Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Is Life?

I know, I know: trite, tired subject. I'm writing about it after a conversation with my good friend, who just told me a friend of his' husband died 2 weeks ago. Every day she expresses her grief and longing in a brief statement on her homepage. Some days, she makes 2 statements.

I can't begin to know how she must feel. She is a young woman, still in her twenties. Her entire life looms ahead, and she must endure it without her partner, her lover, her best friend. Her 5-year old daughter serves to remind her that her child most likely will grow up fatherless.

Because it is not easy in Chinese culture to find a man who will accept a woman who already has a child. And, although widowhood is preferable to divorce, still such women are heavily stigmatized. This woman is doing her best to pull herself together after her loss, and soon she will have the face the fact that she might not ever have another chance at love. How is that fair?

This unknown woman who now lives in my heart did not have to suffer through a long illness with her husband. That was a mercy. However, being as he died of illness rather than a work or car accident, there is no compensation or other monetary recourse headed her way. For the foreseeable future, she will be the family's sole breadwinner, caring for aging parents and her daughter. I'll bet she hasn't even thought that far out yet.

In conclusion, Sam said: “Her case gave me a lot to think about. I think that, of all facets of life, health is the most important.”

In turn, he made me think: what is the most important facet of life? I have never really thought of that before. Have you? How can one ponder the meaning of life while steeped in the here and now?

The here and now: this week has been so busy for me! I've been coaching a team for debate competition. What a task! The poor team knows very little about the proposed motions and even less about how British Parliamentary debate works. And we only  have about 10 days to prepare.

Because these students still have other classes to attend, and part-time jobs and other obligations I told them I would help them with their research into the topics. One of them hit close to home for me, and is relevant to Sam's assertion about the most important facet of life.

This House Would Legalize Euthanasia.

My views on euthanasia are neither here nor there, but my research shows one of the most important aspects in favor of dignified termination of life (euthanasia) is 'quality of life'.

There's an aspect that few people weigh in on when thinking: What is life?

Deep, rich relationships. Not perpetual happiness maybe, but enough to make hard times bearable. A rewarding career rather than a drudge job. A variety of experiences. Money, materials and accomplishments don't figure in when thinking of life in terms of quality. 

I agree with Sam: health is important. But for me, the overall, most important facet of life is quality.

What about you?

A Moral Dilemma

At the start of this academic year, Victor, my foreign teacher counterpart was informed his contract would not be renewed. At the same time I was reassured I could stay here as long as I wished, and it is was even stated that I would be this school's only foreign teacher because of a decline in students selecting English as their major. Part of the reason for that was rampant rumors that throughout Chinese students' learning career there would be less emphasis on English. Those rumors turned out to be baseless.

And, contrary to original reports, I will not be this school's only foreign teacher next academic year. Just like government entities in the west, our school wishes to allocate its 'foreigner funding and privilege' in a consistent manner so that, in the coming years, we will be rewarded more rather than less with regard to said funding/privileges.

The downside to that is less work for me. Well, for both of us, whoever the new teacher will be. The upside is that I might have an actual neighbor who might want to socialize and become friends. Victor never actually occupied the apartment next door because he had digs in a more fashionable part of town.

On the other hand, having an actual neighbor might be a curse. What if s/he is clingy, dependent or other negative traits this usually sunny personality tries to avoid?

Because time is so short and the crush is so great, Sam asked me to help find a qualified teacher: Bachelor's degree, some teaching experience, native Engish speaker. Not knowing very many people who would want to come to China to teach in the first place, and knowing even fewer who are already here but want to change jobs, I resorted to the blogging community I am a part of with ChinaDaily newspaper, the English reader's window into China.

An interesting side note to this community: allegations of racism. Some here believe that the Chinese are prejudiced against people who are not white (see previous entry), or even who are not Han - the majority ethnic group in China. I have a hard time believing them because our school has had foreign teachers from India, and Victor is not Caucasian. Having experienced the so-called reverse discrimination – being granted privilege because of being a foreigner, and supposing other foreigners, regardless of race/ethnicity are extended those same privileges, I had no reason to believe others' claims.  Until recently. Yesterday, to be specific.

The response to my blogging community query was quick. Eddie Turkson wrote back that he would have loved to have a shot at that job. He is also 'stationed' in Wuhan, and regretted just having signed a new contract with the school he is currently with. It is about 2 hours outside the city. He spends 5 days a week there and then commutes back to be with his lovely girlfriend, Tanza. She is from Guyana, has her bachelor's and is working on her MBA, and has several years' experience teaching English to small children. Might she put in for the job?

