Sunday, February 26, 2017

Beginning

Today is my mother's birthday... or, would have been, had she lived. She died twenty-two years ago, at the relatively young age of fifty nine. In a mere five years, I will have lived longer than she did.

I think about my mother a lot, especially on her birthday, even though we were not close and she died so long ago. Thus I see it as apt that, on the day of her birth, I list my own 'beginning's.

My last semester as English teacher at this school began this week. What with everything else going on right now – planning my departure among other things,  I can't say I am eagerly anticipating this last stretch in the classroom. Or the student-choked campus, or the noise around the housing area – which has already begun. Nightly the women gather to dance again, and their music is louder than ever. Each morning, I am roused by those clomping and stomping around, noisily ejecting the ravages of last night's cigarettes from  their lungs as they thunder down the stairs. The cleaning women who roam around campus with their little twig brooms and their pushcarts, chirping to each other and clanking chains against their metal bins. The vendors who ride their scooters through the alleys, blaring their services in hopes of a customer.

I wonder what it's going to feel like, being in a quiet neighborhood.

I am beginning to wind down my social activities, not that I had that many to begin with. In order to make separation from friends easier five months from now, I am gently turning down invitations. Penny and Erica are the exception. Last night was Penny's birthday dinner and, even though we'd not seen each other but once during this month-long school break, we fell right back into our old patterns: Penny and I cobbling conversation together in my bit of Mandarin, and then Erica and I playing.

She will be seven years old in September. I came here the year of her birth. It is almost inconceivable that I won't be here for her first day of school, her graduation or her wedding.

It is also unbelievable that, soon I will be living in a place devoid of Chinese characters – both the written word and the people. I'm beginning to worry about what will happen to my hard-fought language skills once I am no longer immersed in it. How will I practice? How will I continue learning? Is there any point in continuing to study Chinese if I am no longer here, and will presumably not ever return?  

One thing I am not wondering is  how it will feel to go about unphotographed or talked about, as I am here. I am truly looking forward to relative anonymity.

I'm beginning to wonder what life will be like for me, wherever I land – a topic which is still undecided. I've not paid rent or utilities for seven years. I don't know how to go about securing an Internet connection or setting up mobile phone service. I look around this home that I've occupied since it was first built and wonder about the next tenant. What will be his/her thoughts upon first stepping foot inside these walls? These walls, bare of decorations that I bought, hung and will take with me when I go.

And I wonder about the new foreign teacher. Will s/he be a novice, as I was when I first started, or a seasoned veteran of the Chinese education system? Will s/he compromise on our students, giving only bare minimum, or, like me, give his/her absolute best no matter what the cost? And how will the school treat the incoming teacher(s)? Will there be a welcoming dinner, as there was for me and Victor, so long ago? Or will they be only tolerated?

I speculate on that because of tightening restrictions on foreign teachers in China that might cause so many hopefuls to choose another locale for their expat adventure (See Seven-Year Itch entry, posted September 2016). Those restrictions, coupled with the low pay this school offers – thousands of Yuan below average in China, makes me wonder if this institution will be successful in attracting any teachers at all. Or will they only have Nigerian teachers to choose from, who have recently been accepted as qualified English speakers by the Ministry of Education, albeit with a substantially lower salary cap than teachers from more desirable locations, such as Australia or America?

I'm beginning to wonder about food. Granted I shop at Metro and  mostly cook my own food, but I wonder what it will feel like to have a full-sized stove, including an oven, to cook on/in? And, I enjoy the occasional batter cake or bowl of re gan mian (hot dry noodle, the Wuhan specialty) from vendor stalls. Just last night, Penny's birthday dinner at a hotpot restaurant: where will I find hotpot outside of China?

And those delicious little snack cakes that I enjoy so much. And cream puffs, incomparable to the ones I've eaten in the west. Sweet potato chips that you can buy from a bulk bag, that are so savory! And that delicious coffee I drink! True, it's instant but it is bold and flavorful. I'm beginning to wonder about my morning coffee elsewhere: will it be as satisfying?

I wonder what it's going to feel like to access websites that have been forbidden me for the last seven years: YouTube, Google and others, or to send email without restrictions. And what it will feel like to stream videos without pause or hiccup, as currently happens here. What will it be like, watching TV without Chinese subtitles?

How easily will I adapt to full-sized broom and mop handles? Or carpet under my feet? Or, for that matter, not having to wear house shoes? To baggies that are more than 2mil thick? To a range of cleaning products that make housekeeping a breeze? To sitting without my knees at chest height? To repairing my bike by myself, instead of invoking a repairman for the least little thing? 

I'm beginning to daydream about long bike rides with friends, in clean air, where my lungs won't scream 'abuse!' and my legs will get all the oxygen they need to function properly. A place where I won't have to take allergy medicine twice per day or risk hyperventilating for lack of air. I wonder what it will feel like to not be able to see the air in front of me, or have a perpetual sheen of dust on everything I own.

To be able to talk with a doctor, a vendor or a repairman without anyone translating for me. To have a decent conversation, a full and fair exchange of views without being constrained (or shut out) by cultural norms or social mores. To be able to investigate in depth and learn everything there is to learn on a particular topic or subject without being stonewalled.

To be able to buy clothes and shoes that fit me. 

On the day my mother's life began, I'm beginning to envision my life elsewhere. And, while she most likely did not have such speculations as an infant, at some point in her life, surely she wondered what her life would be like in different circumstances, seeing as she had (and led me on) a rocky path. 


In her honor, I continue. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Unraveling Chinese Culture



With more than six years of living in China, I think I've gotten a grasp on the visible and immediate aspects of the culture: food, language, dress and mannerisms – what sociologists call 'Big C' or 'material culture'. Understandably, I'd now like to delve into and understand 'Little C', also known as 'non-material culture': the ideas, beliefs, values and norms that drive society.

