Tuesday, June 28, 2016

But... But, the Gao Tie!

Travel season is again upon us, and eagerly I am perusing train ticket sites. My passport isn't yet back from its annual validation ritual – obtaining a new visa, so, for now, I am only dreaming of all of those far-away places and the people I've been missing for so long.

Shenzhen. I've been there before and have many friends there, some  I've yet to meet. Among those there is Martin, a former student. His mother wishes to travel there with me. I will do everything I can to prevent us traveling together, but will be delighted to meet her once I get there.

If you want to know the reason why I am assiduously avoiding traveling with her, please see my previous entry.

And now, Lancy: a dear girl, also a former student, who lives in Dongguan. We've stayed in touch all of these years and I've long wanted to visit her. Her schedule or mine always prevented it. But now, with the whole summer yawning ahead of me... why not?

Well, other than the fact that I wanted to travel north during these hot months. It is quite hot enough in Wuhan during the summer; why go further south for more heat and humidity? Still, a short hop to visit Lancy...

Immediately she took over my travel planning via text message:

“Take the Gao Tie (高铁 )  to Hu Men (虎门), and then the subway to Dongguan (东莞) train station, and then another train to Zhang Mu Tou (樟木头) and I will meet you at that station.”

“Why can't I just take the train from Wuhan into Dongguan?”

“It will be too complicated for you, and it will take too long.”

Wow. Stop. Too complicated for me? Take too long?

Here we go again with those assuming I am incapable of managing anything on my own (see previous entry). As if that weren't maddening enough, suddenly travel takes too long?

Folks, don't get me wrong: Chinese bullet trains wonderful. They are clean, safe and efficient. When I have to get somewhere quickly, I buy passage on such a train.


I mostly travel for the joy and experience of it. While I agree that speed has its time and place, if I'm traveling for pleasure, I'd rather prolong the journey, not rush from one train station to another as quickly as possible. And pay a higher fare in the process – high-speed rail tickets are substantially more expensive than the overnight trains that I love to ride. I am a budget traveler, after all.

Thus it would seem like a great deal for me that Lancy would reserve and pay for my hotel. Her proclamation of intent to do so immediately set me in shivers. Here's why: she is young, recently married, and doesn't earn much. As I have the funds to travel and visit, I see no reason to strap her financially. Besides, if she would let me cover her expenses when she visits me, under the rules of 'turnabout is fair play', I could easier accept her paying my way. However, that is not the case. 

I've long ago learned to nod and agree with those who feel it paramount to 'manage' me with no real understanding of my motives or desires. They get to feel like they've done me a great service, and I get to go about settling things to my liking, with no further meddling. Thus I started looking for train tickets directly from Wuhan to Dongguan.

Apparently, everyone else likes to travel the slow path, too. There was no ticket for a berth on the overnight train available for the next 7 days! There were some seats available but, unless going to Dongguan is a dire emergency, I see no reason to spend sixteen hours, sitting up.

If my travel were a dire emergency, I would take the bullet train.

Now stuck between the promise of visiting and the only possible route to Dongguan suggested by Lancy, I balked. Surely there has got to be a better way than capitulating to high-speed travel plans someone made for me!

And then, I remembered Shenzhen. Last time I visited that city, Lancy met me there. And Martin's mother wishes for us to go to Shenzhen! Surely there could be an easy way to get to Dongguan from Shenzhen, right?

At the risk of sounding pig-headed, I am still not traveling with Martin's mom, sweet and overbearing as she is. I can make my way to Shenzhen by myself, visit with Martin and his mom, and then head to Dongguan – again, unencumbered by anyone who might commandeer my life, find my own hotel and surprise Lancy.

Now, that sounds like a plan!  

Crazy/Batty/Absolutely Bananas

The following is a list of things that happen to me in China, that drive me straight up a wall.

In publishing this list – and even in the making of such a list, by no means am I suggesting that Chinese culture is bad or must be changed, nor am I saying I do not appreciate it or enjoy it (I enjoy most all facets of Chinese culture immensely). It's just these aspects, when they occur in relation to me... well, they just drive me 'round the bend!

