Sunday, July 10, 2016

Life in Wuhan, Post-Flood

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: rid this house of all mold and mildew. Any dehumidifying agents are not allowed. You must use only elbow grease and ingenuity.

That little ditty was running through my head in the aftermath of the 2-week rain that flooded this city (see Natural Disasters entry). There was virtually no transition period from deluge to sunshine; it seemed as though somebody had flipped a switch from 'rain' to 'sun'. Like the Itsy Bitsy Spider song: “Out came the sunshine and dried up all the rain...”

Well, not exactly. The sun came out with a vengence but the rain did not dry up. There was too much of it. In fact, after 3 and a half days of sunshine, our school is still mostly under water. So are many parts of Wuhan. I need to make a Metro run – running low on some  things I can only buy there. With that intent I was out of the house before 9 AM this morning.

Small aside: I found a new way off campus! That discovery came timely because the only other way – across campus and out either of the 2 gates is currently under water.

I'll tell you all about my troubles after reciting the visible impact of this recent weather phenomenon around town.

Garbage accumulation: unable to carry the trash off, or even for the sanitation workers to get to the trash bins, they are now overflowing – and, in this heat/humidity, they stink to high heaven!

            In our school, the receptacles are emptied twice per day by teams of two pulling a handcart. They cannot get through the flooded campus and the place where they burn the trash is under water. I've never seen these refuse bins that full.

Pavement is cracking under the strain of all the water. As soon as the flooding dried up around the housing area, we could see several new cracks and sinkings.

A fishmonger's heaven!  In my brief foray out yesterday I was dismayed to see a crowd of people, 3 deep, surrounding a car, parked in the road and whose trunk was open. I suspected that someone had been hit and everyone was arbitrating the accident prior to police arrival. Instead, it was a man who had profited from the high waters to scoop stranded fish off the nearby riverbanks and sell them. Giant carp and other fish were lying on the pavement – without so much as a tarp between them and the asphalt, while the fortunate fellow of found fish bartered for every bit he could get. The stink was unbearable, and I encountered it 3 or 4 more times along the short bit of road I traveled.

He had apparently carried the fish in the trunk of his car, without the benefit of a bucket or other containment device. I can't bear to think of what his car must smell like!

Car owners are making a mint!

Buses upstream from us (pardon the pun) originate from the worst of the flooded area in my part of town: University Row. That area is particularly waterlocked and, as you might guess, has suffered greatly from all of the rain. In fact, those students who are summering at those universities are in dire straits: the news is full of the ingenious way they are getting food. Latest reports show them slowly being evacuated off campus. Hopefully they won't have to scrounge for food and wade through knee-deep water for a meal too much longer. 

Meanwhile, down the bus route from that perilous area, people are waiting and waiting, in vain, for buses to arrive, thus providing a market for drivers willing to haul any desperate sojourner to the nearby transportation hub for the small fee of 10 Yuan  per person. When I say 'nearby', I mean too far to walk but close enough for me to ride there on my bike: about 10 km.

When I got to that crowded bus station, hoping for a trip to Metro, I was dismayed to find that I would have to put off my shopping expedition because the buses weren't running. Fortunately, local markets have everything I need save for foreigner foods like butter and cheese, but I don't really need them, anyway.

And, speaking of things one can buy: shelves are getting pretty bare in the stores around my neighborhood. Delivery trucks can't get through the floods, either.

One reason I was desperate for a trip to Metro was because, after the rains, humidity set in. Mold started growing, seemingly right before my eyes! Normally, I can keep up with unhealthy growths with vigorous scrubbing but, because the humidity is so very high right now, every time I turn around I see another possession afflicted. Not just couch cushions or clothing, either. This aggressive mold is growing on things one would never think could grow mold, such as my little crock pot and my drain stoppers. I can even smell the mold!

I've not suffered mold like this since my first year here, in the Concrete Bunker. And, to make it worse, the air conditioner would not come on!

I know that America has a product called Lysol that kills mold and mildew but I've not seen it for sale anywhere over here. I went to Taobao, China's online shopping mall to hunt for it and there it was! Unfortunately, I cannot make use of Taobao other than to search for things because of an ongoing snafu with my bank account, so ordering any Lysol was out. Besides, it is very expensive and who knew when it would get here? I needed something right now! Maybe China has an equivalent product?

Further searching on Taobao led me to a product called Dettol, a spray whose labeling was in English: I was able to ascertain that it would serve the same purpose as Lysol. Certain that I've never seen it around my neighborhood shops, nevertheless I took a picture of the product's picture on Taobao and set out. After showing that picture around the local shops, I had to realize my fears: there was no Dettol  spray to be had.


But wait!

