Author Archives: smerkens

Our Health Choices: Learning lessons about women’s health issues in China

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Like many women, Angelina Jolie’s recent public declaration in the New York Times of her preventative double mastectomy has had me thinking about my own health and whether I too may be at risk for breast or ovarian cancer.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have been educated on the basics of women’s health issues since I was in my late teens. Every year since I was 17, I have gotten routine breast exams and pap smears and have also had frank conversations with my doctors about my health and my body.  While living in China, it hasn’t been easy. Once I requested a breast exam at an exclusive foreign medical clinic and even there, the doctor just nonchalantly lifted up my shirt without any warning and started groping around while yacking on her cel phone with a friend and gave a nod when done. That aside, when I have had other medical issues, I have been fortunate enough to have worked with patient English speaking nurses and Chinese female friends who have accompanied me and translated for me on countless trips to local clinics when I have had medical issues. I have also been able to space out some doctor visits while in the US or New Zealand over the span of the last three years. During these visits, I try to squeeze in annual check-ups and I reserve the frank conversations about my current wellness and any preventative concerns for then.

I have always thought that my basic knowledge of female health issues and preventative measures were the norm for most women of my age. Lately I have been considering, however, that many women both in the US as well as in China may not have had the same exposure to basic women’s health education and preventative measures.

Here in China, I wasn’t entirely sure the level of exposure many women had when it came to their health basics as well as preventative measures. During various visits to public hospitals and clinics to take care of my own medical issues over the last three years, I surmised recently that many Chinese women probably have only limited exposure to preventative measures as well as routine health check-ups. I don’t think I have ever seen any information on any clinic walls nor anything in the form of informational leaflets that would provide women with information about self-breast exams, pap smears, or information and facts on breast, cervical or ovarian cancers. Then I started looking for information on the internet regarding breast cancer in China. What I learned after a quick search was that my assumption was mostly correct that many Chinese women have limited exposure and awareness of women’s health issues, especially breast cancer awareness. For example, an international study conducted in 2012 among a sampling of 400 women forty years and older in the city of Wuhan found that 75% of them had never had a mammogram because of a lack of priority; a lack of awareness; or because they were feeling okay (Chung, Liu & Wu, 2012). Though this study can’t speak for older or younger women across China, I am led to believe that preventative measures such as breast cancer screenings and breast exams, pap smears and frank conversations with doctors and nurses are uncommon.  This led me to question why so many Chinese women likely lacked an awareness of these issues and why so many of them were also likely not talking about their bodies with their doctors or other health workers. So I set out to get some answers from some Chinese female friends as well as some of my female students. Of course they cannot completely represent the diverse experiences of the millions of women all across China in rural as well as urban places. However, their perspectives did help shed some light on some of my questions.

“It doesn’t affect us”

Women in China have not been kept completely in the dark about Angelina Jolie’s recent blog posting. A Chinese translation of the article was put on China’s microblog site Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and thousands of people tapped into the article and commented on it (Guilford, 2013). Some of my female students had either heard of or had even read the article and were quite excited about it. A glamorous Hollywood actress with an equally, handsome and striking Hollywood husband will have no trouble garnering attention in China. My students exclaim, “Oh she’s so beautiful! I loved her in Mr. and Mrs. Smith!” When I asked them what they thought of her actions they responded that she was so brave and such a wonderful mother who wants to be there for her children when they’re older. But when I then asked them how they personally felt affected by the issue of breast cancer, they seemed relatively nonchalant.

Angelina Jolie's article went viral in China. Source: CTV

Angelina Jolie’s article went viral in China. Source: CTV

These young women I spoke with said that they had never had a breast exam or pap smear nor had ever had a conversation with their doctors about this. Some of the younger women’s mothers had had conversations with them about monitoring their health. One savvy mother had gotten some information from her own doctor and then had shared with her daughter what she had learned. Mostly, though, these younger women believed that breast cancer or checking for cervical cancer were non-issues and they felt that they were still too young to take an active interest or concern in these issues. A couple of them had mentioned that there was no history of breast cancer in their family and that breast cancer is also not a disease that widely affects Chinese women, so why should they be concerned?

In addition to the experiences of younger women, I was also curious to hear the experiences of older and middle aged women. One friend of mine in her late 40’s mentioned that she and her peers had largely learned about breast cancer prevention and how to administer self-exams through relatives or other friends who had directly been diagnosed with breast cancer themselves. While it saddens me that many of the diagnosed women had likely not had a conversation about prevention with their doctors until their diagnosis, it at least brings hope that they are sharing their experiences with other women. Opening up about how they found lumps in their breasts as well as sharing advice on how to feel for different kinds of lumps is critical information passed from one woman to another.

So how widely are Chinese women really affected by breast cancer? While it’s true that only 1 in forty women in China is diagnosed with breast cancer compared to 1 out of every eight women in the US, 50% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in China are under the age of 50 (compared to only 20% in the US). Sadly, the number of cases of breast cancer is increasing each year in China. Thanks in part to pollution, poor diet habits introduced from the West, and poor healthcare, the mortality rate from breast cancer has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. Between 1990 and 2005, the breast cancer mortality rate increased by 155% and data projects the rate to only keep increasing (Breast Cancer in China, n.d).

Going to the doctor only when you are sick

Another possible reason why women may not be having conversations with their doctors about preventative health measures is that routine medical check-ups and physicals seem to be relatively rare in China. Therefore, visiting the doctor to check that you’re in good health will likely not happen. Doctor visits at even public hospitals and clinics may be expensive and too costly for the average Chinese woman or man who has to pay out of pocket for such visits. Having spent time in a couple of these clinics myself when I have had my own temporary ailments, I can honestly say that it is no picnic spending a day in one of these places. Navigating through a hospital for even a brief visit to see one doctor can be a really convoluted process. To see just for a few minutes a fuke, or a doctor specializing in women’s health, can be a long waiting game and then when it is your time, you are hustled into a small office. There’s almost no privacy with other health workers coming in an out and more patients waiting right outside the door pushing to get in as soon as you have your clothes on.

It is no wonder then why many Chinese people will reserve these dreaded visits to the hospitals for only when they truly need to go- which is when they get sick? Additionally, doctors’ time is also precious thanks to overcrowded facilities. Most doctors probably don’t have time to dillydally and chat with a patient about her medical history, her family’s medical history, and the technicalities of how to do a breast exam. Did you know that in China, there are 710 patients per physician? That’s 80% more than in the US where there are 398 patients per physician (Breast Cancer in China, n.d).

Visiting a Chinese hospital can be a long wait. Source: CNN

Visiting a Chinese hospital can be a long wait. Source: CNN

Therefore, I ask, when can most Chinese women afford the time and money to have such frank conversations with their doctors?

Mother and child first

In China, the fuke are typically under the same umbrella as the maternity wing of the hospital or clinic. While sitting in the waiting room for a non-pregnancy related issue, women at different degrees of pregnancy and their husbands can be seen making their way past. The infant wing and pediatrics section are typically close by as well. New parents are seen bringing their little babes in for check-ups. For someone visiting a women’s doctor for a non-pregnancy related issue, it sometimes seems a little like all other women’s health issues come second to prenatal and maternity care.

When it comes to women’s health issues in China, pregnancy or the ability to become pregnant is paramount. In a very family-centric country where couples can only have one child, an entire family will rally behind its pregnant woman. The child being carried by the woman represents the family’s future. A pregnant woman will get the best care possible with regular check-ups at the hospital to ensure her health and that of the baby. Even poorer families will try their best to find the best possible doctors and medical facilities for the expectant mother. While on a recent visit to Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in China, I visited a first rate gynecological and obstetrics hospital. The president of the hospital emphasized how strongly he and his hospital felt about providing the best possible healthcare for women, in particular, future mothers, so that their families could rest assured that their future heir would be in good hands. Even far into the countryside, I saw signs for this hospital promoting its service to poor rural families leading me to believe that prenatal and maternity care are of the utmost importance for Chinese families across all economic classes.

Pregnancy is the most important women's health issue in China. Source: English.people.com.cn

Pregnancy is one of the most important women’s health issue in China. Source: English.people.com.cn

So other than when a woman is pregnant or sick, when might she get a physical exam or see a doctor? My students told me that it is common practice for engaged couples to have a physical exam before they are married to ensure that they are in tiptop health to get pregnant after marriage. Both man and woman may get physical exams to ensure there are no infertility issues before marriage. In fact I was shocked to find out that if either partner is seen as unfit for conceiving children, the engagement may be called off and the couple may be urged to break up by the parents of the healthy man or woman. I thought that such practices were probably uncommon in this day and age or at least in the wealthier, more Westernized, urban parts of China. My students assured me, however, that it is still a common practice all over. Furthermore, if a bride-to-be or groom-to-be is found to have a history of cancer in her or his family, her or his fiancé has every right to break up the relationship. “But if they really love each other,” as my students said, “maybe they will stay together and fight for being together.”

“We are not as free as in the West when it comes to marriage. Maybe someday it will change in China”. The words of my students echo in my head. I wonder now if fear of being jilted at the altar or left on the shelf is another reason why some non-married Chinese women may not have more conversations about their health and their family’s health history. Could such conversations lead to unwanted bad tidings? Is ignorance bliss?

Reaching out to each other

I still have so many questions about the awareness of women’s health issues here in China. I’m learning to remain open-minded and non-judgmental of the medical system here, traditional viewpoints as well as the ways women in different walks of life here are getting information about these issues. When it comes to some issues, particularly breast cancer, progress is being made on the front of breast cancer screenings. Since 2008, free breast cancer screenings have been provided to Chinese women in rural settings (Guilford, 2013). Additionally, in the last five years, mammogram screenings have also increased sharply in urban hotspots such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou (Breast Cancer in China, n.d). Also, although many healthcare facilities may not be armed with the resources to provide all women across China with information about monitoring their health and taking preventative measures, it’s hopeful that women themselves are reaching out to one another within China and outside of China (case in point being Angelina Jolie’s article going viral in China). Women worldwide can learn from this example. Perhaps the safest and best way to educate ourselves is indeed to reach out and have these conversations with our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our friends, our colleagues, our students, and our neighbors.

What are your experiences with women’s health issues in China or your own country?
Please feel free to share your comments or email me with your thoughts at travelforcause@gmail.com.


Additional resources:

– Angelina Jolie’s original op-ed piece where she went public about her preventative double mastectomy. This article cannot be linked from China.
Jolie, A (2013, May 14). My Medical Choice. New York Times.

