Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Year-End Show

Every other year, since I've been at this school, we have had a teacher talent review. I quite enjoy those shows.

·         2010: I was invited to perform. Mr Wang, the maintenance manager and I 'sang' my newly-penned Waiguoren Rap, a song about being a foreigner in China. It was suggested that the first 2 verses be translated into Chinese, so that the audience could understand what we were singing about. That made sense.
·         2012: again by invitation, this time I sang a traditional Chinese song about a migrant worker's longing for home and love: 有没有人告诉你 -  you mei you ren gao su ni/ has anyone ever told you? (listen to it here: . The audience was suitably impressed that I could sing a whole song in Chinese.

            On a more humorous note, I had prepared a prop: a battered cardboard box with a masking tape handle, to simulate a Chinese migrant worker in travel. As I walked across campus with it, people stopped me to ask if I was getting ready to travel. They thought my prop was my actual luggage!  

·         2014: I was not able to perform due to my recently mended leg that allowed no performing, and I was not asked to perform. Still, I enjoyed the show.


David, one of our department teachers (and a fantastic vocalist!) told me our department wanted the two of us to sing a duet. Should we do My Heart Will Go On (Celine) or Yesterday Once More (Carpenters)? With little time to decide – he had to inform the event planner right then and there, and knowing David  can sing me under the table and down the street to wait for a bus, I opted for the easier Carpenters' song.

With a twist. Why simply blend our voices when we could split the song up? I fired off an email to him, detailing that proposal: which lines he would sing, which ones I would sing and the ones we would do together, all in different colors.

And then, nothing.

I learned from Sam, in an unrelated conversation, that the school leaders had reviewed the program ideas and were not satisfied with the degree of talent on display. Our department was tasked with jazzing our performance up. 

Wait a minute!

Until now, I'd been convinced that these shows were meant to be fun. And they were fun! Sure, putting on a show is arduous for all concerned, but... isn't it a bit unusual for the audience to have input on what will be done during a show? To be disenchanted with the proposed entertainment and demand more pizzazz?

I was reminded of the sordid monarchs of Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll: “Off With His Head!” Suddenly, these shows we teachers put on no longer seem light-hearted and gay. Might we performers suffer a similar, gruesome fate if we fail to amuse and entertain? Probably not, but the image persists.

Especially after the phone call from David today, who affirmed what Sam had told me the day before: the school administrators want more zing from their teachers onstage. Initially, they had rejected David's and my ballad out of hand, but then had the idea: I should sing my part in Chinese, and David will sing his in English. Never mind my questionable singing ability, compared to his soaring baritone. 

And now, the mad scramble to learn this song in Chinese before the show, next week (while attempting to preserve what little voice I have until the show)!  

Duly thanking all of the technology gods, I found – not one, but two sets of lyrics. One seemed to be a literal translation; the other conveyed more of the feel and meaning of the song. The latter's advantage is that it comes in characters and pinyin, the romanized version of Mandarin, complete with tones (any of the 4 tones that give Chinese characters their meaning). Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to match the music! Panicked, I sent both versions to David, asking him which one I should learn.

Amidst all of this showmanship, we still have classes – hence the fear of voice preservation: some of my classes have more than sixty students. That's a lot of voice usage! To say nothing of David, who is one of the busier teachers in our department. In fact, he teaches at two different schools, just to make ends meet. And I still have an overly full course load, teaching way beyond the number of classes specified as maximum in my contract. David is generally not good at responding to emails, but I fervently hope he will respond to this one. And, from the looks of it, we are going to have to rely on each other to learn our parts separately and hope they come together well, come show time.

Under the eyes of an administration that commands sizzling entertainment. 

And, in the background, that ticking clock: “This is the last time I'll do this, this is the last time, the last... the last...”

The Wedding of Tristan and Linda

You could hardly ask for a better day for a wedding: sunshine from a clear blue sky and mild temperatures. This weather, in December! Only the Wuhan mud smeared the picture. But then, if you're in the know about Wuhan mud, you understand that the street cleaners created it, early in the morning, spraying the dusty roads down so that people wouldn't be inhaling those particles. It hadn't rained in a while, and everything was covered in a drab, dirty coat. Seven years on, I can't get used to Wuhan mud. Or Wuhan dust.

But none of it tarnished this wedding.

Like the street cleaners, I was out early, to catch the first bus to Hong Hu (洪湖 ), Tristan's hometown. I've fallen into the Chinese habit of not pre-booking my ticket; for long-distance buses especially, that is not necessary. I would either luck into a relatively early departure, or have to wait a few hours.

