Spots of Time

May 16, 2004

Crash Course China

This is the last email I will be able to send that won't have Chinese "eyes" watching. It will explain a lot about my upcoming emails and columns, and the lack of too much personal opinion, especially with regards to sensitive topics. China is going to be a wild ride! :) Melanie

Let the Negotiations Begin (Again)

Never accept a compliment - modesty is paramount. Decline a gift at least two or three times before accepting. Present your business card with both hands - slightly bowed. Never give a gift wrapped in white or black - the colors of death. Leave some food on your plate. Slurping and burping at the table are acceptable. Red is an auspicious color. Whoever first pours the tea at the table is responsible for pouring the rest of the meal. Don't criticize the government - you could end up in jail or worse.

In less than 5 hours, I will be on a plane to Beijing, People's Republic of China, and the realization that I know less than nothing about China, its history, its people and most especially, its customs has just dawned on me. So, I'm cramming.

Truth is, I wasn't 100% sure I was going to China until 24 hours ago, despite purchasing my plane ticket, securing my visa, and assuming I had a teaching job all arranged. That was my first mistake - assumption. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back in December 2003, my friends Aaron and Jordana got teaching jobs in China. While their initial week was a bit of a nightmare, sorting out where they should be and getting out from under the paws of the Chinese headhunter (who promise one thing and delivered another) they eventually settled into a good job, living with a nice headmistress and her family, and teaching conversational English to Chinese kids between the ages of 8 and 15 years old. As I had expressed interest in teaching before they left, they casually mentioned my name to the headmistress. She was interested and that's how the ball got rolling.

Five months later, after back and forth emails, negotiations about teaching time, salary and expectations, we had come to an agreement. In exchange for 5 weeks of teaching, I would receive a salary, room and board with her family, and the school would pay my round trip ticket to Beijing (from Bangkok). I thought everything was arranged and went about confirming my travel arrangements.

Then, 48 hours ago, I got an email from the headmistress, Miss Zhao, saying she would not be able to pay for my whole plane ticket, as she had previously agreed, but only half of it. Oh, and by the way, I should consider myself lucky as my teaching salary was 20 times that of the Chinese teachers. None of this had been brought up during the previous five months of negotiations.

In my 18 months of work/travel, half of which have been in Asia, one of my biggest "issues" is the concept of re-negotiation. I don't mind bargaining, I don't mind haggling - its all part of playing the game. But, when someone says, "Ok, this is the price, or the deal, or the agreement" and then, at the last minute says, "Actually, we can't do this anymore," my blood begins to boil.

Though my mind was clouded I still had the presence of mind to wait before writing back and instead wrote to Aaron and Jordana explaining that I thought Miss Zhao was playing dirty. Aaron wrote me back quickly, saying he knew he should be sympathetic but that the whole situation was just so damn funny to him. "What's funny is that you thought the agreement was over," he said. "The agreement is never OVER. It just changes. If you say, 'Is it 10 o'clock?' and the Chinese say, 'It is 10 o'clock.' That doesn't mean it's 10 o'clock. It means, 'Let's start discussing what time it is.'"

After reading his email, I knew that my teaching experience, if it did work out, was going to try my patience like nothing else. Significantly more calm, I emailed Miss Zhao back, playing my own hardball but attempting to communicate in the Chinese way - non-confrontationally - which eventually brought us back to our original agreement. At least, I hope so. Her last email to me said, "You can trust me because you are a friend of Aaron's and I am a friend of Aaron's." This made me laugh until I read that among the Chinese, relationships and connections are paramount, and a friend of a friend is an important thing.

The Walls Have Ears

Around this same time, Aaron's girlfriend, Jordana, wrote to me about being careful about what I write and say while I am in China, as most likely my room is bugged, my movements watched, and my phone calls monitored. EXCUSE ME? I really thought she was kidding, so I wrote her back, half-joking, and asking if she was serious. Below is an excerpt from her email to me:

"Aaron and I hung out with this English teacher from another province who is one of Miss Zhao's cousins and she leads us into this green room in her father's house and, NOT SHITTING YOU, says, 'We can speak freely in here. This room is not bugged.' Aaron and I literally fell to the ground. And we thought about the conversations we had had in our room. From then on we only talked about things when we were outside where there could not have been any devices. We took walks everyday (even in the cold) so we could discuss the interesting craziness of communism and the horrific history."

