Tuesday, July 30, 2013


My title choices; ‘potpourri’, ‘pot-luck’ and this one. The first translates into ‘rotten pot’, although its meaning is quite fragrant. Don’t want any allusion to rot attached to this blog. The second implies a hit and miss scenario, although most times, pot luck brings hits. Being as this is not about food, I couldn’t bring myself to suggest it. Mish mash it is, then.

I’m realizing my greatest fear: topics I’d like to write about have already been embraced. Three years is a long time to blog and posting on average two to three entries a week covers a lot of ground. Some things I’ve written about previously have recently been revisited in a whole new light. More experienced, I find what I’ve written before is either not entirely accurate or should be expanded or expounded on.

This entry will be a mish-mash of things already discussed. Short tidbits with reference back to the original discussion. Only the last topic will be new, and it will be a doozy.

I have to say: as a reporter on China and lifestyle of the Chinese, I’ve not done too badly. As a vagabond, I’ve failed miserably. For nearly two months out of my three month break I’ve been nowhere. In part because of travel papers not in order, in part because of health discomforts. Some of my ‘going nowhere’ is due to weather, but also because I’m just so darn comfortable at home.

I wish I had been able meet my volunteer commitment with Operation Smile.

In typical Chinese fashion, we were all agreed and excited about meeting up and helping children with cleft palates gain ability to eat and smile. Come time for me to join the mission I emailed the team, asking how I should meet up with them once I arrive in Qianxi, the city we were to operate in. I had no contact information other than one email address. Somehow I couldn’t imagine perching atop a city bus as it cruises through town, shouting at the top of my lungs: “Operation Smile Team!! Where are you???”

I never received an answer to that email. Regrettably, this is the Chinese way. There is even a phrase for it: bian (be-yen). It means ‘change’ literally, but the implication is that one is to be flexible, like bamboo. Bending to times and circumstances is ingrained in the Chinese, much to the frustration of Westerners in general and this one in particular. Planning and making appointments are practically unknown concepts. See the ‘Peeling the Cultural Onion’ entry, posted September 2012. Next year I will again offer my services as a volunteer. Let’s hope the effort is better coordinated.

Let’s reach into the mish-mash bag again, see what comes out.

People who are handicapped. When I first came here and several times since, I have reported on the social stigma against those who are handicapped. Human Rights, posted December 2011 is one such entry, as is Frank’s Question, posted February of this year. The initial mention of stigma against the handicapped was in an entry titled Tulip, posted way back in December 2010.

In the 3 years I’ve been here, there has been a decided turnabout with regard to the handicapped. Our own school has enrolled no fewer than three students who have visible physical challenges: cerebral palsy, dwarfism and spina bifida. Although our school has yet to install ramps and elevators, or even convert dorm rooms and restrooms to accommodate those with physical challenges, in town these changes are already happening. Many malls and grocery stores have restrooms for males, females and now for handicapped, with fixtures for both men and women, and large enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

Today I rode a bus with a dedicated spot reserved for wheelchairs and a hydraulic ramp for easy boarding. This is not the first time I’ve seen such a bus. It seems all new buses in the Wuhan fleet are so outfitted. I’ve yet to actually see a person who is wheelchair bound ride a bus, but it is certainly encouraging that the world is expanding for those formerly rejected by society. Perhaps, in the near future, there might actually be a person who is paraplegic working in a government position.

One can hope, no?

Last year I was on fire with the need to contrast/compare elder care in the states versus China. (See ‘Here and There, Elder Care’ entry, posted August 2012). As I recall I painted a very bleak picture of life as an elder in China, and quite often I’ve felt that all the reverence heaped on me due to my age made me feel stupid, useless and old.

Although many of my recountings are fact, some aspects of eldercare and life as an elder in China have since changed. For one, seniors get to ride the bus for free. They are issued a special pass which, when presented to the card reader announces a ‘lao ren’ – ‘old person’, literally has just boarded the bus. Younger passengers are expected to yield their seat to the elderly. More and more, that doesn’t happen. How sad.

Right now, living and daycare centers for elderly are filling up faster than they can be built. On television, seniors report an improvement in their quality of life stemming from these centers and amenities, even as the programs challenge the growing question: who should care for the elderly?

Going hand in hand with the issue of the elderly is the recent hike of mandatory retirement age. For men it is now age 60, up from age 55 just a few years ago. Women can retire at age 55, also up 5 years from previous regulation. One of the reasons is lack of family taking responsibility and the other is a newly founded social security fund.

Currently there are more elderly than tax payers, and sociologists project the number of retirees to outnumber workers by 5 to 1 in about twenty years. Factor in rising medical costs and cost of living, year by year aging is becoming a more expensive proposition. And people are living longer.

China is now experiencing many challenges America has been facing with regard to eldercare. Surely there will be more changes with regard to the question of eldercare but for now, the difference in awareness alone is a huge step in the right direction for China.

Wrapping things up: the weather.

The weather is wreaking havoc in China. To the Southwest there have been heavy rains, mudslides and entire villages flooded out. In the safety and comfort of my air conditioned home I watch rescue operations, the military and police as they ford waist and chest deep torrents, clinging to guide ropes lest they too get swept away. Not only are they cradling elderly and small children out of sure death scenarios and guiding able bodied out, but they are taking time to salvage personal possessions. How compassionate! I wish I could help them.

This year vagabonding presents certain challenges. If I head southwest I will be in landslide and flood evacuation country. Going southeast, Shanghai and the like, they are suffering their hottest summer on record. Ditto for heading north. Northeast is recovering from a severe earthquake, as is the south. Where to vagabond safely?

It seems the safest place to be is right here, in my air conditioned home. That is not good enough.

I go out, riding buses. They are air conditioned. I’ve been to new places and places I’ve visited before, when I first came here and had no idea where ‘here’ was.

Worn Down Mountain included (MoShan in Chinese). You’ll remember this locale from the ‘Vanished!’ entry, posted June 2011. Zhanny and I tried to get there but a number of factors got in the way, culminating in her purse getting stolen.

I had no idea I had already been to MoShan the first few months I’d been here, while seeking the botanical gardens. Had I realized where it was at, Zhanny and I would have had no problem getting there.

Now for the last: 6 weeks from now is when you’ll see us again.

I’m finally taking off, this time for a whole month. Visiting this friend here and that group of friends there, culminating in a weeklong cruise down the Yangtze River through Three Gorges Dam. After that, school starts and if you really want to know how that goes, please direct yourself to the September 2010 entries. Except for the loss, disconnection and bewilderment of that first year, the activities will be the same. No need for me to rehash them. Part of this long silence will be spent writing up the things I experience while traveling. There will be plenty to read about upon our return.   

We hope you find this post entertaining and interesting, and we certainly hope you are having a good summer. As the song says: See you Mid-September!                       

