Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Holiday Season

I hope you had a very merry Christmas, and I wish you a peaceful and prosperous New Year. May all your dreams come true!

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I wasn’t aware of the passage of time till one of my most faithful correspondents, Kevin informed me I’ve not posted anything since December 3rd. How could I have not written anything for nearly a month?

It’s not exactly like I’ve written nothing. I took on a freelance job, writing articles and doing translation work. I’ve not gotten rich from it, but it did take some time. Also, the classes I had this semester! Disheartening… The students barely spoke any English, and most were more interested in their cellphone than anything I have to offer. Still, I went to great lengths to plan lessons that would entertain, amuse and educate.

Don’t blame my conspirators for my blogging lapse. In no way is it their fault. They stand by, wait for me to write and send. They’ve been waiting a long time, this time. They are supportive… more than you can imagine! And they are understanding. One day, while talking of this dry spell, they pointed out that, after having been here for more than 3 years, I may have just run out of things to write about. At least, lighthearted, funny things. I have no end of ponderous subjects to tackle. Maybe because I’ve been in a ponderous phase lately. I hope to do away with that, or at least most of it, next year.

And now, it is New Year. Let’s get ready to say ‘goodbye’ to 2013. It was a good year. There were some tears… just enough to appreciate the joy and laughter that much more. Joy and laughter… there was a lot of that!  

In China, people are gearing up for their most significant holiday celebration: Lunar New Year. Most of our school’s upperclassmen have already gone home, their semester complete. The freshmen, poor remainders, are counting the days till they can board that train or bus. One or two will fly home – a sign of ever-increasing wealth. Never, till this year had any of my students boarded a plane.

I reflect on the irony that I live in China eleven months out of the year but leave just in time for their major holiday, after having spent America’s major holiday(s) in China. Is there no end to my contrariness?

Contrary or not, here I go. In ten days I will be winging stateside with my suitcase full of gifts for my loved ones. I’ll dash here and there, sleep on this couch and that floor, at times wonder where I am… and love every minute of it.

I hope you will find joy and happiness in the coming year. If sorrow should visit you, I hope it doesn’t stay long, and that it is kind. See you next year!    


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Things That Have Made it Over Here

Recalling the time of Yore, when I couldn’t even find Metro, those far distant days of 2010 when I first came here… I was sick, lonely, wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. Small triumphs, like finally finding Metro and buying an oven (See Oven Lust entry, dated October 2010) were turned into occasions of savage glee. I still have that oven, too. Works like a champ! I’ve definitely gotten my money out of it.

Since then, it has become routine for me to make the pilgrimage to Metro. My freezer, though small, can accommodate several bags of chicken parts – great on the grill; hamburger patties for that occasional indulgence, and a few convenience foods: the heat and eat kind.

When I arrived here 3 years ago, it was all I could do to find anything, food or otherwise that was familiar. First came the Oreos bought at a local supermarket, which taste nothing like Oreos in America. Then there was Chicony, an upscale store that caters to the superwealthy, or those who wish they were. I’m not. But I did find some French cheeses there and yes, I indulged.

One day, while rambling around an IGA store close to Aloha diner I found Pledge furniture polish and a few Armor All products. If I had a car I would have jumped on the tire gloss and turtle wax, as it was I made do with lemon scented Pledge. I kid you not when I tell you that, once home I stared at that can for close to thirty minutes, just for the comfort of holding a product with a label written in English.

I was giddy with joy at discovering German linseed bread. Going even further back in my past, into ancient history, I enjoyed a nice sandwich or two in Germany made with that kind of bread. Chinese bread is always too sweet and unsubstantial for my taste. However, the hearty, whole grain texture of this bread definitely satisfies my palate.

My! The things that have changed since I’ve been here! The Chinese are not fond of dairy products and they still believe cheese is the vilest of substances… to an extent. Now I can go into any store, Chinese or ‘foreigner’, and find entire selections of cheese, yogurt and even some milk. I tend to stay away from the chocolate flavored cheeses marketed to kids, but the plain Milkana sandwich slices are not bad at all. 

I have to be careful not to eat too much cheese, but every once in a while, a nice pizza just hits the spot. Used to be the only place to get a decent pizza in Wuhan was Pizza Hut. Their personal pan pizza tastes exactly like Pizza Hut in the states. Now I no longer need to plunk down more than 50Yuan for a meal at Pizza Hut. Metro has several varieties of frozen pizza, one of which tastes exactly like California Pizza Kitchen pizza.

That’s a little over five hundred words to talk about food. Let’s move on now.