– A Chinese translation of Jolie’s op-ed piece. A Weibo account is necessary to logon and read it.
Chinese translation of “My Medical Choice”

– A great data visualization of breast cancer statistics in China compared with the United States.
Breast Cancer in China. (n.d). GE Data Visualization. from  http://visualization.geblogs.com/visualization/breastcancer_china/

– Education materials about breast cancer self-exams in Chinese from Susan G. Komen.
http://ww5.komen.org/Content.aspx?id=19327353809
http://ww5.komen.org/uploadedFiles/Content_Binaries/BSA-Chinese-simplified_FINAL.pdf

– A 2011 study a done on breast cancer awareness and practices in China.
Chung, S., Liu, Y. & Wu, T. (2012). Improving Breast Cancer Outcomes among Women in China: Practices, Knowledge,   and Attitudes Related to Breast Cancer Screening. International Journal of Breast Cancer, 2012 (2012). http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijbc/2012/921607/

– A recent article citing information about Angelina Jolie’s editorial in China as well as come statistics on breast cancer in China.
Guilford, G. (2016, May 16). Angelina Jolie reminds China that it’s woefully unprepared to fight breast cancer. Yahoo Finance. http://finance.yahoo.com/news/angelina-jolie-reminds-china-woefully-164744595.html

A Chinese Guide to the Changing of Seasons

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It finally seems like the warm weather is here to stay for a while in Nanjing. This will mean that I am finally dressed appropriately according to Chinese standards. This doesn’t mean that I was dressed crudely or provocatively before. Rather I am now wearing the same number of layers as my Chinese neighbors and brethren.

During the months of March and April, the temperature fluctuates often. Some days it gets as warm as 85 degrees F or 27 degrees C while other days it can be much cooler as if winter isn’t quite ready to let go and allow spring to have its moment of glory. During those isolated and infrequent freak hot days, it’s not uncommon to see Westerners including myself dressed casually in shorts and t-shirts. I recall my childhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a place where one has to endure endless months of cold, dark and depressing days with dirty piles of snow on the sides of city streets and lonely pieces of brown grass trying to poke through. Mother Nature always blesses Minnesotans with the first warm day of the year in late April. On such a day, even if it isn’t more than 60 degrees F/ 15 degrees C, people rejoice and come alive again as they become reacquainted with the green outside world they haven’t seen in six months. Pasty, pale legs poking out of mothball covered shorts suddenly become the fashion statement du jour. The tight, plastic insulation covering the windows of homes gets ripped off. A distant game of Frisbee is heard in a nearby park and a dog barks gaily as its master throws it a tennis ball to retrieve. People don’t care that it isn’t the real summer. They just need a fix because they know that Mother Nature may change her mind and dump a foot of snow on them two days later. To not enjoy, relish and take in that gift of a warm day would be a sin and a waste.

The Chinese have a different take on the changing of seasons and weather. Unlike the scantily clad foreigners in Nanjing, many locals can still be seen wearing several thick layers on an unusually warm, spring day. Motorbikes are fitted with thick, padded mitts over the handlebars. Men and women of all walks of life are seen wearing heavy black, wool coats covering their arms and neck. I count the layers I see on passers-by, sometimes as many as five, and this at high-noon as the sun harshly pokes through the ozone. Walking down the street wearing a short sleeve shirt and shorts, I get strange looks at my pale legs.

I’ve tried to make sense of this and also question why I get looked at as if I am an alien when I dress lightly on a hot, spring day. At the vegetable market, the well-meaning motherly venders I have befriended sneer at the thin, white linen shirt I am wearing. While one of the vendors pinches the fabric on my sleeve and chastises me, a small group soon gathers around me and joins in on the playful chiding. They do not approve of my attire and likely worry that I will get sick and catch the flu. Don’t I realize that it could get cold later in the day? I sheepishly try to defend myself and keep stammering “It’s hot today! It’s 30 degrees!” I try to turn the table on one of them. She is dressed in three layers. “Aren’t you hot?” Confidently, she replies, “Oh, I’m quite comfortable and feel ok.”

I have now learned that my Chinese neighbors take a practical approach to spring attire. While I may scratch my head and wonder how they can wear so many layers on a hot day, they see it as being prepared for the inevitable drop of temperature that may follow on such a day. There is an old adage here which is “Chun wu qiu dong” or “Spring comes slowly uncover, fall comes slowly cover”. This saying expresses the belief that it’s not wise to completely change to summer wardrobe until the summer is definitely here to stay. In the fall, the opposite is true and one should slowly start to cover oneself in layers as the weather changes from hot summer temperatures and fluctuates its way eventually to winter. According to traditional Chinese medicine practices, the body needs to slowly get used to the fluctuating temperatures. Whereas the temperatures in winter and summer are relatively stable, the outside temperature constantly varies in spring and fall and your own body temperature may be thrown off by constant changes in the outside temperature.

The last of spring rain for the year?

The last of spring rain for the year?

Now that this has been explained to me, it makes sense. I can appreciate much more the well-meaning email reminders and text messages from students and Chinese coworkers that encourage me to consider the severe weather conditions and prepare Chinese herbal medicine to protect myself from the harsh conditions.

In the last week, I have finally witnessed around me people finally shedding their layers. There is no longer the fear that winter will pull spring back under its wing and there is a confidence that summer now is a greater, approaching force. Older people wear one light coat and slacks. Young, leggy women are donning their miniskirts and high heels and walk under the shade of their umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Guys are out on the basketball court in their favorite NBA jerseys and shorts. Babies are waddling around again in their split pants exposing their little bums to the outside air. I smile and take in the rebirth of the outside world around me. Ahhhh.. Summer is just around the corner.

Students still are wearing a couple of layers on a hot day. But a telltale sign that summer is almost here in the eyes of the Chinese is when you see umbrellas being used as sun cover.

Students still are wearing a couple of layers on a hot day. But a telltale sign that summer is almost here in the eyes of the Chinese is when you see umbrellas being used as sun cover.

Welcome to my new blog address!

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欢迎!

After three years of hosting my blog, Inside the Middle Kingdom on blogspot.com, I have decided to make the move to this new site with my own domain name. When I originally started this blog, it was my intention to share my new experiences in China with friends and family outside of China. However, I have found more and more that my perspectives and experiences as a foreign expat woman are unique and sometimes of interest to people right here in China. Now that I have my own domain website, friends, students, colleagues and any other friends on the net may now have open access to my stories and experiences. I welcome new readers and would love it if you pass on this web address to others. Please feel free also to share comments and your own ideas. I would love for this blog to become and open forum for further discussion and if this blog/ website also helps connect people in China with people outside of China, all the better!

By the way, my previous blog posts from the last three years from my previous blog site will be added on to this site little by little. They will be organized in some form or another under this site’s archive. You can use these stories as a good starting point.

Enjoy and happy reading and sharing!

Will the “real” China please come forward?

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Recent moments and conversations have made me question whether my Chinese experience has been complete. Nanjing, the city where I reside, is essentially a globalized metropolis with most of the comforts and conveniences of back home complete with Subway Sandwich shops, grocery stores where I can buy Starbucks ice cream, and a new fancy French style bakery chain selling bagels right in my neighborhood. Admittedly, I have fallen prey to these new ventures and as a result am apt to forget on some days that I even live in China. Also becoming more prevalent in Nanjing as well as other wealthy Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are the shocking and ostentatious displays of wealth. It hit me hard in February after returning from a vacation in the third world surroundings of Laos to the glitzy streets of these Chinese cities where fancy BMW convertibles and Hummers roar by at high speeds. Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Coach stores take up entire city blocks while beautifully dressed women hurry by in their Manolo Blahnik heels chatting on their iPhone 5s.
 
A nice evening in downtown Nanjing
 
Hustle and bustle in front of one of the Apple stores in Shanghai
 
Our local Louis Vuitton store in Nanjing
I think before and even after living for some time in China, I have had a romantic notion in my head of how China should really be. Somehow, a China developing at breakneck speed with its people fully embracing and emulating trends and lifestyles of the West, is not how I imagined it. Now that I have been entrenched in this modern, affluent side of China, I at times overlook that there is another, very different China out there that I have witnessed only briefly on previous trips but have mostly been missing. So when my friend Cyrus asked if I would like to travel to Guizhou, a far away, poor province in Southern China that I had never even heard of, to visit a new women’s hospital, I accepted.  I hoped that the trip would be an adventure (it was), would be a crash immersion session in Chinese (it was), and that I would see a unique part of China vastly different from my wealthy corner of Nanjing (I did).
 
A rural town in Guizhou Province
An isolated province tucked in south central China, Guizhou is rich in natural resources. Where we traveled in the western part of the province, karst mountains and jagged formations made up the surrounding landscape both in the cities and the countryside. The mountains provided a beautiful backdrop until seeing them being excavated for coal mining or the building of new city developments. Thanks to its coal supply, Guizhou also exports electricity to richer nearby provinces such as Guandong, home province of wealthy, booming cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Indeed, Guizhou is quite poor and underdeveloped in contrast to Chinese provinces on the East coast and those provinces to which it supplies energy.
 
The view of Liupanshui
Our trip to Guizhou brought us to Liupanshui, a secluded city 270 km from the nearest airport in Guiyang, Guizhou. Looking out to a hazy, smoggy sky from my hotel room, I took in the surrounding view of the city. Only built in 1978, the city’s skyline donned ugly, drab, plain looking buildings on my left view and half demolished buildings and rubble amidst semi-quarried hills on the right. On the streets, dirty children ran loose and had the large dirt piles and rubble as their playgrounds. Yet, integrated among these third world living conditions were also the occasional marks of progress and indications of the city trying to slowly fight its way into a higher economic niveau. Newly paved sidewalks were lined with freshly planted shrubs and baby trees to provide a more pleasant, residential feel. Classy, apartment buildings with balconies and manicured gardened courtyards surrounded the women’s hospital we attended. The hospital itself had state of the art surgery wards equipped with the latest technologies.
Also, in contrast to Nanjing and other more developed and wealthier Chinese cities, there were refreshingly very little outside commercial interests and influences in Liupanshui- thanks probably to the fact that it is so secluded. Where were the large, garish shopping malls? The Starbucks, McDonalds and fancy English language schools called Baby MBA that will promise to get your 4 year old into Harvard? The billboards advertising the perfect diamond engagement ring? All of these signs of modernity and “progress” seemed to be missing from the streets of Liupanshui. Perhaps in due time those type of places will slowly start to creep into Liupanshui as well. Cyrus spotted a KFC and we noticed a few people with iPhone 5s- both telltale signs that changes are indeed a coming. But for now, Liupanshui seems relatively untouched by large, outside, foreign influences.
But with all of its apparent steps in progress and its slow acquisition of new riches, who in Liupanshui and the surrounding Guizhou countryside will be able to benefit from them? Will the average Jane or Joe be able to afford the top medical services provided at the women’s hospital we visited? Cyrus offered that many families, including poorer ones, will toil, work hard and save for years so that their expectant mothers can have the best care for when their one child, therefore their sole future hope, is born. Even well into the countryside, miles away from Liupanshui, we saw road signs and posters for the hospital, indicating that it was indeed trying to cater to the poorer rural folks.
In spite of people perhaps saving for their offspring’s future, it seems it may be difficult for many residents in rural Guizhou and even in urban Guizhou settings to afford decent medical care, education, housing and transportation. Data reveals how hard it might be for many Guizhou residents to make ends meet compared to their counterparts in wealthier, urban, developed provinces in China. In 2011, for example, Guizhou ranked LAST in China for its per capita GDP of 10,258 RMB (1,502 USD). Comparatively, in Jiangsu Province, the province in China with the highest per capita GDP and where I live, the per capita GDP was 52,448 yuan (US$7,945).
 
