Friday, April 11, 2014

Not An Ordinary Tuesday

It started out just like any other Tuesday, perhaps even a little better. Thanks to the Qing Ming holiday, China’s tomb sweeping festival, when families pay tribute to their ancestors, classes were canceled on Monday. I lounged around in bed after restful sleep, wondering what to do with the day.

Incidentally… about Qing Ming: on several occasions I’ve written about the Chinese custom of burning paper money so that the deceased will have money to spend in the afterlife, although I never wrote an entry specifically about this festival. Last week, I learned through a conversation with my friend Diane that the Chinese version of The Afterlife is rich. One’s ancestors might have remarried and started a new family, or could be indulging in a passion held in this life that was never pursued. I had no idea the Chinese hold such descriptive views of afterlife.

In reading an article about this ancient celebration I learned that, in addition to the ‘money’ – yellow paper cut to roughly the size of a 100Yuan bill, people are now also burning pictures of I-phones, I-pads and android phones. If one can expect the afterlife to be rich in passion and indulgence, why shouldn’t grieved ancestors also have Smartphones?

Of course, then my perverse mind conjured up centuries-dead ancestors holding I-phones and wondering what they were, or even that those long gone actually knew what such a device was, but complained that they got poor reception in the afterlife. Maybe I’m just not reverent enough to appreciate giving Otherworld denizens modern technology.

Back to that perfectly secular Tuesday morning when I lay in bed stretching, deliciously rested and pondering my options for the day. I’ve long had on my mind to buy a bicycle. Maybe today would be the day to do that? Now that I can walk without falling over and I’m not dizzy all the time, riding a bike is a perfect way to exercise and shed those pounds I gained when I was not so steady on my pins. After asking a few of my friends to help me find a suitable bike, and even going from store to store I found one that I absolutely fell in love with.

Bear in mind please that until recently in China a bicycle was considered a form of transportation rather than a piece of sports equipment. Now that everyone is buying cars, jumping in taxis or riding battery powered scooters, recreational biking has come into its own. At any of the chain department stores, Walmart and Metro included you can now find an array of bikes for all sizes and any pleasure: dirt bikes, cruisers, even BMX and racing bikes. The cost generally ranges with the function, and 400Yuan is a base price.

The bike I had my eye on was a hybrid dirt bike and cruiser. It had wide, knobby tires and an articulated frame. Of the colors available, I chose the red and white one. Price: 499Yuan. That is a lot of bike for the money!

I went to several Walmart stores around town, just to gaze longingly at my bike. Once, I even took a picture of it and showed it off. I found the best selection of accessories was at the larger store downtown, which, conveniently enough was the closest to the campus and with most direct route. I planned my way home from that store, deciding I would make a day of it: pack a picnic lunch and plenty of water. I would ride as long as I comfortably could and then walk a ways, and then sit and lunch… I had it all mapped out. And then, Sam had to go and blow it for me.

As is often our habit, we lunch and visit on Tuesday afternoon. I have no classes on that day and Sam, after wrapping up his four periods at his other teaching job, comes to our school to complete administrative work. So, when I received his text message: “Will you be home at 1PM?” I only raised an eyebrow because we had visited the night before, and gone to dinner with his lovely Penny and my little buddy, Erica. However, it had been a while since we visited before that Monday evening. I just thought he had more stuff to talk about.

Have I ever told you he and I sometimes have intense conversations? He is a wise man, my friend Sam.

So I offered lunch and/or coffee via responding text. He opted for both. I scooted into the kitchen, started chopping, slicing, dicing and just generally rattling my pot and wok and cast iron skillet. At ten minutes till one lunch was ready and my phone pinged another incoming message. “I’m going to be late, maybe 1:45”.

Sam and I are good friends and, by now he understands my wacky sense of humor. So I felt comfortable sending him: “Late??? The food will be ruined! I hate you! Never come here again! HAHAHAHA! Travel safely, my friend. See you when you get here.”

I had no idea how fortuitous that message was, but I was disquieted when he did not respond. Maybe I had gone too far? That worry intensified by ten till 2, when he had still not manifested himself.

