Back in China 7: Weaving, Cooking, Laughing, Digging

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011


In China one does not so much cross the street, as weave one’s way through it.  This is because there is an anything goes attitude as far as traffic is concerned. For example on any given day you will find cars driving in the wrong lane ( and going the wrong direction), a car parked in the street while waiting for someone, bicycles coming at you from every direction, and an animal or two just running loose (Look out! It’s a zebra crossing!). There is a rhythm to the mass of tangled commuters however that cannot be explained, but seems to become part of the foreigner who lives here for at least a year.  The other day I was weaving, and at every other step two or three people crisscrossed both in front of and behind me, with two or three people doing the same to them. This was done without any jumpy movement, but in a seamless choreography that would have made George Balanchine turn green with envy. And this was done in one take, with no rehearsals.


Cooking with Old Friends

When I lived in Tianjin, I would often work with the school cook and baker, who always wanted to learn how to make Western recipes.  Xiao Shi was the baker and he wanted to know how to make wedding cakes, so I taught him one year.  We baked at least two 4-5 tiered wedding cakes from my tiny Chinese kitchen in the smallest oven you ever saw, and they turned out pretty well.  The Chinese were not really cake bakers, and so even though you can see many pretty cakes in shop windows, the actual taste of these cakes is usually disappointing. The cake itself is usually dry and flavorless (now I know what a big difference vanilla and real butter make), and the frosting is usually just shortening mixed with a bad tasting powdered sugar.  So to have a cake that is both pretty and delicious is rather a novelty here.  And now Xia Shi knows how to make one all by himself.

With Shi Liu, the cook, we planned to make bbq pulled pork, bbq sauce, and fajitas.  It is difficult to explain what the actual difference in taste between a lemon and a lime is, why lime is what is needed for really good fajitas, and why lemon simply won’t do.  Doing it in one’s second and somewhat broken language is almost impossible. So we made steak fajitas with lemon, and we made bbq sauce without Worcestershire sauce or liquid smoke.  I would say that the dishes were moderately successful, and will turn out even better the second time.  There is a certain kind of fellowship among those who love to cook, and as my friend and I stood and pulled pork together in the school’s kitchen, I felt strangely joyful, even if I was hot and tired.  We talked about his recent marriage and baby, and my family, all of this being done as pork juice splashed on us, smiling as we would wipe our faces with any part of our arm that did not have pork juice or plastic gloves on it. It is amazing how many things you can do without language.  Of course language fosters relationships, but working together without language ain’t too shabby.

Dinner at Ayi’s House

Even though we had a wonderful roasted duck dinner earlier in the week hosted by Liu Fang, our beloved friend and former housekeeper, and had also met the following Saturday just to hang out (and eat pizza), she wanted us to come to her home and to cook for us.  I think it was hard for her to know we were in Tianjin for a few more days without getting together one last time.  We felt the same of course, but we felt that way about each of the Chinese friends that we were visiting that week.  It is difficult to have friends that you know you may not see again for many years, friends that live on the other side of the world, and who require 24 hours of travel and a lot of money to visit.  Every minute is precious.

We drove to her neighborhood in a small taxi that was outnumbered by privately owned cars, which was a big change from the days when we lived there.  One driver was approaching us with his tiny daughter standing up on the seat so that her upper half had poked through the sun roof. This Chinese princess in a fluffy white number reminiscent of a First Holy Communion dress looked like she was in some sort of parade, and needed to acknowledge her adoring fans, but really it was just another busy weekday traffic jam in the streets of Tianjin. The cabbie, Joe, and I all laughed at this unusual sight, but that is the thing about a night on the town in China. You will see so many unusual sights that you stop counting them, and forget most of them. That is until a new arrival asks you about them. What’s that? Oh, you mean the lone white chicken walking around on the expressway? Um, not sure–probably fell off someone’s truck (true story).  In addition to the chicken, an outing might turn up an old lady talking to herself on a bench, a toilet sitting on the outside steps , a man with his wife beater shirt rolled up to expose his midriff, a toddler bending down to poop in the middle of the walkway (I am ok with them pooping outside now, but still don’t get why it is done in the middle of the sidewalk), an old woman sweeping the streets with a tiny broom,  fruit vendors screaming at you as you pass by, trucks with loads of cotton that are three times as large as the actual truck, ladies with polyester see through scarves covering their face to keep out the dirt, but sort of scaring you as they bike past you,  and babies sitting in the front basket of their mom’s bike.  Just a regular Tuesday night in Tianjin.

That night at dinner we marveled at the tiny but immaculate apartment that was so nicely decorated. This is because we had visited an earlier home of hers where it was crowded by so much stuff that an episode of Hoarders Buried Alive could have been filmed there.  To be fair, much of the stuff was from me or other foreigners; we tend to use and toss a lot more stuff than our Chinese friends.  Liu Fang had moved to the 4thfloor, and had seemed to change her style. Hers was the most uncluttered Chinese apartment I had ever seen.  The bedroom had a wide doorway but no door, and even though it had a curtain rod ready to use, Liu Fang explained that they did not really think about putting a curtain up. The bedroom opened up onto the living room which had low-set comfortable  green sofas, a huge screen TV, and very few ornaments on the wall. There were the three large yellow plates with red and blue designs that she had bought when we were together at the Athens, Ga. TJ Maxx last summer when she had come to the U.S. for Jack’s wedding.  I smiled because the three small red plates that I had bought on that same shopping trip were hanging on my own wall at home.  Next came a section devoted to family photos, and there among all the Chinese faces were my own three kids.  Joe and I smiled as we saw how proudly she had displayed her American children on the wall next to her own son’s picture.  Not all of our children were that friendly to Liu Fang during their teen years, but Ayi Mama as the kids would later call her, loved all three of them and assured me that one in particular would get nicer when he/she got older.  She and I often shared stories and encouragement about our children when we were together in Tianjin.  Her son Zhang Yi was the same age as Jack and Pres, and had some interaction with him when they were small.  I hoped that they would be able to welcome him to their homes one day if he ever got the opportunity to come to America.

It was just the four of us at dinner and even though Liu Fang’s husband Zhang Min spoke no English, we managed to talk about world news, our kids, our cultures, the changes in China, and their smart little apartment.  Zhang Min was a good husband to Liu Fang, and a one of those people who seem to enjoy life and not get too ruffled when things go wrong. He is very hard working, but also very happy, and this was obvious in his face at all times.  We had no idea when we would see them again, and so the end of this happy evening came too soon, and was bittersweet for all of us.

On the ride home we talked about how fortunate we were to meet Liu Fang, and how happy we were that she seemed to have done so well at her new job at the school, and had been able to move to a nicer apartment, and how she had so lovingly took care of our family.  To think that if we had not come to China, we would never have met this remarkable woman was in our minds on the ride home that night.  So nice to have such good friends on the other side of the world.  When I was digging to China in our yard on 6 North Street, in Canonsburg, Pa. back in 1960, I could not have imagined this happy night. Weaving, cooking, laughing, digging–they all have their own rhythm. So glad I got to be a part of it.


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Back in China 6 : 100 Jouzi, Opinions, Laughs, & Tears

Monday, July 4th 2011

New School/Subway

When I got up this morning, I realized it might be a rather different 4th of July.  Our dear friend and maintenance/construction manager, Mr. Guo De Hai permitted us to tag along with him and his young Chinese assistant Echo, to tour the new school.  The building where our kids had attended, and where we had worked some years ago, was going to be torn down to make room for a high rise, since land is so expensive now.  So the school had to move to a new location.  The new school tour reminded me of times I would tag along with my father many years earlier. He was an architect, and occasionally I would accompany him as he walked through a half finished building to inspect it.  Not sure how this happened since there were so many of us; I don’t recall him asking “Who wants to tag along on a building inspection?” Of course at least 5 of us would say “I do!” When you grow up in a family of 7 kids, you do not get much one on one time with your parents, understandably.  Usually you ended up alone with a parent if you had to be picked up or dropped off from brownies, the dentist, or a school activity.  Now walking through the unfinished hallways with Guo De Hai, I was immediately transported back in time to a post-brownie pick-up walk through with Dad. I could picture Cannon McMillan Junior High School, and could recall my Dad’s presence. It seemed impossible that he has been gone for 15 years now. I knew he would have enjoyed coming to China, and taking this tour with us; I knew he would have noticed lots of things that we didn’t, and would have things to share that we would find interesting. And like Guo De Hai, I knew he would have noticed and commented on anything that was not a particularly good design. Funny how design people think alike across cultures.  This is not the circle of life, as Jack loved to say; it is more likely the image of God I suspect.

