Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Sight and Sound of Music

We’ve had a very musical weekend so far, starting with last night’s pop/rock concert. Then this morning we headed out to Music Square, a park near the ocean with large rocks etched with the faces of famous composers (when Zoe saw the Music Square sign, she said, “Look, it’s a word puzzle just like Grandpa likes!”). We ended the day at a violin concert at the Art College.

We took the bus up Island Ring Road, going a little beyond Music Square, and then walked back along the Boardwalk. The girls didn’t have any desire to go into the sand – to rocky and full of debris – but we enjoyed the walk and the view. Can you see the smoke stacks and the tanker truck? This small island between Xiamen and Tiawan has much of the heavy industry of Xiamen. There won't be much of a view to enjoy if Xiamen doesn't get a handle on environmental regulation.
We even came upon a film crew shooting what looked to be a commercial for a newspaper – it was interesting to see the cameraman pulled on a railroad track in a semicircle around the actors to get the shot. Later the cameraman was on a small crane to get a bird’s-eye view.

The composers’ faces at Music Square were interesting – look closely, they have something in common. Can you tell what it is? Post your answer in the comments! (I'll give you a hint – you can only really see it in two of the three photos below.)

The composers were not the only musical thing in Music Square – this statue is said to be organ pipes, but I have to say they bring more to mind crossed sabers or 21-gun salutes.

Maybe that impression was reinforced by the brigade of soldiers/policemen we saw in the park (I’m not sure what they are – they’re not wearing the uniform I usually see Xiamen policemen in, and I haven’t seen army people in anything but cammo). But they weren’t too threatening, since they were obviously on some kind of frolic – they were all riding bicycles built for two, obviously rented from the concession on the boardwalk.

After we frolicked in the park for a while, we headed back to the street to find a bus stop. We never quite know whether the return bus stop will be ahead of us or behind us – they don’t usually parallel the stop on the other side of the road – so we just pick a direction and walk. It didn’t take us long to find our stop, and we got to see this terrifically ornate Buddhist temple along the way.
The bus ride home was a little peculiar – there was a very strange man who insisted on communicating with me. But this wasn’t the usual communication problem of not speaking the same language – I don’t think he could speak at all. He only grunted and gestured. It started out friendly, with him “asking” if the girls were mine, and giving me a thumbs-up when I said yes. He then held up 2 fingers – are they both yours? Again, I said yes, and I got another thumb’s up and then he put a finger in front of his lips -- my secret was safe with him! He then gestures in a way that suggests he’s impressed with my zaftig physique – more thumb’s ups. Then he gestures to the bus driver, pointing at him viciously with his middle finger – pointing with the middle finger is considered very rude in China. He then makes gestures suggesting he wants to cut the bus driver’s throat! Yipes, will this ride never end?! He then gestures that he wants me to give him money, and I say no. He gestures again, I say no (in Chinese). He is no longer enamoured of my shape, it seems. And he gestures to show I’m a big-nose (Chinese sometimes call Caucasians big-noses, but this is the first time I’ve gotten that). Then he makes praying-hands gestures and points – he’s going to Nanputuo temple. Then more thumbs-ups for the girls. FINALLY the bus reaches our stop, which is his stop, too. That’s when I decide we’re not heading straight home from the bus stop and we go to a restaurant for an early lunch instead. He did not follow us, and I have no idea if he would have done anything if we'd headed home, but I really think he was not quite right in the head.

We’d gotten an email last week from the waiban’s office saying that there was a violin concert at the Art College, so we decided to check it out. The Art College is not close to us – you have to pass the law school to get there – but it seems a shame to live on a college campus and not take advantage of the things going on here. So after dinner, we headed out. It was a pleasant walk, and with the sun setting the temperature was more bearable. Forty-five minutes of walking, and we passed the lion statues guarding the entrance to the Art College.

The concert was quite good, all Western composers, and there was a student announcer who repeated everything in English which was very helpful. That’s how I know it was a Freshman concert; I would never have guessed it since the students seemed quite polished. About half-way through the concert I noticed something strange – all the students were female. Even the piano accompanists were female. Later there were two accompanists who were male, but it turned out that all the violinists were female. I have no idea why – maybe the male concert is next week?! Some of the pieces lagged, and a few seemed like overreaching for the student’s level, but most of it was excellent. The last piece was a piece for four violins, and it was wonderful. The girls really enjoyed the concert, though it was over-long for them. They behaved beautifully, though.

We walked back through campus, which is still very busy after dark. Despite Friday’s lunch conversation about rampant crime in Xiamen, I feel perfectly safe on campus. Still, it was a little disconcerting to see a police car parked near one of the apartment areas, with men with flashlights seeming to search the bushes. We just stayed with the crowds and walked on by. If men with flashlights had been in the park as we walked through, they wouldn’t have found criminals, they would have found canoodling couples. The park after dark is THE place to get romantic, since most students share dorm rooms with a minimum of three other students and no one has a car for make-out sessions. But as early as we walked through, no one was being very overt and I didn’t feel the need to cover the girls’ eyes!

It didn’t take the girls long to drop off to sleep tonight, and I’m not far behind them. We certainly enjoyed our day of musical "culture" today.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Roundup

We’ve had a pretty quiet week – surprisingly busy, but no blockbuster events.

Monday. I finally managed to buy airline tickets for us to go to Chengdu next week. I promised the kids we’d go to the Wolong Panda Research Center, where they actually have baby pandas you can hold (for a fee – I mean, for a “donation!”). Buying airline tickets shouldn’t be that hard, but it can be complicated here. The easy part – there’s a travel company with an English website, and they deliver tickets for free. The hard part – arranging payment and telling them where to find us to deliver the tickets.