Some Assembly Required

Two years ago my friends sent me a very special birthday card. They had taken pictures of the group, each person holding up a letter, cumulatively spelling out ‘Happy Birthday’. Along with it came a sound file of them singing that traditional anthem. The email delivering it was titled ‘Some Assembly Required’. I had to unzip the file and marry the pictures to the audio file for the full effect. I loved it. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. I still have it, and look at it occasionally, when I get morose.

It is no wonder that I thought about writing this entry upon delivery of my new office chair.

Buying anything major is a challenge. Getting swindled is always a factor. People see foreigners coming and recalculate their retirement. Or at least which restaurant they will eat at that night. That is a well documented phenomenon… if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time you surely are aware.

Buying this chair posed a new challenge. How was I going to get it home? Studying its construction on the showroom floor I could see the chair part is one solid, molded and upholstered piece. At best the lift cylinder and base might come apart.

Taking it on the bus is out. It would have been cool bringing my own seat but I think the bus driver might have frowned on it. Taxi? No… I’ve run across too many taxi drivers who do a prima donna act when asked to do something out of their comfort level.

Summer’s dad! That might be an option! He is a driver for hire and, I’m sure if I negotiate with Summer he would probably leap at the chance to help. Also, he wouldn’t let me pay him. That would make me uncomfortable, seeing as his sole income is derived from how much he drives. If I take up some of his valuable driving time, he loses money.

Why am I trying to build any suspense here? I’ve already told you I negotiated delivery!

Let’s just get on with it, shall we?

On the appointed day, I made sure to wake up at 6AM. From the phone call the day before, the delivery folks confirmed an 8AM time. I wanted to be sure I was awake and relatively presentable when they got here. NOTE: it only takes me about 10 minutes to get presentable. The rest of the time was spent waking up.

I tried many things this morning. Cleaning house: too strenuous. Fixing breakfast: not ready to eat that early. Sitting at the computer: well, I’m buying a new chair because the old chair is distinctly uncomfortable. Make corn tortillas: I’ve been meaning to try my hand in an attempt to get away from all the wheat. Turns out I’m not very good at making corn tortillas. Scrap that project.

I ended up aimlessly meandering around the house with my phone in my pocket. Vibrate/ring startled me out of my stupor – really is quite a feeling when your pants start dancing while you’re in them, half asleep. OK, yeah, sure: furniture delivery between 11 and 11:30. Meander some more.

I already had a plan on how to direct the delivery crew across campus and to my house. Simply go to the building behind mine, where the housing complex maintenance staff is. Surely I can get someone there to direct them, right? Worked like a charm. I stood outside, waving my arms when a van unfamiliar to this area pulled in.


Not sure what I was expecting. I think it was something along the lines of a completely assembled seating unit, wrapped in plastic and/or bubble wrap, which could simply be rolled into my apartment and down the hall, into the office. Sure wasn’t expecting a box carried in by 2 sweaty men, with a third asking for my signature.

The sweaty men are to be excused. It is stagnantly hot outside, and muggy as… muggy can be. I presume they either didn’t have air conditioning in their van or opted not to run it so they could roll their windows down to smoke.

Still not sure what to expect. I soon found out. Delivery took less than 2 minutes. They asked me which room to place the box in. Quickly I gestured to the first door on the left. A few more steps and there they were. While I was still signing the delivery invoice they came right back out and, in a flurry of Pidgin English and Chinese, took their leave.

The Chinese are really good about not practicing service after the sale. I’ve gotten used to it as a matter of course. When all other furniture was delivered it was simply dropped wherever there was room and I was left to wrangle it where I wanted it. Really, it is not such a bad thing. It was just kind of surprising to see the fully assembled chair in the showroom, subconsciously expect a fully assembled chair and then get a box full of chair parts that I would assemble myself.

Fortunately I am not lacking in the ‘some assembly required’ department. Remember my birthday gift of 2 years ago. And the fact that I am not lacking in the carpentry and maintenance milieus. Should just be a simple matter of following directions… which are all written in Chinese.

There are pictures. That’s a good thing.

Oh! My heavens and all my lucky stars!! Every one of my bones, muscles and sinew are thanking me for seeing fit to part with the cash to spring for this chair. Instantly I noticed the difference between sitting in the old chair and the joy of resting in the new one. It swivels! It tilts (if I unlock the mechanism)! It raises and lowers and rolls anywhere I push it! Its back is high enough to allow my head to rest on it! Every one of its sculptings – lower back, neck and even arm rests match my body perfectly. It allows me to fit so well at my desk that I can see myself playing computer games deep into the night!
OOPS!!! Make that ‘write blog entries and otherwise do productive work’ deep into the night.

In fact, I let lunch slip right on by, so did I not want to get up.

But now I’m going to have to. There is only so much one can write about getting a new chair and I’m dangerously close to overdoing it. Don’t want to be that blogger.

I’ll probably still be at my terminal hours from now. I wanted to take a nap but the apartment renovation above me continues, so noise might prevent me from snoozing. Besides I have my ‘some assembly required’ card to look at while parked in my ‘some assembly required’ chair. 

Best of all: maybe now my sciatic nerve will shut up.                

I’m Swingin’ Myself!

August 4th, 1994 my house burned to the ground. We lost everything I had scrimped and saved on my $6/hour salary to buy: the kids’ beds, my books, second hand furniture, appliances, the china my mother had given me – one of the last and the best gift from her. What was at the time a top of the line stereo system, to include one of those newfangled CD players. Only 3 things survived that fire: my daughter’s trumpet, the newspapers I had inherited, dated March/April 1945 chronicling the end of World War 2 and Hitler’s death – miraculous save, that one! – and my red blankie.

Fortunately neither I nor my Monster Babies were anywhere near there. We were in Texas, meeting my long lost/recently found brother, enjoying the first paid vacation I’ve ever had. We were set to start driving at midnight. Just before hitting the road Brother called and told me to hurry. He had to catch an emergency flight to Germany, where our mother lay dying. A family member was needed to witness her Last Will and Testament.

Clearly this was not a good time for Team Krejados.

I remember only vaguely… impressions, blurs of happenings. Long distance phone calls confirming the rape of my life and the utter destruction of my property. My blessed Sister, urging me to get away from it all by going to the mall. Breaking down and crying outside of a music store after searching their bargain bins for music I might like. That is when it truly hit me: why buy any music? I no longer have a stereo to play it on. Agony of loss, not just of my mother but of everything.

One incident I remember distinctly: shoes. I needed them, they fit and, at $4, were priced right. I did not buy them. For a long time, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. Why should I when, in a moment or at the whim of someone’s greed I could lose everything all over again?

Believe me: I am well over that sentiment. Nowadays I shop, not just for things I need but for things I or my loved ones want. As much as I am trying to live a bare bones existence, this honey of a gig, the attainment of tenure and this home I stumbled onto with no clue what I was headed for when I came here compels me to nest. I confess I have been lulled into comfort and security. Some vagabond I turned out to be!  

Today’s purchase: an office chair. A black faux-leather covered, swivel-tilt, high-backed manager’s chair. I reason I spend so much time in my office, sooner or later I was going to have to invest in a quality parking place. Starting day after tomorrow I will park my derriere in a luxury chair instead of these ersatz office chairs I’ve been making do with almost since I’ve been here.

