Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Great Ant Smackdown

Just hopped back in town for a few. Truth to tell, I’m a better traveler than a sojourner. I enjoy the train rides, the bus rides the getting places part of traveling but somehow I’m less than moved by the compulsion to explore every nook and cranny of my destination. Could have something to do with the fact that temps are hovering in the 35 to 40 degree C range. I think that would deter any vagabond with pretensions from wandering about. I know it certainly curtailed my awe and desire to wander.

So I’m taking a traveling break. A wise break, as it turns out. My plans were to be gone until literally the day school starts. The curve ball is that I have no idea what day school starts and if I wait that long, I might not get a ticket back to Wuhan because every other student is going to need to get here at that time too.

As much fun as it is to ride the rails it is kind of nice to be home and surrounded by familiar things.

I’m really a great vagabond, aren’t I?

The one thing I didn’t enjoy coming home to was the ants.

I know it is hot outside and I’m sure the poor dears are just trying to find a cool place to hang out before they get sun crisped. If I was an ant or some other type of bug, I’d probably do the same thing.

I’ve had ant problems since this spring. At first they really didn’t bother me. I reason: there are more loathsome creatures than ants crawling around. Ants do not necessarily harbor or transmit diseases although they can bite and those bites can be painful. Matter of fact ants are quite helpful because they eat flies and other insects, they aerate the earth by burrowing and tunneling and they pollinate plants.

They are not welcome to do any of this in my apartment. Furthermore, there are no plants for them to pollinate, no dead flesh to consume and no earth to aerate in my apartment. Yet they persist on cohabitating with me, acting as predatory feeders. Should I leave something out that they like to eat, within minutes I will have a whole swarm jockeying for position and feasting.

Ants do not like corn flour. I know this by experience. One of my recent culinary experiments was to make corn tortillas. This wheat sensitivity has really cut into the list of foods I can eat and not suffer for days afterwards. Research has shown that corn based foods tend to not irritate like wheat does. It sure irritated the ants!

My forays into corn based gastronomy were a dismal failure but I did learn that ants will not venture anywhere near where corn flour might be. Gleefully I started powdering my kitchen counter seams, and tracked the ants back to their burrows, sealing them in with a liberally applied dose of this fine milled, yellow powder. They stopped coming out of those cracks and found other cracks to come in through. I was either going to have to cook in a perpetually powdered kitchen or find alternate means of repelling these pests.

Time for an internet search. What will repel ants? Lemon, lemon rind, the smell of lemons… all except for lemonade because it is sweet, not tart and citrus-y. I checked my cleaning supplies: this can of lemon scented Pledge will do nicely! I cleaned up the corn flour and started shooting Pledge into known burrows. Ants, frenzied, scrambled about, trying to find a way back through the cracks in the walls they came from. I had those shot full of lemon scent. They found different cracks to disappear into.

Cracks in the walls? Haven’t I previously said the building is solid concrete?

Yes, I did say that. Apparently the ants have burrowed into the concrete structure and are finding outlets within the spaces between the concrete and tiled areas like the bathroom and kitchen. In the living room they come through minute gaps between the sliding glass doors and the walls. Maybe they even come out of the laminate flooring seams. I have even seen them come out of outlet covers.

This was all before I left for my latest round of vagabonding. With my sights set on faraway mountains I really didn’t give much thought to the ants. Upon my return, a few days ago, I found the ant population had multiplied extensively and were boldly swaggering all over the place: on my couches, across the living room floor, all over the coffee table and in the bathroom. The kitchen was not just populated by ants, it was infested. My computer keyboard had ants coming out of it and as I logged on I had to repeatedly swish ants away and off my body. The only places that did not have any ants were my bedroom and the dining room table, where I suspect some of that corn flour still lingered.    

I am not the best housekeeper. I am aware of that. However, I am not so slovenly that ants should feel they can walk around with impunity, sampling whatever is laying about and then whistling for the entire colony to come and dine.

Whereas before my departure I was tolerant of the poor ants seeking shelter from the heat, now I grow more anti-ant with every creepy crawler I saw.

Coming out of my computer keyboard! How can that be? There is nothing there for them to eat! I can guarantee you that because I do not eat anywhere but in the dining room, or in the living room if I’m watching a movie. I’m very careful about not spilling. If something spills or crumbles it gets cleaned up immediately. And why are they prowling around in the bathroom? I certainly don’t eat or store food there!

The kitchen is a no-brainer. I think everyone can understand why ants gather in the kitchen.

The night I got home from all my travels, at a little past 10PM all I wanted to do was lounge on one of my couches and just do nothing for about an hour, and then shower and go to bed. The ants must have thought their smorgasbord had just been delivered. Within minutes they were crawling all over me. I leaped up, horrified and started swatting at myself.

Granted I probably did smell like dinner to the ants, having just come off the train and walking through the OTW community. The mercury hovered around 40 degrees Celsius that muggy day and I probably gave off a nice, ripe scent. Doesn’t mean ants are entitled to devour me. I am the mistress of this castle! I do the devouring! Or, in this case the de-pesting.  

I am loath to kill anything, especially a creature as beneficial as an ant. I do feel compelled to declare my boundaries – with humans and with nature. Ants all over the place simply will not do. I went to war.