You can pay cash, but that means trips to the bank over consecutive days to pull out 2,000 yuan at a time to amass enough money, or changing money, which entails looong lines at the bank. Or you can pay by credit card – that should be easy, right? Wrong! I decided to try the credit card payment this time. First, it can’t be done on the website, it has to be done over the phone. No problem, a very nice gentleman speaking excellent English took down my information. But it seems you have to physically sign a “Letter of Authorization” to charge the credit card and send it to them. No problem, they faxed it to me and I just needed to fax it back. PROBLEM! The fax number is not toll-free; it’s a long-distance call to Beijing. My office phone/fax doesn’t allow long-distance calls. So I go down the hill to the store to buy a phone card, and then back up the hill to the law school. Now, how hard can it be to figure out the phone card? Yes, it’s all in Chinese, but I can see I’m supposed to dial one number, key in two other numbers, and then put in the phone number. Easy, right? Not so fast – it doesn’t seem to matter what I do, I can’t complete the call. And I certainly can’t understand the recorded voice on the phone. I wander down the hall to find someone to help, and find an English-speaking student. It seems I’m supposed to also key in the number I’m calling from. Where does it say that on the card? It doesn’t! Still, with the student’s help the fax is sent.

They promise to deliver the tickets between 5 and 6 p.m. At 6 p.m., the phone calls start – a Chinese voice saying something incomprehensible, me replying that I don’t speak Chinese. The caller hangs up. A few minutes later, the same caller, more Chinese, hangs up. Last time this happened, I had to take my cell phone downstairs to the porter to have him talk to the caller, but this one keeps hanging up before I can do that! But he found me anyway – the tickets were delivered with only 3 hang-up phone calls and no trips downstairs!

It was good timing for the ticket delivery, because we were meeting an out-of-town colleague for dinner at 6. Trish is a law professor and a Fulbrighter at Wuhan University, and she came to give a speech at the law school here. The law school arranged for her and her husband, Eric, to stay at our guesthouse. (When I told Zoe that Trish and Eric were coming and staying at the guesthouse, she excitedly asked if she and Maya could spend the night with them. This struck me as a trifle odd – they only met Trish and Eric once at orientation in Guangzhou, and I hadn’t thought they’d made such a deep impression on the girls. But later I heard Zoe explain to Maya that Trish and Eric were only staying one night (true) because they had to return to America to take care of our house. Ohhhh, she thought I meant Cousin Aaron and ERICA, who are staying in our house while we’re gone!) We had a nice dinner, and Trish and Eric’s surprise over each dish reminded me of how regional Chinese food is. The food they get in Hubei Province is very different from what is served here (they said just about everything in Wuhan comes swimming in oil).

Tuesday. I taught my class Tuesday morning, so could not attend Trish’s lecture, but the Vice-Dean included me in the lunch afterwards. Class went well; we started talking about the Fourth Amendment limitations on police searches. When we talked about the requirement of warrants before many searches, I asked if the Chinese system required warrants and was a bit surprised when they assured me that it did. But, I learned, warrants are issued by the police or the prosecutor, not a judge. So it seems warrants here are more akin to subpoenas.

Lunch was nice, at the restaurant in the Yifu Building near our apartment. But the most exciting thing about it was that the Vice-Dean actually drove us there from the law school. Ahhh, a ride in an air-conditioned car, instead of a 40-minute walk in the midday heat! Doesn’t take much to make me happy . . . .

Wednesday. I decided to take the bus to Metro, a store akin to Wal-Mart, but German-owned instead of American-owned. Expats rave about it because it has imported food items like cheese, but it is very far from us – about an hour’s ride by bus, so we haven’t bothered to go. I went mostly out of curiosity, but picked up a few items of clothing for the girls and some foodstuffs. Remember I said that if you buy imports it can get expensive? I bought a package of tri-color rotini pasta for 29 yuan – about $4. Not bad, but I can buy a package of Chinese noodles that will provide 8 meals for 3.2 yuan – only 40 cents. I also bought a small jar of spaghetti sauce for 39 yuan ($5) and a small package of grated parmesan cheese for only 10 yuan ($1.30). The girls were excited to have “Italian” food for dinner for a change. And I can get one more meal out of the ingredients. Still, $10.30 for two meals is pretty expensive for us these days!

And after dinner, the girls put on a fashion show with the new purchases – which was when I realized that the shirt I bought Zoe had a broken zipper. Soooooo . . .

Thursday. Another hour trip to Metro to exchange the blouse, and an hour trip home again. Sigh. The exchange was simpler than I thought it would be – I only had to talk to five different people and fill out two different forms!

I’m still teaching English in Zoe’s and Maya’s classes each week, and because of scheduling conflicts I ended up doing them back-to-back on Thursday afternoon. The kids are learning amazingly quickly, and we’ve progressed through greetings, colors, fruits, parts of the body, counting, and now articles of clothing (they giggled like crazy when I held up a dress in front of a boy). We’re also saying “I like to eat” and then adding our fruit words. Our song list includes Twinkle, Twinkle; Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes; I Like to Eat Apples & Bananas; If You’re Happy and You Know It; and then my made-up Hello, Hello, How Are You? song. We added plurals Thursday, but I think that’s beyond Maya’s class. Zoe’s class seemed to get it, though, and I had them all saying, “One shoe, two shoessssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. One girl, two girlsssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. One eye, two eyessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.” I’m having a ball doing it, but it’s exhausting — I don’t know how kindergarten teachers do it all day!