Sunday market day
Data aside, scenes driving through the countryside on the 270 km stretch between Liupanshui and Guiyang also exposed a whole other China where people still live simpler lives, living off the land and its resources. Caught in the early afternoon traffic of Sunday market day, we witnessed farmers selling their own produce on the street; middle-aged sun-wrinkled men herding fat pink pigs into a truck to be taken to market; freshly killed meat being sold by the butcher on the side of the road; and even large chunks of Guizhou coal being sold in a family’s store front. Transformed to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, I witnessed in the far off distance farmers plowing with oxen in their fields. Family grave plots on the hills next to the highway revealed communities who found their homes on the same land of their ancestors several generations back. These communities have clung to and carried on the long standing traditions and methods of livelihood of their ancestors.

 
Got coal?

 

Returning from my weekend trip to Guizhou to the modern comforts of my home in Nanjing, I congratulated myself for finally witnessing the “real” China. But what an unfair judgement to bestow on either Guizhou or Nanjing! While it’s true I briefly witnessed firsthand the gap in income and lifestyles between rural and urban Chinese communities; wealthy east Coast provinces and an isolated, poor, undeveloped province, this does not mean that either side represents the “real” China. In order to fully understand the “real” China today, I’ve learned that it encompasses all of these sides- rich and poor; glitzy and rugged; urban and rural; developed too quickly and left behind in the dust of 100 hundred years ago. I have tasted both and found desirable aspects of both.  The real challenge lies ahead for China and how it can continue to build its economy so that more people can reap its rewards; how it can develop and progress without depleting its resources and without destroying its rural landscapes as well as the livelihood and age old traditions of its inhabitants.
 

Two contrasting images of vehicles. Two very different faces of China.

For related reading:

Buses, sawng thaews, and tuk tuks

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A guide to public transport in Laos

In Laos, the land of tranquil scenes along the Mekong River, ancient Buddhist and Hindu ruins, fragrant frangipani, and friendly children waving and calling out “Sabaidee!” (“Hello” in local lingo), transport and travel can be an eye-opening and adventurous cultural experience in itself. It can come in several different forms of both land and water vessels including buses;  sawng theaws, pick-up trucks with seats fitted along the length of the truck beds that travel to nearby regional locations (and usually managed by a family); tuk tuks or jumbos with seats fitted around a motorcycle frame and for local destinations in a city; motorcycles; bicycles; and your own two legs.

 With two and a half weeks to explore Laos, my partner Nick and I started off from Laos’s capitol city, Vientiane and then headed south. We decided to break the trip up into several increments, limiting bus travel to no more than four hours a day. Even then, some trips ended up being six to eight hours. We learned that this is a normal occurrence in Laos as travel happens on “Lao time”. The three best things to bring along on such a journey are bottled water, toilet paper and patience.
Buses can come in both the VIP form and the “public” bus form. I suppose the VIP buses in Laos evolved for the mostly foreign tourists who may not desire to be squeezed into tight, hot, un-air-conditioned spaces for hours on end. If I’m not mistaken, we were primarily on the non-VIP form which definitely added some color to our travels. Settling into our seats, sometimes next to each other and sometimes apart depending on seat availability, the bus’s TV screen then flashed and blared out the trip’s on-board entertainment of Lao and Thai music videos and variety shows as well as 1920’s Charlie Chaplin films (who seems to be all the rage in Laos, even 90 years later!). Our fellow travel companions on the bus journeys are some other foreign travelers but mostly Laotians- young families traveling with their little ones; single men traveling from one work site to another; mothers or grandmothers traveling with a child; as well as the occasional Buddhist monk. I was bemused by the attire of most of the local travelers- long jeans or woven sarongs covering the legs and even thick faux leather jackets. This is clothing I would find entirely hot and uncomfortable for a cramped bus with no air-conditioning. Nevertheless, such attire may likely be dictated by conservative and traditional Buddhist culture.
Upon departure, a bus typically coasts slowly out of a town, honking its horn to draw attention from additional prospective passengers from the side of the road. More and more passengers file on, occupying all remaining seats. The bus attendant, usually a boy of about 12 or 13, directs newly arrived passengers to sit on make-shift seats of plastic stools in the aisle. Certain etiquette seems to rule seating arrangements among Laotian travelers. During one of our bus journeys, a monk hopped on board an already full bus. What then ensued was something like a game of musical chairs- seat reshuffling and rearrangements until the monk had a seat and a displaced young man found himself downgraded to a plastic seat in the aisle. Similar arrangements were made for a grandmother and a young girl who boarded at the side of the road from a rural village.

 
Passengers filling up the aisle on plastic stools.
During the course of a bus journey, a bus may make several pit stops for food and calls of nature.  Sometimes the buses stop at small roadside restaurants with basic toilets in the back. I was impressed with the total cleanliness of the toilets which are basic porcelain squat toilets enclosed in tin shacks and supplied with a bucket full of water with a pail which one then uses to rinse out the toilet following its use. Other rest stops are sometimes just fields along the side of the road. We women folk have to walk back out of view and behind some trees or brush. The long, woven sarong skirt that many a Laotian woman wears typically goes to her ankles and is a practical and useful cover for roadside calls of nature if she can’t find shelter behind a tree or bush. Pit stops are short and brief and anyone hoping to finish a cigarette will find a horn blasting in his ears to beckon him back on or be left behind.
 
Roadside pit stop
Some dusty road stops will find female vendors rushing out of the woodwork to swarm onto and next to the bus to sell snacks and drinks to the peckish and thirsty travelers. Depending on the region, they might sell bottled water, sliced mango, barbequed and skewered chicken, cooked eggs on a stick, or dried fish. They all seem to be chanting the same thing as they clamor to get the attention of prospective customers. They too sometimes get shooed off the bus as the irritable driver begins to push off and the vendors are left in the dust chasing after the embarking bus.
 
Roadside vendors
Many Laotians rely on the use of buses and sawng thaews for transporting not only themselves but also for transporting goods and necessities for their homes and businesses. All buses and sawng thaews are rigged with large racks on top for transporting suitcases, large sacks of rice and animal feed, washing machines, bicycles and even motor cycles.  At one stop along the side of the road, two of the bus attendants seemed to effortlessly heave a motorcycle to the top of the bus for further transport.
 
A shadow of a motorcycle being lifted onto the rooftop of the bus.
 
How can you tell?
It’s an unwritten code that some transport vehicles, especially sawng thaews,  may leave when they’re sufficiently packed and are only there to help you and your goods get from point A to point B. Comfort is not a priority but this doesn’t seem to be an issue for many locals. On one of our short sawng thaew journeys, we crammed into the back with twenty rice sacks covering the floor and the other passengers complacently squeezing their way around the traveling goods. Before the start of the journey, I exclaimed to Nick, “Cool, this will be a fun adventure!”  Twenty minutes later sitting in the idle vessel, in the hot, dusty parking lot of the market station (and waiting for what?), I was already whinging. Meanwhile, squeezing and packing into tight, cramped and stuffy vehicles seemed to be an art form for the local travelers sharing the ride. Looking up at the back of the t-shirt of the boy sitting on the rice sack in front of me, I had to chuckle to myself as I read the strange albeit fitting English expression that was thrown together on his t-shirt. It read,  “Y’all ain’t from round here..is Yall?”
 
Trying to get comfortable in my travel surroundings.
 
Crammed into a sawng thaew.
Our travel in Laos also included some river crossings across the Nam Ngum (a tributary of the Mekong) and the infamous Mekong itself. One of the crossings across the Mekong found us on a cramped minibus. We watched with a little dismay as our bus eased onto what seemed like an already overloaded and overburdened, worn plywood ferry boat. Sitting in the back of the bus behind other passengers occupying foldout chairs, we eyed the width of the back window we were sitting next to and made escape plans in our head if the boat should either sink or our minibus should roll off the back into the depths of the Mekong. As visions came into my head of my mother reading two days later a small excerpt on the side of page 11 in her local morning paper, “Small Ferry Craft in Laos Sinks”, I quickly realized that I was of course exaggerating the precariousness of the five minute ferry crossing in my head. We safely made it across and were in good hands all along. Such occurrences are helping me be not only more patient but are also helping me learn not to press the panic button so early, as I often do.
 
Crossing the Mekong.
What was more significant during these various trips in Laos? The trips themselves or the destinations the different vessels brought us to?  I would say they were on par. Traveling by bus, sawng thaew, and a wobbly ferry may not be for everyone but I think my trip to Laos and the glimpse I got into the world down there would not have been complete without these experiences.
For further reading:
During our trip we ran into a young woman from Canada who is traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by bicycle! I was really inspired and impressed with her unique journey and how her transportation mode is taking her way off the beaten track. Read and see for yourself about her journey!

Who was Pearl Buck? Finding the American author’s home and legacy in China

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For almost 25 years I have been captivated by the work and life of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. Pearl Buck was an American author who spent the first forty years of her life in China. Her experiences and insight into China came alive in her many novels and stories, the most famous being The Good Earth which was published in 1931. Her stories, novels and personal experiences have arguably played a huge role in the outside world’s understanding of China. Although it’s been nearly forty years since she passed away, her stories continue to move people and bridge positive relationships between China and the West.