The Guanxi Game:

It's all about reciprocity: I've done something for you, now you must do something for me. That's marvelous! Except, I didn't ask you to do something for me.

Some people I know are adept at The Guanxi Game. From small gifts to lavish dinners, always with a hidden agenda that soon becomes clear. The thing is, I would help anyone who needs whatever service or work I can provide; I don't need a dinner or a gift in order to be prodded or coerced to do so. All anyone has to do is ask.                    

Are you OK?

That one is usually followed by 'you should take a rest'. I don't know if it is my foreingn-ness or my age that brings this on but I usually feel like a doddering old fool in the face of this type of solicitousness.

Proving my ability doesn't seem to dissuade those who are overwhelmingly concerned that I might keel over from sheer exhaustion at their feet. While climbing to our 6th floor office – and keeping pace with the freshmen who were climbing with me, a concerned party tugged my shirt and asked how I was holding up, and if I wanted to take a rest. I suppose all of the bike-riding and exercising and physical conditioning I do means nothing in the face of that much 'care'.

A cousin of that concern is the constant urge to be careful, or grabbing my arm to help me on/off the curb, to cross a road, to climb stairs, etc.

I Must Take Care Of You!

More and more I find it less fun and engaging to go out by myself. Therefore, I quite enjoy rambling around town with others. However, I must take into account that whoever I invite to accompany me will invariably take full custody of me. That goes so far as making sure I am never alone, even in the bathroom. Taking my arm when exiting the bus, carrying my bags (sometimes wresting them away) and constantly urging me to caution. Seeing to it that I arrive home safely is par for the course – not just to our campus to clear up to my apartment door.

One woman with whom I am friendly with has suggested a trip out of town. I shudder at the idea that she will take physical possession of me and my things, and not relinquish her hold until we part company. Or, I until blow my top. How do I know she would? She has done it before.

With that approach to helping the 'helpless', I wonder what such people think I do when they are not around to babysit me?   

Suspended Animation

People around here apparently think I have nothing better to do than to sit around my house, just waiting for company. Thus, at any given time, a visitor is likely to drop by, unannounced and apparently thinking my house will be clean, my cupboard will overflow with snacks, and I will be ready and eager to host.

Even though I don't live like a pig, my house is not always company-ready. In extremely hot weather I might not even be fully dressed! And, even though it seems to defy the imagination, even though I am 'only at home, alone' I have plenty to keep my occupied.

Try as I might, I cannot seem to persuade people to text before a visit.

You Speak Chinese!

Somehow, after living here for 6 years, it is apparently astounding that I can speak, understand, read or write any Chinese.

In all fairness, those who don't know me, such as: street vendors, bus drivers, merchants and the like might have reason to be surprised. But my students, colleagues and others who know how long I've been here and know of my love for learning could intuit that, in order to live in this corner of Wuhan, where there are no foreigner concessions or any other foreigners, I must have learned at least some Chinese. How would I shop for food, otherwise?

Again, I'm  not sure whether this phenomenon is a result of my foreign-ness or my age. I respect that Chinese is a complex language that is difficult to learn. Difficult, not impossible

Let me help you!

This is usually said in the context of my doing something relatively mild, such as carrying something or putting on my coat but sometimes will extend to tying my shoes or getting on a bus. I've learned to accept this type of help.

Paradoxically, when I really need help and ask for it, I am met with evasiveness. If it is something beyond my ability to deal with myself, I live with frustration. Otherwise, I try figure things out by myself and, after the situation is resolved, I am treated to grand displays of amazement.

Let me stress: I am not at all opposed to Chinese culture in any of its facets. That is not what this article is about. I understand those displays of caring are meant to show respect; guanxi is an integral part of Chinese culture and, for a foreigner to speak any measure of Chinese is remarkable, in the sense that anyone who can speak more than one language is remarkable. I just wish all of that culture didn't have to get in the way of friendship. I worry that all that deference could be keeping us from enjoying a mutually respectful relationship – by respect, I mean of each other and our abilities, not of my 'advanced' age or foreign-ness.

