Sunday, September 28, 2014

Driven Away

The day was rare: deep blue heavens with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting on the breeze. For once Wuhan was not shrouded in dust or smog, or hunkering under an oppressive gunmetal sky that blocked out the sun. So fine was this day that I ventured out to a well frequented shopping center a ways from my usual haunts. I felt whimsical in my capris and Minnie Mouse tee-shirt, a souvenir from my trip to Disney Land with my family. In fact, so fine was the day that, after a bit of shopping and lunch, I treated myself to an ice cream cone. 

Here I am, walking to the bus stop and enjoying my cone when I spy two foreigners with that 'new to Wuhan' look, contemplating the barbeque on some food vendor's cart. The taller one glanced my way and smiled.

Wouldn't you smile at a tall, curly-headed drink of water in a Minnie Mouse shirt, eating an ice cream cone on such a beautiful day?

I smiled back and reflected on my first year here, when I was new to Wuhan and everything was  exotic, enticing, exhilarating and a bit terrifying. I felt so alone and isolated back then. No matter how many foreigners I saw, none would make eye contact with me, let alone smile. Those newbies at the vendor stand that glorious day, having yet to discover everything this city has to offer, perhaps anticipating the experience of a lifetime or maybe so homesick and wondering why they came here at all... they reminded me all of those feelings.

On the bus, I got to thinking: as hard as my first year in Wuhan was, I stuck it out. Makes me wonder... what could/would have driven me away?

Culture shock? Heavens no! I came here because of my deep love of China and her culture. I couldn't wait to plunge into everything China in general and Wuhan specifically had to offer. I daresay that, when I went back to the states after my first year here, that is when I experienced culture shock.

Loneliness? That was a tough hurdle. But then, I was alone in the states, too. One of the reasons I wanted to live in China is because the Chinese are so very social, a facet that my life thus far had lacked. Not that I didn't have friends in America, but I had kept them at arm's length out of long habit: why form deep friendships if I were just going to break those bonds in a few years because of my father/step father's military assignments? That became my way of life.

The warmth and kindness shown to me since my first day in Wuhan, especially by my students, my colleagues, and Sam and his family taught me how to open up to people, and not lock myself away. I was frightened at giving up my ways – hiding from friendship and feelings, but my gentle and patient teachers finally opened my heart. I'm still here, largely thanks to them and to my friends and family in the states. Were it not for their support, for them sitting at the  computer for video chats, for their frquent emails, I believe I might have tucked my tail and scurried back to whence I came. I can't thank them enough.

Isolation? I was – and still am the lone foreigner in my neck of Wuhan. That neck is far removed from any excitement hubs. Just to shop at a department store involves an hour-long bus ride (or bike ride, now that I'm riding). It took me so long to learn my way around and to find stores that sell products I like. There was a lot of hit and miss in those early days, trying to figure out what food labels described because I didn't even know rudimentary Chinese. Learning the city while feeling physically terrible, as I did back then was a challenge. I overcame it and I'm still here.

Basic/brutal living conditions? The first winter I was here I thought I'd never get warm again. During that time I cursed myself vehemently for  having given up my comfortable life in the states. But I always came back to my fundamental desire of living a bare bones existence – having only what I needed. And I had everything I needed. I had to learn to adapt to less comfort. All in all, it wasn't that hard.  

Work? For months before coming here I had stress nightmares of being the planet's worst teacher. I don't think I was quite that bad but taking this job certainly showed me that I had a lot to learn. For the first 2 years, I had migraines before every class and worried about what to do with my students each session. I'm so fortunate that I only teach Oral English and have no textbooks or curriculum to follow. These days I appreciate the leeway I have in my classes but back then, inexperienced as I was and having no guidance or materials, I stressed over lesson plans and my effectiveness as a teacher. Sincerity carries a lot of weight in China and my students knew I was floundering. The fact that I didn't hide behind arrogance made all the difference. That, and their kindness. Especially their kindness.

Health issues? Heavens knows I've suffered my share of them since I've been here. I developed a violent allergy to all fruits and vegetables, and the dust doesn't help my breathing. I started having dizzy spells and fell down quite a few times. Once I even bashed my head open (see 'The Things I do for Research, posted Oct 2012). Lack of energy, stomach woes, racing heart and poor breathing, excessive weight gain because I simply had no desire to exercise and keep fit. At one point I thought that, if this were to be my life, I'd just as soon not live. In all, I felt punk to downright bad for about 3 years. I'm much better now, and I'm still here. 