As I mentioned before, I know less than nothing about China. Until I met Aaron and Jordana, I had never heard about The Gang of Four, vaguely understood that there had been an event known as the Cultural Revolution, and "might" have been able to pick Chairman Mao Zedong out of lineup. Maybe. So, this email kind of freaked me out.

I started doing some research and buying some books on China. Aaron had also told me to watch what I write while in China, and said he'd heard that 8,600 Internet cafes had been shut down since February of this year. I decided to do a little research on this topic, as it was near and dear to my own heart (and website).

According to my LP guide to China, one site you can't access in China is I'm not sure how long the BBC has been a restricted site in China, but I found an article from the site, dated June 16, 2002, that might explain why so many Internet cafes have been closed - or at least, the "official" reason why they have all been closed.

According to the article, the mayor of Beijing ordered the immediate closure of ALL cyber cafes in the capital after a fire killed at least 24 and injured 13 in one of the city's unregistered Internet cafes. The major is quoted as saying, in response to the fire:

"From now on, Beijing will not encourage the development of internet bars," he said. "From today, all internet bars should stop operation and departments concerned should stop issuing licenses."

While the death of two dozen young people is certainly a regrettable occurrence, am I the only one who thinks the Mayor's responses were a TAD bit reactionary?

In a USA Today story from 2002, among the Internet controls in place in China today "are those that order service providers to screen private e-mail for political content and also hold them responsible for subversive postings on their Web sites." It also says that "under the rules, general portal sites must install security programs to screen and copy all e-mail messages sent or received by users. Those containing "sensitive materials" must be turned over to authorities. Providers are also responsible for erasing all prohibited content posted on their Web sites, including online chat rooms and bulletin boards. The new rules include a long list of banned content prohibiting writings that reveal state secrets, hurt China's reputation or advocate the overthrow of communism, ethnic separatism or 'evil cults.'"

The BBC article also said that the prolific number of unregistered cafes has to do with the tight controls the government keeps on "unhealthy" information - pornography and political material sighted as examples. Analysts also say that the Chinese youth are going to these illegal cafes because they are "lured by the freedom of anonymous Internet access." I wonder if it is the freedom of anonymous Internet access or the hope that their emails won't actually be read and reported to the authorities?

In the US and Europe, privacy experts and some consumers are up in arms about GMail, a new mail service from Google that is said to be similar to Yahoo! or MSN Hotmail, but with 500 times more storage space. According to new sources, American and Europeans are concerned that Google's targeting of advertisements based on the content of emails sent (whether you are a GMail member or not), and the policy which allows them to keep copies of email even after a user quits GMail, are invasions of privacy. According to one source, "there is a definite creepiness factor" (in a company having copies of your private emails).

And, I would have to agree - whether you live in China or America. Though, there is one big difference. If someone copies my emails in the US, and they happen to include criticism of the government, advocate the ousting of the President, or seem otherwise damaging to the US reputation, this won't land me in jail or worse. In fact, if you are Michael Moore, doing just this will make you a bundle of cash.

However, I don't believe there is a similar law in China. And, when in Rome (er, Beijing)...

What all this means for me, is that I will be practicing my own self-censorship, at least during my time in China. While I strongly believe in freedom of the press, and an individual's right to express herself, I also believe in following the rules and regulations of the country in which I will be a guest. While I will continue my columns from China, they will focus only on the (approved) facts - about Chinese history, government and culture, as well as my personal teaching experiences. Any potentially "unhealthy" information will have to wait - until a time or in such a place when such expressions are considered healthy.


May 11, 2004

Indian Masala (Part One)

Dear friends and family! The "Two Weddings" story is taking longer than planned, so this week please enjoy the following "Indian Masala" or Indian "spice" - a collection of little anecdotes about my travels in the subcontinent.