I wonder if any other foreigner has experienced these acts? Been a victim of such frustrations? 

And what habits or aspects of foreigners drive Chinese people crazy? 


The Week in Pictures

For the first few years I was here, I held end-of-year parties for all of my students, class by class, in my apartment. It was never meant to accommodate more than 30 people at a time, and my kitchen is not meant to cater that much food at once. I soon discontinued that practice.

This year, to get my kids talking in class – and off their phones, I came up with the ingenious idea of holding competitions. Class by class, divided into groups, whichever team presented the best topic, as judged by their peers, would enjoy a dinner at my house. The exercise culminated in time for the end of the year. Thus, I hosted 4 parties, back to back, during the last week.

I thought I was going to get away from having parties at my house... oh well! These were smaller groups, and we had an opportunity to play outside of class and appreciate our time together.

On Monday, I went food shopping for all of these dinners. No pictures to show of that. It's really not that exciting.

On Tuesday, The FBI made their appearance. We made pizza and quesadillas, and cookies for their classmates 

On Wednesday, my lone sophomore group and I met for a dinner off-campus. I wanted to show my appreciation for them pushing me to be a better teacher. Fortunately, that meal was catered.

On Thursday, The Running Goddesses came by. We had already had a pizza party earlier in the year, so for them it was shepherd's pie, grilled chicken wings, deviled eggs, steamed veggies and salad. And quesadillas, which are proving to be a hit.

On Friday, The TFGirls graced my home. Again: pizza and quesadillas. For them and the Running Goddesses, I made an apple pie – because I had already treated their classmates to home-baked treats earlier in the year.

And this is what I felt like at the end of it all.  

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Rise of the Cyberbully

While cyberbullying in America has garnered a lot of attention, mainly due to attacks on social media that lead the victims to commit suicide, in China it has been a relatively rare phenomenon till now. However, instances of cyberbullying are on the rise here, as evidenced by this article, posted in ChinaDaily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-06/21/content_16644475.htm

America has made laws in the face of cyberbullying. China's cyber-laws are still in their infancy, and that includes determining punishment for such bullies.

You might have guessed by my writing about this topic that I have my very own cyberbully on my ChinaDaily blog page. A comment attached to one of my blog posts, that had nothing to do with the article's topic, read: 

teacher we all like you but your punctuation are not correct .your are out of touch with our generation .can you please improve your teaching style in our class? we do not like when you talk like this things in class or and in the net .can you improve your teaching style for us ? my classmates talk things .you shouldn't not say poorly things of this any more .

Doesn't sound like bullying, does it? It sounds like a student who wishes to point out some deficiencies in my teaching or writing style, something I'm always glad to improve on. My response included: “Which class are you in? What is your name? Can we talk face to face?”

A few days later, on my message board:

teacher you make no real to help us .we are young and you are wrong influences on classmates .out of touch our generation and not actively in class .very too old for us to folow.

Now curious, I went to that person's page: no blogs posted, no friends, no pictures, no articles shared. In fact, that page seems to have been created the day the first comment appeared. I intuit I might have trouble.

And what am I supposed to make of that message?

“...out of touch with our generation...”. Like my bully is the first teen ever to express that thought? What youngster has not, at one time or another, accused older generations of being out of touch?

“...very too old for us to follow.” I can't help being old anymore than I can help being female, Caucasian or tall!

What is this bully hoping for? That I'd become despondent? Cry? Quit my job and flee the country? Kill myself??? 

Am I a target of a 'human flesh search', that uniquely Chinese phenomenon where an attacker will seek out information to target a potential victim with? Or is this person really one of my students who went through the trouble of finding me in the void of cyber-space, and then created a profile page for the exclusive purpose of sending hateful messages?

