Saturday, March 31, 2007

As Chinese as Apple Pie

As we walked to watch the marathon this morning, I noticed this poster on the public bulletin board near the student dorms -- it explained the stage that had been put up in the park. I thought it was a funny enough name for a Chinese band to take a picture. After lunch, we walked in the park and were just in time to hear the sound check. It turns out they play mostly American music -- apple pie, indeed! I found out a little more about them on the web at the Xiamen English-language newspaper's site. The name of the article? My Way of Happy Banding!

During the sound check, the girls alternated between bopping to the beat and holding their hands over their ears. I'm sure the band members were thrilled with that. Or maybe that's a pretty common reaction to their music!

As is often the case when we stand still long enough, a young man stopped to practice his English with us. Zoe and Maya have taken to confusing onlookers by speaking their own language. Really. They have completely made up a language that sounds pretty realistically like a language. I think it's a reaction to the looks and attention they get when they speak English. And people are puzzled as they move between English and their own language and what little bits of Chinese they know. What a hoot!

We skipped the concert, BTW. The girls decided during the sound check that the drums were too loud. Ah, if only that attitude will last through their teenage years!


Xiamen hosts an international marathon each year on the last Saturday of March – that was today. The race passes right by the university beach, and just about everybody on campus turns out to watch. We headed for the race course around 7:40, crossed the pedestrian bridge (the bridge is very elegant-looking, suspended from cables held by a huge column) and stood about waiting for the race to begin.
We were standing near the first aid tent, and the white-coated workers wanted to have their pictures taken with me, and with the girls. Ah, the downside to celebrity – the paparazzi! It began to rain, and the first aid workers invited us into their tent until the rain passed, so I’m glad we cooperated with the photo shoot!
When the rain stopped, we then stood along the road, with thousands of others, waiting for the first runners to pass. In a marketing frenzy, every business in Xiamen had pennants printed up as advertisement and handed out to the crowds, and we were ready to wave madly to encourage the racers. Even though the rain had stopped, the humidity must have been 100%, and it was really warm. I didn’t envy the runners! The first group looked pretty spry, though they had run for 38 minutes before reaching us.
After the first wave of runners passed, we walked back over the bridge and to the overlook near the girls’ kindergarten. We watched the big pack of runners from that vantage point.
After about an hour, the girls had had enough watching, and wanted to run themselves, so they ran back toward home. Actually, Zoe ran, Maya paced herself by running and walking, and I brought up the rear at a turtle’s pace! We stopped at the store for ice cream to cool off, and then home-again, home-again, joggedy-jog

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Squat Toilet: A User's Guide

It seems that no blog from China (or from anywhere else in Asia!) is complete without a discussion of the squat potty. They range from humorous accounts of the difficulties of using such a contraption (see here and here) to heartfelt descriptions of the degradation and filth involved (see here) to high-minded assertions of the superiority of squat potties (see here) to a comparative account of the “deadliest potties” (see here) (I agree, BTW, with ranking port-a-potties as number one!).

I will strive for a practical guide, in aid of all future visitors to China.

1. BYOP: A careful examination of the photo above will show something missing from the usual toilet stall in China (other than a seat!), and that is toilet paper, so bring your own.

2. The correct way, I am told, to stand over the toilet is facing the door. But with the door closed, who cares? Do whatever works best for you! (see pipe-holding, # 8 below).

3. Be careful, because the floor is often slippery. No, it isn’t what you think it is. Most porcelain toilets do flush, and they do so with considerable force. Oftentimes the water sprays OUTSIDE the toilet as well as in.

4. Where you are to place your feet is fairly obvious – sometimes they are foot-shaped, and most of the time they have ridges. But sometimes there are no footholds -- use your good judgment!

5. Here’s the counterintuitive part – put your feet as close to the bowl as you can. I know, you are worrying about peeing on your shoes. But I can’t stress enough that keeping your feet and knees CLOSE TOGETHER ensures accuracy of aim. (Your mileage may vary, but it has worked for all three of us with different anatomies and different potty "styles" and trajectories. We got perpetually soaked until we figured out the knees-together trick.)

6. Pull down what needs to be pulled down. Also, because the floor is often wet, I find it advisable to pull up pants legs if you are wearing long trousers. You can hold your waistband and your pants legs together in your hands. And if you have anything important in your pocket (say your room key that you don’t want to have to fish out of the toilet), you might want to include that in the squeeze. (FYI, it is not advisable to put your room key down your bra rather than in your pockets, it will definitely fall out as you assume the position – but probably in the trashcan rather than in the toilet, but that’s not much of an improvement, I guarantee).

7. Squat. Go as low as you can comfortably go. But if you KEEP YOUR KNEES TOGETHER you don’t have to go all that low and can still ensure proper aim. Imagine that you are sitting on a comfortable Western toilet, but with your chest to your knees. You are now in the correct position.

8. You might find it helpful (and kids probably MUST do this) to face the wall instead of the door and hold on to the pipe that brings the flushing water. Yes, I know it is germy. But falling into the toilet would be even germier – and remember the slippery floor. And see # 15 below.

9. If you are worried about getting your clothes wet, pass one arm between your legs from the front and behind your pants. Push your pants forward as far as you can. But I’m using my hands to hold up my pants legs, I hear you cry. But by this time, you are in a crouch, which will hold your pants legs up! If you are REALLY worried, you can always take off your pants and panties. But don’t expect a hook to hang them up with. You’ll either have to hold them or throw them over the stall door.

10. Do your business.

11. Flush. But be ready to move your feet as the water might splash (see # 3 above). The flush button is usually just that -- a round button to push in rather than a lever to push down.

12. Wipe (You BYOP, right? See # 1 above).

13. DO NOT put TP down the toilet, it will not flush. Put it in the trashcan inside the stall.

14. Wash your hands. Do not expect paper towels to dry them (BYOP, right?).

15. Use hand sanitizer, and then forget about anything you might have touched while in the stall!

16. A few “holds” that help kids: First, you can have them squat over the potty, knees together, holding onto the water pipe. Second, you can have them squat over the potty, knees together, and hold them by one or both arms, taking their full weight. This will ensure that they get down very low. Second, for smaller children, you can hold your child off the ground, back to your front, one leg in each hand. Hold them as low over the potty as you can.

