Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saddle Up, Ride'em Out

It's that time again, for buying gifts and packing bags; for gearing up for that long flight across the ocean. This trip includes stops in Portland, Oregon; Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Jacksonville, North Carolina. Of course, I have to stop in Dallas and Fort Worth to see friends and family there.

I'm most excited to see Portland and Jacksonville. I've never been to either of those places. I've been to Carlisle several times but I've never written about it, so it will be my pleasure to see it through fresh eyes to report accurately for you. I'm also eager to be with family at Christmas. I've missed that particular brand of fun for the past 4 years; this time I intend to soak it all up!

Trip notes:

On the flight over I had 2 seats to myself so I was quite comfortable, even though long flights are generally discomfitting. I never seem to be able to sleep! Trouble manifested itself at Los Angeles airport. After clearing customs we found that the carousel where we were to collect our bags broke down halfway through disgorging the bags. Some bags lay uncollected on the belt while others were penned up in the chute that delivers luggage. We all piled over to the next carousel and watched while the remaining bags rained down.

Soon all the bags were shed and some of us stood around, wondering where our luggage might be. As my fellow passengers spoke little or no English, I took it upon myself to help them by asking the airport maintenance crew if there would be more bags coming. One of them told me there was a pile of them stacked up at the far end of the baggage claim area. I beat the crowd and there I found my bag. I could finally make my way to my connecting flight to Portland!

In all, I spent 3 hours negotiating Los Angeles airport, making it to my next departure gate just in time to board. When I got to Portland I watched my son drive around the airport terminal. Why he was looking in the opposite direction, leaving me waving my arms on the side of the road is is mystery. Twenty minutes later he reappeared on foot, having parked the car in order to do a terminal by terminal search for me. He found me still standing by the side of the road, looking for him.

As per custom, I buy my tickets for my entire round trip within the first days of being in America. With the impending Christmas panic and more visitors due at my son's house, I hurried to puchase bus passes for the eastern seaboard leg of my trip while things were still quiet. Too bad I thought my daughter lived in Fayetteville... about 2 hours from Jacksonville, where she really lives. She'll have to get up early to meet me as my bus is due in at 8AM, only to reverse the process when I head for Texas because I'm taking a bus there, too... out of Fayetteville.

No refunds or exchanges allowed. Read on for a well-planned exchange!

Having cleverly exchanged money for my sojourn before leaving China, I had plenty of green for any transit fares, or anything else I might need. However, I am not comfortable having no 'in case' cash cushion. I reasoned: I have my bank card with me. If need be, I'll have access to funds. Or so I thought. As soon as I looked in my wallet to count my remaining cash after buying all those tickets I realized I had left my bank card in my coat pocket... on my couch, in my apartment, in China.   

It's going to be a great trip!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Did You Say?

In an early episode of Dr. Who, The Doctor brought British Prime Minister Harriet Jones' reign to an end with just 6 words: 'Don't you think she looks tired?', whispered in her assistant's ear. Because we're not discussing Dr. Who, I'll leave to you to wonder why he did it and what the fallout was. Instead I'll use this prime example to illustrate how important it is that we foreigners, especially those employed as teachers be careful about what we tell our 'audience'.

Everybody has preconceived notions of things they know only vaguely about. Most of my students, and indeed most anyone I've met since living in China has averred they've built their perception of life in America on what they see in movies and TV. The richness, the vastness, the cars, educational standards... even how holidays are celebrated.

I tend to have a more realistic view of life in America, if not a more jaded one, I'm sad to say. I've spent some terribly hard years, and a few bountiful ones there. As Chinese parents dream of their progeny earning a diploma abroad, I shake my head over how the education  system seems to be failing. While people here groan with envy over Black Friday, I recall reports of fights, gunshots and tramplings. While my Chinese friends see Christmas as a magical time, I despair over its loss of reverence and freefall into commercialism. And I won't even touch on weddings.

The nationwide riots and 'die-ins' over the Ferguson incident have left me scoffing over what my students think is the land of equality and ultimate freedom, even as I wish I could negate the impact of the grand jury's decision to not indict the policeman who fired the most recent shot heard 'round the world. I wonder what my students make of this latest stain on America's race relations stance?

Here is where we foreigners need to be very careful. We do not have the right to destroy our Chinese friends' ideals, but we do have the obligation to adjust their perception. 

By the nature of our relationship, our students learn from us: not just curriculum, but about life. As teachers, we are bound to help shape our charges' ideals. It cannot be done egoistically. As a person who has had the privilege of experiencing life in America, I must not allow my opinions to become fact. 

Most of the kids at my school cannot believe I would give up life in the land of their dreams to live in what they perceive is a society with restricted personal freedom and few chances for advancement. The question: “Why did you come to China?” must be answered very carefully. To give reasons such as: economic advantages (couldn't find a job), personal safety (hearing gunshots, not safe to walk around at night, or even during the day in some neighborhoods), discrimination, or high cost of living all serve to tarnish America's image and mar their ideal.

And  here we teachers have another obligation: promote China. So many youths here yearn to live the good life abroad, with quite a few targeting America. But what is wrong with China? After all: didn't we choose to live and work here? Doesn't that count for something?