Here, Cyber-bullies everywhere, are some lessons for life:

1.      If you're going to put forth the effort of doing something; if you are going to speak with utter conviction, be proud of yourself! Put your name to it. Only a coward or a weakling hides.
2.      State your desired outcome. It makes things so much clearer to us victims. It is so bothersome to have to try to figure out what you want from us!
3.      How about not bullying? Clearly there are better ways for you to spend your time and energy.

As for my bully... I feel sad. I hope she will stop hiding behind our blogging community and out of cyber-space, face me  directly and tell me what's really on her mind. Until then, there's nothing else to be done. 

The Last Dance / The Last Hurrah

Both of those phrases mean the same thing: something coming to an end. The first phrase indicates something pleasant or enjoyable is almost over; the last expression reveals that something onerous, dutiful or difficult – something that requires a lot of effort is almost done. For me and many other foreign teachers, the first phrase fits. For our students, the second one is more apt.

I kicked off my last class of the year by explaining the difference between those two seemingly synonymous phrases. 

After listening to my charges' final recountings of their university experience, ceremoniously un-setting my phone's alarm and clearing my electronic calender of those pesky reminders: when, where and which groups of students have class, I reflect on the 2015/16 academic year.

Until recently, this has been a very sweet gig: minimal effort for maximum gain. This year I've had classes every day, sometimes several times a day – a far departure from when I had only 3 classes per week. Much of the joie de vivre that possessed me in my first few years here lay dormant in the face of duty and obligation. In fact, I could say that this engagement has become a full-time job! After being semi-retired for 4 years, it was a bit difficult to adjust to being occupied every day again.

I had some difficult groups this year. One demanded that I teach them something useful. “What is 'useful'?” I tasked them to debate. That particular group pushed me harder than any other class. For them, I worked extra hard to provide fresh material, presented in a unique way.

Thing is, I'm not required  to teach anything (please see I'm Not Fluff entry, posted November, 2015) My job is to provide opportunities for students to practice their spoken English and, maybe, to correct, IF there is a grave error repeated by many. The school gives me plenty of latitude, something I really appreciate.

One thing I've learned this year is that not all groups are the same, or like the same activities. Whereas one class of freshmen loved making Powerpoints and presenting, another bunch didn't even like to answer out loud. One set suffered from 'phonitchia' – the urge to constantly be on their phones. Quickly, I learned to incorporate their phones into classroom activities.

OOPS! I guess I too could express the end of the year as 'The Last Hurrah', couldn't I?

Does every teacher look back over their year, weigh the good versus the bad and draw conclusions before putting the whole thing away and cavorting all summer? Are some teachers on fire with ideas, writing out lesson plans in advance of the distant, next semester? Or is everyone wrung out, ready to forget any word even remotely related to academia? I'm guessing some expat teachers are thinking of nothing but their trip home, after their year-long absence. How sweet will that reunion be!

I'm thinking about the year's standouts:

Orange, a dear boy who will graduate next year, who boarded a plane for Wisconsin yesterday. He will spend the summer in an amusement park, taking tickets and starting rides for gleeful vacationers. Through a series of texts that started in January, he asked for help and communicated this uncertainty and excitement. He will be a different boy when he comes back, I'm sure.

Haiyou Me! (还有 me!; Hi-yo me!), an adorable freshman (acual name: Vixen) who stands no taller than 1.20m but has the heart of a conquerer. This child, with her elfin visage and her boundless enthusiasm, has taken part in every English competition our department offered, performed in every student show and excelled in class. She is so well known around campus that, when I show her picture, even senior students know who she is. This summer she will go back to her village, where her heart has been since she came here. I wonder if she will take a part of this big city back with her?

I had 3 Julias this year. The first is an adorable pixie of a girl, quiet, soft-spoken and so cute you'd want to bite her (I restrained myself). The second started her college career with severe problems that she sought counseling for. At the start of the year she would barely talk when spoken to; these days she walks around campus with her head held high and eagerly joins in our classroom activities. What a change!

