Monday, June 23, 2014

Some Traveler!





Gary and I got back to Wuhan a little after noon on Sunday. A quick snack of grilled bratwurst and crackers, and he was on his way. He only had 2 days to visit all his friends and take care of his business before the solo drive back. As comfortable as his car is, I feel for him. Twelve hours is a long time to be on the road by yourself.

The extended car ride had taken all my pep and vigor. It was all I could do to prop myself on the couch and admire my shiny floors. After 4 years here I've finally figured out the secret to beautiful, dust-free floors: Pledge laminate floor care. A few blasts from the trigger spray a few whisks of the dust mop and I can call my home Gleam City.

Before leaving for Hangzhou I wanted the house clean because this trip was to be the start of my vagabonding. A few days at home and then I was due in Beijing for a celebration activity with the expat blogging community on Saturday. I had cleaned everything except for the kitchen floor and washed all my clothes in anticipation of only popping in and out all summer.

I resisted unpacking, reasoning that all my clothes are clean – washed at Gary's house. It would only be 5 days, and then I'd be gone again. I even balked at grocery shopping. Why should I? In just a few days I'd be gone again, and I had enough to last that short time.

That's when things fell apart.

China and Google have had a tenuous relationship ever since their issue of copyright infringement a few years ago. It appears neither side is willing to back down and China has, at the very least made it uncomfortable, if not impossible to access any Google sites or functions. That means I was blocked from accessing my email.

That wouldn't have mattered if I didn't have my own computer to fall back on. The university provided computer crapped out. It simply wouldn't boot up... AGAIN!!! For the 4th time I need our school's IT department to fix it. Unfortunately, this close to year's end they are either very busy or dismissed for the summer. Fortunately I have my own machine, so I am able to get online. But I cannot access Google or any of those functions.

All of my contacts! All of my email chains: inaccessible! Google Chat, the program I use to connect with my kids for everyday conversation: permanently blocked!

And more of an immediate concern: how was I to know when and where in Beijing to meet the expat bloggers? Quickly I logged into my ChinaDaily account to change my email address and notify the coordinators of the change. When they acknowledged the change they also informed me the event had been canceled for lack of planning.

Lack of planning???

I had plans! I was going to meet the Beijing crowd, enjoy the activity and then take off to one of the two Ikea stores in that city. I don't remember how I caught the Ikea bug but I am... 'obsessed' is too strong a word. I am fixated on Ikea just recently.

That led me to investigate the Ikea website. There I found that there will be an Ikea store in Wuhan! YIPPEE!!! I resolved the very next day to go find it. The website said it was not open for business yet but perhaps it had not yet been updated. Besides, as long as I was just laying around, waiting to travel I might as well go and have a look.

That was Wednesday. I had been home for 2 ½ days and still had not unpacked, reasoning I would be traveling by the weekend. However, I didn't have a train ticket yet, either.

In spite of my Beijing hopes being dashed I reasoned I could still go, if only to visit Ikea. Reason asserted itself. I don't really like Beijing and there are other cities that have Ikea. Why not go to one of them?

Because Sam still has my passport: that's why. I could get away with buying a train ticket on an expired passport but I wouldn't be able to rent a hotel room. Adventurous as I am, spending the night on some sidewalk is not the type of escapade I seek.

It is now  Friday. I should have been on a train, or at least in possession of a ticket. I'm still not unpacked and my food supply is meager, but I'm not starving... yet. I should make a trip to the grocery store soon.

Sam finally messages me about getting together. I am due for a blood test to measure how effective my thyroid is and, as long as the hospital is literally a stone's throw from his house, why don't we have a visit?

Let's think about this: I had computer woes and wanted/needed my passport: why didn't I contact him?  Because I know he's busy. Other than a short message letting him know I was safely back and asking if there was anything he needed help with, I left my friend alone. Come to find out, it was good that I did.

Last year the Chinese government enacted stricter guidelines for foreigners. Essentially it boils down to restricting foreigner activity to the visa they hold: if one has a working visa, s/he cannot run a business. Conversely, if s/he holds a business visa but doesn't not own/operate a business, s/he is in violation of the visa laws. As with every country, the people had time to adjust – one year in this case, before being held to the letter of the law.

Victor has owned and operated a business since he came to China. Under these now enforced laws, he is in violation because our school – his sponsor only affords him a working visa, not a business classification.