Finally! A knock on the door! There is my friend Sam, sweaty and slightly disheveled, grinning hugely nonetheless. He asked me if I had already bought my bike and gestured behind him, to the stairwell entrance.

There she was! My beautiful bike that I had lusted over for so many weeks, prolonging the sweet agony of desire! She was there, in front of my house, taunting me!

Now I’m confused. No, I had not bought my bike yet, and OH! The cruelty of whichever neighbor, selecting the very bike I wanted, in the very color I craved! And to park it right there, in front of my house still all wrapped up in its Styrofoam sheets and cardboard!!!

Sam grabbed my arm and urged me out. I barely heard him say: “Penny and I bought it for you…” before I was out the door, leaping about and shouting with glee. I could barely bring myself to touch it, so miraculous was its appearance at my home. In fact, Sam had to bring it in the house. I was too shocked and delighted to do anything productive.   

How many times does a body get to experience childlike joy in the fifth decade of his/her life? I felt like a kid at Christmas, discovering a new bike under the tree, and then learning that that bike is intended for her. I was so taken aback with this gift that I was literally struck speechless.

Sam rested and drank water while I walked around and around my beautiful new bike. He told me he and Penny had long wanted to gift me something, but they were both hard put to think of anything I might want or need. When I kept on blathering about my bike and showing pictures around that settled it for them. They decided on Monday night, after our dinner together that Sam would buy it the very next day. He then took it to a bike mechanic to get all the nuts and bolts tightened up, and have it given a good once over. And then, he rode it to my front door.

It was all I could do to eat lunch and converse. All I wanted to do was jump on my bike and ride, ride, ride. Don’t worry: I behaved myself. We had a lovely lunch featuring deviled eggs, which Sam had never had but quite enjoyed.

Frankly, the visit is a blur. My eyes kept straying to my red ride, goading me with her shiny chrome, tires whispering how good it would feel to roll over pavement. I was put out of my misery by Sam being called to a meeting. Somewhat solemnly, no doubt exhausted by his bike ride in the noonday heat, he took his leave.

I took my leave too. Hard to fathom how I could simply slam the door to my house, leaving my treasure behind without a single spin around the parking lot. I took off to buy every accessory I had planned on for my bike: lights, tools, a pump, a lock, gloves, a saddlebag-type pouch and, most importantly, a helmet. I spent 366Yuan on my 500Yuan bike. When I came home I had half expected the whole thing to be a dream but no! There she was!!!

That evening, after forcing myself to sit long enough to dine I outfitted my bike and, at 8PM I took off. The joy of gliding effortlessly around campus! I went around 3 times, about all my legs, unused to that type of exertion could take. I was home at 8:20 and showered and in bed by 11PM.

As for Sam and Penny? If you look in the dictionary under ‘friend’, you’re likely to see their picture. To me, they are the very definition of ‘friendship’.

I have to stop writing now. Time for a ride!!!  


Today I spent the first hour of my morning chatting with my conspirators: always a joy!!! In the course of our ramblings, they informed me of a massive earthquake off the coast of Chile (my) last night, which generated typhoons. As soon as our chat was over, I scoured my usual news outlets. Thanks to all that is sacred that no one was injured! Even though the area is still on alert for more severe damage, so far it appears only property suffered. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Closer to home, Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the government seat, suffered an earthquake on Friday night. It was far less severe in magnitude than the Chilean event, only 5.5 on the Richter scale. I didn’t feel a thing!

I had been out of touch while the debate debacle raged on and a bit wrung in the aftermath. I had yet to catch up with world, or even local news. When Evan told me about Hubei Province’s earthquake, I immediately went to I didn’t find any seismic information, but I did learn that that news outlet is hosting a blogging competition! Of course, I signed up. Luckily Evan told me about the earthquake when he did: the deadline for signing up was March 31st. I made it with a day to spare!

If I win this contest, I have Evan to thank.

Incidentally: you might have noticed that postings to my blog are more infrequent these days. The long speculated question has come back: what if I run out of things to say? After nearly 4 years and 500 entries, it was bound to happen. Now I have the chance to make my blog vital and new again. I am recycling entries and submitting them to the contest. So far I’ve had positive reviews. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m done talking with you, Dear Reader.