This Dettol bottle: it has the same characters on it as the spray can (in white, on the green side of the label). And, it bears: '99.999%' - one could reasonably assume it means the number of germs that would be killed using that solution. Maybe, if I mixed it with water and sprayed my house down...    

It worked like a top! Granted the smell is not exactly pleasant – imagine concentrated Pinesol with a medicinal undertone, but I can now lay my head down on my pillow and not fear waking up with mold growing over my face! And my couch covers, a light green now stained with black spots, smell... normal. Ditto my throw pillows.

Why would anyone be gleeful at triumphing over mold? Especially when one doesn't have to be subjected to it?

One reason  I love living here is for the challenge of it: learning the language, getting along in society, and overcoming difficulties. To be sure, I am happy to be rid of mold, but I am more happy at having figured out, without help, how to solve this problem.

Sadly, these successes are getting fewer and further between, the longer I live here.

In my next post, I will deliver the promised GaoKao entry. Please pardon the narrative interruption; this flood is a big deal. I should report on it as it happens, don't you think?


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Your Home Is Where?

This is one of the first questions a Chinese person is likely to ask anyone, even a foreigner. Except, if you are a 'Laowai' (pronounced 'l-ow why', meaning an ole outsider, literally), people here are likely to ask your your country of origin. In China, where you come from is of supreme importance because, among other things, it denotes your social status. How ironic, seeing as since the birth of modern China, there are not supposed to be social classes.  

Let us delve now into one of China's enduring difficulties, the Hukou (pronounced 'who-co').

It is, essentially, a household registration system: a record containing family information such as births, deaths, physical addresses and relocations of families, marriages and divorces. It does not sound menacing or prejudicial when seen in that light but the effect of that booklet – a copy of which is kept at the local police office, can seriously limit one's chances of moving ahead in society. I point that out to prevent you from drawing comparisons to similar registries or censuses in the west.

Going back in time: this household registration system has been in place since around 2100BC (earliest record). Its purpose then, as now, was to calculate and levy taxes, select young men for military service and generally, was used as a tool of social control.

How can such a document be used to control society?

Just as in the west, whenever you relocate, you must register with the proper authorities: change your car's license plates and the address on your driver's license. If you live in Europe or Canada, you would register for benefits from social programs such as health insurance and utilities subsidies. And, no matter where you live, if you have children, you must register them for school.

What would happen if the bureau in question refused to register you?

Sounds impossible, but that very happening is what causes problems in China.

Let's say someone from the country wishes to move to Beijing. S/he would have to de-register his/her current household at the government office in the village. Upon relocating, s/he will then bring the household registration booket to the proper authority, who will then grant permission to live and work in that city.

S/he might never get that far. The criteria for being permitted to live and work in a Tier 1 city such as Beijing are stringent: one must be college educated and gainfully employed, with money in the bank and the ability to buy a 'house' (condo). If all of that cannot be proven, the country dweller will not be approved to de-register his rural household, let alone register a household in Beijing.

That was what I meant in the previous article, when I talked about migrant workers leaving their children behind. It is not just because their lives are so hard or because they would have no support network to help care for the children but, lacking a valid hukou, they would not be able to register their children in any school in any city.  

This system inadvertently prejudices by insuring that only the best of citizens will ever  populate major cities. Historically and today, the hukou system was used to control the movement of people between rural and the more economically and socially advantageous urban areas. Because urbanites receive more social privilege, such as: better healthcare, more and better job opportunities, and education for their children as well as more government subsidy – maybe an allocation for having a daughter instead of a son, or a pension for the elderly, naturally, a city hukou is much desired. However, you can see the potential danger of every able-bodied person fleeing the countryside: who would work the farms and grow the food? Thus, in that respect, the hukou system makes sense. The biggest shortcoming of it in this aspect is the resulting social, economic, and educational disadvantage everyone forced to stay in the country suffers.   

Speaking of education...

What about all of those students who flood into the big cities for college? With proof of a valid and current college enrollment, they are permitted to temporarily 'move' their hukou to the city and district their college is in, with the stipulation that, after graduation, they 'move' back to their native village.

Not every student moves their hukou: the pull of 'home' is too strong. Should any official need arise – say, a lost identification card or obtaining a driver's license, most prefer to trek back to their home of record, if it is close enough. If not, a panicked phone call to the family can ensure a replacement (the person needing the ID need not be present to obtain one. That is another advantage of such a stringent registration system.) 

NOTE: a lost ID cannot be replaced in any random government office. Only the home of record's office has the data needed to effectuate a replacement of such a valuable document. However, with the Chinese bureaucracy increasingly going digital, it is now possible, in certain locations, to obtain a replacement ID without going back to one's original domicile.    

