DuFu's Cottage: a pagoda

Monday, March 30, 2015

The pandas in Chengdu

There was a panda waiting for me when I landed in Chengdu.
Admittedly, this panda was actually a cheesy costume with a man inside it, but it felt as if I'd been welcomed to Sichuan Province by panda-kind nonetheless.

Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and I felt like I couldn't leave China without seeing these guys in their natural habitats.

Last time I'd seen a live panda in China, I'd been 10 years old, and we'd just arrived in Beijing.  A giant panda was huddled like a prisoner in a concrete cell, bars over the window, scraps of bamboo at his feet.  I'm anthropomorphizing, but he looked deeply depressed.  He was alone.  The hospital green paint on the walls didn't help.

I saw something about China's improved panda habitats on National Geographic's "Wild China" series (which I highly recommend) and felt inspired to visit Chengdu.  I had never intended to go to Sichuan, honestly, though.  Huajiao (Sichuan pepper) is famous for numbing your entire face, not just your lips and tongue, and I must confess I preferred cuisine from Hangzhou or Xi'an, both of which are full of flavor without making the skin of your tongue peel off.  One of my students encouraged me to drink lots of water, and her classmates nodded enthusiastically.

I was going to stay with a friend who was teaching in Chengdu and who had offered his guest bedroom free of charge.  I hadn't seen Kristopher since last July, but I was sure his reddish-brown hair would make him stand out in a crowd of 5'5", black-haired Sichuanese.

I was finishing my photos of the panda man when a tall, somewhat shaggy figure approached.  Canvas loafers on bare feet were topped by shorts and a parka and scarf.  On his head was a tam-o-shanter-like hat.  A white mask hid most of his face.

"Heather," he called.

"Kris!  Yay!"  I exclaimed. 

"Welcome to Chengdu," he said as we hugged.  He took a step back and held out a second mask.  "Put this on."  When I laughed, he went on, "PM 2.5 is two-fifty today."  (Shanghai, for reference, averages a particulate matter level of 150.)  "Oh, God," I said, putting the mask on immediately.

"I'm also coming down with something," he said regretfully.  "I may not be much fun."

"Well, you sounded busy," I said.  He was lead teacher at his center.  I hadn't been sure of his schedule, but he said he'd go with me to see a few sights.

We caught a cab to a Tex-Mex joint near his apartment.  Chengdu has only two metro lines, so it's more of a bus/cab town than Shanghai is.  We caught up on gossip and made plans.  We agreed to see the pandas my second full day in Chengdu. 


Due to seeing another friend and staying up quite late, it felt painful to get up before 7 a.m.  My schedule teaching adults means I never have to be up early these days.  But I'd been advised by no fewer than five people that the pandas were fed at 9 a.m.  They were supposedly asleep or very lazy for the rest of the day, and I was hoping to see something entertaining in the way of panda behavior.

We met Kris' friend T.J. at the red panda enclosure.  Red pandas remind me of cats--if cats had come from a marriage between red foxes and raccoons.  They seemed to want only to rub their posteriors on things or to chase each other, but they were fun to watch. 
Next up were the giants.  Xiong mao, or bear cat, is the name in Mandarin.  Use the wrong tones in your pronunciation, though, and you're saying "chest hair".  So be careful!  The walk was uphill, and in the slightly moist, cool air, it was invigorating.  With all the grass and bamboo around, the air was fresher.  I could smell the soil of the Earth and the roots of growing things.  I inhaled deeply and frequently, trying to get my fix.

First up were the "juveniles".  I thought the term was hilarious, as I'd had many experience teaching "juveniles" and even "juvenile delinquents".  And, typical, the juvenile pandas weren't that different.  They seemed incapable of sitting upright, preferring to lean against wooden poles or each other, gnawing on snacks or pushing at each other.  Give those juveniles a cell phone and some girls, I thought, and the picture would be almost human.  They were adorable.  Eight of them (probably on purpose, as it's a lucky number in China) sat on weathered bamboo platforms, eating fresh bamboo.  T.J., Kris, and I acted out conversations ("Hey, that's my stash, man!") when one juvenile tried to steal a friend's food, and giggled.  We made jokes about them smoking bamboo joints and made funny voices for them.  I felt like a little girl seeing a pony for the first time.  I hadn't expected to be so giddy about it, but there they were!
On the way past panda "Kindergarten" we saw a few peacocks, and I failed miserably to capture their shimmering blue colors on my phone's terrible camera.  I'd forgotten my camera in Shanghai and kicked myself for it each day I was in Chengdu.  The "kindergartners" were cute, but most of them had finished eating and were napping (cutely) in trees.