As it turned out, the bus would be leaving within minutes of my buying passage. And, as though the fine weather were an omen of nothing but good to come, the coach was a newer, more comfortable model than I expected. Usually, buses that rumble into out of the way places tend to be small and raggedy, their maintenance questionable. For a change, I rode a long-distance bus that was not only comfortably appointed, but virtually empty! And, even though some commented on 'the foreigner', nobody approached me.

I pulled out my recorder and started making impressions of this trip.

Hong Hu is a small town, about three hours away. So off the beaten track is it that the only way to reach it using public transportation is by bus: no trains anywhere near there. I had been to a village on the outskirts of Hong Hu my first year here to attend the wedding one of my students' relatives.It was quite an affair, and my first traditional wedding in China.

Tristan had called me the day before to inform me that the actual wedding had been moved to 5 PM. I thought this would give me a breather in the morning; I wouldn't have to get up so early and catch the first bus. However, he said that there would be plenty of wedding related activities, and I should still come as soon as I could.

I was glad I did!

Upon arrival at the hotel where the event was set up, Tristan's mother fell upon me, thanked me profusely for deigning to grace her son's wedding – as though it were such a chore!, and took physical possession of me: pulling and pushing me in whatever direction she wanted us to go (how I hate that!). After making our way across the room where lunch was in full swing and every table in the vast hall was fully occupied, with her making introductions all the while, she finally plopped me down in a chair, at a table full of Tristan's old school chums.

I vaguely remembered some of the faces: Jeff, who is now married and a father; Sean, who I met in Shenzhen when Tristan lived there; and Johnathan. You might remember him from the first year I was here; he and his girlfriend came to my home for dinner and subsequently questioned everything I did, even going so far as to take a knife out of my hand so Marie could slice a potato (See How Rude entry, posted 2010). Catching up with them was an odd affair; after each question, one or the other of the men urged me to eat. I was at odds as to whether I should eat or answer questions!

I managed an eighth of a hard-boiled egg and a bit of lotus root soup before being tugged away again.

After posing for endless photographs with anyone in attendance that wanted to, Johnathan invited me to McDonalds' for a coffee. Apparently, he had drunk too much the night before and needed a pick-me-up. As there was a lull in wedding activity, I agreed to ride with him. As soon as we walked in the restaurant, I was swarmed by every teenager in the place, and they all shouted at me in English! I gave them my standard answer for occasions such as this: “I'm French, I don't speak a word of English. Do you speak French?” Of course, I said this in Chinese, and it helped that Johnathan had mostly forgotten his English and we were conversing in Mandarin to begin with.  

Back to the hotel again, for games! Tristan was going to 'fetch his bride', a traditional activity. En masse, we all trooped up five flights of stairs, arrived at the bridal suite, pounded on the door, and were finally let in after Tristan slid a 'red envelope' under the door. And then, Linda couldn't find her shoe (it was cleverly hidden inside the drape tie-backs). Now properly shod, Linda agreed to marry Tristan. He then scooped her up and carried her downstairs.

An uncle had apparently become attached to me and matched me, step for step, all the way up and then down the stairs. Descending together, he remarked how surprising it was that I could even manage stairs, seeing as I am so fat!

And then, the parade through town. In the first Hong Hu wedding I attended, it was done on foot, with fire crackers heralding our approach. This time in was done in cars, with a videographer hanging out of the car window to capture the bridal car driving by. It took almost two hours to get every shot the artist wanted. Thank goodness for clement weather!

The videographer was a caricature of an artist, complete with beret that somehow stayed on his head, even as he hung halfway out of moving cars.

Back to the hotel, with ample time for Linda to reset the curls that had blown askew during the ride. Tristan and I had a private moment. He's been my protegé ever since he graduated from our school, in 2011. Over the phone and during visits, he's shared his life and his woes with me. I held him as he cried over the death of his father, shortly after graduation. He brought Linda to my home, as though I were an actual relative who must give approval of his beloved (of course, I approved!). Today, I am so happy to see him marry the woman he loves! 

Now, for the big moment: the formal ceremony.

Tristan and Linda's wedding was the most lavish affair I've ever attended, and that's saying a lot: I've attended weddings in four different countries! Everything was perfectly choreographed, even my little speech before the lovebirds took center stage. Tristan, ramrod-straight, escorting a beaming Linda to the front of the room, where they would exchange rings and then kiss. The moving 'thank you' speeches, made to their mothers, and the promise that the newlyweds will not forget their obligation to them. Mothers crying. Tristan crying. Me, crying.

