It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China

I first came to China in 1999, so 2009 is a big year for me, just as the Chinese government is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary. So here’s one of my articles looking back on those 10 years, and considering how things have changed, and impacted my life. Enjoy!

Henan College of Education — located in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China — has a certain nostalgic pull for me. It was the place where I began learning Chinese, thanks to Wang Bin. It was where I first kissed Christian, my first Chinese boyfriend, and, from my perspective, first real love. It was where China schooled me in its rhythms and ways — always something new, always a learning experience. Even long after I left Zhengzhou, my mind often returned to Henan College of Education, and I even felt a certain allegiance to the people of Henan Province (some of whom would even call me a townsman, or  老乡).

But all of that is changing because, at the end of this year, Henan College of Education will not be the same. Oh, the institution will still survive, but it won’t be the Henan College of Education that we knew.

I discovered the shocking news when I casually wandered onto the campus in early July. It was 5pm and I had agreed to meet with Shelly and Lisa, two of the Foreign Affairs Office employees who remembered me when I was an English teacher there 10 years ago.

Shelly and Lisa had hardly changed. Shelly, the senior of the two who was planning on retiring at the end of the year, still had the same stout face, short permed hair, dyed black with an almost carefree flyaway pinned down with a bobby pin, and air of correctitude right down to her perfectly folded hands. Lisa, the younger and more warm of the two, had the same cap of short straight hair around her head, a smart gray belted dress that reached to her knees, and the same friendly sparkle in her eyes behind her glasses.

“You came just in time,” said Shelly as she sat behind her mahogany desk, a reminder of the authority she had accumulated over the years. “Henan College of Education will be closed for good at the end of this year — and moved to the new campus.”

Indeed I came just in time. Over all of these years, I had lost contact with these people, never knowing that the school in its present form would no longer exist at the end of 2009.

But why? It all comes down to two Chinese characters: 改制, which essentially stands for “change form.” Continue reading “It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China”

How my Chinese mother-in-law cured a mentally ill chicken

At my inlaws’ home, I didn’t take much notice of the chicken habitually roosting in the corner of the room next to the kitchen. Chickens have free run of the first floor of the house (which means we have to watch where we walk) and even have their own sleeping corner.

But my Chinese mother-in-law did notice that chicken, and she didn’t like it one bit.

“It keeps sitting there in the corner, but it won’t lay eggs!” she exclaimed in her booming voice — a voice that is pretty normal out here in the countryside, but would border on argumentative if she were speaking in English.

A few days later, I discovered the cure. Continue reading “How my Chinese mother-in-law cured a mentally ill chicken”

Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret

It has barely been five days since I returned to the US, yet my mind is lost once again in China.

I had some shocking experiences, such as hearing stories from my heart surgeon friend in Beijing. I had to convince my father-in-law to give up on nucleic acids, and never take them again. I experienced a surprising detour on the way to Shaolin Temple, and realized it wasn’t really worth it. I am really alarmed by what I saw in Lijiang, watching a World Heritage site being capitalized to death.

But really, sometimes it’s too easy to get caught in the shadows of China — because there are so many shadows. I know I tend to react strongly when I see injustice. My husband John says it’s a good thing — it means I care about China, and I want the country to improve.

And, admittedly, there are improvements, especially in John’s hometown. Continue reading “Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret”

Hot as hell in heavenly Suzhou, with my mind still lost in Lijiang

What a couple of days. We just landed in Shanghai last evening, and were immediately hit with the infamous humidity of the Yangtze River Delta. It should have been no surprise to me, having lived in Hangzhou for a year and a half, and Shanghai for three years. But if you’ve just arrived from Lijiang, the heat hits you hard, as if you were suddenly wrapped in a jacket you didn’t even know existed. Today, arriving in Suzhou, I discovered the temperature was 42.3 degrees Celsius (over 100 F).

Yet, sadly, the differences between Lijiang and Shanghai (and the coast, for that matter) are becoming less and less as the city commercializes. I spent one week in Baisha, a charming Naxi village with cobblestone streets (watch out for that manure) that captured my heart five years ago when I came across a young Naxi/Yi minority trader named Bi Zhihui. Bi Zhihui touched me so deeply because of his extraordinary traditional embroidery (a dying art in his culture), his faith (he is Catholic, just as I was raised Catholic — he calls me “sister”), and his incredible depth of kindness. He once told me a story of how a Chinese tourist once came into his store and, after trying on one of his vests, then threw it insultingly on the floor. But Bi never argued with the guy or got angry (though he did kindly ask him to leave). I kept in touch with Bi over all of these years, and have even tried to help him in ways I could never have imagined.