Next were the giants of the giant pandas.  I expected more laziness, and the first big guy I saw seemed to confirm it.  He was laying on his back and eating, he was so lazy!  In the next paddock over, though, a curious guy emerged.  He climbed a tree--slowly, to be sure--as Chinese and foreign tourists snapped pictures, rolled video, and babbled quietly and in awe, pointing and smiling and posing.  When he got about halfway up the tree, he hung upside down in a crotch, pivoted a bit, and began rubbing his butt on part of the trunk.  A couple of times we could hear small grunts of pleasure, and we all laughed.  Taking his time, the panda clambered down, panting, and proceeded to climb up another, thinner tree.  A few branches snapped off, and the "audience" gasped as the main branch bent like a fishing pole, but Kris was an old hand.  "Just watch.  He won't fall.  They never do."  And he didn't.  He turned the same trick, though, hanging upside down like a kid and scratching his butt on a branch, grunting.  He came down a few minutes later, panting heavily, but I swear there was a big grin on his face.  He moseyed over to small pond lined with smooth, round stones, plopped himself in it with his back finally turned to us, and sighed.  The performance was over.


My first full day, Kris and I had gone to the JinSha Museum.  I had plans to meet up with a friend from my intake group in the People's Park for drinks later that night, and Kris gave me a few recommendations for the area.  I'd be on my own, since he'd be resting up.

"Oh, by the way," Kris said with a grin, "Watch out for ear cleaners!"


The metro put me down at Tianfu Square.  Poppies were blooming everywhere, months ahead of their North American cousins.  There was a huge statue of Chairman Mao across the street, holding his hand up like a command and a blessing.  I felt obliged to take a picture, but I'd grown tired of the Chairman's smug mug on every piece of paper money, to say nothing of the plain-style Communist propaganda statues in every city.


It was later, after the pandas, before I learned what Kris had meant by "ear cleaners".

T.J., Kris, and I were sitting in a fabulous teahouse.  We'd just seen DuFu's (famous Tang Dynasty poet) Cottage, and I'm sure we all felt poetic, wanting to continue our journey into Chinese traditionalism.  We ordered a pot of cinnamon tea and a few Sichuanese dishes that tickled my palate without leaving me screaming.

The clear glass cha hu (teapot) sat over a candle and was often refreshed with steaming kai shui from huge copper kettles nearby.  Teahouses are comforting, I find, and often extremely pleasant.  Many are open to the sky, or let natural light in from skylights.  Bamboo and other plants grow up to this light, mingling with cigarette smoke, steam from cups of tea, and the chatter of Chinese dialects.  This particular teahouse offered sunflower seeds, and the snap and crunch punctuated every conversation.

Totally satisfied and relaxed, I gazed lazily around at books on shelves and noticed a bronze statue of two Chinese men.  Each wore traditional robes with frog clasps.  One was seated, with his head titled to one side.  The other was poised to clean his ear with a long metal rod.

"So that's what you meant!"  I said.

T.J. laughed, shaking his head.  "You should see them in Tianfu Square.  They rub those two metal rods together like they're selling them.  And they'll follow you across the park!"

"They're wiped but not sanitized," Kristopher warned, then added wryly, "I don't see myself taking 'em up on the offer any time soon."

Making peace with China

A ten-year-old sits on the second floor of a duplex and ties bed sheets together.  She's thinking about how she can use them to crawl out the window unnoticed--when her mother enters the room.

Months later, I'd try to run away again, this time while my family was in China.  I remember I packed a few RMB, some clean underwear, and maybe some White Rabbit candy or peanuts.  We didn't have many snacking options.  I don't think I brought any water--I was 10, remember?  I walked along the dirt road that wound through the sand dunes.  I was walking east.  I came to an overpass and stopped, realizing I hadn't seen any water the whole time.  I don't know how far I'd walked, but it felt like a good hour had passed.  All around me was sand--just sand.  No water.  No animals.  No people.  No plants.  I could count to ten in Mandarin, and say hello and thank-you, but I had no idea how to say, "Get me the hell out of here and back to my hometown and back to the life that my parents gave up so we could come to this hell hole."

I was only 10, and I wasn't exactly thinking of all of these things, but I could feel them.

