Post Mortem Part 1

I know……it’s been a while.  I got back from my long-term stay in China near the end of 2013.   I’ve been back to China once or twice a year since that time and will go back again in early September – just a few months away.  I have an attraction to the place, there is so much to see, the food is good and I can find my way around.  I think my most interesting return trip was last Fall when I got to Dun Huang, a city way in the north west of Gansu Province up against the border of Xinjiang and along the Gobi Desert.

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I had a guide for a couple of days and saw the sights which included traces of the Great Wall and some touristy places that, as usual, were inundated with Chinese tourists.  There is just no escaping large groups of touring Chinese in any place that seems interesting, no matter how far off the beaten path.  Whether I was climbing up Yellow Mountain at 4 am to see the morning sunrise (a ritual), or climbing up some other mountain in a national park way up in northern Xinjiang, there was always a crowd and always a line.  Hiking in the Shenandoah National Park near my home in Virginia was scary the first time or two after getting back.  I saw only a few deer and no people at all.  Shades of “On the Beach,”the book and film about empty places after a nuclear war.12132486_10205240542669285_2098219997416040790_o

I had a couple of weeks in Shanghai in March this year at the end of a couple of months in Thailand where I managed to skip most of winter.  (The time in Thailand was not entirely wallowing in decadence.  I actually finished a book I’ve been writing about management – kind of a primer).  Even in Thailand, as Chinese get more money and seek more adventure, there were dozens and dozens of tour groups all over the place, each following a leader with a flag, rag or stuffed animal on a stick for easy identification of the leader.  You never want to be near a MacDonald’s when a Chinese tour group decides to eat.  When in Shanghai this time, I stayed at a little boutique hotel called the Fish Inn, which isn’t far from Nanjing Lu’s big pedestrian mall.  I’m lucky to have many good friends in Shanghai, so my dance card was pretty much filled.   Two of them took me to a fish place where the fish comes whole, sizzling on iron pans and covered with vegetables.  Nobody cooks fish like the Chinese.  I use the Chinese “Tencent” company’s WeChat smart phone messaging so I can keep in touch with the people I know in China better than I can with my neighbors in the States.

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I hear from a dozen or more former students who are now all over the world.  The first one’s I taught have now graduated from a host of international English-speaking universities in the U.S., Canada, the UK or Australia.  One guy, one of the first students I met in the Shanghai gig (one of only eleven when the private  high school was just getting started, finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto early, got his masters from Columbia University Teacher’s College and is considering an offer to join their PhD program in psychology.  Others are at or have graduated from Virginia Tech, UCLA, Smith College, the London School of Economics, University of British Columbia and places like that.  Almost all these young people come from wealthy families – some from very wealthy families so it’s interesting to see them posting their travels on Facebook to the best five-star hotels and restaurants all over the world.  Some travel at the drop of the hat whenever they get the chance – a chance many of their fellow Chinese never get.

One thing very noticeable is that very few students break out of all-Chinese social circles even when at a foreign university.  I can think of only two or three of several dozen who have made it a point to mix things up with people from other countries and cultures in a significant way.  Most of the photos and activities I see posted or talked about might as well be in China.  Immersion in foreign cultures just doesn’t happen very much.  The homogeneous Chinese culture is very, very strong.  I used to think that the “Chinatowns”in places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco were imposed.  Now I’m convinced they’re preferred.

China, under its current administration, seems to have tightened up on censorship, foreign influence and other aspects of life that I’d seen liberalized when I began my time there in 2007.  My former students live on Facebook which is one of the first things they go to once they leave China for their foreign universities.  Yet, Facebook remains banned in China.  Most Chinese I know have figured out how to use a VPN and several free ones are out there, so they can still connect to their friends and university community when back home.  Gmail along with everything else Google is also banned (without a VPN), which is a real pain in the ass because so many people outside of China rely on it.   And the boys in Beijing shut down VPNs as they catch them and figure them out, so who knows how long the VPN paths will stay viable?

My young “wife” is still with me, although as I write this she’s in Shanghai visiting her family for a few months.  We’ll probably fly back to the States together when I wrap up my next visit to Shanghai in September.  The legitimate (as opposed to walking across the Rio Grande sans papers), immigration process is a royal pain in the ass.  We’ve got to “remove the restrictions” on Yamin’s temporary, two-year Green Card which takes all kinds of paperwork, more proof that we’re still “married” and a hefty fee all sent to a processing center in St. Albans, Vermont.  We sent the package in at the end of November last year.  According to the INS website, they’ve just gotten around to processing applications from June of last year.  God knows how long it will take to get to a November 2015 submission…….  It’s really discouraging to know that there are thousands of people trying to do the immigration trick the right way while there are tens of thousands more getting a free ride by ignoring the process altogether.  I’d heard that any immigration processing in the States took forever which is why for the initial application for Yamin’s temporary Green Card I went to the U.S. consulate in Guanzhou where they pride themselves on processing these things efficiently and in a reasonable time.  That was only possible, however, because I was also an expat living in China.

Nevertheless, Yamin has adjusted much better to the U.S. than I ever thought she would. Her English language skills are near fluency, she can get part-time jobs at the drop of the hat, somehow figured out the student loan process (although I suspect the collusion among schools, banks and the U.S. government is shameful), and she is persuasive enough to convince a local judge to drop two moving violation traffic tickets.  She has a self-assured confidence that is astounding which I am reminded is a trait of most Shanghai girls anyway.   If anyone reading this has a thought about having a Shanghai girl as a partner………..well, we should talk.

A few disturbing things have happened……. a former colleague who also taught economics died suddenly in Tianjin where he’d gone to take a new job.  Nobody seemed to know what happened – I learned of it from a mutual friend.  The guy was in his mid thirties for God’s sake.  I lost another younger friend, this fellow in his early forties at best, who died just as suddenly in New Zealand.  Not long before, we’d spoken about meeting up in Thailand.  This young man worked for me for a little while when I had an interim CEO consulting job in Florida.  He was funny and smart and never said no when asked to do anything.  After Nine-eleven, he emigrated to New Zealand to get his family out of the “target zone” as he put it.  I think I know what happened and it’s tragic.   Another former colleague from teaching in China kind of got thrown out of the country when he had some issues with a new school in Dalian where he’d gone to teach.  Apparently the school, run by westerners he said, “lost” all the “A-level” exam papers that had been completed which meant kids would have to retake the exams and go through all the preparation again.  The dispute I heard was that the school insisted that the teachers do the revision again (revision is the word for “review” in UK education lexicon), for no pay and with lots of weekends and overtime so many teachers quit.  My former colleague who taught chemistry and was popular with his students quit too, but took on a lot of kids as a private tutor which made his former employer incredibly unhappy.  I am told that things went from bad to worse, his visa was jeopardized, the school tried to blacklist him too so he had to quit China (after eleven years in the country), and skedaddle back to the States.  There are lots of stories about bad schools and worse administrators in China – this was one of the worst I’ve heard about.  While I had my own bad experience with the He brothers, the crooks in Wuxi which I wrote about here, on balance, I was lucky to have good arrangements with straight shooters for most of the time.

