Wednesday, July 27, 2011

MAD at home

July 25, 2011
We have been home for over three weeks, and it is time for this blog to go on hiatus.  In about two months I am going to give a talk entitled, Travel as Transformational Experience: The Story of MAD and TAJ and their Trip Around the World.  As I pull that together I will post at least part of it on this site.  There are many stories from our travels that have not made it into print.  I still hope to write them down before they escape from my memory.  
I am playing with the idea of starting a blog called “MAD at home.”  I have found my writing practice very therapeutic and I hope to continue to write but I find this more challenging at home.  I also find myself being angry more when I am home and I want to sort that out and get to the root of it.  The second week I was home, two of the toilets backed up in our house, Oliver, our younger dog, got sick, and my car would not start.  Had my car started I might have driven straight to the airport and booked a ticket to somewhere far away.  Unpacking, cleaning, sorting through piles and dealing with broken things all required more emotional energy than I had to give and I found myself sliding into my long established habits of being the overly responsible middle child and resenting every minute of it.  I needed to review that lesson about there is no “Y” in “happiness,” and remember that the only thing I really have control over is my reaction to these situations.  All of that is still a work in progress.
The summer of 2006, we bought a small house near Knife Lake in Mora, Minnesota.  My brother owns a house across the road right on the lakeshore.  While the house has needed a fair amount of work over the years it has always been my refuge.  Unfortunately, last summer we had a major mouse invasion.  The few times I made it up to Mora, I spent the entire weekend setting mouse traps, cleaning up mouse poop, and listening to these uninvited guests scurry around inside the walls when I was trying to sleep.  At the end of the summer I did what I hated to do – and put out some D-Con mouse poison.  In the fall my brother checked the house and removed five dead mice from the living room.  This spring a neighbor set traps through out the kitchen and basement, and removed a few other critters.  For weeks now the traps have not been touched and this past weekend Josh and I came up to deal with the damage.  After two full days of vacuuming, washing and scrubbing, I am feeling some sense of this house being the refuge it once was. 
Whenever it seemed like too much work to face the three-hour drive to get there I would remember my mantra “Away is Good.”  Once here, I have just enough distance to get some perspective on my life in St. Peter.  I have made a commitment to myself to try to come up here once a month.  Now I need to say that out loud and hold myself to it.
I sincerely hope to travel internationally more in the future, but I realize our “trip around the world” was most likely a once in a lifetime experience.  What I need to do now is reflect on what I learned from that experience and figure out how those lessons inform my day-to-day life.  I have not yet figured out how to schedule the required time for serious reflection and writing into my life at home.  Getting away to Europe or Israel or China is not in the immediate future.  But getting away to Mora, Minnesota is manageable.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Homeward Bound

Later today we will leave Mainland China.  We will once again board the Ferry to cross the Pearl River Estuary to Hong Kong and after spending the night in HK begin the very long jaunt home.  Hong Kong to Detroit (roughly 17 hours) plus an hour and twenty minutes in Detroit where we hope to get through customs and make our connection, then Detroit to Minneapolis (two hours), and once all of our luggage arrives - an hour and half back to St. Peter.
Curiously I am almost at a loss for words.  My anxiety level has been on the rise for the past few weeks.  I am ready to be home – but not excited about the time and effort it will take to get between here and home.  Most of the apartment’s household items have been boxed, hauled up to UIC, and left for future visiting faculty. 
This past week was filled with many meals and many goodbyes.  On Tuesday, we went with my good friends Kris and Yanyan to a YumCha restaurant in Zhuhai for morning tea.  Tuesday evening, I went out with five other colleagues for seafood.  Yesterday, I had lunch with Sandra and Andy, two of my colleagues from “Whole Person Education.” Sandra directs the choir at UIC and has also been a good friend.  After we had finished our lunch she quietly sang the Jewish folk song, “Shalom, my friends,” to me.   “Till we meet again, till we meet again, Shalom, shalom.”
Last night, Bob, Josh and I walked to Tangjia and ate dinner at a favorite restaurant that we simply refer to as the “dumpling place.”  No one speaks English there, but we have figured out a number of items on the menu we all like.  We walked back to the apartment through the streets of Tangjia, and Josh said, “Remember the first time we walked through here?” I want to process what these past months in China have been all about  - but right now everything just feels raw. 
So instead, for now, I focus on the task at hand:  The last of the packing and cleaning up.  One step at a time – a van to the port; the Ferry to Hong Kong; the airport express to the hotel; the airport express to the Hong Kong airport; a plane; customs; a plane; a car and home.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Songs in my Head