The Hubei Province earthquake coincided roughly with April Fools’ Day. I love pranking and that day is tailor made for a mischievous imp like me. Unfortunately I have learned that standard pranks and gags do not fare well over here. Things like: ‘I broke my leg and have to go to the hospital’ are met with utmost seriousness and sincere expressions of sympathy and caring. Nobody likes the postscript: HAHA! Fooled you! Happy Fools’ Day!!! Some even got downright mad.

The best April Fools’ gag I ever fell victim to is toothpaste oreos, as described in the Gotcha! entry posted April 1st, 2011. The second best one was this year’s announcement, from one of our school’s administrative groups. It came across our social network, hosted by QQ (China’s premier chat platform). In spite of my not so stellar Chinese, I understood the message to roughly say:

            Due to recent earthquake activity, all classes and administrative functions are suspended from April 7th until April 21st. Classes will reconvene on that day, after students return from their mandatory trip to their hometown. Earthquake readiness exercises will be conducted upon students’, faculty and staff’s return.

This was really disquieting to me. In all my time here, I have never known the Chinese, or anyone at our school to plan any sort of emergency preparation or disaster relief, let alone educate anyone about it or conduct drills. Furthermore, I have never known this school to suspend operation for any reason. Even canceled classes have to be made up.

That reminds me: I have to get with Sam to see when the classes, canceled because of the debate competition are rescheduled for.

Because I only got the rudiments of the message and because I was a bit frantic at the news of this unprecedented activity I asked: does that mean we should prepare to suffer an earthquake?

I experienced an earthquake when I was 10 years old, and that memory is not likely to ever leave me. We lived on the 6th floor of an apartment building in France, and it was just after midnight when it hit, on a steaming July night. We were all still awake because the oppressive heat discouraged sleeping, but we were giving it a go: lights out, stripped to our dainties, lying in bed without so much as a sheet covering us.

My sister and I shared a bed. Feeling the first tremors, she told me to quit shaking the bed. I told her I was not doing anything but trying to sleep. The shaking continued. A cry from my mother: “Everyone up! Everyone out! Down the stairs, don’t wait for the elevator!” What can you do at 10 years old, when you hear such a frantic directive?

My sister and I had no problem getting out of bed, throwing some clothes on and scooting down the hall, where we heard an agonized howl. My brothers had bunkbeds and, while the brother on the lower bunk was sitting on the edge of his bed, the brother on the upper bunk vaulted off his bed and set foot on the lower bunk… right between the legs of the lower bunk’s occupant. Needless to say, Lower Bunk brother had a hard time running down the stairs to escape our now steadily quaking home.

He was the lesser problem. My sister, apparently realizing the danger we were in, went hysterical. Trampling, shouting, crying, flailing about… she was rooted to the landing between the 5th and 6th floor, having only gone down one flight of stairs. A resounding slap from my mother startled her out of her tantrum and she resumed her descent.     

Suddenly, it stopped. We stood stock still in eerie silence, me a few steps up from the 5th floor landing with my hand on the banister. Our downstairs neighbor, a grandmotherly woman from Saudi Arabia, invited us in. She took one look at my sister’s ashen face and gave her a shot of brandy. I suspect my brothers were jealous, as was I. Not because we wanted brandy but because of all the attention given to our sister.

In the aftermath, we children packed all that we held dear. I remember thinking that, if I had to make another quick escape, grabbing a bag with all my things seemed very practical. I’m not sure how the boys arranged their packing but my sister and I fought over what belonged to whom and whose bag our few shared treasures would end up in. We lived out of paper bags containing our possessions for months. I suppose that, even back then I realized the value of preparation.

I recall looking out our bedroom window the morning after. Even the street sign had been gnarled out of true. Buildings across the street suffered broken glass and had a few cracks. Fortunately our building did not suffer any structural damage. I was in awe at the destructive power wielded in such a short time. But that was long ago. 

Since then, I’ve lived through a couple of tornadoes – most recently in a tent with my grandson! I’ve also lived through a house fire. More specifically, suffered through a house fire. The only natural disaster I’ve not been subjected to was a flood. Well, a severe flood. Last year it rained so hard in Wuhan that our campus was underwater and buses could not keep their routes because streets were washed out. I believe I can wait on, or pass altogether on a severe flood, if possible.