Ancient Culture Street

We decided to take the new subway to Ancient Culture Street, even though the 95 degree weather inclined us both to go home and watch a movie in the air conditioning.  Of course the subway had air conditioning (see previous write up about how that works), but today it was definitely set on Barely Perceptible. Upon our arrival we got a bit lost, even though we had a map, and Joe knows his way around. This was due to the massive and frequent construction projects that closed one end of many city streets. Imagine the two of us drenched in sweat, with no shade to be found, walking around in circles due to the blocked streets for about 30 minutes. By the time we sought refuge in the UBC Coffee Shop (Chinese Starbucks) we must have been a sight.  We learned that you had to spend a certain amount of money for the privilege of sitting in their coffee shop, supposedly due to newly installed Internet.  We decided to bail, said thank you and sorry, and headed back out in the heat. We took a cab to McDonald’s near the north gate of Ancient Culture Street and spent the next half hour cooling down eating food we never purchase in America , and felt refreshed enough to go to our next appointment.

We began to wander around Ancient Culture Street, which is a collection of shops that sell Chinese art and the implements to create it.  Some of it is a tourist trap, but we love to look at the paintings, and the cute tacky toys.  I passed a well-dressed woman in her forties who had heels, hose, a crisp cotton blouse, a lovely blue layered skirt with flounces and embroidery, and a chic hair style, without a drop of sweat appearing on her beautiful skin.  I thought to myself how pretty and classy she looked, and how she seemed to embody the trinity of the Secret deodorant commercials of the 1960s:  cool, calm, and collected. Katy Winters would approve. I on the other hand, embodied a different trinity:  sweaty, stressed, and disheveled. Katy Winters would not have hung out with the likes of me, I guarantee. I promised Joe that if I could ever get cool again, I would never again complain about his having the AC too high in the car, a desperate bargain that we both knew I wouldn’t keep.

We were to meet a friend of Joe’s from Athens, Jessie, and her young daughter who would be attending Georgia Tech next fall.  Jessie attended Joe’s classes while she was a graduate student at UGA, and had now returned home to Tianjin. Imagine my surprise when the beautiful, cool lady I had admired turned out to be her!  She gave us a gift, which was some wonderful tea that we later regifted to Zhang Jian, (who had done a million favors for us), but the gesture was appreciated. We laughed later about how you could have your hands full of luggage and bags at the airport, and your Chinese friends would come to see you off and hand you a large, heavy gift that you had to figure out how to board the plane with.  In the stifling heat, along with the small purchases we made, we now had to carry the big box of tea. (We really are ingrates, I know.)

We both were grateful that is was not a big eagle made of seashells that was once given to us.  We turned that special gift into the Bless Your Heart award and various team members were proud owners of it for short periods of time (probably not short enough). We often felt bad about our attitudes in the face of the Chinese way of being so thoughtful.  Lord love ‘em as Grandma Haggerty would say. They truly are so dear, and often we are aware that we fall short.

We shopped and bargained with Jesse helping us, even though we knew how to bargain. She being Chinese however, could break the foreigner rule. For us, if they ask for 100 yuan, we offer 50; Jesse would offer 30.  It was fun to watch her go at the shopkeeper who told Jesse that she would not even make any money off of the sale at that price (the same thing they always told us at our ½ off offers).  We walked and talked about America and I forgot about how hot I was because of the rich conversation. (Rule #2:  Good friends make anything better.) We said our goodbyes and promised to take care of Hang if she ever needed anything while at Georgia Tech.  Her mom had moved back to Tianjin, and was a bit worried about her, as any mom would be.  Off went this pretty lady and her daughter to taxi to their car. Off went the two sweaty big noses (Chines pet name for foreigners) in their rumpled clothes to find the bus. We needed to get home and shower in time to meet the Golden Girls for dinner.

Dinner with Golden Girls

How I met the Golden Girls is a story in itself.  The older I get, the less stock I put into conventional wisdom; the intersection of an American lady named Mary with these four wonderful ladies is a great example of that. Mary and her husband Neal had come to Tianjin for just 6 short months.  Many folks had wondered if anything worthwhile could come of such a short venture, especially in light of the expense of flying and setting up a short term home.  Since her time was indeed short, Mary decided to jump right in and join the outdoor morning tai chi group in order to meet some Chinese ladies.  Mary was not versed in tai chi; neither was she as svelte as many of the Chinese lao ren (old people).  She tried to stay in the back and blend in, but the teacher wanted Mary front and center, and proceeded to shower her with attention, most of it unwanted, and in a style that is not considered helpful in American culture (You’re doing it wrong! You’re too slow!  You’re a little fat!)  This Chinese teacher’s brutal honesty was meant to help Mary get it right, but ended up driving her to tears. (Because as Kendall taught us in the last post, we’re not supposed to tell people they’re fat.)  Before giving up entirely, Mary decided to let the teacher know that she was getting more and more discouraged and embarrassed and that she might enjoy the class if the teacher just let her be in the back and do the best she could. The Chinese teacher was very apologetic and let Mary know that she didn’t realize her criticisms were upsetting to Mary.  Smile.

(When my daughter Natalie was small, she used to begin a sentence with “I don’t mean to say this, but…” when what she meant to say was “I hate to say this but…”  Joe and I used to laugh and say “Sweetie, I think you do mean to say it. )

At any rate, the Chinese teacher backed off of Mary, and she stayed in the tai chi class long enough to meet Sun, Tang, Pan and Zhou, who I came to call the Golden Girls. When Mary had to go back to the States she asked me if I would be interested in meeting with them as she had been doing. They were learning English, talking about life, and generally having a lot of fun together.  So of course I said I would take over the class, and we met each week in one of their tiny Chinese apartments, studying, laughing, sharing, drinking tea, and forging deep friendships.  My Chinese and their English was at about the same leve, beginner conversational, so we often found ourselves using Chinglish, a half English, half Chinese combination that was supported my many gestures and drawings.

If you met these ladies, you would perhaps see four old people, especially if you are under the age of thirty. Heck, if you met me you would see an old lady, and I am ten years their junior.  However as my daughter said to me once, “Mom, only their bodies are old.”  That is how it is for us older folks. Our bodies get old and the wrinkles, aches and pains come, but our personalities and spirits do not feel any different from our younger years.  With these friends, I became acquainted with all aspects of Chinese culture, and could ask them questions about things I did not understand. What I learned very quickly was that Chinese moms and American moms are pretty much concerned with the same few items; they just have cultural and stylistic differences and/or constraints.

Tonight we were to have dinner together at a restaurant called 100 Jiaozi.  Yes, 100 different types of the wonderful boiled dumplings that are a traditional Chinese food.  When our cab arrived the Golden Girls were standing in a small group near the door of the restaurant, but when they spied us, all four of them ran toward their cab.  I cannot really recall the last time someone ran to greet me like that.  Maybe my kids when I picked them up after being out of town, or my husband in our early married life.  It took me by surprise and so I started running too.  We were all caught in a frenzy of hugs and handshaking and went into the restaurant as a huddled mass of lao pengyous (old friends).  As we sat to eat, I realized that much as I love these gals, I was still not used to all the talking at once that I knew would happen.  Two of them set to ordering several varieties of jioazi, and one was talking with Joe (loudly), the waiter and two young waitresses were talking loudly and everyone was interrupting everyone.  Meanwhile one of them (the most quiet in the bunch) was asking me questions, but I suppose the loud shouting and my jet lag got the best of me, and I kept asking her to repeat what she just said.  I recalled the many meetings where in the midst of a lesson all four of them would be shouting and arguing with each other (in a friendly way-they have known each other all their lives) in Chinese, with an occasional name that I recognized such as Moses, Abraham Lincoln, or Clinton.  During these loud arguments I would let them sort it all out until one would summarize the question and share it with me in Chinglish.  As this familiar scene played out in the restaurant I just sat back and smiled at the familiarity of it all.

At dinner we all settled down to a single conversation and they told us a bit about their college days when the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom. They shared some very sad things that happened to their family members that they had not even told their children.  Joe and I sat rapt with attention and we both asked them to consider writing down their stories to preserve their history.  I see why some of these stories are kept secret; not only do power entities wish to keep them quiet, but those who endured such suffering often cannot bear to retell the stories.