Golmud (sometimes on the map as Ge'ermu) was at the end of the train tracks in Qinghai Province.  Back in 1988, there was no airport in Golmud, no high speed train.  A chugging steam engine took three days to go from Beijing to that little town in the middle of the desert, where criminals were sometimes sent.  As if the town were a penal colony without walls.  I'm sure it felt like the Old West in America--nomadic Mongolians and Tibetans (the "Indians") and the Han Chinese and laowai (foreigners) (the "cowboys").  It was poor and dusty and colorless, and there was plenty of moutai ("whiskey") to drink.  If Chinese people were allowed by their government to own firearms, I feel certain that there would've been a fair amount of shooting going on.
I think it was that first evening in Golmud, when our bus pulled up to the hotel, that Mom sat on her bed and cried.  I didn't see this.  She told me about it later.  I don't remember if I cried then.  I do remember seeing some wild white ponies on our way in, and, as a horsey girl, that sight alone made the idea of living thousands of miles from home seem not quite so bad.

But that didn't mean I wanted to be there.

I had friends back home.  My whole world was Cheyenne Road where our yellow and white house was.  Pets that had died were buried in the back yard.  My handprint was in the concrete we'd poured.  How could Mom and Dad have given that up?  It was my homeland.

I'm now nearly the same age now as my parents were back then.  The thought sometimes gives me pause.  Of course I understand better now.  But back then I was so angry.  My mind was dead set against China from minute one, and so was my heart.  I was determined to hate it, and it wasn't hard to do when we got out there, because the living conditions were worse than those I'd experience later as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  The locals, unused to seeing white people, touched my hair and my sister's constantly.  I started wearing my hoodie up with the strings tied tightly.  People said "Hello, hello!" and formed huge groups whenever we stopped to buy something at the market, or look at something at a tourist site.  We were stared at the way amoebas are examined under a microscope.  And China was gross!  People hawked snot and spat all the time!  Their cigarettes stank.  The men had long, dirty fingernails.  Sheep were butchered steps away from our dining room, and after walking around their bloody corpses, I had no appetite for the stuff.  Yak milk smelled funny and tasted funny.  The tofu was tasteless and looked disgusting.  The sweet and entertaining cook had some strange ideas, like putting cloves in the spaghetti sauce.  The bread grew mold at an alarming rate.  Beer had dead flies in the bottom of the bottles.  My sister and I existed on white rice and Chinese fruit juice that came in little green boxes.  We ate peanuts and White Rabbit candy and whatever luxuries came from home (my favorites were peanut butter and oatmeal).  There was one channel, CCTV.  The only bright spot were the interesting commercials, and the episodes of "Journey to the West".  Our newspapers came through DHL weeks after the news was fresh.  And of course, there was no internet or Skype back then.  The President could've been assassinated, and we would have never known.  Especially since the Chinese would've kept it from us if they'd found out first.  I feel pretty sure that that's true.
When it was 2013 and I'd accepted my job here in Shanghai, my dad smiled and shook his head.  "I can't believe you're going to China, Heather."

But here I am, and nearly two years later.  I've learned that Shanghainese are some of the rudest people in the world--they push, they shove, they cut in line, they never say "Excuse me"--but also some of the sweetest people--students give me gifts of candy and fruit juice, exclaiming, sincerely, about how great I am and how much they love my classes.  I've been invited to a Chinese home for Mid-Autumn Festival.  I've made some good friends with locals, both at work and outside of work.  And I know that some of those friendships are some of the most genuine I've had in my whole life.

China is not America.  That is the truth in 800 different ways.  But my mom is right--there is a sweetness about China that does not exist in America.  There is an appreciation for learning, for study, and a respect for teachers that I feel is lacking in my own country.  I have left my wallet accidentally in a market and half a dozen people yelled at me in Chinese, one man running up to me with it in his hand, grinning.

I'm not saying China is better.  I wasn't always wrong.  China can be gross!  I still dodge lugees on the sidewalk, and I still see men peeing on the street all the time--in broad daylight, next to main roads.  I saw an eight-year-old girl pooping about 10 feet from the gate to my apartment complex.  The side streets are still slippery with rotting vegetables and the blood of freshly butchered turtles and frogs.  There are sidewalks covered in dog poop and oily noodle water, discarded in the gutter.  And then there are sidewalks in Jing'an or the former French Concession, buffed to sparkling--neighborhoods I could never afford to live in or even to shop in.

And I'm not saying that America should be a Communist country--far from that!  But this experience in China has been my own.  It was my choice to come here this time.  And the experiences I've had have changed my mind and my heart about so many things that I thought and felt as an angry 10-year-old.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Opposites Attract?