Till just recently the only hope I had of buying any clothes to fit me over here was to have them custom made. It is relatively cheap to have clothes made, but it is still a rather large expenditure to anyone watching their pennies. The one time I had clothes tailored specifically for me was, you guessed it: 3 years ago, when I first came here. A linen dress and a skirt cost 600Yuan – about $100. Truly not a bad price. I still wear them, too.

Now I can walk into nearly any store and find something to fit me. Not just men’s clothes, either! Wuhan has several H+M stores, a British clothing retail chain and C&A, a German outlet. The clothes there are fashionable and, while not all styles come in my size I can find an adequate selection to update my wardrobe. They do tend to be a bit pricey, but on the other hand… I reasoned that I would be returning stateside each year and could then replenish or replace whatever I need, clothing wise. While I am not likely to find undergarments in my size over here, I can now shop for socks and clothing. Binge shopping during those thirty days I’m stateside is no longer a requirement. 

I was ecstatic when relaying to my conspirators that I had bought a gallon of Clorox bleach, some Clorox II for colors and even a bleach pen for isolated spots. I actually held the bottle up to the camera for them to see! That shopping trip is when I discovered pre-moistened cleaning wipes, something I had been longing for pretty much since settling in over here. Of course that yearning was not nearly as deep as my desire for paper towels, being as most Chinese hold toilet paper to the same standard as paper towels.

Paper towels have been a kitchen standard of mine since I found them over 2 years ago at Metro, of course. All other stores seem to resist the idea of stocking them. Metro is having a hard time keeping them in stock. I give it another 2 years before every Chinese kitchen comes equipped with a paper towel dispenser.

The find of the year has to be Pledge floor care. It is not as convenient as a Swiffer but it works like a charm! Since treating my floors a month ago, I’ve yet to see any accumulation of dust. Once every few days I will run the dust mop, but nowadays my floors are looking really, REALLY good. A vast improvement over my former trials of spraying a water-based cleaner and mopping it up, and mopping it up, and mopping it up. Not that I’m repeating myself, I’m just describing the action. Until about a month ago, my floors looked terrible. Now they gleam, and I beam.

Doritos would be a good way to celebrate, right? It just so happens that Metro has started stocking them, the Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese varieties. My jaw literally dropped when I saw them, lingering on the shelf, begging me to buy and buy. One bag costs 33Yuan, steep for sure! But, as an indulgence, I don’t mind. Besides, now I have a lot of friends hooked on them so I have to race them to Metro before they buy them all.

It seems I talk a lot about Metro, doesn’t it? And somehow, I got back on the topic of food. Let’s walk away from that… again.     

Looking back on all this I reflect: goodness! How time flies!!!

Today I had lunch with a former student, Summer and her mom. We’ve been good friends pretty much since I got here. Summer was in one of my first classes. Now she is graduated, her mother has retired and we had nothing more to do today than go out and enjoy the sunshine. We chose to meet at Han Jie, a premier shopping and cultural district.

I could have been in any shopping venue stateside. There is Gap, Baby Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, as well as the aforementioned H+M and C&A stores. There is Dairy Queen, Starbucks, Baskin Robbins, and of course McDonalds. A few housewares stores, similar to Bed, Bath and Beyond.

We wandered into a shopping mall so new you could still smell raw construction materials. Not many stores open yet, but those that were, are upscale. In the basement of this megamall is a grocery store much like Chicony, but with greater variety. When I say ‘variety’ I mean a substantial array of foreigner goods.

There were several different types of German bread and an entire aisle full of coffee products. The cold case was stocked with exotic meats and cheeses. Along the wall, those shelves were reserved for baking goods. Here too are Doritos, and several other types of chips/crisps. I even saw a bag of Fritos! And then… Lo and Behold: they had a selection of decaffeinated coffee AND flavored coffee mate! Yes, it was expensive, but… guess what I did? Come winter time I enjoy a creamy beverage but need to steer clear of caffeine, especially in the evening. I believe it was that hazelnut flavored coffee that I drank just prior to sitting at the keyboard that prompted the thought:

Nowadays, shopping over here is comparable to shopping stateside. Any size shopping center is sure to have at least a small section stocked with foreigner goods, if not entire stores dedicated to such items. Clothing retailers are now catering to larger sized people. There is a greater variety of cleaning products. Most are comparable to what you would find in any store in America. Even dishwashing liquid has been revolutionized.

How ironic: when I first came here I would have given my eyeteeth for familiarity. Now that I’m comfortable among the Chinese and with their wares, suddenly there is a bevy of American products to choose from! 

Never mind. I’m going to go to Burger King, have a whopper and try to forget all about foreigner goods.