I’ve seen the Chinese turn on people in a flash, for little or no reason I could ever figure out.  The annoying part is that they rarely tell someone straight-up.  It’s part of the habit of ducking responsibility at all costs.  One of the quirks of the culture.  So one just has to be ready for being boxed out from time-to-time, even from “friends.” My conjecture is that every institution save family has screwed over Chinese at one time or another, so trust of anyone outside of family is tentative at best and the slightest hint of treachery, even if imagined or due to some innocent misunderstanding is curtains.   I guess everyone is like that to some degree – in the West, even including family.  It just seems more obvious and common among Chinese.  The only other place I’ve ever seen cohesion and loyalty among family as with the Chinese is in the Jewish culture, which, come to think of it, may be for the same reason that the Chinese hold family relationships so dear.

The South China Sea thing popped up since I got back.  That’s the deal where China claims the expanse of ocean between Vietnam, The Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia as it’s territorial waters.  And its the location of the Spratly Islands, a group of islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs that China also claims.  They’ve dredged up enough sand and coral to put airfields and other facilities on a couple of the reefs, all the while pissing off the neighboring countries whose land surfaces are a hell of a lot closer to the Spratlys than any existing land of China.  This guy Xi, who took over China at about the time I left likes to flex China’s muscles, real or imagined and seems to be taking the country backwards, retrenching to increase power consolidated in Beijing and squeezing any liberalization that began under Deng Xiaoping under whom much of the opening of China and its economy began.   I think this will not end well.

Thousands and thousands of young Chinese students have gotten or are getting a big dose of liberalism, capitalism, free thought and everything the internet has to offer while away at international universities.  Some don’t plan to go back to China.  But most do and it will be interesting to see how they cope with a more restrictive and more insular China than the one they left.

 

 

 

Coming Home

It’s January 2014 now.  I’ve been in Virginia for just over two months – the longest sustained period I’ve been in America since February 2008.  I got back to the States on the 1st of November by way of an arduous flight from Shanghai to Bangkok, connecting in  Zurich and finally to the small local airport in the Shenandoah Valley by way of Washington’s Dulles.  traveling three times between the U.S. and China is a lot in four months.  The routing to Asia through Europe this time was because the fare was cheap – just for the taxes – as I used the last of my United air miles – and went to Thailand first at the end of September, stayed there for two weeks in Phuket and Pattaya and then went on to Shanghai where for the first time I stayed at a western hotel instead of an apartment among the locals.  That was expensive and a little strange given that I’ve lived like a local in Shanghai for years, but at the same time comfortable and eased me back to the soft beds, civilized heat and western food again.

Restoring things at my house has taken a while as has reacquainting myself with the States and figuring out what’s next –  which is nothing for as far as I can see.   It took about five weeks and close to $12,000 to get my house the way I want it.  Some upgrades, renter neglect and just normal wear combined to require professional help – but the outcome was an as-new place again which was fortunate.  Another year or two of renting and neglect and it might have been a different story.  My place has a cedar wood exterior which needed washing, stain and resealing.  Fortunately it came out as good as new even though the wood had faded and started to get that gray tone.  Thankfully, nobody stole my copper gutters which given the spike in copper prices and some of the theft I’ve read about was a good thing. The inside needed patching and paint throughout – I had a crew do some and I did the rest.  I replaced the kitchen counter with granite – something called Indian Dakota and put in a copper sink which I wanted to do since I first saw one at a designer showcase house in Poughkeepsie almost thirty years ago.  A local guy did the counter top for cheap and the sink and faucet cost me as much as the granite – installed which is a little silly, but hey, I waited a long time.   So things on this side of the Pacific are pretty much settled now.

The sink and faucet - exorbitantly expensive

The sink and faucet – exorbitantly expensive

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Indian Dakota granite is incredibly heavy. Thanks to a good price and a good crew, I’ve got some now.

I took thousands of photos while in China and put a bunch of them on a wall as reminders of places I’ve seen, places I’ve gone and people I met and it’s all good.  If you want to get some excitement in your life, try picking up and moving to another country for almost seven years, figuring out how to survive by your wits and mixing it up with the locals.  From my experience, you can’t beat that for novelty and excitement.

My Chinese Wall

My Chinese Wall

I’ve kept another “wall,” a big bulletin board with a map of the world where I track  places I’ve been and with whom when applicable.  I surround it with photos and mementos of places I’ve been and things I’ve done.  The last “entry” was before 2007, so seeing that again was like opening a time capsule.

I didn’t miss much in the States – except for maybe six years of  an economic disaster while China’s economy was growing faster than any other place has ever grown and continues to boom. Things are a little better for some in the States, but the guts of the American economy – upwardly mobile manufacturing jobs with stable salaries and benefits – have been ripped out and replaced by service jobs – or worse, but part-time, no benefits jobs.  I wasn’t smart enough to anticipate what was going to happen decide to go to the other side of the world for economic reasons, but the way things worked out makes it seem so.  Sometimes you just get lucky.

I sure got lucky with my “social life” for being an old guy in China and got to spend some irreplaceable time with some irreplaceable people.  A lot of my luck came from being unique and a curiosity in a homogenous society.  Combine that with an inquisitive nature and a nothing-to-lose, see what it’s about approach as an expat and it made for a fertile field.  I left some really good friends across the Pacific and arranged to have one of them join me here in another seven weeks on an immigration visa, beginning her journey to become a citizen of the U S of A.  Li Xiaoli, who is not making that trip and doing her best in Changting, her hometown, will be a part of me forever.   Chu Hong Bin (Bin Bin) is a fine young girl who is starting her life and career in Suzhou now after finishing college in Shanghai;  Zhang Wen Wen with whom I was able to communicate quite well even though we don’t know each others language, is a young mother doing what it takes in a rough world to support her daughter.   Joan, my oldest friend in China is enjoying her new home  Xiamen with her daughter who I’ve watched grow up in the past six years; and of course Tang Yamin.

Joan and her daughter Amy

Joan and her daughter Amy

With Lily (Li Xiaoli), Guilin 2010

With Lily (Li Xiaoli), Guilin 2010

Zhang Wen Wen, a young mother slugging it out in Shanghai to support her daughter.

Zhang Wen Wen, a young mother slugging it out in Shanghai to support her daughter.