Friday. Remember when I spoke to a History Department class – History of American Intellectual Thought? Well, the professor hosted a luncheon today to thank me, and most of the students from the seminar came. It was great fun talking to them again, and they had great questions again. One student told a sad story of a friend of hers who caused two deaths in a drunk driving incident, and she wondered what would happen in America. More interesting to me was what would happen here – if he pays compensation to the victim’s family, he can avoid a criminal conviction and jail time. They were all incredulous that there are two systems, criminal and civil, in American law, and that both would deal with the accident. They tell me that criminal law is seen very much like tort law, designed to vindicate the injury of the victim not the interests of the state. The professor was very passionate about the legal system, saying that in China there is no justice. He asked me if I had read the Chinese Constitution, and when I told him I had he asked what I thought of it. I told him I thought it was a beautiful document, but completely meaningless since no citizen could sue to enforce it. He agreed, saying again that there’s no justice in China. He also said that crime is rampant in China. I said I was shocked to hear it, since I feel so much safer here than in America, but he insisted that there are murders and stabbings and robberies every day in Xiamen in the areas where the “lower classes” live. I evinced surprise, saying I thought China was a classless society, and everyone laughed.

The restaurant specialized in Sichuan food, which is much spicier than food in Xiamen. I think the professor asked them to tone it down for me, though, because it wasn’t very hot at all. It was very tasty, though. When I arrived at the restaurant, he asked me if there was anything I wouldn’t eat, and I said no. He asked, very surprised, “Rabbit? You’d eat rabbit?” Yes, I said, my mother used to cook rabbit with a very nice wine gravy – a French dish. “Frog? You’d eat frog?” Sure, why not? We get this reaction all the time – Americans have quite the reputation as timid eaters here in China.

I said I was glad to try Sichuan food before going there next week (Chengdu is in Sichuan Province), and we talked travel for a while. He said he had not taken his kids to Beijing to climb the Great Wall yet, that he wanted to wait until his youngest was old enough to walk a mile on his own so he didn’t end up carrying him the whole time. I asked how old his youngest is, and he’s 5 and a half! Amazing! I guarantee Maya would climb every step of the Great Wall on her own.

The professor had one of his students meet me at my apartment and walk me to the restaurant, not far away at all, and she insisted on walking me back even though I said I knew perfectly well the way. She fielded three or four phone calls along the way, and apologized, saying she was the vice president of the Student Union and was in charge of a concert this evening. The girls and I had noticed the stage in the park as we walked to school this morning. The student told me it was a very famous singer who was coming to perform, and that his concert would be broadcast live on Xiamen radio. So the girls and I decided to check it out this evening.

The concert started 40 minutes late – I wonder how that plays out when it’s being broadcast? And after the first song the girls were ready to go! They liked the pre-concert activity, where the stage managers were checking the fog machine, the bubble machine, the flame machine (cheesy, huh?!), but weren’t too excited by the music. I can’t blame them – I thought the singer was pretty bad and the staged stuff was pretty tame. I thought it was funny, though, that this rock concert for college students started off with a speech by a college administrator in shirt and tie!

Well, that’s our week. If you made it this far, remember that I did warn you that nothing exciting had happened this week. Imagine, I can write over 35 inches about nothing!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More About the PX Plant & Protests

Here's an interesting story about the protests in Xiamen over the building of the PX plant. The article says the number of protestors could have been as high as 10,000. Wow!

Despite efforts by local Public Security Bureau technicians to block the
cellphone campaign, thousands of people heeded the alarm during the last days of
May. Despite warnings from city hall and a large turnout of uniformed and
plainclothes police, they marched in hot, muggy weather through the streets of
Xiamen to protest the chemical factory being built on Haicang, an industrial and
residential island across a narrow strait from downtown Xismen.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful, except for pushing against
policemen lined up to stop the march, witnesses said. About 8,000 to 10,000
people participated the first day and half that many the second day.

The whole article is interesting, focusing on how text messaging and blogging spread the word about the protests.

Smoking & Spitting

A.M.B.A. in MI asks: 1) Smoking? What's it like in restaurants, on campus, etc? and 2) Spitting? Is it that prevalent as I have heard?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to note a reduction in both since I last was in China. In 1991 in Beijing, the clouds of smoke everywhere was completely toxic. I swear, every man, woman and child in China was smoking two cigarettes at a time! And I remember how shocked I was to see people not just spitting, but spitting indoors on the carpet, and then rubbing it in with their shoes! In 2001 there was less smoking and spitting, and in 2005 it seemed even less as well. I think 2007 has brought even more of a reduction. But it might be different in other parts of the country -- I can really only speak about Xiamen.

I asked my students about smoking, since I wondered if maybe college students simply couldn’t afford to smoke. They said no, people were learning more about the health dangers of smoking so were choosing not to smoke. And many of the places we go – stores, restaurants, busses – have no-smoking signs. Of course, oftentimes people will blatantly ignore such signs, puffing away directly under them. But I really think smoking is on the decline. You still see more smokers here than in the U.S., and Zoe and Maya will point them out to me and declaim in a loud voice, “He’s smoking! He’s going to get sick and die!” They did the same thing with bike riders with no helmets when we first got here, but they couldn’t keep that up – NONE of them have helmets! We’re lucky that most people don’t understand them when they point out perceived wrong-doing.

