Friday, July 25, 2014

Do I Have Regrets?

That is a deep well that I'm unwilling to fall into. I can tell you this, though: I do not regret having bashed my head in (See The Things I do for Research entry posted October 2012). From that experience I learned firsthand about emergency medical treatment and healthcare in general in China. I also experienced the kindness of strangers: that fellow who took us to the hospital in his van and didn't complain when I bled all over his truck. And I experienced again the devotion of friends.

Vanessa and Summer were the two student/friends who saw me through that ordeal. Sam did too, of course but he wasn't with us when it happened.  The girls and I had gone out, enjoyed a pizza and were wending our way home when I found a convenient post to split my skull on.

I've already talked about that episode and there is no need to rehash it. This is to revisit those friends: Summer and Vanessa, who graduated 2 years ago.

Summer is now up to her eyeballs in work. She flouted family tradition by quitting the job her grandfather secured for her. All she was called on to do was type a little and file. She really did not feel like she was making the most of her abilities, nor that she had a future as someone's secretary. Especially not  when  'protected' by her grandfather's guanxi. The old man deserted her when she quit and, to my knowledge has yet to embrace her again. However, she is happy to have struck out on her own... that being: finding her own job.

Summer is really not 'on her own'. She still lives at home with her parents. Occasionally she will go out with friends or with her mother, who is retired. As yet she's not found a boyfriend, but her family is working to find a suitable match for her. It almost broke my heart to hear her say she is no longer excited by living an adult life or earning her own money. Summer is a very traditional girl, sadly mired by those very traditions.

Vanessa is perhaps the least traditional woman I've ever met. Note the difference: I still refer to Summer as a girl but Vanessa is a powerhouse. While Summer stayed in Wuhan, where her family is, Vanessa struck out on her own. First going to Fujian Province to live with her sister. That's when  she did that stint as a KTV hostess (See It Never Gets Any Easier entry posted May 2013). That didn't last long and soon she was looking for respectable work. She found it as a receptionist at an Audi dealership.

You might have guessed that Vanessa and I have stayed in touch. Infrequently, I grant you but when she summons, I respond. Eagerly. Vanessa is not the type you would want to forget. I would have a hard time doing so because, before graduation she gave me a lovely shadowbox frame with a butterfly mounted to a bamboo reed. (You might know that 'Vanessa' means 'butterfly'). I have it set in a montage of family pictures because I felt very maternal toward this dear child.

How do I feel about her now?

She returned to Wuhan briefly, her hometown being just a hour away by bus. She called, hoping we might visit before she headed back to Hangzhou (No, I didn't know she had moved there). I jumped at the chance even though we would only have about an hour before she had to catch a bus to the airport.

Seeing her for the first time in about 2 years I found that her merry, sparkling eyes were a bit wary-weary. She is no longer bubbling, on the verge of glee. Her childlike demeanor has been replaced with a sleek and worldly countenance. It didn't stop either one of us from throwing our arms around each other as soon as we met. Once apart, sitting across the table at the train station's KFC I realized she's still adorable but no longer cute. She is downright beautiful. After exchanging gifts and shedding a few tears I demanded she tell me everything.

From her stint at the Audi dealership she moved on to an administrative position. I'm not sure how she ended up in Hangzhou. She has taught herself how to cook and manage money. She has eschewed her family and lives by herself – unusual in this culture. In fact, all of my students turned friends live at least with roommates, if not with parents. Vanessa is living large, on her own terms.

Is she happy? I would have to say: yes. She is a woman who knows what she is about, knows what she wants and when and how to get it.

She does not have a boyfriend, nor does she want one right now. She says: “I'm too selfish to have a boyfriend right now. I don't want to share all my time and my space. I'm enjoying learning about life.” Vanessa has had a bit of a background with boyfriends. Not saying she is/was promiscuous – there were only 2 boys, after all. Actually, for her there is only one boy, but she is not ready to concede her single life just yet.