 
Pearl S. Buck
The daughter of a Presbyterian missionary born in 1892, Pearl not only grew up and lived in China but knew the country intimately, inside and out. Because of her father’s missionary work, the Sydenstrickers were quite isolated and lived primarily only among local Chinese people rather than in a segregated world among other foreigners. Indeed, Chinese and English were both her first languages and she learned the ways of the people around her.  China was her home.
China being her foster country, she had a unique perspective of it that only few other foreigners could intimately understand. To say the least, her relationship with China was always tumultuous because of the many changes and growing pains that China experienced within her lifetime. In 1900 at the age of eight, her family made a near escape from her hometown of Zhenjiang to Shanghai during the Boxer Rebellion when angry boxers and the Empress Dowager Cixi declared war and death to foreigners across the country to put an end to foreign and imperialist influences in China. Again in 1927, her family barely escaped out alive from Nanjing when Nationalist troops, Communist forces and warlords turned on foreigners residing there. Hiding with a poor Chinese family who risked their own life harboring the fugitives, the Buck’s home was looted and the family escaped at the last possible moment when an American warship came to rescue remaining trapped residents in the city under siege.  When Pearl Buck finally left China in 1934, perhaps she didn’t realize that she would never return to China ever again. Political unrest and strife between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist troops and Communist factions plagued the country along with Japan’s invasion of China and the Second World War, likely making a return to China near impossible. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 effectively closed off China to the outside world for more than twenty years. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that reigned in Marxist reform throughout China, Pearl Buck and her writing were denounced as imperialist by ideologues and school children across the country. Hoping to travel to China with American President Richard Nixon in 1972 when relations between China and the US began to warm, it is said that Pearl Buck’s request for a visa was personally denied by Madame Mao who hoped to succeed her husband politically. Said to be heartbroken, Pearl Buck never again returned to her home in China. She died the following year in 1973.
In the nearly forty years since the fateful decision that prevented Pearl Buck from returning to her home in China, her reputation as a friend and advocate of China has been restored. Her more famous works are available in both Chinese and English and American and Chinese organizations work together to honor her life in both her home and adopted countries. Recently I had the opportunity to witness this cross-cultural collaboration to memorialize her life and accomplishments both in the US and in China.

In search of Pearl
I first encountered Pearl Buck when I was in the 8th grade and read a copy of The Good Earth ( I will henceforth refer to Pearl Buck simply as Pearl as I feel as if I am writing about an old friend). Never a very avid reader, I remember being completely hooked from the beginning of the story of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese farmer who awakens with excitement on the day he’s going to meet and marry his bride Olan who is a servant slave girl at the estate of the wealthy family of the village. The ups and downs their family endures through famine, revolutions, family fortunes and misfortunes unexpectedly enchanted the 14 year old reader in me who never personally knew such tragedy or hardship. Pearl had so beautifully crafted the story so that I felt I personally was witnessing the trials and tribulations of the couple. Yet she wrote the story in simple enough language so that I never felt like the book was unattainable or for more educated and well-read minds than my own. After first reading The Good Earth, I slowly found a new appreciation of books and literature and people’s life experiences through the written word.  Time and time again and through the years, I would come back and reread The Good Earth- as a young adult and again when I moved to China two years ago. Each time I would pick it up, I knew what I was getting myself into and that I was reading the story to know my emotions were in check. I knew I was reading it so I could cry and feel the sadness at certain points in the saga. Yet still I would catch myself unexpectedly, uncontrollably and shamefully sobbing while reading it at certain parts. Each time I have read it, I have gained new and unique perspectives based on my own experiences in my life at that given time.
 
Pearl Buck’s headstone at her home in Pennsylvania. She transformed her garden and landscaped it with bamboo and other native Asian plants to remind her of her faraway home.
 
Pearl’s grave with her name Sai Zhenzhu in traditional characters.

I feel I’ve had a personal connection with Pearl and that somehow she has eluded me throughout my life. How is it that I feel this deep sense of connection and awe for a person who died two years before I was even born? Initially it was only her novel and words that moved and captivated me. I gradually started to learn more about the life and who the person was who wrote the book I have always loved.  Having just finished her biography, it now makes sense to me why I unsuspectingly had admiration for her and felt a connection. Certain strange and unexpected coincidences in her life happen to cross paths with my own. Imagine my surprise two weeks before moving to China in 2010 when I accidentally drove by Pearl Buck’s home in Buck County, Pennsylvania near where my sister Rachel lives. The next day, I dragged Rachel there with me. We paid our respects to her at her grave and also learned in a talk that Pearl taught at a university in Nanjing, China which was where I too would soon be moving to teach at a university. Here in Nanjing, I have tried to discover a little of Pearl’s China. I know that I am living here an entire century later, but I believe the whirlwind changes taking place here now may be similar to the search for identity and its place in the world that China was seeking to find during Pearl’s time. During a transition point in my life, China has comforted me and provided me with a never ending source of eye-opening perspectives and discoveries. Here in China I have developed into a confident educator who reaps much satisfaction from sharing and exchanging experiences with my young Chinese adult students. I like to think these are parallel to experiences Pearl had.

This past month, I finally crossed a big item on my must-see Pearl Buck homage list. With the company of a friend, I finally visited Zhenjiang, the hometown in China of Pearl Sydenstricker. The trip was two years in the making. Several times over the past two years, busy schedules got in the way of my pilgrimage to Zhenjiang. Only 20 minutes away by high speed train from Nanjing, I was running out of excuses not to visit Zhenjiang and knew I was just going to have to make the time.
 
Exploring the network of alleys in Zhenjiang.

Pearl’s home in Zhenjiang is now one of the major tourist attractions of the city. It was renovated and opened by the local Zhenjiang government in 1992. I later learned that the home that I visited was not actually her childhood home but the home where her parents resided after Pearl had grown up, married and moved to Anhui Province with her husband Lossing Buck. Nevertheless, it seems that the local tourism board of Zhenjiang and the museum really took pains to preserve the home to its true, original state as well as to bring to life the world Pearl lived in as girl and adolescent.  As such, they have wonderfully memorialized and paid homage to their Sai Zhenzhu, Pearl’s name in Chinese. Only a five minute walk from the train station in Zhenjiang, a large road sign indicates to tourists and Pearl Buck enthusiasts the proximity of the residence. Tucked back on a hill, we had to poke around on little side streets and alleys before we located her home. This part I appreciated as we got to experience the everyday hubbub of local Zhenjiang citizens. Dogs were running around, motorbikes were skirting up the side streets, locals were playing cards and the strong aroma of vinegar wafted in the air (Zhenjiang is apparently famous across China for its vinegar).  This gave me a sense of how life may have been around the Sydenstricker’s home as Pearl herself experienced it back in the day.

 
At last finding the Sydenstricker’s home.
 
Pearl’s childhood bedroom

Walking into the Sydenstricker’s home, I was transformed to another time. The home is just as much a tribute to Pearl’s parents and other people who shaped her formative years as it is to Pearl herself. On the lower level of the house, I entered the dining room where the dinner table was set with fake plastic dishes of cooked chicken fillets, cheese and other American dishes that Pearl’s mother Carrie favored. Also on the lower level of the house was Wang Amah’s room. Part of the family for many years, Wang Amah was the Sydenstricker’s housekeeper and the children’s ayi or nanny.  I found it fitting that Wang Amah’s room had a prominent part in the house so visitors could understand that she likely also had an influential role in Pearl’s upbringing, shaping of her identity and worldviews and her lifelong love and attachment to China as her home.  After viewing Wang Amah’s room, I wandered upstairs to Pearl’s parents’ modest room. Her father Absalom’s bible prominently sat in a corner of a night side table in their room and a separate adjacent room has been turned into his study. After pausing in her parents’ wing of the house, I finally wandered over to the wing of the house that had been dedicated to Pearl herself. Her writing desk where she likely penned many of her literary works was right there for me to touch and try to absorb her thoughts. Finding myself at the foot of her bed, it was a surreal moment as if I was looking down at a little girl from 115 years before who unknowingly would someday move and affect countless lives by eloquently sharing her unique experiences and world.

 
Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) played a major role economically during Pearl’s lifetime.

Following a visit to Pearl’s home, we wandered around the city of Zhenjiang itself. Located on the south bank of the Yangtze River, I learned that Zhenjiang was not some backwater town where the Sydenstrickers took up post miles from any other foreigners. Because of its prominent position on the Yangtze River, its strategic location near Nanjing, and its easy access to Shanghai upstream, it garnered American and British interest as early as 1861. British and American consulates, the Asiatic Petroleum Company as well as Standard Oil all had vested interests in Zhenjiang. Today, tourists can wander through the cobbled streets of the old quarter peeking into the gate of the old British consulate which was rebuilt following its destruction by fire caused by an angry mob in 1889. Cafés and restaurants now checker this preserved part of the city.

 
A reminder of Zhenjiang’s and China’s tense relationship with foreigners.
 
A coolie in Zhenjiang during the time of Pearl’s childhood.

Sipping a coffee in an open-air café in the restored Jianyuan Gardens, I was bemused by the irony of countless tourists snapping a picture of the apparently rare sighting of a foreign tourist visiting the hometown of one of Zhenjiang’s most famous former residents. It is said as a little girl, Pearl herself was unaware of her difference from her Chinese brethren until she was about four and a half years old. Instructed to tuck in her blonde hair into a cap, she was told that only black hair and eyes were normal. Feeling slightly uncomfortable myself with being the subject of several random strangers’ photographs, I then imagined what a frightful and crazy scene it must have been for locals back in the 1890’s when a little blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned apparition effortlessly spoke flawless, local Zhenjiang dialect. I suppose the feeling of “otherness” and being a waiguoren, or a foreigner, was a feeling Pearl Buck must have struggled with throughout her formative years growing up in China. Or did she? Maybe she didn’t blame any of her Chinese brethren for seeing her differently. She understood that China was going through a transformation throughout her years there and also likely understood the mixed feelings and curiosity many Chinese felt towards foreigners. Intimately understanding the Chinese experience and mindset, Pearl Buck was in a unique position to help foreigners new to China understand Chinese perspectives. It was ultimately this gift that is forever memorialized in her writing.

Sometimes my Chinese students ask me to recommend English language novels for them to improve their vocabulary and to help them learn about American culture. Perhaps they find it strange when I recommend a novel from someone who wrote so intimately about their own part of the world. I think younger Chinese readers will especially be touched by the careful, detailed and loving portrayal of different aspects of Chinese life from before their time.  What a wonderful gift Pearl Buck’s writing and legacy have left not only to readers from outside of China, but to China itself.

 
Some of today’s locals from Zhenjiang. These boys followed us in the late afternoon until we reached the Peal Buck Museum. As they wandered into the museum, they curiously looked at the pictures, clothing and writings of a young Pearl Buck.
Pearl Buck places to visit:
In China:
Pearl S. Buck Former Residence and the Pearl S. Buck Museum
6 Runzhou Shan Lu, Zhenjiang
The museum is located right next to the residence. Both the residence and the museum are free of charge. Visiting hours of both attractions are 9 am- 11:30 and 1:30-5.Pearl S Buck Memorial House
Nanjing University, Nanjing
Nanjing University recently turned Pearl Buck’s home during her years in Nanjing into a memorial. Pearl lived with her husband and two daughters in Nanjing from 1920 – 1933. She taught English literature at both Nanjing University and the National Central University (which is now Southeast University in Nanjing). I have yet to find and visit this location but shall update with any information I find!
Pearl S. Buck Summer Villa
Lu Shan or Mount Lu
Pearl, her siblings and her parents spent many summers on Mount Lu to escape the oppressive heat in Zhenjiang at the summer villa Pearl’s father built in northern Jianxi Province. It is apparently at this summer residence where Pearl penned The Good Earth.
In the US:
Pearl S. Buck Residence
520 Dublin Road, Perkasie, PA 18944
In Bucks County outside of Philadelphia, this is where Pearl Buck resided with her second husband Richard Walsh and with their growing family of adopted children from 1935 until her death in 1973. Here you can visit her grave, tour the home and also learn about her work in starting the first international, interracial adoption agency and in advocating for an end to discrimination and poverty of children from Asian countries.
The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace
U.S. 219
Hillsboro, West Virginia 24946
Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia in the hills of Appalachian Mountain, Pearl moved to China at the age of three months in 1892.