Spitting is also on the decline. There is actually a concerted campaign in place to get people to stop spitting in public in preparation for the Olympics. But you’ll still see spitting and nostril clearing onto the ground and nose-picking and people cleaning out their ears with their keys. There seems to be much more openness about bodily functions – no one apologizes for a burp or finds it necessary to cover a cough. Every restaurant has toothpicks on the table, because it is perfectly acceptable to pick your teeth after a meal, so long as you do it behind your hand so no one can see your teeth! And we see kids peeing and pooping all over the place. (I watched a little boy poop on the sidewalk at the bus stop today, and then his father put him over his knee to do a close and thorough cleaning. We all got to see EVERYTHING!)

Like I keep telling Zoe, what’s rude and what’s not depends on where you are. And none of these things is rude in China. They think it equally disgusting that we eat with our hands – you’ll only rarely see a Chinese person touching food with hands. And what’s the idea of sitting down on a toilet that someone else has been sitting on?! Completely disgusting!

One of the great things about being here in China now while the girls are so young is that they are just so accepting of all of these differences. I was a little concerned that they might decide they didn’t like China because of these different habits, different levels of hygiene, the infamous squat potty, etc. But they have been so open to everything. Being this young makes everything an adventure, and when you have so little life experience the unusual just looks like the usual. The interesting part will be how they adjust to going back home. That nose-picking thing just won’t cut it in Fort Worth!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reflections on Guangxi Province Visit

A few weeks ago I promised a look back at our homecoming trip to Guangxi Province, so here it is. We’re all still processing the trip, and will be for years to come, I suspect. The girls are still talking about the trip practically every day, and it’s been quite a springboard into discussions of their birthparents and how they came to be adopted. I think it was a really positive experience for us all.

Zoe really seems to feel good about her reception at Guiping SWI – she keeps saying wonderingly, “They were so excited to see me!” I’m not sure, though, that she really comprehended what her finding place was about. Since we’ve been back, she’s wanted to play-act several times her being left there and being found, but the play hasn’t really acquired more details since we visited Guiping. She doesn’t want to deal with specifics, it seems – at least, she doesn’t want to since she clarified that she wasn’t buried in her finding spot (I think I’ve figured out where that comes from – pirates “find” things, and those things are always buried. I’m still OK with calling it her finding place, despite this, because I think it’s better than many other alternatives, but be forewarned!). It's OK that she doesn't quite get it yet -- I have pictures and lots to tell her as she gets older. And we'll be back.

Maya seemed to have more difficulty with meeting her foster parents than I thought she would since she's usually so laid back – she’s young enough that the experience was very confusing, I think. But I still think it was on balance positive; she just needed lots of reassurances that she was my daughter forever and that no one could take her away. And it was good she actually saw that in action – here are these other people who seem to have a claim on her, but still she came home with me. And Maya has always been really good about asking for exactly what she wants – even before she could speak English, she would move my arm so I held her precisely as she wanted to be held. And her latest version of that is to put words in my mouth: “Mama, say ‘You’re my daughter forever and no one can take you away.’” So reassuring her has been easy because she tells me exactly what she needs to hear! And the requests for reassurance are getting fewer and fewer now. . . .

So were the girls too young for this return trip to Guangxi Province? Yes and no. I think they would have gotten a lot more out of the visit if they had been older, but it’s not like we can’t go back and visit again when they are older. At different ages, the homecoming trip can be about different things.

In a lot of ways, this was a fact-finding and fact-preserving mission more than anything else. I could talk to Maya’s foster mom while her memories of Maya’s time with her were still fresh, for example. I could see the orphanage file before it was destroyed (who knows what can happen – records burn in fires, get lost, or get destroyed because of changes in policy about record retention). And with all the growth and development in China, with the consequent tearing-down and building-up, we could see things that might not be there in a few years – the old orphanage building in Guiping, for example. And I could get pictures to preserve scenes that might soon be gone or changed. And I just couldn’t see being in China and NOT going back.

Being here in China, it was tempting to arrange everything on our own, and if we had the trip probably would have been cheaper. But I’m really glad we used OCDF, which handles lots of these homeland tours. I needed to be able to give the girls complete attention to deal with the emotional issues, and I had my own emotional fall-out to deal with, too. So it was really good to have someone else arrange everything for us. It was also good to have another family with kids along for parts of the trip. Having other kids to play with made it a real pleasure for Zoe and Maya. But I’m really glad we didn’t have another family with us when we visited Mother’s Love and Guiping SWI. With it being only us, the girls could really revel in the attention they were getting and see that the people there were genuinely interested in them, and only them. So we had the best of all possible worlds – a very small travel group, alone time at the important times, and other kids for the girls to play with when we needed it.

The most surprising thing for me in visiting Guangxi Province was the utter poverty of rural life in China. It’s so easy to forget that when you spend most of your time in urban China, especially here in Xiamen which has really benefited from China’s economic expansion. I think I understand much better the economic devastation the fine for over-quota birth would cause; it’s easier to see the desperation for someone to care for you in your old age when there is no pension to rely on and the family seems barely on the right side of survival.

I can’t know or fully understand what motivated Zoe’s and Maya’s birth families, but being there, more than any books or articles I’ve read, showed the stark reality of rural life in China.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Answers II: Cost of Living and Education

Elizabeth asks: What would an average family make per month in Xiamen?
According to the Xiamen government website, the average income of rural residents of Xiamen is about 520RMB ($68) per month. The average income of city residents is 950RMB ($124) per month. Obviously, that average takes in a lot of people, some of them very, very poor. Remember that my law students would consider a salary of 5000RMB ($625) per month an appropriate salary for them.

Would that $250 include groceries? Yes, the $250 I withdraw from the bank each month includes groceries! Really, it costs so little to live here it’s unbelievable! Now, if we insisted on buying a lot of American foods -- cereal, peanut butter, etc. -- our costs would icrease a lot. But "going Chinese" it is really, really cheap.