From what he described she met all of the qualifications and, when she forwarded her resume I found it to be top notch. I forwarded it to Sam with the cautionary note that, even though Guyana is not one of the 'big 4' – America, Australia, England or South Africa,  where Chinese schools prefer their teachers to come from, her home country's  national language is English.

I was so excited at being able to help someone, at the prospect of getting a new teacher, a new neighbor, a new... well, everything that a new hire entails. Hey! Maybe I'll even get a scrabble game in!

Yesterday, Sam dropped some papers off for me to review over the weekend, and we had a nice conversation over coffee. I asked about Tanza's application. He balked. “You see, we prefer people to come from...” blah, blah, blah... Race was mentioned. Another teacher hopeful that I had mentioned in the past, from Pakistan, was also shot down. “We don't want people from Pakistan.” I got the impression that, even if Tanzia were the only teacher available, she would not be called for an interview because Tanza is not Caucasian.

Therein lies my moral dilemma.

I am opposed to discrimination of all types, except for maybe a discriminating palate or a discerning ear. To exclude of vilify someone based on something s/he has no control over, such as skin color, spiritual belief or anatomy is a ridiculous, outdated notion. As a global citizen I have a duty to fight discrimination where and whenever I find it.

I can't believe I found it here, in this school that I love and spouted by the friend I respect. I don't know what to do. What to think.

I've been treated so well here, and Sam has welcomed me not just as a friend but into his family. The  tempting thought is to leave well  enough alone. After all: I'm not being mistreated. But... isn't that how discrimination is perpetuated? Those who think they are removed from the issue because it doesn't affect them directly? Those who turn a blind eye? Those who 'go along to get along'?

Should I walk away? Not be a part of this racist institution? Where would I go? It seems, from other blogging friends that racism is endemic to China. If I want to live in China – and I do!, sooner or later I will be faced with this same problem. Should I leave China? Where would I go? There is not a people on earth that does not discriminate in one way or another.


I am a teacher. I have the benefit and privilege of having lived a long time, all over the world. I have a duty to help educate people everywhere I go, not just in my classroom. No great lessons are taught in one sitting, nor are they absorbed instantly. It might take a while, but all of us expats, no matter what race/ethnicity and what country we find ourselves in, need to unite and speak with the same voice: equal treatment for all, everywhere around the globe.  

Will you help?    

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Foreigners Only!

Expats are being offered a free trip to Shanxi, advertised on ChinaDaily's homepage.

All you have to be is a foreigner, fluent in English, know something about Chinese culture and architecture, and have published something. Being a good photographer is a bonus.

Expats who live in Shenzhen can join the Futian Volunteer program: http://www.futian.gov.cn/volunteers/join/

The only requirements are that you not be Chinese, be older than 10 years and speak basic Chinese. For just that, you can participate in the community by interacting with locals at care centers around the city, take part in events especially planned for expats, attend concerts, play with children and many other activities.

And ChinaDaily is also hostingt an Expat Blogging contest. I participated last year and won several prizes, among them being voted Blogger of the Year. What an honor! Here is my ChinaDaily blog page: http://blog.chinadaily.com.cn/space-uid-1372409.html

Can you believe all of the benefits of being a foreigner in China?

Being an expat in this great country brings all sorts of bonuses. Foreign teachers get paid better than their native counterparts. I enjoy a great benefits package comprising of housing, utilities including internet service, health insurance, retirement insurance, travel bonuses, and the list goes on and on. What sort of benefits package do other foreigners, who are employed in other professions get? One friend, an engineer, is provided everything I have, plus a car and driver at his disposal 24 hours a day.

Really: you can't beat being a foreigner in China.

Of course, you have to put up with the stares and the touching, the unwanted questions and the constant picture taking. Some can accept all of that and some just want to go out and about unmolested. On any given day, I'm on either side of that fence.

We can't really count being away from our home and loved ones as part of the burden of living and working in China because we came here voluntarily. Culture shock also falls under that umbrella. After all, for whatever primary reason we're here, we (mostly) came out of a desire to learn and experience new things, right?

I have to hand it to the Chinese. They take the concept of 'welcome' so over the top that, not only are we expats revered here, but concessions are made to help us adjust and adapt, and even socialize with 'our own kind'. All of these programs, meant for expats only are such a boon for us, so far from everything we know and love (even if being here was our choice). Tell me: does your home country offer such programs? Are they as extensive, as encompassing, as well-meaning and as generous as the ones offered us here in China?