Some of my friends say: if those amorous rats, crawling on my legs while I slept were a permanent condition, I might have packed my bags (See The Rat Party entry, posted September 2011). To be perfectly honest, the rats promenading in my rooms were my fault. I did not clean my apartment upon my return from the states because I was due to move, nor did I set any traps when I saw evidence of rodents. I didn't even tell Sam I had such troubles until the trouble became immediate.

This school goes above and beyond to ensure my comfort and safety. If I so much as hint that I'm having difficulties, everyone from the campus CEO to our department dean, and the head engineer do everything they can to abate any issue I might have. When I postulated that my breathing difficulties were due to ever incroaching mold in the dank, sunless apartment I occupied they first year I was here, Dean Tu had maintenance scraping my walls and repainting the very next day. Upon moving into my brand new apartment the second year I was here, I got new furniture.

Perhaps still living in the girls' dorm building, on the ground floor where no sunshine kissed so much as a window sill? Where students felt no compunction at sliding my windows open and peering inside my home, regardless of what I might be doing... including getting dressed after a shower? I have to admit: that aspect of living there was decidedly unpleasant, but I don't think it would have caused me to leave. That dwelling was what I made of it. I didn't make much of it, seeing as I was feeling so poorly. One thing I did do was block my windows so that they could not be slid open. I was out of luck on those days when the weather permitted open windows, though.  

Health scares, loneliness, professional incompetence, brutally hot summers and bone chilling winters: I suffered through them all and I'm still here, and still loving it.

Riding across campus towards home on another spectacular afternoon, I hear the rousing music that  the freshmen learn to march to for their military training graduation ceremony next week. I will take my place on the dais with other school dignitaries to witness them passing in review, just as I have every year since I've been here. I find myself looking forward to that honor, with all its pomp and circumstance, and to the year ahead.

No, I don't think anything could have driven me away. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking My Life

As I get ever more comfortable with my bike and ride further and further, I am forced to reconcile myself to being in perpetual danger when I'm on 2 wheels.

When I first came to Wuhan, with her barely there, rutted roads and indiscriminate traffic – including scooters, pedestrians and the odd stray pack of dogs, I reasoned it was just a matter of time before my innards and sinew helped pave the roads, whether I was walking or on a bus. Surely I was bound to get run over and, equally surely: nobody would notice another bump in the road among all the other bumps and the potholes. Back then I seldom rode in taxis, but when I took that part time job teaching at the Lil'Uns school I rode taxis 4 times per week. Riding in a car leaves one feeling more vulnerable because of the vehicle's smallness as compared to buses, and because the drivers invariably believe they are immortal race car drivers for whom the road was actually meant for. 

Since those fogged out days, I've come to understand how drivers in China manage to survive the roads day after day. Later, I'll tell you how cyclists and pedestrians manage to survive.

Everyone in China is taught to drive by the same method and with the same curriculum. A few of my friends, Sam included, have given me the inside scoop on key driving points. I assure you that those who have grown up in the car culture might be appalled by the instructions Chinese drivers operate under. I present the most offensive tactics to you in no particular order.

Parking appears  to be such an arduous task that most parking lots offer guides to help steer you into a parking space. In lots where there are no such guides, vehicles are parked haphazardly. Example: Metro has front-in parking with no island divider or barrier restricting one car to one spot. It is possible for one vehicle to compromise 4 spots... and I've seen it, countless times.

Blind spots: apparently there are none in China. Fledgling drivers are instructed only to consult their mirrors when changing lanes and backing up. None of the drivers I know or any taxi drivers I've ridden with look over their shoulder to check the blind spot. None look over their shoulder to backup, either.

Merging into traffic: although there are 'yield' signs on side roads feeding onto main arteries, nobody ever seems to yield to oncoming traffic, bicycles or pedestrians. In fact, nobody seems to yield to oncoming traffic if they are pulling out of a parking space. In short: nobody yields. If an oncoming driver is suddenly hampered by a merging vehicle, s/he will swerve his/her car (or truck, or bus) into the next lane, causing that lane's car to have to either slam on the brakes or lay on the horn.  