Sam or Chu Hong Bin (Bin Bin) a delightful girl

Sam or Chu Hong Bin (Bin Bin) a delightful girl

My now permanent roommate, Tang Yamin, on her way to becoming an American

My now permanent roommate, Tang Yamin, on her way to becoming an American

A lot of America hasn’t changed and after being back for a while it’s easy to fall into old habits and think of China as just a few days away rather than six years once acclimated to this side of the Pacific again.  Coming back to the same place helped.  There are definitely differences.   I kept in touch with what was happening in the States politically and economically via the internet, but I never watched American TV – which in retrospect was a blessing.  On my annual visits to the States that lasted just three or four weeks, I saw very little TV as my time was spent traveling, visiting with people or camping out.  So the whole “Duck Dynasty” thing is totally new.   HBO and Cinemax are notorious for rerunning old movies ad-nauseum, but for me, a lot of their stuff is now new.   The language has even changed a little.  The phrase “take-away” which in China means take out food from a restaurant, pops up all over the place, particularly on news programs on TV and radio.  “What’s the ‘take-away'” or “The ‘takeaway” from this is……….”  That’s a change to the lexicon that showed up sometime in the last six years.   “Man Cave” is the same – I’ve heard it before, but it’s now much more prevalent particularly in advertising to sell stuff – I saw a whole section of furnishings in a Hobby Lobby store (also new to me),  targeted for “man caves.”   Hobby Lobby has actually be around since long before I went to China, but their expansion in the last few years put them on the map for me – along with their little dust up over Obamacare.   “Selfie” is new to me and seems like a stupid word for a self-indulging photo-op.  Obama came up again with that one, where he, the Prime Minister of the UK and Denmark’s lovely leader got caught goofing around with a cell phone camera at Nelson Mandella’s memorial service in South Africa.

TV has been taken over by “reality shows” in the same way that AM radio has been taken over by conservative talk-radio.  I can’t figure out the hook for reality shows – just look at the camera angles, lighting and staging and you know they’re all fake – The Amazing Race always drove me nuts as they portrayed people appearing at airports where there were no waiting lines, TSA or problems with buying tickets for same-day flights all over the place – a version of the damned thing was on Chinese TV too and inexplicably popular there too.   One huge difference between Chinese TV and American TV is commercials.  There are commercials in China – just no where near as many – and many of them are promoting regional tourism.   I never counted the number of commercials between programming on American TV before – but there seemed to be so many that I did when I got back and found up to eleven separate ads in many cases.   Eight to eleven commercials pop up now at every break.

Much more popular now than seven years ago is the Toyota Prius.  They’re all over the place.  When I bought mine in the summer of 2008 and drove it to Utah the following summer, mine was a rare sight and seeing another on the same stretch of road was unusual.  I recently sat in a line of traffic consisting mostly of Prius’s .  That’s a good thing for the environment, but I noticed that my Virginia car registration added a surcharge to make up for lost fuel-based taxes.  That seems like a stupid thing to do.  Now that you can’t buy incandescent light bulbs anymore and have to buy the dramatically more efficient fluorescent or LED bulbs, I wonder, if electric rates will have a surcharge to make up for lost revenue.  that would be stupid too.  Follow this logic and those last few first class stamps will cost thousands.

I’m not sure what happened to candles – not the jar candles, but tapers – the kind that make candle sticks.  I couldn’t find any decent ones in retail stores anywhere.  The few I found were made in China, weighed less than feathers and probably would have burned down completely in a few minutes.  Hallmark stores were always a reliable source of   stick candles, albeit expensive ones.  I couldn’t find any in the three or four Hallmark stores I visited.

I found taper candles on the web – Colonial Candle, Yankee Candle, Ebay and the rest; but they sure have gotten expensive.   What happened to the candle stick business?  I’ve always liked to have one or two burning when it’s cold outside so I bit the bullet and now have enough to fire up on a whim.   It’s nice to sit in front of the fire again.  There’s something about a wood fire and the smell of woodsmoke outside.  I heard that San Francisco outlawed wood fires in the name of clean air.  After breathing the ridiculously polluted Shanghai air for years, a little woodsmoke smell in the otherwise clean air of Virginia is welcome.

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You’re Not Going to Believe This………….

My last post here was June 23rd and it’s the middle of October now.   I retired from teaching and “Vice-deaning” at the Chinese private school in Shanghai, have been back to the States twice, to Thailand for a couple of weeks, took a Chinese colleague around the western part of the USA including spending the 4th of July in Santa Fe (highly recommended), fished for Musky in Wisconsin, the most mosquito infested place I’ve ever seen (not recommended); toured the far reaches of Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Zone on the border with Kazakhstan in some towns where the tensions between the Uygher and Han people was palpable; and married a young Chinese girl.  Life has been nothing if not interesting.

And all that in just over three months.

Of course among the more interesting parts was getting married to a Chinese girl and rather than  be too suspenseful, it’s the same girl who I wrote about before.   A lot can happen in a few months, it did and I was married (again) on August 23rd in what’s got to be one of the simplest processes on the planet.  Ten minutes – tops including photos.   I’ve learned a lot about how to sponsor an individual for immigration and visited the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to submit the paper work where the people were nice and got things moving along.  A couple of days ago, we got confirmation that the immigration visa was in process – it’s quicker when submitted in China compared to the U.S. and I was able to do that because of my official residency here.

I’ve got three wedding anniversaries now – October 12th,  December 19th and August 23rd and I’ve married in America, in England and now in China.  This Chinese one is more than likely to be the last…………  It’s kind of a poetic way to wind up my six years in China.  I’ve always liked the idea of marriage, happily-ever-after and all that, I just never could do it.  My late uncle, Mike Spisso did 75 years until his one and only wife and sweetheart died on him. They stayed giggly in love the whole time – like teenagers or newlyweds.  I admired and envied that – I have no idea how in God’s name he did it.

Thailand remains a beautiful, happy place with what seem to be perpetually happy people that attracts folks from all over the world – for climate, for beaches, for a really low cost-of-living and for plain old hedonism.  This time I got out to some of the small island clusters off the coast of Phuket, itself an island off the coast of the narrow leg of Thailand that extends south along the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. There are parts of Thailand that have almost become Russian colonies joining other big expat communities.  A lot more Chinese are getting out now as they have more money and Thailand is popular because of the movie “Lost in Thailand” which was huge in China.  But like most places seeing an upsurge of Chinese tourists though, the Thais don’t think much of the Chinese and their habits.  They spit, talk too loudly, push and shove, don’t tip, steal stuff as souvenirs (like the under-your-seat airline life jackets) – and won’t pay for anything without arguing over the price.   I’m not making this up – it’s all over the papers in many places, including the two Bangkok papers and has gotten so bad that the Chinese government as only the Chinese government can, issued a little booklet describing how Chinese tourists needed to clean up their act.