Vegetarianism and garbage disposal

There are probably more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined. People are vegetarian for religious reasons - cows are considered sacred to Hindus while pigs are considered dirty to Muslims. People are vegetarian for economic reasons - a vegetarian diet is cheaper than one which involves meat. And, people are vegetarian for cultural reasons - the ancient Indian Vedic texts promoted vegetarianism as a more enlightened lifestyle.

My reasons for following a vegetarian diet while in India are also numerous. There are economic reasons - vegetarianism is cheaper. There are culinary reasons - the vegetarian food is almost always deliciously prepared and so I don't miss meat at all. There are accessibility reasons - vegetarianism is the norm here, so it is much easier to find than in the US. And then there are the hygenic reasons.

I won't talk about meat handling procedures, the fliess and bugs that reside on cuts of fresh, uncovered meat in markets, or the meat juice soaked hands of food staff who move from one food to another without washing their hands, their knives, or their cutting boards. What I will tell you about is the unique garbage disposal method I noticed everywhere in the state of Rajasthan.

Instead of putting out garbage for a garbage man to collect and take to the local dump, most folks put their garbage out in little piles throughout the city. Left open, these bags quickly attract the roaming pigs, holy Hindu cows, goats, cats, dogs and rats, who root through it and eat (indiscriminately) anything that tastes good or goes down easy.

Not exactly free-range, grain fed beef, eh?


Early one morning in Udiapur, eating breakfast overlooking Lake Pichola, I sat daydreaming about the romantic Lake Palace Hotel, the $300+ per night former palace which sat picturesquely in the middle of the lake. I wondered what those people were eating for breakfast, where they came from and what they were thinking while sitting in their posh surroundings.

The loud "thwaping" sound of heavy wet cloth on stone woke me from my daydream. Between my lakeside cafe and the palace were dozens of local men, women and children. They were bathing, washing clothes and washing dishes in the half dried up lake. To them, the lake was not the idyllic setting for the historical palace, but a vein of daily life constantly threatened by low monsoons and irresponsible pollution.

I looked between the palace and the locals for a few minutes and wondered: did they look at me and my cafe lifestyle with the same wistful daydreaming that I looked upon those people staying at the palace?

A Palace in the Clouds

The Taj Mahal is a tomb, built by the former Mungal emperor Shah Jahan, as a monument for his beloved (late) wife. It is the most beautiful building I have ever seen, hands down. Pictures and postcards do not do it justice.

My first view of the Taj took my breath away. A palatial structure of white marble, it looks unreal, almost two dimensional from a distance, like the extravagant set of a Hollywood film set. Though the gardens and buildings around it are lovely, it looks as though its proper home should be somewhere in the sky above us, floating on a perfect cloud, far above the dirt and grime of the world below.

If God asked me to be the architect for a holy place, something that would be fit to grace the kingdom of heaven, I would say something had already been built and point down to the Taj Mahal.

Aggravating Agra

Agra, once a great and glorious capital of India, home of the incredible Taj Mahal, and rich in history and culture, is now a place to be tolerated as opposed to be enjoyed. While the physical grounds of the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and the other buildings are lovely, Agra itself is a headache from start to finish.

Of all the cities I have visited in India, only this one (and perhaps Delhi on occasion) made me completely lose my patience and want to run screaming into the streets.

The touts, men whose sole job is to separate tourists from as much money as possible (and get their cut in the meantime), descent like vultures from the moment you step off the train platform in Agra station. A polite "no, thank you" does not work. A firm "NO, I am NOT interested" also does not work. You can be polite, rude, indifferent, funny, charming, sleazy - it doesn't matter. These men will stick to you like glue until they get what they want.

They will tell you places are closed, quote rickshaw prices double or triple what is standard, or even worse, quote you a decent fare, then once they have you in their rickshaw double, triple or quadruple the price, assuming you won't want to walk the half kilometer back to the rickshaw stand.

