Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I Didn't Know...

I've never claimed to be the know-all and end-all of China and Chinese culture, and I never will. To wit: even 5 years on, little tidbits of facts previously unknown to me still have the power to rock me, shock me and give me pause. Here are a few nuggets.

Single mothers:

Until recently I thought it was only a social taboo to have a baby out of wedlock in China, as it was in the west until about 30 years ago. An enlightening article in ChinaDaily clued me in to the fact that it is not just frowned upon but illegal. According to that text, a woman must furnish a marriage certificate as well as a 'valid reproduction permit' and, of course, an ID. 

Color me perplexed! With my still-predominently western mindset I can't believe that, in this day and age, when women can ensure financial stability for themselves, they are still required to be married in order to have a child.  Never mind the incredible 'old maid' standard rained on a woman who has not married by age 30 by family and friends, this information makes that proclamation quaint.

Now I understand why Stephanie had to get married, even though her family was opposed to the union and she didn't seem too happy about it herself (See How I spent my May Day holiday, posted May of this year).

Making The Bed:

I've attended several weddings in China, and they all follow a certain pattern, but for a few variances. Two things I had no idea about, that make me shake my head in disbelief: who should make the nuptial bed up for the wedding night, and how.

Apparently, a mother of both a boy and a girl should make the bed, in the belief that the good fortune she enjoys at having a matched set of children will rub off on the sheets, and the new couple will be just as lucky. Sam's mother, who has been thus blessed, is often called on in her village to make up the wedding night bed.

Never mind the fact that science has proven that it is fathers who offer up the extra chromosome that determines their offspring's gender. I'm  not sure if the Chinese still hold to the long since dispelled belief that it is the woman's onus to assign fetal gender, or if it is 'double joy' maternal hands that are thought to bless the sheets. It could just be that making beds is 'women's work'. Either way: this is a rather charming superstition that caused me to chuckle in disbelief.

Another strange custom is to litter the marital bed with peanuts. Whether shelled or not, I have no clue. Presumably, these peanuts will encourage a Little Peanut to soon issue forth. All I could think about after hearing that is the exhaustion a just-married couple must feel after the day-long celebration, only to enter the marital suite and have to sweep peanuts off the bed. Should the couple eat the peanuts? Who is to retrieve the peanuts: the bride, the groom or both? Those answers remains a mystery. 

Such traditions, thoughts, superstitions and beliefs are what made me fall in love with China to begin with. I scoff at these most recent additions to my list of seemingly nonsensical wisdoms, but it is a loving scoff, like one you would give your somewhat addled relative when s/he doesn't realize s/he's doing something utterly goofy. 

However, this next one terrified me...

Friends and family are responsible for hospitalized patients.

I've had some dealings with hospitals in China: when I bashed my head in and needed stitches, to have my thyroid levels checked and, most recently because of my broken leg, all done on an outpatient basis. I visited Gary in the hospital when his appendix ruptured, but gained no clue on the mysteries of inpatient dealings at that time.

I've often wondered why pajama-clad patients are permitted to roam around hospital grounds. In the case of the military hospital I always go to when needing medical care over here, patients wander as far as the shopping centers and restaurants across the street – also in their pajamas. From my limited experience with hospitals in the west - in Germany and America, once you are in the hospital, you stay in the hospital until you are discharged: no roaming outside allowed. In America, I've not been allowed to walk out of the hospital upon discharge: an orderly pushed me out in a wheelchair (presumably, every hospital in America follows that policy: whether you can walk or not, your trip out of the hospital is made in a wheelchair). 

Hospital food: the joke of the American health care profession. “The doctors are great but the food will kill you!” as one old saw goes. Now that health care in America is a for-profit business, hospitals compete for patients. Thus they offer private rooms and restaurant quality food. If your illness requires special foods, your diet is carefully monitored and outside food is frowned on. Likewise are over-the-counter medicines not allowed:  you cannot take any medication the doctor does not approve of, and what is approved must be dispensed from the hospital pharmacy.

