Spots of Time

March 04, 2005

The Problem With Girl Babies

Sushama comes from a modern, educated family in Mumbai (Bombay), India. She is the eldest of three girls with a father who allowed the girls to wear western clothes in the 1970s, a time when most women in India still wore only saris. She was married in an arranged marriage and soon after became pregnant with her first child. When the child was born, however, there was no celebration. Was the child sick? Was the child deformed? Was the child stillborn? No. The child was a girl.

Sushama's mother-in-law verbally abused her, blaming her for having a girl instead of the more desirable boy. She caused so much abuse that Sushama had a mental breakdown and could not leave the hospital for weeks. The little girl was sent to live with Sushama's parents - an arrangement that was maintained for most of the little girl's life.

Sushama's husband would not stand up to his mother, siding with her over his wife, and causing Sushama to despair. In a country where a woman without a husband is considered to be nothing, she too became torn between the love for her newborn and her duty to her husband. Lucky for her, she had grown up in a loving, supporting family - one where women were not looked down upon as second-class citizens. While Sushama tried to work things out with her husband, her child was well-taken care of by two people who adored her – her maternal grandparents.

Sushama’s tale is so common in India that it hardly causes a stir. I’d read about things like this in books, but always imagined they happened to uneducated women from rural areas. But, when she told me the story, I was shocked. So was she, actually. "If this can happen to me, an educated woman, what hope do the poor, uneducated women have?" she lamented.

In China, one of the teachers I worked with was pregnant with her first and (according to Chinese law) only child. When I asked her if she wanted a girl or a boy, she said: "Well, personally, I would rather have a boy." "WHY do you want a boy?" I asked. She said, "Well, the truth is, I don't care. But, my mother-in-law and father-in-law (whom she and her husband lived with at the time) both want a boy. I only want to have one baby. If I have a girl, I'm afraid they will make me have another child."

MAKE me have another child? I was confused. "Isn't it only possible to have one baby in China?" I asked. The teacher said that in most cases the answer was yes. But, if a family wanted to have a second child, they could pay the government 10,000 yuan, or about $1200 US dollars, to have another baby. By US standards, the sum does not seem dramatic or prohibitive. But, in China, 10,000 yuan is equivalent to the average Chinese persons’ yearly income. And yet, many Chinese with a girl child will pay this, going into huge debt, in the hopes that the second child will be male.

Both of these woman grew up in societies where boy children were valued over girl children – so much so that sex-selective abortions and female infanticide are common, usual tales. In rural areas of India, women with little or no education still know the Hindu word for amniocentesis despite the procedure being mostly illegal for sex determination. In China, orphanages are overflowing with abandoned girl babies – so many that every year China allows thousands of them to be adopted by families overseas, including America.

In September 2004, The Christian Science Monitor ( ran a story (“China Faces Future As Land of Boys”) about China’s increasing disparity between girl children and boy children. According to the article, which refers to census figures from 2000, 117 boys are born for every 100 girls in China. The norm for most countries is 104 boys for every 100 girls. In America, the figures are 105 males for every 100 females.

In most countries this number eventually balances itself out – in the US, for example, the number ratio equals itself out by the age of 15 years. The larger difference in the ratio in countries like China and India, however, causes an imbalance of the sexes that is already resulting in some shocking practices, such as the kidnapping of rural Chinese women to serve as wives for men who aren’t able to procure one on their own. Social scientists estimated that there are 100 million “missing” girls between India and China today. In China, these scientists are predicting a future where as many as 15% of Chinese men won’t have wives.

China is not alone in the missing girls phenomenon. The same CSM article indicated that in Punjab, a northern state in India, 126 boys are born for every 100 girls. Even in areas where the ratio is closer, the bias in favor of boy children persists. When my roommate Leila was traveling in India recently, she met a beautiful young Indian woman on the beach in Goa. They got to talking and the woman told Leila she had 3 boys. When Leila said, “Oh, no girls?” the woman said, “Girls have no value in India.” She was stating what, in her mind, was an undisputed fact.

This is not to say that both countries are ignoring the problems – in fact, many efforts are underway to remedy the problems. In China, the government is testing out programs that provide supplementary income to families with girl children. In India, NGOs travel to villages providing free medical care and encouraging and educating women to take care of their children – both boys and girls.

But, changing the values and mores of a culture will take more than minor government intervention and grassroots NGO efforts, especially when the bias in favor of boys goes back hundreds – even thousands – of years. Dowry in India has been outlawed since 1961 and infanticide since 1870 – yet both practices are so prevalent and widespread that most uneducated people don’t even know the laws exist. To them, the difference between infanticide and abortion are purely financial.

China and India are the two easiest countries to focus upon when it comes to the preference for boy children over girl children. They are the two most populous countries in the world, accounting for 2/5 of the world’s population. But, bias for boy babies exists in other countries too. Even in America.

In 1974, in the very American city of Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born, my Serbian-born grandmother, upon finding out that my mother’s first child was a girl said, “Too bad its not a boy.” Yet, I don’t blame my grandmother for wishing I was a boy – that was how she was taught. And, her opinion did nothing to affect how my mother or my father felt about me. Still, I’m sure she expressed a big sigh of relief the following year when my brother was born – the Vuynovich name was still secure.

In truth, I’m in good company. When Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, was born, the story goes that her own mother said, “Such a pity she is not a boy.” Her father, Jawarhal Nehru, the first president of an independent India, snapped at her and said, “How do you know this girl won’t grow up to become prime minister one day?” Indira was lucky – she was born into an educated, well-off family with a clearly progressive father. Most Indian women are no so lucky.

There are arguments that can be made for why, in some cases and some countries, having boy children is considered not only preferable but also vital to survival. I’m not here to argue that an impoverished Indian family, burdened with the imposed tradition of bridal dowry, isn’t at a financial disadvantage for having girl children over boy children. For them, the value proposition for having girls just doesn’t exist. An extra mouth to feed, a huge bridal dowry and the knowledge that the woman will ultimately leave home and become incorporated into her husbands family makes it tough to argue in favor of girls. On the other hand, it is well known that a boy child will stay with the family and in many cases, provide for his parents in their old age. Even from where I stand, I can see the logic in this picture.

But, what it difficult for me is that the preference for boy babies that still exists in places where situations like these don’t exist. Often, for the purely egotistical sake of “continuing the family name.”

You might think that middle and upper class families in India and China, those that live in more urban areas, might feel differently about boy children vs. girl children. In both countries, it has become more and more common for women to hold jobs and careers, as well as undertake the burden of caring for their parents in their old age. And, the argument of strong bodies to work the fields is also null and void.

A book by Elizabeth Bumiller, a writer for The New York Times, proves otherwise. In her book, “May You Be The Mother of One Hundred Sons,” she interviewed Indian women in rural and urban areas, from rich and poor families, from educated and uneducated backgrounds – all with very similar results. While the percentages were slightly different, the preference was usually the same. Boys over girls – almost every single time.