Julia the 3rd is a bit harder to quantify. Shunned by her classmates early in the year due to severe hygiene deficiencies, she threw herself into her studies, almost to the exclusion of all else. One tortuous episode witnessed between her and a classmate after the bell rang led me to take her under my wing. She is still mostly shunned by her peers but she is more confident in herself and her abilities. A good thing, too: she's a very bright girl who didn't need the extra burden of ridicule.

I had more than 200 students this semester. All have, in some way become remarkable to me; impressed themselves in my heart. Berry, a funny little girl who shyly stated she had ambitions to be a doctor, but her family quelled that notion. Doreen, from a poor village, determined to learn French as well as English, even though she battles apraxia. Bob, with the mellifluous voice of a preacher, a humorous kid who jests outside of class but can only barely be made to participate in class.

As I put away my grade book, so I shelve those who've occupied my time and thoughts all year, knowing they won't pursue English studies during the summer anymore than I will haunt classrooms.

That's why I believe the last class is the Last Dance: in spite of aggravations and demands on my time and heart, after that final bell rings, it is all over.

Time to move on.       


The Bucket List

Yes, I am shamefully borrowing a movie title! It was a great movie about 2 men from different social classes, 'stored' in the same hospital room for their terminal illnesses. See, sickness and death do not care if you are wealthy or poor. You could say that they equalize us all.

BUCKET LIST: a list of things to do, places to see, foods to eat before one dies.

The phrase comes from the American colloquialism 'to kick the bucket', meaning 'to die'. A bucket list supposes that there are must-have experiences that everyone should aspire to: climbing Mount Everest, sky-diving, experiencing a transformative love.

These are all generalities, of course. Not everyone is physically fit (or financially well off) enough to climb Mount Everest. Some have a veritable fear of flying, and if that doesn't get them, I'm guessing the idea of throwing themselves out of a perfectly good airplane might keep them grounded. And love... ah! Love! How many people in this world really discover true and enduring love?

Great Love happens all too seldom, doesn't it?

For some reason, I woke up today, thinking of bucket lists. Well, I know the reason I woke up thinking about them (I'll tell you later), and that thought led me to remember a conversation I had with my son last year.

“What's on your bucket list, Mom?”

He, a new father and reveling in the role – something to scratch off his personal bucket list, wanted to know what I wanted to do before I grew too feeble to do it. I couldn't think of a single thing! 

It's not that my imagination is so limited, or that my mind is so closed that I wouldn't want to experience anything more than what I am privileged to partake of already. It's just that there is so much in this world to see, do, eat and experience that I can't narrow my perspective down to a few items on a list. Every time I click on an internet link, read a book or talk with a friend, I discover some previously unknown that I'd like to immerse myself in.

Until recently I've been possessed of the arrogance of youth, thinking I had all the time in the world, and the physical ability to do anything I wanted. Having recently been made painfully aware of my limitations – time and physical, I am realizing that all of the world's treasures are not mine to take. I have to be selective.  

Here is how I came to think of bucket lists to begin with...

Olaf, a gentleman I've had the pleasure of knowing since I've lived in Wuhan, is now back in Germany with the love of his life, Xiao Ai. We've kept in touch all of this time, and yesterday, in our latest message exchange, I put forth the idea of visiting him, and Germany, via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

BUCKET LIST ITEM: Travel from Harbin to Moscow, for a 3-day visit. And then on to St. Petersburg for a week-long stay, to visit The Hermitage. From there, through Poland and into Germany – visiting my girlhood home in Berlin along the way, and ending up at Olaf's house in Stuttgart. (See Black Dragon River entry, posted April of this year).

NOTE: Olaf was not originally a part of my bucket list trip, but he confessed that that train trip is on his bucket list.

I have wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian train since I watched Fiddler on the Roof, all those years ago: Tevye putting his daughter on that train, to meet her husband.  Dreamy sounding names – Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Irkutsk all lay along the lines of that fabled railway. The Ural mountains, the Volga, the Kama... the slice of life that can only be witnessed on passenger trains.   

Indeed, this trip would be quite an adventure. But is it a Bucket List trip?