That aspect is confusing and mysterious; seemingly contradictory at times. To an outsider, it is quite nearly unpenetrable.

Questions about gender equality: why are daughters not listed on the family scroll, the document that details a clan's history (See No Girls Allowed entry, posted April 2011)?

Questions about how elderly are treated: why is anyone senior to the person in question treated like a helpless, doddering fool who cannot do anything for themselves (See The Voice of the Old entry, posted ___________)?

Questions about mannerisms: how can spitting, generally being loud and obnoxious, and defecating outdoors be socially acceptable? (See What is Rude entry, posted December 2016)?

To these questions and more, the answer invariably is: “Well, that's just the way it is. That's our culture. You can't change that.” Any further questioning results in: “You can't understand. It's Chinese tradition.” In other words, a total shut-down. Woe to the one who pushes the issue further! S/He is likely to be deemed rude and obtuse, and hostile to the Chinese way of life.

This article is born of my ongoing frustration at trying to manage my affairs by myself, and a recent conversation with my protege, Tony. He has long since graduated and has made a life in Xiamen (She-ah men). He came back to Wuhan for Lunar New Year. It was the first time we'd seen each other since his graduation.

Battered as I've been lately on the rocks of invisible, impenetrable Chinese culture, it was foremost on my mind to quiz my young, progressive friend about the insurmountable mores that now define my life in China. I did not get answers I expected.

“Well, that's just the way it is. That's our culture. You can't change that.”.

Or maybe I should have expected it. Progressive and open-minded as he is – he is dating an older woman, a grave taboo in Chinese culture!, the fact remains that he is Chinese and that is the standard answer to any “why?” regarding Chinese culture.

“What style clothing are you wearing? Western or traditional Chinese?” I asked him.

“Western.” came the reply.

“What type of music do you listen to: soft rock/pop or traditional Chinese?”

“Pop music and some rap.”

“What about your car? Chinese brand?”

“Toyota.”  

My dear Tony (and other Chinese friends), you cannot cherry-pick aspects of your culture to use as a weapon or a blockade against those who wish to understand you better or function in your society. Either you support China by embracing every aspect of the culture from clothing to music, or you admit that your culture is evolving, just as every culture in the history of civilization has done.

And, if you do admit to an evolving culture, then you must question or, at least, entertain and ponder questions about it.

The evidence of cultural evolution is blatant. Hardly anyone in China wears the tradition tang zhuang. Jackie Chan wears one in publicity photographs – and I quite admire him for it, representing China as he does, but you don't often see people going about their daily life so-clad. Women seldom wear qipao (tchee pow), the traditional silk, form-fitting dress. Buying a qipao can be quite expensive, and there aren't many shops that sell them (or tang zhuang), except for around Spring Festival time.

Innovations in cooking these days tend more toward western style: less frying, more steaming and boiling. Cooking shows on TV highlight the health benefits and ease of such food preparation. Ovens, so hard to come by and expensive when I first arrived, litter department store shelves and are widely available online (as well as other implements of western food culture: dishes, utensils, etc.). High-end, western-style restaurants, not just fast food places, are highly frequented.

Mandarin is becoming polluted with words from other tongues, mainly English. The Chinese word 'baobei' is phonetically similar to 'baby', modified from 'baobao', the traditional word for 'baby'. Baobei is used as a term of endearment for adults, same as in English-speaking countries, as well as for children and babies. Other terms: 'shala' – salad; 'pizha' – pizza; 'hambao' – hamburger and others, all reflecting western foods, pepper the language. And the list of word adaptations grows as the culture advances.

Rap, techo and pop music dominate the airwaves. Walk down any street where there are clothing shops and you are likely to hear a pulsing disco beat blaring from an outdoor speaker. Granted, the lyrics are in Chinese but western influence on Chinese art is undeniable. Whereas gunplay was seldom to never a feature of Chinese movies, these days, more and more gangster style shootouts can be seen in theaters and television shows.

The trail of cultural adaptations to the west is long – basketball, anyone? Hiphop dancing? But perhaps the most dramatic evidence of China's changing culture is the absence of foot binding, a centuries-long tradition that was officially banned in 1912, even though the practice continued in some parts of the country until the 1950s.      

Clearly, Chinese culture is in flux. Equally clearly, people's obstinancy toward aspects of the culture that have traditionally been deemed distasteful – stigma against females, the handicapped, LGBT and single mothers, to name a few, is impeding the progress of society. The refusal to consider any questions about Chinese culture leads to a stonewalling of advancement.

Similarly, soliciting the aid of westerners in teaching and developing the country but denying them any understanding of the culture's mores and equal social rights such as banking, mailing and healthcare at the same cost as Chinese is souring the attitude of said westerners.   

Cultural evolution does not only come by governmental decree. In fact, individual attitudes and mores are what drives societal change. If people refuse to ponder society's greater questions, what chance is there that advancement will prevail?

Fighting With the Neighbors



People had barely settled into this newly built neighborhood before the scavengers went trolling.

Scavengers: elderly people who live in a community, whose subsistence depends partially or wholly on collecting, sorting and cashing in recyclables. Any community in China is likely to have any number of scavengers. Any street in China is likely to be patrolled by scavengers. Scavengers roam from neighborhood to neighborhood, day in and day out, every day, all day long. They sort their booty in front of their apartment building, and maybe store it there overnight in order to increase their haul the next day.

As you might guess, scavenging is a competitive sport. Therefore hauls not immediately cashed in must be secured, lest someone avail themselves to an already declared stash. 