China doesn't have a free public school system like in US? No, but it is moving toward such a system. It started by waiving tuition and fees for rural school children, and now it’s doing the same in some urban areas (not yet in Beijing and Shanghai, where I’m told education is VERY expensive). The parents here in Xiamen tell me that the program has come here and school fees for primary and secondary school (the 9 years of compulsory schooling) are only 400RMB a year – about $50! I had to keep asking because I couldn’t quite believe it, since kindergarten is 6,000RMB (about $800) a year! They said they laugh about that all the time, and claim the kindergarten must think they are training college students. But primary and secondary school is much cheaper. High school, not part of the compulsory education system with a tuition break, costs 6,000-10,000RMB a year. College also runs about 5,000-10,000RMB a year. And one of my students told me there is a new government program for loans to pay college fees. If you pay the loans off within a few years of graduating, they are interest-free.

Remember I mentioned a few weeks ago that high school students were taking the national college entrance exams? Well, the scores came out this weekend -- fast, huh? And these are students who are graduating and going to college in the fall, not a year in advance like we tend to take college boards. I'm sure there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the scores were reported. The score determines whether you can go to college at all, because there are not enough college seats for everyone who applies. And the score determines which college you can attend. This is much more serious than in the U.S., where just about anyone can get into some college if they want to go, and where colleges look at more than test scores.

I also learned while in Guangxi Province that China has affirmative action! Members of the 52 or so recognized minority groups can be admitted to college with lower scores because of China's concern about their underrepresentation in government and other aspects of civil society.

China has stated a strong interest in reforming its education system, and part of that is to make education available to more and more people. They are rapidly expanding colleges and starting new ones, and I think this tuition waiver program is a wonderful one.

Still, one of the biggest problems is in rural areas, where there are not enough schools and not enough teachers. Many children have to attend boarding schools just because there are no schools close to them. When we were in the farming village in Yangshuo, I saw no children at all, and asked Cristy about it. She said it was likely that the students were in boarding school. But Yangshuo was only a short distance away, I said. But, she said, most farmers wouldn't have any way to get the children to school daily, even at what looks like short distances to us. And at times the roads may be impassable because of rain. So, boarding school it is.

And then another problem for rural children is that oftentimes they have to stay with relatives in their rural village when their parents go to the city to work because the parents can't afford the higher cost of education in the city. Even with tuition waivers available in the city, migrant children are not eligible for them. They're only eligible for tuition waivers where they are registered, and that is the place where they are born. It's almost impossible to change your place of registration (I know one Beijing resident who is married and has lived there for 10 years, but she is still registered in Inner Mongolia, where she was born.) So migrant children who go to the city with their parents either do not attend schools or they attend illegal schools set up by the migrants themselves. Not surprisingly, the quality of these schools is not great and many times the buildings are dangerous.

So China's education system is improving, but there is still a long way to go. But then, the same could be said for American public education, huh?!

Monday, June 25, 2007

3. . . 2 . . . 1. . . CONTACT!

I've had a few requests lately about how to contact me, so I've updated my profile with an email address. Please use responsibly! I'll still try to answer questions in the comments so only email if you have something that you don't want to leave in comments, ok?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Re-Running the Marathon

Today was another scorcher, but I couldn’t see keeping the kids cooped up in the apartment for another day, as tempting as the air-conditioning is! So we headed out early in the hopes of getting a little fun in before it got too warm. We decided to take the bus from Beach Gate to the International Exhibition Center – we could explore a new stretch of waterfront and see the life-size statues of runners from the Xiamen marathon (we watched the marathon back in March, and had seen the statues along the Island Ring Road when we took Mimi to the airport).

My hopes for sea breezes to cool us down were not realized; there was nary a ripple on the water. We saw, though, that there were kiosks renting bicycles, even bicycles built for 3! Despite much pleading from the girls, I resisted. Maybe we'll do it another time . . . .

Still, the girls enjoyed the statues of marathoners and had to re-enact the event.

Running . . . See, they're neck and neck with the leader! Those other runners don't stand a chance -- after all, it's a little hard to compete when you're carrying an umbrella!
Helping out at the water stop . . . After all, they are so far in the lead they can afford to help out (I hope it doesn't turn out to be one of those tortoise-and-the-hare things!)

Even photographing the winners . . . Wait a minute, how will Zoe photograph herself winning the marathon?!
Here's the solution -- Zoe suggested we take one more picture “in front of the flowers for Mimi!” So I guess this is the girls in the “winner’s circle,” having won the Xiamen International Marathon!

That was enough fun in the sun for all of us, so we hopped a bus back to Beach Gate. We stopped at the market for some fruit, went to the store for some baked goods for breakfast tomorrow, and then jiggedy-jigged home to blessed air-conditioning! Ahhhhhh!


Wow! Y’all sure have a lot of interesting questions. Here are some answers:

Wendy asks: Can Chinese citizens apply to go out of the country and automatically get that request? We were wondering about inviting Madeline's foster mother to America sometime, could she come easily or is the process to get a visa to come to our country difficult or permission to travel a problem? I don’t know if there’s a problem on the China end, but it is pretty hard to get a visa on the American end. I hear from students all the time how difficult it is to get a visa, though the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou says 87% of visa requests are granted (I wonder if they include orphan visas in that?!). That 87% definitely includes all the education visas, and it’s my impression that those are easier to get than tourist visas. I’ll never forget a really heart-wrenching scene I saw at the consulate when waiting in line to get in for Zoe’s visa. An elderly Chinese woman was prostrate on the ground, sobbing, with family members trying to get her up and moving, with a guard standing stony-faced above her. I asked our guide what was going on, and she said the woman’s request for a visa to visit family in America had been turned down again. Oh, I don't know if you ever got my email about the minority outfits? Sorry, Wendy, I didn’t get an email, though I think I remember you posting a comment about it. I’ll be happy to bring one home with us, and we’ll figure out at the end of July how to get it to you, ok?