They say opposites attract.  There are songs about it (Paula Abdul's comes to mind).  Sometimes I look at my relationship with my sister, or at my parents' relationship--very different individuals who love each other and get along--in spite of driving each other up the wall from time to time.
Yet in my family, I also feel there is a deep connection between us--a love of nature and animals, a willingness to protect the environment, to learn about everything...a compassion and a curiosity about our fellow humans.  And of course, there is our shared time in Qinghai--an intense, difficult time of survival-bonding.
Plunk an American like myself down in China and it's like oil and water--but which is which?
Watching my dad nearly pull his hair out in the 80s when having business dealings with his Chinese counterparts prepped me better than some ex-pats:  I knew in advance how frustrating China could be.  I knew Shanghai in 2015, with all its bells and whistles, was still China.
America and China are COMPLETE opposites in so many ways!  Just a few examples:

business cards traded at the end of a meeting
911 is the emergency number
"you lucky dog"
business cards traded at the beginning of a meeting
119 is the fire department number
"you lucky cat"

The ideas we have about customer service are completely different as well.  Unless you're at the DMV in NYC, speedy, short lines at any register at any store make us look efficient, organized--and well, like we know what's going on.  In China, as it's been explained to me, a long, slow line makes the store look popular and desirable.  A small store will have 50-60 customers on a Saturday afternoon, and there will be a dozen staff sweeping the floor, rearranging displays, and just standing around--while two cashiers methodically ring up customers.  Whenever I've worked retail in the past, sweeping and display arranging were something you did when NO customers were around!  And yet my students have told me repeatedly that the motto of most businesses is "The customer is the Emperor", "The customer is a god".  The way the two cultures show it is completely different.

To get heavier now:  in many Western cultures, there's also a sense of absolute right and wrong--morality is black and white.  We've got that Judeo-Christian thing happening in a lot of our legal structures, regardless of the separation of church and state that some countries have in common.  If someone breaks the law in Europe, the States, Australia, they're caught and punished.  I'm not saying the system is perfect.  In the U.S., rapists are let free after serving 5 years, and go on to rape again.  There are cops shooting unarmed black teenagers.  But the American justice system is far more predictable, and, well, just, than China's.

With a history over 4000 years, China has rarely had one central government.  For thousands of years, the law depended upon the whims of corrupt landlords, crazy warlords, invaders, Triads and other gang members.  There's a saying in Chinese that's one of my faves:  Tian gao, huangdi yuan--Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away.  It's China in a nutshell, even today, 100 years after the last emperor.  The rules changed constantly.  Bribing was the order of business, because it wasn't safe to gather, to demonstrate, to speak out against whoever was in charge because they would kill you and your family. 

As if multiple political leaders weren't difficult enough to figure out in China's past, there were multiple religions and philosophies trying to guide the way:  Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and local religions I don't even know the name of.  It's amazing any Chinese person knows what to believe!

In most Western countries, the Word of God is IT.  A Jewish person, a Muslim, and a Christian have this in common--there is one God and one law.  Not everyone in the West belongs to one of these religions, but the idea that there is one way or the highway influences our culture and our beliefs about right and wrong and how society should deal with problems. 

But in China, it's a buffet table.  "Take what you want and leave the rest," as Egg Shen said in "Big Trouble in Little China".  Morality is situational in China.  Something might be illegal, but if a friend of yours is doing it, you look the other way.  Students can bribe the right person in order to move up levels. 

I'm not saying China's is the only culture that does this.  To a certain extent, it's a human thing.  But in China it happens so often, it seems!


"Why are dragons bad in Western cultures?"  one of my students asked.       

We'd been discussing movie genres and had gotten sidetracked by fantasy--particularly "The Hobbit" and a certain dragon named Smaug.

"In China, dragons don't have wings," another student chimed in.  "They are like snake but can fly."

I was a bit flabbergasted.  I hadn't been prepared for this question, in spite of teaching this lesson around 20 times before--it had never come up.

"Well...I guess it goes back to Beowulf,"  I said, pulling up the internet and showing them some pics from the Angelina Jolie movie.  "It's the first story in English.  The monster was terrorizing [grade your language!], eating...all the people and causing problems."

Was Grindel a dragon?  I wondered.  I wracked my brain.  The last time I'd read Beowulf had been 17 years ago.

King Arthur and other Brit Lit has knights slaying dragons all over the place.  Hell, it was how boys became men.  It's how they impressed women.  What about China?  There are dragons in Journey to the West, a famous Chinese tale, colloquially known as The Monkey King or simply Monkey.  My memory of them in the 1986 CCTV version, and the two translations I've read, don't exactly portray dragons as angels.  However, bargains could be made with dragons, or assistance acquired in exchange for treasure.  I certainly don't recall any dragons running (well, flying) around terrorizing villages or sleeping under vast piles of gold.

What did these flying giants represent to our ancestors?  The unknown?  Death?  The natural world?  Whatever the symbolism, it seems to me that Eastern cultures were more willing (at least in literature) to make a deal with a clever beast (the local warlord?!), whereas in the West, these beasts are greedy and/or mad, and it was a hero's duty to destroy them (the American Revolution?! the French Revolution?!) Only deeper exploration on my part will help me understand what the difference is, exactly, and why.

