the truth

Monday, June 29, 2015

Freedom is...

"They can take our lives, but they'll never take...our...FREEDOM!!!"

Of course Braveheart's line kindles a fire within me.  As an American, freedom is my middle name.

Interestingly, there are things I am free to do in China that I can't do back home.  I can walk down the street, or onto public transportation, with a can of beer in my hand.  I can light off a fistful of fireworks whenever the occasion (or the mood) strikes.  I can smoke anywhere I want, even if there are a dozen signs claiming "NO SMOKING", because those signs in China are just there for decoration.  If I had a scooter, I could ride it onto the sidewalk and disregard any and all traffic lights.  If I had a kid, I could hold him/her over a garbage can to relieve themselves in public, and no one would call C.P.S. on me.

But what is public drinking compared to the right of free speech?  In my country, I can say whatever I want to about my government, and I won't disappear into some gulag, never to be seen again.  Even now, people disappear in China after saying politically volatile things. 

What is lighting off explosives compared to freedom of religion?  If I decide to run for political office in the U.S., I don't have to swear to renounce religion.  As a member of the Communist Party in China, you'd have to swear your only allegiance was to Communism. 

I don't have to put my age, gender, photo, health, or marital status on my resume. 

Feeling as I do, I still wanted my students to talk about the idea of freedom without feeling as if some foreigner were judging them.  Because the 4th of July is coming up, I thought it'd be a good idea to give them just a few minutes of U.S. history--specifically, why the U.S. declared its independence--and then the rest of class would mostly be open-ended discussion.

When I talked about the colonists' complaints against England (search and seizure; quartering soldiers; imprisonment without knowing the charges against you; and of course, taxation without representation), my students' eyes widened.  In China nowadays, and especially in Shanghai, some of these ideas are as foreign as they are in the U.S.

"After more than 160 years of this, the colonists were pretty upset.  Many of them had only lived in the colonies--they'd never been to England.  Sometimes whole generations had only lived in Boston or New York.  That made them more American than British (even though the United States of America wasn't a country yet!).  But the British government--over 5000 kilometers away over the ocean--was still ruling their lives.  Quite unfairly at times.  And that's why they declared independence."

I knew I was simplifying, but when your classes only run 50 minutes and you don't see the same students on a daily basis, you have to come to the point as fast as you can.

Still, sometimes teaching opens a door in me I didn't know was there.  For the first time, I could really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors.  I could feel a bit of what they must've felt.

I'd prepared about 20 discussion questions for my students--What is freedom?  What freedoms do you have, and which ones do you wish you had?  Is working 40 hours a week like slavery?  Should everyone in the world be able to bear arms (own a gun)?  I knew a lot of my students would be more comfortable if I ran the class as a partner discussion, where only one person might hear their opinions on the idea of freedom.  Running the class this way also would keep me from overwhelming them with my own opinions--at least, that was my hope.

Here are some of the things I caught from three different classes:

I try to escape from my mother's controlling!  [Laughter]  I can't make choices by myself.  [Her parents had said] "If you don't go to Fudan University, we won't send you to another one, and we won't visit you."

[Freedom means] I can read any book I want, watch any program I want...In our country, there are too many limitations, and you cannot choose...

Freedom is good, but we must have rules.

You have to say the [Communist] Party is always right...I don't think it's correct.

Freedom has limitation also.

We can discuss ideas [political, etc.] in private but not will be deleted [by the government if posted online or written in print].

Governments make mistakes...[police] officers make mistakes.

We don't have complete freedom.

The government protects the rich man.  (Not a uniquely Chinese situation, I wanted to tell them.)

[Freedom means] you can say what you want, and no one can hurt you.

It was a bittersweet class, partially because it was my second-to-last Life Club class, and partially because so many of their opinions were similar to my own.  And yet they lived in a country where they couldn't have some of the freedoms they knew existed elsewhere.

At the end of my second class, a female student asked, "Teacher, what's your opinion?"

Part of me wanted to get up on my soapbox, but after living in China for a total of three years now, I knew it'd be the wrong thing.  I wouldn't have been surprised if the government had sent the occasional "guest" to "monitor" my classes, and I could also see myself getting hauled out of the country before the day was over for instigating a revolution.

