Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oh, Baby-Baby!

If I didn’t know any better, I would swear that my colleagues are all Math teachers, instead of English teachers. Not because they spout equations and randomly place X on grids, but because they are multiplying at an alarming rate!

Today I attended a luncheon hosted by one of our teachers who had gotten married last year and was celebrating the ‘coming out’ of her baby. The invitation was broad: anyone who could attend was welcome. And there we were, eighteen guests, all but 3 not English teachers – one attendee was the department secretary, and the babies.

I’ll get to the babies in just a sec. Please let me explain the baby ‘coming out’ practice. It is not what it sounds like, trust me. The biggest clue is that the party took place in an upscale restaurant, not in a labor/delivery room. That should convince you we didn’t actually attend the baby’s coming out – as in, the birthing.

According to Chinese custom, a baby of 3 to 6 months needs to be formally presented. Thus, the parents choose a very nice restaurant, reserve a private room or two, invite their closest friends and everybody passes the baby around and stuffs their face. Not with baby, but with exquisitely prepared dishes. On the menu today were braised ribs, sliced beef, hard boiled eggs, glutinous rice cakes, saut̩ed snap peas, a lovely beef soup, some meat balls, a fruit platter and, of course, the inevitable fish Рhead, tail, fins and all.

At least this was a whole fish, as opposed to the fish head that graced our table Friday afternoon, when I went out with Mouse and Daisy. I never knew a fish head could be picked so clean. I’ll not go into details.

David and his wife, who live in the school apartment complex a few buildings down from me, drove me to the shindig. Their little Devan was in attendance (15 months old). On the way we picked up Sam and my little buddy, Erica. Once there we met up with Daisy and Steve, with their 8 month old. Julia and Chris brought Little Eddie, my own Benjamin’s ‘twin’ (See the Great Baby Race entry, posted July 2012). At the other table were The Baby of Honor (6 months old), with his parents, of course; the department secretary and her 4 year old daughter, yet another Helen with her husband and baby (10 months old). Miller came alone, his wife and baby having stayed at home. The youngest baby of the bunch was Hellen Shao’s. She is due in February.

It is customary at such affairs to offer up a ‘hong bau’ – a red envelope, containing money. I’ve mentioned these before but let me recap: for special occasions one offers such an envelope with a certain sum of money inside, usually 100Yuan. One should put their name on the back of the envelope so that the gift can be recorded and returned, guanxi style, at some later date.

At the proper time, I was proud to proffer my hong bau in traditional manner – both hands extended, envelope between the first 2 fingers of each hand. Imagine my surprise when my offering was turned down!!!

It seems that, while it is proper Chinese culture to offer a red envelope, as a foreigner I was not expected to abide. In fact, the hostess/mother of the baby being celebrated told me that I should follow my own culture’s customs.

I have a conundrum. I was born in France and grew up there, in Germany and in America. Now live in China, mainly because I have an affinity for Chinese culture. Which country’s traditions should I claim as mine?

And how should I react to a gift being spurned?

I pouted. That is, I pooched my lower lip out and made puppy dog eyes while again offering my envelope. Peny, the hostess, again averred I should follow my country’s custom. Seeing as most of my colleagues believe me to be 100% American, I suppose she expected me to follow that culture and offer a gift, rather than money. It being a little late for me to go gift shopping, and not knowing her baby’s gender I was definitely caught out, as far as American custom was concerned.

Now the puppy dog eyes got seriously droopy, and a skilled pilot could have landed a small aircraft on my lower lip, as far as it was protruding. Finally, she accepted my gift. I smiled and the party raged on. 

This incident gave me pause. Not just for the question posed above – which culture should I claim as mine, but also: what would be considered quintessentially American?

Don Henley, eminent sage and Eagles drummer, stated: “Our primary exports being junk food and rock and roll …”

He may have a point with the junk food. Burger King is constantly packed to bursting, as are KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and the ubiquitous McDonalds. I have classrooms full of students longing to savor turkey and steak. What else besides food do we have that is fundamentally American, seeing as American culture is made up of many cultures, all of which lay claim to their original ethnicity? Or, at least, an accepted version thereof?

I’ve decided to put my students to the test. That will be the subject of the next 3 weeks’ lessons: we will explore the many facets of American culture.

We’ll also delve into Chinese culture. What is essentially Chinese? Food? Language/writing system? Kung fu? They should know. These kids are amazing when it comes to deciphering their heritage.

In the meantime, with the additional duty of coaching the debate team for competition in 2 weeks, I’m glad to have such a rich and deep well of subject matter to tap. No need for me to plan lessons for at least 3 weeks, and all I have to do is finish the presentation I’m preparing.