Things have changed A LOT in five years, in ways that, admittedly, I wish weren’t so. Lijiang has now become a Disneyland version of the town it once was. Even in 2004 you could still find Naxi and other minority traders with a presence in the old town — restaurants, quaint little shops, small snack stands. Not anymore. The old buildings are still there, but every square foot of the entire place has been taken over by extreme commercialization. There are stores, but they are by and large run by Han Chinese, and sell items that are either made in factories (but made to look like they were done by the locals) or simply have no local flavor (translation: you could buy it in Shanghai or Beijing or Xi’an). It was so easy to get lost in there because, apart from the occasional store with actual local products (such as Spirulina), everything looked so much the same. That was heartbreaking enough, as well as learning that Bi, who used to have a store in the old town, had to give it up long ago because the rent was too high (a fate I expect hit many of the local Naxi people who used to be holed up in the old town).

But it was the Bar district that really gave me a moment to pause. Yes, there were still the same Chinese style buildings with the elegant curved roofs, the carved wooden windows open to the world, the river nearby with a romantic little bridge spanning it, and the small courtyards — but all pumped up to an alarming Shanghai beat as the place swarmed with people and the bars blared so much music you almost forgot you were in remote little Lijiang. As we weaved through the throngs of people, I peered into the bars, open to the world like a book. There were emcees looking and acting cool in cool Shanghai style clothes, announcing the next act as if it were Michael Jackson or Jay Chou taking the stage. There were young women dressed in minority clothing, but the way they sauntered and swayed, and the way the clothing seemed to leave their silouettes as exposed as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain peaks, I didn’t have to hear Bi tell me they weren’t local Naxi women. Finally, I came to the famous start of the Old Town, where there is an old water wheel and the words, in Chinese, “World Heritage” written by Jiang Zemin himself. But it was worlds away from the Old Town I remembered, as the water wheel itself seemed to be one-upped by a huge four-sided TV screen planted in the square just in time for the 2008 Olympics. We were there at night, and between the light from the screen and blaring TV sound, I felt the romance of the place slipping away with each turn of the water wheel.

There is also now an 80 RMB “restoration fee” for the city of Lijiang, which wasn’t there before. I can’t help but wonder what has been restored (which wasn’t there before), and what, if anything, can be done to bring the old Lijiang back. Even the foreign tourists I met while there told me the only time of day they could really enjoy Lijiang was about 7am in the morning.

Still, at least there is still Baisha. I have faith that Baisha will not lose its charm, as it is still a place where your car can be stopped by a herd of cattle or goats, where you have to watch where you walk (yes, that manure), where the stores are run by local Naxi people, and where the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain seems to smile from above. Maybe I have even more faith, having lived there for a week in his gorgeous siheyuan, and having met the people that Bi calls friends and family. I dined on fantastic taro and wild mushrooms and local celery and, truly, some of the best fragrant, spicy sauce I’ve ever had in China. I watched Bi persevere, in spite of the huge blow that the economic crisis has brought to him (but I worry, nevertheless). I helped him make new business cards, and renovate a new sign for his store, and re-evaluate his sales strategy. And I am still overwhelmed with all of his unbelievable kindness throughout the week, from having us as guests, to coming up to my room when I was sick to check on me. It was like being at home again.

But then again, that is why I come to China in the first place. And it is why I will go back to China (and Baisha) again. Especially when Hangzhou and Suzhou are hot as hell! Good night.

Shaolin Shi…er…Temple — Adventures in Dengfeng, Henan Tourism

I’m in Xi’an, just having arrived from Henan Province — and my old stomping grounds in Zhengzhou. While my husband and I had a spectacular time reconnecting with my roots and enjoying the cultural sites, we’re still recovering from the kungfu punch of Shaolin Temple. Yes, that Shaolin Temple, the one famous for martial arts. The reason? It’s one empty kick of a site that doesn’t merit a 105 RMB (approximately 15-16 USD) ticket price.

Yes, Shaolin is enshrouded in some extraordinary history (including the fact that Boddhidharma spent several ponderous years at the temple). But most of that has been cheerfully restored out of the place, giving the actual temple grounds more of a Disneyland feel (complete with the crowds of tourists), apart from a smattering of steeles throughout the grounds. As a historical site, it’s a most average looking temple otherwise with nothing distinguishing whatsoever.

The forest of pagodas is truly the coolest part of it — but it hardly merits the entrance price.

Worse is the fact that all tour buses dump you off in a parking lot far removed from the site itself. I don’t mind a long walk, however the pathway itself first passes through a conglomeration of souvenir shops, restaurants, a hotel, the kungfu demo area, and hawkers before you even get to the temple. The mountain w/ the cable car is also a joke, especially since, after forking over such a big sum, they still want you to pay for the cable car.