"Well, this class isn't about me.  It's really about what YOU guys think freedom is.  My ideas about freedom will be very different from your ideas, because we come from different countries."

She looked disappointed, and asked again, "But what's your opinion?"

I wanted to tell her, but at the same time, this was a student I'd never met before.  I knew this was China, and I was feeling a bit paranoid.  The irony is that I'd grown up believing freedom of speech was a God-given right, and here I was, buttoning my lip...meanwhile, a Chinese person, who'd grown up under Big Brother's watch, was asking me to speak freely.  But paranoia won out.  I repeated what I'd said before. 

In the third class, it happened again, this time with a smaller class of students I'd known for a while.  I gave them a similar answer, then expanded a bit. 

"I think education is really the ticket to freedom," I said.  Not very original, but it's something I've believed most of my life.  "We're really lucky--American women, Chinese women.  We get to go to school."  All of my students in this class were women, and they were nodding.  "If we were in some places in Africa or the Middle East, we wouldn't be at school.  We'd be at home with the baby, or working in the field.  That would be our life.  I think it's great that China has such high respect for education."

This was true.  I've felt more respected as a teacher here than I ever have in the States.  Of course, most of my students in the States were considered at-risk youth, so that might have something to do with it.

I was also hoping a little flattery would cover up the fact that I wasn't completely giving my opinion--that on my VPN-sourced news, I've read how many Hong Konger's online posts are taken down; that the people here work hard, pay taxes, and have no right to say what the government does with said taxes.  Taxation without representation!  Censored art exhibits!  My sealed packages being cut open at the post office every single time to be searched right in front of me. 

Only one student seemed to catch on--a girl named Soonie, the one who'd been forced to Fudan University by her parents.  A bright student with smooth English, she looked a little disappointed at my lack of complete transparency. 

If I was ten years younger, I probably would've spoken my mind completely, and damn the consequences.  But was that the right thing to do?  To inspire my students into a democratic revolution less than two weeks before returning to my own "land of the free", leaving them to be silenced (by any means necessary) by their government?  I'm not saying I have that much power, but as a teacher, you sometimes never know.

My hope is that, by having them discuss freedom, by thinking about what it really means to them, that they will come to their own conclusions, their own truth.  My hope is that they will be inspired to discuss things more freely, that they will fight for freedom, not in my way, but in their own.

My hope is that, one day, freedom won't just belong to Americans.  It'll belong to everyone. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Fish Tank

If you think people aren’t damaging the environment, you haven’t lived in Shanghai.

Even the seabirds don’t fish in the Huangpu River.

Today I saw ten dead fish floating in the water.

I know fish live there; I’ve seen them jump from the water and make little splashes, sending ripples larger than themselves into the muddy, slightly greasy flow around them.  But they don’t live very long.

I’ve also seen a single plastic sandal, capsized like a boat in that river.  I’ve seen cellophane wrappers from cigarette packages.  Styrofoam packing material, floating like fake Hollywood rocks.  A brightly colored Gala apple, dancing on the surface like a sick Halloween invitation to bob for apples.  Bamboo shoots like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s stakes.  Aerosol spray cans.

The water is unclean.

Oh, it flows.  Pristinely white cruise ships dock along the Huangpu's entire length, huddling conspiratorially together like gossipy fur-clad heiresses.  Short boats carrying coal float just feet above the river's surface, chugging up and down the river all day and all night under their burdens, proudly flying their Chinese flags.  Their laundry is hung to dry on deck, and it flutters in the toxic breeze like Tibetan prayer flags.  Hulking ships from Australia or other locales carry steel car parts, clothing, Siemens refrigerators, Nike shoes, iPhones--nearly everything the world buys and sells.  

But it’s not clean.

The air smells and even tastes like burnt metal sometimes.  Coal smoke sends its toxic fumes into the already deadly air.  Sometimes the air smells of dust or smoke.  It’s worse at night when I come out of the metro and head for home after work.  I wonder if this is why the government shuts down the metro between 10 and 11 pm:  Are they trying to limit the people out in this airpocalypse?  Or is it a secret curfew to keep crime down?

