Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Profit

Such great news! Evenflo, that company specializing in baby products has designed a car seat that will sound an alarm once the car is turned off, notifying the driver that Baby is in the car. What a great idea!

Evenflo has partnered with Walmart to be the exclusive distributor of its advanced technology car seat. For one year that mega-store, with branches all over the world will offer this extra-protective device, a must for anyone with a small child who regularly rides in cars. The seat's price is competitive: about the same as other carseats without that safety feature. 

Wait a minute... That idea resonates...

In 2008, Google hosted a 10 to the 100th competition to celebrate its 10 years of operation. Contestants were to submit ideas that would improve the world in some way: environment, energy conservation, help for handicapped and other life saving or life improving innovations.

According to statistics, more than 35 children die in hot cars every year in America alone. I had long been thinking of a car seat design with a built in pressure sensor that would 'feel' the weight of a child, so that if Baby is strapped in when the car's ignition is turned of, an alarm would sound. I was in the process of writing up a patent application for this design when Google announced the competition.

Rather than wrangle through legal channels to protect my intellectual property with a patent, and then spending years trying to find companies that would develop the idea, I submitted it to Google, complete with a demonstration video. And then, nothing.

Because so many ideas had been submitted, the Google judges were taking longer than expected to read through all of the suggestions and watch all of the videos. In fact, it took more than 2 years for that internet giant to pay out its promised prize: 10 million dollars, divided among the winners, to be spent on research and development of their idea.

Don't start thinking that I'm bitter and resentful that I didn't  win, and I didn't get any prize money. My idea was to save lives: any child's life and the lives of the families that would be shattered because their baby was left in the car (or daycare van, as has also happened). While chasing a patent I had approached a non-profit organization with the idea, hoping that they would help develop and market the finished product. I was waiting for their response when Google announced its competition. I thought: “That would be a great way for this idea to gain exposure!”

Now, 7 years after submitting an idea for saving children's lives, the giant of baby products has engineeered a car seat that would indeed save lives. I should be happy, right?

I am happy that such a car seat exists and hope that every parent buys one. I'm actually hoping every car seat maker implements that technology and that only carseats with sensors will be available for purchase. What I'm not happy about is the exclusive arrangements.

Evenflo has declared proprietary technology over car seats with their type of built-in sensor. That corporation and Walmart have struck a deal where such car seats are available only at that retail giant. 

Shouldn't the goal of such life-saving technology be saving lives, not generating profits exclusively for the companies in question?

Life should not always be about profit. Life can be as simple as an idea meant to save lives, or improve life. We see this all the time in China: ordinary people devising ingenious contraptions to help their loved ones or building necessary equipment with no foreknowledge of mechanics.

My friends, if you must see me as resentful after all this, see me as resentful that a good idea – whether mine or not (and it might not be), meant to spare babies and their families agony is being used first as a profit generator, and only incidentally as a life-protecting device. I'm resentful that child safety advocates tolerate this blatant abuse of commercialism instead of lobbying the government that only car seats with such technology be manufactured, and that older car seats be retro-fitted with the new technology. I'm resentful that the American government can legislate at will but apparently turns a blind eye to Evenflo and Walmart securing a monopoly of these advanced-technology carseats – and monopolies are illegal in America.

But then again: Texas enacted a law allowing people to carry their guns openly while out in public, but refuse to enact a law against texting while driving, saying it would infringe on people's rights. Why should I be surprised that safety laws are trumped by profit generation?

Would I resent a pile of money shoved my way? I'll be honest: no, I wouldn't. But, for me, it's never been about money. It's always been the horror that children sometimes get left in cars, a horror that everyone must surely share.

And if that's the case, how can Evenflo and Walmart cash in on horror???

On Marriage

A couple of months back, one of my Chinese friends came to visit. We were enjoying coffee and conversation when, all of a sudden, he pops off with: “I'm getting married.” Color  me poleaxed! Isn't that the sort of announcement one rushes to tell friends, breathlessly and full of excitement? That wasn't the case here. Joe dropped his news casually, mid-conversation, as though he were telling me he would eat dinner out that night.

Much is being made of romance, finding one's true love, and 'love conquers all' in China these days. The divorce rate is staggering, reportedly because there is no love to the union or the romance has faded, although other factors also make the list: deceit, or getting a better apartment, for example. Meanwhile I, romantic at heart but disbelieving of the soulmate myth – there's someone for everyone or the German version of it: for every pot there's a lid... I, long-time single, ponder the marriage question.