After the usual picture taking, we said our goodbyes, but we all decided that they would come to my apartment to watch the Joy Luck Club. We were of course putting off the inevitable goodbye, but I wanted to hear their perspective of the movie as well as spend some more time with my old friends.   Perhaps this movie might encourage them to let me write their story one day. They of course had many comments about the movie’s main characters, and sometimes disagreed with each other over whether or not the movie was authentic.  I came to see that if I asked 100 Chinese friends their perspective on anything, I could end up with almost as many opinions as the 100 Jiaozi restaurant (ditto for the American perspective on any topic).  Therefore maybe it is safer to use the phrase IMHO (in my humble opinion).  Note to self: generally speaking, it is best to be cautious when generalizing, even about your own country, (in my humble opinion).

These are evenings you remember all your life—and you think about them even though far away. I am not in any type of hurry to exit this world, but when I do get to be with God one day-I want to ask him about the sad things in history. I want to hear and understand the parts that I cannot understand now.  I long to hear Him explain how He was at work during the dark times; I suspect I will wonder how I missed it earlier.  I do not know if my friends have written their stories yet—but trust me- you would want to read them.  As they talked I wished I could come back and write them, and just spend more time with these beloved living history books.  But for now that will have to wait.

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Back in China 5: Cynicism, BBQ, & High Fashion

Back in China 5

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sundays in China mean less traffic than during the week. You can ride the bus to the local fellowship with a pretty good chance of getting a seat. I say local fellowship as if there are several to choose from.  Not so; all the foreign Christians, if they attended, went to the same one.  I know, that would never fly in America, but it is amazing how one can fellowship with all types of believers when there is no option to meet with only the like-minded.

The TJ fellowship meets in a dirty, tacky, old auditorium in a travel college.  When Joe and I would sing on the worship team, we often found nails and wires on the floor and walls respectively, and lots of dust on the stage curtain.  There is no official pastor, but different men take turns teaching, sharing, or talking, depending on whose turn it is.   We come from all kinds of denominations, but somehow it worked most of the time.  For example there were the charismatics from New Zealand, the medical students from Africa, the Korean English teachers, the Americans of every age, and the occasional drifter who just wanted to be with other foreigners. This hodge podge was here out of necessity; but it showed me that the Body of Christ could worship together even if they did not share all their beliefs.

Sometimes there were some rather wacky folks, and you didn’t quite know what to make of them.  For example while sitting there today I recalled Canal Lady.  Every week at the end of the service she would quickly jump up to share her prayer requests. Tianjin had a very dirty canal that wound its way around the city. Its waters were full of sewage and trash, and its banks were in similar shape. It had a bad smell year round, (duh), but especially in the summer. As Niecey Nash would say,  It was a hot mess!  Canal Lady as we called her had decided that God had spoken to her about the dirty canal, and how we should pray for its clean up.  I thought, good luck with that one Canal Lady.  Sometimes I would even get annoyed because others had need for prayer that seemed to be more urgent. Someone’s child needed a cleft palate or club foot operation. Someone else’s Chinese friend had cancer, or was in trouble with the authorities for holding Bible study.  Some of the African men had not seen their families for one year.  You get the picture.  But Canal Lady persisted week after week to ask for prayer for the canal clean up.  Some of us silently prayed for the Canal Lady to give up this impossible dream. However a few months later, the Chinese government decided to clean up the canal, and we were all surprised… except Canal Lady.  That was when I quit sorting out the prayers in terms of the possible and impossible.  “And because these zany dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day” (from Cinderella).  And the more cynical types such as myself are learning to keep our mouths shut and pray. I don’t know if God enjoys these moments as much as we might, but I still smile when I think of it.  You got me good that time Lord.  Review Rule # 5. Don’t Be Quick to Judge.

The Ribs Place or  Shuo Guo Li

When Joe was on his look-see trip to China (without the fam), a few of the families took him to the Ribs Place, and he has never found a place that he loves more than it. They cook pork all day long out back and bring out platters of melt in your mouth bbq pork, with the best sauce you ever tasted.  Of course we also order the corn and the garlic broccoli, but the pork ribs are to die for.   We went after church with a few friends, and I thought of all the times we had been there with our kids, without our kids, and with many different combinations of friends.  It is funny how food can be such a comfort when you are away from home (or when you are home for that matter). God made so many delicious things to eat in every country, and gave people so many creative ways to cook them.  Of course I am not broad minded enough to partake of roasted rat stuffed with sweet potato. But that’s just me.

“We’re Not Allowed to Tell People They’re Fat”

A friend’s son had met one of our China team members who was a bit portly, and his first comment after looking up and then down was ““we’re not allowed to tell people they’re fat” to which our friend graciously replied something polite such as  “Nice to meet you too, Kendall.”  We are however allowed to tell people they’re thin, and in China almost everyone is.  Sunday night we were waiting for an old friend and had quite a time people watching. We noticed that there were no fat people to be seen, except an occasional chubby middle schooler. (Is that time of life just heinous in every culture I wondered?)  The thin people however all had quite a variety of fashion sense. For example, in the twenty or so minutes that we sat outside, we saw young women dressed like vogue models, prostitutes, and Hello Kitty groupies. Others had mismatched hippy ensembles, sweet little girl dresses, homemade outfits knitted by Grandma or mom, miniskirts with fishnet stockings, go-go boots with dark hose, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s styles, and lots of anklet nylons. The Chinese are not only not slaves to décor, but they are not slaves to fashion, and nothing exemplifies that like the nylon hosiery   anklets worn by every age female. They make perfect sense; they provide the protection from blisters that socks give, but are less bulky and are almost invisible. Ok, everyone can see them, and they look funny at first, but if I lived here long enough, I might be convinced to try them for comfort’s sake.

As far as fashion goes, in China anything can and is worn, and no one cares. I cannot imagine for example a Chinese saying to their friend “What’s up with the flood pants?” as we hear in America. I recall the first time I heard that particular expression; I was in elementary school. I had enough intuition to know not to wear my own pants too short, but I had no compunction to point out that others’ were. I became aware of how easily one can be made fun of in my American culture, and thought that from now on, I would have to be on guard or the fashion police would comment on my attire.  That is a lot of pressure for a 6th grader.

It continues past middle school I am afraid.  I had a big white down coat that I wore in Tianjin, (ok, it started out white and turned dark gray pretty quickly), and it was not high fashion, but it was the only coat I ever had that kept me completely warm and cozy.  However I was called the Big White Marshmallow, and other names that happily escape me now, and was constantly asked by others with a smirk “You’re cold, huh?” To which I always replied, “Actually, no.”  I never understood why people cared what I wore and if I was in their mind, over bundled.  Leave me alone fashion police! I am over fifty now, and really don’t care if you approve of my wardrobe. If you persist, I am going out and buying some of those nylon hosiery anklets just to annoy you. And I am going to wear them with a blouse and skirt that don’t match,  AND have kitty cats all over them.

Rule # 9   Worrying about what others think is a waste of time and energy.

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Back in China 4: Old Friends & Childhood Memories (If the Nuns Could See Me Now.)

Back In China   Day 4   Saturday, July 2, 2011

Liu Fang/Papa John’s/Catholic Church

This was our day to meet Liu Fang, our former housekeeper and more importantly, good friend.  A housekeeper is called a bao mu, but in our community they were also referred to as Ayi, which actually means Aunty and in our understanding was a term of endearment I tried to call her Liu Fang, but often find myself saying “Ayi, what is that man doing?”  It’s a hard habit to break and she is a good sport about it.  She likes to give it right back to me and call me Aunty Liz, which I love.  In truth we are about ten years apart, and are more like a jie jie and mei mei (older and younger sister).  She took care of our family for seven years until the school requested her service, and I reluctantly gave her up. There she would have benefits and we both knew it was a better deal.  This close connection is why we bought her a ticket to America for Jack’s wedding last year, and why my sons refer to her as Ayi Mama, which she loves. Liu Fang knows us better than anyone else in China.  Happily for both of us, this turned out to be a good thing.

I still remember when she came to our home to be interviewed for the housekeeper job. I was as nervous as she was; I had never had a housekeeper before, and she had never been one. We were the first Americans that she had ever known.  We both laugh now at how scared we were and how we clicked as we worked together.  Liu Fang is the only person who can cook with me and we do not need to say “Hand me this” to each other. It is as if we are one unit when you get us in the kitchen. And usually there was quite a lot of sharing about our lives and laughing about funny things that happened that day. Happy times indeed.  So today was a day to just hang out with our beloved Ayi.