Not that it is anyone’s fault. The Chinese have a strange idea of comfort. Even their leisure centers, from restaurants to Starbucks offer more wooden, straight-backed chairs than inviting, ‘sink into me’ settees.

Remember, when I first moved into this new apartment? And again, on my third anniversary here the school offered to replace whatever I needed? I got a hard-as-a-rock new mattress, a couch that feels a little less soft than a Chevy bench seat and looks like it belongs in a cocktail lounge; and a new office chair from some kitchen collection. Ladder-backed, wooden slat seat, four legs on the floor.

I’m not complaining. I have much more than most, certainly more than what is needed to live and way more than I bargained for.

It was only when I went to B&Q, China’s Home Depot equivalent that I found my dream chair. Immediately my heart (or butt) was sold on it. Considering how much time I spend seated at the computer already, add to that my new part time gig starting this fall of editing a manuscript, and writing editorials – a part time job I stumbled on (more on those later), I reasoned I’m going to spend enough time in that chair to get my money’s worth within six months.

Price tag: 839Yuan. Comparable office chairs in other stores are at least twice that, with a delivery fee of up to 50% of the cost of the chair. B&Q charged only 50Yuan for delivery. However, delivery would have been free had I spent 1,500Yuan or more. I couldn’t think of anything else I needed or wanted, so I cheerfully paid the extra 50.

I am so excited about this new chair! Not just because I’ve needed/wanted a decent office chair for about 2 years – since the old one broke, but because I negotiated the purchase and delivery all by myself!

I could have asked for help. There is no lack of people wanting nothing more than to help me do every little thing. But if I accept all this help, how will I ever learn to do for myself? This morning, logging on just long enough to ask Google Translate how to say: ‘what is your delivery charge?’ I dashed out of the house and headed straight for the store. In less than one hour I had a voucher for one chair, all paid for and the guarantee that the delivery team will call me one hour prior to arrival.

Times like this I think of my son. Odd? Read on.

Losing everything in the fire was traumatic enough but what really devastated me was losing my pictures. Maybe not so much those from my youth – I’ve never really been photogenic anyway. The loss of my kids’ pictures was nearly unbearable. The best images of them are engraved on my heart but actual likeness of them, something I can whip out and show off… gone, all gone. Damn again the thief that robbed us of our life till then!

Turns out, not all was lost. Everyone who heard of our plight, who had pictures of us at any time or stage of our lives duplicated the photos they had. More than any cash or material contributions from total strangers, more than the Red Cross starter kits we were given when we finally did get a home of our own, those pictures were the greatest gift. Perhaps even the greatest gift we’ve ever received. My heart certainly remembers it that way. And then…

Some fifteen years after that cataclysmic time, cleaning out her former husband’s office my sister in law ran across a video. By that time I was living in Texas, just a few miles from her. Following her intriguing invitation – “I have something you’ll want to see…” I repaired directly over. She was right.

Seated, refreshment in hand, she pushed the VCR’s ‘play’. On the TV: scenes of my kids and me, playing in the park. The quality was terrible. The tape was several years old and had not been kept in the best of environments. Playing it over and over was risking permanently ruining it. I couldn’t help myself.

The video was shot in July 1988, when my brother and his family were passing through Tennessee on their way to a new duty station in Texas. The visit lasted less than a day. My kids were 6 and 3 years old. There was a segment showing them on a playground. There I was, impossibly young, pushing my baby boy on the swings, with Girl-Child occupying the swing next to him. He commanded me to stop pushing him, so I walked away – out of the frame. A few moments later he shouted: “Look Mommy, I’m swinging myself!” with boundless glee, in the sweetest voice, complete with Tennessee twang. There he was, pumping his little legs, rocking his body back and forth, his blond hair alternately flying back or covering his brow. And that smile.. a mile of smile! A graphic depiction of the boundless joy a body feels at doing what was previously unimaginable.   

Since viewing that tape, the joy and triumph of his cry has followed me everywhere, all these years. Except now, it is my triumphant cry.

In my Chinese world, every time I do something I’ve never done before, such as: the first time I bought a train ticket, every time I go somewhere I’ve never been, or the first time negotiating a home delivery I play that small moment of video in my head, sharing my baby boy’s exultation at managing something seemingly insurmountable all on my own.

“Look Mommy! Ah’m swingin’ MY-SAY-LF!”

Yes, I swung it myself. My mouth smiles, even as my eyes mist.                            


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Blurry Lines

Strange thoughts come to me sometimes as I am falling asleep. Last night was one of those times.

I recall my first winter here, when I was so bundled I couldn’t distinguish myself as male or female. Based on makeup and jewelry I appeared obviously female. However, based on stature alone the impression could have gone either way.

Having discovered a hole in the wall restaurant that makes Re Gan Mian exactly to my liking, I repaired there several times per week to partake. Hunched and shivering, the only source of warmth being the bowl of noodles in my hand, I would shovel the food in lest it cool too quickly. Cold Re Gan Mian does not taste good. Besides, as brutal as it was that winter I quickly learned to let no source of warmth go to waste. Holding the bowl served the dual purpose of heating my hands while putting the food within decent eating distance. Tables are so low here, the Chinese can simply hunch over and slurp noodles. I so tall have to sit at the next table to hunch over my table.

In comes a woman who is obviously impervious to cold, and equally obviously, had never been up close and personal to a foreigner before. She sat within inches of me, ogling my feet and then working her way up. Her gaze stopped at my knee and she yelled to the shopkeeper: “Is it a man or a woman?” she was mortified when I answered her. Not because she asked the question but because I understood her.

This story is relevant now, in light of the airline personnel who did such a great job of emptying that plane that crashed in San Francisco. What started out as a sidebar and then became the headline, there was a big to-do about flight attendants of Asian airlines having to meet exacting physical attributes. They must be tall and slim, not exceeding a certain weight. They must wear a certain shade of lipstick, nail polish, and wear their hair pulled back. They take charm lessons, posture lessons, how to walk, how to smile… how to save lives and manage panicked passengers when such horrors as wing loss or tails shearing off occur.

Along the way was given to understand that, traditionally, such work as ‘stewardess’ was strictly the purview of women. And, as the news column I was reading divulged, back then women were not expected to be much more than flying eye candy with rudimentary waitress skills. Cockpit crews, all men, were trained for the incident commander role with the expectation that one of them would direct everyone else’s efforts in the event of an emergency.

Between this current tragic event, my experiences as a maintenance technician and the furor over abortion laws in America I’ve been contemplating: why must there be such disparity between genders? That got me thinking.

In French there is a broad distinction between male and female – ‘il’ and ‘elle’ (pronounced: ‘eel’ and ‘ell’). To my knowledge, no one knows how or why objects are assigned to one gender or the other. For example: A car is gender feminine, as is a table, a bicycle, a cup and others. A desk, a computer, a truck and a couch are all gender masculine. That is to say that the article preceding those objects is either gender feminine (une/la) or masculine (un/le). Gender neutral items, designated by ‘it’ in English, mostly fall into the male category. For example: ‘It is warm’ translates into ‘Il fait chaud’ – literally ‘he makes hot’.