I remember one story particularly well. A Mumbai society woman was interviewed about her desire to have another child. She already had three girls. But, there she was in one of the ob/gyn offices, trying to find out if her next child was a boy or a girl. She explained that if the unborn baby turned out to be a girl, she would abort it. She said that she was tired of being whispered about at parties – “Oh, poor thing, she only has girls.”

Even though the book was written about 10 years ago, things in India have not really changed – something I witnessed first hand last year while I stayed with Sushama and her family in Mumbai.

I don't know what ever happened to Sushama's husband. Her story was interrupted by the arrival of her 20-year old daughter, Shweta, a beautiful happy woman who only frowned once when I talked to her – at the mention of her father. I know he is almost never mentioned, and that the family photo albums do not show a single picture. Though there are a few wedding photos of Sushama, they all seem oddly shaped. When you look closer you can see that someone has been cut or torn out of each of them.

One day I hope to have children of my own. And, though my first hope is that the child is born healthy and happy, I must admit to a slight prejudice of my own – in favor of a girl baby. While boy children born into almost any country in the world are celebrated and cherished, the sad fact of life is that the same is not true for girl children. Since the bias is mild at best in the land of my birth, I feel like it’s my duty.

August 17, 2004

Are You Beautiful?

There is something fundamentally wrong about plucking a gray hair the same day you pop a pimple. Yet, incredibly, I find myself in this situation regularly. Thirty years old and going through my second puberty while noticing the signs of aging every day.

It use to be that a gray hair was an occasional occurence. I still remember the first one - found when I was 27 years old. I asked my boss Dan for the day off to recover (only half jokingly). He said no (only half jokingly). Recently, I found a small colony, residing on the northwest side of my head. No longer content to be solo visitors, my gray hair has unionized. Strength in numbers, no doubt.

If it were just the gray hairs, I could understand. After all, its a natural sign of aging. It's the continued facial break outs that are driving me crazy. While different countries have different standards of beauty, pimples are the bane of existance for teenagers all over the world. Except, I'm not a teenager anymore.

Being on the road doesn't help. For months I carried around no less than 5 types of facial scrubs, masks, creams, lotions and the like. And, my skin was fine. By contrast, I had jettisoned all my makeup and hair products as soon as I got to Asia - there was just no need and it seemed odd that my toiletries bag outweighed everything else in my backpack. By the time I got to India I was fed up with the hassle and weight of my facial routine, and I decided to let nature take its course. Big mistake.

At first I thought the breakout might be a purging of toxins in my skin. I was at the ashram in southern India at the time and we were doing 4-6 hours of yoga a day as well as eating incredibly mild, vegetarian food. I hadn't been this healthy and fit in years and I assumed my face would soon calm down. It didn't. And, while in America even a best friend would rarely dare comment on a particularly bad breakout, people in India seemed to have no issue with providing commetary to a total stranger. My "favorite" moment was when a young woman at an Indian wedding I was attending asked me if I was married. When I said no she made a few pity noises as she touched my face - to her, it was clear my biggest roadblock to married bliss was my less than perfect skin.

This experience was not unique to India. Total strangers have commented about my face during moments when it was especially bad in Thailand and China too. Perhaps I should be thankful that people in Asia are so straight forward about things. In America the standard response to a pimple is "its not so bad" or "you can hardly see it!" And, while that may not be honest, it at least makes you feel better. By contrast when a total stranger comes up to you, touches your face and say, "Oh, so many pimples" - well, lets just say your self confidence comes down a few notches.

During a particularly bad breakout in China, however, the response was even more frequent. And, beacause I was surrounded by porcelin skinned beauties every day my insecurity about the regular attention increased - I couldn't help but compare my skin to theirs. Several weeks ago, in a drug store, a female employee pushed her way through a crowd of people to get to me and grabbed my hand. When I pulled my hand back in surprise she pointed to my face and then to her beauty tube indicating she was only trying to help me. I wasn't particularly grateful.

For a time, if I even paused at a beauty counter in one of the many shopping malls in China I would be beseiged by women carrying a dozen different creams, lotions and cosmetics. They had no issues with pointing at my face and then pointing the lettering on the bottles - "anti-acne solutions." In Thailand, a woman giving me a facial criticized me for not "upgrading" to the super expensive "special" mask they offered, telling me that my "its too expensive" response was irresponsible as one should take care of their skin, especially when it was as bad as mine. Tears welled up in my eyes and it was only my friend Jordana squeezing my hand to comfort me that stopped me from balling outright.

Before you think that people in Asian countries are insensitive and cruel, let me explain that being forthright and honest about these things is very normal in all the countries that I visited. And, while it was very hard to get used to, I do genuinely believe that most people genuinely felt bad for me and wanted to help - especially women who had been in my position in the past. Still, its ironic that while I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman able to tackle anything life throws at me, it only takes a few choice remarks about my skin to bring tears to my eyes. My own personal kryptonite. :)

When I started writing this column, I was going to call it "Travel Puberty" because my frequent break outs were causing me to feel like a teenager all over again. Then one day a Chinese woman staying in my dorm room (who, incidently had commented on the state of my skin and recommended acupuncture) asked me, quite seriously: "In your country, are you considered beautiful?" I was surprised at the question and replied, "not especially." She responded, "In China, you are beautiful."

While I was incredibly flattered, in truth, her comment reflects the current "standards of beauty" in Asia much more than my personal attributes. To many Asians, a westerner is considered to be the epitome of beauty, misguided as this notion might be. The glorification of the Caucasian beauty standard in Asia is a relatively recent but incredibly widespread and psychologically damaging trend - especially to young Asian women. In Thailand I was shocked to see an advertisement for botox aimed at teenagers. Instead of being used for wrinkles, as in the west, botox injections were advertised to help a Thai woman's jawline become more oval and "western." Even worse are the bombardment of whitening creams. I once saw a TV commercial for whitening deoderant - with the tag line of "there is nothing worse than dark underarms!" Huh?

All over South East Asia the desire for pale, white skin is out of control. Every lotion, cream and facial product includes "whitening" ingredients - EVERY one. Even in China, my old boss at the school once commented that my skin was much paler now than when I first arrived at the school - and she was giving me a compliment. While westerns glorify the tanned, healthy-looking face and body, Asian women shun the sun. All over South East Asia and China, women walk around with umbrellas to shield them in the heat of the day. Most wear hats and some even wear full lenth gloves while riding bicycles to keep their arms white. Racism even stems from this desire for pale skin. In India, for example, pale skinned women are considered more desireable than dark skinned women - so much so that marriage advertisements in the newspapers flaunt this fact at the top of the personal ad.

But, the trend doesn't stop with pale skin. The thicker eyelids and almond shaped eyes usually associated with Asian people also seem to be less desired than larger, round ones. Most of the billboard and subway ads in Beijing and Shanghai featured women with large, very open eyes - and that was the case with pop stars and actresses as well. And, just like their American counterparts, most Asian women are obsessed with being thin - though perhaps genetics has been kinder to them in this regard.