Both parties took buses to meet at Ji Li Da Sha/The Exchange/Bing Jiang Dao.  The area has three huge department stores, and a shopping street that stretches for miles. When we lived here the vendors were all in makeshift stores that could be folded up into a three wheel bicycle at the end of the day. It was dirty, crowded, chaotic, and made for a fun afternoon of people watching and bargain hunting.  Now it has been redeveloped, and consists of small white tile shops, one after another in a long building on both sides of the street. We didn’t even bother to walk down the street, as it was raining, and we knew the kitschiness of the old days would be gone.

Instead we went to an old Catholic church, which was still operating, and on the historical registry, so it was open for free tours.  I wondered what the young Chinese thought about this place. It had paintings of the Stations of the Cross, statues of Mary, Jesus and various saints, an elaborate altar, and pews with kneelers.  I recalled the many hours spent in St. Patrick’s Church in my home town of Canonsburg, and thought of the hours of services, procession practice, confessions, communions, and of course the People of God candy eating in the back of the church that was part of my elementary school life. I thought of the nuns whose job was to train us in the ways of God, and how they probably felt that in my case they had failed miserably since most of the time I was goofing off or daydreaming.  Too bad they could not see that later on I came to appreciate  the foundation I received as a youngster, and that my faith was important to me now. I walked around the tacky, dusty church and thought of those days, and again wondered how I had journeyed to such a far away, and strange, and wonderful place.

The church of course was very dusty and dirty; no place can escape the soot from the air pollution and from the lack of trees and grass that allows constant erosion of soil, although recent plantings have tried to slow this down.  The ceiling was similar to the cathedral we toured at Christmas in Savannah, blue and gold, and geometrically perfect.  Added to that were lots of red swags and large Chinese decorations, that in my mind, deterred from the original design, but obviously were considered to add beauty to the Chinese way of thinking. I asked Ayi why so many decorations? She said she didn’t know but that seemed to be the Chinese way.  The outside of the building also had the white plastic pvc pipes holding the electric wiring. This was also perhaps seen as an improvement because in the old days hundreds of black wires would be hanging off the building. I suppose bundling these into white pvc pipe was considered less tacky, but…not sure about that.  Aesthetics do not seem to be that important in China, as they are in America.  If your outside screens are falling off and you have some green plastic string that you bought home from the bakery, it will do quite well to tie up the loose ends on the screens on the front of your home.  Dental floss and duct tape also work well.  To be fair, the Chinese often comment to me about our obsession to have everything look pretty.  Is that more biblical?  No, and it often requires a lot of time, money, and effort to keep things looking good.  I know…good stewardship you say. Perhaps, but maybe more like good Stewartship (as in Martha).  This is a good example of philosophical arguments I would have with myself and with team members about what is important in life.

Did I mention that we ate lunch at Papa John’s in the basement of the Japanese department store, Isetan?  We could not resist the urge to “Come to Papa” while in China.  Ayi was a good sport as always, and enjoyed her pizza while regaling us with stories about her life, and asking all about ours.  Three good friends laughing and eating pizza is a great way to spend a rainy Saturday.  I sort of forgot that we were just visitors..that this was not our home anymore, and when I came to my senses, it made me sad.

Chinese Staff Dinner/Chen

That night we were to eat dinner with the Chinese staff at the Sister’s restaurant.  When we first moved to China we used to go out to the front gate on Sunday nights and watch a pair of sisters in their many padded layers of clothing cook delicious dishes in an outdoor makeshift kitchen set up on a three wheeled bicycle. We would order beef and chicken dishes for about 16 yuan each (two U.S. dollars at that time), and we enjoyed watching this live Chinese cooking show just as much as we enjoyed eating the results. It was great to see the owner at the front desk, and that she remembered us from her street food days; she had embodied the Chinese dream of rising up from rags to riches. Her always crowded two story restaurant had become one of the best places to eat in town, and we were lucky to get a reservation.  This time however the delicious food was not center stage; instead the gathering of old friends was so sweet that we could have been eating moonpies and cokes and been just as happy.  These folks were our drivers, repair men, our cook, and had served us and the China team on a daily basis.  Our former school cook, Wu Ya Ping proceeded to take over the ordering, which was of course so nice for us. The rest of us got caught up and we shared family news and funny stories.  They all asked us to think about coming back to Tianjin, and shared that they knew our hearts loved the Chinese people. Sadly some of the newer arrivals did not seem to care about Chinese, and this broke our hearts to hear. This is not a whiny bunch; in fact we had never before heard them complain about anything so we knew that they were troubled to mention it to us.  What we do with such knowledge is beyond us at present. Mostly we pray about it.

We did not dwell on this sad topic but moved on to eat and catch up. As we discussed various food likes and dislikes, Guo De Hai shared about his grandparents catching rats, opening them up, sticking a sweet potato inside, and then roasting them.  He did not remember what they tasted like, but we suggested that perhaps they tasted like chicken. We all laughed about that.  I have never been so poor that I had to eat roasted rat with sweet potato stuffing (hope I have not ruined Thanksgiving for you).  However I admire the human spirit in that it can find a way to survive even in the most desperate times.  Sing along with me now “Just a small sweet potato makes the roasted rat go down, the roasted rat go down, roasted rat go down (apologies to the Sherman Brothers who wrote the Mary Poppins song).  To me, that story is not about eating a rat, but about surviving and finding a way to help your family survive, and trying to make the most difficult things go easier.  That’s what grandparents and parents have been doing since the beginning of time, is it not?

Our dear friend, Susan was there that night, along with her adopted daughter Chinese daughter Chen, who was expecting a baby any day now. These two women have overcome remarkable difficulties and through the Body of Christ their lives have now been linked.

We met Susan when we first arrived in China. Her husband Sam was a teacher, and a friend to so many Chinese.  He died at the end of our first year in China, under somewhat suspicious circumstances that cannot be shared here.  Widowed in her late 40s, with two teenage children was a terrible sorrow for her, but Susan has a deep and abiding faith that hardly ever lets her complain. This she had in common with Sam, who had preached unbeknownst to us at the time, his last sermon, on the topic of “Why Not Me?”  He urged us not to ask why when difficulties come, but to thank God for all the difficulties He spares us from. Often we are not aware of God’s mercies, but we should thank Him for the known and unknown ones.  I loved that sermon, and of course it stuck with me even more when I found out later that same week that Sam had died while on a trip out in the countryside.

Chen had a sick mom, dad, and grandmother, and no education. She spent her days taking care of her ailing family, and eventually lost all of them.  As an only child with no family and no education, her future in China looked pretty grim. For one thing it would be difficult to get a good job, and for another, it would be hard to find someone who would marry her with such a family history. However an American family brought Chen back to life by loving her, helping her, and praying for her.  When they had to leave China, they asked Susan who was now an empty nester, to be a friend to Chen.  Susan of course agreed, and became more than a friend to this lovely young woman. The orphan and the widow now forged a special bond.  Chen met and married John, an American teacher, and was about to deliver her first child.  She will be permitted to have more than one due to marrying an American, and her life seems bright and happy.  She has Susan as her Korean mom, an American mom, and Wu Ya Ping, our Chinese school cook, as her Chinese mom.  That night at dinner, I felt such joy to see God’s provision to this once lonely young girl as she awaits the birth of her first child surrounded by her new family.  I sat and watched her with a quiet smile and a feeling that all was right in this tiny part of the world.

We invited each of these dear friends to come and visit us in America, and they promised that when they retired and had time they would like to come.  We took pictures and then we all piled in the van to be dropped off at our various locations.  It was sad to leave our happy group, but we knew that we would all be together again one day.

I often wish I had two or three lives and could live one of them in China with these dear friends.  I get a misty-eyed as I think of them, or find something in my Georgia home that they made, or gave to us.  I try to chase away those blues by simply thanking God that we met at all.  Sometimes that works, and sometimes I need to just sit and daydream about our life back there, now getting farther and farther away.  I think of our friend Sam and try instead to ask why I was so fortunate to leave America and meet these wonderful folks.  But you can feel lucky and sad at the same time; I arrived at home thinking that so much of life is bittersweet.  I went to sleep that night longing for the day when the bitter is a pale memory, and only the sweet remains.