For Further Reading:

If you can’t visit any of the Pearl Buck residences, enjoy these books.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
First published in 1931, this book then went on to get Pearl Buck both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although the Good Earth itself is probably Pearl Buck’s most famous novel, it is the first of a trilogy. The other two volumes in the trilogy include Sons and A House Divided. This is a good place to start with her literature.
Published in 2010, this biography of Pearl Buck gives intimate details about Pearl Buck’s life in China as well as her complex relationship with the country following her return to the US and in the following decades.
Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese author Anchee Min was instructed to denounce Pearl Buck in school in the late 1960’s. Years later after having moved to the US and after being a published author herself, Min finally read a copy of The Good Earth. Moved by Pearl Buck’s intimate portrayal of the peasant experience in China, Min set out to visit Pearl’s hometown and get first-hand accounts of Pearl and her life in Zhenjiang. What came out from it was this novel which is a fictionalized account of Pearl Buck’s life from the perspective of her childhood and lifelong friend.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

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Coming to terms with height, size, curves and beauty ideals in China

Walking tall
 
A slight exaggeration of how I feel in China sometimes.  
One thing I struggle with living in China is my size. Living in a country of 1.3 billion people, you would think there would be a diverse range in sizes and heights in China. I’m 1.78 meters or 5’11 and compared to most Chinese women, quite tall. There are some tall Chinese women but most of them don’t have the same physique or curves common among women from other corners of the world. This has led me to be very self-conscious at times of my size and physique. Sometimes people may meet me while we’re sitting down. Suddenly when we both stand and we’re walking, there’s a brief moment of confusion and then clarity as they take in the fact that I’m actually a tall person. This especially surprises Chinese men. Attending a conference in Beijing last October, I befriended a couple of nice male colleagues from China and Pakistan. Following the conference, the three of us decided to visit Tienanmen Square and suddenly for the first time as we were walking around, my new friend Mao saw me in a new light and said, “Oh, you’re quite tall.” Meanwhile, I’m reenacting the scene in my head from the classic Frankenstein movie when he realizes for the first time that he’s different and exclaims in agony, “I’m a monster!”
At times I feel awkward as a tall woman and when I spot another tall woman, whether a foreigner or Chinese woman, I feel a sense of kinship and I want to reach out and cry, “Sister! We’re not alone!” I often wonder where my tall Chinese sisters find their clothes and on the odd occasion, I even spot the tall woman with a tall mate. This brings a smile to my face because I suspect a lot of the time, some of my tall Chinese sisters may be seen as more freakish and abnormal than myself, a foreign woman from a faraway land where it’s more common to be tall. The Chinese girlfriend of an American friend of mine is quite close to me in height. Tall, beautiful and elegant (and a yoga instructor to boot!), it was mentioned that Chinese men would barely give her notice or overlook her (or in her case, underlook her). In researching my last blog posting about dating and courtship in China, I stumbled upon a point rating system of various aspects single Chinese women should possess in terms of being attractive and datable and it helped make sense of why this lovely woman may have been previously overlooked (or in her case, underlooked). Here’s a look at the height factor in the rating system:
Height:
165-172 (10 pts); 158-164 (8 pts); 172-174 (6 pts); 155-158 (4 pts); 174-176 (1 pt); the rest 0 pts
With this rating system, women clearly should also not be too short either. The right height seems to guarantee that a woman will not overstep her boundaries nor be lacking in stature (my height isn’t even on the scale, so 0 points for me here. Booooo).
 
Chinese beauty ideals of long ago: Bound feet. From Wikipedia.
I wonder whether the idealism of a middle or smaller size and stature is also deeply seated in Chinese history. After all, well into the 20th century, daughters of wealthy families as well as the first born daughters in poorer families had their feet bound so that they could be brought up as ladies. This ancient practice tightly wound and bound the feet of young girls so that they would not be able to grow further. The tight, small feet were always wrapped and resembled lotus buds when covered in ornate, pointy silk shoes. Such feet were even erotic since they would rarely be revealed. Additionally, it was very difficult for these women with bound-feet to move or be actively involved in any activity without the help of other family members, servants and especially men. Being practically immobilized, these women also could not partake in many social activities or politics, banking and other work where women should not have been heard during those times. True, perhaps there were taller women with bound feet but their stature couldn’t have been that great either if they were limited in their movements and mostly restricted to chairs (and perhaps the feet binding stunted the growth in the rest of their body as well).
Today, the smaller more petite women in China (and of course in other parts of the world too!) may still be symbols of allure, vulnerability as well as be seen as “fragile” beings who know their place. Taller women, however, will be at eye level or taller than their male colleagues, friends and mates and may look down on him figuratively and literally. Even if the man with the taller woman is comfortable in his own skin and with his manliness in spite of his taller companion, there is still the societal views and hurtful comments of others to contend with.  Can you imagine the “spectacle” of a taller woman walking with a shorter man, whether the two are friends, colleagues or in a relationship? In a country where saving face is so important, you can only imagine the talk.
On the other hand, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Tall woman are not seen as monsters as much as unattainable. Chinese-American author Ha Jin helped me realize recently in one of his short stories that we tall women don’t need to feel like we’re oddities but that perhaps secretly we’re envied and revered for our height. Marjin, a male character in Jin’s story Broken pined for the attention and even the recognition of the tall female basketball players at his work camp. Ha Jin describes the idealized tall woman as seen through the eyes of Marjin.
                “She looked healthy and sturdy, with a thin, white neck, her hair coiled like a pair of earphones. If he were to marry, he would have a tall wife, so that his children would be taller than himself and would have no difficulty in finding a spouse when they grew up.” (Ha Jin, 2000).“He admired her long fingers, large feet, shapely bust, and strong legs. Whenever her team played on the company’s sports ground, he would go and watch. He liked seeing the girls in blue shorts and red T-shirts. He felt attracted to almost every one of them. If only he were four inches taller.” (Ha Jin, 2000).
Thanks to this different and fresh perspective, I feel I can now walk taller and more proudly when I’m in China and other parts of the world where I tower over others. It has also made me grateful to my Chinese friends, especially my Chinese male friends who walk unfazed next to me and help me feel more accepted in my host country in spite of my uncommon proportions.
Curves ahead
In addition to my height, I am also self-conscious of my curves while I’m in China. Occasionally I may see taller Chinese women but I rarely encounter curvy Chinese women. Am I imagining things when I write on the blackboard with my back to my students and suddenly hear snickering in a quiet classroom? Is it in my head or are they laughing at my larger than normal behind? Should I let it get to me in a group yoga class when I tower over everyone else and the mirrors on all walls magnify my hips and 3D rump? Is it crazy that I am comforted by Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby got Back” to remind me that curves and larger butts are embraced and loved at least in other corners of the world?
I do realize that even though I am quiet self-conscious of my body proportions, most women and men probably struggle with some aspect of their body. I applaud fashion magazines in the US and elsewhere that now use curvy, plus models and women of all different proportions to represent the full spectrum of sizes. Some magazines are even refusing to air-brush and photo shop models’ and celebrities’ blemishes and flaws. However, I think China and probably other East Asian countries have a long way to go before they take such steps in their fashion magazines and on TV. Images of waifish, emaciated models are splashed all over the magazines on newsstands, on TV and just in day-to-day life. Airlines, the high-speed train company and shops recruit women who are under a certain age, attractive and very trim (what a throw-back to the 1950’s!!). Surely many of my students and friends must also feel overwhelmed and it is no wonder if we feel self-conscious about some parts of our bodies.
 Modesty and beauty ideals
 
Too busty and indecent for modern China? From MSN Auto.
When it comes to modesty and what parts of the body are revealed and concealed, it’s quite strange and contradictory in China. Recently while visiting me in China, my sister confessed to feeling a little insecure with wearing a modest t-shirt by US standards but low-cut in comparison to what she had observed Chinese women wearing. “None of the Chinese women are showing any skin above their chest. All of their shirts cover them all the way to their neck. I feel so immodest here.” Before my sister had mentioned it, I had never noticed it. Then Vivian, my Chinese tutor, had pointed out that a lot of foreign, Western women wear tank-tops, and strappy, low cut shirts. I have wondered, if we’re not at a bar or a nightclub, how are we women perceived if we show a little cleavage and bust? The denouncement of some loosely clad models at the 2012 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition by the Capital Ethics Development Office would indicate that a lot of the local Chinese folk don’t look too kindly to such attire and dressing. Dubbed the “breast show” by many, the auto show featured models who stirred up a lot of positive and negative attention by wearing very low cut and revealing dresses. Critics of the show and the models’ indiscretion said that “China’s traditional values as well as society’s tolerance of such behavior” were not being considered (Thaindian News, 2012).
Perhaps Western women showing skin and some bust while walking around Nanjing or elsewhere in China may be slightly frowned upon. But perhaps some locals may expect it of us and may believe that we inherently have loose ways. Chinese women, however, who show some bust and skin on the upper part of the body are probably more likely to be abhorred as it is seen as an affront to Chinese culture and values.
On the other hand, how can one explain the ads in taxi cabs for breast enlargement? If showing some cleavage and breast is considered indecent, why would Chinese women want to increase their bust size? At the same time, how can one explain the contradiction of so many beautiful, leggy Chinese women walking around in short skirts, shorts and in tall heels? Living on a college campus, I’m surprised by how many young women I see donning such short attire above their legs while still covering up most of their upper part of their body (and if any of my male colleagues are reading this, I know you are smiling and nodding your head right now). I’m not the least bit offended by the leggy ladies- just surprised.
 