Sometimes my throat hurts for no reason.

I have recurring rashes:  one above my collarbone and one in my left armpit.  Sometimes the skin at the corners of my mouth and nose is raw and peeling.  I get painful canker sores inside my mouth more often here than in any other place I’ve ever lived, but that could just be my body reacting to the   24 million person germ pool!  I have tried Tiger Balm, hydrocortizone cream, and my go-to in the Peace Corps, bacitracin ointment.  I take allergy pills regularly.  Nothing works.  Just when I think I've had my last canker sore, I suddenly find myself slurring around another one.  The rashes go away for a while, but then they come crawling back like cockroaches. 

Whenever I talk to my students about the environment in China, I force myself to admit that the U.S. isn't perfect, either.  Spokanites used to push their broken down cars into the Spokane River.   Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, that beautiful rainbow of steam and water, was once treated like a garbage pit.  It’s hard to believe that America the Beautiful, Home of the Hippy, once treated its natural treasures this way.  But it's the truth, and if I can, I want to save my students from making some of those same mistakes.

Still, health is the number one reason why ex-pats leave Shanghai.  (  When PM 2.5 (the particulate matter portion of the air quality index) reaches 50 micrograms in the U.S., they caution parents to keep their children inside.  An average AQI in Shanghai is 150.  Daily.  You can't keep your kids in all the time.  Some ex-pats talk about the fact that their formerly healthy children now have asthma. And according to The Atlantic, even some Chinese want to leave.  

But leaving China doesn't mean you'll escape the problem. The Weather Channel reported last year that air pollution from China has reached California.  This has been confirmed by UC Irvine.  Some reports claim that a quarter to a third of the pollution in California can be traced back to China.  Not that California isn't producing its own share, but China’s problem is not isolated.  It’s on America's shores.  We can't point a finger and say, "It's over there.  It's not us, it's them," because it is us.  Pollution doesn't stay inside political borders.  It doesn't need a passport or a visa.  No border patrol is keeping it out, or putting it on a truck or a boat back to wherever it came from.  Its master is the wind and the tide.  And us.  But we've let it get out of control like a spoiled child.

I get so angry when Americans say climate change or global warming is a hoax, because they are straight up lying to themselves.  Suicidal individuals suck on a tailpipe when they want to die.  I don't want to die, but I'm huffing emissions from cars and factories every day no matter where I live.  Scientists in every country have concurred:  the weather all over the world is increasingly extreme.  A co-worker from the Philippines told me they just had hail for the first time in history.  Hail.  In the Philippines.  In the tropics.  What the hell is hail doing there?!

A lot of people in Spokane and in the U.S. don't believe the scientists.  They seem to think science itself is one big hoax.  Well, if you don't believe the scientists, then talk to the oldest man or woman you can find!  Ask them if the weather in their hometown has changed in their lifetime.  I guarantee they will say yes. 

 Notorious for denying anything negative about itself, China admits that the pollution here is extremely hazardous.  In addition, they are perhaps starting to be even more concerned about the effects of environmental degradation on their economy.  The English language China Daily newspaper states that pollution costs equal about 10% of China's GDP.  Whether the Chinese want to or not, they are paying for pollution.  They can choose to pay for organic food and electric cars, or they can sacrifice their GDP.  But they will pay.

 As a whole species, we will pay.
Stephen Hawking, not usually a glass half empty type, has just predicted that humanity won't last another 1000 years on this planet, and that finding another habitable planet is the only thing that will save us.  (
When I've talked with my students (teenagers in danger of dropping out, adult English Language Learners) about pollution, I get them to think of a fish tank.  Some of my students have kept fish as pets, and most know that when the tank gets dirty, you need to clean it.

 “Why?”  I ask.

 “Duh.  Because the fish will die if you don’t!”  a high school student answers.

 “Okay, so what does the cleaning involve?”

 “You must have new water,” a Chinese student answers.

 “Exactly.  Now imagine that our Earth is our fish tank, and we are the fish,” I say.  “What happens when our tank gets dirty?  Where will we get new water?”