German makes a finer distinction. Whereas objects also fall into broad male/female categories, like English there is also an ‘it’. Tables, rooms, cars and plates are ‘it’. Streets, armchairs, trees and others are all masculine. Typewriters, doors and ants are all feminine. However, when using the German article equivalent to English ‘a/an’, ‘it’ reverts to masculine.

Not so in Chinese. Here, everything is ‘ta’. Same pronunciation, same Romanized spelling. Besides seeing the character, the only way to distinguish whether the speaker is talking about a man or a woman is to specifically ask: ‘Is it a man or a woman?’ – like that woman asked about me when I was so bundled up it was not immediately recognizable which side of the line I am. Furthermore, the base character itself remains the same but the radical – the part of the character that precedes the actual ideogram and gives it meaning reflects either ‘man’ or ‘woman’: Masculine ta is 他,feminine is . Gender neutral is 它 – note the base character change and the lack of radical

In Chinese, objects have no gender identification. In fact there is very little gender distinction at all in this language. Let’s use ‘child’ as an example. In English there are specific words to distinguish male and female children. Specific colors too… but I’m not going to say anything pink or blue. I will mention the new fad about paint parties, where the expected baby’s gender is divulged to its parents’ friends, who then host a party themed the particular color identified with girl or boy babies, thus revealing to the expectant parents whether to ponder boy or girl names.

In Chinese the base word for ‘child’ – ‘hai zi’ is used. If specifics are asked for the word changes: ‘nan hai’ – male child or ‘nu hai’ – female child. Men and women are similarly distinguished: ‘nan ren’ or ‘nu ren’, male or female person, respectively. The one distinction made is culturally based, predicated on the desire for sons: ‘er zi’ means ‘son’. ‘Daughter’ is ‘nu er’, using the same ‘er’ character that depicts ‘son’.

As far as my research in Chinese mythology has taken me, although there are male and female deities, they are also not gender based. That is, there are an equal number of male and female deities, and although they address varied spiritual aspects, both genders have equal power. Ditto with wisdom and enlightenment. Only in translations do Confucian sayings reflect gender. Furthermore it appears that deities can change shape at will: not just across gender lines but into animals, either mythical or real.

The Tao and the Buddha address male and female entities equally. Taoist or Buddhist monks – historical or current day, can be male or female and live in the same monastery or temple, wear the same clothing and shave their heads. Unlike western religions that distinguish monks as men, while women who take a similar vow are known as nuns. Western monks and nuns are garbed differently, housed separately and fulfill different roles within their doctrine and society.

Delving into the secular realm: a ‘gong ren’ is a worker, gender unspecified. A boss is a ‘lao ban’, again no gender. A migrant worker is ‘min gong’, min meaning ‘person’ and ‘gong’ being work. A service person – maid, restaurant waitstaff, etc are all ‘fu wu yuan’. Sales clerks and ticket takers are ‘shou hou yuan’ and ‘shou’piao yuan’, respectively. In these categories, ‘yuan’ represents ‘employee’ not Chinese currency, which is also pronounced ‘yuan’. In any avenue to describe any level or social class or worker class, there is no gender distinction at all.

Compare that to ‘tailor’ versus ‘seamstress’ in English. It is generally understood that tailors are male and seamstresses are female. What about waiter and waitress? Other words, gender unspecified, like teacher, nurse, flight attendant… these professions are generally thought to be female oriented, therefore it is common to say ‘a male nurse’, ‘a male teacher’ – especially if that teacher leads lower grade classes. ‘Stewardess’ was recently abandoned in favor of the more PC ‘flight attendant’, taking focus off gender. Nevertheless, such attendants of the male sort are usually designated as ‘male flight attendants’. What if the wine steward at a fancy restaurant is female? Would we call her a wine stewardess? Or would we use the more refined French term ‘sommelier’ – gender masculine, might I point out.
I postulate the gender neutrality in Chinese is a reflection of the Yin-Yang philosophy. Looking at that diagram you see equal, opposite halves of one whole. Chinese philosophy understands the need for balanced male and female energy in the greater scheme of things.

One of the most difficult classes I took in college wasn’t even labeled a class but a ‘learning community’. During those sessions our group delved into social issues like race/ethnicity, and discrimination in general, including disability, age, gender, race/ethnicity, among others. Many times I was left wrung out by the impact of the subject matter and how we, as humans manage such issues based on our life experiences.

One of the best lessons I took from that class was the ‘Person First’ concept. A Chinese man becomes ‘a person who is Chinese’ and a disabled woman becomes ‘a person who is disabled’. Putting ‘person’ ahead of the distinguishing characteristic(s) eliminates any potential gender bias and the penchant for labels and stereotype. Why must we label a nurse ‘male’? Why should a woman who is a maintenance technician be referred to as ‘a female maintenance tech’ – this, from my personal experience.

Reading all those articles about the people who did everything they could to evacuate that downed jet in San Francisco brought the gender issue under the microscope. I swear to you that this blog in no way aspires to be political but, except for the difference between Chinese being genderless and the Western languages I know being gender-full, I’m afraid I did overstep the PC boundary.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could abandon the politics of gender and become a ‘People First’ collective society?


This entry’s title is a nod to the television series ‘Glee!’ that I managed to locate in some DVD bargain bin, and started watching last week. I have to admit that the jury was still out at the conclusion of Disc 1: was this a good show? Did it have potential? Or did I waste money, buying these discs? By the end of disc 2, I concluded ‘It’s a keeper, for tackling the pertinent social issues it addresses as well as the powerhouse performances.’

Of course these opinions are all mine. You might like it, hate it or simply not have ever watched it.

I am saluting ‘Glee!’ this week for the loss of Corey Monteith, age 31. Considering my last entry dealt with passing on as an indicator of the passage of time, and in that entry there was a paragraph comprising of how artists expound on/express their thoughts on the subject, I thought: “What a way to connect the entries!”

Rest well, young Mr. Monteith. I wish his personal and professional families peace and quick healing.

Now, the real topic of this post: a hiatus.

My conspirators and I are taking a break. Together in time but in space, miles apart. They are headed north while I am going south… directionally, not as though I’m growing mold or failing, health-wise.

And speaking of failing health:

One of my conspirators’ loved ones is suffering declining health. I wish for the sufferer and for the family a painless transition, peace and rapid healing of their loss, should it truly be imminent. I hope you will join me in that wish, Dear Reader.

That is the real reason they’re headed north.

The real reason that I’m headed south is that I’ve been lounging around long enough. I’ve found quite a comfortable groove here, with imported DVDs to watch and quiet in the housing area – everybody has gone home for the summer. Maybe I’m a little too comfortable. I need to get moving.