What about graduates who do not return to their home of record to live? They still have to 'move' their hukou upon graduation, but they can obtain a temporary residence certificate for another city, provided they can prove employment and a place to live. That sounds rather like a Catch-22 situation: you can't get a job or a place to live unless you are registered to that city, and you can't register unless you have a job and accommodations.

This is where the Guanxi (g'wan she) system comes into play. Many universities and companies help place graduates into apprenticeships with dorm housing. After a certain period of time – perhaps a year, the fledgling worker can legally 'move' his/her hukou to his place of work, of course first proving that s/he is gainfully and steadily employed. Once in possession of a city hukou, s/he can find a place to live – provided s/he makes enough money.

Another way around the post-graduation hukou dilemma is to live with a relative, and that relative can claim you on his/her hukou.

There has been hefty criticism of the hukou system, both from Chinese citizens and from other countries. Other Asian nations, such as Japan and Vietnam, also have such registration systems but they are not as discriminatory or restrictive as China's. Thus, under fire, the Chinese government has been implementing hukou reforms, but these reforms are admittedly small, and do not overly benefit rural citizens or migrant workers. Instead, we're seeing new laws made with regard to them.

·         In Beijing, migrant workers are gaining rights such as medical insurance and minimum wage. But, so far, the greatest step toward leveling the disadvantage caused by the hukou system is that there is now a school exclusively for children of migrant workers in Beijing. Granted, it is a small step and the quality of education might be debatable, but it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully there will be such schools in Shanghai and other major cities soon. 
·         New stipends and subsidies for rural dwellers, especially the elderly. It is not much, and their quality/standard of life is still far below that of any urban dweller (save the migrant worker). Still, it is a step in the right direction to lessen the disparity between rural and city life.
·         Better healthcare initiatives for rural citizens and incentives for qualified teachers to take posts in rural areas.

There is much more to be said about the hukou system; this is a nutshell version. I'll leave it to your imagination to ponder other facets of this most problematic social stumbling block. In my next article, I'd like to talk with you about another unintentional discriminator, the Gao Kao (pronounced g-ow cow), the national college entrance examination.

Questions? Comments? I'd be glad to hear from you. 


Paradoxes and Oxymorons, Part...

The last time I wrote an article of this title was my first year in China, when everything was so new and remarkable, I was writing at least 2 articles a week. My verve hasn't slowed down any, but other things have come to the forefront, such as: working more than I did when I first came here, a broken leg, floods, and becoming inured to some happenings which, at first glance do not seem inane.

Meanwhile, I've had time and now, enough knowledge of Chinese culture – that Little C aspect, as it is known in sociology circles, to expound on deeper mysteries of life in China. Specifically, children. 

I've long admired how children seem to be the focus of life in China. My students' driving goal is to marry and have a child. Parents play with their children, grandparents parade them around. Grown children sometimes live within the family fold even after university graduation or marriage. Being a teacher – my life's work consisting of working with children, I cannot fail to notice that, for my students, 'home' is their only focus and desire.

So, what is it that binds these children of all ages to their home and families, and fosters the desire for nothing more than to propagate the family line?

“Your child is your child for life.”

That is not just a prevailing attitude in China, it is a firm belief: once you have a child, you will always have that child. That's not so unusual: in America it is common to refer to one's last-born as one's 'baby', no matter how old that child is. Everywhere in the world, people refer to their offspring as sons and daughters, even if such son/daughter is in their 50s or older. What makes it so unusual in China is that that progeny is treated like a child for his/her entire life.

It is not uncommon for parents in China to cook and clean and do the laundry for their grown children. And further: instruct them on career and money matters – going so far as to find them suitable employment, a suitable mate, buy them a house and maybe even a car. In short, everything parents do in China, they do for their children.

That's actually another cultural norm.

But is that in fact the case? Let's look no further than China's 'Left-Behind Children' phenomenon. These are children who are left in their villages while parents go to the big city for work. By that I don't mean some high-powered, executive job, but a position as a migrant laborer. Their life is brutal and basic, earning little and living in extreme poverty, in squalid conditions. Nevertheless, it is worth it to them because they send all of their money home, for their child. They get to see their child maybe once a year, during Spring Festival.

You might wonder why they don't simply take their child with them when they seek work, as migrant workers do the world over. The reason for that is China's household registration policy, called Hukou (pronounced 'who-co'). I will talk more about hukou in my next post.

What does such a parental absence mean for a left-behind child? Probably the biggest impact is the feeling of abandonment. I see it in my students, who have attachment issues – they are constantly fearful they will be left behind or overlooked, thus they cling together and to anyone who will spare them time and emotion. On the other end of that spectrum, there are students who shun all attachments or approachments, possibly believing there is no sense in forging bonds, only to have them inevitably broken. Trust becomes a huge factor, with most of my students either being wary of being cheated, or being so overwhelmingly trusting that they believe everything everyone tells them. 