Since the building I live in filled up, the foyer has been plagued with alternately growing and shrinking piles of scavenger loot. Not only recyclables but other broken-down items that perhaps might be repurposed. Depending on what time of day it is, entering the building itself could be an iffy proposition, as several scavengers live in my stairwell, and they all seem to sort their stuff in front of the building's entrance at the same time. If it is raining, they argue about who should use the foyer first: there is not room enough for everyone AND their loot, and heaven forbid a stray bottle should roll into someone else's pile!

Living on the ground floor is a mixed blessing. I cannot park my bike in the foyer; upstairs neighbors have claimed what little space there is left among the various piles of detritus. I lug my bike into my apartment. That works out well. What is not so great is hearing the scavengers mutter to themselves while sorting, or listening to them fight, just outside my front door.

The foyer is not the only place loot gets stored: my balcony and directly below are also prime spots because that area is hidden from view by the lobby entrance, which juts out about 4 feet from the building's facade.

Over the years I've had stuffed animals, shoes, clothing and assorted trinkets: phone covers, a Hello Kitty tin, broken hair bands, keychains and the like placed on my balcony. Below it I've found a chair, a half a suitcase – literally!, a whole suitcase, a shoe cabinet, a giant pile of styrofoam, some clothes, and a host of other things. If left unchecked, my balcony and immediate vicinity would be buried under such piles.

To set the record straight:

1.      I firmly believe in recycling.
2.      It breaks my heart to see senior citizens picking through garbage cans.

To that end, I sort recyclables in my house and set them outside, by the communal the trashcan when I have a bagful, to spare community elders the indignity of picking through the trash with their bare hands in the off-chance that there might be something of value.

I do not use my balcony for anything. Until about six months ago, I really didn't care whether there was anything stored either on my balcony or in front of it. But I had been getting tired of seeing piles all over the place.

Now I'm fed up with it.

Two things happened simultaneously to change my mind about piles on/in front of my balcony, one of them being my demanding teaching schedule. With 2 and 3 classes per day, it would be aggravating to carry my bike into the house only to carry it back out to ride to my next class – while stepping over whatever piles were in the foyer, or waiting until a path could be cleared. I needed someplace to park my bike. In front of my balcony was the logical choice: I could chain it up to the railing and keep an eye on it while I do lunch.  

The second was a vomit-soaked sheet. One of the building scavengers had apparently found a pile of discarded bedding, saw value in it and hauled it away. However, instead of carrying it up to her apartment, she flung the whole stinking pile on the ground in front of my balcony. As the weather was unseasonably warm, I had the balcony door open. Soon that savory aroma wafted throughout my house.

I couldn't figure out where the smell was coming from. Had I inadvertently left food to spoil in the crockpot? Did I perchance have some rotting vegetables (or, did my scavengers leave rotting veggies in the foyer?)

The smell lasted through the weekend and on Monday morning, while I ate my breakfast. It was only upon returning home from class, mid-morning, and looking to secure my bike to my balcony railing that I discovered the fragrant deposit. And an entire trove of kitsch, stored on the balcony itself. Disgusted, I kicked it all away and secured my bike as planned, making sure I left nothing on it that could be stolen or vandalized in retribution.

And that's how the fight started.

Not a loud fight. In fact, I'm not saying a word. Three days. That's all they get. I will permit storing something in front or on my balcony for three days. If it is still there after that, I will move it. I reason: we are already overrun with garbage in the foyer and by their sorting in front of the entrance. If they want whatever they scavenge, let them take it into their home. If they don't see it as valuable enough to cart upstairs or otherwise dispose of in three days, then obviously it is just trash and I will throw it away. 

I told Sam about my resolve, just in case someone complains about me removing their stuff.

The woman cussed loudly at finding her booty scattered all over the lawn but she did pick it up and take it away. That afternoon, when I came home from class, there was something else in front of my balcony. It too got moved after three days.

And so on, and so on. For a couple of weeks I thought the message had sunk in because nothing had been stashed on/under the balcony during that time. Later I found out that was only because nothing of 'value' had been found. Intermittently, something will be put there. After three days, it is gone – invariably by my hand, not theirs.

Today, it was a baby stroller and a shoe. They first made their appearance over the weekend. Gary saw them when he drove me back from Metro on Saturday. At that time, I removed the shoe from my balcony and placed it in the stroller. The next day, the shoe was back on my balcony. And now, they are both in the dumpster.


The next morning, they were back, looking dismal in the falling rain. They have now been there a week. What do I have to do to convince people to keep the area neat? I am so tired of looking at garbage!  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Logistical Nightmare



It was such a great day! After a week of abysmal cold and rain, the sun shone and the temps rose. Gary texted: “How about going shopping?” As I've not been to Metro in quite a while and was running low or completely out of staple goods, I thought that was an excellent idea.

A day out, in the sun, with my friend, to stock my cupboards. What could go wrong?

Last week, just before Chinese New Year, I stumbled into a branch post office close to my house, to send a package to my son. Nothing much: just a few snacks and a book.

And a bank card. Having been defeated at every other avenue to send funds out of the country, I opened a bank account at another bank than my school's account, with the intention of sending that bank card abroad, where the funds could be withdrawn. This would not only serve to get Darrell money for his wedding, but would also enable me to safely transmit my bankroll out, prior to leaving the country.

That post office branch told me they do not prepare packages for international mailing. I should go to a larger branch, a ways away: the same branch they referred me to for money orders (See The Chase for the Almighty Dollar entry).

I laughed in disbelief. I sent packages abroad from that branch in the past with no trouble whatsoever. And, concerned with being able to ship my goods out of the country when I leave, I had recently checked the post office's website, which guaranteed that there are literally thousands of branch offices that accept parcels for overseas shipping.