The office: shook a whole colony out of my keyboard, and then sprayed them down with Mr. Muscle, a citrus smelling cleanser. As I type this not one ant has crawled onto me, anywhere on my desk or out of the keyboard. I did see a few roaming on the walls… as though I fling food on my walls for ants to snack on. What could they possibly be looking for on my walls?

Today I spent over 7 hours cleaning my kitchen. Every nook, every cranny, anywhere ants could be seen crawling in or out from the tile. I cleaned top to bottom. I daresay I have possibly the cleanest kitchen in China. I even amazed myself with how brand new my kitchen looks. Of course I applied liberal doses of Mr. Clean. Gotta keep that citrus scent prominent.  

I had occasion to go back into the kitchen a few minutes ago. There are the ants, crisscrossing my freshly cleaned walls, crawling my gleaming counters, climbing my cabinets. Meanwhile, the smell of citrus still lingers. Pride turned into despair. How am I ever going to get rid of these things?

I suspect these individual ants crawling around are advance patrols, sent out by their colony to seek food. Once a source is found, somehow the scout notifies the entire ant population and soon there is nothing to see but squirming bodies over whatever detritus I was foolish enough to not dispose of properly.

Here’s what I don’t understand. If ants have the ability to communicate that they’ve located a food source and bring everybody on the run, how is it they cannot communicate that there is a murderous human hell bent on destroying every last one of them and they should take their leave from my premises?

I suppose I should count my blessings. Ants are nothing compared to the time I came home from an extended journey and a rat crawled on my leg while I was sleeping. (See the Rat Party, posted September 2011). At least ants are beneficial and not disease carrying.     

Country Chicken; City Chicken

I've just been released from... not prison, gilded as the cage was. I guess you could call it enforced confinement. My jailers were kind as ever. I've known them since I've lived here, and this was my second time to visit their home. 

In the three years I’ve been here, I’ve gotten used to certain culturally dictated acts. Or, at least I’ve grown to expect, and even inured myself to them to a certain degree. Certainly being stared at, having ‘HELLO!’ shouted in my face, requests for pictures – usually asked of my traveling companions who are Chinese rather than of me… to a measure, I have learned to live with these phenomena. Some things simply defy my ability to adapt to. That great Chinese illogic concerning my bag is one of them.

I am constantly told to watch out for my bag, look after my bag and make sure my bag is safe… by the very friends who then take my bag and will not allow me access to it. Who will in fact run away from me rather than risk my taking my bag from them, when all I want to do is get something out of it. This has happened several times.

Frustrating as it is, I’ve learned to live with it. However, depending on how much else I’ve been subjected to I can be game about it, inwardly shaking my head, or my voice drops into that dangerous, treacle-sweet modulated tone that signifies that I am about to blow my stack.

Back to my enforced confinement. My hosts live in Deep Country, where people don’t have cars. Their life is all about their farm. Big city doings are about as alien to them as… as… well, as foreigners with their strange habits and ways.

An omen: Because I surely must be starving after hours on the road, I was immediately seated to a table full of food, among them a fine smelling stew. My hostess stirred it up, further releasing its fragrance. Disturbingly, several chicken feet surfaced, claws up as though threatening from the Great Beyond. I didn’t have much appetite to begin with, the day being so hot. Those imploring chicken feet took away any desire I might have had to eat. I forced myself to choke down a few bites.
First offense: my hosts felt I should take some time off and relax. So, in spite of the fact that I told them I would visit from Tuesday morning till Thursday morning, and must leave out on the earliest possible bus, they took it upon themselves to decide on a 5-day stay for me, and tried to stretch it out to six. Firmly I stuck to my time table and a genteel argument ensued. It took me about 45 minutes to convince them I need to stand by my schedule but apparently I had not brought forth any good reason to deny their extended hospitality. The discussion ended on a sour note: liberal heapings of guilt on their part, a nearly uncontrollable rage on mine. I couldn’t sleep for my temper. I pondered my options.

I was in deep country where the only people I know and could appeal to are my hosts. Getting to town would be impossible. We were so far out of town I only vaguely knew what general direction to walk in. Calling a car – what everyone else that lives that far out does would be completely out of my league. Not only did I not have the number to call any cars, but with everyone speaking the local dialect, there is a good chance I would not be understood. Realizing I was stuck like Chuck, I finally drifted off sometime after 2AM.

Thankfully I had set my alarm clock. The next morning my phone chimed at 6:30AM. Text message: was I awake? I should come down for breakfast. I had in fact been awake for 45 minutes, and had finally found an acceptable rationale for leaving on Thursday. I was given the perfect lead in by my host, who broached the subject by declaring I had been up late.

Being as I was not accorded a minute unaccompanied, it should not have surprised me that my inability to sleep was noted. The good thing is that the matter of my departure was laid to rest and all agreed that I should leave on the day I had originally planned.           

The Chinese have this perverse desire to do EVERYTHING for their honored and revered guests. I daresay if the house's matron could have moved her bowels in my stead, she would have. She washed the clothes I was wearing the previous day. She cooked breakfast. All I had to do was float down the stairs, take my time in the bathroom and then take my place at the table where everything was laid out. Of course, any help cleaning up was refused and anything I picked up was promptly snatched from my hand.