17. If I can do it – old, obese, with bad knees and a completely inflexible body – you can do it.

18. Write your own blog post as a veteran of the Chinese squat potty!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

My Classes

I haven’t posted anything about my classes lately, so I wanted to catch everyone up. I’m really pleased with how everything is going.

I was warned before coming here that it is very difficult to get Chinese students to talk in class. They are shy about their English ability, they are taught from a very early age not to argue with or challenge the teacher, the tradition in law schools here is for professors to just lecture, and they have to be worried about whether the things they say in class will be reported (by other students) to the powers that be. But it's important for me to get them to talk, since it is frankly boring just to lecture! It’s also about the only way I can figure out if they are understanding the material.

So I decided we’d do moot court arguments in class. [Moot court is basically pretend oral argument before the United States Supreme Court]. That way, they would have to talk, and they would be making the arguments that the lawyer representing their side of the case would make, not their own arguments, which was a form of plausible deniability.

We’ve been talking about Congressional power – Article I of the U.S. Constitution. So last Thursday I assigned them the famous 1819 case of M'Culloch v. Maryland -- does Congress have the power to incorporate a bank, which is really about how broad or narrow the power of Congress to legislate should be, not really about banks at all . I told half the class to represent M'Culloch and half to represent Maryland. And I was THRILLED by the quantity and quality of the presentations. I actually got everyone representing M'Culloch to speak! We ran out of time before the other side could argue, but they'll have a shot this week.

I think it helped in getting them talking that my class is small, and we did the whole formulaic "may it please the court" and introduce yourself thing, [traditionally, moot court arguments all start, "May it please the court, my name is So-and-So, and together with my partner, Thus-and-Such, I represent M'Culloch in this case. Our three main points are . . . "] so everyone at least had something to say right off. But they all made at least one substantive argument, and I even asked questions of those who had higher English skills, and they managed to give answers, admittedly simple, but definitely on point. And they were definitely willing to challenge me (in the role of judge) in their roles as attorneys.

And it helps that they were motivated -- I'm making them all do a moot court argument as 20% of their grade, and this was an opportunity for no-penalty practice.

One funny thing, I had a lot of complaints from the students representing the state of Maryland that it was hard to argue Maryland's points, because everyone knows Maryland lost, and so they were arguing wrong law! And the one student who was able to make an argument on behalf of Maryland before we ran out of time came up after class to assure me that she knew that she was "saying things that were not true." I guess they can’t quite grasp the concept that the U.S. Supreme Court is right because it is final, it isn’t final because it’s right!

I had to lay a lot of groundwork about the differences between trial and appellate courts, and even what judicial opinions were, but they seemed to have grasped it and ran with it!

All in all, I enjoyed it (and that's the important thing, isn't it?!), and I think they got something out of it, too.

In Women in American Law, I had three faculty members sitting in on my class – can’t imagine why! We talked about the legal status of women in Anglo-American tradition prior to reforms in the 1800s, the fact that women essentially ceased to have a legal existence after marriage, and therefore could not own property, sue or be sued, enter into contracts, etc. This was all quite foreign to them – in some ways having a “rule of law” come late to your country allows you to skip that stage in the LEGAL treatment of women, no matter how badly you treat women in FACT.

As we discussed the first wave of feminism in the U.S. in the 1800s, leading to the Married Women’s Property Acts and ultimately the right of women to vote, and the second wave of feminism in the U.S. in the 1960s, I mentioned that at one time help wanted ads in the newspapers were segregated into “Help Wanted—Men” and “Help Wanted—Women” sections. One of the faculty members said that that was pretty much how it worked currently in China, that employers were very open about saying they only wanted men for a certain position or only wanted women for a certain position. She said that it was against the law to do so – that the law in China mandated equality for men and women – but that there was a great difference between the law and actual practice. I’ve heard that theme from other faculty members, both here and at the conference in Guangzhou, that looking at the law books in China gives you the picture of an ideal society, with very progressive laws. But the laws rarely translate to operation on the ground. To differing degrees, you could probably say that about all countries. Here, however, it is a pretty serious problem.

I'm handing out their first essay assignment this week -- I'm asking them to discuss Chinese retirement law, which mandates age 50 as the retirement age for women and age 55 for men, in light of our classroom discussions and readings about feminist legal theories. I'm really looking forward to what they have to say.

The hardest part of preparing for classes is that I'm basically putting together my own materials as we go along. The students really can't read very many pages in English and still get something out of it. So I'm having to edit cases down to the bare bones -- even more editing than you'd find in most casebooks in American law schools. And I'm having to do it all at least a week in advance, so I can hand out the reading in class for the next week's class. This isn't how I'm used to operating -- I've usually got the whole semester mapped out, with a pretty detailed syllabus as a roadmap. But I've got a lot more flexibility this way, and can tailor the classes to the students' interests and abilities. Still, it is a LOT of work! But I'm loving it!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields. . . Strawberry Fields Forever!"

(How 'bout that? A Beatles reference! Boy, I'm into 60s music these days!)

Sunday was a berry, berry good day! We had made arrangements to meet a family whose daughter is in Maya’s class to pick strawberries. They told us to take bus 47 and wrote out our stop in Chinese characters. We were to meet at the bus stop at 9 a.m. Sunday. I’m not sure what happened, but they didn’t show up. Maybe the bus driver left us at the wrong stop. Or maybe they decided that, because of yesterday’s rain, it was too muddy to pick strawberries. Anyway, we waited for them until 9:30, and when they didn’t show, we followed a group of people down a path I hoped led to a strawberry patch! The path deposited us in a courtyard full of cement ponds and people washing vegetables. I could see fields of strawberries next to the courtyard, but had no clue how the pick-your-own strawberry thing worked. So I walked up to a group of people and asked if anyone could speak English. Luckily, one young lady did, and led us around to the strawberry farm. The farmer handed us a bucket, and away we went!
It was muddy, but the girls really had a ball trying to find the perfect strawberries. The farmer followed the girls around to point out all the good strawberries they missed, and throwing away any green ones they picked – which I thought was pretty nice, since they’ll never ripen and make her money now. She was tickled to have us there, I think, and smiled and laughed at the girls the whole time.
The farm was interesting – in addition to strawberries, she was growing lettuce and tomatoes. There were some kind of fruit trees, too. The fields were neat and tidy, and the ramshackle house definitely wasn’t! The garbage heap was right against one wall of the house, topped by a sodden mattress spilling its guts all around. There was a dog tied up outside the front door, and she growled at us as we walked by, the perfect security alarm. A puppy followed us to the field, and lay down among the strawberry plants to watch the girls. His right eye was completely opaque – Laurie (the vet!), does that mean he was blind in that eye? The girls wondered. . . .