As adults and global citizens, we have the obligation to help these students gain a clearer worldview. Not everything in America is good; not everything in China is bad. Fundamentally, it comes down to personal choice, but it must be an informed choice. Unbiased information is what we need to offer our students, our friends and anyone who is curious about life abroad.   

Conversely, we should not go overboard to represent our countries of origin in unrealistically bright hues. I sat in on a lecture given by another foreign teacher, about family life. He completely neglected to report that some families are completely estranged, with members not even willing to come together for holidays or funerals. Or that sometimes, family elders are shunted into homes where no family visits. He gave the impression that families in America connect by love and desire rather than obligation, something that most students here feel burdened by.

There is a measure of truth in that assessment, but his illustration of family life in America, coupled with countless movies of families gathered around the turkey at Thanksgiving or the Christmas ham no doubt served to send his class into paroxysms of envy. Such longing was later revealed in open conversation.

The danger of promoting such adulation is neglect or abandonment of Chinese traditional values. While these kids lick their lips over turkey and hugs and that Norman Rockwell feeling, it seems they are turning further away from their own, poignant culture. One student told me they do not revere their traditions as much because they are more 'modern'.

What does that mean?

For both China and America, the holiday season approaches. Americans have enjoyed their turkeys and possibly their Black Friday shopping with an eye toward Christmas; the Chinese government is planning their Lunar New Year extravaganza. Said extravaganzas are looked upon more and more with jaundiced eye by the Chinese. The gala – CCTV's show that, in recent years has been judged as trite, the fireworks now deemed disturbing and dangerous, the agony of travel in spite of more trains being put into service... none of it is gleefully anticipated.

Christmas shopping is what people in China are looking forward to. Already the malls are decked out and the merchandise entices. One no longer hears Gong Xi Ni Fa Cai - the Chinese song wishing luck and prosperity, but Jingle Bells and other English carols. On Christmas, stores stay open late and shoppers expect deep price cuts. It is all in fun, but it is yet another step away from traditional Chinese celebration.

For the first time in the 5 years I've been here, I will be 'home' for Christmas. When I told my students, they immediately envisaged every tender family scene from every movie they'd ever watched. Or, perhaps they were parlaying my homecoming into theirs, scheduled for about a month from now. Regardless: all of the feelings ascribed to rejoining loved ones after a long absence were present in their comments and in their eyes.

This is what we foreigners must absolutely not destroy.

Where Am I?

Being the geeky girl that I am, I enjoy watching science shows. An added bonus to modern television is that one can fast-forward though the commercials, which is usually my habit. I don't know why I didn't this time. Maybe it was so I could have this topic to write about.

So: here I am, all tucked into my geek-show, and the first round of commercials comes on. L'Oreal, Reeses' Peanut Butter cups, M&M candies, Cadillac, and KFC.

Wait a minute: where am I?

I felt like I was watching TV in the states, for all the American products advertised. The thought niggled...

Back to the science, and then another round of commercials. This time a young woman slumbered in an Ikea bed, a lovelorn lady ate at Pizza Hut, a few youths danced around with Pepsi, and a Big Mac – sandwich from McDonalds' slammed down on the table.

I'm getting a little closer to the observation I want to express, but the thought hadn't quite crystallized. Mind you: I'm enthralled by science but can't put a thought together. Strange!

The next round of commercials cemented my idea. This time I was treated to an ad for Turkish Airlines – featuring 2 non-Chinese, again KFC, L'Oreal for Men, and a spot for children's milk formula by Weyth.

Wait a minute!

China has airlines, and restaurants, and fast food, and cosmetics for men and women. They have native brand automobiles and furniture and drinks, from sodas to infant milk. The Chinese have plenty of sweet treats and snacks, too. Why are only foreign products or companies advertised?

 Part of me fears the growing westernization of China, and these ad displays certainly support that theory. Another part is about fed up with how today's Chinese are gaga for anything western.

While shopping the other day I looked for a good buy on olive oil, my favorite. The sales clerk emphasized one particular brand from Spain. To listen to her, only Spain can produce quality olive oil. At 43 Yuan more than the brand I buy imported from Italy, I decided she could keep the Spanish oil. What got me was her insistence of where the oil came from rather than the virtues of the product. Why should I care where it comes from as long as it is good oil?

And now, these commercials for western products. Why not advertise Chinese products?

Could it be that ad space is so expensive only foreign companies are willing to pay the price? What does that say about the cost of advertising and Chinese companies reluctant to pony up? Or is it just a matter of pitching products to a specific group?

I've done absolutely no studies in broadcasting so I'm only guessing at this. Please bear with me. Ads are targeted to a certain demographic. During children's shows, ads for candy and toys are played, presumably to make tykes beg for whatever is dancing on TV. Young adult show sponsorship tends toward the more youthful products, clothes and services. What demographic do programmers suppose watch BBC science documentaries? Highly educated, middle aged people. Does that suggest such people should be enticed to McDonalds', Pizza Hut and Ikea? 

Or do these spots imply that this demographic should lead the westernization of China?