How influential are Western beauty ideals?
For an entire generation now, China has been open to the outside world. The generation born post 1980 has grown up exposed to movies, TV and fashion from outside of China as well as foreigners who bring ideals of beauty and fashion from abroad into China. On the one hand, this has slowly helped create a younger population that may be open to different ideals of beauty and even more tolerant of and liberal with the parameters of modesty. On the other hand, I believe this has created entirely new parameters of beauty ideals which have now set the bar even higher than the preexisting traditional Chinese ideals of beauty. This generation of younger people must be even more self-conscious of their flaws than previous generations. Now there are young women and men complaining about their weight and their shape thanks not only to the onslaught of global fashion magazines but also with the arrival of American- styled gyms and fitness centers as well as weight loss programs (which probably came shortly after the arrival of foreign fast-food chains). In the subway stations of larger cities, life size posters of famous Western models and actresses promote expensive European cosmetics that make you look younger, more refined and whiter. Foreign supermarkets and drugstores are well stocked with Oil of Olay and Nivea moisturizers with skin-whitening agents in them to keep skin white (heaven forbid people think you ever spent time in the sun working outdoors). Opticians are well stocked with inexpensive blue and purple tinted contact lenses. Hair salons and stylists are ready to dye customers’ hair blonde and other lighter colors and are up to date with the latest styles, many of which seem like outrageous dos inspired by 1980’s British pop-music bands. When I look around me and see young men and women squeezing into tight clothing, talking about skipping lunch since they’re on a diet, longing for breast implants, donning crystal blue tinted contacts and press-on eyelids and blonde-dyed hair and skin-whitened faces, I question whether I as a foreign woman am contributing to the problem of self-consciousness rather than being a victim myself.
 
Skin whitening moisturizer for men. Whiter skin is a status and wealth symbol. Photo from J. Calderon
Size matters: Finding clothes
In addition to being painfully aware and conscious of my height and curves while in China, I am also frustrated with the ironic challenge of finding clothes or shoes in my size. The obvious irony is that so many of my clothes that I stock up in the US are actually made in China. I sometimes think it would be great to cut out the middle man and just go directly to the factory where my clothes are made, thank the women and men who have left their faraway village in Central China at age 17 to take on this crappy job of toiling to make my clothes, take them out to dinner and then strike a bargain where I buy directly from them and pay them a suitable salary for their time and handiwork. But alas, most of those clothes are boxed up and put on the next shipment to Seattle to help fit the masses of women my size in the US.
A typical saunter into a clothing or shoe shop goes something like this (I’m going to call it a saunter because I don’t actively go on shopping sprees since it’s pretty pointless). I eye a cute top or pair of pants or shoes in a window and then have a little glimmer of hope that just maybe, on the odd chance they’ll have that XXXL waiting just for me- because obviously the shop too hasn’t found the large woman of their dreams to offload the XXXL item onto yet. On seeing desired item, I gingerly approach the shop attendant and ask in broken Chinese, “Hi, do you have big sizes?” which is typically followed by the loud, screeching response of “Meiyou!!!” which means “Don’t have!” Sometimes all I have to do it walk into a shop and before the words can even get out of my own mouth, comes the ubiquitous “Meiyou!”. However, I do have to give credit to some shop attendants. Many of them are very well meaning and want to help. Shopping for a bra one day, I think they were in the depths of the back store room with mining hats for about 15 minutes wading through cobwebs to try to retrieve a rare size. Another time, I happened upon a sidewalk sale of outdoor clothing (the new trend among the growing wealthy class of Chinese). I had an entire coterie of sale attendants running around picking out possible shirts that would fit me. Yes, an entire team serving my needs going through racks trying to find the odd XXL shirts just for moi. I have to say- I felt pretty special- like I had my own personal style team working for me. One of the members of the team was even delegated to the men’s section where she found a nice pair of XXXL men’s cargo pants for me. I’m happy to say I walked away with a nice purchase that day with two new tops and those men’s pants (that I even got complements on in Seattle- so good job team!). Another day recently, I successfully found a shoe store that had overstock of some shoes for the US market. Women’s shoe sizes 9, 10 and 11. When I spotted “the one”- yes, the pair of shoes waiting just for me- the exact style I was looking for and in my size and the only pair, a little tear rolled down my cheek and Etta James’ song “At last” rang in my head (On an interesting note, I saw yesterday the same pair of shoes at an outlet store in Virginia being sold for about twice the price I paid for them in China).
What has also saved me was my friend Lucy’s discovery of British department store Mark’s and Spencer’s in Shanghai where there seems to be an abundance of “normal” size clothing and lots of other tall, curvy laowai women stocking up on underwear and bras before returning to their remote cities in China. Recently a friend Ellie also recommended a tailor in Nanjing who has since made a couple of clothing items for me. I will be bringing back catalogs of clothing from the US and will have him design my outfits for the fall. Oh, what’s that LL Bean? You’re out of the denim Western skirt size 12 until October? No problem. My tailor Mr. Chen down the street will whip one up for me when I get back to the neighborhood.
Being comfortable in my own skin
 
Coming to terms with my unique size and proportions.
With an added ego boost of being surrounded by fellow tall and curvaceous women back in the US this summer, I feel ready to face another year as the tall American lady in Nanjing. I’ve also come to terms with my height and curves. Even though I strive to eat well, exercise and live a healthy life, my body is inevitably going to take the shape and form that is its destiny.  I’ve got my age as well as my genes to thank for that. With family this summer, I realized that the tall and curvy proportioned body I inhabit is a gift from my mother as well as my father. I see pictures of fellow Merkens’ women- my grandmother, aunts and female cousins (and now nieces!) and get emotional thinking about our distinct form and our connected kinship. I’m comforted by this and it makes me feel close to these incredible women in my family- even if I’m on a distant continent and experiencing my unique body and its imperfections alone there. I’m going to try and embrace my figure now and flaunt it rather than hide it.
One last silver lining to all of this is that I am in the position to be a positive role model to some of my students when it comes to promoting self-awareness and body image. One day one of my students reminded me that I had previously told her not to worry about her body image and weight when she had contemplated skipping lunch and dieting. I suppose I had told her that as a woman, it’s inevitable that the body will begin to change and take on womanly features such as childbearing hips. I must have told her that she can look at her mother and know that will likely be her destined form. “Isn’t your mother a lovely woman?” I must have asked her.  Realizing these things, she became more comfortable in her own skin. She said, “I thought before I was too fat. Now, I am ok. I changed my mind because of what you told me.”
Amen to that.
Further Reading and Perusal:
About steps US teen fashion magazine Seventeen has taken to not photo edit models’ pictures:
About young women from across China who come to the city in search of work in factories:
Chang, L. (2008). Factory Girls- From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
Images and commentary about recruitment of flight attendants in China:
China Daily. (2012, June 08). Beautiful flight attendants of Chinese airlines.
Rating system for the ideal Chinese men and women:
Fauna. (2009, April 21). Leftover Men &Leftover Women Rating Surveys. From China Smack.
Short stories about segments of Chinese society by Chinese-American author Ha Jin:
Jin, H. (2000). The Bridegroom- Stories. New York: Pantheon Books.
For more insight into Chinese people’s obsession with skin whitening creams and ligh skin:
Levin, D. (2012, August 3). Beach Essentials in China: Flip-Flops, a Towel and a Ski Mask. From New York Times.
Interviews with some of China’s last bound-foot women:
Montlake, S. (2009, November 13). Bound by History: The Last of China’s ‘Lotus-Feet’ Ladies. From Wall Street Journal.
Chinese cultural ethics clashing with the images of busty Chinese models at the Beijing car show:
More on foot binding:
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Footbinding.

Modern Chinese Courtship. Is it really that modern?

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Now that I have lived in China for two years, I have had the opportunity to witness how the practice of dating and the relationship dynamic between the two sexes works. Still, I feel I need to make a preemptive disclaimer to this blog posting so that no one gets the wrong idea. My reflection on modern Chinese courtship is by no means meant to be a criticism of how things are done nor is it reflective of how it works in all relationships in this country of 1.3 billion people. I live in an affluent, modern city in China and the people I have the most contact with are students as well as well-to-do Chinese- many of whom have traveled outside the country and been exposed to ideas and lifestyles of different cultures. I am taking a critical look at how I understand courtship to work in China (albeit from a limited perspective) and am sharing my honest curiosity with how it is different from the expectations and experiences of my own cultural background in this very day and age. In learning about how dating practices and courtship roll here, I have found myself sometimes perplexed as well as offended (and I am not proud of this). But I am making an effort to understand and be sensitive to how and why the practice must work a certain way in China. As an outsider who is also not in a relationship with a Chinese person, I have the luxury to be curious about it and know that this will not affect me personally. Still, I think there are things I can learn about the traditional expectations in Chinese courtship.

Part of the plan

Starting from a young age, many Chinese boys and girls seem to have their lives mapped out for them so that intended milestones will be reached at the right times in their near as well as distant future. The focus of the first 18 years of a young person’s life is education, education and education! From a young age, Chinese boys and girls attend private tutoring and classes in the evenings and weekends to get ahead in math, Chinese and English. Activities common in many American teenagers’ lives such as socializing and dating, part-time work, participation in sports, volunteering in the local community, or just loafing around on the couch in the afternoon with a bag of Doritos while watching Scooby Doo are discouraged and most likely shelved unless they contribute to a child’s chance of getting into university (which they don’t if the child attends university in China since the college entrance exam is the only determinant for admission into Chinese universities). The push to learn all the time will hopefully ensure that son or daughter will perform well enough on the college entrance examination at the end of high school to gain a coveted spot at a university which will then ensure employment in better paid jobs post university and will therefore also provide mom and dad and son or daughter with future financial security.

Female students on one side of the room
and the male students on the other.

A secondary result of Chinese teenagers neither having time nor being allowed to date while in high school results in what I call the “late bloomer syndrome” among Chinese university students. Whenever I have new first year students in my classes, it’s not uncommon to see the female students sit on one side of the room and the male students sit together on another side of the room. When I encourage students to branch out and work with new students, some even being of the opposite sex, there is a lot of juvenile giggling and reluctance that reminds me of the attitude of 10 and 11 year olds in the US.

And they lived happily ever after..(Picture courtesy ChinaSmack)

Many of my female students seem to have a naïve, happily ever after, Hollywood notion of romance and dating where boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl kiss and say they love each another, and then boy and girl live happily ever after. Ideally, boy is also gao fu shuai or tall, rich and handsome.

I’m still stumped with what the male students want and envision. Some seem to feign disinterest and have an air of “I’m too cool for you” (but that may just be how they are to me, their teacher). Others seem willing to meet a nice girl and fulfill her fairytale boy-meets girl fantasy.

Some of my first year students do end up pairing up with one another. I have known some of my female students to confide in me that they hide their secret of having a boyfriend from their parents. The result of mom and dad finding out is either that they will not be pleased and demand an immediate break-up or they may expect things to quickly get serious between daughter and her boyfriend. Considering it’s the first time dating for some of these young adults, why shouldn’t they be able to enjoy it and savor it or even wallow in pity if there is eventual heartbreak, without the meddling and interference of mom and dad or others?