A German man I met while waiting in line for a return ticket lost his temper and started screaming before even leaving the parking lot of the train station. I fared better, but I also had 9 weeks of travel experience in India compared to his 3 days. Still, four hours later, I was hiding inside the Agra fort, my "plan" for the day scrapped because I just couldn't go out and face the touts.

Why are Agra (and to a lesser extent Delhi) such a nightmare for tourists? Mostly because, no matter what, tourists will go to these cities - and the touts know it. They will fly into the capital, they will pay the outrageous fees for entrance to the Taj Mahal (foreigners 750 rupees, locals 10 rupees), they will brave the streets of Agra because to so many of them, India IS the Taj Mahal. These touts know that no matter how much they harass the tourists, there will always be more tourists to take their place - so what do they care?

It is really a pity, and the people who lose big are the locals who are just curious about the international visitors descending on their city. At one point a seemingly nice young man tried to talk to me but I dismissed him with a wave of my hand, too tired and frustrated to deal with anyone else and desperate to be back in Delhi at my hotel. I felt horrible about it later, but after being tricked so many times, I saw personal isolationism to be my only choice.

Masala Chai and Other Spices

The first time I gave up coffee it was concurrent with an exercise program my roommate and I were beginning. Two days into it, my co-worker Renee called my roommate to beg her to allow me coffee again, for the sake of all involved. It was not a pretty picture.

While in India I have become a big fan of chai - Indian tea. Made strong, sweet, and with lots of milk, it has surpassed coffee to be my preferred morning (and afternoon and evening) beverage of choice. Served country wide, in train stations, on street corners, inside shops, hotels, restaurants and airports, the demi cups of chai cost anywhere from 2 to 12 rupees, but usually average 4 rupees per cup (8 cents US). For one rupee more, you can get masala chai, a spicy
alternative, which includes the addition of cardamom or ginger, depending on the season.

Chai is a national obsession, and appears to be the most commonly drank substance in the country. Shop keepers and tailors offer chai while-you-wait, it is the traditional welcome drink when you enter someone's home, and you are guaranteed the cry of "chai. chai garam (hot)" every 10 minutes on any long-distance train in the country.

For those interested in a taste of India, below is a recipe from the Bajpai family, whom I stayed with in Mumbai:

Masala Chai
Boil two and one half (demi) cups water on stove top, adding 2 tsp of loose black tea, 4 tsp of sugar and 2 cardamom pods (seeds and all). Allow to boil fully, until the water is dark, about 5 minutes. In a separate pot, heat the milk until hot. Mix one half to three fourths tea with one half to one fourth milk, according to taste. Serves two. Enjoy!

May 04, 2004

Melanie and Mohammad's Birthday Bash

In India, my birthday is a national holiday. At least, this year it is. You see, I share my birthday with Mohammad. THE Mohammad. As in, "There is only one God, whose name is Allah and Mohammad is his prophet."

Mohammad’s birthday – as well as the anniversary of his death, is called Id-e-Milad, and this year it occurred on May 3, coinciding with my 30th birthday. Since it is not every year my birthday coincides with the most famous man in the Islamic religion (due to the differences between the western and Islamic calendars), I decided to go down to the local mosque and celebrate my birthday with the people celebrating his birthday. I felt I should pay my respects. While I was born a mere 30 years ago, Mohammed was born 1434 years ago, on the twelfth day of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the third month of the Muslin year, in Mecca. Interestingly enough, his death anniversary falls on the same day. I found this ironic as my cousin once said she thought anyone over 30 should be shot on sight!

Twelve percent of India’s population is Muslim, and India has a rich tradition of Muslim influence, having been ruled by Islamic leaders for over 600 years. There has historically been a great deal of tension between the Hindu and Muslim religions, ultimately resulting in Partition, when India was split into two pieces: the mostly Muslim country of Pakistan and the mostly Hindu state of India. This coincided with India’s independence from the British and was a bloody time in the country’s’ history.

