… she laughed about it!!!

Years later, in this now, I find that her laughter did help build that bridge I needed so desperately. On that day I learned my mother had a sense of poetry, as do I. My sense of humor and hers are pretty much the same. Our capacity for visualization and our ability to project the absurd comes from the same source. I didn’t realize it at the time. Now she is eighteen years in her grave. My chance at connection, or even acknowledging that we did indeed share something rare and precious that morning is forever gone. I never thanked her for it, or for those other rare, and all the more precious for being rare moments that we shared.  

In China as in America, Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. In both countries mothers are treated to gifts, usually handmade; or flowers, candy, and maybe a meal out. For one day a year, everything our mothers do for us, have done for us and the promise of more maternal deeds to come is recognized. Matter of fact, on that day, not just in China and America are mothers recognized but pretty much all over the world. Those countries/regions that don’t honor mothers on that day dedicate another day, usually in the Spring to celebrate the joy, honor, work, pain and heartbreak of being a mother.

Exceptions to the ‘usually in spring’ rule are Panama and Indonesia, who celebrate Mother’s Day on December 8th and 22nd, respectively.

Elizabeth Stone once said: “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Anyone who is a mother will testify to that.

Elizabeth Stone was a pioneer woman, born in 1800, twice married and mother of 8. Besides raising her children she worked alongside her husband(s), building various businesses first in Missouri and later in Illinois and Minnesota. At age 62 she and her second husband moved to Colorado where again they built successful businesses. After burying her second husband she continued to run the various enterprises until she succumbed, at the ripe old age of 86. Notably, on her 81st birthday, with 4 generations present, she danced till 5AM, and then went home to prepare breakfast for everyone. What a woman! What a role model!

What an odd connection: she and I share a birthdate.

How lucky her children to have had such a mother! If anyone knows about hearts walking around outside bodies it would be her, don’t you think? Within two marriages she generated 8 hearts.

Other remarkable mothers: Queen Anne of England, Scotland and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1702. She was said to gasp, after the birth of her 17th child: “My quiver is full!” of course, she was a devout woman and ripped that quote directly from the Bible. That bible passage provides the origin of today’s eponymous religious group, who pledge to bear all of the children God sees fit to give them. What makes Queen Anne remarkable as a mother is that she outlived every single one of her children.

How does a mother bear the pain of burying her child?

Even though I personally know a mother who, at one time was in that position and in fact having attended that funeral I cannot imagine being whole, or right in mind, body, soul or spirit afterward. Gloria took it hard and even now, years later she mourns and misses her youngest. Maybe it even fractured her psyche. She has never been the same since that terrible day Willy died. I think, neither have I.  

All of these women, these mothers who fight alongside their cancer stricken children, who hope every morning will bring back their kidnapped baby, who, heavens forbid must go to prison for their accolades because their child is incarcerated. I simply can’t fathom how they deal with it, Mother’s Day after Mother’s Day. Those women who crave a child but, by some cruel twist cannot be mothers. How do they do it? How must they feel each and every Mother’s Day?

And then there’s the men. Men who single parent their child, who learn to braid hair and other ‘girly’ things. Men who buy curling irons and watch movies about princesses. Am I stereotyping? Perhaps. Nevertheless, single fathers deserve mention on Mother’s Day.

I’ve written a tribute to Veterans every year since I started this blog, nearly 3 years ago. If memory and my archives serve me, this is my first Mother’s Day entry. Wonder why I’ve not written a tribute to mothers (or fathers, on their day) when I’ve written dedicated entries for every other major celebration? I’m making up for it now. Now, because for some reason that song, Dog and Butterfly popped into my head, bringing with it crashing memories of my mother.

I moved out shortly before my 17th birthday. She and I never did establish a relationship. How she lived after I left, what she did, what thoughts possessed her and how she managed her world are a total mystery to me. I do know that, had she lived and been raising children nowadays she would have been on medication. She suffered, was tortured by inner demons. In turn she lashed out at us. We all ran away as quickly as possible.