If so, then many aspects of my life are Bucket List worthy: being a mother/grandmother, when so many can't have children. Touching the lives of so many, and having their warmth and friendship fill my heart. Embarking on no fewer than 3 distinctly separate careers in my life (so far). Abandoning all that is known and familiar to embrace life in China.

Some people never get to leave the town they were born in. Some don't want to.

I guess what I'm saying is: why make a List of things you might do someday – or feel compelled to do before you kick the bucket? Your whole life should be a bucket list, filled with experiences that make you uniquely you.   

Whereas before, I only had a vague longing to hit the rails across Russia – a 'someday' attitude toward the whole adventure, now that I know I would also be carrying my friend Olaf's dream with me, this trip has become a necessity.

I've got to start shopping for tickets... 

Happy Birthday, ChinaDaily!

China's #1 English language paper was 'born' 35 years ago, today. At that time I was a young mother, living in Germany. I had thought my path in life had already been decided, for better or worse. I had no idea of China Daily's existence, and it knew nothing of me. Fate would bring us together.

When CD was 27 – an age in humans that I consider optimal, I had the privilege of visiting China for the first time. I didn't want to because all I knew of China was what I had heard or read in western media, and not much of it, if anything, was good. By the time that birthday of CD's rolled around, I was living in America, a divorced mother of 2. My ideas and prejudices were formed by my environment and I never realized how my perceptions had been shaped until I stepped foot in this country.

The devastating earthquake in Sichuan province happened just before I visited China for the first time, in May, 2008. ChinaDaily had been recommended to me by the academic group I would be traveling with. In the weeks before arriving in China, I gingerly picked through articles, trying to find redeeming qualities in a country I was determined to not like. With ChinaDaily's reporting, I was introduced to a side of China no one ever intimated to. Before even stepping foot on Chinese soil, ChinaDaily caused me to wonder if everything I had read and heard about China until now could be credited.

What impressed me most was China Daily's coverage of the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. China Daily took a sensitive look at the devastating loss and of the boy who risked his life, saving his classmates. This excellent news outlet didn't stop at the immediate vicinity of the quake: CD went on to report on the effects of the quake as far away as Xi'an, where people were so fearful that they would die in their sleep, crushed by their building crumbling from an aftershock, that they slept on the sidewalks, outside their apartments.

That 2008 visit changed my life! After a too-short, 3-week stay, I resolved to connect with China in the most fundamental way possible: live here. Of course, it took some doing to divorce myself from life as I knew while preparing to embark on a new direction. The 2 years I spent preparing for this journey, I spent in the company of China Daily: reading every article, ingesting the Culture and Lifestyle sections especially. Later, I discovered the Language Tips section. It helped greatly in my learning of this timeless tongue. The Travel section fueled my dreams of wandering all over the country.

It wasn't until March, 2014 that China Daily and I established our formal relationship. It came about so: One of my former students, now studying in Australia, asked me via QQ chat to look up something. I automatically went to China Daily homepage, and there found an ad for a blogging contest.

A blogging contest? I'm a blogger! I've been blogging in the west since the outset of my China adventure! Unfortunately, everyone else blogs in the west too, it seems, and one lone blog about a middle-aged woman in China just doesn't seem to make a splash. People in the west – like me, as I once was, just don't find any appeal in China. After all; that's why I didn't like China or want to come here. To this day, after 6 years of writing and over five hundred articles posted on my (western) Vagabond Blog, I have virtually no following.

Of course, it could be simply because I'm not an engaging writer, too. But then...

China Daily's blogging community; instantly I became a welcome member. Unlike my western blog, where nary a comment appears, here, every one of my articles garners at least a handful of comments. And I get to participate! Oh, the friends I've made in this blogging community! Writing with China Daily has been one of my greatest pleasures; truly an outlet for this heretofore frustrated author. I've even won awards!

Now, six years into my China adventure and entering my second year as a ChinaDaily blogger, I continue to get my news first from this source. Thank you, ChinaDaily!

Happy Birthday!