Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Child Thoughts

When I go back to the States, I often get asked about China's one-child policy. People ask me if Chinese families can really only have one child and if there is a strong preference for boys. I usually say that, yes, the policy is in effect and enforced; however, there are exceptions, especially for the rich (they pay the fines and bribes), the rural poor (they try to avoid being caught), and ethnic minority groups (the government wants to promote minorities in China so they're legally allowed more children). Regarding a preference for boys, I don't tend to notice that among my students and friends. I have just as many girls in my classes as boys. In fact, my classes usually have a majority of girls (language, music, and art majors tend to be girls, while boys tend to excel more in, or are steered toward, math and science). Chinese couples that I know who give birth to a daughter seem just as happy and excited and loving towards their daughters as the couples who have boys. And, especially in the cities, most Chinese people genuinely seem to think that one child is enough. They tend to think that with the costs of housing and education, more than one child would be more than they could afford (granted, that perspective may be propaganda-induced)

Every once in a while, however, I run into situations that remind me that there are other sides to the one-child policy and those negative stories that we hear in America about abandonment, forced abortions, and a dislike for daughters, while probably not the norm, are true. At the orphanage I volunteer at, the negative side of the one-child policy seems to play out on a small scale. The only boys at the orphanage are disabled, either mentally or physically. The five healthy infants and two healthy toddlers that are currently at the orphanage are all girls, along with two older healthy girls. Two days ago, I was talking to a former student and she began to share some of her family background with me. Her parents already had a daughter, her older sister, but wanted a son. They decided to risk it and had another baby (my student). Because she was a girl, she was "hidden" by being sent to be raised by her grandparents for a time. My student's parents then had a third child which was a boy. In the end though, my student's father lost his job as a government worker and ended up working in real estate/construction. (Tragically, my student's brother died as a teenager from an illness that wasn't supposed to be fatal. Her father still hasn't recovered from the loss of the son.) This same student told me that she has a cousin who, in an attempt to have a son and gain control and status in the family, has given up two daughters.

Since I now live in a more rural location and the students I teach now are mostly from villages and the countryside, I bet if I could get them to talk candidly, I would hear more stories like my student from Yichang told me. I've read countless books about China with scores of stories like my student's. That kind of behavior is still atypical, but not unheard of.

The most common complaint I hear from Chinese students about their country is about the population--"There are too many people." Too many people want to get into universities and graduate schools. Too many people make jobs scarce. Too many people make travel impossible during holidays. Too many people make housing hard to find. Too many people . . .

I don't know what kind of humane, plausible solution you come up with to deal with overpopulation, but I know that when people are giving away babies, something's not right.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Smell Your Soap

As a follow-up to my toothpaste sampling post . . .

Yesterday I was at the same grocery store and I noticed that in the soap aisle they had a bar of every kind of soap out and setting on a little soap dish on the shelves! Again, there's no sink, so I can't actually sample the soap to see how well it washes my hands. I guess it's all about being able to choose the scent you want. As with my thoughts on the toothpaste, nice gesture on the store's part I suppose, but it's still funny and slightly odd. Not to mention, a rather big waste of soap.

Sadly, I didn't get a picture of the soap aisle because there were too many workers around (if you've ever been to a Chinese supermarket, you completely understand that) and they don't like you taking pictures in the store.

Maybe this trend will catch on to the other aisles and they'll start offering samples of all the different kinds of food and snacks they sell too. I would find it useful to be able to sample all the different flavors of chips or cookies (especially since they have some weird flavors here) before I buy them.

Study Girls

Katie and me with some of the girls who come over to our Book studies. These girls are really sweet and it's fun to share and study with them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Last week, we celebrated St. Patrick's Day with a McGreen O'Dinner at the Rice's house. We had green and orange mandarin salad, spinach stuffing, potatoes (of course), cucumbers, asparagus. For dessert - Rachel's Over-the-Rainbow cake, shamrock cut-out cookies, scones and a pot of (chocolate) gold (do you think we had enough dessert?). Fun times and lots of green!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Which came first, the chicken or the duck egg?

