Saturday, March 19, 2016

Farewell, Laoshi Dan!



This week, a fellow blogger on ChinaDaily, Laoshi Dan (Teacher Dan) posted what he called his final blog at that outlet. It was a sad but scathing indictment of cyber-limitations one might encounter in China: no Google, no Epals or Wikispaces to draw teaching materials from. You can read his article here: http://blog.chinadaily.com.cn/blog-1453444-35036.html

Every time I leave China, I marvel at the familiar online resources I can once again access. Google: check! YouTube: check! Hulu: check! I don't FaceBook but, if I did, there would be a 'check' there, too. I can download faster, outside of China. Invariably, sometime during my travels, I wonder why I stay in China, where so much as watching episodic television is well-nigh impossible unless you do it in Chinese.

Well... that's not the only reason I sometimes wonder why I stay in China. 

Like Dan, I came here full of hope and anticipation: “Having arrived to this great country almost eight long years ago with an open heart filled with enthusiasm, curiosity, and eagerness to make a difference...”, and I'll admit I am now somewhat jaded on the China experience. It is very, very cold in the winter and the air is dangerously polluted. In spite of my unwavering faith in China and the Chinese, I've butted my head against immovable Chinese dogma, to no avail. I've been victim of theft and been the subject of much gossip and, sometimes, hilarity. In my travels I am a tourist attraction in my own right, even as I try to enjoy the sites this country has to offer.

And, like Dan, I'm getting tired.  

But, I came here on a mission: To see everything this great country has to offer, and I'm not done seeing. In the process of that, I'm privileged to help bring the west to young Chinese minds. As I've learned from countless conversations with my students and people in general – anyone I converse with!, the Chinese want to know life outside of their perspective. They need to see the world is bigger than their country's borders, even as Chinese cyberspace is so limited.

I don't handle this task I've taken on lightly. That's why, in spite of niggling doubts, I stay.

I too had Gmail and Skype before coming here. A year into my sojourn, those services became unavailable in China. That was really no big deal. One can forward their g-mail to another account. My QQ mail serves me well, and I still receive my forwarded mail from Google. Mostly spam, at this point, having been 5+ years off Gmail. All of my contacts, personal and professional, know my new email address and have no problem using it.

When I was having trouble accessing Skype, QQ served (and continues to serve) very well. Every week, my family logs into QQ for our video chat. More recently I've upgraded my phone, so now I can use WeChat. While in America earlier this year, I introduced my family to this app, and now we stay in touch by text message or phone call, as though I lived right down the street from  them.

Yes, mainstream online services that westerners are familiar with and subscribe to are blocked and/or inaccessible in China. However, China has comparable services and sites. A westerner mourning his/her Gmail account can forward their mail to an approved Chinese mail account. For those who need a search engine, China has them, too. For entertainment, there are plenty of sites and games. Why mourn the loss of the familiar?

Consider this: at the outset of my China journey, while still in America, I started a blog that I have not been able to access since I've lived in China - for going on 6 years. Still, my entries get published. I send them to a pair of more-than-willing conspirators, who post those articles and maintain my page in my absence. Thanks to Google's mail forwarding services, I can see my blog activity, even though I cannot access the blog itself while I'm here.

Granted, maintaining a blog page is not as important as Dan's online college courses but, the point is: there are always workarounds. The trick is to find those solutions. Many foreigners opt for VPNs, which are illegal in China and are subject to random shutdowns – which, if you think about it, make VPNs doubly frustrating, because you pay for a secure connection, but don't have one. Why risk important online connections through a VPN when other solutions, sites and services can be found or other arrangements made?  

A thoughtful poster had replied to Dan's article: It is a pity that a comparatively minor issue such as China's restricted access to the Internet has disillusioned you as a teacher. Yes, cyberspace holds many precious resources, but the world existed for a long time without the Internet...”

And, it's not like we have NO internet connection here. It's just that China, like a good business person, promotes it's products and services in the face of competition. How many Americans have smeared Walmart for coming into their town, supposedly to usurp all of the local businesses? How many people despise Microsoft for, essentially, dominating the PC market? Why, when the trend seems to be 'shun the obvious/ordinary/familiar, do westerners in China moan the loss of the very phenomenon they would otherwise disdain?