Ding Dze Tiao

I first became acquainted with this oddly named street the year I came here. Young Tony, who, back then was young, young Tony invited me to dinner, instructing me to get off bus 907 at that stop. That was in the days when A. I didn’t know my way around town, B. could not read or understand any Chinese and C. when bus stops were ephemeral, consisting of a group of people standing by the side of the road, flagging down buses as they came by.

These days, all of those conditions have been corrected, bus stops are firmly planted and I know not to ride bus 907, which charges 1Yuan more to ride than all of the other buses. 

The second brush with ‘Ding’ was Martin’s last name. You’ll remember Martin, aka Monkey, whose family greeted me warmly and then proceeded to hold me prisoner out in the country. (See Country Chicken entry, posted August of this year). For a while I played with him as did one of Chandler’s buddies did on Friends. Chandler’s last name was Bing and his friend would always say it twice: “Chandler Bing. Bing!” I would intone “Martin Ding. DING!!” and thump him on the head.

With all this Ding-ing, you’d think I’d get curious about what that word means, wouldn’t you?

It took me a while but I finally did. The event that prompted me to do so was a walk through Sam’s neighborhood.

It seems we had time-traveled back to the 70’s, at the apex of the Cultural Revolution. By this time, most everyone in China had settled in to the fact that they would be productive within their communes. Not unlike the ‘factory towns’ of America during the early 1900’s, workers were housed in company quarters, shopped at local (company owned or subsidized) stores and worked long stretches in factories. However, unlike the form of indentured servitude espoused by Ford, Carnegie and the like, Chinese factory towns made no promises of eventual ‘freedom’. Workers were assigned to their units and factories were ‘owned’ by the government. Each complex was completely self-sufficient. There were schools, parks, shopping venues – not many, mind you. Everything anyone needed to live could be found within the factory complex.

Today, an echo of those long-gone factory villages are found here and there. Neither publicized nor glorified, these neighborhoods are still inhabited. It would be impossible for me to convey the exact sights, sounds of these communes. Again I do myself a disservice by posting photos. I can relate the ambience of such a ‘park’ in one word: timeless. See for yourself:  

There are pictures of the market serving the area, and of the park, central to the commune.
The building portico is a part of the old factory building, now abandoned. A grim looking entrance to an apartment building. Note the blue and white sign that denotes what type of work cooperative this particular unit was. The last picture shows the added on kitchen area (built out area in bright red brick), primitive electrical connections and recent add-ons: air conditioning and satellite dish. Note the faded unit number, 38 in the blue bordered white circle.  

The inside of such a dwelling will come in a later entry.


Stand Your Ground

George Zimmerman is in the news again. He’s back in Florida, booked on another domestic violence charge – his second. Earlier this year he was busted for speeding through Texas and yes, he had his concealed gun and valid registration. The media was very clear on that subject. 

This entry isn’t about guns, and it isn’t political. It is about ‘standing ground’. I had in mind to write this several months back, thanks to my good friend and constant correspondent Kevin. He and I have opposing views on just about any socio-political hot button from abortion to gun rights, with the Stand your Ground law smack in the middle of it.

He who fired the ‘ground-standing’ shot heard ‘round the world - Mr. Zimmerman, making headlines again, brought the topic back to my scattered mind. Kevin wanted to know about ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws in China. The short answer is: there are none.

If I left it at that, this would be a very bland, boring and unnecessary blog entry. So, I’m going to delve.

First, let me state: China is a gun free country. Therefore, Stand Your Ground legislation as it exists in America (with regard to guns) would not be applicable. Second: The Chinese government doesn’t necessarily concern itself with day to day interactions between citizens. They focus more on general social mores: one SHOULD maintain filial piety and loyalty to his/her country. People SHOULD strive to be ‘good’, productive, strive for high standards of living, of decency, dignity and decorum… and on and on. To be a member of this society implies adherence to these social ‘laws’. To my knowledge, there is no law or edict that states one has the right to defend him/herself by whatever means necessary, even unto the death of the offending party. 

What if there is a death? Criminal charges may or may not be filed. The altercations’ victors are not legally charged with a killing unless someone – usually a member of the victim’s family presses charges. In such cases, usually the police will negotiate a settlement between the ‘ground stander’ and the victim’s family. Some monetary value is agreed upon, depending on the status of the victim: was he/she a breadwinner? Were there many family members to support? Children to send to school? Such compensation would mirror approximately the financial value of the deceased. Not a lifetime value, mind you, but enough for the victim’s family to bridge the gap between what their slain loved one might have earned and the lack of those earnings, till they can figure out how to make up those resources.   

If the police cannot help the parties arrive to an agreement – i.e., the slain person’s family still wishes to take the matter to court, the police will then file charges and the matter will be brought before a judge, usually within a few weeks. Should the accused be found guilty, he/she would be remanded to some form of custody for a set period of imprisonment.