I don’t transition quickly.  We leave China in about ten days but I have been processing this departure for the past few months.  A wide-ranging musical soundtrack running through my head often accompanies my ruminations.
The 1973 hit by Seals and Crofts, “We May Never Pass this Way Again,” was the tune spinning in my mind as I rode the bus home after my final meeting at UIC.  Yesterday was the day I officially “checked out” at UIC.  That involved getting many signatures including, but not limited to, documenting I did not have any unreturned library books, turning in my staff handbook and I.D. card, getting permission to keep my UIC e-mail address until the end of the month, and turning in my office keys.  
It also involved a final divisional meeting with the Board of Examiners to discuss any deviations from the “grade distribution” rules.  (Regardless of class size, faculty are only allowed to give 10% of the students the grade of A or A-, 15% can be given a B+, etc.)  Anyone who knows me as a teacher can understand why these grade restrictions made me completely nuts.  I think Benjamin Bloom got it right when he wrote, “ The normal curve is a distribution most appropriate to chance and random activity.  Education is a purposeful activity and we seek to have students learn what we would teach.  Therefore, if we are effective, the distribution of grades will be anything but a normal curve.  In fact, a normal curve is evidence of our failure to teach.”
Above & below: friends at United International College

I was thinking about my colleagues in the general education division, when I started hearing the Seals and Crofts song.  Over half of the faculty in our division are not returning in the fall.  A few of us are heading back to the U.S., one secured a position in Hong Kong, and for others, it was simply time to move on.  Like faculty at every college and university I have ever known – this can be a cantankerous group.   I remember back when I was co-chair of the Faculty Development Center, I went to a conference where a wise-cracking speaker defined  “faculty” as a  “a group of individuals who think otherwise.”  While I sometimes question the subject of the bickering and arguing, I appreciate the passion and principles it represents.  In the U.S. a frequent topic of faculty discourse is parking or rather the lack there of.   In the GEO division our fire-filled arguments centered around when a meeting is an official meeting requiring minutes, and when it is an informal gathering therefore not requiring minutes.  I am content to leave that argument behind me.
About a month ago I started hearing the refrain from the 1969 tune by Joe South and The Believers.
Don’t it make you want to go home?
Don’t it make you want to go home?
All God’s children get weary when the roam,
Don’t it make you want to go home?

It is true, I am weary and do feel it is time to go home.  But dang!  It has been quite a ride!  Josh and I have packed in enough memories to last us a lifetime.  My teaching responsibilities this semester prevented me from spending as much time writing as I would have liked.  I hope over the next few months to write more about our experiences in China before they slip into the fog of my middle-aged memory.

Josh with his classmates at QSI
A few weeks ago Josh attended the graduation ceremony and celebration for his friend, Kyoka.  She was the only senior at his school this year and she will be attending Temple University of Tokyo in Japan next year.  As part of the ceremony Josh and his classmates sang the Beatles song “In my Life” to Kyoka, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.  In fact, just thinking about the opening line, “There are places I remember,” gets me a little weepy. 

Later today, Bob, Josh and I are leaving for Hong Kong for a few days.  We decided against doing any long distance traveling during the last weeks here and instead are spending time with the people we have come to call friends, and in the places we enjoy.