My experiences leave me nonplussed at the Chinese’s casual approach to natural disaster. Since I’ve been on campus there has not been so much as a fire drill. There are no sprinkler systems in any of our buildings. I have bars on all my windows. If there is a fire between me and my front door, I will most likely perish for lack of an escape route.

There are no severe weather drills or even information. When I ask my classes: ‘What will you do in case of an earthquake?’ They have no reply. They do not know what to do in case of fire, flood or tornado. They do not have an emergency kit containing food, first aid supplies and other life saving stores and equipment.

And what about the upsurge in violence? The attack at the Kunming railway station last month is a new manifestation of growing civil unrest. These flare ups are getting more common, as are robberies. Does anyone here know how to defend themselves? ‘Run!’, they say. ‘Scream!’ they assert. They have no idea how to stave off an attacker.

And that is ironic, in this country of Kung Fu.

Today I am to give a lecture. Sam asked me yesterday if I had an interesting topic in mind. Immediately I provided: Self defense and emergency preparedness. He approved.

Back to that disturbing message posted on the Administrative Group chat board, the one about the earthquake.

To my anxious query came this reply: Gotcha!!! Apparently the recent earthquake made for a stellar April Fools’ prank, Chinese style. How is that funnier than faking a broken leg?


Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The event was anticlimactic. And grueling.

The first day, Friday, we saddled up full of pep and energy, leaving the school at 8:30. On the bus we discussed strategy, opening lines and speculated on how things might be. I met our Chinese debate team then, too.

Competition guidelines stated that, for every 2 English teams each school sends, one Chinese team must also debate. Of course, the guidelines also stated that each school could send as many English debaters as were qualified. With our 4 English teams, we were within the guidelines grooming 3 Chinese teams. Having been mandated to cut our English team in half, we now had more Chinese debaters than English ones.  

What I mean by ‘English’ and ‘Chinese’ debaters refers to the language they would speak in competition. Of course, all the students are Chinese, as are all of the coaches, except for me. The teams I coached were to debate in English and the other teams would compete in their native tongue.  

After much excitement and a pleasant, formal welcome by the competition organizers at a hotel in front of the campus the contest would take place at, we all made our way to the Language Arts building, on top of a hill, toward the back of campus.

This institute’s architecture was reminiscent of Greek schools: soaring facades, Doric columns, gabled entryways and all. In fact, the setting reminded me of the Acropolis. The school borders a lake and the various ‘colleges’ – buildings dedicated to teaching an entire major’s curriculum were built in concert with the hilly terrain. Even the dorms featured scalloped friezes around the windows. For all of the architecture and the cultivated grounds, for the pleasant breeze coming off the lake, and even for the teaching buildings’ appearance of austere academia, I couldn’t get away from the fact that all the buildings were concrete, just like every other building in Wuhan. Just goes to show: no matter how dressy the frontage, fundamentally, all is the same.

Another thing all the same: the crowding. Intellectually I am used to the lack of personal space, or, should I say the outright disregard for personal space. But, because I tend to go out in small groups and avoid crowds whenever possible, the unpleasant idea of being herded came to mind. Hard to step away from the masses when you are surrounded. Nevertheless, being pressed into from all sides was not a shock. After nearly 4 years of living in China, I can take this type of thing in stride.

What was shocking was the lack of organization. I honestly can’t tell you what I expected or anticipated, but I can guarantee you the event did not come close to what we imagined.

We had to enroll our teams ten days before the event took place. One would think that, will all the teams registered, the matches could be set in advance. However, that first day, nothing was set.

Initially, coaches were to undergo training on how to judge at the same time as the contestants trained on how to debate. Just as we arrived at the room where training was to take place we were told judges’ training was canceled. What to do with the rest of the morning?

We ambled around. One of our coaches, Tibby, had just graduated from that university. She gave us a guided tour. At 11:30 we were treated to lunch provided by the hosting campus. Again we were surprised. Instead of the school’s cafeteria providing lunch it was catered in. We each got a take out container of rice, and another of vegetables and meat. It was a bit spicy but tasty, and welcome. The morning’s exertions had made us all hungry.

