Thursday, October 30, 2014

Failing to be Free

Today I had a nice visit with a former student, Susan. She's had her times and trials but now she is doing well, and she is in love! It had been a long time since we'd seen one another and we had a lot of catching up to do. I was happy to make the trip into town.

On the way I stopped at a blood donation center. The first year I was here I tried to donate but left the center disappointed because of the language barrier. this time around I thought I might have to struggle a bit to understand all the questions, but was greeted pleasantly – in English! - by a lovely attendant  who presented me the anticipated questionnaire, also in English! And then I was told I would need my doctor's certification that my thyroid levels were in range before I could donate. I walked away encouraged that soon, I could be helping people get well with my healthy blood. 

And then, while waiting for my tardy young friend I met a nice young man name Lawrence, new to Wuhan. Initially taken aback at being hailed by another foreigner, a rare occurrence here, we engaged in lively conversation, and then exchanged contact details. Soon he hopped back on his bike and rode away, into this blue-skyed, delicious day.

Finally: a text message. Susan was here and wondered where I was. She described herself: “I have sunglasses on, and a black jacket.” That could have been any of the twenty or so Chinese in my sights who had black jackets on! That little joke aside, our reunion was joyful and our embrace heartfelt.

Susan comes from a traditional family. Her parents are both social success stories: mother working in the legal system, step-father a well positioned government official and father a prominent business man. They all felt their daughter was a failure, first for achieving a score on the National College Entrance Exam that would only permit admittance to a 3rd tier university (our school), and then for resisting their offer to pull strings for a transfer to a better university.

That came to naught anyway because, right around the time her government-employed mother and step-father intended to ply the university president with gifts to guarantee Susan's admittance, China launched its intensive crackdown on graft and favor-buying.

Immediately after graduation (from our school, much to her parents' chagrin), they forcefully persuaded her to return to her home in Suizhou. Susan had every intention of making her way in Wuhan. She has never felt she was too good to do what would be considered unsuitable work for a college graduate: clerking, cashiering and/or waitressing. She never got to try. Her parents cleaned out her dorm room while she was out, and held her possessions hostage until Susan capitulated. Enraged but choiceless,  she went home with them.

That is the root of Susan's past problems: a stifling parentage that left her absolutely no room to thrive or make decisions for herself. Her mother controlled every single aspect of her life, even sending her back to campus after winter break with a case of super sweet apple juice and the order to drink one bottle every day for good health. That I know of, Susan drank 1 bottle (and gave me one), and then never touched them again. She later confided that, after a particularly infuriating conversation  with her mother, she smashed every single one of those glass bottles.

For Susan and many other kids here, I am a safe outlet. Plenty have confided their worst troubles to me, knowing I could not (and would not) do anything other than be there for them. Initially, Susan resisted me. I approached her because she drew attention to herself with at-risk behaviors. Over time we bonded and I've had the pleasure to watch her evolve into a strong young woman who knows her own mind.

She is still angry, though. I noticed that today. “Your anger is good for you right now, dear. You need it to drive you into the life you want.” Although she doesn't come across as angry, I know it's there because there is a brittleness about her. She averred that she  is still angry at her family, and the reasons keep piling up. That she could say so with a smile shows how well she's come along since her 'crazy days'.

After being hied back to Suizhou, her mother set her to studying for a civil service exam a few months hence. Mom had pulled a few strings – not illegal under the new graft laws, to sign her up. Susan spent days at a time in her room, only coming out for meals. Sometimes she would go out for walks, which turned into runs, to blow off steam. In all, Susan remained in limbo for 9 months after graduation: no job, no social life, no prospects other than that test.

She bombed the exam on purpose. Now, with no hope of securing a government position and no job  suitable for someone with an associates' degree from a third rank university, Mom finally gave up.  Susan has been released to live her life as she saw fit. She hangs her hat in a trendy neighborhood just off from a popular hangout, works as a cashier in a grocery store and loves every bit of it. The one time Mom came to Wuhan to see her, she refused to go to Susan's apartment or visit the store where her daughter works for fear of humiliation: how can such a well-placed government worker have such a failure for a daughter?

How would anyone in Wuhan know that Mom is a well-placed government official?