Admittedly, I was already left with a bruise by the bus ride over. We bought the tickets to Shaolin from the Zhengzhou bus station, the ticket said it was going to Shaolin Temple. But no, the bus has to stop first at Songyang Academy (not really worth the time, either — go to Yuelu Academy, a much more authentic place in Changsha, instead), then to Fawang Temple, then to a lunch spot where the tour guides obviously get a commission, then Shaolin. We eventually forked over our money for the “less expensive” tour group ticket (175 RMB) which gave us entrance to all of the places we visited (Songyang Academy, Songyue Temple Pagoda, and Shaolin). Nevertheless we couldn’t help but feel ripped off by how average the sites were, and we were especially perplexed when, after our tour guide told us that the pagoda cost 50 RMB to enter, not a single person there checked our ticket.

So, we decided to stop at a government office with oversight of the tourist area, and find out if we got cheated. Turns out, the ticket checkers were apparently “on lunch break”. However, we learned an interesting fact: locals from Dengfeng can visit all of the sites in the area by just getting a yearly tour card for only 20 RMB!!!

So it goes. As for us, we drop-kicked it out of there, and are happy to say, we’ve been there, done that, and aren’t going back anytime soon.

Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter

For those of you who don’t know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my first landing in China — August 27, 1999. That day, when I stumbled into Beijing’s old international airport, never did I realize it would change my life entirely. That I would spend the majority of the next ten years living and working in this country; that I would find my husband here, and get married here; that I would find myself so entirely captivated by a country so drastically different from what I’ve known.

Truly, though, it’s the people in China that I love the most. I’ve discovered friendships in this country so deep, and precious, and strong. These friendships sustain and nourish me, and help me to rise above all of the difficulties one encounters in this country.

Besides my husband, there is one friend in China who stands out from all the rest — and this year marks 10 years of friendship together. That friend is Peter Pi, who I had the privilege of spending five days with in Beijing. Continue reading “Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter”

There’s no ambulance for Chinese doctors, though they desperately need life support

When I was in Beijing several weeks ago, the most shocking things I heard came from a doctor friend of mine. He is a urologist at a Beijing Hospital, who I’ll call Dr. Wang.

I actually met Dr. Wang nine years ago when I came through Beijing and suddenly found myself without any place to stay. Dr. Wang, who was introduced to me through the friend of a husband (who also used to work at the hospital), offered to let me stay in his dormitory room. Not only is it generally against the rules to have women stay in men’s dormitory rooms, but it’s almost certainly bad form to have a foreigner there. But Dr. Wang, as he told me earlier this month when I asked him about it, is “the kind of person who doesn’t really care about rules like that.” He’s a rare bird, indeed — direct and brutally honest, two qualities you don’t normally find in China. Plus, he’s just an all-around nice guy.

I didn’t really get to know him then, but I had thought of him every now and then over the years. Finally, when I had the chance to go to Beijing, I decided to see him, since he was still there. It had been so long and I thought it would be nice to see a familiar face.

Indeed, Dr. Wang was as friendly and hospitable as I expected. He had a car, and offered to drive me and my other Chinese friend Peter to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. He also later offered to drop me off at the airport (which, although he was unable to do later, instead arranged for a friend to send me there).

Still, I had a sense that something was amiss in his life. I could see it in the first moment I entered his car and looked at his face. While it had only been nine years, he looked as though he’d aged twice that period of time. His eyes were tired with dark rings, his complexion a bit wan, and he’d lost a considerable amount of hair. My intuition turned out to be right, as I discovered later in our conversations — when Dr. Wang painted a dark picture of the reality in his hospital…a world where doctors get no respect and understanding, from either the patients or the leaders.

Doctors in China actually receive relatively low salaries, which is shocking because they are in charge of saving people’s lives. Though Dr. Wang had a car, he explained he did not buy it, but rather it was a wedding gift. He emphasized that it was something he could never afford on his own salary.

He said that once he treated a little boy and, despite his best efforts, the boy still died. What did the family do? They kidnapped him. They held him at knifepoint and said “we know you tried your hardest to save our son. But you see, we paid so much money for the treatment and, now that our son is gone, we need you to negotiate with the hospital to get back our money.” Dr. Wang told them he regretted trying to save their son’s life.

When the head doctors make a mistake, they will blame the assistant doctors (such as Dr. Wang). While I was in Beijing, he got blamed for a treatment that wasn’t supposed to be done (which wasn’t his fault). Still, he said he is less likely to be blamed. Why? “Because I am smart and industrious. I did not make many mistakes and have always been trying to treat the patient well. All I am trying to do is save his or her life. Sometimes I finish my work but I will still handle the patient to the next shift. If I am not there, maybe he or she will die.”