I gave up my apartment in a local neighborhood the first week of September before going back to the States. I’m now staying in a Marriott Courtyard in Shanghai for a couple of weeks – woefully expensive compared to a lot of Chinese hotels I might have picked, but the ambiance is satisfying after staying in dozens of Chinese hotels all over the country in six years of travel.  A rational breakfast that doesn’t look like lunch and dinner is always available, the beds aren’t like a hard floor and the heating and cooling are reliable as is the shower.  And the carpets are clean and the plumbing doesn’t look like a five minute retro-fit with hammer holes knocked through walls to fit the pipes. The bloom is off the rose, I’m afraid and while I like China and the people and had outstanding experiences here, it was good to be “home” notwithstanding the decay and disappearance of much of the America I knew before I left in 2007.

I’ll never get enough of Chinese females the vast majority of whom I find more physically attractive than females of any other ethnicity and many of whom seem to have found me interesting or at least amusing enough to interact with for reasons I can’t explain.   Even among other Asians, for me Chinese are more attractive. My personal reference point is to estimate out of any 100 randomly seen females from somewhere, what percentage do I find attractive.  I can do this for maybe eight countries where I’ve spent some time. In the UK for example, it’s 5% – five out of any 100.  In China it’s nearly 50%; Thailand 25%, Japan 20%, France 20%, Germany 10%, the Czech Republic 25% and the U.S.A, less than 10% – none of which is good for someone who has lived in China for six years contemplating returning to the States.  Oh well.

As for the rest of China, it’s hard to keep rationalizing the weird stuff, the disgusting stuff and some of the other cultural stuff all the time.   I’ve seen it, I can  describe a lot of it accurately – even to Chinese, but ascribing logic or even common sense to some of the crap that goes on over here is impossible – especially in the education business where I’ve spent most of my professional time since coming here.

I’m tired of playing games with Chinese internet censors who go one-on-one with VPN providers in deciding what websites and what topics I can look at based on hyper-paranoid nonsense.  I would have written that I’m also fed up with being spied upon, but it turns out that spying and snooping by the National Security Agency in my own country far outstrips anything the Chinese are doing – even with my guaranteed Fourth Amendment rights which are being summarily trampled in the name of national security,

If I never see another porcelain squat toilet or gaze through a rectangular hole in a concrete slab at an open pit of shit and piss  that passes for a public restroom in some places in China – like highway rest stops, I won’t miss it at all.  Missing out on another cold, damp, miserable Shanghai winter where heat is non-existent or inadequate and shoppers and shop keepers, and even students and teachers all stay bundled up inside and out will be fine.  Not having to drip dry my hands after washing them in school bathrooms and in most other public places along with the total absence of paper products in restrooms except in five star western hotels will be fine too.

I won’t miss people leaning on trees rubbing the bark smooth, people walking backwards, ballroom dancing at 7:00 am or the ritualized exercise of hundreds of old people in Yangpu Park every morning.  Or people blowing snot out of their nostrils by holding one nostril closed and blasting out the other – down onto the sidewalk or street – sans tissue, handkerchief or anything other than a sleeve.  It will be ok not to see parents or grandparents squatting and holding small children a few inches off the ground letting them relieve themselves in a street gutter or tree surround or even seeing the open split pants kids under four or so wear to facilitate the process.  Never pick up a small Chinese kid and put them on your lap………………..

I love the local food, particularly in the small neighborhood restaurants, but can do without bone-in chopped up all manner of meat and chicken.  I too can spit bones into a small pile next to my plate, but it’s still disgusting.  I still don’t quite understand the deal with fish in China, but it’s better than any fish of any kind I’ve ever had in the States or in Europe.  It’s almost always fresh, plucked from a tank immediately before cooking, cooked and served all in one – head and all, but with a flavor and tenderness that’s unmatched anywhere in my experience.  For some reason, chop sticks have become more comfortable for me than spoon and fork.   I sure long for New England lobster.  There are a few here and there, but the dominate type are Australian lobster which have no claws and the tender meat therein.  There are big crayfish here, that do have claws, but I’ve never eaten any.

It will take some adjustment to move Pizza Hut and KFC back to their rightful places as middle of the pack fast-food joints rather than the high-end positions they hold almost everywhere in China – including for Pizza Hut, top floor, sometimes revolving locations and long waiting lines.

It will also take some adjustment, hopefully aided by natural aging, to the lack of guilt-free, easily accessible (like on every block), and reasonably priced physical gratification of any and all kinds from foot massage and head massage to full body massage to “special” massages that are more common in China and most of Asia not having been subject to the Victorian/Puritanical/hypocritical social “morality” of the West and particularly in America.   Six bucks for a ninety minute foot massage, thirty for a full body work up of ninety minutes and anything else one might want or imagine can be found – easily (not restricted or sanctioned), for no more than $200, tops, in the best places in Shanghai, frequented by Chinese officials, business men and expats on expense accounts.    Someone in the laowai “bubbles” where only foreigners live and play can and do have higher bills for the same services, but it’s their own damned fault.

So it’s back to the future, most likely to be joined by a young Chinese wife in a few months and introducing her or any other mainland Chinese to the culture and practices of America should be a hoot.  Just explaining some of what we put up with will be fun,  Since my primary goal for the rest of the time I’ve got left on this planet is to have fun and not worry, then anything that will be a hoot works fine for me.

4th of July Pancakes, Santa Fe
4th of July Pancakes, Santa Fe
Muskie Country - Hayward, Wisconsin

Muskie Country – Hayward, Wisconsin

Islands some 30 km from Phuket

Islands some 30 km from Phuket

Kazakhstan Border, Xinjiang

Kazakhstan Border, Xinjiang

Lake Kanas - Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China

Lake Kanas – Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China

Phuket - Life is good - I married this girl!!

Phuket – Life is good – I married this girl!!

 

 

Elephant Trekking, Phuket, Thailand

Elephant Trekking, Phuket, Thailand

Shanghai Girls and Zorba The Greek

Anthony Quinn was a Mexican-American actor who I met once on the street in Boston.  I met him in the same way I met Henry Kissinger who was exiting an elevator in a hotel in Vienna – we passed each other without much comment other than “hello.”  Quinn died in 1981, in Boston, probably not long after I passed him.

One of Quinn’s best known films was the 1964 “Zorba the Greek” which introduced me to mandolin music (an interest that later carried over to mandolins as part of American country music tradition), and to a philosophy that seems to have been the bane of my existence responsible for all kinds of adventures and trouble – a lot of it inflicted on other people.  The movie was based on a 1946 novel of the same name written by Nikos Kazantzakis which has the following soliloquy:

“If a woman sleeps alone it puts a shame on all men. God has a very big heart, but there is one sin He will not forgive. If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go.”

I never took the line literally; I was a little more liberal in interpretation. I needed only a smile, a glance or even being hit by a bit of something tossed away by an attractive or even semi-attractive female to be smitten, hooked and doomed to pursuit – often unrequited and worse – completely oblivious to anyone other than me.  Combine that with “issues” from a misshapen childhood and you get a road map for much of my journey.