Speaking of security alarms – there were lines of rope strung across the fields, with aluminum cans hanging on them. Each time the wind blew, the cans rattled. Quite effective in keeping the birds away from the strawberries, I’m sure.

We picked about 1.5 kilos (3.3 pounds) of strawberries – here’s the proof:

I wondered how our farmer was going to figure out how much to charge us – our helpful English speaker had told us the strawberries would be 8 yuan per kilo. After looping the bag of strawberries on the hook, the farmer slid the weight up the stick and showed me the mark where the weight and the bag were balanced. It was just under 1.5 kilos, so I pulled out 12 yuan, but the farmer couldn’t handle the fact that I was paying full price for an underweight bag, so she dashed into the field and picked a few handfuls of strawberries to add to the bag!

We were home by 11:30, and longing for strawberries with our lunch. But washing raw fruit without peels is a bit challenging here, between nasty pesticides banned in the U.S. and non-potable water. So first I rinse the strawberries with non-potable water to get most of the dirt off. Then I soak them in non-potable water spiked with a little chlorine bleach – kills the germs in the water, and helps to strip the pesticides. Then I soak the fruit in boiled-and-cooled water to get rid of the chlorine! But then we ate and ate and ate and ate yummy strawberries! In fact, after strawberries for lunch and for an afternoon snack, we have exactly two strawberries left!

After lunch, a rest, and a snack, we took a CD of our photos from International Women’s Day to the local photo shop to be printed. We want to give a set of photos to Si Bo to thank him for the silkworms. They said come back in two hours, so we went to the international bookstore we’ve seen several times but hadn’t visited yet. The girls were excited to see some children’s books in English, but they were just as thrilled to look at Chinese books, too – especially the ones with the Little Mermaid and Snow White! I found some large laminated posters with colorful pictures and English and Chinese (both pinyin and Chinese characters) translations. We bought 5 of them – fruits and veggies, animals, colors, opposites, and food (the picture of donuts has the label “sweet wheat enclosing!”).We’ve already taped them up in the girls’ room and it brightens up the place considerably.

When we returned for the photos, they were not quite ready, so we headed home. Around 5, we went back for the pictures, and to a restaurant nearby. After we ordered, I pulled out the photos to divide into two stacks, and we were SWARMED by the waitresses who wanted to look! I’ve never seen anything like it – those photos got passed through the entire restaurant, discussed, analyzed, compared to the real likenesses of Zoe and Maya . . . and just when I thought we’d get our pictures back, another member of the waitstaff would arrive to look at the pictures. It was hilarious! I wish I'd had my camera. They were so delighted that we cooperated that we were treated like royalty from then on. After Maya finished eating, one waitress picked her up and carried her around the restaurant – including upstairs – to show her off. Apparently I’m no more entitled to sole possession of my children than I am to my photos! Maya was delighted by the attention, and Zoe was incredibly jealous not to be carried, too. But Zoe was almost as tall as the little thing toting Maya around! The waitress spoke a little English, and asked Maya what her name was, and she answered, “BingLi!” I was really surprised – she said she wanted to be called BingLi at school, but everyone is calling her Maya there. This is the first time she’s introduced herself with her Chinese name.

So all in all a great day, despite the miscommunication (or whatever) with the friend from Maya’s class. Maybe we’ll go back with them to pick strawberries another time.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

More Beach Pictures

University Beach

Today dawned cloudy, but warm, so we went to the beach. Xiamen University actually has its own beach – I can see it from my office window at the law school – and we decided to check it out early this morning. We took our usual walk toward the girls’ school, but before getting there, we detoured to “Beach Gate,” which deposited us on one of Xiamen’s busiest roads, Island Ring Road. As its name suggests, it circles Xiamen Island – that’s the road we took from the airport to the university upon our arrival in Xiamen. Right across the road is the beach – accessible by a pedestrian bridge over this very busy street, thank goodness!

Just before hitting the sand, we shucked our shoes and rolled up our pants legs (Even though it was 70 degrees and predicted to be 75 degrees later, we didn’t want to offend Chinese sensibilities (and endure the endless questions!) by wearing shorts!) . We headed straight for the water, and let the incredibly cold water lap at our toes. Brrr!
Maya was leery at first, but soon felt brave enough to let go of my hand – and promptly fell in the water! Oh, well, at least it was warm enough OUT of the water not to matter! But Maya is not a fan of being wet or dirty, so she wasn’t having much fun at first.

I guess after a while she figured being miserable wasn’t going to change anything, so she perked up and decided to have a good time. Zoe took her tumble in the ocean a little later on, so they were both basically wet up to the thighs.
We walked along the beach looking for seashells, and actually found some nice specimens. Zoe was even excited about finding bits of broken shell, and a fragment of blue-and-white china, and rocks galore, so we came home with quite a few “treasures.” Maya found a great stick, and soon they were drawing in the sand, writing their names, sketching Chinese characters, and making trails to follow. They tried to build a sandcastle, but didn’t have any tools (we’ll have to buy buckets and shovels before our next beach trip) and soon lost interest. We sat on a large rock to have a rest and a snack, and then headed back the way we came. Every time the girls saw a group of kids playing with a bucket or shovel, they ran to join them, invited or not (we DEFINITELY need to buy buckets and shovels before our next beach outing!). Zoe found a broken shovel sans handle, and was happy as a clam to finally have a real digging tool.

My favorite part was the people-watching – it’s pretty funny to see businessmen in full black dress suits, with their pants rolled up walking in the water. And women in high heels gingerly picking their way to the water’s edge. And children bundled up to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy (yes, in 70-degree heat) digging in the sand. And then suddenly a group of men looking mighty fine (and awfully naked after all that bundling!) in Speedos and bathing caps heading into the chilly sea to play water polo. And a Chinese junk pulling up to shore to pick up a man walking along with his fishing pole folded up. And a beggar in ragged clothes and bowl in hand approaching each group with his tale of woe. And an old man babysitting three fishing poles, catching a silvery fish no more than 5 inches long, and proudly showing it to the girls. And the inevitable grandmothers, horrified that I let the girls walk in the water with their shoes off and their pantlegs rolled up past their knees.