For that matter: are there as many government programs for Chinese elsewhere in the world as there are for people of any other nation in China? Are there government websites in your country exclusively for the benefit of Chinese expats? Are there legions of citizens ready and willing to welcome any Chinese talent your country or organization recruits?

It has been my experience that expats in any other country are mostly islands of their select culture. Outliers of the norm. In America, one can go to Little Italy or Chinatown to partake of 'Big C' aspects: food, festivals and the like. One of my former students, now studying in Australia, has mourned the fact that the Chinese students at his university are housed in a dorm by themselves and are mostly bypassed by any campus organization.

On the surface, that sounds like a kindness: leave countrymen to themselves and let them join in if they'd like. My poor Evan didn't even have an Aussie student show him around campus, let alone around town. He feels isolated and lonely, even surrounded by fellow Chinese students. He had anticipated an experience similar to society in China, where everyone is welcome and everyone becomes a part of the homogenous whole, just like the Chinese try to do with foreigners who live here.

You'd better believe I consider myself so fortunate to have everything from a free apartment to opportunities to explore Shanxi province without a fen's outlay from my pocket. However,  all while reveling in the joy of so many opportunities there for the taking, solely based on my ethnicity, I get a frisson of inequality.

I wouldn't liken expat opportunities in China – those that exclude native Chinese as racism, as some of our fellow bloggers at ChinaDaily might. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say China has espoused a 'separate but equal' doctrine, as elucidated in America's landmark case: Plessy v. Ferguson. That trial outlined that the country would be divided along racial lines, namely Black and White, and as long as each race had comparable facilities and services, everything would be wonderful. There are no such lines in China, but there is...

A sidestep.

Affirmative Action was introduced in America in the early 1960s, in step with the Civil Rights movement. Affirmative Action removed barriers to employment, education and property rights from all ethnicities and the opposing genders. At that time, women were just venturing out into the workforce, and they were met with lower pay, sexual harrassment and even being barred from work. Women were definitely not welcomed into traditionally male fields. This government program was designed to level the playing field.

On the plus side: educational opportunities and property ownership are equal among race and gender. On the downside: pay for women, handicapped and non-whites is still below average salary for white males.

One aspect of Affirmative Action that one might not initially see as a negative is hiring ratios. This program dictates that every employer, especially a federal employer is to have a certain complement of minorities, including women. Thus, as a maintenance technician, Affirmative Action worked in my favor: I was a female entering a profession traditionally staffed by males. The facts were plainly evident. On the application and test forms, hopefuls were required to mark gender and ethnicity. Upon passing the rigorous exam – I should say: barely passing, I was fast-tracked through the hiring process and started work within 4 months when, according to my male counterparts, it took them at least 2 years to get hired.    

And then, throughout my stint as a government worker, I kept seeing glaring examples of Affirmative Action at work. People, hired or promoted through Affirmative Action who had no skills or ability to perform the duties they were assigned.  

And, that is the point I'm trying to make. Everything China offers us expats is open to 'good' foreigners and those who are not necessarily open to such a perspective. For every foreigner who sees any Chinese character on an awning as proof that they are where they want to be, there are those who would deny and decry even the good about China.

I'd not decry anything. If it must be said, I'd aver that China, at every level, goes above and beyond to ensure foreigners' comfort, safety and inclusion, even going so far as to bar natives from participating in foreigner-only events.  In partaking of these special, foreigner-only opportunities I feel a bit like I did under Affirmative Action: like I'm getting an extra something because of an aspect of myself that I have no control over. It doesn't feel right or fair... does it?

With this article I hope to offer a different perspective for those who might feel China is racist for barring natives from certain activities and organizations. In my opinion, leveling the playing field – offering expats something other than the job they came here for is much more than anyone should hope for.

We'll see who agrees with me when I go on that free trip to Shanxi with other expats. And I'll have a whole new trip to write about for you, too!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Filthy Kitchen Persists

May First is Chinese Labor Day, celebrated in America on the first Monday in September. In China, people generally revel at parks and lakes, paying homage both to all the hard work they do all year and the coming of clement weather. However, this year's Labor Day brought rain in Wuhan, at least for the first 2 days. Sunday's weather was gorgeous and all the people who had suffered from the downpours turned out en masse to enjoy the last day of the holiday.

For my part, I can honestly attest to having labored in the kitchen, preparing all of the food. The cleanup still awaited me. Waking up at 5:45AM on Sunday, I was not looking forward to spending the better part of the morning cleaning, nor was I eyeing my laundry pile with any joy or desire. So, when my friend Sam texted: 'What is your plan today?' I got a hint that I might be able to shirk my household duties once again. True enough: he and his family invited me to the lake.