After the winter vacation, Matthew (one of our student-friends) was really thoughtful and brought fresh eggs for me, Katie, Dave and the Rice family all the way from his village. The eggs were wrapped up and tied together with straw to make a great homemade egg carton. We realized after we got them that they were duck eggs, not chicken eggs. At first I was a little unsure about using duck eggs instead of chicken eggs, but it turns out they're pretty much interchangeable. Victoria even made deviled eggs out of the duck eggs and none of us could taste the difference. We did notice that the shells were much harder to crack and that the yolks were bright orange and slightly bigger. We ended up using them in scrambled eggs, cookies, scones, deviled eggs, and boiling them to put in tuna salad. Never expected I'd be cooking with duck eggs.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


We found a bowling alley in Mengzi. Five lanes hidden away on the third floor of a hotel! We were the only customers (yeah for no smoking or that funky "bowling alley" smell that permeates your clothes when you bowl in the States). Fun Saturday afternoon activity!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Two Boxes in Two Days!

Yesterday I got a package from Beth!! So happy! Beth sent me a necklace she made herself which was green for St. Patrick's Day and I got the package exactly on St. Patrick's Day--perfect timing. I wore my new green necklace last night to our St. Pat's McGreen O'Party at the Rice's house! Beth also sent me a box of peppermint Peeps--so funny (long story) :) And, I got letters from all of Beth's 4th grade ESL students that she teaches in Nashville, TN. The letters are super sweet and cute. I think I'm going to try to have some of my students write back to these kids (I teach a practical writing class so I think that sounds like a perfect project!). Thanks so much for thinking about me Beth!

Then today, Katie picked up a package for me while she was in the International Affairs Office. Two packages in two days, quite exciting! Today's box was from Ruby who's my church grandma. She's one of the most thoughtful people I know and I was surprised and happy to see a box from her. When I opened the box I found a fall candle, some candied pecans in a pumpkin bag, and a birthday card! My birthday is in November!! I looked more closely at the label on the box and saw that Ruby had sent me the box at the end of October! What in the world. It took more than 5 months to get here?! Seriously sometimes I think the mail in Mengzi must be some of the slowest in the world! I feel like we still use the Pony Express here. But, ironically, the last box I got from my parents arrived in only about 9 days which is quite speedy. I don't get it. I wonder if Ruby's box was just sitting somewhere on campus all this time and either no one knew who to give it too or else they just didn't bother to contact me to tell me I had a package. So even though the pecans are sadly too old to enjoy, I'm enjoying my scented candle right now and am still happy to get the package even though it wins the prize for my most delayed box ever.

*As a side note, last January while in India, Katie, Beth, Brad and I sent a postcard to Amy. It arrived in Yichang over ONE YEAR later, just a few days after Amy had left Yichang to return to America! I don't know exactly how, but I did hear that Amy's postcard finally made it to her in America just a few days ago! :) Seriously, where was it all this time?! I wonder if the problem was with the Indian Postal system or with China Post?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Toothpaste Sampling

A couple days ago, I was at one of the two supermarkets in Mengzi doing some shopping. I needed some toothpaste and was surprised to find that in the toothpaste aisle, every flavor of every brand of toothpaste had an open tube on the shelf that you could "sample" before you buy. Part of me finds this odd . . . are you supposed to taste the toothpaste? just smell it? squeeze some into your hand and then do what? should I have brought my toothbrush? But, having made the mistake of buying "green tea" flavored toothpaste instead of mint in the past, I actually did flip open one of the sample tubes and sniff it to make sure I wasn't making that mistake again (I've also learned to recognize the characters for "mint"). I can't quite make up my mind about leaving open tubes of toothpaste on the supermarket shelves--is it a nice, customer-friendly gesture to help people avoid the horror of accidentally getting green tea or magnolia flavored toothpaste? Or is it just a really odd thing to do? Maybe people were already opening all of the toothpaste boxes to smell the toothpaste so the store figured they'd try to avoid that by just giving in and having an open tube available? How long do they leave the tubes there before they get rid of them? If they get rid of them, do the workers keep the open tubes or are they just thrown away? Is it a subtle way to promote dental hygiene? Should costumers squeeze the sample tubes from the end or the middle? Does this help contribute to a more "harmonious society" in some way?