Why shouldn't those who come to China use Chinese products/services/sites? And why slam China for making themselves competitive? Nobody ever mandated that FaceBook and Google be everywhere, after all! 

Here is something I've told my students, off and on: they have no idea of the world before the cellphone and PC. I wonder if they'd be able to function without those conveniences? Granted, I would most likely not have left my family on the other side of the world to I amuse myself in China, had it not been for technology. Still, to rely solely on familiar sites, as Dan suggests in his post, is akin to our students not being creative or imaginative,  or not seeking solutions outside of their norm – one of the greatest failings of the Chinese education system, opine many.

Having to find ways to connect with the outside world is a part of the China Experience. To refute everything China has to offer because of its allegedly limited internet opportunities is about like saying you won't come to my house because my furniture is not exactly like yours. Why bother coming to China at all if all you're looking for is a change of location, with all the comforts of home?

In my entry Everywhere The Same, posted August, 2011, I talk about how generic American cities have become: the same stores, restaurants, products, services and conveniences everywhere, all across the land. In my opinion, such standardization robs cities of their uniqueness. What's so special about eating at Applebee's in Minnesota that makes eating at Applebee's different, in Ohio?

Maybe Dan was hoping for that phenomenon in the cyber-world as well.  

NOTE: I'd never heard of epals or Wikispaces before Dan's post because other sites, accessible in China, with materials for ESL teachers, abound. However, out of curiosity, I tried first one site and then the other, and had no problem loading either one of them. So, although I mourn Dan's capitulation to genericism, I thank him for 2 new resources I can use to enhance my students' classroom experience, and I wish him the best in his future endeavors.




Thursday, March 10, 2016

Laughing All The Way!



Now back in China, I forget all about the aggravation of travel.  I forget how hard all of those miles can be on a body. I forget the stress of whirlwind visits, constant socializing, and wondering whose bed/couch/floor I'm sleeping on. As the old song says: “So it's the laughter / we will remember...”

The Way We Were, most notably sung by Barbra Streisand. A great song, and the yearbook theme to my only year in an American high school.

Homecoming was everything such an event should be. Tearful reunions at Wuhan's Tianhe airport, met by friends Sam and David. Chatter, gossip, sharing pictures before even making it home. Sam had thoughtfully packed a thermos of coffee and cups. We enjoyed a steaming brew on the way. After he and David left: dizzy, disoriented, jet lagged. I ran around my house – MY house! My couch, my kitchen, my bed! It was all I could do to shower before falling in said bed...

… And waking up around 2:00 AM, wondering whose house I'm in and whose bed I'm occupying. Fortunately, I only did that for the first 2 nights back. After that, I was able to sleep through.

So now, the semester started and the suitcase once again stowed, I think back to the laughter that found me on this trip.

            On the flight to Portland, seated next to a charming but nervous young lady. How did I know she was nervous? Because I had the aisle seat, and she had to keep asking me to get up so she could prowl around. Later, she confessed she'd not had much experience flying and was indeed quite nervous. Her ears didn't act right, her stomach felt like it was on a maniacal express elevator, rushing up then plummeting down. Her nausea is what caused her to constantly head to the bathroom. Poor dear felt her breakfast would soon revisit!

Being older, wiser and a more seasoned traveler, I felt I should advise her. I looked at her earnestly and said “If you're feeling like throwing up, simply turn to your left.”

Apparently she'd never heard that advice before, and wondered if it was some sort of holistic remedy for nausea and/or vertigo.

“No,” I assured her. “I'd just rather you threw up on the guy next to you than on me.”

Mid-laughter, a flight attendant keyed the mike for an announcement.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are approaching Sea-Tac International airport. I'd like to remind you that the terminal is under construction, so you might encounter some detours and delays. If you are making a connecting flight out of Sea-Tac, there is a board with departing flight information just outside the jetway. Simply turn to your left...”

Kim looked at me, I looked at Kim, and we both dissolved into laughter at hearing the 'turn left' advice twice in as many minutes.    