Next week I will spend a few days with Gary. He is all alone in Hangzhou, working and writing me pitiful emails. I feel I must help him out of his doldrums. After that I will be in the thick of my volunteering commitment with Operation Smile. I still don’t know any particulars other than I’ve been accepted as a volunteer. I can’t wait to go, and then tell you all about the experience.

My conspirators and I will do our best to catch up to you periodically, until we get back on our regular weekly posting schedule, most likely in mid-September. Till then, please bear with us during this break. We’ll be back soon.


Your Vagabond Team         

The World has Moved On

NOTE: I wanted this week’s entry to be about Hukou, China’s household registration system, as a follow up to the ‘New Thirty’ entry posted last week. However, upon researching the matter I find the subject is much more far-reaching than originally believed. I need more time to get my thoughts in order and do more digging, so this week I offer…

Wake up. While still drowsy, do morning stretches. Take inventory: what is working well today and what will cause me to want to disown my increasingly reluctant body? Physical sensation drives psychological well-being. All in all, I feel good. It seems today will be a good day. 

On the way to the kitchen, a quick stop in the office. Turn on the computer. Now on to the kitchen for the morning’s first beverage, the first dose of allergy medication and a first look outside. Along the way I fling open the drapes, depending on whether the day will prove miserably hot or merely stuffy. A dimmer ambiance is more conducive to cooler and more comfortable temperatures. I sense I will turn on the air conditioner later. Temperatures in Wuhan tend toward the miserable in the summer. At some point during daylight hours, evaporative cooling – the fan blowing over my sweaty skin will no longer suffice. Sunshine blares and the pavement already emits its radiant heat. The drapes will remain mostly closed today.

Back into the office and a quick glance at email inboxes. Ah! A note from George! Nothing from Kevin, Ann or all of my other formerly faithful correspondents. Nothing from the family. I wrote Ann several days ago. She must be busy to not have replied by now. I wrote Gabriel, too. Maybe he just hasn’t checked his email yet.

Roaming around the house, finishing my wake up routine I think back on the days when I spent hours on the computer: chatting with family, answering emails, writing blog entries, reading the news. These days, I’m finished at the terminal in about 2 hours. Unless I am writing. Then, I stay connected till my backside sends signals that I have been sitting too long.

I kind of miss all those long letters and daily chats, especially with my adored Gabriel. Back then and until as recently as last year, we made it a point to connect every single day. I would set my alarm clock, if need be. When Jenn and her family moved from California to Florida we had to recalculate time differences. Before, they were fifteen to sixteen hours behind me, depending on what time of year it was. Now we are polar opposites, time-wise for about 6 months out of the year… again, depending on daylight savings time.

After 2 years here, and Gabe moving into higher grades in school, we decided to chat on weekends only. Gabe has homework and chores during the week. Besides, as he grows older and his interests expand, he has less and less desire to chat with a Mema who lives on the other side of the world. I can understand that. That once a week chat has since devolved into maybe once a month. Saturday morning is a busy time chez Jenn. It is their time to celebrate family togetherness, after a week of everyone going their separate ways. They go out to eat or maybe they’ll have some family activity planned. There is not always room for a chat with someone on the other side of the world. 

Ann, Kevin, Marjorie, Jennifer, my former colleagues and friends… I miss regular contact with them. I miss reading about their daily doings. Our contact is now infrequent. unobtrusively, daily life has taken precedence. Now, the only ones stateside that I am in regular contact with are my conspirators. I can count on them (and they on me), as the saying goes, like death and taxes.     

I recall from the first few entries of this blog how desperate, scared and insecure I was. I remember writing: “I’m going to need you much more than you will need me during these next few months, while I learn to live in a country where I cannot read a billboard or even grocery shop by myself.”

EVERYONE was there for me. I don’t believe I would be nearly this well adjusted if not for everyone’s constant reassurances and devoted commitment. If not for everyone who took to the keyboard nearly every day to send me a little something, I believe I would have chucked this whole ‘living in China’ adventure and rushed back to that proverbial small pond where I was a big fish… or some reasonable facsimile to that analogy.

Life in China has gotten so much easier for me. If I want to travel, off I go. If I want to go out, I am no longer – and have not been for a long time! – intimidated by the bus system. If I’m lonely I have no lack of conversation partners. Eating, taking care of my needs, doing my job… everything has somehow fallen into place such that I am no longer aware, or even in awe of milestones like being able to read Chinese, conversing with my neighbors or being able to buy a needed something.  

How did that happen so quickly? But then, who said it was quick?

Three years is a long time, depending on your perspective. If you are the parent of a newborn, three years will take from you the helpless infant in your arms, rendering him/her to a self-expressive, walking child complete with teeth, hair, likes, dislikes and possibly the ability to use the bathroom by him/herself. You’ll wonder where those baby years went, and why they went so quickly. On the other hand, a three year span for an elderly person might bring on the loss of independence, the weariness of battling a chronic condition or a life threatening disease, loneliness, boredom or a deep sense of loss at no longer feeling useful.

If you are neither the parent of a newborn or a contemplative elder, time passage is elusive: maliciously speeding up when you need the grace of a few extra minutes and spitefully dragging by when you wish it would hurry.    

How does one mark the passage of time? Is it in the graying of one’s hair, or the turning from one season to the next? Last Holiday Season, songs of yesteryear, the longing for a simpler, less complicated era… all good ways. My wiser friends propose that time is measured by the heart’s distance between beats: how long since laying eyes on the ones we love?

My good friend Cliff recently sent me an email that has been around before, something about Saturday mornings and marbles in a jar. That story prompted me to write him about my precious childhood memories of Saturday morning cartoons. He in turn offered up trivia from his favorite: Howdy Doody. No, Cliff, I did not know that Mr. Doody had 48 freckles, one for each state. Our musings circled the topic but never pounced on the fact that those halcyon days have been etched by time.  

John Lennon said: Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Shocking, when I calculate that I’ve lived in China for three years. When and how did I get so good and so fast at reading Chinese that I can follow a movie’s plot line by deciphering subtitles in Mandarin? How is it that I am starting my forth year teaching? By what alchemy have I gone beyond middle aged, into the Golden Years? And who turned my hair gray???

Mr. King nailed it: The world has moved on. So did Jimmy Buffett, in his ballad He Went to Paris. Greg Iles in Turning Angel, but more engagingly in Black Cross. Movies like: The Notebook, On Golden Pond, Secondhand Lions. Al Stewart’s song Time Passages – a great case in point. Little Orphan Annie’s showstopper ‘Tomorrow’. Gone with the Wind… that final scene when Scarlett rises from the steps of Tara and from her despair to declare “Tomorrow! Tomorrow is another day!”

The world of entertainment is full of references to the passage of time. Yes, I sample… it is like that… but not JUST SO.

For me, the passage of time is far more subtle, but all the more dramatic for its subtlety. Each year, upon my pilgrimage stateside I find Gabriel taller, Kat more beautiful, Ben more handsome and more capable. My friends and I find each other again: a little more wrinkly, a little more salt than pepper in the hair, and sometimes, sadly, a bit more distant and divergent in our interests. I fear that one of these years I’ll make the trip stateside and people will say “Krejados who?”