I've gotten use to standing out physically in the past year - after all, I'm in the racial minority in 95% of situations in Asia. And, while most of the time I am "comfortable in my own skin" (to quote a friend) there are times when I feel like a giant, lumbering ox compared to the tiny and beautiful women I see on a daily basis. Truthfully, even when my skin is in good shape, I often envy the clear lovely skin of most Asian women. But, all that aside, I can honestly say I am happy with who I am most of the time and most changes I desires are internal, not external.

My perception of Asian women as some of the most beautiful women in the world has not changed in my time in Asia, nore do I believe that appeal is gone from other continents (the number of Caucasian men dating or married to Asian women being only one example). It's just too bad that while the exotic Asian beauty still has cache in Western countries, many Asian women in their own countres would rather look western than eastern.

August 10, 2004

Lights, Camera, Shanghai Action!

There are lots of ways to make money (or save money) while traveling. I've met people who have worked in guest houses in Cambodia, selling jewelry on the street in Colombia, cutting traveler's hair in youth hostels in Peru, telling in depth horoscopes in Thailand, working for American companies in Singapore, and volunteering in an ashram in India. In my own experience I've taught English in China, been a technical writer, waitress and salesgirl in Australia, volunteered in Thailand, and --most recently --been an extra in a business film in Shanghai. Some jobs have been great, some jobs have been shit, but all the jobs offered me an insight into a different world than that of the ordinary traveler --an insight into the every day world of the people in the country I was visiting.

My most recent experience, as an extra in some kind of a promotional video for a business in Shanghai, came about quite suddenly. A few days ago my friend Mike (whom readers may remember from the guest column "Five Minutes Being Turkish") called me at my hotel and asked if I would like to accompany him on a shoot that evening. A casting director had called him and indicated they needed some westerners to be extras. The job would take about 2.5 hours, was being shot in a Shanghai hotel and paid 200 Yuan (about $25 US dollars). I quickly agreed. I'd never been an extra in anything and it sounded a bit glamorous and exciting.

We arrived shortly before 8 p.m. and were ushered upstairs (along with a young German man) where a room was set up to look like a huge business party, complete with a tower of champagne glasses in the middle of the room. I immediately vowed to go nowhere near it, as images of it crashing down because of me were flashing in my head. Some of the PAs were pouring red grape drink into it, while about two dozen Chinese extras were standing around looking bored.

The casting director introduced us to the unit director, a hip looking man with a mustache and long hair. He was wearing faded jeans, a green tank top and canvas All Stars. We had been told to dress in business attire and there was immediately some discussion (in Chinese) about the German man wearing jeans with his white button down and tie. Luckly for me I had some custom clothes made in Beijing, including a suit, as "business attire" isn't normally a part of my traveler wardrobe. Once settled the unit director scrutinized Mike and I individually and I felt immediately insecure about my appearance --most notably the fact that my skin was broken out and my hair was messy. After a few seconds I was sent to make up, apparently having passed the test - but needing some added "professional assistance."

The make up woman covered me in base and powder, copious amounts of eye shadow and bright lips stick- the first time I've worn makeup in over a year. She also did some bizarre thing with my hair which I didn't notice until later as I didn't have time to look into a mirror before it was time to start. While I was getting "done up" several of the Chinese extras were staring at me, and I felt somewhat movie star-like, though by now this was a common experience in China. Though China has been open to westerners for more than 20 years now, there is still a lot curiosity and wonder about foreigners, and even in Shanghai, arguably the most western city, I have been stared out quite blatantly more times than I can count. While in this particular case it didn't bother me, there have been many times I have wanted nothing more than anonymity in my travels.

After a while we were positioned on the set, given a champagne glass with pink grape soda and waited while the director, unit director and technicians rushed around settling the scene. All instruction was in Chinese, and the casting director translated though it wasn't hard to figure out that we were meant to be at a party and were suppose to act accordingly --smiling, clinking glasses, laughing, etc. When the boss came by --a white westerner who appeared to be from somewhere in Europe --we would smile brightly and raise our glasses in a toast to him.

The shoot took about 2.5 hours and after a while the thrill of the experience waned. While people who spoke some English frequently surrounded Mike during the shoots, most of my "party friends" did not, so we smiled and spoke gibberish to each other during shoots and otherwise went about our own business. During one scene Mike and I were paired up chatting and toasted the boss as he came to join our group --I called this the "appeal to western workers" shot. I jokingly asked the boss, during the scene, if we were going to get raises --he laughed but not genuinely. Later, watching him, I could tell the last place he wanted to be was here shooting, and he was frequently on the sidelines talking in his cell phone while the unit director stood in for him for lighting checks.

People watching was my main activity during the frequent down times, and I loved watching the different personalities. A middle aged man near me was busy being "director's pet" - helping to pour the grape juice into the wine glasses, lighting candles and generally fussing about. It cracked me up to watch the unit director position us, because as soon as his back was turned the man would look to wear the camera was and adjust himself in a more prominent position. Some of the extras were quite young - including one high schooler who was earning extra money as a waitress in the hotel - and there was much giggling and laughter between her and one of her coworkers. Before each shot the unit director would yell something in Chinese, and then, just like in the US, count down to Action. Only, instead of "Three, Two, One, ACTION!" he would say, "San, Er, Yi (the Mandarin number equivalents - and then in English), ACTION!" His only other English words were, "Take a rest."

At the end of the night, after everyone left (different pay scale for Chinese and Westerners, apparently) the casting director paid us and we went home. I was pretty tired and my feet were sore, but the experience was so unique that quite honestly I would have done it without pay. Still, it was fun to go shopping the next day and use half of my hard earned money to buy a "genuine" Prada purse for 100 Yuan. The casting director asked me how long I would be in Shanghai and he indicated we might see each other again if he had another job - as it was Mike was getting sent out the next day for another gig - as a talk show host!

Either way, it was fun being a Shanghai star for a couple of hours - even though I still don't know the name of the company I was meant to represent!

August 07, 2004

Goodbye Teacher

"Hello Teacher." Every student greeted me this way, every day. They almost never used my name (which was kind of hard for many of them to remember and pronounce). When I asked, "How are you today?" they always said, in unison, "I am fine...and, how are you?" Sometimes, I would forget procedure and ask the question slightly differently. Like, "So, how are you guys doing?" And, there would be blank stares and confused expressions - until I rephrased my question to the standard formula they were use to hearing.

After I finished my five week teaching contract, I was torn about my departure. On the one hand, I was keen to move on to my next adventure. On the other hand, I decided I actually enjoyed teaching, and would miss some of the kids. Because this was my first teaching experience, I'm not sure how much of it what I experienced was teaching in general, and how much of it was teaching in China. To me, at least for now, they will be one and the same.

And, that is important because perhaps teaching will be something I will do again in the future - either temporarily, or as an actual career path. I'm still not sure. One of the reasons I wanted to come to China was to teach - to have the chance to see if I would like what I was doing - if I had what it takes to be a teacher. And, I guess I am still not sure.