I have this funny image in my head of a spoiled, bratty, chubby 4-year-old (you know, the ones in grocery stores that start screaming when they can't have every single thing they see) coming down that aisle and squirting toothpaste all over himself, the floor, and all 10 supermarket workers who are stationed in that aisle before his helpless mother or grandmother comes over and drags him away kicking and screaming but smelling minty fresh.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recession-Proof Plan

Every day, I read several news sites and China-related blogs (gotta love Google Reader). Today I read this blog post: Chinese lessons - recession-proof?

The blog post talks about a man named Ken Carroll who is one of the people behind Chinesepod.com. Chinesepod is absolutely one of the best ways to study Chinese. I love it. I subscribe to and listen to their podcasts as soon as they're put out. They are practical and often very humorous and a painless way to improve your Chinese (no, they're not paying me for this). Anyways, that's not exactly the point of this post, but if you want to start studying Chinese, I recommend Chinesepod.com

Ok, the above mentioned blog article goes on to say this:
Investment analysts think education in China could prove to be a recession-proof business. Education in general seems to be a smart way to go during the great recession, with many people returning to school due to job scarcity. Teaching Chinese is positively brilliant, because the number of customers willing to spend money on it is growing constantly.

I sometimes wonder what the economy is going to mean for me as I return home, plan to start graduate school, and then eventually look for a job that's hopefully China-related within the next few years. At least this blog seems to think I'm on the right track. I wouldn't say for sure that I want to be a Chinese teacher, but giving beginner Chinese lessons isn't something I would rule out as a possible job opportunity for myself in the future (even if it's just a part-time job). Nice to know that someone thinks that teaching Chinese and knowing Chinese are useful skills that won't be affected by a depressed global economy. Sometimes I get a little annoyed at myself that I don't know exactly what I want to do, but maybe I'm ahead of the times with an recession-proof plan and just didn't realize it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Do You Like My Hat?

After watching the Hani minority performance at the terraced fields, Katie and I thought it would be fun to see if we could try on the colorful minority hats and take some photos. We started chatting with a woman about it and she happily said she'd bring us two of her hats for us to try on. She and some other minority women helped us figure out how to get the "hats" on (they were more like head scarves with some kind of braided black twine that they tied around our heads first). The one thing we didn't foresee was what a spectacle we would become. There were dozens of photographers at the performance with cameras and lenses that could rival the Hubble Telescope. I was slightly appalled at the gall of the photographers in the first place--I think there's a fine line between observing and appreciating a minority culture and exploiting it and treating the people like exotic animals in a zoo. I've never quite become comfortable with having cameras stuck in my face (which happens pretty frequently in China) and being photographed just because I'm foreign and look different than the people around me always makes me uncomfortable. Gives me a little more sympathy for the paparazzi-plagued celebrities. Anyways, it was fun to get to try on the hats and try to chat with the women and kids.

(Oh, the title of my post is a reference to the kid's book "Go, Dog. Go!" If you didn't read "Go, Dog. Go!" as a kid then you really missed out.)

Minority people + White Foreigners + Minority clothing + Terraced Fields = I can stick my camera in their faces and be as pushy as I want to get my photo. Who knows, maybe Katie and I will end up on some billboard or in some coffee table book about the terraced fields . . . but I hope not.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Terraced Fields Performance

Last Saturday, Katie and I got invited to go with some friends to Yuan Yang, a town about 3 hours from Mengzi. Yuan Yang is famous for the Terraced Fields and the minority groups that use them to plant rice. I'd been through Yuan Yang back in November, but it was foggy and gray then, so it was nice to see the fields on a clear day. During the winter months, the fields are saturated with water and make for an amazing site. The Rices were able to go Yuan Yang about two weeks ago and see the fields at sunrise and sunset when the light makes the Terraced Fields even more spectacular (check out the Rice's blog . . . they take amazing photos!)

Our Chinese friends, Min and Maggie, who we went to Yuan Yang with, told us that we were going to see a performance in a village. But when we got to the village, we couldn't find the stage. After asking around and figuring out what was going on, we realized that the performance was actually going to be on the Terraced Fields. I've grown a little weary and cynical of Chinese performances over the years; however, this performance was unique, interesting, and (best of all) an acceptable length. Supposedly this performance was put together by a famous (or maybe two famous) Chinese director. The performance was quite the undertaking with several hundred minority people who were part of the production, including lots of kids and even dozens of water buffalo. We were actually there for the dress rehearsal. The big show for all the V.I.Ps who were going to have to pay hundreds of yuan to see it was the next day. We got in for free! Made for an enjoyable day trip.