The days are going quickly, and I am once again negotiating this outward curve.  I am trying to stay present to the experience of being here, since I know “we may never pass this way again.”  But lately I have been hearing Bonnie Raitt singing to me “And home sings me of sweet things, my life there has it’s own wings, fly over the mountains, though I’m standing still.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

For My Story Students UIC, Spring 2011 (Written in the style of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children)

Tell me a story.  Tell me about your mother and your father and the place where you grew up.  Tell me about the time you rolled off the bed, or hid in the room with the piano, or were trapped in the elevator, or rode home from the pool on your father’s bicycle looking like the girl in Aladdin. Tell me how your mother stayed up late to fix the dress you had torn on the rollercoaster, or encouraged you to be a tumbler, or had that life-changing conversation with you. 
Tell me about your grandmother who waited patiently for you in the rain, who got angry when you played computer games instead of doing your homework, who whispered that you were her favorite, who kept a Buddha in her home, who slept with you outside after the earthquake.
Tell me about your grandfather, who loved his garden, who worked so hard for his education, who held your hand and listened to you ask why Uncle Cow did not wear shoes, who taught you to play mahjong, who made special dumplings just for you. 
Tell me about preparing meals with parents and debating over how to indentify counterfeit money. Tell me about the moment you knew they all loved you.
Tell me about the time when you were a sword fighting woman warrior, or stood up to the man who smashed your bicycle, or the time you got a cockroach in your hair, or when you found a cockroach in your rice, or when your neighbors ate your pet dove, or when you accidently drown a duck.  No, don’t tell me that one.
Tell me about where you lived when you were young and where you live now.  Tell me about the town where all the people can sing and dance, the place where the pandas live, where the snow smells like peppermint, where the Goddess was to tired to mend the hole in the sky so the village is always filled with gentle rain. 
Tell me about how you started keeping a journal, writing in your diary, writing a blog, speaking in front of an audience.  Tell me how you discovered your voice.  
Tell me about the mysterious stranger who pulled you out of the swimming pool, or sat by you on a bench and told you her mother was now a star, or the one who has been married to your grandmother for forty years.  Tell me those stories. 
Tell me about when the Japanese soldiers came to your ancestors’ village, of the hard choices that were made when there was one more child who they could not afford to feed, about the foster son who betrayed your great grandfather.  Tell me the story you only heard one time.
Tell me about the time during secondary school when the floor began to shake and at first you thought it was a heavy truck, but then you realized it was an earthquake. Tell me how you were the last one to leave the classroom. 
Tell me about the time you felt incredibly alone and afraid.  When you were sure a stranger was following you, that someone was trying to kidnap you, that a murderer was on the loose and how you were so relieved to get home.  Tell me about the time you watched the horror movie and screamed until the supervisor pounded on your door, or could not get out of bed even to use the bathroom.  Tell me how the picture you created saved you from the water ghost and when you discovered darkness could be beautiful.
Tell me about the times when it was not ghost stories but truly terribly times when you thought you might drown, or die from serious illness, or cried yourself to sleep every night out of sheer loneliness.  Tell me how you learned that every day and every life was precious
Tell me about the food you love, the spicy noodles, the soft-boiled chicken, the New Year’s Eve dinner, the Mantis Shrimp pie your grandparents prepared to celebrate your acceptance at UIC.  Tell me about your secret garden, the cave, the green grass, the flowers, the river, the Buddhist temple, and even the crowded city street, that all provided solace for you when you were filled with grief.
Tell me how terrifying it is to be a year four student with more work to be done than is humanly possible. Tell me about quiet rooftops and magical books, and close friends who provided comfort and care when you needed it.
Tell me about your hopes and your dreams. Tell me what’s next.
Tell me how week after week, forty-eight people moved the tables and chairs to make a circle because they wanted to see each others’ faces when they told stories.
Tell me that story. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Brief Update