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Back in China 3: The Zebra Are Nabiar.

Back in China 3

Day 3   Saturday, July 2, 2011

Today began with our usual coffee and Internet time at the Harvest Cafe, and led to an all day outing that made us so happy to come home at 9 p.m., shower, and fall into bed.  My better half mentioned that I left out an important part of each day:  walking everywhere in the extreme humidity.  Yes, that has been a bit uncomfortable, (okay, very uncomfortable), and even when we arrive at our various destinations, the air conditioning is either off (to save money) or on a setting that is so warm that it could be called Cozy, with the next levels being Barely Perceptible, What? You’re Hot?!, and ending with Beginning to Get a Bit Cool, But It’s Time To Leave. For you Penn State alums, you come home each day feeling like a couple of Grilled Stickies.  But it was a good day.


No China story would be complete without a brief explanation of nabiar.  In Mandarin, na means that, and bian or biar as the Tianjin folks say it, means side. Nabiar means over there or that way. When you ask for directions in China, no matter where the desired locale actually is, you usually get the answer, nabiar, accompanied with a gesture indicating a general direction. The gesture, it must be added, is not a convincing one, but more like one that might be used when mindlessly swatting a gnat while engrossed in a favorite book. Indeed often the responder does not look up from what they are doing, but simply hands you off to the next person to ask.  It goes something like this:

“Um, excuse me, where is the bathroom?”


“Right, I figured it was nabiar, but what I meant to say is, ‘Where is it?’”

“Nabiar.”  This time the gesture is just as disengaged, but you often get a look of disgust along with it, as if to say, “I already told you, it’s NABIAR!

“Ok, thanks.”

I move on to the next person and begin again.  I figure after about four or five nabiar like moves, I am probably getting closer to the bathroom. Other foreigners may have a different strategy, but this one usually works for me. It is a lot like that searching game we played as kids:   Am I getting hot?  No, you’re cold, ice cold…wait a minute…you’re getting warm…warmer…ok, you’re  hot…now, you’re burning…you’re on fire!!! Of course for those who have read stories 1 and 2, you are probably wondering why I don’t just let my sense of smell guide me, and that works too-once you get close enough.

This scenario I know conflicts with my views that Chinese are very polite.  However everything is based on your connections. If you are friends or doing business with Chinese, you will find their behavior to be very polite indeed. However who can be considerate to 1.3 billion people?  More on this topic later.

Making an Effort

We were able to connect with another Chinese friend, a young single woman we knew when we lived here. Precious Xin Xin was one of the young gals that we adopted and became close with, like an American Aunty and Uncle. Her beautiful English made it easy for us to get beyond small talk, and share many deep conversations about work, family, life and God.  Joe had dropped me off at my old pedicure place and waited outside for Xin Xin to arrive.  The young girls who work there did not remember me, so they did not expect me to speak any Mandarin.  Their eyes about popped out when I told one of them that I was sorry to be in their way, and I could move my purse.  They then put the word out that this foreigner speaks Chinese. From where I sit, this alert has a twofold purpose; the first is that they will be careful not to say the usual things that I and many others have heard (that lady is fat, her feet are really big, what’s up with her hair?) The second is that they want to compliment you on your Chinese, and tell you how nice it is that you made the effort to learn it. I think that is the heart of the matter; when you live in a foreign culture and make no effort to learn any of the language, it seems a bit…lazy, self-centered, or disinterested.  And even if you only learn a little bit of Mandarin, it is amazing how much goodwill it buys you.  The local people know that the whole world is learning English, but learning a few phrases in their mother tongue lets them know that their language is also important. Today I find it quite beautiful and am always happy when my Chinese friends chatter quickly in Mandarin when they think I am not listening.  They usually stop and apologize and I tell them, don’t stop—it’s beautiful to me (said in my broken Mandarin).


There is a phenomenon that I have observed, and researched for about fifteen years now, but have not known how to describe or understand it. It plays out like this:  Say you are in America, and someone honks their horn behind you. What do you do?  Most folks jump, or react quickly, like a reflex, and pick up the pace, or move out of the way. A few may give a certain vulgar gesture to the driver (quite different from the nabiar one), or some may turn around and look at the driver, but the point is, the driver’s horn will elicit some response.  Not so in China.  A honk behind someone will elicit no response whatsoever-none, nada, zero. There is no hurrying, no scurrying, no looking to see who it was, and no vulgar gestures. It is as if the honk never happened. When I first lived in China, I would quickly respond to each honk, but gradually I toned this reflex down, and eventually turned it completely off.  Visitors whom I took on city shopping tours would say “Liz, they’re honking at you.”  To which I would reply, “I know” without changing any behavior.  (Hey, I’m not going to get nabiar any faster if you honk at me.)   This underreaction seems to indicate a more relaxed attitude in general, and a lack of worry about what other people think. It also could be that living with 1.3 billion people tends to make people more resigned to the constant crowds, honks, traffic, and folks going the wrong way.  It looks like “Don’t worry, be happy” but maybe it is simply folks going about their business and not even noticing the other 1 million bikers, taxis, and private cars in their path. Think of how nerve-wracking it would be to attend to each honk.  After a while, you just tune it out, which seems reasonable.

More Connections

We met a young lady and her son whom a colleague of Joe had known back in the States.  Her son had come to faith and led his mom there, and together they brought their entire family.  It is an amazing moment to listen to a story like that. You sit and listen with your mind, and with your spirit you send up so many quiet Wows! to God.   Now they have moved back to Tianjin, and we were able to connect them with friends.  This is my Father’s world, is it not?


That night we went to the Li Hua restaurant on Yang Yang Dao with some old American friends. We noticed that instead of the dishes having water on them, and sometimes some bugs, they came as a set wrapped in plastic after being sanitized.  Hmm…or at least after appearing to be sanitized.  I am not used to our city being so modern. Tianjin is a very poor blue collar town, with only about 10 % of the population having a college degree.  It is probably the dirtiest of the four largest cities in China. So sanitized plates was a surprise to me.

Story Time

At dinner we shared funny China moments where we had embarrassed ourselves with our poor language or cultural ignorance. Of course I had to share my zebra crossing story. Years ago my precious Chinese teacher, Ma Lao Shi had mentioned zebra crossings in our city, and wondered if I was aware of how to say that word. She figured this would be important information for a newbie. On my part, I wondered why I would need this information, but having only seen real zebras in zoos, I was anxious to get a glimpse of these creatures who apparently roamed freely in our fair city.  The conversation went something like this (you really can’t make this stuff up.):

Ma Lao Shi:  So, have you seen the zebra crossings near your apartment?

Me:  Zebra crossings, um, no actually I have not spotted a single one.

Ma Lao Shi:  Surely you have; they’re all over the city.

Me:  Genda ma?  (Really???)

Ma Lao Shi: Oh yes; strange that you have not seen them.

Me:  Well when do they usually come out?  (Didn’t want to miss the next zebra                  crossing and doggone it, even if I have to get up early, this is going to be                        wonderful to see.)

Ma Lao Shi:  Come out?  Hmmm…they are out all the time.  All over the city.

Me:  (Starting to move from wondrous delight to suspicion that we are not talking             about the same thing).  All over you say…but where do they come from?

Ma Lao Shi: Come from? Why the city puts them out.  You really have not seen even         one?

Me:  Sadly no, I have not caught a single zebra crossing, or even one just standing.

Ma Lao Shi: Puzzled look…I am surprised you have never seen one. Hmmm…

Me:  Well I would love to see one, but um…don’t they get in the way of the traffic?

Ma Lao Shi:  Get in the way? Why not at all-they help the traffic problem.

Me: (to myself) Not sure how a horde of zebra added to one million bicycles could             possible help the traffic problem, but…if you say so Lao Shi.

Ma Lao Shi:  Hmmm….let me draw one on the board for you.

Me:  Thinking to myself:  I know what a zebra looks like, but knock yourself out as we seem to be at an impasse.

Ma Lao Shi:  Ok, you see, this is a zebra crossing (as she puts a cross walk on the                                  board).

Me:  (Sheepishly) Oh!!!!! I thought you meant (now I draw a few zebras on her                      crosswalk).

Both:  Uncontrolled laughter for a long time. Still laughing about it.