Marriage, by definition, is the union of two or more complementary elements: pork and peppers, peanut butter and jelly, jazz and blues, man and woman. However, one can enjoy jazz and not like blues, eat peanut butter with bananas and serve pork with other vegetables. Human marriages are stretching traditional definitions: America has recently legalized homosexual marriage, a step behind other countries. But human marriages almost always come down to love, don't they?

Or do they? Why do people get married these days?

About a month after Joe's marriage announcement, we were again enjoying a visit. He started talking about wedding plans and asked me to attend his wedding in October. Of course I agreed and, since he opened the subject, I asked a few questions.

“What about your new apartment that you are decorating to suit your tastes? How will your wife fit in it?”
“She will keep living at her house and I will live at mine.”
“What about when you have a baby?”
“Baby will live with my mama. Mama lives close to me.”

By this time, I'm not exactly understanding this marriage. He explained:

“She loves her work, and earns a lot of money. She does not want to let her life go just because she marries. Her work is close to her home now, and far away from my home or work. It is better this way.”

I can certainly understand her wanting her independence and not give up her work but I can't understand how this marriage is going to work.   

I think about all of the good marriages I know: Chuck and Marjorie, George and Chris, Ann and Ron, Sam and Penny. These are long-time married folks with the exception of Sam and Penny, but those 2 are no less devoted to each other than my other friends who've been in it for the long haul. All of the good marriages I know of are true partnerships that require a lot of compromise and a lot of work no matter how long they've lasted.

Contrast that with this young couple I'm acquainted with, who got married last year and now have a 2-month old baby. He went to another city for work because there are no good teaching positions in his village. His wife had the baby on her own, and then moved back in with her parents so they could help take care of baby. The new father returned home, his teaching done for the summer and, rather than seek out his wife and child, he headed to his parents' home and agreed to a divorce via text message.

What did they get married for???

Perhaps it is my mindset: one should fulfill one's obligations and keep one's promises. Maybe that is what makes me shudder at how this marriage died. And maybe there is a dash of hopeful romantic in me. He married her, after all. He should have brought her to the big city and been there to support her, instead of chastising her for weakness when she cried, long-distance, that she needed him. He should at least meet his baby, if not commit his life to her. Shouldn't he?  

The Chinese Formula for Life:

From birth to early 20s: education.
After graduation: find a job.
Once established in a career: get married, have a child.

This formula, once successful in this society is now damaging it. These days, people are not happy to just do their duty and bear the burden of convention. More and more, couples want romance, love, and status brought by material things: a fine home, a nice car, the latest gadget. They drive themselves to the very pinnacle of success, sacrificing everything in the process, including the possibility of lifelong partnership and the emotional/psychological well-being of their offspring. 

Offspring: in spite of looser social standards, having a baby out of wedlock is still taboo in China. Thus, people get married, have a child and then split up. Sometimes, both parents leave, and the child is left with an older family member, or maybe even just a villager. We already see the damage done to 'left-behind' children. Suicides, attachment issues, psychological problems such as depression and fear of abandonment. What about this new generation of children, foresaken by one parent or the other in favor of a better life?

What does this mean for the future of China? Do Chinese sociologists have to rethink what it means to be family? Maybe if the stigma against divorce and bastard children is lifted... Or should the government step in and enforce family values over emotional ties and/or materialistic desires? Is this yet another birthing pain of modern Chinese society? Are marriages of convenience becoming the norm?

Is that what Joe and his intended are doing?

Possibly. Joe is a mid-30s businessman. Regardless of his professional success, his family is continuously hounding him for a daughter-in-law and an heir. Maybe her family is raining the dreaded 剩女 'sheng nu' – 'old maid' phrase on her. Perhaps the two know each other professionally and have entered a pact of sorts to help each other save face with their respective families, without changing their lives as they are now.

Is there any love between them?

I don't know. Even though Joe is a weekly visitor here, I've yet to meet or even see a picture of this girl, and he doesn't talk about her much.
I wonder why a person in this day and age would have to marry, but then continue to live a single life that has worked so well for him/her.    

Friday, July 24, 2015

That's Weird!

I first noticed this phenomenon in Ezhou while I was rambling around there last year (see Ezhou entries, posted July of last year), but I put it down to the locals being exceedingly friendly. Now it happens all the time, and I don't know what to make of it.