As a parting shot, Mom said: “If you need money, I can lend you some. Just be sure to pay me back by the end of the month.” I believe Susan would rather starve than ask her mother, or anyone else in her family for anything.

Susan is a part of a growing group in China who are walking away from tradition: doing what the family wants/demands. While most young adults I know are still very traditional, more and more we're seeing a take-off from their supposed mapped out existence. These days, people do not want to knuckle under tradition when they have a flair for life. They don't want to find or be matched to a suitable mate, marry, have a child and settle into the life they are expected to lead.            

Susan failed the exam in order to make her family leave her alone. Intrinsic to Chinese society is the 'in or out' mentality. While most would not be as rigid as Susan's folk, it is quite common for a non-complying young adult to be rejected by the entire family, at least for a time. By failing spectacularly, Susan has guaranteed that no one from her clan will pursue her or make demands on her. Conversely, she will not be welcome at family gatherings, either. I don't think that bothers her in the least. She might come to miss her family eventually but I'm so proud of her right now.

New Friend Lawrence has already sent me several text messages with romantic overtones. I'm not sure he's aware I have children who are possibly older than him. I thought it was wonderful that another foreigner reached out, but when he said something about kissing me...

I'm not going to go there. I'll just stick with the joy at Susan's life explorations. 

Cooking Class

If I were to detail the minutiae of my teaching – or pat myself on the back for every class, I would have bored you a long time ago. I hadn't intended to write about this particular lesson until my conspirators and I were chatting, last week. While regaling them with the week's classroom doings, amid bursts of laughter, one of them gasped: “You're going to have to write that one up!”

And here I am, doing just that.

Now in my 5th year of teaching I find these students perpetually interested in just a handful of topics: food, fashion, music, movies and how to lose weight. These aren't the most dazzling of subjects and there is only so much excitement one can generate and interest to be found in them. Furthermore, this is the second year I've had these students, and they were interested in the same subjects last year. How to find and present new aspects to the food culture of the west was definitely a challenge.

Another facet to teaching sophomores in general is that these students are overwhelmed. In just a few months they are to sit for their career determining TEM-4 exam that will test their English proficiency. Although I've been given no doubt as to my success in the classroom, more often than not they focus on their study materials while I lecture away. Trying to keep them engaged is a near impossible feat. 

Last year, to complement the slideshow I had prepared about food and cooking differences between China and the west, my session  consisted of bringing various tools commonly found in kitchens in the west: spatulas, knives, and a cast iron skillet. I had to explain the difference between spatulas in China – with a rounded blade to better fit the curve of a wok, versus a flat bladed one for typical skillets. And I prepared food to bring to class: deviled eggs – eggs here are eaten either hard-boiled or fried; pasta salad – here, noodles can be in soups or fried, but always served hot; and brownies.

The eggs did not transport well, the pasta salad went largely uneaten and the brownies flew off the plate. I can't say my assays into western food went over well in previous classes, so I did not want to prepare the same menu this year. I still wanted to present foods that feature in my slideshow, so eggs would feature. I would substitute mashed potatoes for noodles and serve a fruit cobbler for dessert.

I would have been happy to serve brownies again but they are so expensive to make over here, and one batch only gives each student a small bite. But a cobbler... a cobbler could be made to fit and everyone could have a generous scoop.

And then the logistical nightmare of transporting 2 cobblers, 2 bowls of egg salad and 2 bowls of mashed potatoes! I have 2 back to back classes on both Wednesday and Thursday, with the Thursday classes in a building on the other side of campus. And then there's the small matter of keeping mashed potatoes warm. And transporting the plates, chopsticks, napkins, trash bags...

But wait! Why transport finished dishes? Why not measure out cobbler ingredients, bring a jar of mayo and some boiled eggs, and let the kids make the food in class? It would be a simple matter of carting my toaster oven and the raw ingredients. Then, all I would have to prepare would be the mashed potatoes. And, I was sure to get buy-in for the lecture if the kids could smell the cobbler baking, and if I asked for volunteers to help make and serve the egg salad.

Super-excited at the prospect of doing something completely unexpected, I dashed to the kitchen, measured, bagged, tagged, prepared everything. A quick stop into my office to modify the presentation just a bit, and I was ready for class!