There can be complications for young people trying to date in a rather traditional society. Like in many countries, if you are a college student, you will share a rather cramped dorm room with two or three other students and the dorm will only have room for two or three bunk beds, desks and clothes, not to mention that the dorm entrances are strictly guarded by matronly aunties who will not permit the opposite sex to enter even to work on an assignment. Young couples who want to get some alone time (if you get my drift) will have to get a little creative. This has led, for example, to the unfortunate event of a young couple at my university getting caught on film in an indecent and uncompromising situation (the video briefly went viral on Youku, the Chinese version of Youtube). It is also not uncommon for me to see students smooching in the dark corners of the courtyard in front of my apartment building when it is dark at night. Near the university campuses, it is also common to see little old ladies conspicuously holding up small signs advertising rooms that can be rented by the hour.

The birds and the bees being a taboo and uncomfortable topic and there likely being no sex-ed in schools may also result in some unplanned pregnancies. This can have hugely damaging consequences for the female, leading to a tarnished reputation for not only her but also her family. To capitalize on this, there is no shortage of advertisements and signs for “women clinics” where typically either a smart, professional and confident looking male doctor poses in the photo for the clinic or a sweet, doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked nurse gently smiles and welcomes you to stop by the facilities to resolve your problem.

The dating game

The so called “dating game” in China does not seem to be a game at all. In fact courtship and the intended result- marriage, are all part of the mapped out plan which will affect not only the individuals who are dating but their families as well. China is very much a family-centric culture and various rites of passage such as dating need to be considered from the standpoint of the family.

The Chinese definition and notion of dating are very different from those of American culture. It’s my observation that the amount of time from when two go on a first date with one another and then become a defined couple is rather short. Therefore, if I were to “date” a Chinese person and use the Chinese logic for dating, I would seriously have to consider whether I want to possibly build a future with this person BEFORE I even went on my first date with him. Whereas my American frame of reference for and concept of dating means I see a person a few separate times, maybe even over the course of several months with the goal of determining whether I like the person enough to get more serious or whether I just want to have fun and even see other people; Chinese etiquette seems to dictate that one or two dates justifies a full on, serious committed relationship. True- I may have a slightly skewed perspective with no first-hand experience to speak of. I do find it sweet, well-meaning but also comical though when I mention to a Chinese friend that I have dated someone a couple of times and one of the immediate responses is something like “Great! When are you going to get married to each other?” whereas non-Chinese friends may only delicately ask after about six to eight months, “So, how are things going with what’s his name? Are you guys an item now? Are things getting serious?” Six to eight months seems like a lifetime as far as Chinese etiquette goes. I would think the modern Western way of dating may be viewed as immoral, loose and even to some extent pointless if you’re not considering marriage on the first date.

With many younger Chinese people, I notice a sense of urgency to find a mate and get married. I believe this is because of the mapped out plan that has been drafted for them at a young age in order to ensure security and wellbeing for her or him and more importantly her or his family. As I mentioned, certain milestones may be expected to be reached by a certain age. After the first milestone of university or employment is achieved, the next step in the equation is starting a family so that mom and dad can soon ease into retirement, be cared for by their son and daughter-in-law, and gaily spend their twilight years with a cherubic grandchild. I am in awe and admiration of Chinese sons’ and daughters’ strong sense of duty and honor to fulfilling this commitment to their parents. Filial piety and contributing a part in the family unit is a deeply entrenched part of the Chinese mindset and has been for thousands of years.

An activity I recently did with some of my students demonstrates how important marriage and starting a family is to some young Chinese adults themselves. Some students played brokers and sold guarantees for example for happiness, good health, longevity, adventure, career, family, as well as marriage to the clients who had a fictional sum of money to buy the guarantees. Students were allowed to bargain and negotiate the terms of the guarantees. Indeed, the guarantees that sold the most and without extra negotiation were the marriage and family guarantees. I was even surprised that the career guarantees didn’t sell very well. The happiness guarantee, for example, also didn’t sell as well because students assumed that if you had a guarantee for a good marriage and family, then happiness would be a given. A career was not deemed as necessary if a stable, happy marriage provided a sense of purpose and security instead. Guarantees for patience or adventure, for example, hardly sold at all.

The battle of the sexes: Who wears the pants?

Guys- do you have your real estate in place?

Admittedly, I do cringe sometimes when I hear young Chinese friends lament that they’re getting too old at 25 or 26 and should now have been married. I believe the pressure is felt greatly among males (and this may include Western males if they have a Chinese girlfriend). Chinese males are expected to provide and offer security to any prospective girlfriends who will hopefully become future wives. The security comes in the form of real estate property for a future home. If you are a young Chinese, eligible bachelor you better hope that you have enough money saved up to buy that house because some eligible bachelorettes will not give you the time of day otherwise. Some young men’s parents will already have been saving for him so that the property can be built and ready when their son comes of age for courtship. I have known both Chinese men and Western men dating Chinese ladies who have been pressured about the house issue pretty early on in their relationships by both the girlfriend and her parents. Western male friends have told me of being unexpectedly grilled by the parents of girlfriends or even of girls with whom they have informally gone on a couple of dates on how much money they earn, whether they own any property outside of China, and on their future plans and ambitions. At times I think my Western brothers have it made in China but this is one issue for which I do not envy them. I am happy to escape such inquisitions.

In addition to the property issue, Chinese men do seem to be protective and very doting of their girls and I do believe it’s frequently expected of them. Don’t be surprised to see the occasional Chinese guy carrying his girlfriend’s purse, tying her shoe or buying her expensive jewelry or a mobile phone to show his affection. I have mixed feelings about such acts. Personally, I prefer to carry my own purse or bag. That being said, I can see how some women may find it chivalrous, considerate and caring to have their boyfriend or husband carry their bag and buy them something pretty or useful.

That’s right, I’m carrying her purse. And??
(Pic courtesy of Chinesepeoplehavenostyle)

While it may seem I have described a relationship dynamic where the Chinese woman very much wears the pants and that the man must demonstrate his potential and devotion through small acts such as purse carrying to grand gestures of buying a home, I believe that this is an important step in giving the man the upper hand. I think many Chinese men feel that their manhood is being preserved by playing the protective and breadwinning role. For some men it may also be shameful to “marry up” to a woman who is more educated and comes from a wealthier family. Some men may even have power and insecurity issues if the woman is taller (the height and income things contribute to my theory as to why it is so rare to see Chinese men together with foreign women).

Chinese women also experience pressure from the fact that age 25 and older is sometimes considered “over the hill”. It sadly seems that the closer a woman approaches to 30, the chances of her being suitable for dating and marriage begin to wane. Recently, I heard a nightmare story about a Chinese woman who was approaching her late 20’s. Her well-meaning parents were so distraught that their daughter would miss any opportunity to marry and made arrangements for her to marry a man who apparently came from lower standing. The daughter consented to marry this man she hardly knew. The marriage sadly fell to pieces shortly thereafter. The husband was so ashamed of his lower standing and apparently was downright cruel and nasty to his wife. They are now divorced and apparently the woman is now living back with her parents who owning up to their well-meaning mistake, take full responsibility for their daughter again.

I understand that divorce is also very much stigmatized in some parts of the country and within some social circles. This is particularly an issue for Chinese women who sadly may be viewed as “damaged goods” if divorced (and I realize that this is not only a concern in China). But therein lies the logic of a dowry or the insistence of real estate for a woman when she marries. A hefty dowry is a like an insurance policy that financially holds the husband liable to his wife and her family as well as their honor and reputation. At the same time, if the marriage should fail, at least she may have a little nest egg to support her and her parents if she cannot easily marry again. The belief (and sadly sometimes the truth) is that a man can more easily marry while a woman cannot, especially given the stigma that may follow her as a divorcee.

Divorce rates in China have increased in recent years. A 2011 article in the China Daily cited that divorces in China increased by 17% in the first three months of 2011from a year earlier (as cited in Huffington Post). Before 2001, couples had to get approval from their employers for a divorce. But perhaps it is also a sign that it is becoming more acceptable, at least in larger, urban areas. Maybe there’s indeed hope for many of these broken hearted to have a second chance at love and happiness.

Whether by choice or not, more and more woman are also going the route of the career track first before the husband and mommy track. Such women are said to have “missed the boat” as they pursue fast-tracked careers in business or academia. These successful women, while no longer an anomaly, are thought to be married to their careers and are called sheng nu or left-behind women.

2011 sheng nu anthem lyrics: Hurry move aside and don’t block my way, I also have a car, 
I also have a house, as well as RMB in the bank. (Picture courtesy Chinasmack)

Making sense of it all

Sometimes I am taken aback with how 1950’s it is in even modern, urban China.  I may scoff at the pressure Chinese men must endure regarding the property and equity issue but certainly can understand a woman’s desire as well as that of her parents’ for their daughter to be paired with someone who is financially sound and able to provide for her. As for the sheng nu, they certainly are demonstrating that they can make it on their own without the money and finances of a partner. Perhaps such women can focus then on finding a partner that will be a good companion for them on an emotional and intellectual level. At the end of the day, don’t most of us long for a nice companion with whom we can fill our days? The fairytale, happily-ever-after romance so many of my female students long for seems to be the ideal no matter where you are in the world.

Further Browsing and reading:

For one perspective of a young Chinese man and his struggles with being an eligible bachelor:
Wife vs. House: Chinese Men Discuss What They Can Afford

For a heated discussion about sheng nu:
“No Car No House” Song, Chinese Leftover Women Version

What do some young Chinese people look for in a partner?
Leftover Men & Leftover Women Rating Surveys

For a look at the decline of marriage in Asia:
Asia’s lonely hearts

And this not so little lao wai went to the market

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One of my true cultural experiences this year has been my weekly or biweekly visit to the local market and shops in my neighborhood. My local cai shi chang or market is located underground on the corner of the streets Fujian Lu and Tielubiejie. Upstairs and outside on the corner, life is a buzzing and bustling. Different kinds of activity and traffic make up a hierarchy in this intersection. A homeless couple sits silently and shamefully on the ground staring down at the sidewalk and refusing to look up as they hold up a tin cup in which passers-by may throw a few jiao or small amounts of paper money. Typically an older couple, one maybe blind, performs sad mournful music on the erhu, a traditional two-string Chinese violin. Pedestrians saunter by and carry little children with split pants or pampered and dressed up poodle dogs. Small crowds of people wait in line on the sidewalk to buy Portuguese egg tarts, steamed boa zi (steamed buns filled with meat or vegetables or sweet bean paste) or KFC style fried chicken. Bicyclists weave their way through the obstacle course of pulled up cars and loitering pedestrians without being knocked over by the stealthy, quiet and sneaking-up electric motorbikes. The mopeds and electric motorbikes, usually carrying at least two people or a heavy load of timber or twenty heavy boxes that are precariously strapped onto the vehicle, have a special status in the intersection as they only stop briefly for drop-offs or pick-ups or may not even stop at all. Mopeds and motorbikes don’t have to actually stop at red traffic lights and the drivers are extremely skilled at keeping one hand on the horn of their bike while the other hand takes control of steering the vehicle ahead into the middle of the intersection while also maneuvering it around pedestrians and larger vehicles coming from all different directions. Taxis stop and go through the intersection as well, although don’t count on ever getting a cab during the time you need one most. The drivers will likely be switching shifts for a 2 hour time block from around 5:30 to 7:30 pm (or whenever they feel like it). The corner of Fujian Lu and Tielubiejie, like many similar streets in this affluent part of China, has an increasing number of private cars dotting the street, most of which are fairly new and pricey. Black Buicks (which somehow have sold quite well here and some wealthy Chinese might mistake them for German luxury cars), VW Passats, Audis and BMWs with tinted windows outnumber the small Chinese hatchback QQ cars with Hello Kitty or Snoopy stickers on them. Mian bao che– translated literally to “bread vehicles” because of their shape’s resemblance to a loaf of bread, also fit into this hierarchy. These vehicles typically are pretty banged up but are practical, especially for the vendors in the market who may load up remaining goods and boxes at the end of the day into the back end of the little vans. At the top of the hierarchy of the intersection are public and private buses. The bus I take from my campus to the campus where I work crosses and turns into the intersection as well as various public buses that can be caught 100 meters from the intersection. Within a moment, one can hop off the bus and be thrown back into the chaos and hubbub of the world below on the street and be back almost on the bottom of the hierarchy.
 