The state of Radjastan, where I was now traveling, has an especially large Muslim population, and it’s tourist attractions of awesome fortresses and stunning palaces were the result of the Islamic kings and rulers. Radjastan is a top tourist destination of India, with 45% of visitors coming through at least one of its major cities. Udiapur, one of its most romantic cities, is a land of camels and elephants sharing streets with autorickshaws and cars, and of dry desert air and temperatures of 44 degrees C (about 110 degrees F). The local people bath and wash clothes in the waters of Lake Piccola, in the shadow of the famous (and US dollar priced) Lake Palace Hotel where Roger Moore first seduced Octopussy in the movie of the same name.

My rickshaw driver, Manu, head of the “Udiapur rickshaw Mafia/union” let me know about the holiday. A non-devout Muslim, equally fond of whiskey and women who were not his wife, he would not be attending the celebration.

Following a lazy afternoon at the rooftop swimming pool of a posh hotel nearby my own modest guesthouse, I prepared for the celebration. I put on my blue and gold embroidered salwar camis, a traditional Indian dress. Also called a Punjabi suit, a sari suit and a churidar, it is a long, cap-sleeved dress-like top, over loose, pajama-style pants, with a long matching scarf, it is the modern Indian woman’s uniform. These days you can see them as commonly as saris – especially on the younger women.

Before I entered the mosque, I took off my shoes and covered my head with my scarf, following the example of the women ahead of me. At this point I could see the nudges and pointing, the giggling and laughing, and the direct staring of the women at this Indian-dressed white women about to enter a mosque. Smiling brightly, I entered the enclosure. I’d long learned that in India, staring back when you were stared at, but with a big smile, is a ticket to a charming mirror response.

Inside the mosque’s outside walls were several smaller buildings, all white, and some with turnip-shaped domes. I made my way to the first one, hopping from one bare foot to the other as the heat of the white tile stones burned them. Inside, was a coffin, draped in green fabric and covered with pink flower petals – roses, I think. Men in white Punjabi suits and small white caps entered the room, first touching the floor of the doorway with their hand. Women and girls waited outside, many of them bowing before the doorway, touching their forehead to the cool marble surface. A woman just arriving handed her bag of pink petals to a man just leaving and he quickly returned, sprinkling handfuls of the petals over the already overflowing surface. It seemed women were not allowed inside.

By now a group of young children had surrounded me, smiling and staring. “One rupee?” they asked, echoing the words of countless children before them. I smiled and said no, mentally cursing all the well-intentioned westerners who had come before me, passing out money, chocolates and school pens, creating the impression that all westerners stockpiles these things. “What is your name?” one little girl asked – the other standard question. “My name is Melanie. What is YOUR name?” I asked. She told me, and one by one I played the game with each child. “How old are you?” I asked, when we had finished round one. “No,” she said – apparently English lessons in Udiapur did not extend past introductions.

Taking my hand, she led me around to another building, where identically dressed men hovered over smaller coffins, each also draped with fabric and covered with pink petals. Inside this same building, at another entrance, a man was bending over a square metal container with a grill over the top of it. Women were coming to the entrance, presenting him with pink flowers, that he either grilled or covered with the smoke, and then handed back. The women each left eating the flower they had been handed.

I later learned that in celebration of Mohammad’s birthday, learned men deliver sermons focusing on the life and noble deeds of the Prophet. And, in some parts of the country, a representation of buraq, the horse on which the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven, is anointed with sandal paste or scented powder, and the house and casket containing these is elaborately decorated. While I tried to find out more, I was hard pressed to find anyone who spoke more than a few limited words of English – an indication I had left the tourist part of town far behind.

My little friend, an entourage of other little ones in tow, took me to meet her mother, who gestured for me to sit down on the edge of a long step. “Four children” the little one said, pointing to her mother. “Three girl, one boy,” she finished. She clearly had more of a vocabulary than just “What is your name,” but every simple question I asked received the same answer of “no” – so I decided to just be silent, watching and listening. She introduced me to her mother’s friend, the mother of a baby boy – adorable, with large eyes made larger by what appeared to be the application of black eyeliner but was actually camphor, a common tradition for Indian babies, and said to be both attractive and healthy.