Now, one small problem: we don’t have a debate team.

That’s going to make this job extra challenging. Not only do I get to handpick our team, but I get to work with them intensely for the next 2 weeks to prepare them for competition. Another stumbling block: I know how to debate but not the mechanics of debating. Thanks to technology, the kids and I can watch videos to learn exactly how to do it. So, no sweat for me: I’m learning new things, and I know who I want to represent our school. Now I’ve just got to get them to agree to work intensely for the next couple of weeks and help them choose what to wear.

Fortunately there are no parties to attend in the near future. Hellen Shao had her baby on the 10th of February; a little girl. She won’t ‘come out’ for at least another 5 months. By then, the debate competition will be over.

Wish us luck!    


Friday, February 21, 2014

Blogger, Not?

I've not written much of late. I mentioned that in the last entry. Wonder why?

A while back it occurred to me that everything I did was for the blog. I don't remember exactly which entry included the line: 'I record impressions and write about them'. Perhaps around the time I visited my friend in Suizhou? Whenever it was, I realized I was traveling for the sole purpose of blogging, and not spending much time enjoying what I was doing. Not that I don't enjoy blogging.

One thing I've grown tired of is doing everything by myself. For most of my life, solitary pursuits have been my quest. Traveling by myself just isn't fun anymore. Gary, the perfect travel companion for me, is busy getting his friend's business off the ground while also managing his affairs. With my liberal schedule, I often find myself taking to the rails and roadways alone. I should find other traveling buddies.

Another reason is that I have fallen into a very comfortable life. Not exactly mundane, but nothing remarkable. I teach, and have a lot of fun doing so. I travel and enjoy seeing new things. Culture, social differences... there are still things to write about, but can I do so with authority?

Can this blogger write satisfying entries without sacrificing the joy of experiencing?

I've yet to find middle ground. I've gone from one extreme to the other: from living to blog to living without blogging about every single thing.

Bear with me, please. There are still adventures to be had, still places to visit, still mountains to climb. And now that I feel so much better, climbing mountains seems a fine idea! Besides, aren't you happy I'm not writing about my health anymore?

Just let the weather warm up a little, and then off I go.

The Spoiled Rotten Tour

If I was a superstar of song and stage, I would headline this stateside trip as above. Granted, while in China I am a bit of a superstar, but China is not America... as I've to condition myself to each time I return. Therefore, this title indicates the general theme of this year's whirlwind visit. 

It has been more than just a little while ago that I've taken to the keyboard. In the flurry of stateside visits I did not wish you a happy Lunar New Year, or even welcome you to the Year of the Horse. Doesn't mean you weren't on my mind and it certainly does not indicate that I had no way to blog, seeing as my conspirators have gifted me this wonderful new machine I currently and talking to you on.

Truth is, I've been spoiled rotten. Everywhere I went I was welcomed with open arms... nothing new there. However, it seems this year everyone had it in for me, gift-wise.

Of course, you know Jenn treated me to a trip to the Magic Kingdom (see Goin' Disney entry, posted October 2013). She also surprised me with a flannel sheet set – won't they be toasty in the winter? And the most whimsical of gifts: a pair of zebra-striped footie pajamas, complete with  faces on the feet. I love them!!!

My Jenn is simply beautiful. She has lost a substantial amount of weight since last year and has given me my pick of everything that does not fit her anymore. I balked. Remember my minimalist plan? Living with only what I absolutely need? Of course, I need clothes, but  not a new outfit for every day, and not excessively dressy clothes. Besides, I only have 1 suitcase, and its weight limit is fifty pounds (22 kilos). And, because I still had a lot of visiting to do, I would have to carry those clothes with me on every plane and lug them around at every stop. However, she pooched her lower lip out when I declined to take some of the clothes. They simply weren't my style or a color I like to wear. Her pouting goaded me to pack everything, leaving shoes and other things behind for her to mail to me.

At the airport in Tampa, in spite of having used compression bags for all those clothes my suitcase was still more than 3 pounds overweight. Picture the mad scramble to lighten my load by 3.5 pounds and finding a place to stuff that excess. My backpack and the laptop case, given me by my conspirators was already full to bursting.

The one thing I was not about to throw away was my Barry Manilow concert ticket stub. I've been a Manilow fan since my tender years, when he was just starting out. He has more than 40 years in the business and I have to reason: how many more concerts will he give? And how likely will it be that I will be able to attend? An evening with Barry was another 'spoilage', but it was I that treated Jenn.