Around noon, we heard thunder and decided to head home. As we were brushing off the sand and putting our shoes on, the rain started. And wouldn’t you know it, the umbrella that ALWAYS lives in my backpack wasn’t there! ( I had even checked the forecast before we left, and saw 30% chance of rain, and reminded myself to check for the umbrella, and I swear it was in there!) So we stopped at a little shop that had a covered patio and bought cookies and drinks. The patio was pretty crowded, but a man invited us to share his table, and he enjoyed practicing his English on us. Soon two old ladies moved their chairs closer to listen (I don’t think they spoke any English), and a Chinese couple joined us at our table, and others gathered near to stand and listen. Gee, I feel like a celebrity! Actually, it’s the girls who are the celebrities. People are simply amazed to hear English coming from those little Chinese girls.

And it rained and rained and rained . . . .

After about an hour, the rain stopped and people started going along their way. We made it about halfway to the pedestrian bridge when it started to pour down again. We walked to a covered bus stop, but the busses on that side of the street were going away from the university, so I didn’t want to chance them. We waited about 10 minutes for the rain to stop, then Zoe started the “I have to go potty” song, and Maya joined in the chorus, so I hailed a cab. I’m getting really good at saying “Nanputuo” (the Buddhist temple near our gate) and “Xiada” (short for Xiamen University) and getting us home! I even managed to direct him right to our door (“Zuobian” means left – but given my pronunciation, it was probably pointing left that did it!). That was definitely 9 yuan well spent. Still, we were pretty wet when we got home.

It has rained most of the afternoon. But that’s ok, it gave the girls a chance to dance around the living room in their princess dresses. They’re usually too eager to go, go, go to want to stay home and play. And it gave me a chance to try the rice cooker – thanks for the directions, Nora, it worked like a charm! I even steamed some pork buns (purchased frozen at the supermarket) at the same time. Yum, yum!

I’ve been trying to remember if this was Maya’s first trip to the beach. I know Zoe has been to the beach in Corpus Christi, and in Arcachon, France. But that was before Maya came home, and I just can’t remember a trip to the beach since she came home. Well, we’ve remedied that omission, and both girls are committed beach bunnies now! And this definitely won’t be the last trip to the university beach.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Thanks to Zoe's friend, Si Bo, we are now the proud owners of a box full of silkworms. (For those of you who looked at the picture and sais, "YUCK!" that's my reaction, too!). Si Bo's mom told us the other day that he wanted Zoe to have a present, "small animals." I said, "Isn't that nice," thinking that we were talking about little plastic farm animals, or something. But no, we were apparently talking about LIVE WORMS.

Anyway, the girls are fascinated. They now live in a box in their bedroom, near the nightlight so, as Zoe said, "they don't get afraid in a new place." Several of them have already made their silk cocoons, and we've watched one or two as they've started to make their silk cocoons.
The yellow and white balls in the picture are the cocoons.
They eat nothing but mulberry leaves, and eat continuously for 26 days before starting to build the cocoon. Si Bo's mom gave us a bag full of mulberry leaves, but they've chomped through those, so we're on the lookout for mulberrys on campus. I'm told they are all over, but we haven't seen any so far. (I admit I won't be heartbroken if we never find any and they all starve to death, but I really don't want to have a silkworm funeral, so I guess we'll step up our efforts to find mulberry leaves!).
I had to go online to research silkworms, and was delighted to learn that when the moths hatch from the cocoons they cannot FLY. I had horrible images about our apartment being infested with moths! And then the moths only live for about 3 days, and manage to lay eggs before they die. When the eggs hatch, the babies look like little ants, and then grow up into those yucky white silkworms. So if it works right, we'll have MORE silkworms and MORE cocoons and MORE silkworms and MORE cocoons . . . . And then will probably donate them to Zoe's class before we leave in July! (I tried to convince her to give them to her class now, but she wasn't buying it!)
I guess this counts as Zoe's and Maya's first pets. At least they haven't started naming them . . . yet!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Self Portrait in New Glasses

I had to get new glasses this week. I had heard that glasses were inexpensive in China, so I brought my prescription in the hopes of buying an extra pair. But my vision has gone to pot in the last few weeks, and my old glasses were not doing the trick. I had to wear my off-the-shelf reading glasses on top of my fancy trifocals just to see 12-point type! I don't know why the rapid deterioration -- maybe because I've been actually wearing my trifocals more?

But I wasn't sure if I could managed to get my eyes checked in Chinese! Still, there's an eyeglass shop on the road right outside our gate, so I thought I'd give it a try. My trusty "Essential Guide to Mandarin" even had the phrase, "My vision is blurry!" But more importantly, the optician spoke some English.

My old glasses were 1.75 magnification. The optician put these big black glasses with interchangeable lenses on me, and put lenses of 2.0 in. She then handed me a Chinese newspaper and asked me to read it -- we both had to laugh when I said I wouldn't be able to read it even at 10 times magnification! So we switched to my "Essential Guide to Mandarin" book. And at 3.0 magnification I could see! But one eye was still a little blurry, so she popped in the 3.5 magnification, and voila! I can see clearly now the rain has gone . . . . (sorry, couldn't resist -- I made a cultural reference to Diana Ross and the Supremes today in class, and they absolutely didn't get it. I figure this audience will get 60s music references!).

Then I selected frames, paid about $60, and was told to come back in two hours. I went to pick up the kids from school, and we headed to the eyeglass shop. As we walked, I asked Zoe if she could guess what color my new glasses were, and she nailed it: "RED! Because it's your favorite color!" And then enlightenment, "I know why red is your favorite color -- it's because red is a lucky color in China and we're IN China!" (Never mind that it's been my favorite color since before I ever knew there was a China!).

So I'm happy with my new glasses, even if they are more like high-falutin' off-the-shelf reading glasses than my fancy trifocals. After all, I can see clearly now the rain has gone . . . .