They have known each other since high school. He was a goner the second he laid eyes on her. He wore his heart on his sleeve, pledging undying love, even though they were to attend different colleges. Vanessa always knew there was more for her besides becoming someone's wife and bearing a child. She set about to find it. That is the journey she's on now. 

I'm guessing it would take a Superman to gain and keep her attention.  So far, four years on, this boy is sincere. He is now serving in the military and due to get out next year in April. Vanessa says that will be the time she will join her life to his: “He would make a good husband. At the time he gets out of the Army I will go meet him in Beijing.”

Knock me over with a feather! I know people in their 30's and 40's who are not that honest or self-possessed. My Vanessa, unlike other girls her age who seek Prince Charming astride a white steed bearing bucketfuls of money, acknowledges that a good match for her would not be a romantic stereotype, but someone who can  give her the space she needs to evolve from her chrysalis state to become the butterfly she was always meant to be.

As opposed to most students who are given an English name by their teacher, Vanessa chose her name by herself. Did she know what it means? Whether or not, she has named herself perfectly.

I will have the pleasure of seeing Vanessa again, this time in her world. I plan to visit Hangzhou after Shanghai. I'll be sure to tell  you how our visit goes. 


Fine: I'll go to Shanghai!

Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai: China tourists' holy triumvirate. I've been to Beijing. It was alright, but too loud, crowded and messy for me. I've been to Xi'an and loved it. I've been to both of those cities 4 times. Beijing I would only revisit by necessity – maybe a consular need, and Xi'an I would gladly return to.

What about Shanghai? I've been through it on my way to Wuhan. Riding the mag-rail, a super fast train across town was exhilarating. At that time, that city was hosting the World Expo. It would have been cool to take that in but I was in no shape or mood to do so. Besides, I was on a clock: I was due to start my new career as a teacher in just a few days (See 'Stranded in Shanghai', posted August 2010).  Other than that, I've had no thought or desire to go to Shanghai.

Wondering why? Because most tout it as a modern culture center: lots of shopping and entertainment; some history. Not really my cup of tea. Also, as some have noted, I am contrary. I study what everyone else does and I don't do it. It is a part of my charm. Speaking of charm: I prefer smaller villages, connecting with people and studying historical architecture and diverse cultures. There's plenty of that all over China. No need for Shanghai.

Why am I going now?

It is Lancy's fault. You might remember her from the It Doesn't Get Any Easier entry, posted May 2013. Two years after graduation, she and I are still in touch. Last week she visited Wuhan on her way to Enshi, her home province. We spent a wonderful day frolicking at Mme. Toussaud's wax museum (Yes, there is one in Wuhan!), lounging at Starbucks and shopping for gifts for her family.

I had brought my computer to show her pictures of yore, those fabled days when she was a student here. In the course of that we ran across pictures of other students, among them Zhanny and Dash, my cookie cutter girls. They were my first friends here, and remained staunch throughout their time at our school. We 'played' together more often than I entertained other friends, and indeed no other student/friend comes close to what we shared. Not even Lancy and I.

Those images hit me hard. I realized how much I miss those two clowns, those dear girls who helped me terrorize our campus on Halloween, who took me around Wuhan my first time, who sat with me at every stage show the school put on. Dash wanted me to be the first to see her newly dyed hair. Zhanny confided her sugar addiction and family troubles.

Suddenly I longed to reconnect with them.

Lancy knew of my friendship with Dash. Last time I went to Shenzhen we all got together: Tristam and some of his friends, Dash – who came from Guangdong, where she lived at the time; Lancy and her terrific fiance. It was a large splash of fun.

When I asked Lancy about Dash and Zhanny's whereabouts she told me they were both in Shanghai.  Might she give me their QQ number? Of course! Sad to say that the rest of the day I was obsessed with thoughts of visiting my two friends. My mind was not entirely on visiting with Lancy.

Incidentally: I learned during this visit that Lancy is of the Tujia ethnic minority. Her people hail from Enshi, the city I had hoped to visit on a volunteering stint, but was not allowed to (see A Huge Disappointment entry, posted June of this year). The student who had introduced me to the possibility of volunteering also did not get to go. Our school refused to sign her permission slip for fear that, should something go wrong our school would be blamed, or at least receive negative scrutiny.