To tell be honest, I didn't want any more socializing. I was exhausted and had a heap of stuff to do, even though I was not looking forward to doing it. I actually flipped a coin to decide whether I would accept or decline their invitation. The coin said 'no', so I texted: “That sounds great! What should I bring?”

You have to understand. I've only been off campus a handful of times since February, and then only by necessity: doctors or grocery shopping. I was hungry to go play and see something other than the inside of a hospital or grocery store. True, I had a lot of things to do here, but surely they could wait one more day?

Make that 2 more days. I had a full classload on Monday.

Sam suggested I bring some food. GASP! How to prepare food with my kitchen the state it was in? Quickly I scrubbed my wok and fried some chicken wings, and then boiled some eggs. There was fruit leftover from yesterday; that went in the picnic bag too, along with some snacks. And then to quickly get myself ready. I was tying my shoes by the time Sam, Penny and their daughter Erica arrived.

Originally our destination was East Lake, but then the news reported that every other Wuhanite was headed there, too. To avoid traffic, we opted for a lake only 10 km from our school, that I had biked to often. It was lovely and deserted, but the construction going on next to it made it a less than desirable outing. We waited there for the family of one of Erica's classmates. From there we decided to head to Caidian, a lovely, less populated district of Wuhan I'd been to only once before.

It was lunchtime by the time we got there. Immediately we broke out the food and ate. And then we headed to the restaurant inside the park for our lunch. I'll never understand why the Chinese picnic on food they brought, and then go eat in a restaurant. Afterwards, everyone hiked up the mountain (hill). I chose to sit it out. It was hard to navigate on crutches and I didn't want to slow anyone down. My ankle was badly swollen and hurting. Fortunately I had brought my Kindle, so I sat by the lake.

We met up again at 5PM. Penny showed me pictures of all of them on the golf driving range. The little ones enjoyed an ice cream before we all got in the cars and headed back. We weren't on the road 5 minutes before little Erica fell asleep. I got home just after 7 and decided to ignore my kitchen mess for one more day, making do with the leftover fried chicken and some chips for my dinner. I was in bed by 9:30 and slept clean through till the alarm went off, which I promptly snoozed.

Monday's classes went with a Hitch, namely that I was showing the movie Hitch to complete a lesson series on body language and non-verbal communication. Even though I didn't have to work to teach, I was wrung by work day's end. Bearing in mind my unusable kitchen, I chose to dine at a small restaurant on campus, close to my home.

While eating I determined to fuel up for the ordeal of finally tackling that dreaded chore. After getting home, I took a few minutes to boot up the computer and check email, something I'd not done all day. Julia had sent a document to translate, needed by the next day. Instead of plunging elbow-deep into warm suds and cleaning up, I stayed at the computer until after 10PM, working my French language skills.  

We're now going on 4 days of my kitchen taunting me with its filth, mocking my laziness. Tuesday is when I finally put paid to all of my Labor Day fun, washing every single utensil and dish, and scrubbing the surfaces and walls to boot.

If every Labor Day is this labor intensive, I might have to take a vacation to recover from it!

How I Spent My May Day Holiday

There's been so little going on in my life lately, I'm elated to finally take to the keyboard again! I have something to write about!!! YAY!!!!

On Thursday, Summer sent me a message. Vanessa, whom you might remember from the entry Another Side of Hangzhou I Did Not Know (posted November 2014) was breezing through town on her way to her village to attend a wedding. Might we get together? As I was answering Summer, Vanessa herself chimed in with the same information. How could I resist Summer and Vanessa, former classmates and students of mine, and both of whom were my constant companions through my head-bashing event a couple of years back? 

Via text message I agreed that spending a day with those two would be the height of joy for me, and we made plans to dine out at a restaurant nearby. That plan changed the next morning because of a downpour of rain. Crutches and broken legs don't do so well in the rain and it is impossible to hold an umbrella with both hands engaged, so I texted Summer that we would eat at my house instead. Now the only question was: what to prepare?

And the other question: why is it, whenever Vanessa is in the picture, there is rain? When I bashed my head in, while in Hangzhou and again today. That's one of those questions that make me wonder...

Shortly after arranging things with the girls, Julia, a colleague currently on detail to a translation firm texted. Might she and her family come over this evening? We would only need about two hours for visiting, and I shouldn't prepare too much food because they too would bring something. Suddenly I found myself with 2 meals to prepare!