 This is when the room falls silent.  This is when even the lippy teenagers get genuinely thoughtful faces.

 I don’t want to scare my students.  I’m usually positive and light.   

But they all need to hear this.

 “There IS no other water,” I tell them.  

Sometimes I show them a picture of our beautiful sapphire and emerald home at this moment.  It's suspended in the black loneliness of space like a lost child.  Unique and limited, precious and finite in an infinity of God's stars. 

“This is it.  If we continue to pollute our fish tank--our planet...We.  Will.  Die.”

Monday, April 27, 2015

Faith in Travel

If you want to test your faith in God, travel abroad.

In a place where you don't know the language.


And then get lost.

I have been lucky--blessed--to have experienced this a few times, and have everything turn out all right. 

My Advanced Workshop students were traveling (so to speak) through our lesson "Complaining about a holiday".  Our final task was to role play a conversation between a tourist and their travel agent, but some of the students had suggested a small group discussion instead.  "We could use more of the phrases," one pointed out. 

That's one of the things I enjoy most about Advanced students.  They're more able to express opinions if you ask for them, and they usually have good advice.  And it's a bonus for me to see them at this level, when I met some of them as Intermediate students just two years ago.

The second time I taught the lesson, a few students asked for me to tell one of my bad holiday experiences.  I was caught off guard.  I've been working hard this past year to reduce my TTT (teacher talk time)--if you want people to learn to speak English, you have to shut up so that they CAN!  I hadn't planned to talk about any of my experiences in class, but I immediately thought of my trip to Turkey in May 1998.

I'd been studying in Athens, Greece since March and a few of my classmates wanted to take our spring break in Istanbul.  They were planning to go down to some beaches after the city, but I wanted to see Troy, as I'd read about the Trojan War in school.  So we made different travel arrangements.

I'd read about the May 1st Labor Day riots in Istanbul, but I figured they were over by now and wouldn't be a concern.  That's what being 20 years old does for you!  Luckily, I was right.  I was flying on May 2nd, a day after my classmates.  

Upon arrival I queued up with the rest of the tourists and natives to go through Customs and Immigration.  My agent looked up from my passport.  "Where is visa?"

"Huh?  Uh...I was told I didn't need one!"  I'd called ahead, as recommended by my classmates.  I was told the same thing they were:  a visa wasn't necessary.  But this guy wasn't letting me go.  "Need visa," he said, shrugging.

"How much?" 

"One-hundred U.S."  No sooner had I started counting my Greek money than he interrupted.  "Only U.S. or Turkish lira.  No drachmas."  I'd heard that the Greeks and Turks weren't exactly friendly with one another.

"But...I don't can I get some lira?"

My agent handed me my passport and waved at someone behind me.  Up came a man with a huge rifle.  I don't even remember his face.  All I remember was that big gun.  He held up the red rope for me and indicated that I should follow him.

Oh, crap.  Were we going to a scary interrogation room somewhere?  I prayed hard that we were going to an A.T.M.  In spite of the big gun, the man didn't seem intimidating.  I prayed again that I was right.

And I was.  Phew.

I withdrew a sum of 2000 lira.  That should do it, I thought, unable to remember the exchange rate.  Dollars, drachmas, lira...

A group of three white tourists happened to be passing by.  "That's about four bucks, honey," an overweight man said with an American accent.  His buddies smiled.  I hated being called "honey" by random men, but I appreciated the tip.  "Thanks!"  I called, waving and sticking my bank card in again.

My "friend" with the big gun escorted me back to the Customs line.  I got my visa and hoped I had enough money left for a taxi to the hostel.  I clutched the hostel address in my hand and went out into the bright heat to find a cab.

Immediately I was accosted by a young Turkish man.  "Taxi, you want taxi!  I have taxi!"

"Uh...okay..."  He looked quite young, and very plainly dressed.  I wasn't sure this was right.  I looked around, but no other cabs seemed to be immediately available, and I wanted to get to the hostel A.S.A.P.  I couldn't wait to tell my classmates about my visa issue.