It was wrong of me to initially feel a twinge of glee at her disappointment, I know. I should have felt bad for her missing such a great opportunity. Overwhelmingly, I do. It was her superior attitude that led me to not feel charitable toward her at first. Swallow, I sincerely apologize to you. Just goes to show I am not the good person I strive to be yet. One day, I'll get there. 

One day I will also get to Enshi. Hopefully I can learn more about the Tujia minority: their beliefs, culture and lifestyle. I'd like to tell you all about it.

For now, I'm headed to Shanghai. Not because one of my fellow bloggers at ChinaDaily says its great. Not because it is a part of the tourists' triumvirate, but because my Zhanny lives there.

After Lancy and I parted company I jumped online to seek my friends. Immediately: a barrage of messages! Turns out I've been on their minds as much as they've been on mine. Dash does not live in Shanghai, as Lancy reported. She had only visited her best friend and has since returned to Shenzhen, where she now lives.

So much for killing 2 birds with one stone. I had hoped to visit with both of them, perhaps to relive memories of our good times together.

Shanghai has another temptation. I've been Ikea obsessed for a while now, and had actually planned several trips around shopping at that store, none of which I've as yet undertaken. Wuhan will have her own Ikea soon, but not soon enough for me. Initially I thought: “Beijing!”, immediately followed by 'UGH!'. Now that I have a goal besides Ikea - visiting with Zhanny, I can bring myself to visit Shanghai.

My original plan was to head to Shenzhen first, and then visit  Guangdong where several other graduated student/friends live. Then I would land in Hangzhou, visit with Gary and some ChinaDaily bloggers that live there. Last stop would be Shanghai.

I wanted to go there last because I didn't want to lug anything I might buy at Ikea around Southern China with me. However, I got a message from Dash yesterday, informing me that she will be busy this weekend. Could I go to Shanghai first, and then visit with her next weekend? OK: there's my impetus to not shop, but I can still go look around, and maybe eat in the cafeteria.

I wish Ikea in Wuhan would open up!!!

Time to pack my bags and head out. Today I'll clean house and wash clothes. I'll carry my dear friends in my heart until I can again hold them in my arms. It will be a sweet reunion.

As reuniting with you after my travels will be.     


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Man v. Bus

Now that I have plenty of time on my hands I like to saddle up – ride my bike. It is too hot to ride far but I can take short excursions. I came up with a plan: what is there to see within a 10km radius of the school? Turns out, quite a bit! I'll be posting a pictorial entry soon. In the meantime, let me tell you about the time I saw a man wrangle with a bus.

I came upon the scene from behind the bus, which was stopped on a side street about 30 yards from the traffic light to the main avenue. Vehicles stopping in the middle of the road is commonplace here so I just swerved around it. That's when I heard the shouts. I looked around and saw a man wearing discreet jewelry to complement his business casual attire and carrying a murse (man's purse)  standing in front of the bus. He was screaming at the top of his lungs while gesticulating wildly. 

I'm not sure what that poor bus driver did to so incite this man's ire. However, it being perfectly acceptable to gawk at such doings I felt a riding break was in order. Dismounting near a low wall, I sat to enjoy the spectacle. I was not alone: there were plenty of lookie-lous.

The driver revved his engine. The aggrieved man leaned into the bus, his shoulder now pressed against the windshield. He yelled some more. The bus driver inched forward. The shouter braced his feet, not giving quarter. The driver relented. The man strenghtened his stance and resumed his wild gestures.

“Well!” I thought. “This could  get interesting.”

The driver set his emergency brake but did not shut of the engine.  He picked up his phone and dialed. His opponent encouraged him to call the police (I caught that much of the exchange). By now the crowd has grown, but most of the spectators were on the other side of the street so I still had an unobstructed view.