Teaching is HARD WORK. It is long hours, it is low pay, and it can be quite stressful. They say the only career path that makes more decisions every day is an air traffic controller - and one can imagine the kind of stress they are under! In some countries, especially the US, teachers are not given nearly the respect they deserve - which makes many avoid that path, even if they would make excellent teachers. Those who chose Education in college are labeled as....well, the catch phrases abound. My favorite is: "If you can do, you do - if you can't, you teach." I never held these same views, mostly because I had always considered teaching as an option and also because I had some really amazing teachers during my own school days.

The novelty of my presence in my school did make me more of a celebrity than I would be if I were a teacher in the US. Frequent request were made for my signature (my autograph!), or for a picture of me. The last few days of school, many kids came to me with camera in hand, asking shyly if they could take a picture with me. One little girl, whose English name was "Michelle" said, "Excuse me teacher, would it be ok if I took your arm when we took the picture?" I was so touched and put my arm around her shoulder while we posed.

Two little girls, Helen and Susan (all the kids had English names) both gave me pictures of them - and both wrote, "Please don't forget me!" Others brought me little gifts - from stickers to Chinese tchotckes to decorations for a mobile phone. One little girl, who had given me a banana earlier in class, waved goodbye to me and said, "Love my banana!"

I'll never forget the little boy (Jack) who asked me, quite seriously, why my eyes weren't blue. I had to struggle to keep a straight face when I told him that in America, everyone has different color eyes - from dark brown like his, to light blue to green and all colors in between. It was clear that was news to him. I realized that because 99% of these kids had never been out of the country, I WAS America to them. I asked them once if they thought all people in American looked like me. They all nodded quite seriously. When I tried to explain to them that there were all types of people in America - black, white, Latino, Asian - they just stared, trying to understand but just not getting it.

One personal regret was my lack of education about teaching. Without proper credentials I was frequently unsure if I was doing a good job. There were many times when I disagreed with the teaching methods of the headmistress, but without any professional teacher training of my own, I wasn't if they were actually bad teaching practices, or just contrary to what I had developed as my "teaching style."

Sure, there are things I will not miss. For example, chalk dust. I'm sure I have inhaled more than the FDA approved amounts. And, my black travel clothing, while ideal for not showing dirt, made me look like I had a fine layer of dandruff on everything I owned - no wonder teachers wear lighter colors! Another thing was my class size - it was almost always too big. Occasionally, I would have about 28-30 students, which was totally manageable. But, frequently, my class size would be approaching 50 students - just getting them quiet was a chore!

The language barrier came to play in all aspects of my teaching, and I realize if I taught in the US this would not be as big a factor. While the kids were mostly all respectful, toward the end it was clear many figured out that my statement about speaking "a little" Chinese was far exaggerated - and would take advantage by cracking jokes and misbehaving. But, this was not exclusive to the students. On more than on occasion I was sure I was the topic of dinner conversation among the teachers. My life was not my own. If I went to lunch or shopping with a teacher, everyone knew by the time I turned up to teach. Usually this was ok - but there were times when the gossip did get on my nerves.

One thing I am not sure is common to schools today or common to schools in China is the issue of cheating. In my classes, there was CONSTANT cheating. I'm out of the loop for school children these days, but I was SHOCKED at how much the kids cheated - even when I specifically said what was against the rules (dictionaries, translation calculators, whispering). Inevitably, even though I had said no to all of these things, kids would secretly pull them out of their desks during competitions. More often than not, when I noticed and said, "No cheating!" they would sheepishly oblige, wait until I had turned my back, and then pull it out again! I constantly alternated between being strict with them and turning a blind eye. It was clear to me this was a problem long before I arrived, and would continue to be a problem long after I left, which made me feel rather helpless to change things.

Personally, I think the cheating stems from the huge amount of pressure these kids are under to perform in school. Even though this is a private English language school, the pressures to do well still exists. The headmistress, sensitive to the pressure the kids are under, was always telling me to play more games and encourage the children by giving them easy questions they would know the answer to. Of course, this was me looking at her in the most benevolent light. A shrewd businesswoman, I'm sure as much of her reasoning stemmed from the desire to keep the kids happy so their parents would continue to pay tuition for her school.

One thing I found especially peculiar about teaching in China was that the teacher, not the student was to blame if the student did not do well. And, the teacher would also be praised if the student did do well. One day, an 8-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the teachers, sat in on my class while we were playing a game. She joined one team, and while the older kids balked at having a youngster on their team, she represented them at the board for one round of board races. Incredibly, while the other kids were looking left and right to see who had the right answer to copy, she quickly scribbled down 5 correct answers, the most of any of the kids. That evening, while the teachers were eating dinner, I told them about the little brain child who had sat in on my class - "What a smart little girl!" I said. Her mother was not there but her teacher was - and quickly made her presence known. "She is MY student," she said quite proudly. It was as though credit for the girl's success was due to the teacher. Worse was when, a few minutes later, she began to sing an American children's song, hoping to get the child to sing it and show again how smart she was. The little girl was shy and just kept eating, and I was embarrassed by the teacher, who, to me, looked like she was trying to make the girl perform on command.

While I believe that a good teacher can help a student progress, I also believe more that a good student can excel despite a poor teacher - and more than a poor student with a good teacher. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "A teacher opens the door - the students walk through on their own." True words. in my humble opinion. The ultimate desire to learn must come from the kid - and some kids have it more than others.

Looking back, I will miss being called "Teacher." It felt really good. I'm not sure if the feeling stemmed from finally having a professional identification title - other than "freelance philosopher" - or if it had to do with feeling comfortable in my role as an educator - however temporary it might have been. I'm not sure. But, somehow I feel sure this won't be my only experience teaching, though the future in this respects is still a bit blurry.

June 24, 2004

Last Date

My last night in Sydney, Australia, I left my flatmates in the apartment and went for a solo wander in my neighborhood, the Central Business District (CBD), near Hyde Park. It was my "last date" with the city. The next morning, I would be off to Singapore, and then Thailand, on what was to be the start of almost an entire year spent traveling and working in Asia.

Even though I had lived in Sydney for almost 3 months, I had never just wandered around the city at night. I was always going somewhere, with someone, to see or do something. This time, I had no agenda. I simply had my camera and the need to say goodbye.

Since this "last date" I have had many, many others. Sometimes, the goodbyes are brief - a quick look out the window of the airplane, or a final look around before jumping on a bus. Other times, the last date is lengthy, over a process of several days. This was my experience in Luang Prabang, Laos, where each of my last few evenings were "last dates" - the last time I would see a film at L'Strange, the last time I would eat at my favorite restaurant, the last time I would walk by the winding river.

Tomorrow I will leave Cangzhou, the city in China that has been my home for the past 6 weeks. And, though I admit to being ready to move on, I am also sad to be leaving. This little corner of the earth, far from earth-shattering or exciting, has nonetheless found its way into my heart.