The day’s agenda: take a car that would bring us to the ferry that would cross the river and take us into town. See how lost I would have been in the dark of night, had I decided to leave?

First, a walk through the market. I enjoy walking through these markets, the more remote the village the better. That day I didn’t dare stop to look at anything. The second my attention focused on any one thing, my doyenne whipped out her wallet, offering to buy it for me. It took a hefty amount of convincing to persuade her that 1. anything at this market would also be available at markets in Wuhan, and 2. anything I buy at this market would be something I would have to carry back to Wuhan. Grudgingly she acceded.  

I was not allowed to carry anything, even my own bag. I was not allowed to buy anything, even things for myself. In fact, I needed some more wet wipes. Mine had all been used at KFC. The restrooms were out of order so I offered my wet wipes around, the novelty of which prompted everyone to use wet wipes to wipe the restaurant tables, walls, their shoes. At the supermarket we ambled through later I found more wet wipes. When I insisted I pay for them myself, my doyenne SNATCHED THEM OUT OF MY HAND!!! 

That was it. after a day and a half of being tugged at, pushed or pulled; told how to cross the street, having my things taken from me and raked through; after having it arbitrarily decided how long my stay would be in spite of my wishes and other commitments, and a multitude of other abrasions, her snatching those wipes out of my hand was the very final act of control and domination I was willing to tolerate. Rather than make a scene, hit the roof and/or explode I bowed my head, counted to ten several times while clenching and unclenching my fists.  

I should get Dupont to test me so that they can emulate my ability for withstanding extraordinary strain for when they design future models of pressure cookers. 

Right then and there I vowed that, well meaning as these people are I will NOT repeat this experience. If any more visiting occurs, it will be on my turf.

In spite of my loathing of early morning rising, I leaped out of bed at 5:43, no alarm required. That was about 37 minutes earlier than I was instructed to. My motivation: I was never more glad to leave a locale as I was leaving that house. 

Of course, everyone had to make sure I was packed correctly, so the whole family - father, son, mother, diabetic aunt and alcoholic uncle went through my bag. After a few 'corrections', and my refusing all manner of food - both immediately edible and morsels for the road, I was escorted to the bus station, about 20 minutes away

The son and mother negotiated my fare and paid it, and discussed where the bus should drop me off. I was then surrendered to the bus driver, along with my backpack, a separate bag containing 10 pairs of shoes, and one frozen chicken. 

It could have been a fish. My keeper’s best friend, after suffering my refusal for dinner, wanted to send me home with a fish. She was told I don’t eat fish, which earned me some decidedly strange looks. Further discussion between the two best friends led them to conclude I needed a chicken. All of my pleas to not send a chicken home with me were dismissed.

“This is a country chicken, much better than any chicken you can get in the city.” I was told.

Immediately my mind conjured up a fleet of young city chicks marching to school in uniform, red cloths around their neck denoting communist party membership fluttering in the breeze. Chicken feet being a gastronomical delicacy in China, theirs were shod in REEE-bok-bok-boks to protect them for future consumption.

Fury, outrage, insanity and absurdity… at freedom’s fringe, all of the repressed emotions of the past 2 days came crashing in. I did my best to not explode, this time with laughter. Fortunately the bus driver was led to believe I was just a poor, dumb foreigner who needed everything done for me. I was left alone to mull this entry on the ride home.   

Lovers Over Sixty

Today is Lovers’ Day in China; their equivalent to America’s Valentines’ Day. While February 14th is celebrated here as well, August 13th is China’s designated day for love, unlike November 11th, which is Singles’ Day – because of the date: 11/11. So, whether you are in love or single, China has a day set aside for you. I have no idea why this date in particular was chosen for lovers, just as I have no idea why February 14th was proclaimed for that purpose in the West.

I do know that the western date for lovers makes it easier for people who are single to proclaim the Holiday Season the Single’s Unholy Triumvirate. It is very depressing for singles to have no one to kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas, or at midnight on New Year, and it is downright sacrilegious to be single on St. Valentine’s Day.

Fortunately we are not going to talk much about lovers, and we are not going to talk about lovers over 60 at all. I feel compelled to explain this title.

I was out today – Lover’s Day. Always nice to abuse someone else’s air conditioning, teehee… especially since this is China’s hottest summer on record. In fact, even as Typhoon ------  threatens, the inner areas, such as Wuhan are not going to see a drop of rain. Instead our temps are projected to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in this latter part of August.

The ground is sere. The grass would be dead were it not for the early morning administrations of water by the campus pumping truck. All over the city water trucks are doing double duty: spraying the foliage as well as hosing the dust off the streets. The poor street sweepers – the men and women who, for 12 hours at a time dance with their twig brooms cannot keep up with it all.

Back to this title. While mentally composing this entry I thought: “Lovers’ Day”. Meh… not a headline grabber. The real topic of this entry, how those 60+ are dealing with all the changes in society and adapting from the stark, barren existence they knew as children into this new, glitzy world of commercialism and changing society mores, tentatively titled “Those Over 60”… less than ‘Meh’.