All around me was activity. Men with brooms moved the dust from the mosque floor tiles, literally sweeping them underneath the scattered rugs. Little raccoon-eyed babies sat on the steps and floor of the mosque, laughing, crying and screaming among the colorfully dressed women, chatting among themselves. Poor children in dusty clothes ran around next to richer children decked out with gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets. A line of men in white faced a wall (and Mecca), stood shoulder to shoulder, and then kneeled and prostrated themselves multiple times in unison.

I was offered and accepted snacks – a spicy fried samosa, a florescent yellow sweet drink and some kind of nut that I was meant to chew. I passed around my water bottle and watched in awe as each child, even the youngest, managed to drink from it without touching her lips to the bottle – a talent I have only recently acquired in India – but is common in every state I have visited.

As I sat on the step with the Indian Muslim women, adjusting my scarf to keep it over my head, I noticed that, with the exception of the children sitting next to me, in front of me, and practically on top of me, I was being pretty much left alone. No one was staring anymore – in fact, most of the men who passed didn’t even notice me – a sure sign I had blended in sufficiently.

Outside were even more people, gathered mostly in single sex groups and sitting on walls, on the ground or standing together. Men with arms around each other or holding hands, young women giggling in groups, teenage boys daring each other to say hello to me, and flower sellers and other vendors calling out their wares.

As I had not been allowed to take pictures inside the mosque, I now pulled out my camera and attempted to take a picture of the dome, though the entry gate. I was immediately surrounded by people, all curious to see what I was doing, and amazed by the LCD screen on my digital camera. Within seconds I was being asked to take pictures of people, children as well as adults, and nearly lost my balance several times in the pushing and shoving to see the result. Everyone was smiling and laughing and everyone wanted his or her picture taken. More than once I put the camera away and moved to a new area, as my presence with the camera was like the star performance at a traveling carnival – the center of attention.

At a table lined with plastic cups, I took some bright pink liquid, which tasted like sweetened rose water. The turbaned man behind the counter, stirring an enormous pot of the liquid, did a double take when he saw me and quickly had his assistance pour me a cup of a different liquid, which they call sherbet. It tasted like the pink drink, mixed with milk, and I happily accepted.

Walking around outside, I had become less diligent about my scarf, and it had slipped. Drinking my sherbet and taking in the carnival-like atmosphere, it took me a minute to realize my cover was totally blown. About this time a policeman, dressed in an olive uniform and standing with half a dozen of his peers, asked me where I was from. I hesitated only a second before saying “America.” He informed me that I was not safe at the festival. Looking around, I found that quite hard to believe, and I told him as much. He indicated that the area of town I was in was not safe (read: Muslim) and that I might be happier on the other side of the gate (read: Tourist Area). I told him I thought I was perfectly safe and that everyone had been very kind to me. In fact, would he mind taking a picture with me? He declined saying “ok, ok,” and relayed that if I wasn’t careful people might push up against me. I thanked him for his concern and walked a few feet away where I stood watching the scene from more of a distance.

Yes, it was true that many people were staring at me, but I did not sense anger in their faces, only curiosity. While Udiapur is a tourist-filled town, even just a kilometer or two outside the main streets was another world, and a white western woman was a curiosity – much like a women in full sari might be stared at walking around a suburban mall in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana.

The seed, however, had been planted. The police officer’s words had clouded my mind, and instead of noticing the smiling faces, I became increasingly aware of the few serious and sullen ones. Instead of noticing the old man holding the little girl dressed entirely in pink, I noticed the groups of police standing with arms folded and surveying the scene. Instead of noticing the contrast of the brightly colored women’s saris and the men’s white Punjabi suits, I noticed the contrast of my slightly paler face to their slightly darker ones. Saddened, I turned toward the infamous gate and slowly walked away.

Before I passed through the ancient stone archway, a runaway bull cow took off down the street, narrowly missing me in its quest for a doe-eyed female. He mounted her at full speed, taking out a motorbike, which nearly toppled a boy sitting nearby, before the cow made her escape. I honestly believe, with all my heart, that the bull in heat represented a far greater danger to me than the hundreds of men, women and children gathering to celebrate the birthday of their prophet.


Next week: Two Weddings