The taxi driver kept walking ahead of me, enthusiastically gesturing and smoking.  I followed him through two parking lots, and kept increasing my distance from him as the minutes ticked by.  Was this right?  Was this guy some kind of creep?  Why wasn't his taxi parked closer to the entrance?  Why were we going all the way over here?  But the broad daylight and my 20-year-old cockiness kept me following.

We arrived at a small maroon sedan.  There was no light on the roof, no logo on the side.  I hadn't grown up in a taxi city, but I thought I knew what to expect.  As the driver opened his door (unlocked, if I remember correctly), I peered in through the passenger window.  I saw a legitimate-looking meter.  The car was rundown but clean inside.  Nothing seemed to be wrong with the vehicle--the tires were full, nothing was leaking, no funky smells.  I got in the taxi.

And held on for dear life.  I learned later that Turks believe your fate is written across your forehead at birth, and that pretty much nothing you do (or fail to do) will change that.  So they drive like crazy people.  Rather than staying in his own lane, my young driver created his own lane a couple of times by either driving on the shoulder (next to a concrete divider at high speeds) or by squeezing the nose of his vehicle between the two cars ahead of us.  They moved over amiably.  I pressed my feet to the floor as if I could brake the car somehow and prayed not to die.  The man swerved, honked, sang to the song on the radio, and never missed a beat.  He didn't curse or get angry.  He was enjoying himself.  And it was kind of contagious.  I relaxed just enough to enjoy the wind whipping through the window and tangling my hair.  I actually managed to smile when I paid and said goodbye.

At the hostel I was given a note as soon as I showed my passport.  In it, my classmates had written that they'd switched hostels.  They'd written the address, a promise to explain later, and orders to ask this hostel to call me a taxi.  The bottom was covered with smiley faces and their now-familiar signatures.

Oh, great.  At this point I was tired and just wanted a stable place to set down my stuff.  The level of fear and anxiety I'd been feeling since the Customs and Immigration line had kind of plateau'd and even decreased.  I had to get through this.  I had to get from this hostel to the other one.  What else was I going to do?

When I arrived at the other hostel, they'd gone out for the day, but all of their stuff was in the room we'd be sharing.  I looked at this stuff--belongings of people I'd known as classmates for less than two months--it felt like I was looking at the stuff of loved ones.

Having faith in strangers isn't easy.  It isn't fun.  It can be scary and ugly, and sometimes it turns out horribly, horribly wrong.  When you're foreign, especially when you're not in an English-speaking or European country, you stand out--you could be a target.  And being a woman alone makes you even more of a target.  You hear scary stories all the time about young girls trusting the wrong man--and never being heard from again.  About foreigners getting abducted, even in America.  Or that German pilot who deliberately crashed his plane, killing himself and all of the passengers. 

But, as the Chinese say, mei banfa--literally, without the way, or no choice.  In other words:  "What can you do?"  Am I going to stay locked in my house 24 hours a day because I'm afraid something might happen?  Maybe my fate isn't written on my forehead, but God has counted all the hairs on my head.  He knows when I sit and when I stand. 

Sometimes you have to trust random people if you want to get from point A to point B.  If they say, "Get on this bus, this is the right one," you have to believe them.  You have to take it on faith, because sometimes you don't have a guidebook, and even when you do, sometimes the guidebook is wrong. 

I've come to believe that some of these strangers are sent by God (like that annoying American dude who "honey"'d me) to give us a tip at the right time and the right place.  Maybe they're angels, who knows?  No one knows their airline pilot personally, but we all pay hundreds of dollars and let him or her fly us to our destination.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're trusting a complete stranger with our lives.  I'm willing to bet that some of them are angels, too.

There is something scary about this, but also something strangely exhilarating, like riding a roller coaster (which, oddly enough, I really don't enjoy).  You are locked in.  You can't get out.  The vehicle is falling downhill and you can hang on and scream for your life with your eyes screwed shut (which is usually my roller coaster style) or you can let go and throw your arms up and open your eyes, because you can't get out until the ride is over.  (Interestingly, my travel style is the second one.)

My students who've gotten lost in a place where they don't know the language have that look in their eyes that I feel--a spark, an excitement--and a desire to do it again.

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".