“Lovers Over 60”: Attention grabbing title!! We’ll go with that. 

The thought crossed my mind as I was waiting outside Grandma’s Kitchen for my takeout order. Being out alone and not in love with anyone, I decided to escape the crush of humanity crowding the sidewalks, malls and restaurants by hurrying home with my order and eating my nachos in peace. Yes, Grandma’s Kitchen is a ‘foreigner restaurant’, hugely popular to the Chinese, especially on special occasions like Lover’s Day. While sitting there a paunchy, successful looking man led a woman, maybe his wife and an older woman, his or her mother into the restaurant.

With her hair shapelessly cut in a utilitarian, close cropped style, mostly gray; her navy-and-white patterned top and green slacks; her flat loafers worn with no socks, and no jewelry or adornment, it was easy to guess her age at somewhere between late 50’s to mid-60’s. Just as quickly, but expressionlessly she pushed into the restaurant behind her presumed family.

A cascade of thoughts…

This woman was born at least during the Cultural Revolution. Her formative experiences and early life consist of a barren existence where she may or may not have been called upon to denounce her parents, grandparents, friends’ families, teachers and government leaders. The effects of starvation and possibly malnutrition most likely still plague her today. She has witnessed barren land and fallow fields, civic violence, a total lack of class structure and then the progressive evolution of her country into what it is today.

She might not have ever been able to conceive the idea of having enough to eat, let alone rich foods or such a variety as is now available. Her body might have exulted at the feel of fabric more luxurious than the regulation cotton she grew up in. For the rest of her life she might never take a step without being conscious of the cushioning in today’s shoes, as opposed to the simple cloth slippers with rope or rubber soles she walked in for the first years of her life.

Might she have ever conceived of the idea of television? Having time to sit down and watch a program, let alone having an array of programming to choose from? As a tender, terrified youth, might she have found pleasure in anything? Could she imagine, forty years into the future that life would be all about pleasure? Every time she opens her wallet today, does she remember the rationing coupons, and that maybe her parents would spare her a yellow, #1 ration coupon for a rare sweet?

When she partakes of a meal, does she ever flash back on those communal meals, prepared by the designated chef and eaten at long benches under central canopies, with everyone else from that work group and their families all chattering the party line? Did she ever get scolded for asking for more than her share of food?

How does she feel nowadays, when she goes into her own bathroom, in her own apartment? Does she think back on the days were each commune or work unit had their assigned central bathroom? Does she feel the cold more bitterly from the memory of having to walk to the communal bathroom in the dead of winter?

What about indoor plumbing and running water? Until the late 1980’s, those did not feature in dwellings, except for the richest and most well positioned government officials. Does she sometimes turn on the tap just to hear water rushing through the pipes? To see it gush out of the tap?

In a sense I get freaked out a bit by those over 60 who engage so completely in today’s capitalistic lifestyle. Cell phones, styled hair, jewelry wearing, foreign food eating… how is it that these people, who knew only of living minute by minute, only of oppression and deprivation in their formative years, who bore their children into a world not much more fertile or replete than the one they grew up in… a world in fact more in turmoil than the one they knew growing up. How is it that they now climb aboard a bus without qualm, head to the market with money dripping out of their pocket, eat McDonalds’ ice cream without any evidence of suffering any type of culture clash? How can they prefer today’s seemingly empty pursuit of life’s pleasures and riches when, in their lifetime their parents and grandparents, teachers and society indoctrinated them to selflessness, material starkness, and blind adherence to all government edicts? Where do they find the courage to rebel against such edicts now?

How do they reconcile government programs that benefit the elderly with the indomitable image of government intolerance they’ve no doubt carried and feared all of their life? Do they shudder when they see an authority figure such as a policeman or a government official?

Do they feel guilty that they are alive today to partake in all that is now available to them, while their childhood friend, or their family might have been… when they were children? Were they witness to that disposal? Even worse: were they instrumental in that disposal?

This, and the topic of my last post, the one that talks about the ability to abandon all that formerly was proclaimed as good, right and true; that seemingly un-Chinese yet uniquely Chinese ability of flipping a verdict with fervor and enthusiasm… it seems to be a necessary trait.

How can circumstances change so dramatically in one generation that those born to that generation are not only capable of rolling with the changes but of doing it so wholeheartedly and with such glee?

Such were my thoughts while waiting for my food, and then on the bus home. It took me about 3 hours to get home because I kept missing my connections. I had my head in a cloud, pondering these questions.

That’s not a bad thing. It took my mind off of it being Lovers’ Day, and my not having anyone but a Teddy Bear to kiss.                              

Monday, August 5, 2013

Chinese Monty Python

Now better acquainted with Chinese lifestyle, traditions and history, I am often treated to behaviors, actions and customs that could or should smack of distinct un-Chinese-ness, were they not so downright comical in their practice or coming about.

Many westerners are no doubt familiar with expressions like: “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, a catchphrase that was bandied about last year while discussing global economic issues, especially on C-SPAN. Some of my friends in America asked me what that might mean. At the time I had no real answer, other than to expound on the fact that, while China’s political system is labeled communist, communism in itself is more of an economic system than political.