First of all, I am feeling better every day and absolutely sure the worst of this is behind me.  On Monday I saw the specialist in HK for the second time.  I did not have Dengue Fever.  The hepatitis tests are not back from the lab.  One disconcerting thing was that he re-checked my immunity for Hep A and B.  I was vaccinated for Hep A before I went to Namibia (should last lifetime) six years ago, and for Hep B before I left for China.  I show immunity for Hep B, but no immunity for Hep A.  It is as if I never got that two-shot vaccination series.   I am returning to see the doctor on Friday and at that time I am going to get re-vaccinated for Hep A, and the results of the Hep E test should be back.  
I still get tired easily, but aside from that my only continuing symptom is some cramping in my legs. The doctor is not sure if this is from the original viral infection, or from the allergic reaction to the antibiotic I was given.  

Also, he said that after researching this antibiotic he learned that so many people have allergic reactions to this antibiotic ("Avelox") that current best practice is to not prescribe it unless there are no other options.  He then said, "Apparently Mainland China has not gotten this message."

My potassium levels are back to normal.  He also did an EKG to check my heart because the weird muscles spasms were not originally limited to my legs - my arms and sometimes my chest muscles felt strange.  All good with the heart.  

My liver function is improving, and he said to resume a normal diet just to avoid alcohol.  That I can do.  My colleague Victor accompanied me on this last trip to Hong Kong.  Due to the Ferry schedule, we arrived about an hour and a half before my appointment. In a high rise next to the building containing the doctor's office, we found a "360 Market" - which is a branch of "Whole Foods Market" in Hong Kong. I thought briefly I had gone to heaven.  They had a large "food court" on the second floor.  I bought a few things to bring home for Josh, and had a good lunch.  If I feel up to it, I plan to do some serious shopping there when I go back on Friday. 

Yesterday, I went to campus and taught my story class.  Really all I needed to do was sit and listen to students read stories.  That went well and I was happy to be back in the classroom.  I came right home after class, rested, did a little light housekeeping around the apartment and mostly took care of Josh, who came down with a nasty cold over the weekend. Given all he has been through the last few weeks, I am not surprised.  Fortunately, we arrived in China well equipped with Advil, Tylenol, Sudafed, and two “Z-packs” (zithromax).  Unfortunately, I had not taken this full arsenal to Beijing with us.  As his cough and congestion got worst, Dr. Mom decided it was time to start at Z-pack.  It was a good choice, and probably 12 hours after the first dose he started to show some improvement.  Today (Wednesday) we are both spending a quiet day at home, continuing to improve.

A number of people have suggested that I come home immediately, and I must confess that during the worst of this if there had been a Star Trek method to beam me home I would have taken it.  However, I really do not want this experience to be my closing chapter on China.  My general education class at UIC in The Theory and Practice of Story, has been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences in my long teaching career.  I did not want to leave without giving some kind of closure to this class. 

I will return to see the specialist in Hong Kong on Friday, and then hope to be done with this whole illness episode of the saga.  Bob will join us in about three weeks, and our family of three will spend the last three weeks in China together.  We are excited to share with him all that we have loved about our time here. 

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, has a line in a recent poem that states, “I love this world even in its hard places.”  I cannot say I love the hard places, but I continue to love this world in spite of its hard places.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Not Turned Out As Planned