I hope I've not given you the impression that transporting all of that was easy. The handcart I had did not have a tongue long enough for the oven, so I had to strap it to the cart. And then, I loaded the case with the rest of the stuff on top of the oven. Because the cart's base was so small, the top-heavy load made it precarious to transport. I still hadn't figured out how I was going to get the works up the stairs to the second floor. Luckily a helpful student lugged it with me, a kindness she most likely regretted because it was pretty heavy.

But it was worth it to hear the kids gasp in surprise and delight. As I set up I had to keep fending students off who wanted to examine everything while I laid kitchen tools and foodstuffs out. And then, there were those that wanted to help but only succeeded in getting in the way. I was glad for their enthusiasm and attention.

I asked for a volunteer to help make the cake. One lucky student donned the apron while the rest took out their phones and snapped pictures. It is not uncommon for them to photograph during lessons but today... today I felt like I was in the middle of a media storm for all the camera-phones pointed at me!

While the cobbler baked and the mashed potatoes sat atop the oven to keep warm, we played games such as: Name that Tool! Each team of 6 students got one kitchen implement and I challenged them to name it and determine its function. Another game: an egg slicing contest. One student had a knife and the other an egg slicer. We determined that using an egg slicer was by far the faster, neater way to cut an egg up. Once all the eggs were cut – by various kids using the slicer, we made the salad and, surprise! Everyone liked it! My last few attempts to get people liking egg salad did not go over so well. I'm guessing that, because the students made the salad themselves and knew what went in it, they were more open to eating eggs in such an unconventional (for the Chinese) way. 

From there we moved on to the mashed potatoes, the only dish I prepared at home. They did not go over so well, and I admit I hate having wasted all those potatoes. And butter, and milk.

Just before the session ended we served up the cobbler, which unfortunately did not turn out exactly right. The recipe was simple: 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of fruit with juice. The bottom was still floury but the kids didn't care. They ate it anyway.

Now to pack up, clean up and head across campus. My male students offered to help me transport everything. Thanks, guys! Arriving at Building 1, the strongest boy snatched the cart up and leaped up the stairs,  2 at a time. Unfortunately, in his unbridled enthusiasm he forgot that there was a full bowl of mashed potatoes... that promptly smashed, splotching yellow, gooey spuds everywhere. I had put the only 2 decent sized bowls I had into service, one for each class. Both bowls gone! Poor kid was immediately contrite, even though I assured him I could easily replace the bowls, and I had an explanation ready for my next class as to why they would have no potatoes to sample.

Other funny things:

everyone fell in love with the egg slicer and each wants one for him/herself.

My rubber spatulas were determined as being 'student beating tools'.

One boy fell in love with the potato masher and refused to surrender it. He held on to it all during class even when he took part in the egg slicing contest.

The crackers I had brought to serve the egg salad on got eaten before the egg salad was made. The last class I had, I just let them pig out on the crackers before class even started. 

The paper towels were a subject of awe: I wet one and pulled on it to demonstrate its strength.

Gone missing: my only 2 oven mitts, my can opener – a small, military P-38 model, and the rest of the  roll of paper towels. No problem: I can replace them all when I buy more bowls, and I have a spare P-38.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. The kids really enjoyed the class and the new experiences and I fed off their delight. It was high energy lecturing: leaping about, hopping all around class, laughing when the kids did.

Moments like that are all too rare in the average teacher's career. How lucky am I to have had such fun, such joy, such a way to bond? How fortunate that I have so much leeway in my classes that I can offer my students such experiences!              

How am I going to top that lesson???

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gary's Ikea

I like Ikea. Lately, I'd been rabid with Ikea fever, even figuring on traveling to a city where there is such a store. When I visit family and friends stateside, I'm often treated to a trip to Ikea, and their homes have a few Ikea goodies.I dreamed and drooled over the few things I wanted to buy for my home here. Ah! Heaven, when Ikea opened up in Wuhan!

The first time, I went with Summer and her mom. It was so crowded we had to wait for admittance to the store and the restaurant. We spent 3 hours browsing and admiring, and had even picked up a few small things I was delighted to finally be able to buy, because such things as silicone oven mitts and basting brushes are not widely available here. Summer's mom had also selected a few treasures and the only thing that stopped our buying them was the formidable checkout lines. I vowed to return for those kitchen tools I had been missing so badly.