And that would be OK, if it comes to pass. We had smiles and laughter, shared confidences and tears. We are good friends and you still live in my heart. It is me who took myself out of your immediate life. Since then, the world has moved on.        

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mind Twice Blown

“… So, with these packages I’m expecting and no one in the mailroom over the summer, I was wondering if I could use your address…”

“You should use Penny’s address. It is more well known…”

“Why do you and Penny have different addresses?” And there is the question that resulted in my mind being blown for the second time in one afternoon.

Let’s back up. Sam and his family invited me along for an afternoon out. We ate, we frolicked, Penny finagled a girls’ night out at the movies for this Saturday. There’s a date I’m really looking forward to! The mind blowing tidbits came toward the end of our fun day out.

I’ve never given any thought to postal service in China. America’s being so ubiquitous, seeing China Post vans everywhere and post office branches on practically every street corner but not really ever having a need for postal services… well…

Don’t mind me: I’m still dumbfounded.

Postal Service in America is the only public service guaranteed by the Constitution. Six days a week in any weather condition and by any means necessary the USPS delivery folks are getting the mail out. In remote areas the mail goes through via canoe, on donkey back, by plane… whatever it takes. In county areas outlying metropoli, rural carriers deliver, often using their personal vehicle. They are compensated so many cents per mile in addition to their delivery wages. In towns and cities, mail carriers run regular routes. These routes are routinely reviewed and revised to incorporate changes.

In the northernmost regions, mail carriers on walking routes make their way through waist-or chest deep snow during winter. They are entitled to special gear. In the southernmost regions, say the Everglades or the Louisiana bayous, delivery is done by airboat and canoe, respectively. There, the carriers most often wear shorts and short sleeved shirts, and there is a panama-styled mesh hat to protect their head. In any circumstance save the relief delivery folk on rural routes, postal carriers wear a uniform.     

Our fine U.S. Postal Service folks deliver to every address every day except Sunday, and that is only if there is not express mail to be delivered. They, and counter clerks are only the visible part of postal doings. Few mention the people who work at processing plants, sorting the mail; the maintenance techs who work on the mail sorting machines; the truck drivers and pilots hauling the mail from city to city, the crews that maintain those trucks… Indeed: the USPS is a far reaching, all encompassing organization.

I should know. I am proud to once have been a member of this family. I am still in touch with many of my postal relatives. I miss them.

Thus it should come as no surprise to you that, when considering Postal operations in China I would simply impose what I know of America’s postal system onto the Chinese organization.

I should have known better.  

Since living here I’ve wondered about my address. Upon initial arrival Sam instructed me to use our department’s address. I reasoned it was because I lived in the girls’ dorm and should not expect mail delivery to my door. When I moved into the apartment I occupy now I expected my address to reflect my private domicile. Again Sam informed me the department’s address should serve as my personal address.

Does the school really need that much control over me that my mail must go through the school’s mailroom and to the Language Department before landing in my hands? And, why are there not individual mailboxes in the main stairwell of my building?

Come to think of it, of all other apartment buildings I’ve visited, very few had individual mailboxes. That fact registered, dimly I admit, but given my (only recently cured) breathing struggles I was more concerned with being able to climb a flight of stairs than how people receive mail.

The few times I did have mail dealings, a courier called me with instructions on where and when to meet him/her. I never thought that strange because in those instances, I was paying for plane tickets or receiving something ordered online. In retrospect, I did find it odd that I had to give my phone number every time I mailed/expected something. The pieces just never fell together. I never saw the whole picture.

Till Sam blew my mind in his always informative but slightly mournful, hesitant way.

Yes, there is a postal entity in China. Yes, it does process and deliver mail. Just not to your home. In fact, the delivery person is more likely to call you, suggesting an appointment to collect your mail. Only if you are a regular mail recipient will a carrier be well versed enough of your location to deliver directly to your home. That’s a long shot. The better bet to receiving mail is either inform your local post office you are expecting something and then go there to retrieve it – whether they call you or you go there every so often is open to conjecture. The best bet to mail reception is to be affiliated with a major organization, such as our school or Penny’s hospital, use their address and pick your mail up from there.

The next logical question: with the Chinese passion for online shopping (see From the Internet entry, posted May of this year), how do all these eager shoppers receive their goods? Same way I received the few things I received: by carrier, who, after a phone call will wait till you arrive to pick up your stuff. Or, as was most recently the case for me, the mail is turned over to a local business – a shop or a restaurant. I was instructed via text message to pick up my package there between the hours of… You do have to show ID to get your stuff. You cannot simply walk up, inspect the laid out packages and declare one or several to be yours.

Is this more efficient than the American system, or just so crazy it actually makes sense? I’ve been pondering that since parting ways with Sam and Penny last night. Certainly there is a cost benefit. This method of delivery surely costs less than the ‘every house, every day – whether there is something for you or not’ approach. Not that I am in any way faulting either system. I’m just trying to get my head around what I just learned.

Remember I said this was the second mind blowing tidbit of the day? Here is the first:

Hellen, the unpleasant one, is pregnant.

Virtually since I’ve been here students have been confiding in me that this teacher spends more than half of her allotted class time bemoaning the fact that she focused on her career and was now, at nearly age 40, alone. To listen to the kids tell it, she would routinely admonish both boys and girls to be less driven, less professional, less focused on material success for fear that they would end up like her: old, unmarried, alone with no progeny.

Maybe I’m gossiping when I pass on what other teachers in our department think of her. She is not well thought of. Some, like Sam and I feel sorry for her. Did her unpleasantness drive her celibacy or did her lack of relationships drive her unpleasantness? A combination of both, maybe? Maybe she had the best intentions and made the best of what she had. Not fair and REALLY not charitable to speculate.   

But speculate we must, because the whole department, office workers included, does not feel kindly about her. Sam was informed of this monumental news by a department secretary, who answered his question about her whereabouts: “Ms. Shao is at home, in bed. She is pregnant.”

She might have been relaying that Ms. Shao was suffering from a mild cold or a seasonal allergy, so casual was her tone.                         

Bear in mind that illegitimate children are heavily stigmatized in this culture. The secretary is to be commended for not taking malicious pleasure in rendering Ms. Shao an object of scorn, but her dislike and disregard is plainly evident in the disclosure.

And why was Sam looking for her, anyway? He, as much as the other teachers, disdains her. Ms. Shao is our English Majors Teacher section leader. It is she who assigns classroom rotations and makes out teaching assignments. And now, our paragon of virtue and leadership is… stigmatized.

Sam only told me of this after whiling the afternoon away. We met at noon for lunch. All day Penny and I tried to converse (language barrier issues keep us from engaging to any depth). Erica and I played, Sam and I discoursed. He waited till past 5PM to disclose perhaps the greatest gossip our school has heard. I nearly choked on my tea but recovered in time to nearly choke him.