China, like just about every other country in the world, is governed by an oligarchy. That is the extent of the political discussion this blog will undertake. We are not political in nature. We are a cultural information source that only broaches politics when necessary. And we like to be humorous whenever possible.

As the author of this blog, I contend that Monty Python is the epitome of the absurd, and thus most humorous. Gary Larson counts in that distinction too, but he is not relevant to this discussion.

In China, once a concept is introduced it is embraced fervently, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, to the complete abandon of all that had previously been believed to be right, good, necessary and true.

Note the total obliteration of class struggle to the point of neutralizing so much as gender and intellect differences some sixty years ago. During the Great Leap Forward, men and women wore the same colored, same styled baggy clothing, shoes and hats. Although females were allowed one concession – long hair, during that epoch males and females were virtually indistinguishable.

So intent was the focus on building a classless society that families gave up anything of value for the greater good. Thus, previously illustrious families were as materially barren as the poorest farmer, and their social status was reduced to match their new, impoverished circumstances.   

After properly enshrining Chairman Mao in 1976, Deng Xiao Ping’s economic stance dictated a total reversal of Mao’s previously touted edict of total barrenness: “Capitalism is good!” the new country leader proclaimed. Immediately the Chinese cast off the poor garments, abandoned the work farms and factories and sought their chance at wealth. I don’t mean that this was an overnight transformation. I’m trying to illustrate that, one minute people lived shackled to poverty and yoked to an ideal; the very next minute those yokes stood empty, the plows were left standing in the fields and people were storming their way to capitalism.

Here are some other historical reversals:

Driving: The first automobiles were introduced in China around the late 19th century, and of course the imperial family was the first to own them. A total of 4 cars were brought over but not put in service for years because the dowager empress kept ordering the drivers beheaded.

Those early carriages were designed to have the driver sitting on a box seat far above the passenger compartment. This model followed the most popular horse-buggy style; the high seat designed for better control of the animals powering the vehicle while the nacelle sat low to the ground to assure passengers’ comfort. Unfortunately for the drivers of these primitive motor driven machines made for the imperial family, the law stated that no one could have their head higher than the elite figure. Once the dowager empress was comfortably seated, the driver climbed aboard and the empress, outraged at his ‘seemingly loftier than hers’ position ordered him beheaded. Soon, there was no one left who knew how to drive a car.

Shortly after that the dynasty crumbled and the country plunged into a series of conflicts that lasted about 60 years. While driving eventually did become commonplace, mainly because of military vehicles, the concept of personal transportation did not catch on for nearly a century.

Around 1990, people in China were introduced to the idea. Till then, those fortunate enough to afford a bicycle, rode. Mass transit took care of the rest of the population. Once car ownership became accessible to the citizenry it became a no holds barred competition for value, brand, status and parking spaces. Sam tells me that, as recently as 5 years ago parking a car in Wuhan was not a problem.

Now people will drive their car when walking would be faster, and spend hours idling in traffic or circling the block for a parking place when they could have left their car at home and gotten where they were going much more efficiently in some other manner.

Love: 50 years ago a marriage was arranged by a matchmaker and sanctioned by the government. Romantic love as it is known in the west has never been a factor in Chinese relationships. The classic ‘eyes meeting across the room’ scenario never played out here, mainly because the culture dictated that males and females were not to mingle socially, and making eye contact was considered vulgar to begin with.

Couples would spend their entire lives bound together by practicality and adherence to tradition. Sometimes genuine affection would blossom from long term cohabitation and familiarity but more often than not, malcontent ruled the household.

In the last 5 years, with more people than ever migrating away from their homes, families, roots and traditions the standard ‘love requires an introduction’ has fallen completely by the wayside. Romance rules the day.

Almost literally overnight, our campus went from a shining tribute of purity to a hotbed of sexual activity. Nobody bothers with introductions. Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, off they go to local hotel. Hickeys to follow; homosexual relations permitted. The only nod to tradition is that parents are not to know their child has a lover. So I’ve been implored by the students whose parents I’ve met.

Leisure: The concept of leisure is as uncharacteristically Chinese as… as water buffalos suddenly donning tutus and dancing Swan Lake. Yet when the idea of indolence was presented, the Chinese abandoned all efforts at ‘keep head down, work hard, achieve and bring honor to family”. Eating out, whiling time away and vulgar outlays of cash in pursuit of a good time is now the new standard by which the Chinese judge each other and themselves. Other activities like traveling and shopping all fall under that same umbrella. And all are done with that seemingly un-Chinese over-the-top Chinese-ness.

I don’t have much room left, so much as I’d like to expound on all aspects of leisure and the total reversal from the formerly held “work yourself to the bone” mentality, I’m going to discuss one specific aspect I witnessed in Chi Bi, while out with John and his friends.

Swimming is as un-Chinese a pastime as possible. Even last year my students declared that they were too afraid of what could happen to even want to learn how to swim in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher in a shallow pool. Let alone tackle any water sports in an open lake or sea.

And admittedly, ‘swimming’ is too broad an expression for what actually happens. People bob around in the water tethered to or encircled by a Styrofoam life preserver, as dictated by law.