I once met and later lived with a girl who thought all my adventures and stories were fascinating.  She encouraged me to regale her with what my Chinese students refer to as my colorful past.  I did, but when I collected another story or two during her own tenure, she didn’t appreciate it much despite the fact that my old material was getting stale and needed refreshing.  Oh well, some people have no sense of humor.

In China, where merely being here is enough for any native-English-speaking foreigner to attract unnatural attention, it’s been a field day. Almost six years of adventure, story collecting and temporary, semi-permanent and transient romance that defies logic.  Of course logic, at least as defined in the west doesn’t work in China.   As I’ve written before, Chinese girls are “blind” to defects that would disqualify almost every foreigner in their native country and thank God for that.  I can’t tell you the pairings I’ve seen here – always a foreigner male well past prime by every conceivable measure, accompanied by a usually young, lovely and happy camper female Chinese who has a smattering of English although that isn’t a prerequisite………….I can testify to that last part personally.

Some day I’ll write an R-rated memoir of my time here, but probably not now.

So the Shanghai girl is still here – my self-anointed “roommate.”  I’m leaving for a month in the States and she’ll have sole occupancy of my apartment in Shanghai which may seem stupid, but it’s a story.  She and her mother have met my landlord – they’re all Shanghaiese, so I’ve got some insurance that nothing untoward will happen – at least to the apartment and to my stuff in it.

Her plan (not mine, mind you), is to marry me, to take care of me “forever” and harvest the fruits of a purely platonic arrangement (even after a blissful wedding she asserts), to gain U.S. entry, permanent residence and citizenship.  As an American descendent of immigrant grandparents on both sides, how can I refuse my civic duty?   It’s not that there aren’t benefits for me – a spousal visa and residence works both ways, so if I did ever want to stay in China or visit willy nilly to extend “field days,” my visa problems could be solved by combining with this girl who at least looks good.  I’ve endured worse relationships before – some under legal auspices.

Nevertheless, my guess is that her plan is unlikely to survive more than a few more weeks.   I  figure after getting back to the States and getting my Virginia house in order, coming back to China to travel a little more before a final departure and maybe ducking off to Thailand to see what that country is like in the middle of the summer,  enough will have transpired to move on.  One of my excursions may be with a former student who is now in graduate school in the UK – God help me.  In the meantime, my plan is to play along, see what happens and not worry too much.  I’ve got nothing else to do with my time and it’s not often that old people in my category get to play like this anyway.

Shanghai Girls

Shanghai girls have a bit of a reputation.  They are reputed to be money hungry, status seeking and cold-hearted, maneuvering for personal advantage and riches at any cost.  I know a few. Some fit the stereotype, some don’t, but even the ones that don’t tend to lean in that direction.  It could be something in the water.

I’ve never met a Chinese guy, Shanghaiese or from elsewhere not familiar with the reputation.  Many who are just starting out refuse to approach a Shanghai girl believing she’ll not even “see” him unless he’s got a good job, a house and a car.  It’s a standing joke with which everyone’s familiar; most Shanghaiese girls admit to it.  I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it up and collected some of my own.

This is true, I swear.

Three weeks ago, while walking past a McDonalds, I noticed a girl inside with a stack of books about TOEFL.  That’s the English proficiency exam used by most U.S. colleges and universities in screening applicants for whom English is not their first language.

Curious, I went in and asked if the girl was a student and what school she hoped to attend in the States.  She said she didn’t know yet, but wanted to get a masters and already had her undergraduate degree in International Business.  Her English was pretty good, which I told her and suggested she’d probably do ok on the TOEFL.  She also had to take the GMAT she said, another screening exam for U.S. graduate schools in business,  heavy on reading, vocabulary and analytics.

After learning about what I did for a living, she asked if I would help her.  That’s a pretty normal experience when I encounter any Chinese who needs to improve their English.  I said “maybe” and mentioned that I’d only be in the country for another month or two.  Unfazed, she asked where I lived, if I lived alone or had family with me and it turned out that she lived not far, with her mother.   When I was about to leave, saying I had some things to get at the market, she asked if she could come along – ostensibly to get a little English practice.

She did.

After picking up a few things and swapping some vocabulary like escalator, checkout, scanner and such, she asked if she could see where I lived.  And like you as you’re reading along, red flags appeared.  But, this is China after all, appearances aren’t what they seem, I’m leaving like in five weeks and she lives in the same neighborhood.  So we go.

I’ve got a nice apartment.  Big, two bedrooms, not a bad view – although it’s rare when the air is clean enough to enjoy it – and new.  After a few minutes, this college graduate, 23, Shanghai girl who lived a few minutes away with her mother, asked if she could move in.   This IS China, and weird stuff happens according to a totally different set of rules, and I’ve been around and seen a lot, but I’ve got to admit, I was stunned.  I think I replied “What?!!??!”

She wasn’t kidding.  She said she could learn English better that way and do stuff for me.

One of my former students, a guy starting his junior year at the University of Toronto in the fall, happened to be visiting Shanghai so I arranged for him to meet my new “friend” and advise me on her mental state.  He did and suggested she wasn’t crazy and seemed normal enough.  He also said I owed him because he’d sung my praises, endorsing me as the perfect teacher.   Thanks Zheng Zuo……..

Sunday night, that same weekend, my new friend, Min Min, messaged me and said she was stopping by.  Nothing shy about this girl.  Her first words when she appeared were “what did you decide.”  Unthinkingly I replied “About what?” You know the answer.   I’m usually quick on my feet, but this took a few minutes.  If I agreed to her moving in, the good news was I’d have some company, a house cleaner, a not unattractive house guest, etc., etc.; and the safety valve was a booked flight to the States for a month, just a few weeks away.  The less good news was that this kid could be a lunatic.

So, cleverly, I asked her what her mother thought about this idea, knowing in advance that Chinese parents are notoriously protective, conservative and dictate the lives of their offspring well past their childhood years.  She said she talked it over with her mother and her mother thought it was fine – in fact a good idea which sounded fishy to me.  So I am certain, absolutely certain, that once this young lady’s mother actually gets wind of her scheme to move in with an old guy living alone in Shanghai, the jig is up and she’ll never be let out of her house again.  And I was wrong.

I met her mother who helped carry some of her daughter’s stuff over to my place that same night.  A couple of nights later, her mother invited me (us actually), to dinner at a nice local Chinese restaurant.   I have no idea what is going on.  Well, I didn’t, but I’ve got a pretty good idea now.

Monday morning, I woke up before six, as usual, checked the net and out popped my new friend offering to make tea and breakfast.  When I got back from school that night, she’d cleaned the apartment, done the laundry and did some shopping.  It was like a dream.

After a few days of intensive English language study and long conversations about what it took to get accepted by American graduate schools, visas for education, the cost of American graduate schools and the like, it turned out that the real goal here was to emigrate to America and stay there.    Better future, better life, more freedom and all that stuff.  She knew bits and pieces; I’m not sure she ever walked through the whole process.