At lunchtime is when our school’s contestants met up again. I have to admit: I was a bit uncomfortable about being separated from the team I coached. My idea of being at the competition with them was to offer moral support, to let them know we were in this together, till the end. Instead, I judged 4 different face-offs, not one of them consisting of any of my teams. I’ll get into that a little later. During lunch we chattered about the morning’s experiences. All of us kept our disappointment at bay, expounding only on the interesting parts.

After lunch everyone reconvened in the English Salon, an auditorium type of room, to get our assignments and see the list of pairings. Unfortunately the room was not large enough to accommodate everyone, so the coaches/judges were sent to a classroom, which proved too small for us all. A further division: English team judges were to repair to yet another classroom while the Chinese team judges would stay put.

Now the grumbling was audible. The day was getting late and tempers were fraying. Decorum flitted away. Claws were unsheathed and maws gaped. I even spotted a few fangs. However, no venom was spilled and we coaches/judges sat around for another hour, waiting for something…  A directive. Or… SOMETHING!!!

At 3PM all coaches/judges were told they should go to the large room below the English Salon for training. Again, the room was too small and Chinese judges had to go to another room. At 4PM the trainer, who freely peppered her lesson with profanity told us we were to go back to English Salon to prepare for Round 0 debates.

Now it is 5PM. We have been waiting for an hour. Still no matches set, no assignments. The dismay intensifies. Now, at 5:30, we’re hoping nothing more will happen today. We were supposed to be done by 6PM. Word had it that, if nothing was settled or started soon that we would all go home.

So much for that word. Round 0 debates started at 6:20. We did not get home until 9PM.

The next morning, bright and early. 8:30 we board the bus, by 9AM we are back on Grecian Campus. This time things seem to go relatively smoothly. We still had to sit around, waiting for assignments. However, with Round 0 under our belts we now knew what to expect. In fact, due to my experience judging Round 0 I was looking forward to judging again. Judging Round 1 was not a pleasant experience. The two women I judged with did exactly what we were told NOT to do in training: judge based on whether we agree with a contestant’s arguments. We were supposed to judge based on eloquence, number of points brought up and whether that debater fulfilled his/her role. I was out-voted and a contestant that did not merit accolades was given first place.

From then on, it became a bloodbath. Contestants’ claiming they were unfairly judged was the chief complaint. From my perspective, that complaint had merit, but such allegations slowed the seeding process even more, so that we only judged 3 debate rounds instead of the intended 4. However, we did get home on time that night. Thank goodness!

I had coached my team according to World University Debate Competition rules, which specify that the first minute of speaking should afford the contestant time for introduction, and summarizing his/her position in one sentence. After which should follow 5 minutes of talking: bringing up points of information pertinent to the issue, and backing them up. During the final minute, the speaker should summarize his/her argument, and be back in his/her seat by the time the 7 minute bell tolls. Each speaker has these 7 minutes and keeping time is crucial.

Bri and Celine caught up with me after the first debate round to tell me the judges said their introductions were pointless, and in fact they had lost points because of it. I approached one of the competition organizers with this problem. She stated that I must be far more qualified than all other coaches to have trained my team to that standard. She advised me… nothing. So I advised my team that, prior to debating they should approach the judges and tell them they were trained to introduce themselves. If the judge deemed that unsatisfactory, they should rethink their opening minute to conform with the norm.

Late in the day I was accosted by a team of fierce debaters I had judged, who were angry they were only second place. They could not believe that timing was crucial, and that they lost points because one of the speakers only spoke for 4 minutes. It was my pleasure to direct them to the Rules website I had consulted. Somewhat mollified but still fuming, they strode away.

Come Sunday night we were all wrung. On the bus, going home, silence prevailed. Until Sam spoke up.

It seems our debaters had earned some prize money! The English team came in third tier and the Chinese team second tier. Not too shabby for a bunch of kids who only had minimal time to prepare. Sam gave each contestant 50Yuan, and promised them their certificates of participation as soon as they were scanned into the school’s database.

They glowed!! They knew they were getting certificate but had no idea there was prize money involved. Even that surprise was not enough to rouse them from their stupor, but their smiles indicated their joy. These are truly kids to be proud of. And I am.