Most opt for settlement, mainly because if the matter goes to trial, which would most likely lead to incarceration, the victim’s family will receive no funds. Not that folks here are meretricious, but life in China is hard and people are pragmatic. Better to receive some sort of compensation so that life can go on. It is easier to grieve the loss of a loved one when all other aspects of life are at least somewhat maintained.

Does that mean that there is no Standing of Ground over here? Not on your life, my friend! (pardon the pun).

I never really gave this much thought, but I do get irritated on crowded buses. They get packed with people, even to the doorwells. Most times, those blocking the doors will not move to let passengers on or off. When a rider’s stop arrives, he/she is required to squeeze past or eek by those ‘blockers’, or shove them out of the way. It is even more difficult to do if/when that person has a suitcase or some other large bundle.

This doesn’t just happen in doorways. Sometimes, riders find a comfortable place to stand – near an open window or under an air conditioning vent, or maybe they have a group of seats scoped out for the chance at sitting, if theirs will be a long ride. That person will not move, even as the bus fills up. Newly boarded passengers have to ooze past those glued to their spots in order to find a place to stand that will afford them some sort of strap or pole to grip while the bus jounces around. This situation is aggravated if the unmoving passenger has a large bundle, a stroller or a suitcase.

And speaking of getting a seat… little old ladies may be harmless in the states, but over here, heaven forbid you should come between an empty seat and a senior citizen desiring to rest! Usually, women are more aggressive than men in this aspect. I have literally been pushed out of the way by tiny, wizened womenfolk who wish to park themselves where I had been planning to rest my duff.

I talked with Tristan about this matter after a particularly aggravating, jerky bus ride. He too averred he does not get out of the way, even if he could. He could not explain why. I suppose this behavior is so deeply ingrained in the culture that many Chinese would not be aware of doing it until it is pointed out.

You could say that, in China, bus riders definitely ‘stand their ground’. But it is not just bus riders.

At the farmers’ market, grocery stores, mom-and-pop operations, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, hospitals and just about everywhere I’ve gone, the Chinese have demonstrated a ‘Stand Your Ground’ mentality. It is nothing to cut in line at the supermarket, a train ticketing window, the bakery or a noodle stand. It is perfectly acceptable to shout questions or proffer money at cashiers, even while they are in the middle of a transaction with another customer.

You will not get wait-service in a restaurant unless you loudly call for it. You will be pushed aside and possibly stomped on at tourist venues, relics, temples or at the lake. You’d better be ready to bark your order to the cashier at McDonalds’ before someone cuts in from the side and takes your turn. In short, anywhere one is required to queue up and maintain decorum you will find a slew of eager, impatient Chinese ready to take advantage of any opening, no matter how small.

That includes driving. Unless your vehicle is within kissing distance from all vehicles around you, you can count on being cut off. That goes for dump trucks and double-decker buses as well as battery powered scooters.

While on the subject of scooters: they ride anywhere – sidewalks, bike paths, turning lane, center lane, right lane… wherever they can make their little put-puts go. As a pedestrian I have engaged many times in a tango with a scooter. So far those dances have not ended up in disaster for me, although once, during a heavy rainfall I did see a scooter knock a young woman wearing heels to the ground. While the bus I was riding ground slowly past, I could see their wild gesticulations. No doubt they were attempting to lay blame on each other to avoid having to pay compensation.

As you can see, there is plenty of ‘Standing Your Ground’ over here, and not much of it has to do with violence. Over here, ‘standing your ground’ means taking and defending your little portion of… whatever it is you are currently defending, whether standing room on a bus or your place in line at McDonalds’.           

A headline making case over here involved a man who, while arguing with a woman over a parking space, grabbed her daughter out of her stroller and flung her to the ground. The child died 2 days later, of injuries sustained from being spiked like a volleyball. The man was arrested and tried, found guilty of murder and currently serving his sentence. He has filed an appeal based on the fact that he did not intend to murder the child. His defense is based on the fact that many people in China use baby strollers for many different reasons, among them for vegetable transport.

This is true: I have seen strollers ‘recycled’ into shopping carts. This man maintains that in his drunken state he thought he was throwing vegetables around. I’m not sure how drunk one would have to be to mistake a baby for a cabbage. Perhaps it is possible… In any case: the mother stood her ground to have this man arrested, tried and imprisoned. The defendant is standing his ground by asserting he thought he was flinging cabbage. This is one argument the courts are going to have to straighten out.

Foreigners who come to China unprepared for this mentality are in for a shock. Mostly, they consider the Chinese rude for standing their ground. I contend it is not rudeness, merely culturally different. Could you imagine that type of imperative coupled with a handgun?