For the first few years I was here, younger people always approached me and we did talk, usually in English and not for very long. The conversations all flowed in the same direction, what I call The Standard Questions: Where I'm from, do I have children, where's my husband, why did I come to China and, invariably: could we take pictures together? Sometimes I even got: “I want to practice my English with you” or some variety thereof.

Older people tended to shy away. Once, a woman hurrying onto the subway snagged the first empty seat she saw: next to me. Once she realized she was sitting next to a foreigner, she got up and moved away. That hurt my feelings every time. Elders would rather stand on the bus than sit next to me. However, they had no problems talking about me. As my language skills – specifically listening skills grew, I could make out some of the things they were saying: “She's so tall!” “How big she is!” The unforgettable: “Is it a man or a woman?” Once, I overheard: “Very pretty eyes!” That comment made me happy, especially because it came during that time when I was feeling terrible. And, like the youths, elders had no problems snapping pictures of me, whether they asked permission or not.

But now, things are different, and I don't know what's different about me that makes the situation different.

Now, elders approach me boldly and start conversations.

I don't think I have any sort of markings on me that might indicate I can communicate in Chinese. I am more confident when out and about, and sometimes people can overhear me speaking Chinese. Or they watch me typing text messages in Chinese. Nobody is shy about peeking over my shoulder, even going so far as to lean insistently into my field of vision, blocking my view of my phone.

It's not just the people around my neighborhood who engage me in conversation, either. If it were so, that might explain this new development, because these people have seen me around for 5 years. They talk about me – I'm not being immodest when I say that. A few weeks back, Sam relayed that the *OTW people were asking about me because they'd not seen me in quite a while.

My broken leg is the reason for that. Walking those irregular dirt paths is difficult with a bum leg. 

I have a measure of fame in my neighborhood, too. There was an incident recently where an off-duty policeman living in the neighborhood was questioning me (about what, I have no idea). Among the gathering crowd, two women from the farmer's market happened by and recognized me, and told him to leave me alone. “She's our foreigner. She's OK” they said.

In short: being the lone foreigner in this area, I'm bound to be at least known, if not talked about. Again, I say this with no guile whatsoever. So what is it about me that, all of a sudden, elders across this city and elsewhere are no longer shy about speaking with me in Chinese, as though they know I would understand them?

Sam puts it down to a variety of factors, one of which is my growing confidence. Another, he suspects, is my better health. Those 2 years when I was feeling so poorly, nobody would want to approach me. I wouldn't have wanted to approach me, either! A third cause is no doubt my graying hair. For the first few years I was here, I was blonde, and then über-blonde (see “My word but she's blond!” entry, posted November 2010). after the disastrous blond look I rolled into stringy red hair – even my hair looked sick at that time. Now that I've gone natural - curly dark brown with gray streaks, maybe the elders don't feel I'm so formidable a person that they cannot satisfy their curiosity of a foreigner who might be in the same age range, even though I tower over them.

Just yesterday I went to the bike repair shop. My back tire had sprung a slow leak and, as I'd already patched that inner tube 4 times, it was time for a new one. Mr. Repair Man and I were not strangers; his shop being on the way to campus, we've waved at each other countless times. I'd been to see him before when I needed a new tire. Then, customers crowded around him and he was quite busy, patching and repairing bikes, so we had no time for conversation. This time, it was only me and him, early morning. He didn't have repair jobs stacked up and there were no hordes of people milling about, waiting for their conveyances.

I didn't know how to explain my need for a new inner tube. I just gestured to my back tire. He deflated it and took one look at the inner tube with its 4 patches, concluded I needed a new one, and set to work. While working, we talked. Mind you, he already knew I couldn't explain what was wrong with my bike but that didn't stop him from firing The Standard Questions at me. We had a nice conversation. I learned he is a father of 3 from Xinjiang, a northern province, and came here so his children can have a better education. And, we're the same age.

It was quite nice to know a bit about this man to whom in entrust my beautiful steed but, as I pedaled away I still wondered: what is it about me that is different, that encourages people to speak with me as though they know I would understand them???   

*NOTE: OTW – Over The Wall community, referring to the village on the other side of the wall from our housing area.  

Happy Birthday, My Dear!

The Plan:

I was to log on to China's premier chat platform, QQ on Sunday morning – their Saturday night, to wish Conspirator a happy birthday. I would buy a little cake and some birthday candles, and sing happy birthday. All of this was pre-arranged with Co-Conspirator during our weekly Wednesday chat, while Conspirator out of the room. A weekend call would be throroughly unexpected because our usual chat time is during the week. Since hatching that plan, I had been rubbing my hands and gleefully snickering, anticipating this joyous surprise I would spring, and the delight my dear one would surely feel.