Furthermore, being a former postal employee myself (in America, not in China), I have an idea of postal shipping logistics. It seems incomprehensible that any post office, no matter how small or out of the way, would not accept a parcel for international shipping (the clerk who turned me away gave me the impression he would have accepted a package for any domestic destination by asking where I wanted to ship the parcel to).

I did not go to the larger branch the clerk had suggested. I went to a small office, tucked in a residential area, close to Metro. That clerk accepted my package with no problem. It took about forty minutes to get the package prepared and properly labeled.  

How to Send an Express Mail Package:

1.      Bring the goods, unpacked, to a branch office.
2.      Permit the clerk to inspect said goods.
3.      Clerk will pack the goods into a postal box (and charge you for the box)
4.      fill out customs form (if your written Chinese skills are lacking, the clerk will generally oblige)
5.      Fill out shipping label (my kind clerk filled my address in, as my Mandarin writing skills are lacking. I wrote out the recipient's address, as he is in America)
6.      BE SURE TO INCLUDE PHONE NUMBERS – your phone number and the package recipient's, as well.
7.      Write recipient's address and phone number on the package itself.
8.      Pay

The fee for this small package was 469 Yuan, money I thought well-spent, as it would help my son arrange his wedding and ensure I would be able to get my funds out of the country.  Now comes the waiting, counting down the days until Darrell sends notice that the parcel has been received.

Now: back to the sunshine, the shopping, the outing.

“Have you checked the online tracking?” Gary asked, in the know on the package sending.

I hadn't. Why should I? In a few days, Darrell will receive the package, enjoy the snacks I sent and make use of the card. But then... what's the harm in checking?

Shopping done and now back home, after a hasty meal – I'd never seen Gary so hungry!, we logged in.

“Tracking number does not exist”, the query returned. Twice – just in case I'd not entered the digits properly. 

Gary tried the postal app on his phone. There, the tracking number yielded a result: the parcel arrived at 110 Baishazhou Avenue on February 2nd.

Impossible! That's my address!

Gary called the post office's customer service line: “The parcel was returned because there was contraband inside.”

“Contraband?” he asked.

“There is a note inside the parcel detailing the offense.”

Well... seeing as they'd sent it to the school's mail room instead of my address – so painstakingly filled out by the postal clerk who inspected and accepted the goods for shipment, I didn't have the parcel, and thus could not see the note.

In fact, nobody informed me the parcel had been returned, in spite of the mandate to list my phone number on the shipping label. 

Gary and I walked across campus, to the school's mailroom. It was locked. Fortunately, it is located right across from the campus guardhouse, and the guard on duty and I are pretty friendly. Still, he demurred: “The mail room will be open on Monday.”

That's odd: he'd not had a problem unlocking the mail room for me before, so that I could retrieve a package. He even permitted me inside the mail room unattended, to go through packages myself until I found the one meant for me.

Still, I'm not angry at him. For all I know, he no longer has the key to the mail room. But then, that must mean that the mail room clerk must staff the mail room  in order to receive the mail, even though campus is deserted during winter break. And what time will the mail clerk be in? We were there before 5:00PM. Even when campus is staffed, she is not always in the mailroom.

Walking back to the housing area, Gary got on the phone with the post office customer service line.

“You must refund this customer's money because you did not ship the parcel abroad!”

“The customer is at fault, therefore we will not issue a refund.” 

Again, I stress: the items were brought to the post office in a Walmart shopping bag. The postal clerk inspected each item, and packed the parcel herself. How am I at fault?

Furthermore: she made sure to write my address, including my apartment number, and required me to write my phone number. How is it that the parcel went to the school's mail room instead of my address –  completely different from  the school's general delivery address? Why didn't the postal clerk call me to ensure delivery?

Gary spoke harder, faster and angrier than I've ever heard him speak. The conversation lasted the entire length of the walk back across campus, and back into my house. The clerk, apparently as a way to mollify him, asked for the package details: recipient's name and address, my name and address and phone number, and closed the call with a promise that a clerk from the accepting branch – from where the package was sent, would call back.

I'm not buying it. Why does she need all of that information from him? All she had to do was look up the package number; the particulars would be in the computer; I witnessed the clerk enter the shipping details, and she spun her monitor around so I could verify that she input the data correctly.

It is safe to say that I now have a mistrust for Chinese bureaucracy and a mild paranoia over what I might do that could be construed as restricted/illegal.

I am also growing fearful that I will leave China with empty pockets and only what I can pack in a suit case, regardless of what I brought with me seven years ago and what I've acquired since then.


Family Planning in China and America


China:

In 1979, due to the country's isolationist policy that barred trade with other nations, the Chinese government foresaw the need to control population growth: with only 7% of the world's arable land, it would be unfeasible to feed everyone, should each couple bear as many children as they could or wanted. Thus, the One Child Policy was born (pun intended). Each married couple could legally produce only one child. Any other children born to that couple would bring severe fines and social penalties, from job loss and eviction from the community, to prison.

Because of this society's cultural preference for sons, untold numbers of female offspring were disposed of, some in horrific ways. Soon, the leaders faced another problem: who would all of these sons marry, if no girls were being kept alive?

Enter the Spring Blossom Project (1989): financial and social incentives for parents of girl children, which would allow for education and health care needs. The purpose was to encourage families to see daughters as equally valuable. Thanks in part to this project (and to a rule that forbids doctors disclosing fetus' sex during sonogram), the gender imbalance has  lessened: from 123 males / 100 females in the early '80s to 115 males / 100 females, the most current data.

Recent reports question that statistic. Especially in the countryside, people are having daughters and not registering them. Effectively, those daughters do not exist. The gross effect of this tactic is that they  remain out of sight: denied doctor's care and education, doomed to a life of illiteracy and poverty. Village leaders are complicit in this deception, going so far as to legitimize marriage certificates between registered males and unregistered females.