Dr. Wang said that the hospital charges employees more if they drink the hospital’s water, as opposed to bringing their own water to the hospital. “What do you think of that?” he asked me. And when I said “really?” he responded with “horrible — and all of us find this really indignant.”

He keeps his ideas to himself and never shares with the leaders. In his words: “You know, I have translated a huge book. But do you know why I would like to translate such a book? During that time, I only sleep for 2 or 3 or 4 hours everyday. I do not want to cooperate with others because if I tell my plan to the head of the doctors or the head of the hospital, he will say ‘you needn’t do that work, let me do it.’ He will rob me of the opportunity, and he will take all of the authorship.”

Additionally, saddest of all, he said the hospitals are not allowed to register any deaths. Several days before we met, despite all of his best efforts, a woman died. He then had to go talk with the family to convince them to take the body back home with them in the middle of the night, so that it would not be considered a death at the hospital.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Dr. Wang hopes to work in another country as a researcher. He just desperately wants respect, and wants a good life.

I think of him now especially because he is being worked to death, literally. As I write this, he is recovering from some kidney stones. Last time I tried calling him, he was in the hospital himself. 早日康复(get well soon)!

Everyone has a right to clean air — a no smoking campaign in Beijing

Yesterday on June 1, when I was in the underground tunnel crossing into Tian’anmen, I saw an interesting sign. It said “everyone has a right to breathe fresh air.” It had pictures of someone’s lungs/heart getting ruined, and it was asking people not to smoke in public places. It was shocking, really shocking – I’ve never seen anything like that in China in all my years there.

Later, when I came back to my in-laws’ home in the countryside of Hangzhou, I then saw an ad on TV decrying the harmfulness of smoking, and asking people to quit. Again, my jaws dropped.

As much as I dislike smoking, I know this is going to be hard fight. And that’s not just because I saw many Beijingers puffing away in complete disregard for the no smoking signs in restaurants. It’s because it’s such an integral part of being a man in China.

In the beginning, when China opened up, smoking was a way for men to display one’s wealth. Now, of course, cigarettes are a pretty common thing in China, so it has become a part of being a socialized Chinese man.

Chinese men have a lot of pressure, as my friend Peter Pi, in Beijing, mentioned — and few outlets for relaxation, especially out in the countryside. In the countryside, there are no libraries, no gyms, no nothing – just the bars, so all Chinese men have to do to relax themselves is smoking (and drinking, of course).

And, as all of us know, smoking happens in some of the most inopportune and surprising places in China. Offices. Elevators. Buses and trains (especially the really slow trains). Even your own home (today, when the installation guy came over to put in our DSL, when he had a moment to wait, he threw a cigarette in his mouth and was all ready to light up until I respectfully asked him not to). People here just don’t have the belief that there is anything wrong with exposing others to secondhand smoke — even their own children or pregnant wives.

But this campaign is the first sign of a changing tide, though slow moving it may be. After all, didn’t America go through its period of gratuitous smoking (remember those ads where doctors recommended cigarette brands?).

The most curiously Chinese Letter-and-Visits (Xinfang) Bureau

As I walked over to the Beijing apartment of my dear friend Peter, he happened to point out the Xinfang Bureau, perhaps one of the most quintessentially Chinese government inventions.

The Xinfang Bureau’s entire reason for existence is to process any written or in-person complaints about other government bureaus. At least, it’s supposed to. And it’s meant to suggest that the government is taking care of internal problems.

However, Peter said that sometimes there is a van parked outside so that, if large groups come to file a complaint, they will be directed to the van, and shipped off to somewhere else. :-/

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Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom

Foreward: I wrote this several years ago and, just recently, one of the members of my writer’s group mentioned how much she loved it. So, I’m kicking off the “new version” of Speaking of China with this classic article. Enjoy!

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When in China, do as the Chinese do: bicycle. Of all the transportation possibilities available, it perhaps offers you the some of the most freedom and flexibility. No more traffic jams. No more catching the latest flu or virus in crowded buses and subways. No more fighting for a taxi during rush hour. No more being a moving target on the sidewalks.

Sounds great, right?

Yet, your enthusiasm may not find a home with your foreign colleagues. Many people shun bicycling for a variety of reasons: safety, inconvenience and even fear. Talk to a few folks and you might even hear some disconcerting tales of woe. Things such as hitting an elderly Chinese man – resulting in the poor fellow’s death – and then having to fork out $10,000 for your little oversight (a true story from a former coworker of mine).

Is cycling worth the price? I can’t tell you any feel-good-miraculous-Lance-Armstrong tale. Heck, I once had a little fender bender and handed over 100 RMB for damages. But I do know one thing – I could have avoided this and many other troubles if I’d known a little more before hitting the road.

With that in mind, I bring you the official “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China”: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom. Continue reading “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom”