Thursday, June 20, 2013

What I Will Fill My Summer With

Many remote villages would love to have a foreigner come to visit their schools. For some, that is the only chance for the students to meet and speak with a native English speaker because their family is too poor to send them to college, even if the students do get the marks to qualify for university education.

Recently, I was talking with Sam about my troubles buying travel passage online, as mentioned a few posts back (See From the Internet). He helped me find a good deal on plane tickets to the states last year and, thinking I would head back again, had started scouting around for deals for me this summer. I told him I don’t plan on traveling Stateside during the summer because it is peak travel season, when everything is so expensive. And then I disclosed the idea of volunteering for a part of my summer, maybe with some organization like or Red Cross. Sam is the one who came up with the idea of teaching for 2 weeks at a time in remote locations. He knows of organizations that could place me in just such situations.

My friends, I lit up like a Christmas tree at the idea!

Unfortunately Sam was not able to arrange such a situation for me. What with the usual end of scholastic year activity and his additional duties to us foreign teachers – updating visas, renewing contracts and maintaining/updating records, poor Sam has his hands full. Add to that the fact that our English Department as evolved from a simple, one language entity to an all-encompassing bureaucracy named Language Arts, complete with a new, energetic, driving Dean, my fellow teachers, Sam included are now busier than ever.

Have I told you I have been tapped to help our department publish? Via Sam, our new ball-of-fire Dean has asked if I would review the manuscript she had tasked our teachers to write. One chapter per teacher, our school will assemble a book, due out early next year. I don’t know if the entries will be subject driven and written thesis-style or about personal classroom experiences. I do know that I’ve not been offered a chance to contribute any written material. I have been asked to edit it. I’m looking forward to it.

Another iron Sam has in the fire: he and Helen (of our 4 Helens, she is the more pleasant) are to compete in the National English Teacher competition. The first phase involves an impartial team, traveling from campus to campus all across China and recording participating English teachers in their conducting a lesson. Topic is left to the competitor. Focus will be on presentation as well as proper usage of English. These recordings are submitted to a review panel in Beijing, who will then cull out the top teachers and invite them for the contest’s in-person phase. Needless to say, competition is keen, not just for the individual teachers but for top scoring schools to gain national recognition. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sam and Helen these past few weeks.

All of this activity and brouhaha is nearly over with, and summer looms. For my Chinese colleagues it means sleeping late, reconnecting with their families and, in some cases seeking out part time work. To make ends meet or to occupy idle hands is not known, but I hedge toward the latter. I have not met many indolent Chinese, and very few of my colleagues are of that ilk.

So: with my volunteering opportunities limited, my colleagues headed to whatever they will fill their summer with and the students headed home, what is this vagabond to do?

TRAVEL!! Hit the rails, take to the blue skies, walk kilometer after kilometer, buy passage on buses and cruise ships.

In one aspect, I am daunted. I have not been anywhere since my excursion to Qingdao last February. I’m finding myself nearly at a loss at how to engineer a vagabond adventure. Like getting off the couch after a long period of idleness that leads to atrophy, I’m finding myself having to exercise at vagabonding. Where to go? What to do? How to get there?

Two and a half months is a long time to vagabond, whether here in China or in the states. Add to that something I recently discovered: foreigners are not allowed just anywhere. As I confided in the Wenzhou series (see ….. entry, posted ………), when a policeman came knocking on my door to check my passport. Not every hotel or establishment is permitted to accommodate foreigners. So, first order of business is to choose a destination, and then see if said destination has an international hostel. That is a sure fire way to tell if vagabonds such as I would be welcome in that town.

I would prefer to stay at a Chinese hotel, but lately the idea of staying at hostels has a newfound advantage. I’ll spell it out in our next entry.

Such opportunity for adventure leaves me warm, but only warm. I’ll talk more about that in the next entry as well, but I will describe one facet here and now.

Spending this bounty of time and good fortune exclusively on myself seems rather selfish to me. Although… I’m not just doing it for myself. Within such doings lies a wealth of blog fodder. Sharing with you, my friends and readers is part of the fun of adventuring. Even from that perspective I feel selfish. Surely there is something else I can do with at least some of this time.

Enter Operation Smile.

This volunteer Operation concerns itself with repairing cleft palates. People in poorer regions worldwide often cannot afford surgery. In China especially, where the handicapped are still stigmatized, this organization makes great inroads at correcting this deformity, thus allowing those afflicted not only the ability to eat properly but also to be socially accepted. By necessity, the missions target rural regions. There are both local teams of surgeons, who operate within their province as well as international teams, which settle in a provinces’ metropolis and then travel to nearby rural areas. On an average 1-week mission, approximately two hundred children will discover the joy of smiling and eating properly.  