A great friend is one who, even after years of sharing, still has the power to amaze. Sam must be a great friend of mine to blow my mind not once, but twice in one hour.

No wonder I write about him so much!    

Friday, July 5, 2013

My Pet Foreigner

It has been a long time since I addressed the topic of ‘foreigner’. I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I did make good on my word to not focus exclusively on the ‘foreigner phenomenon’ – part superstar, part freak for a day since that entry titled Beating a Dead Horse, posted in October 2010.

I’m not going to start whining again. I’ve gotten used to being labeled, stared at, randomly touched and photographed. Having let my hair grow out into its natural color I am no longer a human magnet distinguished with blonde locks, or even red locks.

No, this aspect of the phenomenon deals with those who would gain cachet – guan xi by their personally knowing a foreigner.

Long Ge and Lea, for example. Here I thought we were good friends. Turns out I was only welcome because of my foreign-ness. Additionally, the Lil’Uns school… I need to tell you how that played out.

The last week I taught there, Lea called to ask if I could come an hour earlier than my appointed 2PM start time. There was a potential new student and his parent to meet with. “No” I answered. Because that is how it starts, you see. Give in to coming in an hour earlier, and then next week it will be another hour early… please. Always so friendly. Always so polite. Because we are friends, don’t you know. And then we’ll be adjusting the teaching schedule. And then we’ll be adding classes. Ever so nicely, and with constant entreaties that we are friends… all while my enthusiasm is bled dry.

And how! I was already shunning social engagements and stressing on how to get this school off the ground. I have distinct ideas about how to form a total immersion curriculum and really wanted to make a go of it, but the parents’ demands that I mirror traditional Chinese teaching methods put the kibosh on that.

Showdown time. I confronted Lea. From the get go I was all business. So was she, ushering me into the study room for the day’s first teaching commitment. “No” I said. “We need to talk.” I told her that this situation is untenable. Teaching little ones who, for the most part don’t want to be there and make no effort to learn or pay attention is too much stress. Dealing with students who are intermediate speakers in the same group as students who do not know the alphabet is, at best difficult. Couple that with the fact that I do not know enough Chinese to instill discipline in the classroom and already I’m reaching for the Pepto Bismol… if I had any. I offered a compromise: I would continue to create the materials, but enlist Tony and/or Evan, both excellent English speakers, to teach.

Lea’s response: “We’ll give you a month off”.

Clearly she did not want me to throw in the towel. She said parents don’t want a Chinese teacher who speaks English because they are a dime a dozen. In my now suspicious mind I thought: it is perhaps because a Chinese speaker with good English skills would be able to understand the negotiations between Lea and the parents. I stuck to my guns and would not be deterred. I’m walking away whether anyone wants me to or not.  

During that last session, Lea did everything possible to keep things going. Like Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother she flung herself into ever greater paroxysms, pinwheeling and pivoting to make things happen the way she wanted them. Presumably due to my declaration that maintaining discipline in a regimented Chinese style class was impossible due to language complications, Lea took it upon herself to physically stand between me and my students while I was teaching in order to discipline them. Upon my assertion, mid-session, that I could literally feel my eye swelling due to my allergies, she assumed I was feeling too poorly to teach and just took over the class… while I was still standing there, trying to teach. It took everything I had to not simply walk out right then and there. The reason I didn’t was because I was owed money for the last 2 sessions.  

I am now persona non grata at their coffee house as well. I’m not a good foreigner. I’m not playing along. I guess I was supposed to hold court and let all manner of patrons, guests and visitors approach me, converse with me, etc.

I finally got that clue from the guy who complained to Long Ge that he was speaking to me in English and I was responding in Chinese. Right there in front of me, as though I were invisible or at least deaf. Surely he had to know I understood him, seeing as I was speaking Chinese with him.

In retrospect, I always wondered how that coffee shop could be empty, but then, within 15 minutes of my arrival, there is not a seat to be had and everyone is ‘coming on’ to me. I didn’t know I was being set up. I do now. I haven’t been back since.  

With the end of the school year I am getting invitations left and right to visit students’ hometowns. Students are taking pictures with me, inviting me to lunch, dinner, out on the town. Some students are attempting to invite themselves to my house.

I’m not averse to hosting the occasional party, as you well know. Students who are hard working and deserving do get invited. I don’t mind spending time with them, or money on them. Not extravagant sums. A lot of times it is more of a cooperation type deal: the kids bring food and I whip up some ‘foreigner’ dish that is cheap and easy and to mass produce.

This year I’ve led classes full of kids who displayed no interest whatsoever in learning anything. Constantly on their phones, playing games, chatting and chattering during class… several times I’ve grown hoarse trying to dominate the din. In one particular group, maybe only 6 students show any kind of interest. In this class I’ve had to patrol the room, instructing offenders to put away their cellphones. More than once, that happened. I’ve decided to take action should I be cursed with this miserable group again. But first I have to deal with their insistence that I host a party for them.

I should host a party for kids who, for the most part couldn’t care a flying fig about their studies?

Sure! Janie, the class monitor had assured her fellow students that the foreign teacher will throw a party for them. She told me Victor was supposed to last semester but ducked his obligation. Therefore it has fallen to me to invite everyone to my house. She made it sound as though it were my duty.

I’m ready to give anyone the benefit of doubt, so I met with Janie and a few of her classmates. I told her that I only host parties for deserving students. I felt her group showed extreme lack of decorum in class by being so disruptive, not only disrespecting me but cheating fellow classmates who actually want to learn something. In my outrage I think I even threw in something about disrespect for their parents, who are paying so much money for them to attend college. I continued by telling her I was prepared to compromise: maybe we could have a meal out somewhere, or go to KTV together. I was attempting to impress upon them that we should have a chance to get to know one another before I allow them to invade my home.  

Janie said they had already had meals out and gone to KTV. Maybe it would be a novelty for me because I’m foreign and surely I must not get out much… and then, while I was spluttering –what does this little twit know about me? - she explained that everyone thought I was so lovely and they are genuinely curious about Western life. That is why I should open my home to them. Feed them, allow them to prowl all over, paw through everything, take pictures at will… all to satisfy their curiosity. Oh, and I should feed them, too. One certain student piped up, saying she wanted to take pictures of everything I have to show her mother because her mother knows nothing of foreigners.

I see now that I am thought of as a ‘pet foreigner’… STILL. And I do find it disturbing… still.

While I have built genuine friendships here, still the idea prevails that I am an object of interest first, and a person second. I have grown wary of invitations to people’s homes, knowing that the fundamental reason for the invite is for that person to gain the esteem of their peers. I am even leery of Gary, who posts updates on his Weibo account every time he and I spend time together.

There is a silver lining to this potentially dark cloud. Allowing people to cash in on my presence in their home allows me the opportunity to visit regions of China that might otherwise be closed to me (see The Demise of Sophie the Kid, posted December 2011). As long as things remain symbiotic, why complain?  

I’m still not going to host a party for students who don’t deserve one. If they want to know about Western culture, let them pay attention in class.           