Poor Sam! Imagine the impact such a breach could cause our school! We could lose our charter for foreign teachers: that would mean that Victor and I are out the door. Our school could have to pay a heavy penalty for aiding and abetting. At the very least it is an embarrassment to have a foreigner flout the law. Sam, responsible for foreign teachers told me he did not sleep for 2 nights, struggling for a resolution.

The visa office provided a work-around: extend Victor's visa for only 6 months under the condition that he transfer his business to another party. He is still welcome to work it but cannot own it. After that time the government will make sure he is in compliance with the law. If not, he's gone – booted out of and barred from the country, and Sam has to scramble to find another foreign teacher in the middle of the school year.

Dean Tu, the school's CEO swung between 2 poles: furious at Victor and proud of me (for being a top ten blogger in China: did you know that?) If it were up to him, Dean Tu would fire Victor on the spot. However, we have already signed our contracts for next year and, as long as Victor complies with the law there will be no legal penalties. I can guarantee you this: Victor will NOT receive an invitation to teach next year. 

It has now been 2 weeks since my return from Hangzhou. I finally unpacked but have not yet gone grocery shopping. I will HAVE to go tomorrow.

All things considered: Sam needing to vent, my needing a blood test, the visa issue made more complicated by Victor: it is a good thing I didn't hit the rails again. All Sam needs it to come bail me out of jail for trying to book a hotel room with an expired passport. Besides, I had to clean my kitchen floor.

Vagabonding will resume as soon as my papers are in order and back in my hands.

Kicking off the Travel Season



The semester is over and grades have long since been turned in. I am limited in my travels just now because my visa is up for renewal. Sam has custody of my passport to get that all important stamp in, so I can't go far – no hotels possible without proper identification. But I can certainly go visit Gary in Hangzhou.

I've already written about Hangzhou (see 'Hang Zhou' entry posted August 2012) and there is not much more to talk about with regard to the city but I will tell you that I did something I've longed to do: square dance.

This is not square dancing as it is known in the States. I'm referring to women who gather at dusk to dance in public squares (See Women, Dancing by the Pond entry posted May 2013).  Lately there has been controversy over this timeless practice: people are now claiming that these women disturb the peace with their loud music. It even went so far as to ban this dancing during Gao Kao weekend, when students prepare for their rigorous college entrance exam.

Personally, I don't see why this dancing is vilified: it is only for an hour or two every evening. It is a social event, and not just for women. Children run about and men watch their ladies. Afterwards, everyone walks home content and ready for bed. By 9PM the neighborhood is quiet again. Of course, it is maddening to hear the same songs every night, but then I think: I'm a guest in this country and privileged to be treated to such an intimate slice of life.

Gary and I were walking around the first evening I got to Hang Zhou and I was immediately drawn to the dancing women. I spouted off to him about how much I admire them, with their delicate moves and waving fans and how I was so angry that people are suddenly put off by this age-old practice. He urged me into the square. Even though I want to I would never dare participate! Their moves are so gracious, their steps so precise. I would seem a hulking, bumbling mass next to these dainty dancers. Between him pushing me and the women's welcome, glad a foreigner would join them I had no choice but to trip the light less fantastic. I didn't do well but my fellow dancers were proud of my efforts, urging me to stay when I wanted to leave, and then welcoming me back for the next night.

I didn't do any sightseeing besides evening walks because I was working. Gary works for an international trading company whose sales are only modest, mostly because the staff has no idea of the nuances of international business culture and only a rudimentary grasp of English. With no foreknowledge I conducted seminars, first in Business English and then in Sales. I'm not complaining: it was an easy task and I walked away 400Yuan richer. 

On Saturday morning we took off. One thing I have to get used to when around Gary is getting up early, and that day was no exception. I was up by 4:30, unable to sleep for fear of oversleeping. Our plan was to hit the road by 6AM and drive his car back to Wuhan, with a stop in Jiangxi. We've done the road trip thing before but I had never been to Jiangxi province. I was excited to see something new.

Jiangxi is located east of Wuhan, bordering Anhui province. That's not good news. I had never been to Anhui province and planned a trip to Wuhu, a major city there. Why Wuhu? Because it sounds like 'woohoo!' I wanted that to be my first destination this summer. That way I could say I saw Anhui province with special glee. My plan was foiled because, to get to Jiangxi we drove through Anhui. Don't worry, my fellow vagabonds: I'm still going to Wuhu, it just won't be the first time I will have been in Anhui province.  Stay tuned for that one.