A visa agent I know who is a single mom with a young son wants the same thing and married an older American guy who wanted a long term spousal visa so he could stay in China for the duration.  She never sees him, he never sees her or her child, no money or support changes hands but both parties achieved their objective – he can stay in China with an annually renewable spousal visa and she can get her son to America and get a Green Card (later citizenship) as the long suffering wife of an American expat (the first two years of the marriage produces a temporary residence for the Chinese emigre and after four years, the permanent residency “Green Card” becomes permanent.

The deal with my new found “roommate” was along the same lines.  In cogent English, belying her frantic study for the TOEFL exam and with startling lucidity, she described her plan to become an American and my role in the scheme.   Her suggestion after hearing my plans, was to get married in the next week or two and when I left for the USA, she’d come along.  All business, all practicality.  Chinese people, like no other people I’ve ever met or even read about are doggedly practical and singularly focused on what’s best for them – irrespective  of the impact on anyone else – baring an immediate family member and even then there are exceptions.  The most obvious examples are getting bumped into all the time with never an “excuse me” or any other comment and the practice of anyone using anything with wheels blasting along without regard to other people using anything with wheels or on foot.  Me first, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

And so it is with my friend.  She’s going abroad, getting an American Green Card and using whatever mechanism works – real or imagined, legitimate or illegitimate , fair or not.

A lot of this comes from everyone, well most everyone, being on their own, except for immediate family with no social net and no social history of independent thinking or self-reliance.  Parents depend on their kids for their retirement income and kids rely on their parents to raise their kids while they work.  There are benefits to a system like that, but combine it with the one-child policy adopted decades ago and with migration to the cities in pursuit of the riches that Deng XiaoPing declared to be glorious and the system starts to break down.

With Mao’s socialism, the central government gave the answers to virtually any questions. Government bureaucracies directed everything – whether to attend school, what to study, where to live, how to live and what to think.  There are a lot of remnants of that still around, but the liberalization and opening up under Deng XiaoPing and the economic success of the last decade or two has led to a “wild west” atmosphere with no precedents, role models, training or preparation.  The results can be a little disconcerting.

After a rush only freshmen get from university Greek organizations and three days of intensive lobbying, my “roommate” began to treat my place like a hotel room – appearing and disappearing without warning or explanation – for days at a time.  Focus on English and the GMAT stopped entirely.

I did a little research on what a foreigner has to do to marry a Chinese and how the spousal visa works – just for the hell of it – and shared that with my “roommate” on one of her increasingly infrequent visits.  It’s a little complicated and includes a provision by U.S. immigration that obligates the sponsor (presumably me), to be financially responsible should the immigrant (presumably her), go on the public dole any time in the ten years following her gaining her visa.  She seemed unfazed.

So there I was, three weeks ago tonight, sitting on my couch next to a twenty-three year old, not unattractive Chinese girl in her PJs after she’d taken  a  shower.  Her mother had left forty-five minutes before.   She is telling me the story of her life – all of it (this is not a naive, inexperienced individual), and then turns in for the night.  I sat there for a while looking for a hidden camera or some other evidence of a Chinese Reality TV show.

Better than a movie.

These People Are Nice for the Most Part, But Nuts

I’ve lived and worked in China for almost six years.  A lot of westerners (foreigners or laowai to the locals), adjust to the oddities of China with the letters – TIC which is short for “This Is China.”  “TIC” a code word for “Get over it, there’s no explanation, these people are nuts.”  And it feels like that sometimes.

God willing and if the creeks don’t rise, (try explaining that phrase to a non-native English speaker), I’ll be ending this journey in a few weeks and in early September return to the U.S.  There is a small chance I’ll stay another year – the circumstances that would lead to that are still playing out.

Anyway, the Chinese are not nuts of course, most of them are nice, smart, hardworking people and many are the kindest you’ll ever meet. Sometimes the kindness (“kind” is also a code word in China), is superficial.  There are not a few SOBs who will take everything they can use from you and leave you hanging in the breeze.  The fact that most Chinese can’t think logically to save their lives and are trained to follow the leader in ways that put lemmings to shame is another story.

It takes a while to get a handle on China and the Chinese. Never, ever, ever, underestimate the power and influence of history, tradition, family ties, parental influence and other pieces of culture in this place – you do so at your peril. Like anywhere else, the people in China come in a variety, but in China, it seems that there’s a little more commonality than in other places and this is probably due to the mass production methods of the education system where I’ve spent almost all of my six years, and the overpowering culture of group think that comes from homogeneity.  It takes a while, at least it took me a while, to figure out stuff like this, but I had hints early on.

During my inaugural year, while teaching college kids in Xiamen, a coastal city opposite Taiwan, one of the things we talked about in class was pollution and the fact that it took me three months to realize there were large mountains obliterated by smog only four kilometers from the campus.  When we discussed what to do about pollution, almost all the kids in eleven different sections said to plant trees.  If you’ve ever seen the air pollution in China, you would know that there have never been enough trees on the planet to counteract the junk wafting around in the air.  A few weeks ago in a far different place with kids almost a generation later, the solution to air pollution was the same: plant trees.

Environmental concern isn’t rare here at all.  I know of no other place that is 100% compact fluorescent light bulbs.  I can’t recall ever seeing an incandescent light in China anywhere.  In most places, particularly south of the Yangtze River – where Shanghai happens to be – there’s no central heating ( a legacy of learning how the west does things through the prism of UK controlled Hong Kong).  In fact in most places there is no heating at all.  The only “regularly” heated places in winter are five star hotels, KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.  All sorts of people congregate in these establishments in winter – playing cards, chatting, even sleeping – sometimes with food or beverages they’ve purchased and often not.  I think you get thrown out in the States if you’re not eating something and running a card game or knitting circle, but not here.

The chilly situation is mitigated somewhat by electric space heaters – we’ve got them in all the offices and classrooms in our school.  They aren’t particularly effective in the coldest weather – kids and the rest of us have to keep dressed for outdoors indoors to be even close to comfortable.  Anyway, it’s quite commonplace to see these things blasting away, doing their best to reduce the chill, the effort defeated by keeping all the doors and windows open.   So local kids and local staff will be sitting around freezing – heaters firing away – windows and doors open, complaining about the cold, while dressed for winter – indoors.

If you try to step these folks through a logical progression that not only is the practice a colossal waste of energy, but also isn’t making anyone warmer, they just don’t follow it.  The reply is that they need “fresh air’ to keep them healthy.  This, amazingly, is in cities with air pollution that is often off the charts.  Explaining that most of the electric heaters use air filters is a hopeless exercise.   China is big, growing, powerful and all the rest, but the inability to think logically in this place is one of several “Achilles’s Heels” that are huge speed bumps – even with the progress being made.