            I took this picture outside of Logan's Roadhouse, the restaurant where we celebrated my son-in-law's birthday. You'll note the sign says: 'Biker Parking Only – all others will be towed'. I'm fairly certain they didn't mean bikers should park themselves on the bench inside the restaurant because the sign was outside, facing a motorcycle parking area. Nonetheless, by sheer coincidence, there happened to be a biker, 'parked' on the bench, in close proximity to the sign and visible through the large window. To add to the hilarity, the sign was in 'Harley Davidson' colors – orange and black, and the man was wearing a Harley Davidson jacket! I couldn't resist snapping the picture, and then showed it to the biker, who uttered such a belly laugh that all of his chins shook!



            This falls under the heading of 'Strange Things You See Totally By Accident on a Bus, at 5:45AM'. Take a close look at that picture: doesn't it look like there is a bird on a perch? It took me a few minutes to realize that it was actually the bus' rear view mirror and mounting bracket, in shadow. That's what a foggy mind will do, early in the morning: see birds where there are none.



            Of all the strange things to happen, this next one takes the cake!

Usually, I'm very good about unplugging everything before I leave for an extended period. This time, I happened to have overlooked my hair dryer. Being as I seldom use it and it hardly works half the time anyway, I never gave any thought to it being plugged in.

Apparently, it had switched itself on, sometime while I was away. Sam, doing his usual 'Sophia is coming home' inspection of my apartment prior to my arrival, noted a whirring sound as soon as he stepped inside. He followed it to the bathroom and soon found the appliance churning out hot air. Who knows for how long? No doubt cursing my carelessness, he unplugged the gizmo. Everything else was in order, so he left my house, anticipating my imminent arrival.

Yes, it was a joyful reunion, but Sam couldn't resist gently chiding me about having left my hair dryer on.



I thought he was joking until I got home and saw: A. the scorched cable. B. the charred stain on the wall. C. the cracked mirror. Apparently because the dryer was aimed at the mirror and that particular section of glass had the benefit of warmth, once it started cooling down, the change in temperature was more than the pane could manage in my freezing bathroom. It did what any other glass would do: crack.

No harm done: maintenance will replace the mirror and I don't believe in the superstition that says breaking a mirror will bring 7 years bad luck. In fact, this may well have been a lucky break – pun intended. I've asked maintenance to hang the new mirror to 'foreigner height' so that I can see my hair without having to scrunch down.

Even more remarkable: the hair dryer still works!

Why don't I just trip the main breaker before leaving, you ask? Because I still have food in my freezer that I'd like to preserve...

… unlike the first year I lived here, and Sam was doing his 'pre-Sophia-arrival' inspection, only to find that the main breaker had tripped under load. All the food I had in the freezer was spoiled. Poor Sam! He threw it all out, thus sparing me from having to do it. He said the stench was terrible!

These days, it's something we laugh about together, just like I hope you will laugh with me at these hilarious moments experienced during this year's American Grand Tour.     


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Does America Make it so Hard to Travel?



Boarding the long-distance bus out of Jacksonville, North Carolina at 5:30AM, still feeling punk and badly geared up for the 32 hours it will take to reach Texas, I pondered that question.

In China, in Europe... in most countries, there are many transportation options that are clean, affordable and fast, if not comfortable and even luxurious. In America, not so much!

Consider this: Europe has Eurail, a train system that covers most of the continent, and China has bullet trains as well as slower trains. In fact, the whole country is gridded with rails, making it easy to get virtually anywhere. Trains are punctual, safe and efficient, with several runs per day to major cities.

America has no train system to speak of. The eastern seaboard and west coast have fairly regular train runs, and there is rail service across the northwest, with a hub in Chicago. However, nearly 100 major cities in America, such as Las Vegas and Nashville, metropoli of more than a million residents, have no train service at all. South Dakota and Wyoming have never been served by Amtrak, the United States' only passenger train service.


Amtrak is partially government funded, but run as a business. Many lines were discontinued in the last 30 years because they did not generate enough profit to keep them running. Some trains only run every 3 days, so if you have to be somewhere at a certain time, you'd have to plan your schedule carefully. Another factor plaguing those who would want to travel in America by train is that they might have to get off the train and ride a long distance bus to their next train connection. Finally: it is more expensive to train across America than to fly... and just about as aggravating!  