Most people who live in Cangzhou will say there is nothing to do. And perhaps they are right. But, I guess I was not looking for sightseeing. I was looking for a temporary home. And, I found it. For me, the definition of a home is a place that you feel comfortable. Where you can walk around without a map. Where you see the same sights over and over again. Where your life has some routine. To some routine may be boring and dull - but to me, currently always on the move, the idea of routine is actually rather comforting.

Cangzhou offered me these things. My "comfort zone" was small - just a few square blocks - but in that space all my needs were attended to.

Every day I left the apartment, walked down four flights of stairs, pushed the buzzer and was outside, in a modern apartment building that would not look out of place in the US or Europe. I walked out the guarded gate, said "Ni Hao" to the security guard, turned left and walked about two blocks to the school, located across the street.

When my blood sugar would drop, or I had a particularly bad day, I stopped at one of the four local convenience stores to pick up a treat. Most often it was an ice cream bar, though occasionally it was a package of cookies or a bag of gummy candies. I had a certain store for each treat. The closest shop for my gummies, the one down the street for my cookies. My favorite was the shop with the ice cream, not because they had four large coolers filled with an amazing assortment, but because several evenings per week, three gentlemen would be playing music. Lit up from the street in the huge front windows, the men would be practicing playing a small Chinese stringed instrument, the name of which I still do not know. Played with a bow, like a cello, the little wooden and stringed instrument looked a bit like a banjo and would sit upright on the players knee. I loved walking past the window, ice cream in hand, listening to the faint strains of music as I made my way home.

Then there was the local video store, which had a collection of DVD movies in English. The bulk of the movies were animated or action flicks, with a few horror films for good measure. I caught up on some of the children's films I had not seen, like "Ants," "Shrek," and "Harry Potter" - telling myself it was "for school" when in truth, I really enjoyed all of them. I never got past "Hello" and "Thank you" with the video store owners, but we smiled a lot at each other. If I was lucky, their neighbors would have the tiny puppies played out front on the sidewalk, so I would laugh with them while the puppies attacked someone's foot or the pedal of a nearby bicycle.

The quiet street I live on, with its extra wide sidewalks, is always full of activity. In the early mornings, I see business people on their way to work, children at the local day care center outside playing, and mothers or grandmothers with strollers in hand. In the early evening, as I make my way to school, the older people come out for walks in the cooler night air, chatting with shop keepers and passerbys, getting updated on the new local gossip. The biggest traffic jam of the day occurs at 9 p.m., when the students finish class and a crowd of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents wait for them, filling the courtyard with themselves and their bicycles, and blocking the street with their motorbikes and cars.

Despite my comfort in my surroundings, I was always aware that I was a stranger. Its true that after a few weeks the locals didn't stare quite as much (or maybe I didn't notice as much!), but there were always new people on the street, and I frequently worried someone would crash their bicycle or walk into a street lamp in an effort to get a better look at me. Funny enough, one day, the gawker was me! You see, I had always believed I was the only foreigner in Cangzhou. Then, one day, staring out of an upstairs window in the school building, I saw a young black man walking down the street with two Chinese students. Needless to say, I was as shocked as the people on the street (but much more discreet in my observation!)

During my time in Cangzhou, I was almost never alone. If I needed to post a letter, go shopping or visit the hospital, a teacher was almost always sent with me. And, thank goodness! Everything in Cangzhou took a long time, even mailing a letter, and without my guide/interpreter, it would have taken exponentially longer. For example, one day, it took me 30 minutes to mail 3 letters and 5 postcards - and that was with TWO fluent Chinese speakers at my side. When we left, the teachers told me it took so long because my letters were the first mailed to outside China! In fact, they weren't sure if they had enough stamps to cover all the letters!

On Friday, when I leave Cangzhou for Beijing, routine will be a thing of the past. Each day will be new again. A new city to negotiate, new food to eat, a new bed in which to sleep. And, suddenly, I will be without assistance. The realization that I should have studied Chinese more has hit me hard. Despite the popularity of English language schools in China, most people do not speak any English. Soon I will be forced to learn more than my standard "Hello!" "Thank you" "The food is delicious!" and "No thanks, I'm full!" The adventure begins, anew.

Still, I'm not too worried. I've gotten quite good at orienting myself quickly, geographically, culturally and linguistically. Language always takes the longest, but when you are forced to learn, somehow the brain seems to kick into high gear. And, when it doubt, point to the phrase book!

A few days before I left, Miss Zhao and Mr.. Cui (my hosts) had a little dumpling making party. Relatives of Mr. Cui came to the house and we all joined together to make the dumplings. Afterwards, 9 of us sat around a small, round cafe-style table, overflowing with food and drink, and gorged ourselves. Everyone was impressed with my ability to handle chopsticks - and politely averted their eyes the multiple times I dropped something on the way to my mouth. Looking around the table, totally clueless to what everyone was saying, I was nonetheless happy at my surroundings and the experience I was being provided. Mentally, I took a picture of the scene - another memory to add to my "last date" file.

June 17, 2004

A Picture is Worth One Thousand Words

The old saying goes, "A picture is worth one thousand words." As a writer, I agree 100%.

There have been many times, in the course of writing my columns, that expressing what I have just witnessed - a moving snapshot of life in some part of the world - escapes me. The scene was too colorful, too full of life, too unbelievable to imagine - let alone use only 26 letters and their various combinations to convey.

Oh sure, I eventually manage to write something, but I often feel like that canyon between what I saw and what I wrote are just too great, and find myself wondering if by just reading my story (without the accompanying mental photographs I carry in my head) anyone really "gets" it at all.

So, it came as a shock to me to realize that since I started writing my column, with the exception of a few homepage pictures, I have not included more visual glimpses into the wonders that I see and have seen in my vagabond, gypsy life.

I can only plead laziness, forgetfulness, and good intentions that somehow always dissolved into thin air.

To try to rectify the situation, I have included (below) a link to a SMALL portion of the thousands of photographs I have taken since I left the United States in November 2002. This first batch only covers Australia, and includes about 40 pictures. When you consider I spent 9 months in the country - traveling it from top to bottom, desert to beaches - you can understand that this is only a tiny sampling.

Despite my previous statement of one photo being worth 1000 words, the writer in me had to include a caption with each photo, which, in my opinion, helps to tell the tale. If you go to "Slide show" the combination of pictures give a more or less chronological taste of my travels around the island. Melbourne and Tasmania are missing, as unfortunately, I only had a film camera then and those photos are waiting for me back home. It's a pity, but will be my excuse for one day accosting you with my many photo albums for a trip down memory lane!

Please tell me if you enjoyed getting the photos, as I am sure that will encourage me to send out a link or two more, with a taste of my travels in Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, India and China.

One final note. As writing and not photography is my concentration on these travels, I admit that many of the "best" photographs never made it to film. There were times when pulling out a camera would have lost the magic of the moment, or I myself was lost in it, and it never occurred to me. A professional photographer I will never be - and that is OK. The memory of these moments will last with me much longer than the potential of ruining them by trying to "artificially" record them.