Gary would be my Ikea buddy, I decided. Mostly, we're of one mind, although he deviates on some things I'm passionate about. That is to be expected: friends can't like everything you enjoy. He's never ungracious about what we diverge on; he humors me... but then quickly gets back to where he is most comfortable. Based on his excitement over our proposed shopping trip, I reasoned Ikea would not be such a situation. We share a love of functionality and home décor, and nifty little gadgets. And, he was so excited to go. 

Tuesday was our day. We arranged to meet at the train station at 9AM, meaning I had to wake up at 6:30 for my quiet morning time before facing the world. No problem! I'd do it for Gary, and for Ikea. Besides, I was eager for the early morning bike ride to our meeting place, in fact arriving early enough to enjoy a McDonald's breakfast – a rare treat for me, and the only McDonald's meal I like.

McDonald's delivers in China, but I'm so far out that there isn't a McDonalds' for miles around. As in the states, breakfast is only served in the morning. Being as we all know I'm NOT a morning person, I'm not likely to get up just for a McMuffin. But to meet Gary and go to Ikea... that's a good enough reason to celebrate early rising by having crispy hash browns and fresh-brewed coffee.  And a couple of pineapple pies. I'll tell you about those pies later.

Changes of plans! Remembering that I am on a strict budget, and that the train station's restaurant charges more than others franchises for the same food, I turned away from the golden arches to have a bowl of Re Gan Mian, Wuhan's signature dish that I also had not had in a while. Unfortunately it is also more expensive at the train station. Vigorous bargaining bought me a bowl at half the 10yuan price. It was dry and flavorless, overall disappointing. I ate it anyway, washing it down with a coffee from Mc.D's. In all, I spent more on that breakfast than had I just followed my original plan.

We were to ride the subway all the way to the store, but Gary sent a message saying some of his friends wanted to go too, and one of them knew how to get there by car. The more the merrier, and such great news! This time I was sure the store would not be so crowded that I would not want to wait in line to check out, and going by car meant I would not have to wrestle with my purchases on overcrowded trains.

For me, Ikea is a social occasion. When stateside, we like walking through, sitting on the furniture, admiring the kitchen gadgets and decorations. I never buy much – if anything. It is just nice to idle the day away with loved ones, comparing likes and dislikes and commenting on all the cool stuff they have. In China, as I walk through, I see things that my friends and family stateside have in their homes. In a sense, I feel they are with me. Sometimes the longing for them is so sharp... but now, here I am with good friends! We can do all that I love about Ikea in America with my Chinese family!  

It took almost 2 hours to get there by car – as opposed to the little-over-one-hour by train. Traffic is always a bane, but we spent the time in happy conversation. Once there and undaunted by the day's bummy experiences so far, I jumped out of the car, keen to introduce Gary to the wonders of Ikea.

Bobo and Michelle said they'd been here before, and would just wait for us in the cafeteria. Why did they want to go if they weren't going to enjoy it with us? Gary, his friend Stabbe and I flowed with the tide through the displays.

I suggested Gary sit on a particularly comfortable couch. He chose a comparably hard wicker chair instead. He saw no difference between that chair and any other chair in China. Further into the showroom, I sat down and again invited him to enjoy the plushness. He was unfazed: “Can we get up now?”. Softness and comfort are relatively new concepts in China. I can imagine cushiony seating would be out of his comfort zone. We moved on.

I tried desperately to attract him to what I thought were innovations in comfort and utility. His overwhelming response was: it was poor quality. Other comments: “We can buy this cheaper on TaoBao” (an online store). “What is the purpose of that (item)?” The beds were too soft. A firmer mattress was denounced as having a thick foam pad on it. As his comments piled up, I grew less enthused. Arriving at the Marketplace, that section of the store with kitchenware and smaller items – my favorite part of the store, he declared it was too crowded. He and Stabbe would wait for me in the restaurant while I browsed. Where's the fun in that?

I found the wall-mounted plastic bag holder my daughter has. All excited, I picked one up... and then reasoned: why spend money on something I'd managed without for so long? Ditto with the oven mitts, the spatter screen and other kitchen tools I'd so yearned for. 