Married women are permitted to deliver in hospitals: marriage certificates must be provided upon admission. Their costs of having a baby and the infant's care are absorbed by the state.

Unmarried women can have their baby in a hospital, however, they must pay a hefty fine on top of their and their baby's medical care, and will endure social penalties, including ostracization and loss of work. They could be evicted from their home and, to avoid the shame heaped on the family for having an illegitimate child in their midst, a single mother could be shunned by her clan. It is possible that that child would not become registered, thereby losing any chance at education or any other social advantage 'wedlock-born' children might enjoy.

Legitimizing single mothers is being debated... or should we say 'contested'?, in the upper ranks of government but, so far, they remain illegitimate and, should single parenthood become legal, no doubt the stigma against single mothers and their children will remain for a long time.

Due to the shrinking workforce and the growing elderly population, in 2016, the One Child Policy was relaxed to afford each couple 2 children. Only 38% of married couples have had a second child under this new opening up, fearing the expense of raising 2 children. There are no social programs or financial incentives for anyone, no matter what their level of income.

A woman's fertility is closely controlled in several ways. After delivering a baby, women generally get a intra-uterine device (IUD) surgically implanted and are mandated to regular checks by the Family Planning Commission. Most women who have had their second baby undergo tubal ligation.

Abortion is legal and widely practiced, albeit with women being counseled that repeated abortions could result in their future inability to bear a child.

I've not found anywhere that men are forced to undergo any type of check, restriction or blocking on their reproductive capabilities after they've created a child or two. 

America:

Women can have as many children as they want, or none at all. Whereas in China, having a baby is seen as a family and social obligation, in America, some women opt to not have children. There are no mandatory 'fertility checks', and contraception is optional. In fact, new legislation is currently being drafted to bar the dispensing of contraceptive, and to prevent religion-affiliated organizations from providing insurance that covers contraceptives and family planning.

Some women rely on a 'morning after pill' after having sex with no contraceptive, although studies have shown that ingesting such emergency contraception does not necessarily prevent pregnancy, or lower the number of abortions.

The right to life versus the right to choose – bearing a child or aborting holds American society and politics in a bitter tug of war. Although officially, America is not governed by religious standards - “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.” (Hugo Black, 1947, Everson v. Board of Education), in fact, religious belief drives the abortion issue in America.

In 1973, America's Supreme Court issued a judgement in the case of Roe v. Wade and its less well-known companion case, Doe v. Bolton, essentially conceding a woman's right to opt for abortion. However, that governing body's obligation to balance individual women's rights with The State's need to protect the eventuality of life leaves grey area that gives those who would decry women's decision to abort a potentially viable fetus a legal platform to altogether deny anyone the right to choose.

Several states have enacted severe penalties against doctors who perform abortions. Others have drafted laws that essentially negate the possibility of abortion, all without infringing on the law itself. Texas enacted a law that any clinic performing abortions must have a doctor who has staff privileges at a local hospital. This law substantively forced closure of all but 2 women's health clinics which also perform abortion throughout the state. Ohio's Heartbeat Bill, which prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected 'by external methods', was signed into law in December 2016. Several other states have, in the past, sought to enact similar legislation. More are looking to try again.

Through these actions, the large majority of Family Planning clinics across America have been forced to close. There is no government Family Planning commission.

Once a woman, married or otherwise, has a child, she has several financial and social options to rely on, among them: SNAP – supplemental nutritional assistance program, AFDC – formerly called 'welfare', a monthly allowance to support a household in need; all the way to Head Start – an early education and all-around well-being program. These resources are generally meant for the poorer members of society, funded by tax dollars.

Analysis

While China's family planning program might seem distateful to some, it is straightforward, albeit biased, holding women exclusively accountable for the production of children. Perhaps the worst aspect of it is what unwed mothers suffer. Hopefully that will soon be alleviated. Ideally, men would also have to undergo restrictions on producing children, namely: once they produce their allotted quota, they too will undergo sterilization. 

America needs to make up its mind: will fecundity be driven by religion – contrary to its Constitution? If so, which religion?

If sexual congress is freely accepted as a fact of life (and it obviously is, judging by the displays in movies and television), shouldn't there exist the legal option to terminate unwanted pregnancies, with no shame and no stigma?

How is it that, in America, one can legally change their appearance through cosmetic surgery, their gender through assignment surgery; but women are being railroaded into parenthood, when a surgical means of avoiding it are available but denied, because some believe that having a child is a 'gift from God'? Aren't the first 2 scenarios also 'tampering with God's will'?

There seems to be a duality of American mores: having sex is good; bearing children is good. One is contrary to religious morals; the other is allied with religious morals. Nowhere, in religion, in courts of law, or in higher government does anyone seem to address the eventuality that all of these children will cause a population explosion, when the current global population is already taxing our Earth's resources – the idea that drives China's family planning policies.

Wouldn't it make more sense for America to change focus? To legislate based on the future of humanity, and not some arbitrary standard espoused by a few with shared belief? 
 

 


China:

In 1979, due to the country's isolationist policy that barred trade with other nations, the Chinese government foresaw the need to control population growth: with only 7% of the world's arable land, it would be unfeasible to feed everyone, should each couple bear as many children as they could or wanted. Thus, the One Child Policy was born (pun intended). Each married couple could legally produce only one child. Any other children born to that couple would bring severe fines and social penalties, from job loss and eviction from the community, to prison.

Because of this society's cultural preference for sons, untold numbers of female offspring were disposed of, some in horrific ways. Soon, the leaders faced another problem: who would all of these sons marry, if no girls were being kept alive?