Last year, carousing in malls I didn’t see a single shop offering any sporting goods, including anything that would pertain to water activities. This year there are stores dedicated entirely to bathing suits for women. Men ‘swim’ in their underwear.

Kid you not: I was completely nonplussed at men walking around in sodden briefs that concealed absolutely nothing, and they did so with a complete lack of modesty. I suppose that is what poleaxed me.

I am by no means a prude, but I have had a measure of conditioning in modesty as dictated by Western society. Add to that my studies in Chinese culture, all of which are steeped in propriety and social mores with regard to naked flesh. In fact, I’ve often wondered why western religions which espouse corporeal diffidence display centuries-old works of art whose subjects are completely, or nearly completely nude while eastern philosophies that express no opinion at all on nudity show all of their deities and historical figures to be clothed from head to toe.

That’s beside the point.

What I’m getting at is, as little as one year ago one of my female friends refused to buy a shirt because it showed too much cleavage. People will not (intentionally) buy clothing that is too tight or too revealing. Even belt buckles, the modern day codpiece, are modest and unobtrusive. However, it is perfectly OK to strip down to one’s underwear in public (no locker rooms; however there are lockers for rent on the waterfront), get in the water and then walk around in clingy, see thru clothing with head held high.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living a Monty Python skit, in which witches must weigh as much as ducks. The doubting public first frowns at this logic but as soon as a suspected witch is weighed against a duck and the scale balances, the witch/duck proclamation is substantiated, all doubt is cast off and the villagers are suddenly and enthusiastically in favor of torching a woman they’ve known all their lives.

Can you blame me for wondering if what I just witnessed or experienced is for real?            

Swimming, Fighting and Dancing

John had prepared a complete agenda for my visit, building in plenty of rest time. He had booked a suite in a fine hotel: the living room offered a couch and a mahjongg table, with four of the most comfortable chairs I’ve seen in China so far. The bedroom was standard, with the unusual inclusion of a computer, that I made no use of.

During one of these downtime periods I reflected how much more I enjoy spending time with male companions. While females are just as obsessed with lavish entertainment and indulging my every whim, they go wayyy farrr overboard in assuring themselves they are taking good care of me. because the contrast is so dramatic, I’d like to talk more about that later. For now…   

Guys are solicitous, but not to the point of mania. Note such care in John’s selection of accommodations, in his plans for entertainment with downtime built in, and the remorse he felt when I made a splash at the swimming hole. Not a good splash, either. That story is coming up.

After showing off Chi Bi’s three bridges, he introduced me to his family at a fine restaurant in Old Town. There I met his mother (who chided him for not taking proper care of me), his best pals since childhood, his aunt, his cousin and a few other relations. Of course this meal was a lavish affair, designed to impress, no holds barred, red wine included. The table fairly groaned under its load of food and we groaned over our distended stomachs at meal’s end.

Time for a rest. Off to the hotel, where I am shown my room and accorded a generous 3 hours for a nap. After that, we (John, his friends and me) went off to the swimming hole. Unfortunately storms were brewing and the official swimming area was closed. We drove around the lake and over the dam while gentle rain pattered down. Didn’t stop us from getting out, admiring the view and taking pictures. Chi Bi has very scenic outskirts. John offered an illegal trespass into the water so that we could at least dip our feet in. A timely rumble of thunder sided with my discouragement. We got back in the car.

We went swimming the next day. I have to tell you that, although I am an enthusiastic swimmer and a fan of all water sports, I am leery of chancing a dip in the waterways of China. If the water out of my tap at home has the ability to eat the first layer of skin off my fingers (and it does!), what might untreated water do? And then to submerse myself?

Again John proved determined. Did not matter that I had no swim clothes; he assured me of a plan that would involve my enjoying the water while staying dry as a bone. When I protested the cost and the effort he shrugged my concerns off. After my forth attempt at nixing the idea I relented. This young man had it in mind that I should enjoy the water and I was going to, no matter what. He rented an inflatable raft for me and a life preserver for himself.

Actually, because swimming is such a novel pastime in China, all who enter the water are mandated to have a life preserver. This is an extreme I’ll talk more broadly about in our next post.

As I’ve often iterated, anything Chinese-sized is much too small for me. Same applies to rubber rafts. It would have been OK had I followed my original plan to kneel in it, or sit in the middle tailor fashion. In this instance John and his cohorts felt it necessary to instruct me: I should sit with my legs pointed directly in front of me, putting my center of gravity at one end of the raft. That did not work well. Nothing about the raft idea went well.  

In the States all entertainment venues, from wildlife parks to casinos, all manner of regulation, caution and barrier to possible physical (and even moral) harm exists. Not so in China. There may be steps carved out for easy access into the water but these steps have no handrails and are smooth concrete, overgrown with slippery algae. Step at your own risk – and there isn’t a sign saying so. That’s what happened.

Stepping onto that first slime covered step I upended myself, thoroughly soaking everything I was wearing. While me and my audience, all the bathers, laughed our fool heads off, poor John and his friends were absolutely mortified. Instantly they surrounded me, each doing their best to pull me up. Their efforts meant that I was literally being tugged in three different directions at once, the effect of which, between the flux of water, the slippery step I was sitting on and their tugging, was my bobbing to and fro like a tethered buoy.