It’s toward summer now and getting warm so today, our offices were graced by air conditioning, had all the windows open and circulating freely was outside air on one of the more polluted days in the city.  The foreigners in the office just looked at each other and shook our heads.

As my time here winds down, at least based on my current plan, I’ve run into one of the more bizarre episodes of life for a laowai in China.  If it’s not the top, it’s competitive.  I need to see what happens over the next couple of weeks before I’ll know how to describe it.  The short version is that I met someone at random who decided I was their answer to something still undefined and who may or may not be a roommate now.  All her stuff is here; she’s missing.  Weird things can and do happen to native English-speaking foreigners in China.

In the “nuts” department, a lot of good educators are leaving the school I’ve been with – like me, but for other reasons.  Seems that the fixation on tests for tests’ sake and some miserable and heavy-handed “management” has pissed off almost all the international faculty and no few of the local talent.  It’s a shame, but finesse in management is not a feature of China.  That coupled with exploitative practices with Chinese workers in general, elements of which are passed off to laowai has taken it’s toll.   So as the song goes, they’re breaking up that old gang of mine.  I don’t mind writing reference letters for people; I’ve written several in the past months that I wish I hadn’t had to.

As an example of what an overabundant workforce can lead to, Chinese faculty are being offered new contracts without any indication of salary.  Chinese teacher salaries are odd in the first place – constructed a la carte depending on how many classes and extra duties someone signs up for and starting with a ridiculously low base – maybe US$800 a month.  But our administration won’t commit to any raises or anything else for these folks until the new semester starts.  They tell them that they need to “think about” the teacher’s effectiveness, see how much money they’ll have next term and other things, but insist people sign the “contract” or move on.  The school is a cash machine. The nuts part is that all the local faculty I know have signed on.  A lot of them are relatively new to the profession and cowed by their “leaders.”  See?  They’re nuts.

The same nonsense has given western businesses like Apple an enormous cost advantage when they move manufacturing to China.  You’ve probably read stories about Foxconn, the Taiwan business that has a huge subcontract manufacturing base in Shenzhen and Chengdu.  I can tell you that anything you’ve read about working conditions at Foxconn are not only true, but the reality is worse than what gets out to western media.   I met someone who worked at Foxconn in Shenzhen making iPhones.  Her salary was 8,000 RMB (about US$1200) , annually for working 29 days straight a month, living in Foxconn provided housing (with anti-suicide nets), and Foxconn provided meals because of the location of the factory.  The best part was that the salary was withheld until individuals completed their one-year contract.  No lie.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: Nuts is as nuts does.

Guns, culture and Plan B

After the killings at the Connecticut primary school on December 14th, which followed a couple of mall shootings in America, it’s getting harder to explain the “gun culture” of America and the freedom to bear arms as being a good thing.  The Chinese I know here are fascinated by the fact that I have guns, but think the idea is a little nuts.  The Chinese of course have knives and on the same day as the Connecticut shootings had their fifth or sixth school stabbing episode in the past year or so by another disgruntled local.

I went to an amusement park with some Chinese friends in Inner Mongolia this past summer and they had a pellet-gun shooting gallery with balloon targets.  It was pretty popular with the Chinese who don’t shoot very well.  Turns out I hadn’t lost my touch.

I’ve owned guns since I was nineteen. They weren’t allowed when I was growing up and my father’s temper and unpredictable outbursts caused enough damage with being slapped around as it was. Guns probably would have killed off most of us.  I got one about a soon as I could. The first one I had was an M1 carbine, a military weapon used in World War II, Korea and in the early years of the Vietnam War.  During World War II, my mother worked for a while as an inspector at the Poughkeepsie IBM plant that made carbines. I didn’t learn that until I got my first one.

My second firearm (the NRA and other advocates of the Second Amendment distinguish “firearm” from “weapon” in an attempt to neutralize the onerous intent for which many of these things were designed), was an obsolescent 7.5 mm Swedish straight-bolt rifle, military surplus, that I ordered with ammunition from a Montgomery Wards catalog for less than $100 in 1967. Both gun and about 100 rounds of ammunition were left at my apartment door by the UPS guy, in unmarked cardboard boxes – gun and enough ammo to hurt a lot of people if someone had that in mind – just left outside by the door.  That kind of bothered me a little.

The first gun I ever shot was in fact a shotgun owned by a high-school classmate, Dick Keene. We went in the woods behind our houses and fired it off a few times. Dick whacked a bird – all that was left was a puff of feathers. I wasn’t happy with that outcome, but it was a time to be tough and not a wimp.  Dick Keene joined the U.S. Navy and was killed in the 1967 Israeli War by Israeli’s – who deliberately attacked his spy ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, over several hours during which President Lyndon Johnson recalled other American help that was on the way.  That’s a whole other story…….

I bought another surplus carbine, this one actually manufactured by IBM, from a collector in Raleigh, North Carolina sometime in 1985 or 86.  I got it back to New York by wrapping it, a short handled shovel and a couple other things in plastic and cardboard as checked baggage on an American Airlines flight from Raleigh to Laguardia – no questions asked.

My first father-in-law carried a small .32 automatic pistol because his job as boss of the local Trussell Manufacturing (maker of spiral-ring and other stationery), required him to move money around. Occasionally we’d shoot that and a .22 caliber pistol he had in the rural setting of my first house.

I taught my kids about guns – three boys – and they were always careful with the things and followed the rules: always assume it’s loaded, never point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot and don’t ever just “fool around” with them.  I went shooting with my youngest son, now quite old, and my granddaughter this past summer and saw that he’d passed on the rules to her as well and practices all the safety and caution I taught.  She’s a pretty good shot.

My weapons (let’s not kid ourselves), are all World War II vintage except for a Revolutionary War original flintlock musket and a modern copy.  I occasionally shoot the copy, but the original is a little too valuable – and old – to take any chances. Flintlock guns are curious things to shoot because of the slight delay between the time the flint (a piece of stone), hits a piece of steel to make sparks and the sparks find their way to a reservoir of gun powder which then has to get a spark into a small hole in the barrel to ignite the powder there the explosion of which propels a 3/4 inch lead ball out the barrel.  You’ve got to hold the gun on the target while all that is going on and before the thing actually fires, your view is obscured by smoke and sparks flying all over the place.  Old guns like that, before rifling twisted a bullet in flight and made it more accurate, couldn’t hit much and the lead ball had to have enough clearance in the barrel to account for a quick buildup of residue from rotten-egg smelling black powder, so the first two or three shots rattled around in the barrel on their way out.  The only way they were effective was to line up a row of people who all shot in the same direction at the same time which is why the Red Coats lined up like that all the time.
The Second Amendment notion came about as a result of that dust up between the American Colonies and England, which wouldn’t have been possible if the citizens of the Colonies were not well armed. Nearly every farmer and a lot of other colonial citizens had at least one gun back then, not only for hunting, but for protection from animals and pissed off native Americans who resented being pushed around. A war with the French not only brought about some of the taxes and other onerous measures Colonists objected to, but also armed and trained a lot of people who defended British America from the French and their Native American allies in a war which ended only twelve years before Lexington and Concord.
So when it came time to setting up a new way to govern, the folks writing things like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were painfully aware of the kind of government they didn’t want and of the kinds of provisions that might preserve the things they did want. And given their recent experience with the Central Government of King George III, they thought that a central government might think twice before overreaching if the citizens of the separate States retained the same kind of weaponry as the central government’s army. It was, after all, the existence of armed citizens that made Lexington, Concord and the Revolution possible. And it’s armed citizens, not armies, which have made all revolutions against tyranny possible – from France in the 18th Century, to Syria in the 21st. At the time of the Second Amendment, a citizen’s gun was technologically equivalent to the Army’s so the tacit threat was credible. While parity in arms between government armies and citizens no longer exists, hesitation by a government contemplating overreaching, from knowing citizens may not sit idly by as their rights are infringed, may be worth the terrible price we pay from time-to-time. Or maybe it’s just a quaint idea whose time has passed.
I don’t want to give up my guns.  I follow the law, I don’t shoot people.  I went through all the procedures and checks and processes.  I even had guns legally in Boston.  And if you ever want to find a place that makes it hard to keep a gun, it’s Boston which is kind of ironic because Boston would still be British if the locals had to go through all the hoops and loops to have a gun there that they have to go through now.

But maybe we’ve got to do something.  There are too many nuts out there.  The guns citizens have are no match for the guns of the Central Government’s Army anyway – or for their tanks, artillery, airplanes, drones and all the rest.  So the idea that an armed citizenry is a counter-balance to overreaching government is obsolete – except of course for the Arab Spring and other stuff like that.  I sure wish we weren’t dismantling and co-opting the free-press as the media tries to match declining advertising revenue to expenses. Guns are one thing, but that notion that the pen is mightier than the sword is a good one.

In any event, it’s sure hard to explain all this to a young person from China who’s a little worried about attending an American college or university.

Speaking of China, my time may be winding down.  I got brushed back by a guy on a motorbike the other day.  I had all I could do to keep from throwing an elbow and knocking him and his kid to the ground.  I didn’t see the kid until the bike’s handle bar hit me in the ribs.  I shouted a reliable American English epithet as the guy sped off which of course had no effect.  I need to learn some in the local Shanghaiese dialect.   It is getting old though.  In February, I’ll begin my fifth year in Shanghai and my sixth in China.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the PJ’s in broad daylight, the walking backwards for exercise, the people beating on trees or the old ladies in semi-uniform doing ritualized sword pantomime or aerobics to the beat of portable boom-boxes every morning in Yangpu Park.

I’m tired of teaching. It occurred to me that this teaching thing is about the longest time I’ve done the same thing almost ever.  I can’t remember being at the same place, doing the same thing with many of the same people for this long before.  Many of the kids are fun and well-intentioned, but too many are just rich kids looking for a free-ride and a trip to Europe of America to shop and see the world.

I do my best to try to understand and appreciate the culture and there are for sure aspects Chinese culture that are admirable. At the same time, however, the lack of what I think of as basic logic just doesn’t exist here.  These folks simply aren’t trained to think.  It’s almost impossible to logically talk about wide open windows and doors in winter with an electric heater going full blast or the opposite when in oppressive heat and humidity, air conditioners are running at their highest settings – all in a country that uses only florescent light bulbs in a bid to save energy.  I’ve been helping a kid prepare for the IELTS comprehensive standardized English competency exam and have been having a hell of a time persuading her she can’t memorize all the possible questions and plausible answers to random followup questions she might be asked in the speaking part of the exam.  Or in fact for the topics about which she might be asked to write or speak.  Yet, most kids – actually all of them, buy every self-help book they can find with consist of possible questions based on past examinees and answers to recite and memorize.  Examiners know this so they try never to use the same predictable questions, but even knowing that doesn’t help.  Pointing out that it might be a good idea to memorize the general way to structure an answer would be helpful just doesn’t resonate.  “But that won’t be the answer.” they say. So it’s useless and they won’t do it.  Pointing out the repeated fact that Chinese mainland students score the poorest on the planet on these exams has no effect whatsoever – even often with parents, private tutoring companies and many teachers and school administrators.

I’ll be visited in a little while by a twenty-one year old sex worker who is a “massage” girl in in a small shop on the first floor of my apartment building – exactly ten floors below.  I live in a nice section of town – a high-end apartment complex – not in some sleazy neighborhood filled with prostitutes and drug addicts which would be the case if the same situation were in New York or Chicago.  Adjacent shops include a pet store, a foot massage place, a small shipping company, a nursery for little kids and a bogus medical scam where old people get wired up to “medical devices” that have no effect except that they think they do. It’s filled with old people connected by alligator clips to their nose or ear or wrapped with a cheap heating pad-like device all connected to a smart-looking box that does nothing.

The girl is from a small and poor village near touristy Guilin in southern China and is in Shanghai because it’s the easiest place to earn the most money for girls in her “situation” divorced, with a young child – in her case a daughter about two years old.  She sees her kid two or three times a year.   I pass her place of work at least twice a day so we’ve become friends of a sort – although she speaks almost no English.  When she shows up, which has become a little more frequent in the last few months as the weather’s turned colder, she sits at my computer and used Rosetta Stone, the language learning software, to learn English.  She’s tough on herself; the program is self-grading, and isn’t happy with a score of less than 100 on any module.  Her job, which primarily consists of providing temporary “relief” to any guy in need, is just that – a job and one that literally thousands of girls and women have all over Shanghai – within a block or two of almost any street, all over the city.  She isn’t happy with her work, but has to provide for her family and without college or any other practical training – that’s all there is, pretty much that pays.  After seeing this kind of thing, virtually everywhere in China over four or five years, it becomes part of the landscape and just “normal” – no sinister or other moral judgement attached.

We “talk” via QQ, the Chinese version of MSN or some other instant messenger and by using “Google Translate” with a smattering of English, but not much.  I’ve seen photos of her family and hometown.  Her family inhabit an unheated cinder block room or two in a rural part of southwestern China where drugs are easy to come by due to the proximity of Burma and Laos.  She’s not unique by a long shot which is a burden on this country not soon to be lifted.

So, despite some of the percs of being in China, almost free ninety minute foot massages and thirty dollar ninety minute full body massages among them, I may be running out my string.  If I stop the teaching gig, I lose the long-term visa and getting a Chinese “green card” is really, really difficult, usually involving either marriage, buying a house or investing big money – none of which I’m up for at the moment.  I’m good until this coming July or August.  After that, it’s probably going to be Plan B.   I’m not sure what that is either.

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