Our specific destination was Jingdezhen (pronounced 'jing duh jen), known as the porcelain capital of China. It is barely more than a town and rather on the mean side, I'd say. Just because of its lowly status as a sub-prefecture doesn't mean people there don't partake of all the trappings city dwellers do, specifically: driving.

The roads were choked! You would think I would be used to traffic nightmares but, compared to Jingdezhen traffic, Wuhan's is civilized. Here the roads are only 2-lane. Everyone fights for position. Nobody is afraid to veer into the oncoming lane to get ahead. 2-wheeled vehicles commandeer the sidewalk. They imperiously sound their horns, demanding pedestrians to get out of their way. One would think that pedestrians could safely claim one half of the walkway, leaving scooters the other half but it seems that scooter traffic is also  2-way and pedestrians have no choice but to inch along, hugging the walls.

We stayed in a nice hotel, a chain that has houses all over China. There was a bit of trouble because I was carrying my expired passport for identification purposes. The clerk could not register me as a guest without proper documentation. We explained that my current passport was with the authorities for visa renewal. Could we not simply register using Gary's name? After admonishing me for traveling without proper documentation, the clerk assigned our room.

Chain hotels are not so unusual over here, but this one will get my business from now on because of its comfortable beds. I felt a little bit like Baby Bear, sleeping in this bed that was neither too hard nor too soft. Traditionally, beds in China are not much more than a thin pad over a board. Even my bed, if not for the 2 foam pads I bought for it would be too rigid. But this bed! I could have stayed in that town, in that hotel just for the bed. Even Gary exclaimed how comfortable the beds were.

Lounging around was not our purpose, and neither was sightseeing. That's a good thing: there wasn't much to see. Our room faced a canal, its level low, water dispiritedly flowing westward. Across the canal was a pagoda. Later we found that pagoda had just been built and was not yet complete: no tours possible. The walking street leading to the pagoda sold mostly clothes. No eclectic little shops or funky restaurants. No street food. Rather dismaying, all in all.

We did walk through Old Town. It should have been called 'decrepit town'. Again I sensed an air of malaise bordering on malevolence. In spite of my overall feeling of safety in China I would not want to walk these streets alone.

It is said that this city gave China its name. Not for the fine china it produced, as one might suspect but because  it's original name was Changnan. That name was synonymous with ceramics and through various mispronunciations by western traders, it evolved into the word 'china'. That name came to mean not just the fine porcelain but also the country where it originated.  

What really caught our eyes was the pottery kiln historical site. The famous Ming vases originated here, as did the record holding vase that commanded an impressive 230 million Yuan at auction, the highest price ever fetched for pottery. As museums go it was nice but not impressive... until we got all the way to the end, where there was a dig going on. I went nuts: walking all around the pit, snapping pictures, trying to get as close as possible. Gary held back because, unlike the museum buildings this site was not air conditioned. A bit pampered is our Gary, and obviously not that much into archeology. But he indulged me, waiting outside the enclosure, in the shade.

These days pottery is produced en masse in a factory, but some of it is still hand-painted. Gary's aim was to visit the shop of one of his trading clients and stock up on 'guang xi' gifts. So, we ended up at Pottery Row, courtesy of his client, via air conditioned SUV. We wiled 2 hours away in their little shop. Gary spent more than 1,400Yuan, a part of that being gifts for my family and friends. Afterward that business owner took us to a local restaurant to sample indigenous fare: sour noodles. I didn't much care for the  taste. It seemed to underscore the disposition of this burg.

Crossing the street to our hotel we had to hold our hand up to stop traffic. Even though there are zebra stripes there are no traffic lights and everyone rushes across, literally bumper to bumper. One has to demand access to the crosswalk. We made it back in one piece, wound down from the day and sank into those heavenly beds.

While it was fun to travel with Gary again, this excursion left little impression on me. I'll be glad for my passport so I can hit the rails again and visit enticing cities.              

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Funny…





Funny how, the first 2 years I was here I traveled even though I mostly felt terrible. Now that I feel well, I’ve not been anywhere. This evening I will remedy that.

Tonight at 2200 I will board a train for the first time in a year. I’m headed to Hangzhou to visit Gary for a few days, and then we will road trip back to Wuhan. From there I’ll trip to Beijing for a social event for the ChinaDaily.com bloggers (you can find my blog page here: http://blog.chinadaily.com.cn/space-uid-1372409.html)

After that… who knows? Let’s just say that this vagabond is on the road again. And gratefully so!