I wandered a few minutes, and then returned to the restaurant, where everyone was waiting for me. Apparently, Bobo and Michelle had already eaten. Gary was enjoying coffee. I thought that, at least, we could enjoy lunch at Ikea. Wrong again! Everyone declared they had their fill of crowding and Swedish goods. After only a little over 1 hour in the store, we threaded our way out, piled in the car and headed to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Not that I'm complaining: food is food, and we were all quite hungry.

That is where the pies I'd bought earlier came in. occasionally I will treat myself to pineapple pies, 2 for 10Yuan, deep-fried and crunchy. I take them home and warm then in  my oven for a special dessert.

Stabbe had not had any breakfast. In typical Chinese fashion, gave him a pie. Driving back into town, Bobo exclaimed how hungry he was. He got the other one. Not  that I resent sharing, but there went my guilty little pleasure. I too was quite hungry after my unsatisfying breakfast but it would have been rude for me to eat that pie when my host was hungry.       

Lousy breakfast, pies gone and no Ikea goodies: I'm trying to find something redeeming about the day.

I think it would be going a little far for me to say that Gary has ruined the Ikea experience for me. I'm a firm believer that one is only ever hurt by one's expectations, so if I got disappointed, it is my fault. What bothers me is my paradigm shift, brought on by his comment: what to use that for? That is when I reasoned that all of the gadgets I'd done without for so long, I had already found an adequate substitute for and/or could continue doing without. Which, in turn brought my goal to live with minimal amounts of stuff sharply back into focus.

I look around this home I'm privileged to occupy. There are few personal touches. Come packing time, I might have 2 or 3 more boxes than I came here with, and there is plenty I could do without.

I need to thank Gary for reminding me of my goal: avoid excess. I'll probably do that in the same conversation that I tell him Ikea is not about shopping for me, but about enjoying an outing with loved ones. Would he consider going with me again, this time as a social occasion rather than a shopping expedition? I sure hope so.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Day of Confusion

I don't know how to write this entry. There is so much to say about today...

I went on my first authentic picnic in China. I know all about picnics: a standard western pastime involving any range of comfort and accessories, and food. In my ideal, a blanket is spread on the ground, whereupon the food is laid out. Participants sit on the edge of that layer and proceed to enjoy all manner of gustations and social delight. Ants may partake and, if there are any particularly sweet treats – sodas included, bees might join in. Perhaps later, a game of volleyball...

I had prepared egg salad and bought small cakes. I also had a thermos full of hot water for the coffee Gary asked me to bring. At the bottom of my large bag: a blanket. 10AM sharp he pulled up with his carful: we would enjoy our day with Michelle and Linda, and Michelle's baby. We stopped by a bakery on the way out of campus for 2 small loaves of bread:  one sweet and one sweeter. The Chinese specialize in sweet bread, much to my frustration.   

I forgot to mention that Gary requested I bring my lawn chair, which currently serves as a part of my living room décor, for it is the only seat high-backed enough to accommodate me comfortably. I have a nice cover draped over it so that it does not look like lawn furniture when in my living room.

The day was perfect and traffic was horrific. We were denied car access to the part of the East Lake conservation area we intended to while our day away at, so we parked further away and hiked in.  While walking along water's edge I got the chance to see the first remarkable aspect of the day: tents. The lawn was dotted with tents!

This startled me for 2 reasons. Camping is only a burgeoning phenomenon here. Two years ago, tents were as hard to come by as any other recreational equipment including bathing suits, and only available in specialty shops. These days one can buy tents and camping gear at department stores, including Walmart and Metro. However, the idea of camping is not yet mainstream and, from what I know of camping in China, it looks pretty uncomfortable. One of my students went on a group camp this summer. Her pictures revealed pitched tents on the concrete sidewalk in front of a temple.

The second reason I was so awed was because nobody seemed to occupy the tents. People sat on a blanket or small stools in front of the tents, whose 'doors' were tied back. Shortly after our arrival a group pitched a tent a few meters from us. I didn't see anyone in that tent the whole time we were there.

As it was near lunch time, we started eating. It seems nobody wanted any egg salad. However, the hard boiled eggs Linda brought were attacked. I had also brought quesadillas, and everyone tried one of them. And then we rolled right into snack time. Fruit, crackers, small vacuum packed goodies. The egg salad remained forlornly untouched. Later, Linda dug into the bread. I had to convince her to try the salad on the bread. She humored me, but then ate 3 more slices without any toppings. I've seen that before: prepare a nice meal and all people want to eat is bread. I'll never figure it out.