AmericanFamily asks: 1) What did your kids like best about moving to China? Zoe says, “I like that we’re back where we came from and I like that there are English people [of course she means English-speaking people, but anyone who does -- including Chinese people -- are English!) to talk to whenever we need.” Maya says, “I like going to the new school because we play." (What the heck has she been doing in preschool in American?!) There you have it, from the sources! 2) What was the hardest part? The hardest part for me is actually the loss of independence. I’m used to doing most everything on my own, but now I can barely manage daily life – figuring out what the teacher’s note says, getting a new ink cartridge for my printer from the graduate secretary, calling to make airline reservations – without having someone help me because of the language barrier. There are LOTS of things I can do now that I couldn't do so easily when we first got here, but I'm always running up against new ones, it seems). 3) Have you picked up any easy and delicious Chinese recipes? Any from Guangxi province? I wish! But I’m not really much of a cook. I’ve managed fried rice and fried noodles and I can cook simple veggies, but that’s about it. My two huge discoveries, though, that will definitely help me at home – electric rice cookers are WONDERFUL! and it is way easy to boil or steam frozen dumplings (I know I’ve seen them in the frozen foods section of the Chinese grocery store at home, and now I’ll be eager to buy them). 4) Do the law students you teach know about the huge demand for Chinese "legal consultants" to work at international law firms, even though they would have to give up their Chinese law license? If so, are they interested in those jobs? Do most of your students plan to work for law firms? (My husband is a lawyer and we have been researching how law firms work in China). Hardly any of my students want to work for law firms. First of all, the bar pass rate in China is only 10%. Second, the huge demand for Chinese “legal consultants” is actually being filled by law faculty, not law students! Some of my colleagues here are making a mint doing consulting work – I know one of them drives a brand-spanking-new red Jaguar. Most of my students want to work for the government. Now, this could be because Xiada is not one of the top-rated law schools in China – it’s a good school, but lower on the totem pole than schools in Beijing and Shanghai.

Elizabeth asks: Is there something you really wanted to do or experience in China that you haven't had the chance to do yet? Yes, I had really hoped to volunteer at the local orphanage. But I ended up not making it a priority, and now time is running out and I don’t even have permission to visit much less volunteer. I do hope to visit, though. Is there something that took you by surprise since you've been in China? Like a stereotype or image that we as Americans expect, but really isn't the norm? The stereotype I kept bumping up against is what I’ve termed “Mulan Syndrome” – the tendency to think of Chinese culture as it was rather than what it is. So it always surprised me to hear Chinese hip-hop, see modern dance, etc. I was also warned before coming here that Chinese people are very reserved and uncomfortable talking about sex, which was going to be a problem in teaching Women & American Law, I thought. How could we teach sexual harassment, date rape, etc., without talking about sex?! Well, that just wasn’t the case. Students watch “Sex in the City” and “Desperate Housewives” and are quite eager to talk about ALL kinds of things. I had also been told that that Chinese reserve meant that it was hard to make friends here, and that really hasn’t been the case. Everyone has been very friendly, even inviting us to their homes. And I guess I half-expected everyone to be dourly suffering under an oppressive regime – and I found instead that most everyone is pretty happy and pretty competent at working around that oppressive regime. That’s what strikes me now – I’ll keep thinking about it!

Dee asks: I heard there were movies for sale everywhere in China, dirt cheap. Have you seen this? Absolutely! DVDs can be had for about $1. But buying them definitely has the pig-in-a-poke problem – since it is all boot-leg, you have no idea the actual quality of the image and you have no idea what language it will be in. Some of the folks from the consulate in Guangzhou were laughing about that, while disclaiming any personal experience since as consular officials they shouldn’t be condoning the buying of bootlegs. But one said he ended up buying 4 different DVDs of a current American movie before he got one in English – and the problem wasn’t that they were in Chinese, one version he got was in Russian!

A.M.B.A. in MI asks: The family (DH and two kids ages 5 and 4) and I will be moving to Kunming China in August. Will you please do an entry on money - how much daily stuff costs, travel costs, unexpected costs, etc.? We'll be making very little money (teaching university level English) and everyone says we'll do just fine, but I'm a bit skeptical. I'd really like to stay within our Chinese salaries and not raid our home account too much, if possible. We will have a housing allowance. Thanks for your input. Wow, you’re in for an adventure! How wonderful! I hope you plan to keep a blog – if you do, give us the link to follow your “Kunming Adventure!” Things really are cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. I basically go to the ATM machine at the beginning of the month and get 2,000 RMB (about $250) and that takes care of all our usual expenses for the month. And we’re not trying to do it on the cheap – we eat out 3-4 times a week and it seems every time I got to Trust-Mart I come home with new shoes or a new outfit for the girls.