See you in about a week.

Fathers’ Day





I pose the same question for Fathers’ Day as I did for Mother’s Day. Please note where the apostrophe is. Thanks to Bonnie for telling me it is for individual mothers. Is it also for individual fathers?

For this day I pay a general tribute to all the men I know who are fathers, but especially to my two sons, remarkable fathers that they are.

For Garrett who believes he will have to live with a shotgun by his side to protect his precious baby girl, Kat. She is a beautiful child with ginger hair and china blue eyes, just like her father. I love how he searches the internet for ways to style his daughter’s hair. How they dance together. How he has meaningful conversations with Gabriel while manning an X-box control. How he is evolving as a man to better lead his children into their no doubt bright future. Bright, because of him.

For Darrell who has waited so long for fatherhood. He and Benjamin are poetry in motion, living art. Benjamin, who so looks like his mother but is his father all over, except for the mischief that turned my hair grey at the tender age of 24. Benjamin, who doesn’t cry when he falls because his Daddy always tells him: “You’re OK, Buddy. Brush it off.” How adorably his little hands swipe his belly or legs to brush off the hurt. With a Daddy like Darrell, it is easy to just brush it off. Benjamin, who runs through the house, shouting at the top of his lungs: “Daddy! I love you!” And Darrell, shouting back: “Benjamin! I love you too!” And the hugs. The tender hugs.

I never knew what a good dad was until my sons became fathers. From them I learned to appreciate fathers. Never having had one, it was kind of hard to revel in Father’s Day. Now, because of my sons, I do.

Small aside: because I was a single parent, my kids treated me on Mother’s as well as Father’s Day. So, this entry is also for mothers who do double duty. In case I didn’t include it in the Mother’s Day entry: kudos to the fathers who do double duty.

But this isn’t about me; it is about all those great fathers, so vital to shaping their kids’ lives. My hat is off to you. You deserve more than just a day of tribute… but then, not every day can be Fathers’ Day, can it?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

There is No Shame





This week I suffered a huge disappointment and a major confounding that has plagued me since I’ve lived here.

I’ve written about the confounding several times before, the first time being the Be My Friend entry, posted May 2011. It has to do with my alleged helplessness, doddering and my apparent inability to so much as walk down a set of stairs without falling. Mind you, I can walk down the stairs just fine but it seems my Chinese friends believe I will plunge headfirst and suffer grievous injury unless they take my arm and repeatedly urge me to be careful.  

Last Monday, Dragonboat Festival, I had the pleasure of visiting Evan’s home again. It had been almost 2 years since our last visit because his mom was battling cancer. She is now in remission – thank goodness! But is still weak and tires easily. I also got to meet his girlfriend, a lovely young lady who has stood by him for the last 3 years, and pledges to do so for the next 2 while he is studying in Australia.

It was while coming down the stairs from the roof, where his parents were showing off their garden that it happened: Opal took my arm and beseeched me to be careful. Immediately behind us was Evan’s mom, holding on to the banister, cautiously easing herself down.

On the one hand: a fairly vigorous, physically active woman of more than 50 years. On the other: a pushing 50 woman who had just battled cancer and tires easily. Who does Opal choose to ‘help’?

As previously mentioned in Boys and Girls, posted October 2013, girls take physical possession of me and my things in order to assure maximum safety and comfort. All of this is meant to show respect and esteem but only serves to make me feel doddering, old and stupid.

If it had been this lone instance of ‘respectful’ behavior, I would have shrugged it off, accepting this maddening conduct as a cultural more I will most likely never get used to. But there’s more.

Two students needed coaching for a competition that I was to judge. I didn’t find out until later that I would judge it, so coaching them felt like an ethical breach. Nevertheless, there they were, scrubbed and shiny in my apartment on Sunday afternoon. When asked about their summer plans, Susie told me she was going to volunteer as an English teacher in Enshi for 2 weeks.

I had been seeking such an opportunity myself and asked if that delegation might make use of a foreign teacher. Susie expressed doubt from the outset and I had to agree with her. It would be difficult for me to visit a rural area for any extended time because of my dietary woes. Produce sends me into abdominal spasms and dizziness. In the country, people mostly eat vegetables. How would it be if we were served a veggie laden meal and I did not eat? That would be insulting to my hosts, according to Chinese culture. As I saw it, that would be the biggest problem.