Is it aggravating to fly across America? Well, no. Although, the service aboard airlines in America is severely lacking as compared to other countries. While most airlines in the states offer a beverage service and some offer a complimentary snack, if you're hoping for something to eat or an alcoholic beverage, you'd better have a credit card: all food must be bought, and you cannot pay with cash. 'Plane food' is about as expensive as food you would buy at the airport. The menu is limited to sandwiches or a fruit and cheese plate.

What is aggravating about flying anywhere in the states is: going through security. Having to strip down a basic garment layer – sweaters and coats not allowed, having to remove your shoes, belt, and bulky jewelry, cleaning out your pockets, having to go through a body scanner AND get patted down. It takes longer to get through security than to check in to your flight and get to the gate!

Even more frustrating: paying baggage fees. Whereas, globally, only a handful of airlines charge baggage fees, In America, there are only 2 that don't assess a flat rate for luggage. Most airlines charge $25 for your first bag, with Spirit Airlines going as high as $45,  according to farecompare.com. 

There is no guarantee your bag won't be searched once you surrender it to the airline, even though all bags are put through a scanner. Upon arrival in China I found my secured baggage unsecured and, upon opening it, found this notice from TSA:

This was not the first time I've found such a notice in my suitcase. Somehow I find it violating that, even though non-invasive means of inspection exist, these officials see fit to break into people's luggage and rifle their things, and travelers only find out after the fact. However, if your carry-on bag screening reveals anything suspicious, the agent must wait for you to be present before s/he goes through your bag. What is the difference between looking through carry-ons and checked luggage that  demands consent for inspection in one instance but not the other?

Much criticism has been levied at TSA for, among other things, theft. More than five hundred agents have been fired for theft since the agency's creation. For these reasons, inasmuch as possible, I try not to fly around America. With no trains available, the only way I can get around is by long distance bus.

America has a comprehensive bus system: Greyhound. For the longest time that company had a bad reputation but it has put a lot of money into upgrading its fleet and the bus stations are, for the most part, clean, well-lit, organized and safe. They also have free WIFI and electrical outlets on their buses. Even the bathrooms at the back of the bus have been upgraded from the smelly pits they were. The fares are reasonable and the schedules are generous, with several buses to major destinations, every day. The routes are planned so that several cities/towns along the way will have bus service.

I don't mind riding the bus in America. It is affordable. I don't have to strip and nobody body-searches me or ransacks my luggage. I can pay cash: no credit card needed. I've met a lot of interesting people on the bus. The downsides of bus riding are A. they are not comfortable if you're on the road for more than just a few hours, and B. they always seem to have an hour's stop at 2AM! Even if you're sleeping, you have to get off the bus and wait around until time to board again.   

In China, some long-distance buses are outfitted with cots. Should you be on the road for more than, say, 6 hours, you will be supine rather than upright (of course, you can always sit up in your bunk, if that's your choice). Chinese buses stop every 2 hours – at least, that's been my experience, so that nicotine-depriveds can get their fix (and other needs can be attended to). The downside to Chinese buses is getting robbed. Hasn't happened to me, but it is not unheard of, and the driver is just as vulnerable as the passengers.

Not so on Greyhound: they have very strict rules! No drugs or drink on the bus, a safety enclosure for the driver – who doesn't stop until s/he reaches the next scheduled stop. Messing with Greyhound is a federal offense. I don't think anyone would risk it for so little potential reward: the driver carries no money and, for the most part, the riders comprise of the lowest ranks of society.

So: with virtually no trains, the aggravation and expense of flying and buses being the lowest form of transportation, how does mainstream America travel?

By car, according to statistics. Most Americans prefer taking to the open road in the comfort of their own vehicle. If  not their own vehicle, rentals are abundantly available for those with a credit card.

With the choices available, who could blame them?







New Destinations: Wilminton and New Bern



Wait a minute: did I say I was headed to Texas? Well, that's true, but I neglected to tell you of the stop off in North Carolina, to visit with my daughter and her family. I should tell you a little bit about that  before we move on to Texas.