But, I guess that is one benefit of being a writer - knowing that, in the absence of that ONE photo, you have at least 1000 words to describe what you saw - even if at times that happens to feel woefully inadequate.


Below is the link to the pictures. They are all housed on You should NOT have to sign in to see the pictures. Just click on the "Get Photos" (or something like that) button at the bottom of the first picture, which will be displayed. Then, when the pictures come up, go to "slide show" (on the right column) and it will take you through each photograph (captions are at the bottom). Enjoy!

June 14, 2004

Overmedicated in China

Getting sick in a foreign country can be a scary experience. Especially since your mind is frequently as affected as your body. When malaise sets in, things that use to matter to you are suddenly unimportant. While you might know what to do, you often don't feel compelled to do it. Common sense often takes a vacation.

Several years back, when I was traveling in Colombia, I fell sick with typhoid fever. While the disease sounds scary as hell, in its initial stages it is really quite easy to treat - with a strong course of antibiotics. I had waited about a week before I went to the doctor - still well within the "initial stages" but, due to my "malaise" I had not taken good care of myself. I had sensed I might be sick, and blamed the local water and food. My solution? Eat only bread and drink only bottled coca-cola for about 4 days. This was not a smart move on my part, and never would have happened if I wasn't feeling so bad. Needless to say, I was severely dehydrated and immediately admitted to the hospital.

I was lucky. Not only did I speak Spanish, but my doctor spent part of his medical training in America, amazingly enough, in Indianapolis, my home town. The city where I fell ill had once been the home of a famous drug cartel in Columbia, and as a result a lot of money had been put into the city, which was apparent in the very modern-looking hospital where I was staying. After four days I was released, ordered to stay in town for at least another week, and felt well on my way to total recovery.

About 10 days ago, I started to feel sick. My throat was sore, and I was feeling very tired. Initially, I thought nothing of it. I was teaching a lot, and I figured the added strain had to do with using my voice so much. A few days later, ignoring my better judgment, I made an overnight trip to Beijing. I took the local train there and breathed in heavy cigarette smoke for 3 hours. Then, instead of resting my voice, I spent the afternoon and evening talking to other travelers I had met. The next morning, I was miserable. I could hardly teach my class that night, and the next day I woke up suffering from laryngitis.

The headmistress of the school, Miss Zhao was quite concerned. Even before I lost my voice, she inundated me with various medication - western and Chinese. First, some herbal throat lozenges. Second, some Chinese herbal tea that looked and tasted like a dirty fish tank. Then, two mystery pills from her stash of prescription drugs. Did I mention that Miss Zhao is NOT a doctor, a nurse or anyone with any medical training whatsoever?

I tried to tell her that I would be ok. That I had lost my voice before and just needed to rest. But, this is not how the Chinese deal with sickness. "I never get sick," she said. "Not in 10 years." I think this was her way of showing me her credentials - for giving me prescription medicine without a prescription or any sort of qualifications.

The next day I was not feeling better and was give two more types of medicine. That evening she suggested I go to the hospital with one of the teachers. I was not keen on this idea, first because I was sure I only needed rest, and second because I was kind of scared of Chinese hospitals. I demurred, saying we would see how I felt the next day. The next morning, I was about the same and not given a choice - a teacher called to say he was coming to take me to the hospital - now.

The hospital looked clean enough. After a few minutes, the doctor came into our room, took a look at my throat for all of 10 seconds. I showed her the medication Miss Zhao had given me, to see if she thought they were a good idea. She said something in Chinese. Steven, the teacher translated: "She says you need to get a blood test, ok?" My eyes were wide with fright. "No," I said, without hesitation. A story about used needles flashed into my mind. Combined with the bad press China received during the SARS crisis, a blood test seemed, to me, an unwise choice. Steven looked surprised. Eventually, after much coaxing, he convinced me to go have the blood test. In my head, however, I determined I would survey the blood testing room, and if it was even the least bit scary, run like hell. After all, I was not Chinese so "saving face" was not a real concern for me.

It turned out the blood test was just a finger prick, done with a small metal object that was hermetically sealed and seemed fine. A few minutes later the results were in and the doctor told Stephen that I had a viral infection. She prescribed an anti-viral medication, but told me to keep taking the medication I had been taking - including the antibiotic Amoxicillin. This confused me as I knew that viral infections, like the flu, were not treatable with antibiotics, while bacterial infections were. If I had a viral infection, why should I keep taking the antibiotics? I was very suspicious, especially when I did not get a satisfactory answer from the doctor. Steven took me home and said he would give Miss Zhao the prescription, and she could fill it for me. I had been lucky to have Steven with me. His English was the best in the school and I trusted him. If I had gone alone, communication would have been a nightmare.

A few hours later Miss Zhao presented me with the drug, which thankfully had an English translation, at least for the name. I did an Internet search on the drug, Ribavirin, and found out it was used for (1) severe lung infections in children, (2) for people with Hepatitis C, (3) had once been used as an HIV/AIDS drug, and (4) was currently being tested for its effectiveness against SARS. One Web site said it should not be used in women of childbearing age, ever. Another said any woman using the drug should be on at least two forms of birth control, and continue for 6 months after treatment. Oh, and did I mention the drug was not FDA approved for either the common cold or the flu - and normally only administered under medical supervision?

Needless to say, I thanked Miss Zhao for the medication, took it upstairs and vowed to flush the doses down the toilet. Still, I was hesitant. Was my sickness clouding my better judgment? After all, a doctor HAD prescribed the medication. I was torn. Logically, I should follow the doctor's advice. But, my gut was telling me something else completely. I decide to get a second option - and a third, and a fourth. I emailed three friends - one who was a doctor, another who was a nurse, and one who's mother was a doctor. I was advised not to take the prescription medication.

It's been four days since I went to the doctor. My voice returned the day after the hospital visit, While I am still nursing a mild cold, I feel fine. The only medication I took was some over the counter Tylenol Cold to help with my symptoms, and some of the herbal supplements that Miss Zhao gave me - including Ban Lan Keli and Ganmao Qingre Keli. (Internet searches proved they were common and popular over-the-counter Chinese herbs for colds - one as a preventative and one as a remedy.) Otherwise, I rested, drank lots of liquid, and, as an after thought, popped a few zinc tablets.

It was amazing to me, however, that even after giving me 4 different pills, and as many herbal remedies, if I did not immediately say I was feeling better, the solution Miss Zhao came to was to give me more medicine. Each morning and each evening I was offered yet another drug - all of which I politely declined, saying we should see how the medicine the doctor gave me worked first. It seemed that the concept for waiting for something to take affect was missing from the her belief system.

Miss Zhao's philosophy was this: "If we have small disease, if we don't have fever, we don't need to go hospital." She said this to me as she showed me the two large boxes, located by the piano, which were full of every drug imaginable. "We have many medicine," she said. No kidding - it was a regular pharmacy in there!