Michelle had brought a hammock which Gary strung between 2 trees. Little Miss Baby took her nap in that gently swaying rest. My chair was coveted and fought over, but not by me. I was happy to lounge around on the ground, for the first time since I'd been so sick.

In our camp and others, as soon as food was dispensed of, out came the phones. The Chinese have a mania for their phones, not the least being selfies and micro-blogging – equivalent to Twitter. I opted instead to look around.

Outdoor recreation has come a long way in a short while here, not necessarily indicated by the hammocks. The first year I was here I went to the Botanical Gardens and saw several people sleeping in hammocks.  What is new is that people will now sit on the ground, albeit with something between them and the grass, even if it is just an advertisement flyer. Another changed aspect to enjoying the great outdoors is convenience foods. Again referencing my early trips out, I recall bowls of instant noodles being sold at vendor stands, hot water included. Not necessarily convenient. People sat on little concrete stools to eat.

And they used to carry everything for their outing, usually toting several bags. Today I saw plenty who trundled their day's supplies in shopping carts. One camp close to us, upon leaving, packed the baby stroller full and carried the baby. Go figure!  

Rumbling from waterside: a speedboat! I think that might have been my first time seeing speedboats skimming over the lake in China. Not only were there private speed boats but also yachts! Even the traditional wooden pirogues that I'd ridden in my very first trip to this lake 4 years ago, were now outfitted with small outboard engines, and there were no paddles in sight. I thought I'd seen everything... until I spied a parasailer.

Things have really come along in Chinese outdoor recreation!

How long can one endure simply sitting around, doing not much of anything? I thought we might pull up stakes around 3PM, which would have given us roughly 4 hours of lakeside fun. We stayed until about 5PM. Right around the time we broke camp I remembered what the group next to us reminded me of, with their brand new tent – door tied back, and everyone sitting around in front of it, eating. They looked just like the picture model of camping on tent labels!

I speculate that, because camping is such a novel activity here, people still have to learn how to do it. Perhaps they watch TV? It certainly appeared that this group studied tent advertisements and had the idea that camping should be exactly as shown in the model, for that is exactly what they looked like!

Gary couldn't stop laughing when I confided my impressions.

I'll be darned if I know why we went out to dinner after our picnic. We still had nearly a whole bowl of egg salad, a loaf of bread, several quesadillas, and two full bags of snacks and fruit. We argued over who would take what home. Linda wanted me to take all the food. We compromised: I gave her the quesadillas and she gave me a bag of snacks. The egg salad went home with me, of course.   

At the unquestionably fine restaurant, Gary ordered as though he were starving! 3 different meat plates, several vegetable plates, a particularly tasty tofu dish, rice and rice cakes. There was no way we were going to eat it all. Again Linda said I should take the leftovers home. I told her I had food left over from the dinner I hosted last night, as well as the egg salad and all the snacks, bread and cakes. Just how much does she think I can eat?

In no way do I posit that she is insulting me. That is just being a good friend and hostess in China.  I've come to accept that, but it might take me a while to invest in a tent to bring to a picnic.

I forgot to tell you about the bee!

Here I was, coffee in hand, engaged in mirthful conversation when a rather large bee decided to investigate me. Initially it buzzed around my midsection and arms, but then decided my mouth made a better target... mainly because I opened it to tell everyone to not swat at it.

Bees get angry when swatted at and will sting the first bit of flesh they encounter. Its proximity to me meant that I would be that bit of flesh. While the women shrieked and moaned, Gary manned up, grabbed the bag my chair folds into and started swinging. By this time the bee was perched on my lower lip. I had to risk opening up again to shout at him: “Do NOT swat at it!” Still he gauged his chances, aiming right for my face.

Fortunately the bee had distanced itself somewhat, allowing me to calmly rise and walk away. Sir Bee lost interest and flew off. Only then did the other women exclaim over how fearless I must be to let a bee buzz around me, and even land on my face. Pooh-poohing their awe, I turned on Gary, accusing him of seizing this opportunity to smack me in the face.

We all succumbed to laughter so sweet even the bee could not be drawn to it.