Enter the Spring Blossom Project (1989): financial and social incentives for parents of girl children, which would allow for education and health care needs. The purpose was to encourage families to see daughters as equally valuable. Thanks in part to this project (and to a rule that forbids doctors disclosing fetus' sex during sonogram), the gender imbalance has  lessened: from 123 males / 100 females in the early '80s to 115 males / 100 females, the most current data.

Recent reports question that statistic. Especially in the countryside, people are having daughters and not registering them. Effectively, those daughters do not exist. The gross effect of this tactic is that they  remain out of sight: denied doctor's care and education, doomed to a life of illiteracy and poverty. Village leaders are complicit in this deception, going so far as to legitimize marriage certificates between registered males and unregistered females.


Married women are permitted to deliver in hospitals: marriage certificates must be provided upon admission. Their costs of having a baby and the infant's care are absorbed by the state.

Unmarried women can have their baby in a hospital, however, they must pay a hefty fine on top of their and their baby's medical care, and will endure social penalties, including ostracization and loss of work. They could be evicted from their home and, to avoid the shame heaped on the family for having an illegitimate child in their midst, a single mother could be shunned by her clan. It is possible that that child would not become registered, thereby losing any chance at education or any other social advantage 'wedlock-born' children might enjoy.

Legitimizing single mothers is being debated... or should we say 'contested'?, in the upper ranks of government but, so far, they remain illegitimate and, should single parenthood become legal, no doubt the stigma against single mothers and their children will remain for a long time.

Due to the shrinking workforce and the growing elderly population, in 2016, the One Child Policy was relaxed to afford each couple 2 children. Only 38% of married couples have had a second child under this new opening up, fearing the expense of raising 2 children. There are no social programs or financial incentives for anyone, no matter what their level of income.

A woman's fertility is closely controlled in several ways. After delivering a baby, women generally get a intra-uterine device (IUD) surgically implanted and are mandated to regular checks by the Family Planning Commission. Most women who have had their second baby undergo tubal ligation.

Abortion is legal and widely practiced, albeit with women being counseled that repeated abortions could result in their future inability to bear a child.

I've not found anywhere that men are forced to undergo any type of check, restriction or blocking on their reproductive capabilities after they've created a child or two. 

America:

Women can have as many children as they want, or none at all. Whereas in China, having a baby is seen as a family and social obligation, in America, some women opt to not have children. There are no mandatory 'fertility checks', and contraception is optional. In fact, new legislation is currently being drafted to bar the dispensing of contraceptive, and to prevent religion-affiliated organizations from providing insurance that covers contraceptives and family planning.

Some women rely on a 'morning after pill' after having sex with no contraceptive, although studies have shown that ingesting such emergency contraception does not necessarily prevent pregnancy, or lower the number of abortions.

The right to life versus the right to choose – bearing a child or aborting holds American society and politics in a bitter tug of war. Although officially, America is not governed by religious standards - “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.” (Hugo Black, 1947, Everson v. Board of Education), in fact, religious belief drives the abortion issue in America.

In 1973, America's Supreme Court issued a judgement in the case of Roe v. Wade and its less well-known companion case, Doe v. Bolton, essentially conceding a woman's right to opt for abortion. However, that governing body's obligation to balance individual women's rights with The State's need to protect the eventuality of life leaves grey area that gives those who would decry women's decision to abort a potentially viable fetus a legal platform to altogether deny anyone the right to choose.

Several states have enacted severe penalties against doctors who perform abortions. Others have drafted laws that essentially negate the possibility of abortion, all without infringing on the law itself. Texas enacted a law that any clinic performing abortions must have a doctor who has staff privileges at a local hospital. This law substantively forced closure of all but 2 women's health clinics which also perform abortion throughout the state. Ohio's Heartbeat Bill, which prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected 'by external methods', was signed into law in December 2016. Several other states have, in the past, sought to enact similar legislation. More are looking to try again.

Through these actions, the large majority of Family Planning clinics across America have been forced to close. There is no government Family Planning commission.

Once a woman, married or otherwise, has a child, she has several financial and social options to rely on, among them: SNAP – supplemental nutritional assistance program, AFDC – formerly called 'welfare', a monthly allowance to support a household in need; all the way to Head Start – an early education and all-around well-being program. These resources are generally meant for the poorer members of society, funded by tax dollars.

Analysis

While China's family planning program might seem distateful to some, it is straightforward, albeit biased, holding women exclusively accountable for the production of children. Perhaps the worst aspect of it is what unwed mothers suffer. Hopefully that will soon be alleviated. Ideally, men would also have to undergo restrictions on producing children, namely: once they produce their allotted quota, they too will undergo sterilization. 

America needs to make up its mind: will fecundity be driven by religion – contrary to its Constitution? If so, which religion?

If sexual congress is freely accepted as a fact of life (and it obviously is, judging by the displays in movies and television), shouldn't there exist the legal option to terminate unwanted pregnancies, with no shame and no stigma?

How is it that, in America, one can legally change their appearance through cosmetic surgery, their gender through assignment surgery; but women are being railroaded into parenthood, when a surgical means of avoiding it are available but denied, because some believe that having a child is a 'gift from God'? Aren't the first 2 scenarios also 'tampering with God's will'?

There seems to be a duality of American mores: having sex is good; bearing children is good. One is contrary to religious morals; the other is allied with religious morals. Nowhere, in religion, in courts of law, or in higher government does anyone seem to address the eventuality that all of these children will cause a population explosion, when the current global population is already taxing our Earth's resources – the idea that drives China's family planning policies.

Wouldn't it make more sense for America to change focus? To legislate based on the future of humanity, and not some arbitrary standard espoused by a few with shared belief? 
 