Our textbook, Chinese Made Easier, which we renamed Chinese Made More Difficult  was written by a British fellow, and we Americans don’t speak British English.  It gets us in sixes and sevens as we don’t ride the lift but we offer you one, and we don’t live in flats, we wear them when we have to be on our feet a lot.  And we have  cross walks, but no zebra crossings (to my knowledge). So even for an American, you see, my English not so good.  This story reminds me of Rule # 7: Laugh as often and as much as you can-no matter where you live or what life brings.

We finished dinner, took pics, said goodbye and walked back home with one of the couples (hot, tired, sticky, and happy).  We all miss the old days when we were all together, and our kids were with us, but we are also enjoying these new days. That’s because of Rule # 8 Every season of life has something wonderful. We said that we don’t know if we would ever come back home to China, but if God calls us to do that, we are ready. I’m listening. Lord. And if I can’t hear You, maybe it is because I am too distracted by all the zebra crossings that are nabiar.

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Back in China 2: Bad, Mad, Sad & Glad

Day 2   Friday, July 1, 2011

When I taught high school English I used to tell my students that English has so many wonderful words that they should try to refrain from using bad, mad, sad, & glad. But sometimes, it works.


People like to say that relationships are very important in Chinese culture, and you cannot get things done easily without them.  It is also frequently mentioned that losing face is a terrible thing in Asian culture.  When I lived here however, I came to see how artificial some of these descriptions are.  For example I know that connections are often pretty important in America for finding work, or getting into the right group, school, club, social circle.  (I also know very few-take that back-no Americans who enjoy being embarrassed.  Therefore descriptions of people seem to fall short; I rather tend to notice the similarities of the human condition as connected to our Creator, and the fact that we are made in His image.  The need and desire for relationship is a common concept that transcends culture. The differences between cultures are merely habits formed out of necessity, in response to geography, climate, political conditions, economics, history, conflict, and family structures.  The more I lived among the Chinese, the more I found this to be true.  When I didn’t understand some of the differences, I tried to think of things about my own culture that they found baffling.  There were plenty, as I came to find out.

On that note, I have to say that yesterday was such a mix of fun and sorrow.  The fun first.  We went to the Harvest Café, a coffee shop that was our first Western food/coffee/Internet place to hang out in Tianjin. It was close enough for us to walk to or ride our bikes so we went there a lotta bit as my nephew Clark used to say. I also had spent time there teaching the cook how to bake several different cakes, and really enjoyed that. I recall how strange it was to share the frosting recipe that I got from the mom of one of my old Immaculate Conception High School friends, with the Chinese cook, in this tiny whole in the wall kitchen in Tianjin, China, without speaking a work of English.

We didn’t  have Internet in our apartment, so we were eager to get to the Harvest cafe and connect. We wanted to let our family know that we had arrived, and we wanted to chat with the owner, an old friend. When ordering our coffee I noticed Paul Park Toffee Coffee up on the menu, and smiled. Paul was one of my Korean students (duh), and apparently had frequented the place often enough to have a drink named after him.  We chatted with Natalie and Pres in a four way Skype chat that could have easily occurred at the kitchen table at home. Nothing major was discussed, just enjoying connecting as a family.  Then it was off to the school where we both had worked.

We visited with old friends, ate in the school lunch room, and I reconnected with the school’s cook, Xiao Shi.  When I lived there we used to cook together and I was his go to person for finding new Western recipes that could be used in the cafeteria. He wanted to learn some new recipes, so a few of us chatted a bit in Chinese and English about what was needed menu wise.  It was one of those 75-25 Chinese/English split conversations that we foreigners who are survival level Mandarin speakers must resort to, but the Chinese staff were so patient with us.  It was decided that we needed to make pork bbq, cheeseburgers, enchiladas, and fajitas.  We browsed through our old company cook book to find some recipes, and I found what looked like a good pork bbq recipe from many years ago. Then I noticed it was my own recipe and was surprised. This is what it is like to get old young people. (My kids like to tease me by saying that they will play Season One of Law & Order over and over for me in the nursing home, as I won’t realize that I have already seen it.) I smiled as I saw the recipes of many of my old China friends, most of whom have returned to the States. Although the Chinese cook had access to this and many other cookbooks, he did not know the people who shared their recipes, nor did he know if a particular recipe was a good one, and if it was something that the students would actually enjoy.  In other words he did not relate much to this wonderful cookbook, but having a connection to an American cook who was familiar with both the women and their recipes would help unpack its delights.

A bit later our school administrator mentioned that Xiao Shi wanted to perfect his biscuit making skills. I had taught him how a few years ago, but the cook said that he had not yet mastered the art.  It took this Pittsburgh Yankee a bit of time to master the art as well, and I didn’t really get good at it till my friend Joanne helped me out.  She decided that I should come over to her place and we would make them together. That day Joanne helped me learn a few tricks that I passed on to Xiao Shi yesterday.  The circle of life, as my son Jack loved to say when he was small (emphasis on the f in life).  Rule # 4  Knowledge is for sharing-not for feeling smart.

So we found a biscuit recipe on his laptop, got our aprons on, and before I knew it I was back in the school kitchen mixing up a batch of biscuits.  Joe had been busy elsewhere in the school, and when he came back to the kitchen he laughed when he saw Xiao Shi and me in full biscuit making mode, flour all over us, and laughing and chatting in Mandarin.  (He can’t leave me alone for a minute).  When the biscuits were done we called anyone who was at school to have try, as my Chinese teacher Ma Lao Shi used to say.  This reminded me of why I liked living here so much. One day you were teaching an English class and another you were riding your bike to school or a coffee shop kitchen to bake cakes or biscuits with their Chinese cooks. Sometimes living in China was difficult, but it was never boring.

Before leaving the school I had to go up to the 4th floor and take a peek at my old office.  The door to Mr. Dingle’s old room was unlocked, and I walked through it to get to my small office in the science closet. My desk was empty, and I stood there for a few minutes, just reflecting. I didn’t feel sad (or bad, mad, or glad), but only aware of this being one of my many homes. I was glad that we came this year, as they told us at lunch that the school would be torn down to make room for a high rise.  Standing in my office I thought of that and took one last sweeping glance to see if perchance my lost diamond would suddenly show up. I thought about the day I lost it (International Day), and how Yhi Hua, my friend (and now my son’s mother-in-law) had also lost hers on the school playground. Maybe some lucky Chinese worker will find these precious stones when the razing begins, and something good will come of our loss.

That evening we had dinner with our former housekeeper, and now hao pengyou (good friend) Liu Fang and her husband, Zhang Min and their son Zhang Yi, and another dear family, George, Sophia, and their daughter Abigail.  We went to the place at the end of Di Bei Dao, just before it hits Hong Qi Lu. It has lots of neon lights outside, tons of large buses parked there for some reason, and lots of trash too. I have never been to Graceland, but I picture it to look something like that, sans piles of trash. Although the trash that lined streets and even hung on trees was distressing, I could recall the days before Lady Bird Johnson initiated her Clean Up America campaign in the 60s. It baffles me now why the president’s wife had to tell us to stop throwing trash on the ground anywhere we please. As if our moms had not trained us to do that at home (mine did, I can assure you). Anyway it seemed to comfort the Chinese to know that America, which they call the Beautiful Country, was once full of litter-strewn highways and countryside. Nowadays we don’t do that but we used to.

The last time I saw Liu Fang was at Jack and Joanna’s wedding, and sadly I had not seen George and Sophia since I left China in 2006.  No matter, the eight of us sat down to a roast duck dinner that they had ordered, and toasted to our friendship.  We all shared family news, and then quizzed Zhang Yi, who is the same age as Jack and Pres, about his job, girl friend, and marriage plans (he does not actually have the last two items, and Joe proposed an eligible young lady to him).  We talked about the economy in China and America, and the feeling was that both countries have strengths and weaknesses, and it was not a big deal to discuss that freely.  We joked, laughed, took pictures, and shared stories about life, marriage, children, and the future relationship of our two countries.  Upon our exit we took more pictures, and as we descended the stairs could not resist taking a picture of the huge mural of Chairman Mao smoking a cigarette.  Back to my similarities and differences theme, my culture posts pics of our leaders; we just make them put their cigarette down first.  There are so many thoughts that come to mind as to what that particular difference illustrates. Perhaps Americans are too image obsessed or politically correct to be photographed casually smoking a cigarette. I hear that President Obama smokes, but no one has painted a mural of it to my knowledge.  Some find his private smoking hypocritical, but maybe they would not like a formal life size mural of him smoking, greeting restaurant patrons. Perhaps the Chinese are unaware of the impression that pic can give to Westerners, or perhaps our impression is of little concern to them, which is understandable.  Perhaps such a pic helps to extend the man of the people persona given to Chairman Mao, sort of like the pics of JKF playing football even though he could barely stand at times, he was in such distress from Addison’s disease.  Still researching this one.  Talk amongst yourselves. But Rule # 5 applies, Don’t Be Quick to Judge.