On Thursday, April 28th, Josh and I set off with Yanyan and her parents for Chongqing for her wedding.  From Zhuhai we took a bus to the airport in Guangzhou, which was about a two-hour trip.  Yanyan’s parents had never been in an airplane before and I enjoyed their excitement in the whole adventure.  Weddings in China are really all about the groom.  The groom’s family plans the entire wedding, pays for the entire wedding and the guests are almost all from the groom’s family. The groom’s “English name” is Ryan.  (Just as I have a “Chinese name”  -Lu Xin Mei – most younger Chinese people have an “English name.”)  We arrived in Chongqing at close to midnight, and Ryan’s family had dinner waiting for us at the apartment.  It was the first time Yanyan and Ryan’s parents met each other.  It was perhaps 1:30 AM when we finally got to sleep for the night.
Ryan’s family was very excited to host “westerners” as guests at the wedding and, being very proud of their city, Chongqing, wanted Josh and me to see as much of it as possible.  Li Li, the groom’s sister, and the best man (who’s name I never quite got) took us to the old market streets, to dinner at a “hotpot restaurant” and out on boat ride on the river to see the lights of the city.  It was all very interesting, but also insanely hot and humid.   And, I was exhausted.  We arrived back at the hotel where we were staying after midnight.   We had thought someone would be getting us at about ten the next morning, but at 6:30 AM, Li Li knocked on our door and told us we needed to be ready to go in an hour.  We were taken back to Ryan’s apartment, where we were encouraged to have some breakfast at the little noodle shop on the street, and then the wedding party was loaded into decorated cars and set off to get the bride.  Yanyan was staying at a friend’s apartment.  We all arrived at the apartment door, where Ryan, carrying the bridal bouquet, needed to beg and plead to be let in.  Once inside the apartment, Ryan needed to continue to work to receive his bride.  Yanyan was tucked away in a bedroom, and Ryan had to sing for her, and slide red envelope containing “lucky money” under the door, until finally the door was opened and Ryan was able to give Yanyan the bridal bouquet and they were united.  Next, we all traveled to a park where photographs were taken.  Ryan and Yanyan were one of six bridal couples we saw in the park that morning.  And from the park, we went to the restaurant where the actual ceremony was to be held. 
There were about 200 people in the restaurant, and with the exception of the bride’s parents, Josh and me, and two of Yanyan’s close friends, all were friends and relatives of the groom.  There was a decorated raised platform at one end of the restaurant, fairly loud disco type music played the entire time, and a young female M.C. directed the ceremony.  Yanyan entered with her father and was handed over to Ryan.  The four parents sat close to the raised platform.  There was a very simple exchange of vows and rings.  “Someone” needed to give their approval to the couple’s marriage and I was asked to be this someone.   I just needed to say a few words in English, saying I approved this marriage then say “Zhu ni men xin hun kuai le,” which means “I wish you a happy marriage.”  Of course everyone applauded my effort to sputter out a few words in Chinese.  Each of the fathers said something, which I assume was wishing the couple a happy marriage, then the couple served tea to their parents, and the ceremony was over.  Yanyan changed out of her white wedding dress, into a beautiful red dress (red for good luck) and the guest ate their meal while the couple greeted guests at each table.  
Yanyan and her  parents - at airport

Light show on the river

Ryan and Yanyan

Me and Yanyan after the ceremony.