 



Living In a Walk-In Cooler



If you think about it, living in a large-size walk-in refrigerator, such as those in restaurants or in food factories is not such a bad idea, especially if you are a minimalist, like me. They are exceedingly well insulated and wired for electricity. It would be only a little work to pipe in some water and they come equipped with a rudimentary drainage system. There would be space enough for a sleeping area, a cooking area and a sanitary area and, if you were really ambitious and built a loft for your bed, you could even have a small sitting area.

I could see myself living in a walk-in refrigerator... provided the cooling were turned off.

As it is, I am living in a full-sized apartment: 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, kitchen, dining area and generous living room. Unfortunately, it is currently nearly as cold as a walk-in cooler inside my apartment. 

Because of my tendency to travel stateside during the off-season, I've only experienced the dead cold that grips China in the winter the first year I was here. Then, I traveled to the southern part of the country, where the weather remains relatively warm and sunny. This is my first winter in Wuhan, in my apartment.

I have a measure of climate control that I don't use: 3 separate units. Small ones in each bedroom and a large, freestanding component in the living room. However, they are costly to run and inefficient, as systems go. I cannot set the thermostat to a desired temperature; the most these devices can crank out is about 64 degrees. And, while that is warmer than the 49 degrees my place currently is, it would take running all three heat pumps to attain any consistency in temperature throughout the house.

Another reason I choose to not run them, especially the large unit in the living room, is because the return air portion is at seating level and the hot air is vented out about 5 feet off the ground. So, if I were to lounge on my couch and watch a movie while the machine labors, I would be caught in the wave of cold air being sucked in by the return vent while feeling hot air only if I should stand.

Additionally, my bathroom has heat lamps that work very well... not at heating the room, by any great measure, but they do a great job of scalding the top of my head. Being much taller than most Chinese, my head is only about 2 feet from the ceiling in that room. The lights' intensity is a bit too much on my scalp, especially because they are mounted over shower portion of the room: the water magnifies the heat. That sounds like a good thing, especially in this icy dungeon and maybe it would be, if only I didn't fear it frying my head. 

In all, my climate control system is very inefficient.

So how do I keep warm?

Dress accordingly. One or two pairs of socks, legwarmers and longjohns. Not the commercial kind that you can buy at Walmart. Military surplus PolarArctic work best. Fleece-lined ski leggings do a good job, too. My top half is buried under at least four layers: tee-shirt, thermal shirt, sweat shirt, a fleece jacket and a scarf. Some days, I also wear a hat and knuckle gloves. 

The first year I was here I bought a parabolic space heater. It is currently swiveling its head, throwing heat around. I paid 300 Yuan for it six years ago and it works as though brand new. I definitely got my money out of it! Besides these types of heater, there are hordes of devices available to draw heat from. Among them, my two favorites are a heated foot pillow and a bed-sized heating pad.

Some I have tried and cannot make a go of: gel heat packs –  the equivalent of a hot water bottle, which I also tried and gave up on when it sprang a leak in my bed. The modern versions contain gel, in a leakproof sack. Plug them in to heat; once heated, wrap your hands around for dear warmth. In deep cold, their warmth doesn't last very long, and it is cumbersome to constantly carry such a pack around. Chemical heating pads: you might be familiar with them if you enjoy the great outdoors and/or winter sports. The first and last time I tried one, I placed it on my lower back, per the package recommendation. It blistered my skin... and didn't keep me much warmer than had I gone without.   

What about showering?

That takes courage. First, I lay all of my clothes out in front of the space heater, so they will be warm when I am ready to put them on. I make sure I have everything I need, and then... take a deep breath... strip and bear the ambient cold until the water gets hot. That minute or so, until hot water gushes forth, is the worst part of the ordeal.

A few years ago I wrapped my water heater. Prior to that I only had about 2 minutes worth of hot water; now I enjoy about twice that amount. In the winter, I make full use of it. Fortunately, the bathroom is small enough that my shower water will heat the entire enclosure. The only other time I endure clenched teeth is when exiting the room.

I cannot get dressed in the bathroom because, with no ventilation, condensation would render my clothes clammy, magnifying the cold once I step out of that room.

How does this temperature impact life?

Electronics are sluggish in the cold. My computer does some very strange things unless I park it in some warmth. However, my wireless network zings along! It seems the cold actually boosts the signal. Cooking is more difficult: it takes longer for the pans to heat and the warmth is localized to the bottom, where the fire is. Also, the food does not cook as quickly or thoroughly.

I have to be careful not to bang dishes around. They tend to shatter at the least little nick or bump. And I have to be careful pouring hot liquid. More than once, I've shattered a cup or pitcher by the simple act of making tea, dousing seething water into a cold vessel. Placing a wooden chopstick into the container is the key.

Glutinous substances, such as honey or toothpaste, tend to not want to move. My honey, which I use abundantly during these times to make toddies, has already started crystallizing. Forget making any kind of baked goods! Butter refuses to soften and the oven loses about 20 degrees of heat to the ambient air. Thawing meat out requires the portion to be laid out overnight, and even then, depending on the density or thickness, the core might still be frozen (picture a chub pack of hamburger).

There is a lot to be said for adapting to and enduring extreme conditions. I don't have to live like this; I choose to, for one reason: to be in solidarity with those whose lives are, by necessity and circumstance, difficult.

Dr. Deepak Chopra said that one key to a long life is your ability to be adaptable. I am not convinced a longer life is necessarily a better one, but I've learned by experience that an adaptable person can overcome most anything. Maybe that is my true goal.

Meanwhile...


This cold will not go on forever. In a month or so, things will warm up, trees will bud, birds will sing. And I will have endured my last (last... last...) winter in China.     

Akiva Wanted an Outing


Welcome to the Year of the Fire Rooster! Rooster years tend to emphasize hard work; 'fire' highlights passion. For those in love, it would be a great year to marry... or to split up. Tempers are also a trademark of 'fire' years. For those considering a career change: go for it! The time is auspicious. 