A Spirited Volley of Barking

I always get such a kick out of news stories that talk about people who are Asian eating dogs and cats. Not the news story in particular but the readers’ comments that purport to know what goes on in China and how dogs and cats are standard fare on any menu. Truth to tell, when assaying exotic fare you are more likely to eat crickets, scorpions and seahorses than dogs or cats.

We’ll leave insects out of the picture for now, and just talk about dogs and cats.

It may be likely that our favorite fluffy pets are standard fare in other Asian countries but I’ve not seen any evidence of such in China, whether in fine dining establishments, hole in the wall eateries or while partaking of a meal at friends’ or associates’ homes. What I do see, wherever I go, is pampered pet ownership.

I’ve relayed before that, throughout Wuhan dogs travel in packs with impunity, holding up traffic and seeming to have a destination. These dogs are not aimlessly wandering around, sniffing at this or the other pile of waste, looking for food. In spite of their unkempt appearance – dirty, matted pelt, sometimes open sores, and none with collars, they appear to be ‘working dogs’. They guard property, protect against vermin… that sort of thing. Cats, though less migratory and fewer in evidence, fill the same role.

These are the types of animal one can see when walking through the OTW community, for example. Or around farmers’ markets.

What we’re seeing more of these days is well groomed, purebred canines on leashes, responsive to their owners. Sedately conscious of their elevated status as pet owners, they parade their furry darling(s) around, leisurely strolling at this or the other public venue. Dogs of smaller breed, shi tzus and the like, are toted around in purses or satchels, or even designer leather pet carriers. They travel on buses, poke their heads out in restaurants and yip through supermarkets.

Accordingly, more and more stores are incorporating pet sections. As recently as one year ago, one would be hard pressed to find pet food at Metro or Walmart. Now you can find entire sections dedicated to pet care, much like the Walmarts in America. Last year, French Street had only one pitiful pet clinic, tending mostly to grooming needs. Now there are no fewer than three, each trying to outdo each other in services, supplies and sales.

Pet ownership has become a marker of status. “Look! We not only have enough money to dress well (or outrageously, as those with newfound wealth are prone to doing) and own a car, but we can afford to feed this animal!” Quite the ‘OOH-la-la’, pet ownership is.

While conscious of appearance, pet owners here are not necessarily kind to their animals. Several times I’ve seen someone parading around, regally holding the leash of a well groomed animal, yank hard on that leash and threaten to beat the poor beast for some canine wrongdoing. In one particular case, the dog – a golden retriever, hunkered down in fear. That poor pup must suffer abuse routinely to have that demeanor. Were I not on a bus at that time I would have liberated the dog and beat the master with the leash. 

If my trip to the zoo 2 years ago (See A Day at the Zoo, parts 1 and 2, posted 12/2010) and current observations of animal treatment are any indication, the Chinese have a long way to go to learn humane treatment of animals. Pet ownership is a great step in that direction but, like everything else in this rapidly evolving society, the lessons in humanity/humaneness tend to come after the fad is established. The concept of responsible pet ownership is still years away.

That I know of, there are no laws on compulsory spaying/neutering in China. Nor are there laws about curbing your pet, registering it or restraining it. Apparently it is common to turn one’s pet out for hours at a time, or when it becomes too pesky to keep indoors. To wit that orange tomcat that I wrote about in ‘A Day in the Life Of’ last month. He meowed and postured and enraptured himself on my balcony. Come dusk his meowing turned into lustful howling. Shortly afterward, the howls, meowls and growls of feline mating reverberated through the deserted nighttime streets. About two months later, plaintive kitten mewls echoed.

I thought about snagging one of those kittens – not even I am immune to the temptation of owning a pet. Just as quickly I changed my mind. As much as I am away or engaged, it would not be fair for me to cultivate a relationship with an animal as high maintenance as a dog or a cat. Also, I’d just as soon not have pet hair or litter boxes to clean up. I’m a lazy enough housekeeper as it is. Besides, considering the number of dogs and cats that now roam freely through this neighborhood, if I wanted to pet an animal I would only have to go outside and stand on that bit of lawn in front of my building. Animals would be by momentarily.

I do have a Dog and a Cat, though not of the feline or canine variety. Mine are turtles. Just as I was agonizing whether I should change my lifestyle enough to incorporate a furry friend, one of my students gifted me the pair. No fur, no special food or late night walks required. Perfect solution! I named the dark shelled one Dog and the lighter one Cat.

In captivity Dog is the more frisky. He likes to climb on Cat’s back, swim around, and he can even balance atop the multicolored ball I put in their tank. When I let them out to clean their semi aquatic home, Cat takes the lead on activity. She crawls around the kitchen counter faster than one would think a turtle can move, often leaving Dog in the dust.

The other day, after cleaning their home I decided to let them roam on the newly cleaned counter while I ate breakfast. I reasoned: they’re turtles. How far can they go? After breakfast and a dose of daily news I returned to the kitchen. I found Dog, but no Cat. She likes to hide, so I moved everything on the countertop: no Cat. Reasoning she most likely crawled too close to the counter’s edge and plummeted to the ground I got down on my hands and knees with a flashlight, searching under cabinets and the fridge. “Cat! Cat!” I shouted frantically, as though it could respond or would crawl to me. At a loss – how does one locate a quarter-sized turtle? – I returned to my office, where I had some translation work with an imminent deadline waiting for me.

A while later, still disturbed by Cat’s disappearance but fully sunken into the task at hand, I felt the urge to look to my right. There, in my office doorway and looking right at me, hunkered Cat. Somehow she had managed to survive the fall off the kitchen counter onto the tile floor, clear the kitchen’s sliding glass door tracks and navigate through the dining room and living room, straight to my office. Considering my apartment is about 80 square meters and Cat is but a tiny little turtle, that was no mean feat.

After that stunt I grew more attached than ever to my crazy turtles. Talking with them every day, feeding them choice bits of meat, allowing them more time to roam. Dog grew quiet and responsive when I talked, inclining his head or looking at me. Cat’s reaction was just the opposite: she would beat my fingers with her little paws if I was holding her, or she would retreat into her shell.

Sadly, Cat has since died. She was accorded a funeral with full rites before being flushed down the toilet. Now alone, Dog appears listless. He sleeps much of the day and eats far less than before. Also, he is not climbing on anything. I think he misses his buddy.

I’ll tell you who is not missing any buddies. The pack of dogs that roam around the housing area. The other day I was drawn to the window by canine yelps of pain. It appeared a gang rape was in progress. One female, hemmed in by three males was being mounted by a forth. When she tried to get away one of the other three would nip at her, forcing her back into the center of the ring. She had no choice but to submit, occasionally landing a bite when she could. While this ‘rape’ was going on, the other dogs barked enthusiastically, seeming to encourage the one currently mounted.

That pack roamed together for about four days. The other morning I was awakened by a spirited volley of barks. It seems one of the dogs had found something good to eat and didn’t want to share. Apparently, by canine code it is OK to share a female but not food.

Wonder where these dogs’ owners are?