Thinking about all of these differences between East and West made me search for an easy analogy to describe them.  But if I say "evil twin", who is the evil one?  If I saw "fun house mirror", which culture is the distorted image.  Why is it always so easy for humans to point and say, "Well, they're messed up, but not me!"

But we're not completely different. 

China and the U.S. seem to hold family in a position of high importance.  While China's idea is still very nuclear (mom, dad, kid) and the U.S.'s is more fluid, I still feel we've both got a loyalty to whoever we call family--our loved ones.

There's also this strength China seems to have--adapt and survive.  Survival was maybe more important than revolt.  Bending your ideas or beliefs to agree with whoever was in charge (at least on the surface) was how the Chinese people have had such a long history.  And while the Pilgrims may have clutched at their "One way to Heaven" ideal, the ability to keep going on that pioneer trail--losing belongings out of the covered wagons, burying loved ones along the way--exists in the U.S., too.

Amy Tan published The Joy Luck Club around the time my family returned from China--1989ish.  In it, she writes about a song she learned to play on the piano as a child, later discovering a second part to the song as an adult.

I feel like Amy Tan's character right now--discovering things about China as an adult that I didn't know or care about as a 10-year-old.  I feel closer to this culture now, in spite of the fact that there are days I want to pull my hair out.  China will always be a part of my life, a big part, and I can't fight that.  I love watching kung-fu movies.  I like sayings in Chinese.  I like Chinese traditional art and music.  I like the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.  And while a lot of Chinese cuisine turns me off, there are some foods I really like.  I like the civilized delicacy of eating with chopsticks, too.

Perhaps it's not so much that China and I are opposites--but that we are (as Tan wrote) "two halves of the same song".

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Sick" doesn't mean "cool"

Trying to find information about China's health care system (without a VPN, at least), is confirmation of how much media the Communists control over here.  I had several issues accessing a South China Morning Post article online entitled "Patient ratio too high, say doctors".  After five tries, all I'd managed to see was that Hong Kong has one of the highest doctor-patient ratios in the developed world.  Then the site would boot me off.

I did find a website ( that stated these doctor-patient ratios:

1: 950                    China

1: 390                    U.S.

1: 170                    Cuba

Yes, Cuba--that home of the Bay of Pigs and Castro--has the lowest doctor-patient ratio in the world, according to and

If you've seen Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko", you already know about Cuba, so I won't go into details.

And according to and the World Health Organization (WHO), China ranks lower than Iraq for medical care.

I had a small class of four students the other day, one of whom is a doctor.  When the doctor said he sees 200 patients a day, I guffawed.  Surely he was joking.  But his normally jolly face was serious, and the other three students confirmed it.  There are a handful of articles online that confirm 100-200 patients per day being the norm in China.  When I told my mother this, she did some quick calculations.  "That's like 2 or 3 minutes per patient."  And we complain in the U.S. if we see the doc for 15!  Of course, I still think 15 isn't enough time, especially if you have some serious issue(s) to discuss, but after speaking to my students, 15 minutes seems positively luxurious.

A friend of mine who recently had knee surgery here confirmed this also.  Her first diagnosis came from a harried Chinese doctor who told her in under five minutes that she would need surgery--with just a glance at her x-ray and a tap or two of her knee.  When friends urged her to get a second opinion, she did--at the expensive foreigner hospital, paying triple the price.  Interestingly, the diagnosis was the same:  "You need surgery"--but the doctor--a Chinese woman--took about 10 minutes with a model knee to show my friend exactly what the issue was.  Eight extra minutes for peace of mind, but you must pay triple for those 8 minutes.  That's how serious--and expensive--the situation is here.  My friend teaches at an international school, and had purchased her own private medical insurance to cover the surgery.

Next month our healthcare over here is changing.  Rather than one option, EF English First (the company I work for) is now offering three:  a low-priced, a mid-priced, and a premium.  One of my co-workers, an American with stomach issues, has already chosen the premium.  With the regular low-priced insurance, it had taken him weeks to straighten out a claim the last time he went to a doctor--sometimes relying on our Chinese co-workers in the office to interpret over the phone.  Because his stomach problems are chronic, this man isn't taking any chances.

I'm debating:  it's a draw between the mid-priced and the premium for me.  On the one hand, I've only been to the doctor once in the 18 months I've been here, at the expensive foreigner hospital.  Then, when I had the flu last winter, my boss at the time generously allowed me to stay home and rest until I was well.  My current boss has different policies.  That is to say, he has no bedside manner and no sympathy.  A co-worker, recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, was told by our current boss that she had to stay at work when she was painfully ill.  When he wasn't looking, another co-worker sent her home and took over her class.