This Rooster year is a good omen for my impending relocation/career move.

This is only the second year I've celebrated Chinese New Year in China. My first was in 2011, when I spent the holiday in Xi'an with the now-lost friend, Ken, and his family. The city sounded like it was under siege! Like an excited puppy I ran from window to window to take in as much of the fireworks as I could, while on television, the traditional New Year gala show played on.

A particularly attractive hostess wore a midnight blue gown and had her hair styled to resemble a bird's nest. I remember thinking how sad it was that the culture's biggest festival was celebrated in western garb, as opposed to the delicately sexy qipao (tchee pow) dress of the Tang dynasty, considered trademark Chinese style even today.

According to social media, the Chinese are fed up with the traditional gala show, whether the hostesses dress in Chinese or western clothing. They find it trite and boring, and would like to see more lively and up-to-date entertainment. Kind of reminds me of our school leaders, demanding better entertainment from their teachers.

Demanding better entertainment might be a trend, in China, these days.

This year, my second Lunar New Year in China, I made no special plans and accepted no invitations... not that there were many. No matter, though! After the stress of the past couple of weeks – trying to get  money stateside and interviewing for online teaching jobs, I was perfectly content to stay home and stream a few movies. I didn't want to watch the gala, but really wanted to witness the barrage of fireworks. I've not ever witnessed Wuhan's New Year fireworks display.

It wasn't anything to brag about.

A few minutes before midnight, the OTW (the community next to campus housing) set off some fireworks. I grabbed my phone and rushed up the 6 flights of stairs, to the roof. I wanted to video the show! Their arsenal was spent by the time I arrived... and I hadn't even stopped for breath on the way up.

I lingered in the frigid air, scanning the horizon – or, as much of it as I could see between the tall buildings, waiting and hoping for another scintillating display. I was disappointed.

The government had asked residents of major cities that are particularly affected by pollution to not set off so many fireworks. Instead of ringing in the new year with those loud, colorful explosions, as per tradition, it seems many in Wuhan complied with the request. Maybe the Chinese are more tired of dirty air than they revere ancient customs. Recalling my only other time, witnessing the new year in  China: it's 3-hour, ear-splitting barrage, I was sad that so dirty an environment could repeal centuries of ritual and glee.

I don't know what is sadder: the dirty environment or the repeal of the fireworks ritual.

Gary didn't do much for New Year, either. In fact, he did his best to avoid his family, participating/attending gatherings only minimally. In spite of his wedding, last year, he is still under substantial family pressure... now, to produce a child. The day after New Year, when, customarily, family ventures forth to visit other relatives and friends, laden with gifts, he and I set out for the ancient village of Da Yu Dun, about thirty-five kilometers from Wuhan.

Traffic was terrible! Gridlocked highways, taillights as far as the eye could see. Inching along, with cars driving on the shoulder and cutting other vehicles off without so much as a blinker. It took us 3 hours to get there.

After a few misleading directions from his GPS, we located the village, using road signs (go figure!). The empty parking lot should have been a clue, but that was not my friend's first concern. After a travel mug full of coffee while driving and a cup before leaving my house, Gary had urgent bathroom business to attend to! He dashed off, following restoom signs, only to find there was no restroom.

In fact, the whole site was under construction. The 'ancient village' touted on social media was, so far, just an idea. While Gary was tending to his need I scanned the large map that detailed the complex's particulars. Indeed, it promises to be a great tourist attraction... once it opens!

Who is Akiva?

For some reason, I have a strange habit of naming vehicles. I'd named all of my past cars; even my bike has a name. Seeing as I have no car in China but frequently ride in Gary's car, I dubbed her Akiva, using the letters from her license plate.

Now aimlessly driving around, Gary bemoaned the fact that he could not provide us with great, fun entertainment. In fact, he had stated upon arrival to my house that his New Year gift to me was a day of great fun; he would pay for everything (I gifted him a Adidas shower set). Finding the bright side, as is always my wont, and trying to cheer my friend up, I said: “Akiva wanted an outing. We're just along for the ride.” Rich laughter spewed forth, frown lines disappeared and Gary was once again enjoying the day. 

We tried our luck at nearby Mu Lan Mountain but again ran into: 1. the site was closed due to the holiday and 2. the wind, fierce in the valley we were in prior to driving up the mountain, was downright ferocious atop of it! The parking lot was dotted here and there with transports and a few brave souls wandered around. Gary stepped out to stretch his legs but gale force blasts soon sent him scurrying back into Akiva's warm interior.

“To heck with the countryside!” he proclaimed, easing Akiva down the switchbacks. “In the city is where we will have fun!” We headed to a shopping mall, briefly visited with one of his friends employed there, enjoyed a fine dinner and went home.

The short time spent at Da Yu Dun and atop Mu Lan mountain reminded me of how few actual relics  of a past time are still standing in China: Forbidden City and Drum Towers – in Beijing and Xi'an. Outside of tourist hot spots such as the Badaling Gate, even the Great Wall is crumbling. I refuse to visit the Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan's trademark edifice, because it was reconstructed at its present site only some thirty years ago, moved from its original foundation next to the Yangtze river. Although the government is making great strides in recreating historic sites, I find it mildly depressing that they must be recreated in the first place, and won't be ancient for a few hundred years. Are these new constructions worthy of the reverence centuries-old structures are due?

I contend that they aren't.

Still, across the unfinished parking lot where Gary sought in vain for a bathroom; atop Mu Lan Mountain, in the shrieks of the gale and in the steady thrumming of Akiva's engine I heard: “This is the last New Year! The last outing! The last one... last... last... last...”

And all the modern/ancient buildings in China can't turn the clock back, as I inexorably move toward my departure, marking off my 'lasts'.