I know Miss Zhao was acting in what she thought was my best interests, and I sincerely appreciate her care and concern. However, I have learned that you must never underestimate your gut - especially when traveling. While there is no scientific explanation for a "gut feeling" most people can name several experiences when trusting their gut helped them more than a potentially questionable authority. I too can name several. Even though my rational mind was telling me that the doctor must be right, my gut was telling me to proceed with caution.

My faith in doctors is not shaken by this experience, even though I do believe the doctor who told me to take the antibiotics and antiviral medication together was wrong. I believe that in most cases, a doctor does know best and is medically trained to offer the best advice and medicine to cure what ails. But, I also believe you should educate yourself about the medicine and drugs that you are taking, and not just agree out of ignorance. If the doctor had spoken English, I would have asked her a lot more questions, especially about alternative medication. Since she did not, I was forced to use the Internet and my own trusted sources.

Bottom line: Educate yourself, seek professional advice, and trust your gut. Oh yeah, and ALWAYS get a second opinion!

June 04, 2004

Olympic Dreams Dashed

Today I read an article on about the 2004 Summer Olympics and it reminded me about my own Olympic hopes, once bright and hopeful and then, quite suddenly, dashed.

The story was about the "historic" Olympic Torch relay. This year, for the first time, instead of only traveling from the last Olympic city (Sydney) to the current Olympic city (Athens), the torch will pass through 33 cities in 27 countries, including its first visits ever to the South America and African continents. Millions of people will be involved - from organizers, to participants to spectators, on five different continents and in twenty-seven countries. And, I could have been one of them.

You see, about 3 months ago, in Bangkok, I unexpectedly got an email from an old boss of mine, telling me about an opportunity to work with the Olympics - as an advance press agent for the torch relay. The job would include traveling to at least 8-10 of the 33 visited cities, coordinating the media and participants, and then jetting off to the next city to do it all over again. The requirements were public relations and travel experience. I was esctatic! If there was ever a job I was born to do, this was it. It would combine my career experience in PR with my love of traveling. In short, it was a dream come true.

I sent off my resume, and over the next few weeks, exchanged emails with the man in charge of the program. He told me I was well qualified, on the short list for consideration, and could we arrange a phone interview? YES! Logistics were being prepared when he was called to Athens for a meeting. We decided to hold the phone interview when he returned, five days later. The day of his return, I emailed him with a proposed date and time, explained that I was now in India, and waited breathlessly for his response. The next day I got it, and all the breath was knocked out of me.

"We've decided to handle things internally," the email said. "with our people in Athens."

I was heartbroken! Not only did I not get the job, but I didn't even have the chance to prove myself! It had nothing to do with my skills, or my ability - it had to do with circumstances beyond my control. A star that burned so brightly for me was quickly and quietly extinguished. Needless to say, I wasn't great company for the next few days.

But, I believe that everything happens for a reason. Often it takes me a very LONG time to come to this realization, but I always do.

During this time, I was also in discussions with the headmistress at my school in Cangzhou, trying to coordinate our schedules, so that I could come to China to teach after I returned from India. My Olympic dreams had dimmed the "bright light" of working in China, and I found myself stalling for time. I knew I wanted the Olympic job more, but I was keeping China as my back up. When the disappointing news came though, it still took me a while to accept the teaching offer. Somehow, teaching in China didn't seem as cool anymore. Can you blame me? If you had the chance to travel, all expenses paid, from country to country, from continent to continent, with the most famous of all international sports events, would teaching a bunch of kids English compare? On the glamour and excitement scale - not really.

But, after a few weeks, and a lot of soul searching (the timing of my yoga ashram visit could not have been more perfect), I (again) came to the realization that all things happen for a reason and that the past was the past. While the Olympics were a dead end for me now, China was a new beginning - an experience that like the Olympics, would be new and exciting - though in a vastly different way. I accepted the teaching offer.

Several times since my arrival in China, I have found myself thinking of my experience here as medicine - "good for you in the long run, but not always great in the moment."

Sometimes you don't want to do something, or see something, or experience something, because you know it will be hard, or taste yucky, or go down the wrong way. You know that the experience is "good for you" much like a child knows brussel sprouts are "good for them." However, that knowledge does not mean that you want the experience, any more than the child wants the brussel sprouts. Especially when a more appealing offer (the Olympics) or food (ice cream and cake) are also on the menu.

Often their are far more alluring prospects. Prospects which offer more prestige, more glamour, or just more money. They are easy. Its not that the experience in itself won't be beneficial to you - it will. Its not that you won't learn from it - you will. But, it will be familiar to you, or, more familiar than the other option, and a far easier pill to swallow.

As an adult, you often ultimately know that a certain experience will be more beneficial to you than another one. It might open your mind, it might broaden your horizons, it might educate you in a way you never thought possible. But, just like a child, we often shy away from these experiences. We want to take the easier path. We want to eat ice cream and cake. Can you blame us?

I can't lie to you. If I would have been offered the Olympic position, I would have taken it in a heartbeat, China be damned. It was/is a more glamourus job, a more exciting prospect, and would have allowed me a new take on my current traveler lifestyle. It also payed better.

But, maybe for me, there is a reason that door was closed, while the China one stayed open. Maybe someone else out there deserved the Olympic position more? Perhaps it was because I have often wondered if teaching could be a future career path in my life - and China was offering me a change to find out? In short, maybe someone was telling me that I needed to take my medicine, even though, like I child, I just wanted dessert.

I'd like to think that my travel experiences have changed me for the better. That they have made me more open minded, more culturally aware, and less western-centric. My ego also occasionally likes to think that these travel experiences have somehow made me a better, more "perfect" person, a wise and well-traveled sage with a (somewhat) deeper understanding of life and a better ability to chose the "right" path over the "wrong" path. Then something like this comes up and I realize how far that is from the truth. When faced with the glamorous, the prestigious, the thing that "looks good on my resume," I am weak and human and all thoughts of a deeper understanding become nothing short of laughable. I am still the six year old that will chose the bright, colorful package of store bought cookies over plain homemade ones.

I'm not saying that China is the "right" path, and that the Olympics were the "wrong" path. Life is not that black and white. I'm just saying that right now, in this place and time, in this current life of mine, that teaching in China was a door that stayed open for a reason.

I hope it takes me less time, rather than more, to find out why.

June 01, 2004

Cangzhou, Sweet Cangzhou

China made me cry within four hours of arrival. This might be a new record for me in my international adventures. But, I will get to that in a minute.

I currently live in a modern, western-style apartment building in the city of Cangzhou, about 3.5 hours from Beijing in Hebei Province. Cangzhou (pronounced "Tsang-joe") is a "small" Chinese city of about 3 million people and not on the tourist track. My guidebook to China does not even mention the city, except to show its location on one map of Hebei Province. Needless to say, I am the ONLY westerner in the city, and just walking to the store draws quite a bit of attention.