She was cremated and buried in an unmarked grave, ostensibly so that her progeny would not find her. That was the way she wanted it. It doesn’t matter to me because, on any given day but especially on those special “Mother” days she finds me again.

If you are so fortunate as to have your mother in your life, please give her an extra hug for all of those who don’t have a mother to hug. If, by some twist of fate your father had to do double duty – be both mother and father to you, please hug him extra tight. Single parenting is a tough job, maybe even tougher for men because of society’s norms.

Now, go! Make that phone call! Wrap those chocolates! Get to hugging and celebrating! Mom won’t wait, you know.

Oh, wait… Yes she will. She’s MOM!!!          


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Women, Dancing by the Pond

Finally! Something exciting to write about!!

This morning, just another morning. Gary is due by in about 2 hours. That gives me time to do my morning wake up thing: read a little news, drink a little tea, do my stretches, put on my face. Having been in a deep, ponderous mood for so long and unable to shake it even as I enjoy light hearted pursuits, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to having company today.

I’ve been this way for about a month now, churning my thoughts on such weighty matters as abortion, political strife and division, gun ownership and deep disappointment and despondency – all these topics that currently fill American news headlines. I won’t write about it because this blog, as always, strives to be apolitical. That doesn’t stop me from grieving for my America, even over here, where I am physically safe and securely ensconced in a rewarding career.

I needed the alarm to wake me up at 8AM. Normally I would sleep till 9 or 10. After all, this is a holiday in China: the May 1st Holiday – Labor Day. But, Gary is due by and… why waste half the day sleeping, anyway?

I threw back my drapes. GASP!!! The sky is blue! That rare, infinite blue that avers the Heavens last forever and nothing could be wrong. Going from window to window, throwing my arms wide seemingly to cast drapes aside but actually to embrace the day, the morning’s first smile bubbles. I’m unconscious of it until I feel my carriage straighten and my head rear up.

A bit of news, a bit of email. Oh! Here is one from my Jenn! We’re having a nice discussion via email about a book I read at her suggestion. Quick response – fingers fly over the keyboard.

I’d better get moving. Wouldn’t do for Gary to catch me unready to go out, seeing as his whole purpose for visiting today is to show off his new car. An Audi. He’s stepping up in the world. His last car was a VW.

In the bathroom, applying eyeliner is when I first hear the drums and cymbals. What? A show? Hurry, let me rush to the window! There are the women, clad in bright green and neon pink, heralding the 1st of May.          

In China, this day is celebrated as Labor Day, but only since the year 2000. The country becoming more capitalist by the minute, the government is adding holidays to encourage tourism and spending. Labor Day was declared a 3-day holiday, lasting from April 29th to May 1st. Some like to stretch it out to 7 days, thus offering an opportunity to travel further or more extensively – another sign of a more expansive, more liberal China.

In the East as in the West, there is no free lunch. The three days that actually comprise the holiday must be made up. In our campus and in government offices, the work scheduled for those days was recouped by (in schools) Saturday and Sunday classes, and in offices by swapping the weekend days for actual workdays. Thus I taught my Monday classes on Saturday this past week. The upside is that it did leave me with a full 5 days to dally around.

TRAVEL!! VAGABOND!!! Those were my first thoughts when hearing of my schedule change. Immediately after: “You idiot! That’s what everyone will be doing! Best you stay home and avoid the rush!” Some kind of vagabond I am, right?

If I had traveled I would have missed Sam’s invitation for dinner tomorrow. I would have missed Gary, debuting his new car. I would have missed the women dancing.

These are the women who dance at dusk by the pond, as reported a few entries back in “The Evening Hours”. These same women wake up at… maybe 5:30 or perhaps 6AM to sweep and clean our campus and apartment compound. Look at their faces: they’re just glowing! Joyful! Totally blissed out on the day, the show they’re putting on, and the sunshine.