The Long Walk Home

We walked home from dinner with George, Sophia, and Abigail, often changing partners so we each could talk with both George and Sophia.  We merged in and out of the sea of bikes, pedestrians, and cars, and I had forgotten that the street lights illuminate the smog at night.  You would have thought a parade had just ended, there were so many folks out in the streets.  We decided to go to our old neighborhood hairdresser’s.  It still had the bright green walls, the big black and white checkerboard floor, the various black electric wires scattered all over the plaster walls, and happily the same owner.  I wanted to see about getting a facial during my stay. I have never had one in America, but one day when Wang Tai Tai was cutting my hair she sold me on it;at 5 bucks it seemed like a good deal. It included ten different processes  enjoyed while lying on a table, covered by an old, worn sleeping bag that looked like it was from the Red Army Surplus Store in 1948. I took my sister-in-law Cindy there when they visited Tianjin back in 2002, and she and I had a great time.  I wanted to go this week, but it was so hot and muggy, I was hoping to forego the sleeping bag, and praying that the air conditioner will be on. I know they often only turn it on for foreigners, so am a bit worried about the heat.  More on this later.

When Jet Lag is a Good Thing

Jet lag can really bite, but this time it is working FOR me.  Let me explain.  I have had trouble falling asleep for years, probably due to my mind racing about so many things.  But if I can stay up to 9 p.m. here, my head hits the pillow like a ton of bricks and I am out in less than a minute.  Sure I wake up for bathroom breaks, but I go right back to sleep. Even last night when my heart was so heavy, I still fell asleep right away.  Jet lag, the new, safe, and cheap cure for sleep issues.

Rainy Day

When we lived here I noticed that when it rains, Tianjin makes its own gravy (my apologies to Gravy Train dog food).  Today there is quite a lot of gravy in the Tianjin streets and alleys, yet these are the very places that I want to explore.  Also we planned to ride the buses today, and the rain will make them doubly crowded.  However that is the real China, and the one I want to be part of.  So we will go down to the Isetan area, (the Japanese department store). It is rather surprising that such a store can exist in China; there is still much hatred of the Japanese for the atrocities back in the late 1930s, (and understandably so). If you are weak of stomach, do not read about the Rape of Nanjing; I had nightmares about it for years.  Most of the young people nowadays however care little about Chinese history; they have become consumers, and therefore frequent Isetan, in their endless search of high quality fashion.

I wanted to get a pedicure at my old place, where I could actually afford to do so. No pedicures for me in America, so this is a real treat.  I will take my knitting, and my 60s songs that are supposed to be memorized for our Athens Choral Society summer show in August.  If feels odd to be memorizing the words to Hair, while sitting in the People’s Republic of China, getting my feet worked on. But I live in several different cultures all at once, and am sort of used to the strange juxtapositions.  Afterwards we met another Chinese friend for lunch at the YY Beer House, which is the best Thai restaurant in town.  It was one of our favorite places, and I look forward to going back.  I was thinking of each of you who have gone there with me, and missing you quite a lot.  You can’t fight the circle of life—it just keeps going.

When the Right Thing to Do is Painful, Fuzzy, & Unwelcome

We became aware of a very ugly conflict between some very dear American friends and some equally dear Chinese friends, and it was bad, sad,  & mad.  You’ve probably all had those moments; you feel troubled about something, and you want to speak up, and help to right a wrong.  However doing so could make the problem worse, threaten those in power, harm the innocent, and put you in the kill the messenger position. You are not sure if you are a brave soul who is willing to take some heat or merely a busy body. Or worse, you are the embodiment of all that you are suggesting about the people you think are wrong. And perhaps you are in some aspects of your life. (It takes one to know one.) So you keep your mouth shut, but at night when you are trying to sleep, you cry out to the Lord, the God who sees. You ask Him to make things right, and to bring comfort to your beloved friends who are hurting.  You ask Him to show you when something truly is your business as a member of the body of Christ. You further ask Him to show you if you are a coward, or a temperate person in keeping silent. You pray that someone else will step in and take care of it.  You explain to your dear Chinese friends that you cannot say anything, but you see the disappointment in their faces. You know you are mostly keeping quiet to save your own skin, but you also know that they could pay a price for your speaking up. And you have seen enough conflict in the body of Christ back home to know that adding a cross cultural element to a disagreement makes it even more difficult to do the wise sorting needed to get to the bottom of something. You realize that no matter how long you live in a foreign culture, you can never completely understand it, and at the same time, you find that you don’t really understand your own culture’s behavior in a particular conflict. Lord, help me to do the right thing, to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.  I was praying that this day as I roamed the dirty, busy, gravy laden streets of Tianjin, looking for wisdom from the God who sees. Rule # 6 Pray for wisdom, always.

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Back in China 1: What’s a Nice Italian Girl from Canonsburg Doing in a Place Like This?

I wrote these a while back, posted them, removed them to clean them up a bit, and now they are back. There are 9 in the Back in China series.  My friend’s posting of the zebra crossing prompted me to dust them off and repost. If you don’t like long-winded storytelling-you might want to quit reading now. And no, I don’t know which one has the zebra crossing story-you’ll have to read them all.

Back in China 1

Recently my better half and I returned to China where we had lived for 9 years, and had raised our family. It was a very sentimental journey, and I wrote about each day’s activities mostly so I would not forget what we did each day.  Surprisingly, many asked me to share these and so here you are. Enjoy!

Back in China Day 1 Thursday, June 30, 2011

When my brother and sister-in-law returned to America after a ten year stint in France, they often were asked “How was France?”  At first they would mistake this question for an earnest desire to know more than a one sentence answer that would encompass their family of eight’s ten year stay.  Eventually the glazed eyes of their friends clued them into the need to come up with a short and sweet answer.  “France was fine” seemed to work.  Therefore in the interest of sparing my friends and family a long travelogue answer, “China’s fine”.  For those who enjoy knowing more details, read on.

When I was finishing my last year of graduate school (2011), in addition to spending hours doodling and daydreaming about my dissertation’s conceptual framework, I often took a journey of the mind and soul back to our family’s nine years in Tianjin, China.  When I would share these musings with my better half, he would caution me that perhaps part of my yearning to return to China was the fun we had as a family, and the joy from the many relationships we shared with both American and Chinese friends who became part of our family.  He maintained, quite reasonably so, that perhaps as an empty nester, (and a reluctant one at that), my return would not provide the happy sentimental journey that I was expecting. In addition to our kids’ growing up and getting on with their adult lives, many of our China friends had moved to other locations all over the world.  However life has taught me a few things; consider them my rules, much like the ones that Jedidiah Gibbes has (from the American TV show, NCIS).

Rule #1:  There are wonderful people everywhere.  I did not acquire this rule from my China trip, but from my life’s journey.  I had indeed met wonderful people in everyplace I had lived, and that includes my recent three year stint at the University of Georgia.  In fact I have not found a place where I did not meet someone who eventually was woven into my ever expanding circle of delightful friends.  Granted, some are only facebook friends now, but nevertheless they are people who make me smile whenever they come to mind. Therefore I returned knowing that I would reconnect with some of those wonderful people, and miss some others, and that’s ok.  I knew though, that I would meet some new delightful people on this trip. They would somehow have to make up for the dear ones that I would miss upon my return to my Chinese hometown.

The Flight

For those of you who know about my anxiety about a 30 hour door to door trip, you will be happy to know that this time things were much better. It turns out that I did not need my huge activity bag because our Air Canada plane came equipped with individual video screens that had a menu of programs that included old classic movies (strange to be watching Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine in the 1941 film Suspicion), to comedy and documentary. As a person who had not watched much TV or movies in the last three years, I was in hog heaven. No more straining to see a big screen of a movie I had no interest in (sorry Jackie Chan).  Joe could watch his action adventure/murder mysteries, and I could watch Nurse Jackie and all the Modern Family episodes again.  I hardly had time to work on Sudoku (yes, I finally finished one), or on my other ten projects. I didn’t even notice that I forgot about my Kindle until we landed.  My left foot, which usually swells up to twice its size, only did so to about half its usual amount (thank you Jazzercise).