I finally persuaded them to just let me be so I could get up on my own. Tremulous, remorseful, nearly unable to restrain themselves from helping, they stood back while I scooted myself up to an unslimy stair, where I was sure I would be able to regain my footing. In the time it took for me to do that, someone else wiped out exactly the way I did and the crowd laughed anew, this time with me and my group joining in.

Slimy Concrete: 1. Krejados: 0. Battle wounds: 1 raw toe and one dislocated knee that did not manifest itself in its full, glorious pain until later.

Battle wounds! Battle wounds? Yes! A battle!

That is what we saw that morning, while visiting the Battlefield of the Red Cliffs. Not really a reenactment of a battle but a presentation of costumes, customs and dance.

Between divergent annals and the obliteration of all heritage through the years, very little is known about the Battle of Red Cliffs. Historians presume the significance of the locale based on the size of the fort and the relics found there. It has been speculated to be a conflict of major importance because of the known alliance between the two southern warlords and the numerically superior and better organized troops of the northern warlord. The most detailed account of the battle comes from the biography of Zhou Yu, written in the 3rd century AD.

Due to the lack of records I cannot give a proper accounting of this battle or of its historical significance, but I can include pictures of the magnificent structures that have been painstakingly restored. I can also positively assert that the city, formerly called Pu Qi adopted the Chi Bi name in 1998 to tie the area to the Battle of Chi Bi. I can’t tell you why the battle was called Chi Bi.

What I can tell you is that the residents love their city.

At night the People’s Square is filled with dancers, strollers (people walking, not baby carriages) and folks just enjoying the night. A jumbotron bathes the square’s center with light, broadcasting topics of interest such as the current wildebeest migration in Africa. In a less illuminated corner children skate, the lights on their rollerblades and scooters giving a surreal impression of hip, modern day cool to their ghostly figures.

John chose this corner for us to launch our paper lantern. With audience present, he offered me a marker to inscribe my wish. I rose to the challenge, writing “I love China and all my friends” in Chinese. Onlookers nodded their approval as my small verse went from mouth to ear throughout the crowd. John wrote his wish, and then an onlooker lit the fuel cell while John and I held our balloon aloft, waiting for the air inside to heat up enough to carry it heavenward. Then, we spent about 15 minutes while I posed for pictures with those from the crowd proffering cameras. Till then, neither John nor his friends believed people reacted to me that way. Alternately bemused and called into service as photographer, they later conceded I was not exaggerating about foreigner fever – that odd syndrome where people feel compelled to stare and gape, perchance even reach out and touch.       

I don’t think Chi Bi sees very many foreigners. I drew more than a normal share of attention while there and did not see any other foreigners. Why John chose to highlight my presence in the park by adorning my head with a flashing pink bow I have no idea. As though being foreign, nearly 2 meters tall and twice the size of anybody else in the park weren’t enough to draw attention to myself.               

He honestly did everything possible to insure my comfort, pleasure and entertainment. He worked very hard to cover the highlights of his hometown in the short time I planned to be there.

While I have good reason to be leery of someone who is so adamant that I come to visit, John was pleasantly laid back and non-controlling, all while coordinating the whole event from transportation to food. Now that I know I have nothing to worry about while visiting this delightful, eager young man I will gladly make another trip to Chi Bi and spend more time. There really is a lot to do and see there. Not only that, I have friends I have to visit.      


Chi Bi, not Totoro

When John first struck up the idea that I come visit his hometown I agreed enthusiastically. This being my travel season, I have again been plagued with the Foreigner Phenomenon, where I’m seen as a tourist rather than someone who wishes to understand the culture and history of the locale. While being a tourist is not a bad thing, it precludes me, and other travelers like me from gaining a true picture of where I’m at and the role it and its people played in history, and in today’s shape of things.

The best way around that is to have an ‘in’. Someone who is from that area and understands my desire to truly know the significance of their home. In return, he/she gets to parade me around and gain untold amounts of guanxi. The balance is measured by how much ‘foreigner phenomenon’ I can stand versus how badly I want to learn. Sometimes, especially in the smaller towns or more rural areas, being part queen/part freak for a day is too much. I do my very best to decline those invitations as gently as possible, usually by postponing them indefinitely.

John would not stand to be postponed. In fact, so adamant was he that I come to visit that he suggested he rent a car to pick me up so I can spend a few days… essentially kidnapping me. Being as my travel documents are still at the local constabulary – it now takes more than 3 weeks to renew residence permits, I would have no valid travel papers. I would be completely at his mercy. Although I’m sure nothing so sinister as an outright kidnapping/torture scenario was in the offing, at no time am I ever inclined to give such complete control of my circumstances away. Only by the greatest of verbal prowess was I able to dissuade him from my immediate appearance in his town.

John is a handsome young man, model beautiful and quite photogenic. He is sweet and kind and generous. Why he had to be so adamant and why I had to be so resistant is a mystery. In the end I did go to ChiBi, and had a marvelous time.