We have free housing, including utilities, so I can’t give you much guidance on those. I’d think you can get a comfortable middle-class two-bedroom apartment here for 1500-2000 yuan per month ($200-250). Our single largest expense was the girls’ school tuition – around 3600 yuan each for the semester – but that’s about $100 per month for each of them, and that sure beats the heck out of what I was paying at home! I really haven’t paid any systematic attention to prices, but here’s a sampling of things we’ve bought recently to give you kind of an idea:

Dinner at Lin Duck House (fried rice, clams, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, 2 cans of Sprite) – 48 yuan ($6)
2 popsicles – 2 yuan (25 cents)
2 600 ml Cokes – 5 yuan (65 cents)
1 620 ml Chinese beer – 5 yuan
1 just-add-water cup of ramen noodles – 3.3 yuan (45 cents)
Package of spring onion saltine crackers – 2.3 yuan (30 cents)
1 package cheese (like the “Laughing Cow” variety) – 12.5 yuan ($1.65 – cheese is hard to find and relatively expensive here)
Baby bok choy (enough for 2-3 meals) – 3.5 yuan (45 cents – veggies are VERY cheap)
Plums (about 10) – 6 yuan (50 cents)
Grapes (about 5 pounds) 31 yuan ($4 – fruit is expensive, comparatively speaking)
New Disney Princess backpack (Zoe’s was destroyed by overpacking!) – 79 yuan ($10)
Pastries for breakfast – 6 yuan (50 cents)

Daily travel is also cheap – 1 yuan for unairconditioned bus, 2 yuan if it has airconditioning; taxis rarely run me more than 18 yuan ($2) wherever I go in Xiamen (except for the airport, which is about as far from Xiada as any place can be, and then that’s about a $10 ride). Train travel is very cheap – it was less than $60 for all three of us from Nanning to Guilin. Plane travel is a bit more – for 3 round-trip tickets from Xiamen to Shanghai, it was around $400.If you’re interested in looking at in-China flight prices, I suggest (they have an English website).

You didn’t ask, but let me mention two things you’ll find it nigh-on impossible to find in China, based on my experience and what I’ve heard from other expats – deodorant and sunscreen. So bring as much as you’ll need!

The only unexpected expense so far has been replacing the 2 fillings that fell out of my teeth – a $75 dentist visit. Hope this helps!

Mimi asks: Did you have time to go look for musical instruments for the girls? And did you have time to go see a ballet class? No, and no! We still have time, though . . . .

Keep on asking, and I'll keep on answering!

Saturday, June 23, 2007


When my class visited the courthouse in Xiamen, we were on the bus for about one hour there and one hour back. It was interesting talking to the students during that time. I was asking one student what she wanted to do when she graduated, and she said, "I just want a good job." Of course I had to ask -- what makes a job a good job? Her immediate reply, "Making 5,000 RMB per month." (That's about $650.00) . What about job satisfaction? It isn't important, she said.

I thought that was a curious response since the student told me she disliked the job she had between college and law school. She worked for the government as kind of an "Internal Affairs" investigator, or as she put it, "We looked for people to discipline who had made mistakes in their work or personal lives." And she added, in what I took to be understatement, "People did not like us very much."

But if it's a good job, she said -- that is, one earning 5,000 RMB per month -- "it doesn't matter."

Q & A

We did absolutely nothing today, so I have absolutely nothing to post about! (And I mean we did "absolutely nothing" -- we never left the apartment, wallowing in the airconditioning. It was a brutally hot day, and there just didn't seem to be anything sufficiently intriguing to lure us outside. Not to mention we didn't get much sleep last night. It seems that drunken revels to celebrate graduation are universal; last night there was a huge group of young men celebrating in front of the restaurant that shares our concrete courtyard. The celebration included lots of yelling, drunken singing, and lots and lots and lots of posing shirtless for the camera while doing body-building poses. This went on for HOURS!).

So how about y'all tell me what to post about. Are there any burning questions you want to ask? Leave them in the comments, and I'll try to post answers. I can't always post to the comments -- part of that net nanny thing -- so if you've asked something in the past and I haven't answered, ask again and I'll answer on the blog this time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . .

Now that I’ve finally posted all of our vacation pictures (not ALL of them, though I know it seems that way to y’all! I’m worse than those people who invite you over and then force you to view thousands of vacation slides (“There are the kids in front of a rice field. . . . There they are in a truck . . . . There we are on a bike!”)), it feels like our vacation is truly over.

Back here in Xiamen, we’re settling into our daily routines again. The girls are back in school, though the hot weather has intensified the “measles check” as we enter the front door (that's what the teacher is doing to Maya in the picture above, while Zoe waits her turn). Remember the trouble I had getting the school to agree that the girls didn’t need a measles booster? They were insistent that come summer there was grave danger of a measles epidemic? Well, they’re pretty serious about it. Before summer, we just had a teacher checking their faces and hands to make sure they were clean, and trimming their fingernails if they thought them too long. Now, the school nurse or a teacher probes their necks for swollen glands, lays her hand on their foreheads to check for fever, has them open their mouths and peers down their throats, and scrutinizes any visible bumps. Today the bug bite on Zoe’s face got close attention from the teacher, who passed her on to the nurse, who promptly said “no problem!”

The short summer term has started and I’ve already taught my first of 5 classes. I’m teaching American Criminal Procedure, and again my class is small – only 8 students. We’ve just covered introductory material so far, but I’m hoping to learn a lot from them about Chinese criminal procedure. I’m not sure how much I can teach about American criminal procedure – I have a grand total of 11.5 hours of instruction time for the term and now only 9 hours left.

As usual, I spent quite a long time answering student questions at the beginning. I hope it allows us to establish rapport, it gives me a chance to see their level of English competency, and it gives them a chance to get used to my English (every English speaker is different, after all) before we get to the important stuff. I tell them they can ask me anything they want, and it doesn’t have to be about law. They asked me the usual things – did I like Xiamen, why did I come to teach in China, where did I get my education. But one asked me what I thought of John Grisham’s novels, since he’d just finished reading one (translated into Chinese). I had to confess I’d never read one – I don’t read law stuff for pleasure or watch movies or TV about law because it tends to drive me crazy – I want to correct all the mistakes (I remember watching an episode of L.A. Law once where they called a “motion to quash” a “motion to squash!” That pretty much ended popular law entertainment for me!).