It was my most recent visit to the hospital in Wuhan to have my leg X-rayed that opened my eyes about hospital care in China. My curiosity was aroused when I saw non-medical personnel pushing hospital beds into the X-ray department so the supine patients could be imaged. This time accompanied by Penney, a nurse in said hospital, I asked her my burning questions regarding health care in China.

Health care professionals are too busy to push gurneys, I found out. If a patient needs an X-ray, there had better be someone who can get the patient to the imaging department. Meals are also dependent on friends and relatives: the hospital does not deliver food to patients' bedsides.

“What if the patient has diabetes, and is on a special diet?” I asked.
“Most likely, the family will follow doctor's orders and only bring food that the patient can eat.” Penney replied.
“You work in the 'contagious disease' unit where family and friends cannot visit. How do those patients get food?”
“Friends and family bring it and we inspect it before giving it to the patients.”

That did not make sense to me at all. People in quarantine receiving outside food? How could that be? And what if a patient has no one to bring any food?

NOTE: when I say 'friends and family bring food', I don't necessarily mean home cooked meals. I've seen take-out containers from street food vendors make their way into patients' rooms. Street food vendors, whose carts line the sidewalks and whose food supplies linger in the open air for hours, a perfect opportunity for gastric distress, especially for someone lying in the hospital, whose immune system might already be compromised. 

Quite frankly, I live in fear of having to be hospitalized over here. Not just because I would have to share a room with... who knows how many other people, and that the bathroom would be down the hall. Not just because the accommodations would not be as luxurious as the ones I enjoyed when I broke my leg in America. And not just because the few treatments I've been subject to here have been brutal, to say the least, but because a hospital stay over here would be so far out of my range of experiences, I'm fearful I wouldn't adapt. To say nothing of not being able to understand what the doctor and nurses are saying because of my limited Chinese. 

I'm sure Sam, Penney and Gary, among other friends, would be prominent presences during my incarceration, and surely they would bring food. They would probably push my bed all over the hospital if need be. Nevertheless, as open to new experiences as I usually am, this is one I'd rather not have. I don't think anyone could blame me.

What a joy it is to live in a place where, even though I've memorized entire bus routes and find myself caught up in daily life, there are still things that can move me, amuse me and floor me with shock and disbelief. Any wonder why I stay? 

That 'First Foreigner' Feeling!

Much is said about what we expats are exposed to at the hands of our Chinese neighbors: the stares, the inane questions – I was once asked if I brush my teeth! The touching and all of the other questions that, I swear: if I hear them one more time, my head will explode! What about when we foreigners saw a foreigner for the first time?

I launch that question at my students: what was their first experience with a foreigner? And I tease them with the promise of my own 'first foreigner' experience, after they disclose theirs. Invariably I'm met with puzzled stares: I AM a foreigner. How can I meet a foreigner??? 

Now, I'm dating myself...

My family moved to America in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. From then on, Americans were not allowed to discriminate based on race, gender or religious preference. Until then existed a painful segregation: Whites lived here and Blacks lived there. Whites ate here and Blacks ate there. White children went to these schools and Blacks to those schools. Intergration did not happen overnight, but in the military environment – on the bases and housing areas, it happened much faster than elsewhere in America.

I was a little thing then, only about 2 years old when we moved to the states. I was not aware of anything regarding race or much of anything else. One of my earliest memories is of a girl with ebony skin, kinky hair bound in pink barettes and the brightest teeth I'd ever seen: Valerie. She stood on the sidewalk and I was on our scrubby patch of front lawn. We eyed each other warily, like 2 dogs who don't yet know they are not enemies. I remember her name to this day, because she was my first 'foreigner'. I must have been about 3 years old, as corroborated by my parents.