For this I blame the Chinese word (rang), which means 'let' and 'allow' but whose meaning also includes 'yield'. As a lone character (instead of being used in tandem with another), it is best used in the sense of 'let me help you' or 'allow me speak'. I believe Chinese drivers see that character and interpret it to mean 'allow me to go first' or 'let me jump out ahead of you'.  

Some drivers nose halfway into a traffic lane from a side road, and then stop and look right at oncoming cars. Just as the moving traffic (or bike rider) gets within a few meters with no sign of slowing down, the merging driver will execute his/her turn with excruciating slowness, sometimes across all available lanes, causing every driver on the main road to have to slam on the brakes or swerve. If one is pulling out onto a 2-lane road, both directions' traffic is blocked. Naturally, angry honking ensues.

(kan) – a vision related word, gets the blame for this. In English we have all manner of words to describe activities involving vision: read a book, watch TV, look at the sky, see a sight, visit a friend, among others. Some, like 'visit' and 'see' suggest action. 'Watch' and 'read', while still involving the visual cortex, suggest passivity. In Chinese, that one word: 'kan' represents everything visual.

Sam told me he was instructed to 'kan' traffic, and then pull out. With no specific directive as to which 'kan' to practice, I could see how drivers might think they are to look at traffic rather than watch for traffic. Perhaps driving instructors should teach their students to wait for oncoming cars to go by before pulling out, but even that advice could be misinterpreted.  

And then, there is the manic way that drivers just pull out without looking at oncoming traffic at all. This I pin to the imperative: 'Watch where you're going'. Perhaps driving instructors are so insistent that their students watch where they are going that they neglect to instruct them to look at what is coming. Plenty of times I've witnessed vehicles pulling out without the driver turning his head to gauge oncoming traffic.  I now  approach side roads and parking lot exits warily, knowing that there is bound to be someone pulling out without a glance to what might be hurtling toward them.

In the case of bicycles, there is most likely no hurtling. Dump trucks, semis and buses do hurtle, with a penchant for leaning on the horn as a warning to any impudent driver who might decide to test the oncoming vehicle's brakes. That timbre is particularly nerve wracking on the main road in front of our school because the sound is amplified and reverberates under the elevated highway.  The 'watch where you're going' theme seems to cloak pedestrians as well. If a pedestrian is not watching where s/he is going, the rest of traffic is, and will dodge the inattentive pedestrian.

Drivers have a maddening habit of stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, causing other vehicles to swerve around them. For that, I blame the Chinese drivers' love of GPS.

Chris, Julia and I were headed to Metro. I can get there in my sleep! I've been there by bus, subway and have even ridden my bike there. I was a bit nonplussed when Chris programmed the store's address into his GPS, even though I told him I could tell him how to get there. This theoretically highly functional device took so long to give directions that, at times, Chris stopped in the middle of the road, waiting for the machine to spit out its next instruction.

Cell phones, illegal while driving, also accounts for a lot of this phenomenon. People will hunt their phone for directions, stopping in the middle of the street to punch all the appropriate buttons. In fact, cell phone usage in general is a woe of Chinese traffic. 'Ware of the scooter rider who chats away! It seems they get lost in conversation and pay no mind to what is going on around them. A cyclist or pedestrian is just as likely to get hit by a powered scooter as a car or bus.

With all of these hazards to watch out for, why do I ride? And why ride on the street?

Most everywhere I ride there are bike lanes. Most all of the bike lanes are lousy with pedestrians who will not move out of the way, who give not a whit for an urgently ringing bicycle bell. Quite a few pedestrians are plugged into their phones, indifferent to what is going on around them. Some bike lanes are clogged with parked cars. Sometimes, cars and buses drive in the bicycle lanes to get around snarled traffic. I figure I'm safer on the road where, more often than not, traffic is standing still  or at a crawl.

Many people say that the Chinese are terrible drivers. Having grown up in a car culture and having driven for many years myself, I too am amazed at how these people manage to get anywhere in one piece. But I have to wonder: if everyone in China drives the same way, is it bad or wrong?