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Internet Problems

I'm not sure what the problem is, but I've had a lot of difficulty today getting my internet connection at home to work. I use the university's broadband internet, even at home. To log on, I click on "Ruijie Supplicant," installed on my desktop by the tech guys who came to set up my service. (I find that funny -- "supplicant" seems like such an old-fashioned word to describe logging onto the internet. It makes me think of lots of bowing and scraping and groveling! If groveling would make this #$%@ connection work better, I'd be happy to do it -- puleeeeeeze?! with sugar on top? I promise I'll never yell at you again. Really, I mean it this time. Puleeeeeeeeze?! There, do you think that will do it?) This morning, I kept getting "Supplicant Failure" messages. I guess I need to work harder on my begging -- I'm a complete failure as a supplicant!

I was finally able to log on late today, but for some reason I can't get to this blog -- even though I can sign in and post to it, I can't see it! For a while there I was beginning to think the Chinese internet police were blocking me, but since I can post, I think there must be another problem. I hope. Email has also been spotty, so if you don't hear from me, that's probably why.

I will be most unhappy if this doesn't get straightened out. I don't miss American TV or newspapers, but I'll feel like a lifeline has been cut if I don't have my internet! It made my day when I found a loooong cord (50 meters!) to hook up to the internet outlet in the girls' bedroom -- now I can be on the internet, comfortably at my desk in the living room, when they're asleep. Ah, it's the little things that make you happy!

More later. I hope.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Good Tuesday Morning!

And it is a good morning, after yesterday’s rain. It was very cool and very wet all day, and today the sun is shining. I just got back from Wal-Mart – I needed to buy some more clothes for the girls (more about that later!). I took the bus, and on the way back, a young man struck up a conversation in English. It turns out he got on the bus solely because he saw me, and figured the 1 yuan bus fare was cheap for an English lesson! When we got to my stop, he got off and got back on the return bus. His English wasn’t that good – but as I am always telling English speakers here, it was far better than my Chinese. I was able to confirm with him what I had already figured out – Bus 21 passes through the old part of Xiamen, the area of shop-houses from the treaty-port days of the 1800s, and also passes Zhongshan Park, the big central park for Xiamen. So we can now easily get to those places to explore.

OK, back to more clothes for the girls. We needed more layering pieces, because the teachers at school keep telling me that the girls are cold. I’m not sure how cold they are, but it is definitely the custom in China to bundle up kids. It is at least partly understandable since there is no heat in the homes or offices or classrooms here. But I still think they overdo it. But we followed the custom, and yesterday for school, each girl wore three layers on the bottom (panties, long johns, pants) and three layers on the top (long johns, short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt). AND they wore their heavy coats. AND they wore raincoats over that since it was pouring down rain (with their backpacks on under the raincoats so they wouldn’t get soaked). Poor Maya couldn’t even put her arms down after I had her dressed like the Michelin Man. Everyone here remarks on how skinny Zoe is – yes, I know she is, but I bet there are kids here every bit as skinny, but you can’t tell because of all the layers!

One reason we need to layer for school is that the kids take off their outer clothes for nap-time. The first day, when the weather was warm so we didn’t layer, the teacher told Zoe to take her clothes off, and was horrified to discover she only had panties on underneath! So back on go the clothes. And so now we wear layers.

And not only do the Chinese bundle their children, they bundle their pets, too! We’ve seen lots more dogs on leashes than I’ve seen in the past, and a lot of them are wearing clothes! The University isn’t just a school, it’s a village of its own as well. Many of the faculty live in apartments on campus, and we see lots of retirees walking about – I don’t know if they are retired faculty members or the parents of current faculty members (it’s pretty common for the husband’s parents to live with family in China). There is also married student housing. And of course there are dormitories for most of the undergraduates. So there are a number of thriving residential areas, teeming with kids and old people, and dogs and cats. The girls get excited every time they see a cat or a dog, but Zoe will still shy away from them if they come near.

I may have mentioned that there are about 200 students at the girls’ kindergarten. It is pretty interesting to watch everyone gather to pick up kids between 4:15 and 4:30 when school is dismissed. There are mostly grandmothers, with some grandfathers. Most of them come on foot. Then there are the moms, who mostly come on bicycles. Then come the motor-scooter moms, and the dads in cars. There’s one child who is dropped off and picked up by a taxi each day – she rides in the back, so I don’t know if her dad drives the taxi or not. And everyone coming to pick up a child comes bearing snacks – kids walk away from school eating cakes, cookies, candies . . . . Who said the Chinese always eat healthy food?!

Walking home from school is always interesting. There is more foot traffic than in the morning when we walk to school. We get stared at A LOT. When I walk through campus on my own, I merit hardly a glance from passersby. But add two little Chinese girls to the mix and the stares are continuous. It’s kind of funny to see the double takes when people realize the girls are speaking English. Today a student stopped us to ask me how it is that the girls speak English, so I explained that they had been raised in America. He then whipped out a textbook and asked me how to say “the 1600s,” a phrase in his book! He walked away repeating, “the sixteen-hundreds, the sixteen-hundreds, the sixteen-hundreds. . . . “

I don’t know how many times I have had the following conversation:

Q: These are your children?

A: Yes, they are.

Q: But they look Chinese.

A: They are Chinese.

Q: Is your husband Chinese? [or once] Are you the step-mom? [and my personal favorite] the grandmother?

A: No . . . .

And then I explain. It seems Chinese adoption makes us even more unusual in China than it does in the U.S. But everyone has been very positive about it when I explain, and none of the stares seem ugly. As we become more familiar in our little corner of campus, I expect some of the staring and questioning will stop. But outside the gate, I expect it will be a different story.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

International Women's Day Excursion

In honor of International Women’s Day, the law school arranged an excursion for the women professors, and they were nice enough to include us. It was an all-day affair, and tons of fun. We met at the law school at 8 a.m. on Saturday, and returned at 8 p.m. We went to a mountain park and a hot springs. It was great fun.

We took a bus to the mountain park, which took us over the bridge connecting Xiamen Island with the mainland. We drove for about an hour. There were about 25 women, and 4 kids (I don’t think all of them were professors, though Tracy told me the excursion was for professors. She introduced 3-4 women to me as “Professor So-and-So” and others as “Miss So-and-So,” but I’m not sure what all of them did. And a number of them were definitely past the Chinese retirement age for women – age 50 (men retire at 55)).
One little boy, Si Bo, aged 7, became Zoe’s special friend. He is learning English at school, and had fun asking her, “What is that?” Zoe prefers to be the teacher, rather than the student, so it was hard to convince her to ask him what things were in Chinese. His mom brought an entire bag of snacks, and all three kids ate their way to the mountain park!