Valerie had a different way of talking. She skipped rope and played differently than I did. She kept having to pull up her panties, startling white against her black skin. Her clothes seemed poorly made and she didn't wear any shoes when I first met her. Nevertheless, we became friends. She let me touch her wild hair and I let her touch my silky tresses. 

As military families are wont to do, we moved on, sometime when I was about 5 years old. I am sure that, by that time, I was used to 'Black'. I simply thought Black people were only black on the parts we could see: hands, arms, maybe legs and certainly face. For some reason I was convinced that the parts we couldn't see had to be white, like my parts that nobody saw.

Imagine my surprise when, after a few days living in a run-down neighborhood in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a young man across the street was washing his car. He was Black, and had his shirt off. That's when I found out that 'they' were Black through and through!

Go ahead, laugh. I do, when I recall my dismay.

The school year started: my first year of school! Even though the Civil Rights Act was nearly 3 years in effect, our class was still somewhat segregated: boys here and girls there. Black boys in the back left of the room and Black girls to the right, behind the White girls. Inevitably, there was tension at recess.  Kids are kids and there was a lot of playground name-calling and fighting. During one such brawl, I was pushed backward off the bench I was sitting on. I landed on my left elbow and shattered bones from my clavicle to my fingers.       

There are a few distinct images of that awful, painful time: someone from the school (a woman) driving me home. I sat in the front seat, cradling my shattered left arm. My mother, rushing to the curb and yanking the door open, gently prying my fingers loose so she could see the damage. From there, somehow we ended up at a hospital, with me sitting on a consult table, still holding my arm. A large Black man with glasses, a bass voice and frizzy hair just beginning to gray approached me. His white coat was as startling against his dark skin. I wouldn't let him touch me. Was it because he was Black or because my arm hurt so much I didn't want anyone to touch it? Maybe a bit of both.

Dr. Sylvester – yes, I remember his name, too, talked with my mother. I'm fairly certain she agreed to have me sedated for treatment because the next thing I remember was lying in my bed at home, with a cast running from my left fingertips to my right shoulder. That must have been a terrible time for my poor, young psyche because I only have fragments of memory left over.

The next year, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and America broke out in riots, my mother moved us back to France. There, my world went 'full White'; African immigrants had yet to start the flood that would soon overwhelm the French economy. Georges Pompidou was Prime Minister, later president. We lived with my mother's aunt until a subsidized apartment became available and, once again I lived with nuclear family: mother, sisters and brothers. Father was left behind in the divorce.

No, I wasn't politically aware when I was 6 years old. I got that from research. 

I believe it was my early exposure to another race and having Valerie for a friend that tore down the barriers of prejudice for me. At a young age I learned that people are people, no matter what their skin color or language might be. But it didn't stop the fascination the Black culture held for me: their dances, their foods, their clothing style and mannerisms and religion and speech. I had a chance to fully explore those aspects of Black culture in my teens, when my mother remarried (another American soldier) and we moved to Berlin, Germany.

Again in the military environment, where segregation was minimal, 'Black' was all around. Anyone interested could partake of Soul Night – 'Black' music played at the local disco, Soul Food served at the cafeteria, and  anyone could buy wildly colorful clothing that Blacks seemed to prefer. The base's shopping center, called the PX stocked products for African American hair care. I remember gazing at them in awe, and later seeing such products put to use when I babysat Barbara Yulee's daughters.  

I'd like to paint myself as having always been open to other cultures, races and ethnicities but the truth is that, for many years, in spite of my acquaintance with the Black culture (and later, other cultures) I still sniggered at racists joke and even made a few myself. I'm now ashamed of how I helped perpetuate negative stereotypes.

I'm making up for it, though. I made it a point of telling my students about my experiences, emphasizing that people are people no matter what color or creed. Just as my charges have beliefs and feelings and needs and wants, so do people of other ethnicities. Hopefully I can help broaden their world so that they don't believe negative information about foreigners who are now pouring into their, till recently exclusively Chinese world.