A Room at the Inn

I am certainly an eager traveler: I want to see, to do, to go and go and go. But even this traveler needs a place to lay her head down and store her pack while wandering whichever city I happen to be in. Being as I've recently disclosed I've been to more than 20 cities in the 4 years I've lived here – some of them more than once, has the thought crossed your mind: where does she sleep when vagabonding around?

Inasmuch as possible, I like to bunk down at hostels. They are usually situated in cultural centers and offer a generous slice of local flavor along with the advantage of connecting with like-minded travelers. Initially I thought I might engage with foreign travelers who are visiting China, but most of them travel in pairs/packs and seem resistant to allowing a stranger to join them, especially one a bit older: the hostel crowd tends to be younger. I appreciate their curiosity and their verve but the mentality is just not my scene. Nevertheless, every time I decide on a destination I check for potential accomodations.

Another great reason to choose a hostel is because foreigners are guaranteed to be welcome. There have been times that I have been denied accommodations because some hotels are not allowed to house foreigners. It is always a good idea to check for that possibility before setting out, especially in smaller cities. Unfortunately, you won't find hostels in many of the smaller cities. For those destinations I usually fequent...

Business hotels. The quality ranges from fair to poor, although some business hotels I've stayed at have been quite nice. The price tends to be lower than chain hotels and sometimes even hostels. A good rule of thumb is: the poorer the city, most likely the poorer the rooms. One amenity to watch out for is 24 hour hot water. Some houses turn their boilers off at 10PM. Some include breakfast in the price of the room. These hotels are ubiquitous, and great for those who travel on the spur of the moment. If you are not too attuned to luxury, rooms with windows/a view or even comfortable beds, you might consider these hotels. They are locally owned and not franchised.

Chain hotels:

7 Days Inn is a franchise with houses all over China. They embrace a minimalist theme that nevertheless offers plenty of amenities, such as: 24 hour hot water, free in-room WIFI and cable television. The beds are reasonably comfortable and the bathrooms are pleasantly efficient. I've yet to enter such a hotel and get refused a room because of my foreignness. My 2 gripes with them are: their price - about 50Yuan higher than a hostel and most business hotels, and: the franchise flavor. No matter which city, you will know you are in a 7 Days.  Their website makes checking locales easy:

I don't have much good to say about Green Tree hotels because my 2 experiences with them were less than satisfying. The beds are traditionally Chinese, meaning rock hard. The rooms I occupied were not necessarily clean, comfortable or inviting and the service was less than stellar. The rates are reasonable, only a little higher than hostels and business hotels. There are plenty of travel websites that list this chain, making it easy to see if such accommodations would be available at your destination, but I could not find a website for the hotel itself.

Motel 168/268: the numbers reflect the room rate. Accommodations are comfortable but maintenance tends to be poor: leaking water and burned out lights. Each room has free internet access, either via WIFI or by wired connection. Breakfast is offered at some locations but I can't be sure whether it is included in the price of the room: the clerk and dining room maven were rather abrupt. I didn't quite understand what they were saying, which left me with the impression that the staff was not necessarily friendly or helpful. Although 168Yuan is a little lower than average for a room, the 268Yuan room price is rather steep and the luxury level does not justify the price.

Motel 168/268 share a website with HomeInns: WARNING: the sites are all in Chinese. It is possible to advance scout these hotels through English travel websites such as: and

Home Inns are comfortable, affordable and well placed in areas of interest, as well as close to transportation hubs. The beds lend a good night's sleep and the rooms are well appointed. They have the added distinction of offering in-room concessions, but the price is rather steep for those few snacks. Internet access in every room, either by WIFI or cable. They are currently undergoing a facelift/modernization, making their houses even more appealing. Prices are about the same as Motel168. Unlike other chains, these hotels offer local flavor whenever possible.   

My one experience with Super 8 Motel was not at all good. In fact, I can't rate the rooms because my one attempt to lodge there did not pan out.

I had made a reservation through C-trip but the hotel's desk clerk said that it was for a house further away from the train station and refused to honor my booking, even though she averred there were rooms available for full price: 240Yuan, no breakfast included. I was disappointed but vow to try again to seek shelter at that chain.