They also wanted to know what I thought about the PX plant. Remember the environmental protest I mentioned a few weeks back? Well, students are still really interested in the subject. I’ve learned a bit more about it from my students now. It seems that a Xiada professor of chemistry first alerted the government to the danger of the chemical, PX. She presented a report at the annual meeting of a political party other than the Communist Party of China (did you know there were other political parties in China? I didn’t. There are hundreds of other parties, but they do not exist in opposition to the Communist Party, but instead help them – or that’s how it’s been explained to me). Someone passed on her report to the CCCP, and somehow the public became aware of the potential health risks from this chemical plant. A student told me that the Xiada scientist would not get in any kind of trouble out of all of this because she is too well-known, being a leading member of the China Academy of Science, but also that she didn’t have anything to do with the protests, anyway.

People from the neighborhood where the plant is being built arranged the protest by sending out text messages to a million cell phone numbers in Xiamen (I might even have gotten one – I get tons of spam text messages each week, but it’s all in Chinese so I just delete it on the assumption that anyone who is really trying to reach me knows to write in English! I saw the text message on someone else’s phone, and the only English were the letters “PX.”). They arranged the protest for June 1, Children’s Day, saying that everyone needed to protest to protect the health of Xiamen’s children (clever, huh?).

When the government got wind of the protest, they sent out rival text messages telling people not to come to City Hall to protest, but instead to lodge their complaints with the government via a telephone hotline they set up. People showed up for the protest anyway, though students disagree about how many people were there and no one would admit to having been there so I don’t know if I’m getting eyewitness accounts – there were either 200-300 or 1,000 people (pretty small in a city the size of Xiamen, but a pretty big protest by China standards). I was also told that the protest made the government extremely nervous because it fell so close to the June 4 Tianenmen Square anniversary (someone told me that at his university (not Xiada) on June 4, students who were party members would wander the campus at night with armbands and flashlights looking for signs of any commemorations of Tianenmen Square and would quickly remove any they found).

After the June 1 protest, the government sent out another text message saying that building the plant had been suspended pending more study. I said to my students that it sounded like the protest had worked, and was everyone satisfied? Definitely not, was the answer. Students say they think the government will allow the chemical plant, because “it’s all about GDP,” as one student put it.

A student not in this class told me that she had written about the plant and the protest on her blog, and that it was deleted by the blog administrators. Around the same time, my access to “Blogger” was blocked again (China allows blogging, but only on blogs it can control, so Blogger is frequently – but not always – blocked in China). I had been able to reach it for a couple of months before I posted about the protest, but couldn’t thereafter. I don’t take it personally – I don’t think it was my actual blog post. I think they just tightened up the Great Firewall of China because of the June 4 anniversary. It’s pretty funny to be able to post to my blog but not read it (usually I can get there via a proxy server, but that hasn’t been completely reliable, either).

Anyway, I think it will be a fun class, judging from the questions and comments on the first day.

Xiada is a busy place right now. Graduation is June 24, but for the past few weeks we’ve seen students flitting around in academic regalia. They show up in bunches in front of the library, in front of the dorms, in the park, all posing for pictures. Students are packing up their belongings, and there are temporary weigh stations set up in front of the dorms by China Railway Express. The groundskeepers are working feverishly to beautify an already beautiful campus before the graduation ceremony. And parents are already in town, being toured around the campus by their graduates. Add to that the short, intense summer term, which I’m told most students attend, and we haven’t reached the hazy, lazy days of summer yet.

Still, people are looking ahead to the new school year, too. Zoe's kindergarten class went to visit the local primary school where most will attend, and Maya's class has been taken on a tour of the upstairs classrooms to where her "Class 2" students will graduate as they become "Class 3" in the fall. I’m astonished to think we have less than six weeks left in China, and that soon we'll be shipping our stuff and ourselves back home to prepare for our fall term there. It will be a busy six weeks for us, as we try to squeeze every drop of enjoyment from our time here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More Photos From Yangshuo

More Photos From Guilin

Acckkk! Unforeseen Consequences. . .

OK, I knew that going back to Guangxi meant there would be tons of questions from Zoe especially – about her birthparents, about her finding place, about the orphanage, about adoption. And sure enough we’ve had those (last night she asked if she was buried in the ground at her finding place, and I was able to reassure her that she was just on top of the ground. Thank goodness she asked – who knew she was worrying about that). But I didn’t expect it to spur the where-do-babies-come-from talk!

I’m not even sure how it happened – we were talking about how she might have gotten to her finding place and she suddenly asked, “How do babies get in the birthmother’s tummy?” And my answer, “They grow there,” just wasn’t going to cut it this time!

Yet another child-rearing moment when I wanted to say, “Wait a minute – let me do a little research on how best to explain it to you. Can you wait a few weeks?!” But they never can wait, can they? So we had to do the whole seed-egg, insert Tab A into Slot B thing, and then she wants to know how Aunt Kim and Uncle Phillip and I got in Mimi’s tummy. Ewwwwww, I really don’t want to think about that! It doesn’t seem to matter how old you are, you still don’t want to think of your parents having S-E-X!

Anyway, we both got through this rite of passage, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. All her questions were answered, and I figured I wouldn’t have to go through THAT again for a while! And then on the way to school this morning she starts again, “Does it hurt when the man does that to the lady to make a baby?” Sigh. Here we go again.