Customers queuing to buy egg tarts,a popular treat
 
Steamed bao zi

 

 
Fresh noodles and jiao zi wrappers
Sometimes I stop by the market after work and make my way through the crowds. When I enter into the front hallway of the market, I enter into another world. Upstairs are various vendors squished into small spaces selling prepared meats; fried flat bread and bing (a savory pancake); grains including different varieties of rice and beans; as well as dried fruits, nuts and herbal teas. Sometimes I stop by the woman selling the nuts and dried fruit to buy 10 quai (RMB) worth of raisins. I’ve struggled in conversation before with this vendor and even attracted a small crowd around who enjoyed the cheap thrill and entertainment of watching a goofy and clumsy lao wai (a somewhat crass but commonly used term for “foreigner”) woman pantomime her order of raisins and walnuts. In the end, we all laugh and enjoy our moment of mutual curiosity.
 
The precocious son of one of my vendors (2nd from left) with other kids.
 
My other favorite vegetable vendor peeling soy beans.
At the end of the hallway are the steps leading down into the market itself. I truly relish my trips to the market. Now that it is a warmer season, a wider variety of vegetables are available which means I am not required as often to make the long trek to the big Western style supermarket located about a 15- minute walk away. I’ve enjoyed cooking and preparing dishes recently where I can just run and get the ingredients I need from these produce vendors. I have two different vendors I like to go to for my veggies. I don’t go to these vendors because they have the best prices or the freshest selection of organic grade vegetables (to be honest- I have no idea whether the veggies are organic; whether the vendors are connected to the farm; nor whether the produce has travelled from very far). Instead I go out of loyalty. I now have some semblance of a friendly human connection with these vendors. The vendor in the back doesn’t always have a wide selection of produce. She and her husband work the table and depending on the time of day, their little energetic and precocious son may also be behind the table. When I first started buying from their table back in February, their son spotted me, looked up in amazement and screamed, “Wai guo ren!! (Foreigner!), ” to which I pointed back to him in cheekiness and said, “Zhong guo ren! (Chinese person!!)” The connection I made over this silly little child brings me back to their table every once in a while. I enjoy asking his mother where he is and practicing my Chinese to just have small talk about family. I also take pleasure buying veggies from a couple who are in their fifties or sixties. Always patient as I pick up countless vegetables and ask “What’s this called? What about that?”, they always respond back with the name (even if asked it the previous ten times before). The husband always tries to appeal to me to buy some other vegetable or cabbage that may be new for the season. Other customers may stop by and ask, “Ni shi na guo ren? (Where are you from?). Oh- America? Hen hao. Very nice. What are you doing here? How long have you lived in China?”
Fresh eggs
 
A fish monger
For some reason, except for a small stand, fruit is not sold in the market. Instead fruit sellers sell their goods on the street level in separate shops. Down in the underground market, though, a shopper can buy a wide range of meat and fish; spices; herbs; tofu and other staples common to Chinese cooking. One fellow sells Chinese herbs and nuts necessary for Chinese traditional medicine. A device on his table grinds up nuts or seeds into powder or a pureed paste. A Chinese grandmother may lecture me on the health benefits of the melon seeds I am buying. I take a stroll to another shop below and find a place where  in different open tubs on a shelf are various cooking oils, pastes and pickled relishes such as pressed sesame paste or oil; pickled white radish or green beans; or soybean paste.  If I can’t find the ingredient while looking in the maze of a Western style supermarket, I will find it for certain below in the cai chang. Continuing on the outer perimeter of the market, I come along to a back corner where during certain times of day and I can see live ducks and chickens in cages that can be bought and “prepared” right there to be taken home and cooked. Continuing along the corner, both saltwater and freshwater fish and creepy crawlers are sold. Live turtles as well as eels swim in shallow tubs waiting to be seized up by the vendor to hand to a customer.
 
Friendly butchers who broke out into a chorus of “OKs!”
Continuing along the outer perimeter of the market, I encounter butchers and meat vendors. Unlike in Western supermarkets, the meat is not packaged or frozen. The butchers likely get their meat fresh daily or perhaps even twice or three times a day. No part of the animal will go to waste. Different cuts of the meat can be bought and if chosen by the customer, can be sliced, diced or ground. Like many of the vendors in the market, my meat vendors come from humble backgrounds and are amicable Nanjing folks speaking with a thick Nanjing drawl. Last week while making my order, I inserted unconsciously a few “OKs” into my conversation. The vendors all around all broke out boisterously into a chorus of “OK!!! OK!”
 
A quiet and tender moment in the market.
From these trips to the market, I am always aware that I stick out like a sore thumb. I know I’m the tall female lao wai customer of the market. But, as I continue to come back time and time again, I have developed a sort of informal and basic friendly rapport with some of the vendors. Although there may be some teasing going on about my strange gait or my “OK!!’s”, I feel that these friendly and harmless jibes  are symbols of my acceptance into this small world below. Some day when I leave Nanjing, I will miss this personal and intimate experience and will have to accept shopping again at an impersonal, sterile and largely-structured big-name supermarket.

Warm hearts and kindred spirits

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Running errands in my neighborhood after work is sometimes my favorite time of day. It’s the time of day when I see children out playing; grandparents and parents picking up their little ones up from school; mommies and daddies helping stumbling toddlers learning to walk in the park and when I can witness the overall love and devotion that the Chinese people tend to shower on their children. It always brings a huge smile to my face. That and the little ones here are ridiculously adorable. In the winter, they’re dressed up in about 20 layers of clothes and look like little “ball babies” waddling around. In the warmer months, the babies and toddlers have split pants over their rear ends so that they can easily go to the bathroom anywhere- yes anywhere- whether it’s on the sidewalk for the entire public to see or on a subway train. Once the little ones start talking, it’s simply endearing to hear their children’s voices speaking Chinese.

As a foreign lady here in China, I frequently have a certain privilege and carte blanche to go up to interact with small children- even if I am a stranger. Parents frequently seem comfortable if not delighted when I approach them to say hello to their child and even to take a picture of them. Really small children don’t know what to make of me until their parents grab their hands and start waving it up and down and say to their child, “Say hello! Ni hao!!” Some of those children I’m sure find it a bit of a strange practice to say hello at the request of their parents to this tall, strange unusual figure in front of them.

Occasionally, children’s parents also catch a glimpse of me. One time a mother and her child came up to me. The mother warmly exclaimed to her three year old while pointing at me, “Look at her! You’re Chinese! She’s a foreigner! Do you see?” Some may find such behavior unsettling but I didn’t mind. It was done in a friendly tone. I also enjoy watching the occasional surprise reaction of children themselves when they spot me. I am surprised that in this day and age in Nanjing, a major Chinese city with a large expat population, I still have the odd encounter with children who are bewildered, excited or intrigued by a sighting of me. Last week my friend Mike and I were on a major intersection after grocery shopping. While waiting to cross the intersection, a man and three kids were wedged on a bicycle. One of the boys on the bike spotted us and pointed with excitement with a huge grin on his face when he saw us. Another time I had a funny encounter with some children outside of a restaurant while waiting for a friend. After the children got over their initial curiosity and skepticism of me, they let me teach them the game of “Give me a five, on the side, up high, down low, too slow!!!!” Still, when my Chinese friend Ryan showed up to meet me, the children starting asking all sorts of questions about me. Who is this strange person? What’s her name? What planet is she from?

In addition to the curiosity and warmth I feel extended to me when I encounter children and their parents, I also appreciate how devoted and loving parents and grandparents are to children here. I especially enjoy seeing all the grandparents with little ones. China’s one child policy has been put into place now for over thirty years. This means that some younger parents out there are single children themselves- and their child is therefore the only grandchild. Mom, Dad and both sets of grandparents give full devotion to the child who is seen as the future for the family. When a child is born, it is not uncommon for the grandparents to move into the home to devote their time to being with and raising the grandchild. Many moms and dads work full time so rather than day care, it’s grandma and grandpa who look after the little one. And they relish it too! I see many grandmothers and grandfathers out at different times of day with their little ones- whether it’s for picking up a child at school; kicking a ball with him or her in the park; walking a toddler around the track; or taking her or him out for a stroll with other grandparents and little ones. Grandparent and grandchild are very close- partners in crime or kindred spirits. There’s no lack of public affection. I see shoulder carrying and piggyback riding, hand-holding, hugging, head patting, sweet singing and a whole lot of outpouring of love. It warms my heart to see the special bond of a grandchild or grandparent because I am reminded of my own grandparents and how they meant- and still mean- the world to me.

Many of today’s children I encounter in this part of China are growing up in a vastly different world than that of their parents or grandparents. Previous generations endured many hardships as well as political and economic oppression. Children born in the 1990’s and after have grown up with technology, a connection to the outside world and greater education and economic opportunities. Some of these younger adults are my students. Many of them appreciate the opportunities that have been afforded to them thanks to the devotion, love and sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. Many of them feel a sense of duty to their parents and grandparents. Someday soon, they too hope to get a good job, get married and start a family of their own so that they can provide security, a comfortable home and a companionable grandchild to their aging parents.

For additional reading:

Year of the Dragon: Time to Have a Baby

Chinese Parents Line Up to Have Dragon Babies