I first learned of this volunteer organization via a movie titled Smile, which I watched while still stateside. It described one American young woman’s journey to self actualization by participating in a mission in China. While loosely forming my goals for life in China all those years ago, I thought taking part in such an activity would be a great learning experience.

For the past 2 years my physical and emotional struggles kept me away from the idea of being charitable toward anyone but myself. I’m much better now, both emotionally and physically. This is the summer I can, and will reach out. I dedicate the entire month of July to volunteering.  

My friends, I am proud to announce that I have been accepted to volunteer on a mission with Operation Smile. Already I have a place on the international team that will base itself in Guangdong province. It is a heady/scary proposition.

Have you seen the list of duties volunteers are expected to perform? Medical transcription, translating/interpreting, keeping parents informed, playing with the kids, helping set up operating theaters and recovery tents. Lessening tensions and putting people at ease. As with anything else one meets head on, the challenges seem insurmountable. I almost scared myself into not participating. And then immediately chastised myself. 

Volunteering will provide me a means to approach remote areas that might otherwise be inaccessible to me when traveling alone. Also, I will have the privilege of observing traditional life, away from the Big City. I will mingle with people from all over the world who donate their time and energy. Best of all: I will be doing something worthwhile, something helpful, something to improve the life and the lot of those too impoverished and/or too ashamed to alter life as they know it and their potential future on their own.

Sure, there is selfishness involved, and not just a small measure of it, either. Can you blame me? With roughly two and a half months to fill and already worrying about all that egotistical traveling I have planned, I feel almost fully cloaked in self-centeredness. I’d rather focus on this volunteering time as something outside of myself, time I’m giving away.

Yes, I am still wondering how I will engineer all of my vagabonding. Where to go, what to do, what to see and the like. One thing I’m not wondering about is my enthusiasm in participating on this mission. That will be the most worthwhile thing I will do this summer. Perhaps, if I make a good recounting, you might become a volunteer too!

To learn more about Operation Smile, their history, mission and needs, please visit                        

Whose Child Is This?

Happy International Children’s Day to all children, and all who are a child at heart.

In light of the recent report of the newborn rescued from the drainpipe in China, I find it timely to report that throughout China, and certainly in Wuhan children are treated to all manner of delights ranging from free movie passes to the opportunity to showcase their talents (dance, song, etc). There are contests: skating, biking, playing, beauty – none as brutal as beauty pageants are rumored to be stateside; and others. Everywhere around Wuhan, and all across China, families, merchants and politicians are celebrating and commemorating the young.  

There is no doubt that overall, the Chinese revel in and revere their young. However, no one can ignore the growing number of reports enumerating the ways children are mistreated and/or abused in this country. Let’s talk for a second about that poor babe, delivered into a drainpipe.

This child, conceived in a night of passion, carried in shame and fear by a young woman who experienced sex for the first time, and rejection when she confided to her partner she was nurturing their seed. With no one to turn to, she hid her pregnancy by wearing loose clothing, which just happens to be in fashion over here, and by binding her stomach.

With the growing permissiveness of extra- and premarital relations, more and more women find themselves in this predicament. Unlike America some fifty years ago, China is not so much having a sexual revolution as a sexual explosion.

One hundred years or so ago, it was quite fashionable for well-to-do men to have a wife and several concubines. Emperors of dynasties past were compelled to have many ‘wives’ in order to produce the maximum possible number of heirs. The first wife, with very few rights and no recourse was forced to accept these increasingly younger and more beautiful women as ‘younger sisters’. They were forced to dine, entertain and socialize together. Although the last emperor was dethroned in the early 1900s, wealthy polygamous households flourished until the Cultural Revolution in 1950.

For a graphic depiction of such an arrangement, please watch the movie “Raise the Red Lantern”, starring Gong Li and directed by Zhang Yimou, the director of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. It is available in Chinese with English subtitles.   

During Mao’s reign no one could afford concubines, except for Mao – he kept no fewer than four. Quite the contrary, in fact. Marriages were approved by the government. Sex, never a topic of genteel society conversation, became taboo. Its mysteries, historically hinted at in artistic expression, usually poetically, were only ever whispered of from father to son and mother to daughter. During Mao’s reign sex was declared to be for the sole purpose of procreation. All other male/female forms of physical contact that could even remotely be deemed PDA was forbidden. Post-Mao made films and rare photos from those days show those yoked in sanctioned marriage side by side, with hands demurely tucked in front of the body.