Besides, the visit in Texas wasn't that great, outside of seeing my dear friends and family. There just happens to be a lot going on in Texas right now; none of it very good. So let's stay a while in North Carolina, shall we?

My daughter and her family/household are very busy. Staying there is always a bit chaotic, seeing as she is currently helping her half-sister get on her feet, and said sister has 2 small children and a boyfriend, all of whom reside in Jenn's house, along with Jenn's 2 kids, 2 cats and the dog. Often I ran outside, seeking quiet and solace, away from the noise.

As busy as Jenn is, she always makes it a point to find interesting things for us to do. Thus, on one of her days off from work, we headed into New Bern, named by the immigrants after their home: Bern, Switzerland.

New Bern was settled in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine immigrants. Many historic buildings still stand; in fact this town is a gem of southern living at its height. Tryon Palace is a good example, as is the John Wright Stanley house, built in 1780.


Tryon Palace                                                                John Wright Stanley house

New Bern has so many churches! In fact, 12 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are more, newer churches scattered around the city, too. Considering that New Bern's population is only 29,574 as of last census count, I wonder where all the people come from to attend all of those churches. 

New Bern is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola, originally called Brad's Drink. The historian at the Pepsi museum informed us that, because of a plethora of drinks named after their inventors at that time, Caleb Bradham, the inventor of Pepsi, changed the name of his concoction to reflect 2 of the drink's ingredients: the kola nut and the digestive enzyme pepsin.

I'd love to include a picture or 2 we took of the museum, but my dear daughter has them on her phone and hasn't sent them to me. I'd also love to show you the Moo Diner, a cow-themed restaurant and other snapshots we took on our short visit around town. They're all on her phone. I hope she sends them quickly. Maybe I can post a pictorial essay.

On the way out of town we stopped at an old barn that had been converted into an antiques shop. Many stores in America boast 'antiques' but most of their wares are what we would now call 'retro': only about 30 years old. As we ambled around the displays we spotted a box of well preserved magazines, among them a copy of Life from 1962 – at the height of the Cuban Missile crisis, detailing what citizens need to know about fallout shelters. Further in the pile was a tribute to slain president Kennedy, printed December 1963. As my son-in-law's birthday was just a few days away and I know him to be a history buff, we spent a few dollars on his personal copies of historic moments.

And then we trick-wrapped them, making him believe he was getting expensive wine. Fooled him! After the laughing, he was sincerely impressed with his gift.    

A few days later, we loaded up and headed for Wilmington, a dog-friendly city. You need to know that in order to understand why Garrett, my son-in-law, was so insistent on taking the dog with us. Poor dog, doesn't get out much. Well, he doesn't go on outings but he does go out regularly, otherwise the house would be untenable!

Wilmington is older and more established than New Bern, and has much more history. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't cooperating. It started raining while still on our way there and, by the time we arrived, it was a veritable downpour. Still we gamely trooped on, walking a few blocks of the historic district.

Jenn and Garrett, having previously gone on a tour of the city, knew of the many ghost tales and hauntings. One place in particular, now and architect's office, was the site of lynchings. Across the street sat the governor's mansion, with a fine railing around the second floor veranda where prominent society people went to watch black people get hung. Rumor is that the architect's office is haunted by the spirits of all those people who met such a horrible death.

Another tale is that of the roommate who got buried alive. As the story goes, the friend/roommate of the man who died kept hearing 'go to his grave' when nobody was around to say it. After a few days he and another friend went to their roommate's grave only to find he had been buried alive! Thus the term 'graveyard shift' to describe working overnight: from that incident, a law emerged that someone must sit by the graves of newly buried bodies to make sure they are really dead.

On our way out of town we saw the USS North Carolina, a battleship that served during WWII, now permanently docked on the coast, and turned into a museum. She looked quite impressive against the leaden grey sky.

None of this serves to explain why Wilmington is such a dog-friendly city, but it certainly must be because there were so many dogs out, even in the inclement weather! 

Unfortunately, close proximity to the dog set off my allergies and the bad weather served to wear my down. By the time we arrived home I was feeling so poorly that I just went to bed, hoping to recover in time for my long bus ride to Texas, 2 days from then. I'll write you again from the bus!