YoJo Inn is where I laid my head down after that disastrous encounter at Super 8. This is a chain local to Hefei, Anhui province. Charming and old-time feeling, this well appointed hotel was comfortable and clean, with rooms priced at 140Yuan, breakfast included. Rooms offer free WIFI but apparently no wired internet connection. The staff was friendly and helpful. Added bonus: very close to the train station. Should you need accommodations in Hefei, try: (website is in Chinese).  

Jin Jiang Inns are my hands-down favorite hotel chain. The beds are heavenly! The houses and rooms are mostly well maintained and the staff is the friendliest and most helpful of any chain hotel I've experienced. They offer a variety of prices to suit room amenities, and they are well worth the money. Base price is around 170Yuan for a 2 bed room. Buffet style breakfast can be had for an extra 18Yuan.
Internet connection via WIFI or wire is available in all rooms. If you've never stayed at Jin Jiang, I highly recommend it: (website in Chinese).

Even the poorest hotels offer: slippers/house shoes/shower shoes, shoe cleaning rags, laundry service (or a means to hang your laundry if you choose to wash it yourself), and tea service - a kettle, tea and cups. You will also find basic personal hygiene items: toothbrushes with paste, combs and shower caps. For showering, many houses provide all-in-one soap, or separate body wash creme and shampoo, in a wall mounted dispenser. The pricier places put small bottles of bath gel and shampoo at your disposal. Strangely enough, no hotel I've been to so far has supplied wash rags. I usually bring my own (and the maid took it at the hotel in Shanghai!)

Most rooms have heat/air conditioning but I have stayed in rooms where the units did not work. More and more hotels are offering in-room concessions such as snacks, sodas, playing cards and condoms, all for a price. Fancier hotels offer bath packs for a fee: wash rags, name brand shampoos and razors. 

One feature of hotel rooms in China that I really appreciate is the card key activation system. Nothing electrical will work until you put your room's key card in the slot designed for it. The card closes the electrical circuit, allowing the occupant to enjoy all the electrical amenities/functions of the room. This is to prevent energy waste and, presumably key loss/misplacement. Several countries around the world also utilize this system but I've yet to stay at a hotel/motel in America that makes use of this feature.

One aspect of reserving a room in  China (via the C-trip site or others) is that you can opt to pay at the hotel without compromising your ability to secure a room. I've not had a credit card for several years and don't aim to any time soon, so being able to make a reservation without a down payment is a major bonus.

I was going to write about the luxury hotels I've had the privilege of staying at, but a room is a room is a room. Whether it has a mini-fridge or not, whether there are thick bathrobes or even a bathtub...  for a traveler on a budget, considering the higher end hotels is pretty much out of the question. Fundamentally, this is a vagabond blog. How many vagabonds do you know that routinely bunk down in luxury?

Perhaps the handful of houses I've stayed at in my travels deserve mention, but I'm out of room. Perhaps next time.     

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Decidedly Different

The weather service predicts storms and rain for this afternoon, but I'm betting that, if I saddle up quickly I can make it to Walmart and back before the deluge.

It is a strange feeling to be up so early in the morning for no official reason. I had to wake up at 7AM today. In the last entry I told you I had forgotten to return the access card to the classroom's media center that my student checked out on my behalf yesterday. I can't be totally to blame for the oversight because I did not use the sytem yesterday, nor had I asked her to bring the card. Also, I had ridden my bike to class. I would have had to ride to a different building's security desk to return the card. Amidst the joyful reunions with my students and the excitement of having something official to do, to say nothing of the joy of riding past throngs of students instead of getting chatted up every few feet, that key card simply wasn't on my mind.

So: after 2 days of waking up insanely early to teach, I felt compelled to wake up early again today to return that card, so that the teacher using that classroom would have access to the computer cabinet, if desired. 

That task took all of 5 minutes, and then I had the rest of the day to fill. My usual morning routine took the usual hour and a half and after that, I had a yawning gulf of time. I didn't want to just sit around the house yet again. These past few days have been so humid that pursuing any outdoor activity would be torture but today seemed cool, with a nice breeze and the portent of rain. I needed a few things anyway and the Walmart I would ride to was not terribly far. I left the house at the time I would normally sit down to breakfast, having already enjoyed that meal.

This getting up early gets my schedule all out of whack!