After the sumptuous meal, Johnathan and I loaded up. Long-distance buses had stopped running already and, as he also lives in Wuhan, Tristan had arranged for him to give me a lift back. We chatted lackadaisically. I was never as close to Johnathan as I am with Tristan.

Tristan and Linda's is most likely the last wedding I will attend in China, and certainly the last one I will be invited to speak at. Although this occasion was beautiful and pleasurable and moving, through it all sounded the sorrowful knell, ticking off my 'lasts' in China. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sammie Gets A Job

Actually, Sammie didn't get a job. I'll talk about that in a minute.

The topic in class was: Boys and Girls. Based on a news article whose headline screamed: it is more difficult to be a girl in America than in Kazakhstan, I wanted my students, most of whom are girls, to reflect on whether it was more difficult to be male or female in China, and on what they could do about it.

To make my case, I delved into the NBC piece, which stated the organization Save The Children conducted a poll on the quality of life for girls all over the world. China was notably absent from the report. I made sure to point that out.

I also pointed out that boys's lives were apparently not worth a report.

And then, the twist: the female students should research and report on life as a boy and the male students should research and report on life as a girl: how is life easier? How is life harder? How can we even out gender responsibilities and privileges? I told my rapt audience that, in order to prepare for their assignment, they should visit that organization's websites:

They should also interview people of the opposite sex:  family members, classmates, boyfriends or girlfriends. That way, they could get a good picture of how life is, on the other side of gender barrier: 

The week before, we had talked about racial discrimination, following a viewing of the movie Freedom Writers. The kids were apalled at what-all that movie alludes to, especially the racism. Because of their interest, I decided to explore their feelings and expand the topic to include gender bias. The boys being girls and vice versa, for the purpose of this exercise, was my way of getting them to discover how life is for the other gender. Perhaps girls would stop being so demanding of their men? Maybe men would be more supportive of their women?

I was eager for the next week's classes, when I would hear what they'd discovered. A lot of what they said was banal; I suspect about half the kids only went with their thoughts/ideas, without interviewing anybody. A few made up whole speeches from lines of the song: If I Were a Boy, by Byonce. Maybe they thought I don't know that song?

A few blew me away with their depth of thought. August got the straight dope from his mother: life is not easy at all for a woman, no matter how good looking she is, or how rich her husband. Quite a few girls expressed sympathy for males, who are called on to be the family provider. Many of them disdained the cultural norm of men having to have a house, car and cash before they can think of marriage.

On that one, I urged my female students to be true partners with their men. Why shouldn't they  contribute equally to their home and bank account?

And then, there was Sammie: a shy, soft-spoken girl with radiant skin and wise eyes. Her turn at the podium revealed a loathing of lordly men, withholding or dispensing to women at will. She hated being at the mercy of males! I was quite taken aback by her seething report and vowed to talk with her privately about her feelings. Surely she must have been grievously injured to feel this way!

No need for private conversation. We soon learned why this shy girl was enraged to the point that she would speak so vehemently in front of the whole class. She had applied for a job the past weekend and gotten turned down: “I'm not going to hire you. You're a girl.”

No, not turned down: humiliated.

I know that feeling of impotent rage she felt; I've been there. I too have been denied work because of my gender, when I was not much older than she is now. And, like her, I had no idea how to assert myself.

China has laws against gender discrimination. It doesn't stop employers from practicing bias, but it does give the likes of Sammie a leg to stand on... if they dare. There seems to be a cavalier attitude towards women who complain of gender discrimination, and that attitude is well-known. Many women simply accept rejection (humiliation) and hope the next time, it won't feel so slimy.

I don't want that for Sammie, or any other female, in China or elsewhere.

Fortunately, more and more women in China are coming forth with outrageous stories of bias against them. The teacher who was fired for being pregnant – her contract specified against marriage or motherhood. The young woman who responded to a 'males only' job ad (yes, those still exist in China!), only to be rebuffed as not anatomically correct for the position: administrative assistant at a language school. Hers was China's first gender employment discrimination discrimination case. She won. 

Her case was arbitrated a mere 2 years ago. She adopted a pseudonym during the proceedings to protect herself from possible negative fallout. Those facts, in themselves, make a statement. Don't you think?

As does the report from Save the Children. I keep coming back to the question: why only girls? I couldn't find a report on boys: does this organization believe that boys do not have any issues? Does Save the Children not consider boys' issues? Are boys' needs less urgent? Unimportant? You might think that, as a female who has endured discrimination, I would be overjoyed that girls are in the forefront. I'm not. I tend to believe that a biased focus, in itself, causes and perpetuates bias.   