When we got to the park, we had to switch to the park’s bus – they only allow their busses in the park out of environmental concerns (I’m glad to see even this small sign that China is taking seriously the environmental devastation wrought by their rapid economic growth). We drove up the mountain to a lake, and wandered about. Si Bo made a paper airplane, and then another and another, and they all had fun throwing them in the air to see if they would fly.

Then we took the bus to a higher point and walked up about a million stone stairs to a small Buddhist temple. Then we walked down another million stone stairs to a steep road, and then walked and slid down that to a larger Buddhist temple. Zoe was intrigued when Si Bo burned incense and bowed to say a prayer. She was very interested when I compared things at the temple to what we do in church – there were kneelers there as well, and I explained that burning the incense was like burning candles at church (we’re Catholic).
We then took the bus to a higher point on the mountain, and walked around a lake on a wooden walkway. As usual, Zoe wanted to go a zillion miles an hour, and Maya wanted to meander, so Zoe ran ahead with Si Bo and his mom, and Maya and I brought up the rear. In fact, Maya and I brought up the rear each time! When we were walking up the steep path from the temple, Maya kept stopping to rest – which was a good thing, since I needed to rest, too! Whew! Everyone was impressed that Maya kept going, and didn’t ask to be carried. I was told several times that kids her age in China would never have made it up that hill!

We then drove to a near-by town and had lunch. It was quite good, especially the stewed chicken soup. Maya practically ate her weight in chicken! There were about 12 of us at our table, and I could tell that they were talking about Zoe and Maya, and I’d ask Tracy periodically for translation, and it seems they were saying how impressed they were with the girls. And it seems I’m a great mom! OK, do you think maybe Tracy was fudging the translation?! At one point they were pointing at the girls, and the conversation seemed kind of heated, and Tracy told me they were remarking on how much they disagreed with the one-child policy, and how much better it would be to allow two children – see how well the girls got along and what a caring big sister Zoe was!

As we waited for everyone to finish eating, we took the kids outside to the parking lot to run around. They were delighted to see a herd of goats! Zoe wanted to follow them back to the farm to make sure they made it home, but then they crossed the road, and she’s not allowed to cross the road by herself! Little did we know at the time that we would go to a different restaurant for dinner, and we’d be served goat! (I clarified with my translator – yes, it was goat, not lamb or sheep!) The girls happily tasted it, and Maya liked it and Zoe didn’t – which is typical for most meats.

After lunch, we went to the hot springs. It is quite an elaborate place, with a hotel and spa. There were lots of pools, all man-made of stone, with the hot springs water piped in. The pools had different temperatures, and some of them had “healthful” additions – one pool was spiked with red wine, and another with a Chinese rice alcohol, all designed to get the blood flowing faster and give the heart a work-out! One had a gauze bag full of flowers floating in it, and you could definitely smell the faint aroma of flowers as you got in the water. Another had a bag full of Chinese medicinal herbs – the girls said it smelled like shrimp – I think they were detecting garlic, since that’s what most of the shrimp we’ve been eating is cooked in.

The pools were at different temperatures, and Maya wouldn’t go into the first one because she said it was too hot. It didn’t take her long to become accustomed to it, though, and then it was hard to get her out of the pool! It felt great to me, especially good for sore muscles after all that stair-climbing on the mountain. The pools were fairly large, and Zoe loved “swimming” from end to end. The water was no more than chest-high on her in even the deepest pool.

The “clothing police” are still in full force when you’re in swim suits, I discovered. We were walking from one pool to try another, with the girls wrapped in their towels, and one of the workers thought Maya was not adequately wrapped, and as she re-wrapped her discovered that her towel was wet (how could it not be?). My lord, you would have thought I’d draped a rabid dog over her! The lady started chattering at me, and dragged us back to the entrance of the pool area, and insisted that another worker go into the locker room to get dry towels for the girls!

We finished up in the largest pool, lolling on stone beds imbedded with water jets. Ah, bliss! We were at the hot springs resort for about 3 hours, and I would have happily stayed longer. The only down side was that everyone kept trying to foist this boiling-hot sickly-sweet drink at us – apparently it is necessary to boil your insides as well as your outsides at the hot springs! They would insist that it was absolutely necessary for our health while in the hot water. (After the third time of trying to refuse, I just took the glass and dumped it in the grass later!) I agree that it’s important to keep well-hydrated, but I think my bottle of water did just fine, and we suffered no ill-effects!

It was then about 5:30, and I thought we would head back to the law school, but the excursion included dinner, too! We went to a restaurant that specialized in seafood, which is very common in Fujian Province cuisine because of the locale on the ocean. It was very good, but I especially liked the vegetables. As usual, I had no idea what the green stuff was, but it was delicious! The girls were thrilled because there were noodles. Again, the main topic of conversation at the table was the girls. Again, I’m a great mom, it seems (this was with a different group of women)! I was seated next to an incredibly bossy woman who insisted that I take everything and wouldn’t take no for an answer! She even poured the orange juice in my bowl, when I indicated that I didn’t want any because my tea cup was full! She was also quite distressed that I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and no jacket – never mind that there were 25 people stuffed into a room made for 15, with no air circulating. So the “clothing police” regulate adult garb as well as children’s dress!

As we drove back toward the law school, I was concerned about how we were going to manage the walk back from the law school to our apartment in the dark with two tired girls. I needn’t have worried – the bus started dropping people off near their homes as we drove. Tracy, for example, lives in the downtown area, and called her husband on her cell phone to come pick her up at a place the bus would pass. We were the last to be dropped off, at South Gate, but we were so grateful not to have far to walk!

So, quite a grand celebration of International Women’s Day. These three women had a great time!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Our Apartment

Here are my favorite accessories in the apartment -- princesses! We simply had to bring dress-up clothes to China! The girls are standing in the middle of the living room. The light-brown square behind them is our dining-room table, which folds down.