From there it was all just a bunch of shouting from the street, resignation from the driver and laughter and pointing from the gawkers. I was not laughing. I was thinking about writing this entry.

The police showed up a few minutes later. One officer dealt with the offended party and the other took down the driver's information. They were then advised to repair to the station which, ironically enough was directly across the street from where I sat. The officers did not escort the combatants. They had to drive their car around the block to get back to the station.  

I say 'ironically' because of the wait for the police to come and the fact that they rolled up in a car. Why did they not just walk outside the station and approach the men? And, there was a disturbing factor, too. Usually, peace officers do not carry weapons. However, with the growing social unrest more police are being trained to use handguns. These days a gun-toting officer is paired with an unarmed colleague. That was the first time I've seen a police officer carry in China.

The rest was rather anti-climatic. The audience hung around, comparing notes and commenting on the event. The bus stayed where it was at: in the left-turn lane, about 30 yards from the stoplight. All other traffic, including other buses and dump trucks had to steer around it.

I saddled up and rode away.    

Only Goons Can Ride

I promise I am not making a joke at someone else's expense, nor am I criticizing anyone for using Chinglish. This could happen to anyone, anywhere.

First I'll say that the subway system in Wuhan goes out of its way to help English speaking passengers. Not only are all the signs in English but that pleasant voiced woman who announces impending stations and take offs does a great job of broadcasting those notifications in English. I particularly enjoyed the announcement for Pang Xie Jia with an American accent (pronounced 'Pan Shay DGhaaa') as though we should do 'jazz hands' on the last syllable.

For some reason that recording has changed. Although the announcements are still in English the station names are now said properly, in Chinese. I miss Pan Shay DGhaaa!! (jazz hands)

Another amusing aspect of riding subways was the 'Do Not' notifications. These were video loops playing on the on-board entertainment system. A small child screaming, a youth throwing paper on the ground, someone throwing up, spilling something... you get the idea. These are all behaviors that the transit system wishes to discourage. Complementing that on-board ad were large signs in every station, at platform level and street level. Those signs went further to indicate unwanted behavior: no begging, no eating, no loud music, no peeing. Perhaps 3 meters long and 1.5 meters high, 'do not's were depicted in white on a blue background.

You all know the 'do not' sign, right? Usually a round sign with a red border around the activity that is not to be partaken of, and a bold red line slashed diagonally through. 'No Smoking' is one you might be familiar with.

On that billboard there were 'do not's for smoking, begging, littering, eating, drinking, bothering... all of these were in the format mentioned above. However, when it came to 'do not pee' there was a depiction of a man in overalls and a hard hat letting loose. Looming menacingly over his stream was a large pair of scissors. I took it to mean that, if men pee in the subway they will become eunuchs. Apparently not gently, either.

I did my best to capture that image to reproduce it for you. Unfortunately the phone I took the picture on was lost that very day and, for some reason the transit authority saw fit to end its campaign for proper behavior from its riders. I have not seen that marquee or the ad loop since.

However, good intentions on the part of the transit authority prevail! To discourage commuters from trampling on one another during the few seconds the train is at a station, they have designated the outsides of the passenger flow as boarding while, between those boarding should stream exiters. To reinforce that direction our Transit Authority friends have placed arrows on the ground. Please see picture to that effect.

Simple, right?

Until my twisted mind took a gander. Note how the out-flowing arrow says 'exit': very good. Now the boarding arrow: 'go on'. Very close type, no space between the two words. Thus 'GOON'.

Anybody could make that mistake and this isn't much of one until you add to the mix that one must wrestle to board any public vehicle. Those without the fortitude to throw a few jabs or jockey for position might risk not being able to board. Stretching that concept out just a bit: wouldn't you say that one just about has to be a goon to ride mass transit? I thought so. That's why I laugh when I see this 'GOON' sign. It reminds me that I must be ruthless in boarding or get nowhere.

Not that that would be a bad thing this time of year. Subway stations are air conditioned. Many choose to dally underground during the brutal part of the day. Either they're abusing the comfort or they just aren't GOON enough to board.