I like to research where I’m going before I get there. Also, it helps to know my destination when buying passage on one of the many available means of transportation. This time I chose the train over the long distance bus. Not only would the train get me there faster, but train rides afford me the luxury of anonymity. Once everyone understands I’m a friendly foreigner but not one that likes to hold court, they pretty much stop gaping and staring, and everyone usually leaves me alone.

Quick text message volley, me to John and back: “what is the name of your town?” “Chi Bi” came the answer, both in pinyin and in characters. I gave a start. I know about Chibi. They are shy little Totoros, of the movie ‘My Neighbor Totoro’.

This anime masterpiece by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned Japanese master of the genre is a gentle story of two girls and their father, displaced to the countryside so they can live close to the sanatorium where their mother is confined. A geomancer/village elder confides that only those pure of heart can see magical spirits like dust sprites and Totoros. The girls, especially the younger one are such people. Not only does Totoro befriend her but watches over her when she takes off on foot across the countryside by herself to visit her mother.

The Totoros and all other mystical characters are drawn simplistically, perhaps to stand out against the lush backgrounds that Mr. Miyazaki is famous for. Chibi Totoros blush when seen and literally fade away. However, they are not my favorite character in this movie. The Cat Bus is. I’m not saying anymore. You should check it out for yourself, along with Mr. Miyazaki’s other works, among them Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the classic of the same name by Diane Wynne Jones.

Now I want to spend the rest of the day watching anime instead of writing. Get back on task, Krej!!!


Chi Bi is a relatively small city, located in the southwest of Hubei province, about 2 hours from Wuhan. If Wuhan is considered a Tier 3 city then Chi Bi would be maybe 5th tier. It receives hardly any government money although it sponsors plenty of industry. Most of the buildings are still faced with that white tile/barred window look, a mute testimony to China’s erstwhile collaboration with and emulation of Soviet communism. Very little new construction and virtually no high rises mar the horizon which, in itself is spectacular.

I would liken Chi Bi to Boulder, Colorado for all it has to offer: savage water, stately mountains, eclectic lifestyle heavily shaded by tradition. This town of just over half a million people houses only 1 KFC and no Walmart, with no plans to bring in any more or any different foreign trades or businesses. It seems the Chi Bi-ites are quite happy with their local shopping venues and foods.

I can see why. Whereas Wuhan specialties rely either on heavy spice or on that one herb that makes everything taste like dirt, Chi Bi specialties are fragrant and flavorful. One dish in particular, Feng Wo Yu Mi, is a deep fried corn dish that had till that moment never met my lips but that I would now gladly reproduce to awe my loved ones with, if I could be persuaded to share. Another winner resembled a Yankee pot roast, except the beef was sliced thin rather than left in chunks. Regrettably the trademark dish of the region is fish, something that, at this point in my forays into Chinese cuisine I have been able to avoid (and I intend to continue avoiding it). Besides fish and outside of those standout dishes mentioned above, everything else I ate while there was more than passable.

With food all over China tasting so good, I wonder what happened to Wuhan food to make it taste like dirt? Or: why did I have to settle in Wuhan, the one place whose gastronomic specialties happen to be so unpalatable to me?

After all: why blame Wuhan or its gastronomy when it is my palate complaining?

Like several seemingly poor areas around China such as Wenzhou, there is quiet money in Chi Bi. Audi, VW, Cadillac and Buicks all vie for road space. Taxis are plentiful. Nine bus lines rumble through the city, joining outlying areas to New and Old Chi Bi. The buses themselves are poor, diminutive, wheezy little things, no doubt dating back to around 1980.

At night, New Chi Bi glistens like a shiny penny, but during the day that part of town is as mediocre as any other city. While the sun is up it is best to visit Old Chi Bi: more iconic, characteristic and charming. It seems most residents prefer Old Chi Bi to new. Early morning marketing, traditional lifestyle, street vendors and neighborhood restaurants thrive. New Chi Bi sees everyone headed for the office, or whatever concern might be signing their paychecks. Shopping and strolling are mainly New Chi Bi pastimes, while neighborly communing, dancing and hanging out in the park belong to Old Chi Bi. The passion for food is about equal on both sides, with Old offering more traditional fare while New draws more trendy but nevertheless fully Chinese menus.  

Whether old or new, Chi Bi beds down about 10PM every night. It is a working class town, and 6AM comes pretty early.

Of all the sights and areas of interest, the first that John highlighted was the 3 bridges that span the Han River – that body of water which divides Old and New Chi Bi. The government has funded only 3 bridges (as opposed to Wuhan’s 5), and done very little else for infrastructure and transportation. Funny how a city’s worth is measured by the number of bridges spanning its waterways… no?

Besides the bridges there were swimming holes, battlefields and The Peoples’ Square to take in. John, age 20, did his best to tap into my love of history and passion for culture, all while not boring himself or his friends to death. Everywhere we went we had a retinue, which was a good idea because his English leaves a lot to be desired and my Chinese is not stellar… although it was enough to impress his parents and maintain a somewhat lively chatter with him and his social circle.       

In the next post I will cover our activities in more depth. Each experience deserves more room than I’ve left myself in this jaunt’s introduction. So… grab your swim suit (or not), sound the war drums and get those dancing shoes ready. Let’s go have fun, Chi Bi style!