When you live on the other side of the world, you have to do your utmost to ensure your loved ones know they are loved, dont'cha know.

What Actually Happened:

Sometime on Friday, I lost my internet connection. This was not like last week, when it would fade in and out, but mercifully was restored in time to keep my chat date with my friends, thereby allowing us to arrange this birthday surprise. This time it was completely gone. No World Wide Web and no internet TV to enjoy a movie on during the evening. Of course, no QQ: no birthday surprise.

Sam to the rescue!!! As always.

Except Sam was busy hosting a long-anticipated visitor, a former teacher at this school who had set the bar so high that many foreign teachers failed to meet his standard. It took me 2 years to live down his reputation, or at least establish my own and/or outgrow comparisons to him. Knowing Sam wanted to enjoy Byron's company, I didn't want to message him with my trifling internet problems. But then, as always...

Sam to the rescue!!!

He messaged me, asking how my day was going. The perfect opening! I texted back that I was frustrated because of the internet access problem. He had bigger fish to fry: bringing Byron to the school, to meet me and to coordinate a massive dinner in celebration. Would I be available around noon?

Suddenly, I too had bigger fish to fry. House needed cleaning. Snack plates prepared. Hot water and coffee. Getting company-ready. Eating breakfast, which I hadn't yet done. Yep, lots of things to worry about and take care of that day, not the least of which included entertaining 7 guests, one of them a legend of the classroom. It was a very nice visit. We laughed, we talked. We drank coffee and indulged in some snacks. Pictures were taken.

Through it all my mind harbored the joy of surprising my friend on the other side of the world.

And that would be possible thanks to Sam, who, in spite of visiting with his long-time friend and coordinating things so that the experience would be sublime for all, took time out to call tech support about my internet connection. He promised they would be here before 10AM the next day. I calculated: 10AM here is 9PM there. There's a chance I might still be able to make this birthday memorable. This wasn't a fleeting thought, but I had a houseful and a legend to entertain, so I couldn't dwell on it.

It was nice to have the company, and even nicer to be able to slang around with a fellow English speaker who is about my age. Of course we included our younger friends who, maybe did not get all the slang, or even everything we said because, when native speakers get together, they tend to shoot rapid-fire syllables at each other. Our Chinese friends have a hard time keeping up with all of the slang, idioms and speed. That was perhaps inconsiderate of Byron and me. On the other hand, it seems the others didn't mind.

At dinner, we followed the normal pattern. Toasts, tons of food and laughter. Soon the group devolved into women, men and  the foreigners respectively, chatting together. The evening wound up at around 9PM. I had ridden my bike to the restaurant – riding is easier on my leg than walking, but strolled along, pushing my bike on the way back. I had a mission, you see. I had to stop at a bakery and pick up a cake for my hopeful meeting online.

After that purchase, I gave my apologies and mounted up. My leg was hurting badly; riding would help relieve it somewhat. They strolled while I rode circles around them, all the way to the housing area.

Next morning: out of bed! Get ready for...! Soon there will be internet, and a birthday song will be sung!

The tech didn't show up.      

Gary did, and we had a nice visit. He conveyed his birthday greetings. Chris, one of my colleagues asked if my service had been restored and suggested I reboot the modem. Oh, if only that would have worked the half-dozen times I'd already tried it! He also expressed the hope that this day would be special for my dear, unwittingly waiting for a  call.

Now it's Monday, and still no internet. I'm starting to get a little antsy. I have a blog or 2 to write, and I can't write anyone any of the emails that I owe them. Still no sign of the tech, but Sam came by. He's on campus for remedial driver training.

We had nice conversation, except when he got mad about my internet connection not being fixed. After sternly reprimanding the tech for not coming by yesterday, he lent me his phone so that I could send my conspirators a message. Surely at least one of the would be wondering what happened, after all that careful planning, and my not 'showing up'.

Now they know I'm not dead – that was the message title I sent them, and now I know why my online service failed. The whole system had gone to fiber-optics, but my equipment had not been upgraded. Mr. Tech will be by tomorrow to wire my system up, and Sam will take a break from driver training to facilitate the installation.

I write this entry in lieu of the surprise Co-Conspirator and I had planned. It is not as great as seeing my dear ones' smiles and surely it cannot convey how special they are to me, but it is heartfelt. Happy Birthday, my dear Conspirator! Look: here is your cake!