Next, see our balcony, complete with washing machine, and like every other balcony in China, clothes hanging out to dry. Next, you can see our refrigerator near my desk in the alcove off the living room. The wall on the right is the kitchen wall.Below is the girls' room, photo taken from their door. The blue and white thing on the right is their dresser. The cleaners had just changed the sheets, so their comforters are folded at the foot of their beds and their blankets are folded at the head of the bed. I guess that's how they let us know the sheets have been changed, because usually they make up the beds. The middle photo is our kitchen, and the photo on the right is our water heater in the shower. I've acquired the knack now of actually having enough hot water to wash and rinse my hair TWICE! Of course, we shut off the water while soaping, and turn it back on for rinsing, but even doing that I had a hard time getting TWO shampooings! I can even wash both girls -- body and hair -- in the same session! We have adopted the Chinese approach to hygiene, and we don't shower all that much, or change clothes all that much. I pretty much have a visible-stain rule for putting clothes in the dirty-clothes hamper! The shower is the only place with running hot water, so I boil water to wash dishes.

The last photo is my bedroom. All of the beds have incredibly heavy duvets and then the flowery velour blanket. They also have awful gold bedspreads, but we've just put those away permanently. I wonder what the cleaners think of that! I bet they think Americans are really strange!

There is blue carpet throughout the apartment, even in the kitchen (the bathroom is tiled). When the cleaners vacuum it, they kind of stab at the visible stuff with the tube, and don't run the vacuum over the whole surface. So the carpet is pretty grimy. I'm working hard to enforce the slippers-in-the-house rule with the girls, but I'm afraid it's a losing battle. (We try not to wear our shoes in the house, because Chinese streets aren't all that sanitary -- Chinese people do a lot of spitting and nose-clearing directly onto the street. But I have to admit there is much less of that than there used to be -- the government has been cracking down because of the Olympics!).

The walls throughout the apartment are completely bare, so I'm looking for some things to hang on the walls. I'd love some large textile pieces to cover lots of surface and warm things up in here. But all in all, it's a fine apartment.

It's our second anniversary . . .

. . . as a family of three! It was two years ago today that Maya became a permanent part of our family. It is also Maya’s half-birthday – she is officially 3-and-a-half today! This morning, Zoe and I sang her “Happy Half-Birthday To You,” and we all sang “Happy Family Day To Us,” coincidentally to the same tune!

Traditionally, the half-birthday girl (and the gotcha-day girl) gets to pick where we go out to dinner to celebrate, and I have the feeling that Maya is going to pick McDonald’s. I’ve always sworn to avoid McDonald’s in China, but it is, after all, tradition!

How astonishing that it has only been two years together – as clich├ęd as it sounds, I really can’t remember a time when Maya wasn’t part of our family. From the beginning, we needed her to make our family complete. She is the adored baby sister, and definitely Mama’s baby! I know I baby her more than I did Zoe at this age – for one thing, Maya will let me, and Zoe at this age was far too interested in growing up than in being a baby. And it is always Mama’s prerogative to baby the youngest child, right?

Zoe and Maya have been in love with each other from the start, and if it’s a choice between Mama & Zoe, Maya will pick Zoe every time. But I still get all the cuddles, because Zoe won’t sit still long enough to cuddle. And I get to hold Maya’s hand on the walk to school, since Zoe is far too busy running ahead of us. At least, I get to hold Maya’s hand when she isn’t running to imitate big sister. Today they were butterflies who morphed into cheetahs chasing deer before transmogrifying into “Hallie & Schuyler,” two girls in a book Zoe is reading – all within 15 yards.

Maya loves to cuddle, and has been a cuddler from the beginning. Even when she was grieving for her foster mom, and the only family she had ever known, she would come to me for comfort. It broke my heart the first time I held her, and she looked at me and said, “Mama?” I knew she wasn’t asking about me, she wanted to know where her foster mom was. I couldn’t tell her that, all I could do was hold her as she cried.

But it didn’t take long for her true happy-go-lucky personality to shine through. If you ask her what she wants to do on any given day, and she’ll tell you she wants to “plaaaay all day!” She’s an amazing mimic, loves music and ballet, and would sit on the couch and watch videos all day if I’d let her. For all her sunny disposition, she is also a world-class sulker – that lip sticks out, that head goes down, those feet drag . . . . and then the huff is over and she’ll smile up at me and say, “I’m not mad at you ANY MORE!” At least, not until the next time!

And how special to be back in China for this anniversary of meeting in China. We really look forward to going back to Nanning, meeting Maya’s foster parents again, and going to Mother’s Love Orphanage and Guiping Social Welfare Institute where Maya and Zoe spent the first months of their lives. I think everyone will be happy to see how those babies have grown into beautiful, smart, loving girls.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


It’s daybreak, and I’m sitting here listening to the Buddhist monks at Nanputou Temple raise a ruckus. They make noise to chase away the evil spirits – I can hear shouting, drums beating, bells ringing. I hope it doesn’t work the same way as when your apartment neighbors spray for bugs – they just move next door into your apartment! Well, the girls will be up soon making their own noise, so I guess they’ll manage to chase away any spirits that sneak in here.

Zoe woke me up at 4 this morning, complaining that her leg hurt “on the inside.” I think it’s her first experience with growing pains. I explained it to her, and she asked, “Did the same thing happen to you when you were a little girl?” I assured her it did, and she asked, “Did you get to sleep in Mimi’s bed when you had growing pains?” I had to tell her I didn’t remember, but that she could sleep in my bed if she wanted. So, that’s why I’m up at the crack of dawn.

We’ve passed the two-week mark for being in China. I’ve now been here longer than any of my previous 3 trips. I’m happy that things have been going so well. I knew the girls were really flexible, and handled new things well, but they have surpassed my expectations.

Of course, there are difficulties. I don’t mind all the walking, but I wish the walk to the law school wasn’t all uphill! Oh, well, I guess I’ll develop really good calf muscles. And I wish the law school wasn’t honoring me with an office on the 5th floor – the higher the office, the better is the rule in China. But 5 flights of stairs AFTER the uphill climb is tough.

The hardest thing is just how LONG it takes to do everything. It’s not just the language barrier – that’s significant enough. But even if I spoke Chinese I think it would drive me crazy to wait in line EVERYWHERE and FOREVER! And then waiting for the laundry to dry. And waiting for the water heater to heat before taking a shower. And waiting for the internet (hardly faster than dial-up) to download. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Ah, well, patience is good for the soul. Or so I hear.