The Celiac co-worker has a friend who was recently involved in an accident.  She was sandwiched between a taxi and a scooter.  Foreign employees of EF currently have emergency insurance for just this kind of thing. 

Due to the Chinese system, however, this poor woman was required to straighten everything out with the police and the insurance companies BEFORE she received surgery to fix her broken arm--two and a half weeks later.  AND no pain meds, either.  Knowing China, and knowing my tolerance for crap like this, my response would've been "Who do I have to bribe around here to get some morphine?  Huh?"  In China, bribery often works.  No matter how often people say it's against the law, the majority of people do it, and few people get caught.  I could see myself saying, "Come on, I'll give you 100 RMB for a Tylenol, just give me something!"  Now that I'm counting down the last six months of my contract, I could just see myself having some kind of accident if I choose the low-price insurance.

My friend with the knee surgery and the young woman who'd been in the accident are both foreigners, with medical insurance.  I'm not sure what the insurance situation is for Joe Q. Shanghai Resident, but I'm guessing it's worse--a lot worse.  Without the status of being a foreigner, and without the money that often comes with it, the average Chinese person probably waits hours to see a doctor, who makes a one-minute diagnosis before sending him or her on their way.

I know the healthcare scenario in my own country is kind of a mess these days, but it seems like heaven in comparison.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Grinch

This post is rather religious.  I've tried not to be preachy, but if you'd like to avoid this topic, I'll understand.

"We have Christmas in China now," one of my students said several months ago, tossing her long, silky black hair over a shoulder.

"Do you believe in Christ?"  I asked, curious.

Silence.  She looked caught off guard, uncomfortable.  Then:  ""  She trailed off.

Then, just a week ago, my students were working on their "bucket lists".  When I told them to imagine they had a month to live (and would die December 14th), one of my older students exclaimed, "But that's right before Christmas!"

I remember laughing.  "But you're Chinese!"  I said.  "Why do you care?"

He looked crushed.

I felt like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings--Christmas is mine!  My own!  My prrrecioussss!  It wasn't the Christmas spirit at all, but I couldn't help it:  It seemed to me as if my students were acting excited about Christmas because Westerns were doing it--plain and simple.  Like wearing Levis or drinking Starbucks.  But there didn't seem to be an understanding that the very word referred to Christ, to Christianity.

When my family lived in China in the late 80s, there was no church for us to attend.  Qinghai Province was a hardscrabble place, where survival was good enough.  Any Muslim or Buddhist pilgrims bowing their way across the desert were kind of laughed at out there. 

There are Catholics in Shanghai, believe it or not, openly worshipping the Virgin Mary and saying the "Our Father".  But China’s government is officially atheist—Communist Party members are forbidden from belonging to a religion.  So of course, Catholic priests must be approved by the government in Beijing (Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, says:  “All worship must legally be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which does not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”).  In the past, those who disagreed “were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments as in the case of Cardinal Kung, and torture and martyrdom as in the case of Fr. Beda Chang, S.J." (again, Wikipedia).  According to the Pew Research Center, only about 5% of Chinese people declare themselves Christian.  China never ceases to amaze me with its ability to say one thing and do another:  A non-Christian country that has imprisoned Christians for spreading the Word now has citizens that want to celebrate Christmas! 

Just because they put up some decor doesn't mean anything, I've grumbled inwardly, more than once.  But isn't that what happens in America?  Can you honestly tell me that ALL of those light-hanging American present-slingers think about WHY?

"There's wealth associated with Christmas," one of my ex-pat friends said. 

She had a point.  Thanksgiving weekend sees a whopping $50 billion in retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation--that's 20% of total annual sales—possibly more. 

"It's a sign of status to spend and to do what foreigners do," my friend continued.  She'd lived in Shanghai a bit longer than I had, so her information was usually good.  "That's what they care about.  It has nothing to do with beliefs."  I agreed that she was probably right, but I still felt like a child unwilling to share her favorite toy.  Here in Shanghai, I find myself ungenerous with my own religion. 

I also find myself unable to attend church most of the time.  Teaching working adults means that I work Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings.  My days off are Monday and Tuesday, and most of the time I am running errands--or hiding in my apartment, away from 23 million people, watching Netflix.  I don't make the effort to ride two subways over an hour away to go to a quiet weekday mass.  I've probably attended church three times here since I arrived in July of 2013.