In spite of a strong headwind the ride was pleasant and, marveling anew over my increasing stamina while riding, I soon made it to the road I would turn off to get to the store. Ever wary of traffic and especially so on narrow roads with no lane markings and no stoplights, I navigated through the dangerous intersection to the street I would ride to get to the avenue the store is on. The already thin ribbon of road was halfway blocked for construction. Fortunately there were no buses trundling by so, along with several other scooters I  cleared that barrier safely.

And then I got lost. The road that was blocked off was the road I needed to lead me to my destination. I didn't realize that until I had ridden so far past it that I did not recognize anything, so I doubled back and tried the alley paralleling the blocked road, which led me into a housing area. And then I decided to take a different road, relying on my sense of direction and other visual clues – street signs and buildings I might have seen before. I failed miserably.

In the meantime storm clouds are piling up and the gentle breeze had turned into a chilly wind. I figured I should abandon my plan to shop and just go home, but that was the question: where was home?

As I rode slowly, weighing whether to abandon my quest or forge on, a man riding an electric scooter hailed me. For a while we rode side by side, chatting. A while later, at another intersection he pressed on while I paused, again  pondering the wisdom of continuing this adventure gone awry. A few minutes after he turned off, he doubled back to ask me where I was headed. I saw this as a golden opportunity to find my way back to familiar terrain, so I told him the name of the main boulevard in front of my school.

“No problem” he says, “follow me!”

He speeds up a bit, I kick it in gear and soon we are tearing down dirt roads, bogged out, water logged lanes and through a tunnel so low I had to hunch over my handlebars to get through, lest I scrape my helmet. A few hills, a few curves, a few splashes of mud. My guide was oblivious to what my shiny, well maintained bike means: that I generally do not treat her like the dirt bike she really is. Nor would I ride with such abandon in traffic, but those lanes only had the occasional pedestrian. I felt it was OK to cut loose. He led me down paths I wouldn't have ventured on my own but I have to say it was quite fun: taking turns at high speed, jumping off hills, flying through mud puddles. I felt like quite the daredevil!And my Bikey-bike performed beautifully.

Now back on pavement and recognizing that I'm not too far from home, I try to thank him for his guidance, telling him my school/home is just up the road. He enjoins that his office is also just up the road. Might he treat me to lunch before we part company? 

I think China might just be the only country where one can go from total stranger to lunch in less time it would take to shower. Knowing that it would be churlish to refuse – but not really wanting to eat right then, let alone with company in a nice restaurant, I accepted and soon we parked our conveyances side by side and entered a newly opened restaurant.

Per tradition, the guest – me, in this case, is to select from the menu. I chose 3 not particularly extravagant dishes. He ordered yoghurt to drink and asked me if I wanted to eat fish. That kind of capped it.

Because of my fickle stomach I'm very careful of what I eat. Veggies and fruit I can tolerate if I keep them to a minimum, and yoghurt upsets my stomach for days. Ingesting all of them in one sitting is guaranteed to make me miserable for a week. The problem is: how to tell a total stranger who invites you to eat that your stomach is fickle? The suggestion of fish gave me an out. I apologized for being allergic to fish, even though I'm not. I figured I'd suffer plenty from the spinach, the watermelon and the yoghurt. I should be absolved of pretending I love fish.

Yes, I am in abdominal agony as I write this.

I should lay down, you say? Perhaps I will after committing these events to paper. Today was just too remarkable to not write about.

Over lunch we discovered that I am 20 days older than he is, and that he is former military, now retired. He has a son who works in a factory, making cellphones. His wife generally does the cooking when they eat at home. He learned about my multi-country heritage, and the fact that I sometimes help Gary with his international trade business, that last because we were eating when Gary called. Toward the end of the meal we exchanged contact information and he disclosed that he wished to learn English. I suggested that, if he had another 3 or 4 friends who also wanted to learn I might conduct class.

Before parting company he suggested he should follow me to my house. I told him we could not visit at my home today. I do intend on inviting him, but out of caution I will have Sam or Gary here when he comes. A girl can't be too safe, you know...

And then I came home. Marveling at the turn of events, I sat down to write after I called Gary back. We have a date to shop on Monday,  but I'll probably ride to Walmart before then. Just for fun.