In China, there are now advocacy groups in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere to attend to and help enforce women's rights in the workplace. Changes are coming slowly, but they are coming. Recently, an ad specifying only male applicants would be considered was removed, thanks to the diligence of those groups.

Thanks to them, and to the slow-dawning realization that women are equally valuable employees, Sammie and, in the future,  her daughter might never have to endure the humiliation of being turned down for a job simply because they were born female.

I can hope, can't I?   


What is Rude?

Early morning, my neighbor clatters down the stairs. Just about when he hits the first landing, right by my front door, he makes a great honking sound, snorts, and spits a wad as he descends the last few steps to the foyer. I can hear 'floop!' as he ejects his mucous and the 'splat' as it hits the floor.

A few buildings away, another man engages in a sneezing fit. It seems to be a ritual for him. I can hear him every morning. He does nothing to muffle his affliction.

At noon, a loving and engaged Grandma returns home with her charge. How do I know she is loving and engaged? Because she constantly exhorts the small child, all the way up the stairs (and then down again, after the noon break). She does not do it quietly.

On the bus, a phone jangles. “WEI???”, and thus begins an exchange the entire bus can hear.

In the supermarket checkout line, an elderly woman pushes past to take a place at the front of the line in spite of the rest of us, who have patiently been waiting our turn.

A workman comes to repair a water leak in my bathroom. He smokes as he works and throws his cigarette on the floor when he's done puffing. He squashes it with his boot as he walks out.

            Related to cigarettes, a common occurrence: smoking in restaurants where 'No Smoking' signs      are prominently displayed.

In restaurants, it is not uncommon to see/hear people loudly smacking their food, open-mouthed.

Every evening at 6:30, save for when it rains, the neighborhood people, from the one I live in and the community next door, gather to dance. Their music reverberates and echoes through the buildings. Sometimes they dance past 9 PM. Most recently, one of the groups hired a dance instructor whose amplifier is particularly loud.

Mercifully, the drumming team only practices during the summer. This past September and October, it sounded like the two dance teams, the dance instructor and the drum team were competing to see who could be the loudest.

During evening hours, when the area by the pond is most full of people, I don't suppose anyone does this but, one fine day, holding class outside, my students and I arrived at the pond area to find a woman defecating by the gazebo, in plain sight. Being a stroke victim she couldn't squat down; she stood, with her pants around her ankles, slightly bent over and holding on to a railing. I was mortified but my students shrugged it off, and the woman continued until her bowels were voided, and then sat down next to some of my kids and asked them questions about their teacher.

The questions! “How old are you?”; “How much money do you earn?”; “Where's your husband?”; and the comments: “You're so fat!”; “You're so tall!” and once, a helpful soul dug into my wallet as I was counting out cash at a train ticket window while muttering approvingly about a foreigner who can navigate China independently.

Here I might mention the lack of personal space: the Chinese like to crowd!

According to the customs and manners I was raised with, all of these behaviors are rude. The people practicing them would be considered ill-mannered. Maybe someone would even chide a person who spits in the foyer of their building or is too loud. And woe to anyone who cuts in line!

But these behaviors are... if not accepted, at least condoned in China, in spite of an ongoing campaign for civility.

Since I've been here there have been public service adverts on buses, on television and on the subways: you should give your seat up to the elderly, the frail, expectant women, or parents of small children. You shouldn't eat or drink on the buses or trains, nor should you spit. I can't imagine how much the government has spent on these educational campaigns, or on dual refuse bins: one for trash and the other for recyclables, with a small inlet for cigarette butts.

Throwing cigarette butts on the ground is one of my pet peeves. Trash too. Especially since these wastebins are liberally scattered all over China's cities; why throw trash on the ground?

Most parents of young children that I know often chide their progeny after an uncouth act: Is that civilized? (那是文不文明? - na shi wen bu wen ming?In my opinion, that is laudable. We learn our best lessons as children. But the question remains: if children are being taught what is and isn't civilized behavior, and those behaviors mirror the ones I learned as a child, how is it that these bad behaviors persist? 

And so, I wonder: with the perpetration of acts that would be deemed uncivilized, ill-mannered or downright rude by the apparent guidelines set forth by the government, acts that I understand to be uncouth because of those campaigns and because of my upbringing in a different environment, and these acts are apparently condoned, what would be considered rude, in China?

Please note: in no way am I demeaning China or her people. Never would I say that anyone here is being deliberately offensive. I understand that this is a different culture than the ones I grew up in, with different standards and different norms, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. I am genuinely trying to understand what would be considered rude to a Chinese person, so that I don't inadvertently offend anyone. Please help me!