You might think that would be easy: simply prepare enough for 2 meals at one time, and reheat the second meal for the later guests. I was able to do that with some of the dishes I prepared but not all of them. On the menu were: quesadillas, a Mexican inspired food; pizza, deviled eggs – American fare; mashed potatoes, veggies with sausage, tomato/egg dish, grilled chicken wings, and, of course rice, fruit and a soup. A variety of beverages, from tea and coffee to colas and milk were also available. Knowing that a good hostess in China serves more food than her guests could eat, I was determined to show face and feed my friends well.  

Summer, Vanessa and I enjoyed a long, lovely visit. Summer is a bit lovelorn, having just broken up with her boyfriend. Vanessa, the epitome of progressive young womanhood, is busy doing her thing, taking no time for love for fancy. Our conversation ran from reminisces to philosophy, interspersed with a great deal of laughter. They left at 5PM.

That gave me 2 hours to prepare things for Julia and Company. I prepared more chicken wings, reheated the half pizza I had saved for them, made more quesadillas, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, veggies and tomato/eggs. Right on time in the pouring rain they came, with a plate of potatoes. For  this evening meal I added home made peanut butter cookies to the menu. The girls had each gotten a gift of cookies, so I didn't include them on their menu.

Their son Eddie, 3 years old, was afraid of me on crutches and did not want to come in. I sat down so that he wouldn't be so scared. Finally, with coaxing from his parents he dared enter, and found I would not beat him, eat him or otherwise mistreat him. Soon he was playing, as he always does when visiting here. Because the hour was relatively late for a Chinese meal, we tucked right in to dinner, with Julia chastising me for having prepared too much food. I took that as a compliment. It was a good thing there was so much to eat because my guests were hungry!!! Little Eddie loved the quesadillas. So did his dad. There were few leftovers. I shared them with my guests; they took home a plateful.

Through the eating and chatting, and wine drinking - for these older guests I offered wine, I gained an opportunity for some part time work as a French translator at Julia's firm, and an offer for Chris to drive me to the wedding I was to attend the next day. I accepted both gratefully. In turn, I promised to teach them how to make cookies. Again: a lot of laughter, goodwill and toasting with our wine. Then, they too took their leave.

It was 9PM. I'd been cooking since 10AM, and up since 7AM. I was exhausted! I rinsed the dishes Chris and Julia had carried to the kitchen for me (a bit hard to do that on crutches!), but was too tired to do the whole cleanup. After all: it was every single pot, pan, glass, dish and chopstick that I'd used to put these two meals together. No way would I stay up for an hour, cleaning!

I'd been looking forward to Stephanie's wedding since she invited me, a month ago. Not because I was elated at her nuptials. I find it hard to describe in civil terms the disdain I feel for her choice of mate. I missed my little Vixen, as I had nicknamed her. Since she'd fallen in with that... so and so, we'd not visited or played at all. This would be my first chance in nearly 2 years to see her again.

On Saturday, after Chris ensured I was at the right place he left, vowing to pick me up after the shindig was over. How kind! I thought I'd taxi back home. Now in the custody of another former student, a classmate of the bride, we made our way to the hotel, chattering away. When I lay eyes on Vixen, that beautiful bride, I started crying. So did she. Disregarding custom, she rushed across the lobby  from the receiving line and threw her arms around me. We talked about how much we had missed one another and how glad we were to see each other again, and then she had to go receive other guests.

It was the saddest wedding I'd ever been to. Her father was so opposed to the marriage that he didn't attend. Her mother was there, but refused the groom's request for her daughter's hand, sobbing all the while. The bride, also in tears, could not bring herself to utter the emcee-prompted phrase: “Father, please drink tea! Mother, please drink tea!”, the custom of offering a drink to the new in-laws. She went so far as to push the proffered microphone away.

After the formal ceremony was finished, I had occasion to talk with both mother and daugher. They were sad, regretful... but what could be done? The girl is 4 months gone with child. There must be a wedding, or they must bear the shame of illegitimacy. Come time to leave, Vixen walked me out. She assured me she would not lose touch with me again and offered me honorary grandmother status. I was touched.

That sad event left me wrung. Still worn out from the day before and now emotionally battered as well, I took to the computer to share my feelings with my best friend stateside. By the time I was done it was nearing 8PM. The kitchen is still dirty and I've not eaten a bite. To that end, thank goodness for leftovers. I went to bed early again enduring nightmare fraught sleep, no doubt caused by the wedding and possibly by my filthy kitchen, and waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:45AM.

My weekend doings take longer to tell of than I had originally thought! Obviously, this will be a two-parter. See you next time!