Joe commented in his usual insightful and witty sarcasm, that Air Canada could probably lose the French translation of all the boring announcements.  As he put it, “What are the odds that someone on this plane is counting on the French translation of the lavatories are aft?” He had a point; the plane was full of Chinese and a few others. I know, some of the others may have been Canadians who only spoke French, (or Canadian) but… The three fold translation meant that they turned off our videos quite a lot at the beginning of the flight, and we worried that our individual screens that held so much promise would disappoint us due to a threefold announcement every ten minutes.  From my perspective the French was unnecessary, but I found myself looking forward to hearing it. Yes, I understand (in both English and Chinese) that an airsickness bag is provided for ill passengers, but can you say it in French?  Female friends, can I get a witness?  I guarantee that I would not have felt the same way had we been flying on Air Germany. (Sorry Uwe, but German sounds like someone is yelling at me.)

I had so been looking forward to the trip that I had forgotten some of the more unseemly aspects of traveling to and in China, namely, the bathrooms.  Although the Toronto airport bathroom was clean enough as a whole, once you got into the individual stalls (and I tried all of them) you were greeted with a seat and floor covered in urine, an aspect of the Chinese culture that I probably will never understand. I get their point about not wanting to sit where others had, and therefore squatting on the Western toilet (with shoes on of course) to maintain personal sanitation, in their words. What I don’t get, (and Chinese friends feel free to straighten me out) is leaving your own waste on the seat and floor for others to deal with.  I do understand shoe removal in their homes though.

We both noticed the differences of the Chinese group we were traveling with this time. In the past we saw mostly young thirty something couples, some with small children and grandparents, and a few businessmen and students.  This time we traveled with a huge group of Chinese students from both high school and college, who were returning home for the summer after studying in Canada. They told us that there were quite a lot of Chinese students who come there to study nowadays. (Nowadays is one of the most frequently used English words by Chinese nowadays.) We knew about the college students, (Canada is often called Chinada due to the influx of Chinese students and immigrants), but the high school student migration was new to us. We understood their desire to bypass the gao kao however, and wondered once again what this new fix to an old hurdle would do to the cultural, social, and economic values in China.  Is there ever a time when China will change their education system to better serve their students, or will they be content to keep sending younger and younger students abroad to get a good education?  It is a huge problem, and one that my Chinese friends often lament, but do not know how to fix.

Not only were the demographics different but the props and script seemed to have changed as well. This time we did not see the huge red, white and blue polyester zippered bags that could be airline luggage, or could be used to haul cabbage to the local market on one’s mule driven wagon.  Folks who live in China know what I am talking about. Instead there was newly purchased designer luggage, sans the cute Hello Kitty figures attached to the zipper pulls (for the most part).  The students were not dressed in the hand knitted sweaters as we often saw in the past on these flights; they had high fashion clothes, chic haircuts, and designer glasses. They were using their smart phones and Ipads during the trip, and talked in quiet, hushed tones.  Gone was the usual loud chatter that I had found at times annoying, amusing, or admirable, depending on my mood.  No one rushed the gate upon boarding, (a peculiar habit to us since airline seats are assigned), nor did they jump up before the plane stopped and open the storage cabinet to remove their luggage, (to be scolded by the flight attendants) as we had witnessed countless times in the past.  This was not their first rodeo.  These were young, savvy travelers who had lived in the West long enough to have adopted some of its culture, and who grew up with the Internet.

When we landed I could not tell if this time the customs inspection seemed different because the lines were short and much of it was assisted by technology, or because the agents were smiling a bit. In the past we usually encountered a stern, serious official who did not seem to thrilled to have all of us big noses or foreign devils entering their homeland (often with good reason).

Old Friends & Rule #2:  Good friends make anything better.

We were greeted at the airport by Xue Li, our old friend and our company’s driver for about twenty years. As we hugged him, we were reminded of the countless times he had picked up various members of our family, and of his patience and kindness to us.  Unlike most of our Chinese staff, he had never learned to speak English; it was us who had to learn Chinese if we wanted to talk to him (which is totally fair).  So in our awkward Mandarin, we talked of old times, and got caught up on all our news as we rode from Beijing to Tianjin.

My Irish grandfather, Dennis Haggerty Sr. was also a chauffeur, in Philadelphia, and had many wonderful stories to tell. My personal favorite was the rich folks who insisted that the drivers go out to the country and bring home farm fresh eggs, which they did (but the Help ate these and served the city eggs to the family.) Although not considered an educated man, he and his colleagues were keen observers of the mainline Philadelphians whom they served.  The long term service folks always have the skinny on who is a stand up person.  (Rule # 3:  Forget Human Resources; ask the Help).

Our Chinese driver, Xue Li had known so many foreigners and served them all well. However to paraphrase a well known chapter in I Corinthians, if you don’t have love, what’s the point?  Together we noted that foreigners who live in China, but do not understand and appreciate Chinese people are not really needed here. He paid us the highest compliment by saying that the Chinese knew that we loved them, and that therefore we should have stayed in China, or at least should consider coming back. Noted.

As we rode home sharing and laughing, I noticed that there were lots more trees along the highway, but sadly they all were the same type.  It was as if an order had gone down from on high (which is exactly how they roll here) that trees must be planted, and thousands were, but no one thought that maybe two or three kinds of trees might be more interesting than just the one. I’m just saying.

We settled in our apartment (where Joe’s nephew and family live) and noticed how pretty, clean, and nice it was, much nicer than where we lived back in the day.  Outside twenty or so young Chinese boys were playing soccer, the sky was its usual gray color with heavy smog, and bicycles were almost outnumbered by cars (a big change for us).  Xue Li, our good friend Zhang Jian, (a young female), and Joe & I ventured out to the market to find a place to eat and look around. As we walked past the fruit and vegetable vendors, I recalled all the times I would buy things from stands just like this near my home, and how much I missed that. I bought a mango from a vendor and refrained from bargaining and the usual tai gui le (too expensive!) rant.  The market had not really changed; it was dusty, dirty, smelly, and crowded with walkers, motorcycles, trash, and a few carts, but it was so lovely to me.  I cannot describe how comfortable it was to be walking in such a market again.  We settled on a yang rou tuar joint for dinner (I know I don’t use the word  joint much, but trust me, it applies). We ordered the sticks of grilled lamb with the cumin on it that is made by the Huiggar people (Muslims) in China, and sat at our sticky outdoor table and four mismatched plastic chairs, eating our bbq, sipping on warm cokes & beer, swatting flies, and enjoying each other’s company.  It was not Martha Stewart by a long shot, but it was heaven to me.  I thought of the regular Friday night yang rou feasts that my boys enjoyed all through high school, complete with a big bottle or two of Chinese beer, which is served to kids at the age of 14.  This was heaven to them.

Fu Kang Hua Yuan(r):  Our Old Apartment

After dinner we strolled through the crowded, dirty streets of Tianjin, dodging cars, bikes, and people. All this activity at 9 p.m. reminded me of why my Chinese friends joke that there are no people in America. I went ahead by myself while Joe and Zhang Jian went to buy a phone number for 30 yuan.  This was my old neighborhood, and I felt a bit sad that I could not ride my bike through it, as I had so many times.  We visited our old apartment building, 10-1-301, and I stood outside thinking about how our dear friend Yhi Hua had thrown a snowball up to the kitchen window one year, and made such an impression on all the men in our family. (Back then we had no idea that our son Jack would marry her daughter).  I stepped on the stump of the metal pole that was blown up with fireworks by Joe and Bill Gandy during a Chun Jie celebration and was surprised that it was still not repaired.  I found myself smiling thinking back to the days when we made our home there; there were many joys and sorrows, and tonight was a mini-reenactment.  One minute I would be smiling, and the next I would be fighting tears.   I know I cannot get back what we had, but I am so glad I came back to China.  I went to bed that night hoping to live here again, and felt sure that I would at least visit again. I know my home in America is cleaner, newer, more efficient, prettier, and my first culture.  We even have about twenty kinds of trees in our small yard, and they are not all the same height. But that doesn’t mean it is better, or that I am happier here.  Some of you know what I mean.  China, you are in my heart, and I will always love you.

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