I live with the headmistress of a small private English language school, and her family. Her husband does not speak any English, but is friendly, smiles a lot, and dresses in black from head to toe, mafia style. Their son, whom they call Lung Lung (which means "little dragon") is a typical only child teenager, which means he is a bit rebellious, a lot spoiled, and spends most of his time on his computer playing video games. Or, complaining about his tortured life. It seems teenagers are the same everywhere, doesn't it?

I teach 24 hours per week at the school, which is located a two minute walk down the street from the apartment. My kids are between the ages of 8 and 14, though most are 11-13. They have been studying English for about two years and have 1000-2000 English words at their disposal - at least the best students do. Some of the less gifted might have less than 500 words.

As most of you know, I am not a trained teacher, but this is not a problem. I have been hired primarily for my accent - that is, the accent of a native English speaker. I'm not sure you can consider what I do teaching, for while I try to teach the kids new words and phrases, mostly I play games with them, read them stories to improve their listening comprehension, and assist them in their pronunciation of words they already know. I create lesson plans, but they are at the mercy of the headmistress, who often says, "More stories! More riddles!" Clearly, there is a system here, and I am paid to follow the system.

That said, teaching is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. The latent insecurity that bubbles to the surface of even the most confident person when confronted with a classroom of pre-teen children is significant. The blank stares, the lack of comprehension and even the occasion yawn is enough to make me want to walk out and never come back (on a bad day). But, the excitement of understanding a new word or phrase, the laughter when I make a fool of myself trying to pronounce Chinese, or the appreciative clapping after I sing them a new song, makes it kind of fun, and on these days I don't mind my isolation and daily culture shock.

I never thought I would travel to China. Sure, it was on the list, but pretty far down to be honest. From what I had heard from other travelers, it was a bit of a nightmare. It's hard to get around, it's expensive (for a budget traveler), and outside the two major (mainland) cities, it's almost impossible to find anyone who speaks English. All of these things are true, and yet I came anyway. Which brings me back to my tearful entry into the country.

I arrived in Shanghai from Bangkok, on a hellish overnight flight during which I did not sleep at all. Upon arrival I found that I had to transfer to a different airport for my "connecting" flight to Beijing - obviously "connection" means something different in China. When I arrived at airport number two I found that I had missed my flight. The Shanghai to Beijing route is frequently plied, so I did not worry too much and simply asked to be put on the next flight. I was told that was not possible, as it was booked, but I could wait standby. The fact that it took me three lines and forty-five minutes to get this information was annoying, but not overly so.

That is, until I did not make it standby on the next flight. Or, the next one. Or, the next one. Did I mention that many, many Chinese did manage to secure positions on these flights? Or, that two teachers from my school were waiting for me in Beijing and I had no phone number with which to contact them? And, that Shanghai International had NO Internet terminals for me to email the headmistress? And, when I thought to have the teachers paged in Beijing, I realized all I had was the names Mr. Wang and Mr. Li. When you consider Mr. Li is the second most common surname in China, and Mr. Wang is number 5, it would be like paging "John" or "Jennifer" at Chicago O'Hare, or telling someone in Chicago you were suppose to meet a friend at THE McDonalds and asking them to point you there. Needless to say, I was beginning to question coming to China in the first place.

That's when the tears began to flow. I'm not sure if it was the tears that got me on the 12 noon flight, and honestly, I don't care. I was just glad to be booked on a flight - any flight. Even this flight, which while on a HUGE 747 airplane, had a total of - can you guess? - THREE passengers. I was the only female, and the only one in coach. There were two businessmen in business class, 6 flight attendants and three flight crew. I am not kidding. If I had not been so tired, and fell asleep immediately upon take off, I would have wondered what kind of airline can afford to send a flight of three people two hours away in a jumbo jet? And, just who were these other passengers?

I eventually made it to Beijing, met up with the two teachers, apologized profusely for the delay, and got to Cangzhou. By the time we arrived, we were laughing about the incident, even though I felt horrible that the teachers had been waiting for me for 6 hours!

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in China and Cangzhou, and I have settled into a regular routine of writing, teaching and reading. I start the morning on my own, eating breakfast (an apple and some instant cereal), writing emails, and reading. Lunch is taken with the family at about 12 noon, and is usually a few common plates of vegetables, steamed buns or noodles, and occasionally rice. North Chinese people eat more noodles and steamed bread than rice, which is a more popular South Chinese staple. After lunch the family "rests." Most Chinese have a long lunch break, and it is common to take a little nap after lunch before going back to work/school. In the afternoon, after my nap, I work on my lesson plans, study Chinese language and read. At about 6 p.m. I go to the school, where I eat dinner with the teachers.

This is an experience in itself, as the food is placed out on a large center table and all the teachers eat from the common containers with their individual chopsticks, usually munching on a steamed bun or some other kind of bread. It took me a while to get use to seeing them spit fish and chicken bones right on the table (the plastic table cover suddenly made even more sense), or slurp noodles into their mouth with all the accompanying sound effects, but overall its a fun, social experience. The food is unlike Chinese food I have eaten in the US, and I am not sure if that is because most American Chinese food is Cantonese (South Chinese) or because it has been Americanized past recognition. Regardless, its pretty good, and seems quite healthy.

I teach two classes per weekday evening, from 7 until 9 p.m., after which time I go home, usually picking up a DVD from the local store to watch before I go to bed. On the weekends, my schedule is very intensive, and I have 8 classes per day, almost constantly from 8 a.m. until 7 or 9 p.m., with a three hour break at lunch time. By Sunday night at 9 p.m., my body, my mind and my voice, are shattered. Lucky for me, my day off is Monday.

There is not much to do in my city, especially for a foreigner who does not speak Chinese, so outside of teaching hours I practice yoga, read books on China, write, answer emails and occasionally make a visit to the local shopping center. They have a KFC (the only fast food chain in the city), which is quite the luxury, and few Chinese can afford to eat there. To give you an example, a small ice cream sundae (McDonald's style) is 6 yuan. Across the street at a very modern, clean and well-decorated noodle shop, a huge, filling plate of noodles with tons of veggies and sauces is a mere 5 yuan. Still, the KFC was packed, while the noodle shop was not. Pity, I thought the noodles were excellent.

According to Miss Zhao, the average Chinese family of three (mom, dad and one child) in Cangzhou gets about 1800-2000 yuan per month, which is less than $250 US dollars per month (the exchange rate is about 8 yuan to $1 US dollar). Based on the house I live in, and the nice things that the family has, I would say my family is living a much better lifestyle.

So far, despite some teaching style differences, and cultural misunderstandings, my life in Cangzhou is really quite pleasant. After having been on the road and moving around since I left my job in Australia, its nice to be "settled" in an apartment, and have some kind of routine to follow, even if it is temporary. Of course, being the only foreigner here means that most of my conversations are quite limited, and every now and again, I miss having conversations with people who can understand pop culture references or American slang. Do you know what its like to try to explain "munchkins" to a group of kids who have never seen the Wizard of Oz?

I still have 3 more weeks of teaching left, and I am bound to have some entertaining stories to share, if not from Cangzhou, then from my day off trips to Beijing. Stay tuned!

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.