Be careful not to take a wrong step when you're walking through the fields. One wrong step to the right or left and you're up to your knees in mud!
We were surprised to see the women selling dyed eggs which looked just like Easter eggs.

Video of part of the Hani singing and dancing about the rice harvest.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"I Just Threw in the Gold . . . "

" . . . and out came this calf."

This is the enormous golden calf statue that we have in Mengzi in front of our huge government building. Every time I see it, it makes me think of Aaron making the golden calf statue for the Children of Israel while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law from God. I guess our statue is more of a golden bull than a golden calf.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Soul?

Right on Track

Last weekend, we were all invited to go to the nearby village of Bai Sha Chong with some friends to have dinner and meet some new friends. When we got to the village, dinner was still in the works. As seems to be the case a lot of times when you're waiting for a meal to be cooked, we (the guests) were sort of left to entertain ourselves while the hosts all cooked in the kitchen. Rather than sit in a warm room inside surrounded by a swarm of flies, we decided to enjoy the sunshine and go explore the old, deserted train station and railroad tracks that were close by. We discovered that walking on old railroad tracks is endlessly fun and makes for good photo ops.

While Victoria and I were seeing how well we could walk and balance on the tracks, Esther (age 5) turned around and in all serious said to Victoria, "Um, I don't think Mommies do that."
Um yeah, the sign posted on the column that Brian is trying to climb says "no climbing" we discovered. :)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Caroline's Road Home

Classes started back up last week. I'm happy to report that the first week went relatively smoothly and I was actually happy to get back into a schedule and a routine after being on vacation for so long. I'm teaching two freshmen speaking classes which are both basically just a continuation of the class we had last semester. Thankfully, the school actually followed a suggestion that Katie and I made and reduced the class sizes down from nearly 50 to 15 -20. It's so much easier to teach a speaking class to a smaller group and it helps me get to know the students more quickly. I also have two sections of junior writing. The class is called "Practical Writing" and the students are supposed to learn how to write things like business letters, resumes, cover letters, and how to fill out applications. I'm hoping it really can be a useful class for the students since it does seem like Chinese students struggle with writing. The thing I'm worried about though is that between the two sections of writing, I have about 65 students--that's a lot of grading. Any time I give them an assignment, I have 65 things to read and check. But, my schedule is pretty light so having to put a little more time into grading won't kill me.

For the first writing class, I passed out a bunch of blank postcards that I'd accumulated from dozens of different cities that I'd traveled to. I told the students to either write something about the picture on the front of the postcard (if they were familiar with the place) or else write something about their winter holiday, as if I were a friend they hadn't talk to for a long time. My purpose in this was, first, to give them some kind of writing warm-up exercise and, second, to give me some idea of their writing levels and common mistakes they all made so that we could work on correcting them in the future.

One of the postcards, written by a girl named Caroline, really struck me so I want to share it. Here's what she decided to share about her winter holiday:

Dear Kim,
I'm very happy this winter holiday, because the road to our village was repaired. We had to walk more than one hour when we went home before. The car and truck can't go to my village. Now we can go home by bus, though the road isn't good like here, I'm very happy in heart. Yours, Caroline Shen

Wow. The event from her winter vacation that she wanted to write about was that she finally has a road to her village and doesn't have to walk an hour (and I'm sure to get to the point where you have to walk an hour, she would have had to take a bus for many hours already). Reading Caroline's postcard made me stop and think. First, I definitely take roads for granted. I've never had to walk an hour (with my luggage) just to go home because the road home is impassible to vehicles. And second, these are the students I get to teach--kids from villages so poor that there isn't even a road to get there. I feel a renewed motivation to be as much help to these kids as I can be--for them to even be in a college is quite the accomplishment. Another one of my students, Matthew, told us that he thinks he's the first person from his village ever to go to college. I visited Matthew's village back in November and it was nearly impossible to get there in a four-wheel-drive jeep. Students like Caroline and Matthew sound like they should be characters from someone else's memoir (makes me think of the students Peter Hessler would write about in River Town) but, instead, they're sitting in my class. Maybe through my classes, I can try to give Caroline something as meaningful to her as a road to her village.