Nevertheless I asked her to contact the project coordinator, and to give him my phone number if he was interested. I would gladly have spoken for myself but Susie, being a traditional type of girl who feels it her responsibility to ‘manage’ me took it upon herself to negotiate the entire affair.

The response I got from the coordinator, as relayed by her was:
1.       It will be a long bus ride, and most likely too uncomfortable for me.
2.       The volunteers will sleep in the school house and those accommodations would not be suitable for me.
3.       If I were to need medical attention, the nearest hospital was 40km away. 

I saw all of these as paper thin excuses. If the bus ride might be uncomfortable for me, what about for the rest of the volunteers? If the volunteers are going to sleep in the schoolhouse, how would that not be suitable for me? What if other volunteers got injured? Wouldn’t the hospital be the same distance for as it is for me? I had the sneaking suspicion that Susie fabricated these concerns out of ‘responsibility’ toward me, or that she told the project coordinator all sorts of misinformation that led him to exercise undue caution, barring my participation.

This event, coupled with Opal’s diligent concern that I might fall down the stairs while totally disregarding his beloved’s mother who might actually have needed help put me in a tailspin. For once and for all: I NEED to understand this school of thought.

As usual I appealed to Sam.

He knows me very well. He knows I am fiery, filled with √©lan. He does his best to keep up with my zest for life, putting only minimal restrictions on anything I might want to experience. Case in point: I’ve long had a dream to bike my way across China. Maybe not all the way across the country but at least to other cities. I envisioned a camp pack strapped to the back of my bike and long rides into the countryside. Although he would be OK with my riding with a team, he put the kibosh on solo travels because it could be very dangerous: drunk drivers, country folk overwhelmingly curious about foreigners, breakdown, my not speaking the dialect. Even though my Putonghua (common language) is pretty good, not everybody in the country speaks/understands it.

I accepted his concerns as valid. He actually has responsibility for me while I’m in China – as opposed to all those who think they have to take care of me. If something were to happen to me, it would be on him to resolve it. I could not ask my friend to shoulder that burden just so I could go have fun.

At one time he agreed that my volunteering would be wonderful, both for me and for the community I volunteered at. When I told him about this monstrous disappointment, coupled with my ongoing frustration at ‘respectful’ treatment, he was empathetic. I beseeched him to help me make heads or tails of these situations.         

In a nutshell: it all comes down to ‘face’ or, put another way: shame.

Country life is hard. People are not just poor, they are dirt poor. If they see 500Yuan in one year they are doing well and even better if they see it all at once. In remote areas there is no electricity. Daily showers are unheard of: people wash in local streams or sponge bathe in a basin. Bathroom functions happen in a pot or out in nature. Sam averred that country folk are most likely too ashamed to welcome a foreigner. In their minds, most likely a foreigner would turn away from such a hard life with scorn and disdain. To an extent, I agree. But I’m not that foreigner. Wouldn’t my volunteering indicate that? Sam agrees, but demurs that shame, or ‘face’ prevails.

I’d like to tell people in the country that their circumstances are not a cause for shame to me. I’d like to impress upon them that I see the poignancy of their life, the beauty of their communion with nature, the significance of their traditions. I’d like to open their minds to the idea of welcome, of showing this foreigner what their life is really about, and showing them that not all foreigners are disdainful. I’m sad that this slice of China might forever be closed to me.

Sam suggested I talk with our dean about my desire to volunteer. She is very connected and might know of a project needing an eager foreigner. I never thought of taking the matter up with Lisa but it is a great idea. I wonder if she’ll have time for me. She is very busy, especially at the end of the year. And: if I approach her now, wouldn’t that be self-serving, seeing as I’ve passed on visiting her all semester under the consideration that she is always busy?

Perhaps I can invite her to lunch. We can talk about our year, our triumphs, our plans for the summer. Maybe I can put a bug in her ear about teachers volunteering, and perhaps I might learn that there already is such a cadre. Might I be able to infiltrate? Or maybe we can plan on next year. In any case, it would be nice to lunch with Lisa.

Fortunately I taught my last class on Friday. I won’t have to face Susie or deal with her baseless concerns for me anymore. As we left class for the last time, she cautioned me down the stairs, and then informed me I can ride my bike around campus but not out on the street. It is too dangerous for me. Only the thought that this might be our last conversation kept me from biting her head off. Sad that, after 2 years she doesn’t ‘see’ me at all.