And, I have to say it is all worth it. It isn’t every day that you wake up to the sound of Buddhist monks cleansing the temple!

Hey, can someone tell me how to use an electric rice cooker? There’s one in my apartment, but no instructions. And the buttons are in Chinese! Just a few tips would be helpful – proportion of rice to water? Do they usually shut themselves off by themselves? If not, how long do I cook? Any help would be appreciated!

Monday, March 12, 2007

First Day of School for Zoe and Maya

Every time the girls start to drive me crazy, I’m going to have to remember how completely uncomplaining and brave they have been about this huge change – leaving their beloved Mimi & Grandpa, their home and all their friends, to live in this country that is now so strange to them. They were simply amazing today, happily walking into a new school where no one could understand them, and where they could understand no one. And they did it with nary a tear. I’m the luckiest mom in the world!

We walked to school today and met Tracy, who managed all the beaurocracy to get the girls enrolled. Zoe decided she wants to use her Chinese name at school, so she is now Yi Ling. And since Zoe said she wanted to, Maya said she wanted to, too, so she’s Bing Li.

Everything was going swimmingly until Tracy told me that tomorrow everyone in Maya’s class would get a measles booster. I said no, she’s up-to-date on all her immunizations, look at her shot record. Well, the school (or city or province or whoever) rules say that if you haven’t had the measles shot since January, you need a booster. Again, I said no. So everyone tries to convince me she needs the booster, that measles are very bad in Xiamen in the spring, I say no, she has life-time immunity, it doesn’t matter how bad measles get in the spring. Finally, someone calls someone-or-other at the health department, who says since Maya is a foreign student, she doesn’t need to have the booster! Still, I had Tracy write a note in Chinese to that effect, and I’m going to safety-pin it to Maya’s shirt tomorrow!

Then off we go to Maya’s classroom. The teacher seems very nice, and very young, and there is a grandmotherly lady who seems to be the teacher’s aide. When we get to the classroom, the teacher is playing the piano (all of the classrooms have pianos!) while the children sing. The class is huge – I counted 33 kids! Then everyone gangs up on Maya – ok, it only seemed that way! – the teacher, the aide, the director, all jabbering at her and Tracy and me in Chinese, to show Maya where the potty is, where her cup is (each child has a metal cup, and they each have a different sticker on the shelf to tell them where to put it, and the same sticker to show which hand towel is theirs, and to show them where to put their slippers (more about that later), where the water dispenser is, where the squat potty is (ok, it’s a long trough instead of separate porcelain holes in the floor), where her mat is in the resting room, until she starts to look a little glazed. But she gamely followed along, showed them that she knew how to wash her hands, etc. She gave me a hug and a kiss, and Zoe a hug and a kiss, and sat in the chair the teacher indicated – right in the front.

Then off we go to Zoe’s class. Her class is smaller, only about 25 kids. Again, a young teacher and an older aide. I guess they decided Zoe was old enough to take care of herself, so they just sat her down and said bye to me!

The director told me (through Tracy) that each girl needed to bring slippers, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a plastic cup. They apparently have an elaborate bedtime routine after lunch and before nap! The nap room is connected to the classroom, and is essentially a huge U-shaped bunkbed with individual little sleeping bag/mats. Looks pretty cool! And each girl has to bring a ball for the playground – they’ll go into the communal ball holder.

Then Tracy and I went to the bank to pay the girls’ tuition. Apparently that’s how it’s done here – you don’t write a check, you don’t give the kindergarten people the money, you go to the kindergarten’s bank and pay cash there. The bank then gives you a receipt to show the tuition has been paid, and you take that back to the school. As usual, there was a very long line at the bank – it took about 45 minutes to get through it. And then since I was changing money to pay the 6,000 yuan (about $800, but that’s for both girls through the end of July), it took 15 minutes to accomplish that!

I then went to the supermarket to buy the things the girls needed for school, and then back up the hill to the law school for the afternoon. I went to pick up the girls around 4 (school ends at 4:30, and I’m not really supposed to pick up early, but I used the bank receipts as my reason to get the security guard to unlock the door! I get away with a lot as the ugly American!), and found Maya’s class playing on the playground. Maya was happy to see me, but not overjoyed to leave, so we threw a ball back and forth while all the little kids giggled and spoke to me in Chinese. I pulled out my camera, and took pictures of them and then showed them their pictures – always a hit with the younger crowd. When the teacher said it was time to go back to the classroom, one of the little girls came up to Maya to take her hand – they walk in pairs holding hands, it seems. Up in the room, the aide told me with Chinese and sign language that Maya did really well, that she slept during nap and ate a good lunch (Maya later told me lunch was noodles and it was good!).

We then went to get Zoe. Zoe was happy to see us, and ready to leave. I think it’s harder for Zoe at her age than it is for Maya. She said she mostly just watched today, and didn’t do much or play much. But she said everyone was nice and no one made fun of her for not speaking Chinese. She says she thinks she’ll never learn Chinese. I told her it was a little too early to say that, since it was only her first day! And when I asked if she wanted to go back, she said yes!

Like I said, I’m the luckiest mom in the world!

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Saturday was a beautiful day! We actually saw weak sunshine by afternoon, and it was nice and warm! I actually wore shorts in the apartment, which is a vast improvement over shivering under a blanket at my computer (we only have one space heater, and I’ve put it in the girls’ room at night). I did laundry, and the clothes I hung up to dry actually dried in one day!

The nice weather brought lots of families to the park in front of the administration building. We played on the statues, and watched a dad do handstands to make his 10-month-old laugh. My observations certainly support what the Chinese census shows – more boys than girls. We saw 7 children at the park, and only 2 were girls. I’ve asked all of the adults I’ve met in the law school whether they have children, and so far, all who have kids have boys.

We took the bus to Wal-Mart again – but not to go to Wal-Mart, but to go to the Chinese department store next to Wal-Mart. It turned out that the department store was the anchor for a mall, so we wandered about looking for children’s clothing stores – still looking for raincoats for the girls. We finally found the area with children’s stores, and there were TONS! And we did find raincoats, so we are set for the rainy season. We then ducked into Wal-Mart to buy yoghurt and fruit. We even found cheese – or at least, as the box said, “cheese family!” It’s like the “Laughing Cow” variety, and the girls liked it.