My unintentional Scrooginess with my students has forced me to take a good hard look at myself and my beliefs.  Whether Chinese people believe in Christ or not is not really for me to judge, is it?  Will Christmas lose its meaning for me just because millions of people blindly celebrate Christmas?  Sometimes I'm afraid it will.  Then...the problem here is with my own faith--not with what other people do.

It would be so much easier to stay angry at my students, and to even blame them somehow, no matter how irrational that sounds.

However, rather than making an opportunity to invite Chinese people to discuss Christmas, to learn about what it means, I've been shutting them down.  I've been shutting the door.

Is that what a good Christian does?

I keep coming back to Matthew 7:5.  I'm worrying about the behavior of others--judging it--when I should deal with my own shortcomings.

Americans consider blowing half a year's savings on Christmas a sign of status, too.  We want that perfect Disney-Hallmark-Christian Christmas, when everyone in the family gets along, the meal is perfect, and the gifts are unforgettable.  We make ourselves crazy trying to make this happen.  "Keep the Christ in Christmas" seems like clich├ęd advice from a bingo-playing granny, but Granny has a point.  What's more important to me, to us:  missing family to work overtime so we can buy the latest gadgets and the hottest fashions?  Or having a smaller, less expensive holiday, but one in which we can actually spend time with loved ones?

The meaningful thing, the good thing, is usually not the flashiest.  A good Christmas is usually not the one we see on TV--we see the extravagant Christmas, the perfect Christmas.  And we all want that.  But is it real?

But some of my best Christmas thoughts aren't about gifts at all. 

When I was a child, my mom used to put a little nightlight in the bathroom for us at Christmas time, or in our bedrooms when we were sick.  The nightlight was a little ceramic house, maybe five inches square, painted like brown brick, its roof draped with snow the way a gingerbread house is coated with frosting.  A single small light bulb glowed from the house's tiny windows, shining through the holes ("ornaments") on the little tree outside the house.  So warm and so cozy!  How many nights did I fall asleep looking at it?

I also used to love to watch the tree.  My dad put the lights on a timer, and sometimes if I couldn't sleep I'd sneak out to the couch and stare at the tree while the lights were still on--the bubble lights gurgling, the silver horses dangling on their red cords, Mom's reindeer hanging from the prickly pine branches.  The little portraits my sister and I had made in preschool hanging near the top of the tree.  I have felt more peace looking at a Christmas tree--alone in the cozy darkness of my house--than I have almost anywhere else.

It occurs to me that both of these thoughts are about light, and how Christians are supposed to be the light of the world.

I am human and I have messed up.  I've been stingy when perhaps I can find a way to share.

I will try my best to change that this Christmas.

Postscript:  During a Current Events class about the American tradition of Thanksgiving, one of my students wanted to know the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I had to smile, because her confusion was understandable:  due to marketing and the media, everything between Halloween and Valentine's Day probably seems one big candy and gift fest.

Carefully, I told them that Christians believe Christmas is the day Christ was born.  Most of them nodded.  They've heard of Christ, and they seem to know the basics.  Some of them did seem to know that decoration and presents are just for show a lot of the time--no matter the holiday, no matter the country.

I'll admit when I saw IHOP's holiday pancakes commercial (online) right after Halloween, I felt a wave of nostalgia and homesickness.  People in the marketing business know exactly what they're doing, and we fall for it every time. 

Without trying to sound preachy, I told my students that the commercialism bothers me.  It does hurt me sometimes--here and at home--when people put up a tree or buy presents without thinking about why.  It's exactly like having a birthday party and not even speaking to the guest of honor--we wouldn't do that to a human person--why are we doing it to Jesus?

Christmas is in the heart, not in the other stuff.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A question of physics: How a city moves

It ain't rocket science; rather, simple physics:  two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Physicists would agree--check out Einstein or Pauli. 

But the laws of physics do not apply in Shanghai, arguably the largest city in the world.  Countless experiences with subways and elevators have taught me (and many other ex-pats) that Shanghainese do not believe in physics.

Let me elucidate.  Imagine it's the tail end of the morning rush, and you are on subway line 10, heading south to East Nanjing Road.  As the subway pulls in, you see people in single file lines, five deep, on either side of the sliding doors.  Ah, queues!  To most Westerners, an orderly line is probably one of the highest benchmarks of what we consider developed civilization.  And for two seconds after the doors open, the illusion holds.  Your right foot crosses the gap between subway car and station platform, but before it makes contact, you are suddenly pummeled backward, carried by the oncoming rush of 5'2" Asians, their families, their suitcases, backpacks, and trolleys.  But...but...what happened to the queues?  you wonder, fighting (as politely as you can at first) to get out at your stop.  The queues had scattered into chaos, like a platoon in the face of an enemy grenade.  Because, you see, this is China.  People don't do lines here.  When the train arrives, it's every person for themselves.