Tampa brought Disney, Barry and the Superbowl. Jenn and I are not football fans so we hung out in her room, watching The Shining and snacking on finger foods like pizza rolls and potato chips. That was the only day that we did not leave the house.

Another thing Tampa brought was the Color Run. For so long Jenn had not been in any kind of shape to take part in anything physical. Her weight loss has given her the strength, ability and desire to take part in The Color Run, a 5K race whose theme is FUN! While savoring amusement by the handfuls, I spilled tears of joy at watching her run. Until recently, I reasoned she would be severely incapacitated within a few years, if not devastatingly ill due to that weight. Way to go, Jenn!!!

Memphis brought a reunion with Lisa and Bonnie, a pedicure, and a massage. Lots of hugs, a peaceful feeling of belonging, conviviality, food, chocolate, more chocolate and even more chocolate. Dove, dark and mint; chocolate Chex Mix with caramel corn. Such a chocolate overload that even now, back home, I resist chocolate. I'm betting that won't last long.

So spoiled rotten was I that I did not have room in my suitcase for everything. Darrell, in California -  my last stop before winging back offered up a second suitcase. Sure, it would have been easy to take him up on it. Maybe I wouldn't have had to leave my house shoes behind, and I could have packed the health/beauty aids that I bought to see me through my trip.  

Jenn promised to send a package containing all the stuff I had to leave behind: my new shoes, clothing  I left in the laundry, gifts for my Chinese friends. If that package had arrived while I was still visiting, I would have been forced to take Darrell up on his offer of a second bag. Was I spared because it did not come?

I have something to look forward to: Darrell will forward that parcel, after including some things I forgot, or that he thinks I might like (read: junk food). I'm all ready to be surprised. Jenn said she also packed a few things she thought I might like.

One surprise I did not know about: the truck. When I opened my computer case at TSA security at LAX, I had to laugh out loud. SOMEhow, one of Ben's trucks found its way into my satchel, and I suspect, not by accident. Apparently it dove in after I packed my laptop, because the case was filled nearly to bursting after I secured the computer. Somehow, my mysterious truck benefactor found room for it.

What I didn't find till I got home: the cherry pie. I knew there was a cherry pie lurking about Darrell's apartment, because that became one of his and my rituals: going to McDonald's for a midafternoon cup of coffee, while Ben napped (Sammie was home to watch him; we did not leave him there alone). That first afternoon, he observed that McDonald's apparently no longer serves cherry pie. At the cost of fifty cents, I made a liar out of him. From that day on, cherry pie and coffee became the staple.      

So how did this one, errant cherry pie make it into my bag? Even now I laugh. He must have gone to McDonald's on the sly, snuck it into the house and then into my bag. No other explanation.

Yes, this was indeed a 'spoiled rotten' tour. Back in China, in my unheated apartment, under Sam's watchful and eager eye (he got spoiled rotten, too), I raked over my wealth: a bottle of perfume I would never have bought for myself. Flannel sheets and footie jammies, wicking socks and extra thick ski socks, clothes and more clothes, books, top of the line computer with case... and let's not forget my cast iron skillet, I reflect how rich I am. Not in materials while nice, 'things' matter very little in the end, don't you know. Rich in love, in friends, in happiness, experience and memories. More than the sheets, the jammies and the socks, that is what keeps me warm.

If you think I was the only one spoiled rotten this year, you are wrong.

I started accumulating gifts for my loved ones as early as March. Come time to pack and head stateside, I was in a tizzy: I had more gifts than I had suitcase to pack them in! With no time to buy a second suitcase, I improvised. Having received a package in a sturdy, triple corrugate box, I reasoned I could use that box as a makeshift suitcase. (Probably) no one would frown on it, seeing as last year, when I performed in the Teacher Talent Showcase for our school, I used a box as a prop and was asked repeatedly if I was returning to America. Over here, boxes, with a handle fashioned out of tape or string is considered luggage.

Except for the nouveau riche Chinese. They wish to display their wealth by any means possible. Air travel is one way to do so, and shiny new luggage is another. So here I am, this foreigner with a box and a duffel bag for luggage, among Chinese towing their rollaround, hardshell suitcases.

You could say I was displaying my Chinese-ness while they were showing their wealth.

I only took 3 sets of clothes with me, and hardly any health/beauty aids. What filled my suitcase?

Gifts. Small, large, extravagant and handmade gifts. From me, from Sam, from Gary. Gifts filled my suitcase. My measly 3 sets of clothing went into the cardboard box.

See? I wasn't the only one spoiled rotten, this tour!