Well, not exactly the sunshine. Like women all over China and, in fact, all of Asia these women believe that pale skin equals refinement and beauty. Whereas they started their show in front of the teacher’s cafeteria one building over, they quickly migrated to the area just in front of my building so that they could dance in the shade.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen dancing women before, alluding to them several times throughout this blog. I’ve even beheld celebratory dancers: see Small Pagoda entry, posted February 2011 for an example. I’ve never been privileged to see dancers outside my apartment window before. I should take full advantage, shouldn’t I?

Armed with my camera and of course, not forgetting my house keys and phone I dashed outside. Gary might be calling any minute; shouldn’t leave my phone behind. Besides, I had another use for it. I’ll tell you in a minute.

Look! Look at these women! Look at their faces! These are the women who, 6 days per week, topped with straw hats and clad in drab green work pinafores and simple, black slacks meticulously sweep every square centimeter of our campus and housing area. These are the women who maintain our landscaping. These are the women who empty our trash bins and serve our food (not at the same time or even consecutively). These are the women who, in spite of their love for this area can never hope to own one of these new apartments.

Come evening, after tending to our luxurious environment they clog that lone, narrow opening in the wall that separates our world and theirs. They return to their dark, dank abodes. After a full day of sweeping, emptying, toting, sorting, planting and watering they will spend another hour, standing in their dimly lit, under-equipped kitchen to chop vegetables and fry up their bits of meat while the rice steams in the next room.

They will greet their family. If their elderly parents live with them, these women will ensure that Mother or Father gets the best of the meal. If their children have returned from school these women will cajole, nurture or admonish, as need be. If they have husbands, these women will turn a blind eye to his smoking and drinking – if those are his vices. Maybe, after dinner he will go back outside to congregate with the other men by the pool table at the corner store, or to play cards or checkers. Without even sighing a long-suffering sigh, these women will gather the dirty dishes, wash them in cold water and make the kitchen ready for its next service, at 5:30AM.

Are they tired? Do their feet hurt? Do they long for experiences outside the narrow confines of their life? Only they would know. But they do dance.

At night, after chores, after children have bent over books, after the elderly have returned from their nightly constitutional, these women gather once again. This time not to push brooms or trash bins or sod barrows, but to dance.

For only these late, exhausted, end of day hours they have to themselves, they dance. For fitness. For social connection. Maybe to give themselves something uniquely their own after tending to everyone else’s everything all day long. They still have in their heart a desire to dance. Remarkable.

I’ve never seen these women as radiant as they are at this very minute. Being one of the few that actually acknowledge their existence on a regular basis – many around our community will not even make eye contact with them, let alone greet them, I see their transformation. Look at those smiles! Look at their heads, held proud and high! Look at that gleam in their eye! Look at the grace of their movements! My friends, these are the women of my community. Aren’t they beautiful?   

The show went on till 11:30. The women had to return home to prepare the noontime meal, as they do every day. Of course it would not be feasible, or even entertaining for me to watch them dance for the whole two hours. After about 30 minutes I feigned a text message by consulting my phone. This gave the women ‘face’ while still excusing me away. Being as they had all seen the tall foreigner, and had even smiled and waved at me, it wouldn’t do for me to suddenly turn and walk away from their show for no reason.

Two dismaying things, the first being the lack of regard/respect shown these costumed, dancing women. As far as I could tell, the show was for our community. Yet hardly anyone turned out to see it. And, while they were dancing people walked right through their lines. Even worse: somebody wanted to drive out of the compound. Instead of going out the back entry the driver sounded his horn imperiously, causing the women to scatter mid-dance. How selfish! How rude!

The next dismay: The government, having to deal with the logistics of 3 peak travel periods instead of just 2 (National Day in October and New Year in January/February), shortened this holiday back to just 1 day. We don’t care; we’re still taking our 3 days off (but making up for it the weekend prior).

The dancing women don’t care either. As long as they get to dance.