One dear girl genuinely believed those fellows at the train station when they said all they wanted to do was go home. She couldn't leave her place in the ticket line, so she gave them her bank card and told them her PIN. “They said they only needed 100 Yuan, and would be right back!” she lamented to me later.

I see abandonment issues in at least 2 of my colleagues' children. One boy was left in the village for the first 2 years of his life and, according to his mother, the custodial  grandmother failed to bond with him, leaving him mostly to play games on the cellphone. Now he has speech problems – the granny did not talk with him or interact with him much. He cannot bear to be separated from his  mother, and he acts out if he believes a separation is imminent. He is unmannered, undisciplined and as angry as he can be. Another little boy was left in the care of his father while his mother went abroad for an admittedly excellent work opportunity. This tyke now appears to shun all females, even those who don't look a thing like his mother – like me.

None of this is even remotely paradoxical or oxymoronic, but the following is:

Perhaps this is only my personal definition of effective parenting: one should work oneself out of a job as quickly as possible. Thus, one should teach a child how to care for him/herself at the earliest opportunities. How to prepare food, wash clothes, keep house, manage time and relationships. How to make decisions and good choices, learning right from wrong, and all of the other important moral teachings I believe is every parent's duty to pass on to their child.

Except for a few, isolated cases, I see very little of that in China. 'Helicopter parents' – ones that hover and tend to their child's every need are the norm, here. Some kids never learn how to make a choice or decision, judging by my students' inability to do so. One of my freshmen assignments is for them to give a speech on their thoughts of university life. Invariably, I will hear shock and betrayal at having to learn how to wash one's clothes, make one's bed, and trying to figure out when to take a shower – because there are no parents around to do it all for them or tell them what to do.

Thus to me, it is very puzzling that, if every parent's duty is to do for their child, wouldn't that child be better served in being taught life skills, rather than having everything done for them until they are of such an age that they end up in a quandary because they don't know how to do for themselves?

Respect is high on the list of Chinese must-haves.  Respect for authority, repect for one's elders... but it seems respect goes only one way in China: up. Seldom is anyone young in age or lower in social rank respected.

Well, that's true in just about every country, isn't it?

In China, it goes beyond respect and way into veneration, but apparently not for youths, and not (formally) for one's child. I say that because, at any given time, a family elder may intrude on that child's life, no matter how old or what stage of life s/he is. I know young adults who are resentful of parental/familial meddling, but powerless against it. Such meddling may include the choice of mate – witholding permission to marry, for example; where to work or where to live.   

And that would be another paradox: if parents and their extended families work so hard to raise and launch their children, why don't they respect their child for the man/woman s/he has become? Isn't it actually the opposite of respect to treat someone as though they were incapable of managing their life?

Wouldn't you consider it oxymoronic to care for someone to the point that you stifle/cripple/hobble them?


Natural Disasters

I am not bragging when stating that I have lived through an earthquake and several tornadoes. My beloved Gabriel and I even camped out during a tornado, and it was his first experience with camping. There we were, hunkered down in the tent, which the wind was forcing flat over our prostrate forms. You would imagine that he would be skittish over the idea of camping after that, but the event seems to not have fazed him. He routinely camps out with his Boy Scout troop.

My kids and I were fortunate to not be in residence when our house burned to the ground – and that was my second house fire (the first one happened when I was around 5 years old) .

Yes, I've had the great fortune to weather all sorts of disaster but, Friends, I've never seen a rain like this.

It has been raining for 2 solid weeks in Wuhan. Not a gentle, soaking rain but a vengeful, drowning rain.

By the 3rd of July, our campus was overwhelmed. What should have been streets were now canals: 

The sewers could not keep up; even manhole covers were popping up. You can see by my foot that the water was ankle-deep... in that part of campus. Elsewhere, it came almost up to my knees. 

Around the city: street were flooded out, landslides blocked tunnels and train tracks. Buses have stopped running and, in fact, the whole city is at a standstill. Meanwhile, brave troops line up to form rescue teams, carrying people through chest-deep water:

While others quickly make sandbags in an attempt to contain the engorged Yangtze River

Perhaps it was too late... see the flooded city:

 And other disasters:

And still, it rains! Here is our campus' sports field, 3 days ago, and today (from a slightly different angle): it is completely under water. 

Stats: 67 dead, 20 missing, more than 20 million affected by these floods. The economic losses and property damage toll have yet to be counted. President Xi Jinping has ordered more military to the region and Premier Li Keqiang toured the area today.

We are expecting the rain to last through Thursday. Please keep Wuhan and Hubei province in your hearts and prayers!