Nowadays, except for the ‘wives’ sharing a household, pre-Mao living standards have been reestablished. Concubines are making a comeback. They are not called such a derogatory term, though. They are labeled more degradingly – if such is possible: ‘ernai’ (pronounced ‘R-nigh’), literally meaning ‘second breast’. Being ‘ernai’ can be quite profitable. Some of these ‘seconds’ end up with their own apartment, car, lines of credit and so on. They can even engage in sexual relations independent of their benefactor, provided they are available when Sugar Daddy calls (he provides the cellphone, as well).

In one widely reported case last year, a cat fight between one man’s wife and his ‘ernai’ depicted the wife’s rage at the mistress, and the unprecedented legal battle for the wife to claim half of her husband’s assets in divorce, including the car and apartment bequeathed to her rival. All of them: husband, wife and concubine ended up being the object of national scorn.

By the way: divorce is on the rise here, too. Property settlements are new to China considering that historically, women were denied the right to own property, even by inheritance. But that is not what this post is about.

I’m supposed to be writing about children. Children come about by the sometimes convoluted relationships between men and women, so I need to continue exploring those, but just for a minute. Only because here, society is evolving faster than tradition can assimilate.   

Sex is still not openly discussed even though sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. As are illegitimate births. What about abortion?

In China, abortion is, and has always been a matter of fact. Society being founded on philosophy rather than religion, driven by reason and rationale rather than sentiment, there is no argument about pro-life or choice. The decision to abort is strictly the female’s purview, whether she is married or single. Once, when talking with a male student who, by manner, hinted at some deep problem confided in response to my probing about a possible illegitimate pregnancy that, should a decision be made to carry a baby to term, it would be solely his girlfriend’s.

Socially and legally, males do not (yet) bear any responsibility toward the life they should be half responsible for. That is not to say that there are no devoted fathers. Overwhelmingly, both parents are devoted to the child they create… provided the traditional steps are followed: courtship, marriage, and then progeny production. The generation flinging itself so energetically into the lifestyle of this new, more permissive China is causing this country’s decision makers and thinkers to scramble for a progressive, more encompassing social more.        

For now, illegitimate birth is still heavily stigmatized. Talk of sex is nearly unheard of. I say ‘nearly’ because of an article I read in the Chinese news network this week about the government calling for some sort of sex education to be developed and taught, most likely at high school level. Just the word ‘sex’ in the headline was an attention grabber, as was the headline in that same news edition that announced awareness training for children who might be, or might have been victims of sexual misconduct at the hands of their teachers. Along those lines was the headline about more on-the-job sexual harassment cases being reported. 

Again that sense of being poleaxed! Whether by nature I am na├»ve or just, for all this time wore blinders, seeing such headlines leaves me dumbfounded. Of course I am aware that such deeds are done. I just never expected them to be so… casually?... matter of factly dissected. Not just the act or the attitude, but the open discussion of sex. If I, with a half-century of living all over the globe under my belt am taken aback, can you imagine the average Chinese, from a traditionally demure household, who has never before been exposed to more than a secretive mutter of sex, is reacting?

Is it any wonder that that confused mother had no inkling that she was giving birth while squatting over that toilet? She thought her stomach pains were due to food poisoning, a common ailment here. Once she realized that she delivered her child rather than the product of her supposedly infected gut, she cleaned the blood and then made a phone call to the authorities. It would have been too shameful to direct strange men from the rescue squad and police into that sanctum sanctorum – the bathroom, while it was splashed with gore. She was present when her child was rescued, and then endured two days of deliberation, arguing with herself to find the courage to step up and claim her baby.

The latest reports indicate the child has been returned to her and no charges will be filed. I feel that is as it should be. With no law, moral or legal to direct such hirsute situations, no previous education and no one to advise her, she did the best she could under the circumstances. While we, sensibly outraged condemn her, she is holding her now week old child on its first celebration of Children’s Day.

Is she happy? Has she made peace with her situation? Have her parents accepted and welcomed the baby? Have they forgiven her? No hint of that, and I suspect it will remain a family matter. There are some lines the Chinese media still haven’t crossed. Violating a person’s privacy is one that I hope they never do. As far as I can tell, nowhere has her name been published, nor has her family information been disclosed. Again in my opinion, that is as it should be. It has been reported that the father has stepped up and will do right by the child, providing financial and, hopefully moral support. That is good.

In the meantime, the world over, happy children cavort under the gaze of their loving parents. Tonight, such children will be put to bed, hopefully with caresses and care. I’d like to think that no child will have to bed down with vermin, wake up suddenly to mal-intentioned handling, and hide their shame and pain once daylight comes. I’d like to think that… wouldn’t you?

So, let’s emphasize this day set aside to celebrate children. Let us proclaim our desire to protect and nurture our species’ young so loud that those who would harm them are driven out and away.