This is understandable if you look at the history of this nation.  Not even 50 years ago people queued up for rice, or whatever was on their ration ticket, or queued up for the train.  But tickets guaranteed you nothing, and neither did waiting in line.  It was always first come, first served.  You wanna eat today?  Push to the front.

I saw the train phenomena for myself in late 1980s Qinghai.  As foreigners, my family paid double or triple what a local would pay and secured a soft sleeper cabin--four bunks for the four of us.  We were lucky.  Our expensive tickets and foreigness seemed to let us escape some of the pandemonium.  For the Chinese, a ticket with a seat didn't mean the 30 people cutting in front of you respected that at all.  People pushed each other in through open windows, forgoing the line at the door once 50 bodies mashed together trying to get in.

To be fair, my mom lived in Florence, Italy for a year in the late 60s and said the Italians were just as bad.  So I'm not saying the aversion to lining up is strictly a Chinese thing.  But it does happen to be true for the 23 million Chinese people I move with every day.

The same anti-physics illogic applies to elevators and escalators as well.  With escalators, I'd always taken it for granted that people walk on the left, ride on the right.  And there are a few places where people follow this seemingly obvious logic.  But mostly people rush and shove to get on the escalator, and then they all stand there sedately until it reaches the top.  What was all the rushing for?  I always wonder, if you're just going to stand there?  The Chinese logic appears to be this:  Why take one minute going a flight of stairs when you can wait five minutes for the elevator to descend from the 26th floor to the first and then take it one floor up?  Why wait for people to exit, kindly leaving you ample space, when you can elbow, squeeze, shuffle, or cigarette burn your way in NOW? 

Well, I can't beat 23 million people!  So I've joined them, to some extent.  I'm not afraid to shove past an elderly couple (I jostle, I don't plow!) in order to exit the subway at my stop, and I've gotten over my friendly "I'm just a foreigner" ways when some granny tries to cut in line at the grocery store.  As a second in line, I've actually put out an arm past the person in front of me to the counter and said "No way!"  I don't care if they don't understand English.  My glittering eyes and body language say it all.  The longer I wait in line, the more protective I am of my place in it.

People in China are extremely kind if they know you.  If they don't, you're just the 20 millionth piece of meat they've pushed past today to get home.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Go go umbrella!

I support Hong Kong.  That’s probably not surprising coming from an American—our love of freedom and all.


For those of you not in the know, students and others in HK have been protesting the government on the mainland since late September.  The BBC has been blocked off and on for months.  Chow Yun Fat’s movies have been banned because he supports Hong Kong, too.  Even Kenny G has had to backtrack on his pro-HK stance, in order to keep his mainland fans happy.  Of course, YouTube, Google, and many other websites have been blocked for the entirety of my residency here in Shanghai.  Heck, I need a VPN just to post on this blog!


In 1997, when HK was handed back to the Chinese by the Brits, Beijing politicians agreed to a “one country, two systems” idea of government.  This means that HK has a different political system than the mainland does, even though they’re now considered the same country.  Actually, Hong Kong (“Fragrant Harbor”) is now known as “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China”.  You have to admire the specificity of Communism, you really do.


In spite of the fact that HK has been reintegrated for 17 years now, the former British colony still enjoys many privileges that the mainland doesn’t.  For example, internet censorship regulations are different.


But after 99 years under the Brits, this isn’t good enough for many in HK.  When the announcement was made that candidates for the 2017 HK Chief Executive election must be screened and approved by Beijing first, all hell broke loose.


There has never been a crackdown on people wearing the British or U.S. flag here, though.  While many of my students and most coworkers say wearing the Chinese flag on clothing is illegal, I’ve been unable to see it specifically stated.  (Check out or search “Chinese flag law".)  It’s quite common to see the Union Jack decorating motor bikes, and the Stars and Stripes decorating chests, shoes, and even the seats of one’s trousers.  


 I see Chinese people, possibly hot-blooded Communists loyal to the PRC, people against the right to choose their own leader, proudly draping themselves with that symbol of freedom, Old Glory.  I don’t get it, and I find it kind of disrespectful, actually.


But back to my point.


I am proud of HK.  I am proud of the U.N. and Amnesty International for supporting them.  I am proud of the protestors:  wearing Guy Fawkes masks, calling the movement Occupy Central With Peace and Love.  They carry umbrellas to defend themselves against tear-gas-toting police and triads (yes, even the Chinese mafia have been called in as enforcers)—hence “The Umbrella Movement”.