The center of the table was covered with dishes containing food, and the wait staff continued, and continued, and continued, and continued to bring more dishes to the table.  I will guess they served at least twenty different dishes.  All the food is placed on a large “lazy Susan” in the center of the table, and you just take from whatever dishes appeal to you.  Fortunately, Yanyan’s friend, Jessica, was sitting with us.  She spoke excellent English and explained what each dish was. 
After the meal, Josh and I were taken back to the hotel where we were able to rest for a number of hours, before being picked up and taken to another “hotpot restaurant” for dinner.  Chongqing is known for its hot and spicy food and Josh, who loves spicy food, was really enjoying it.  I am not such a big fan of spicy food, and I was trying to be very selective and eat only what I thought would sit well with me. After the meal Josh went with the groom and bridal party to a Karaoke bar, and I returned the hotel to rest.  Josh got home about 11 PM, and about the same time, I started feeling like I was running a fever.  I took some Advil, felt a bit better and went to sleep for the night. 
The next day, I was clearly feverish, but suppressing the fever with Advil, we got on a plane and flew to Beijing.  I knew we were staying in a nice hotel in Beijing, and I thought if we could just get to the hotel and I could rest, I would be okay.  Unfortunately, it all turned far more complicated.
I ran out of Advil, and sent Josh out in search of a pharmacy to find something to suppress a fever.  He came back with a kind of aspirin that you dissolve in water like “alka-seltzer.”  I tried this and it did not help.  I decided I needed to seek medical help.  The hotel said there was an excellent hospital, five minutes away by cab, which had special emergency services for foreigners.  We got in a cab, and were taken to a spot on the street and told to walk down about 100 meters to the entrance.  We found the entrance and went in.  In Chinese hospitals you must pay for everything first.  Josh quickly mastered the system.  You are handed a piece of paper, you take it the cashier, you bring the receipt back and then the medicine is provided, or the test is run.  I had blood drawn, and when the results came back the doctor asked if I had a history of liver disease.  He said my liver counts were abnormal, and my white blood cell count was very low.  He thought I had a viral infection, with perhaps a secondary bacterial infection.  He prescribed three days of an antibiotic, gave me two different kinds of Tylenol, and then sent us back to the hotel.  For some reason they do not allow taxis within 100 meters of the hotel, so we walked to the main street and then tried to hail a cab.  The temperature had dropped, I was cold and feverish, and finally we got a cab and returned to the hotel.  That evening, I took the antibiotic, the Tylenol, and dropped off to sleep for the night.  The next day when I woke up I was dizzy, and had a great deal of trouble seeing clearly and thinking clearly.  I remember thinking “I really am sick.  Good thing I got that antibiotic.”  I slept on and off most of the day.  Later in the day I took the second antibiotic pill, and a short while later – vomited.  We just had room service send food up and in my befuddled state I continued to think if I just rested I would get better.  The third day, my lips started to swell, and I knew something was really wrong, so Josh and I headed back to the hospital.  I met with another doctor, who immediately realized I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic, and wanted me to stay in the hospital for the night.  More blood work was done, and I was hooked up to I.V.’s to treat the allergic reaction.  Once again, I was told my liver was not functioning properly. 
To understand this situation more completely I need to explain a little more about Chinese Hospitals.  Doctors see patients, and prescribe treatments.  The nurses carry out the doctors’ orders, give injection, hook up I.V.’s, draw blood etc.  And the family does EVERYTHING else.  No food or even water is provided in the hospital.  No one helps you with your I.V. etc, when you need to use the bathroom.  No one really even checks on you.  If there is a problem, your family informs the nurse or doctor. 
I knew this was the system, but I thought since this hospital had “services for foreigners” they might be a bit more accommodating.  I was not going ask Josh to sleep on the floor next to my bed in the hospital, and sent him back by himself to stay in the hotel.  Kattie, the tour guide we were supposed to work with in Beijing, came to the hospital with her boyfriend.  They brought apples, and stayed with me for a few hours.  She assured me that the hospital where I was staying, Peking Union Teaching Hospital, was one of the best in China.  She also told me that on the other side of the hospital, not the special entrance for foreigners, there were many, many people sleeping on the floor, waiting to see one the doctors the next day.  It was one of those moments, when my privilege as a foreigner was very evident to me.
Needless to say, I did not sleep very much if at all that night.  The next day, Josh returned at 7:00 AM, they did more blood tests, continued to talk about my liver not functioning and hooked me up to more I.V.’s.  I this point I felt I really needed to sleep and drink lots of fluids as I was feeling dehydrated.  With the doctor’s permission, I returned to hotel to rest for the afternoon, and then returned to hospital for one last I.V. in the evening.  We got back to the hotel quite late that night and drank lots, and lots of water and went to sleep.  The next day I was feeling quite a bit better but my legs were cramping and I felt quite fatigued.   I was feeling so bad that Josh had not gotten to see anything in Beijing besides the hotel and hospital and decided we could at least go see Tiananmen Square, which was only about a ten minute taxi ride from our hotel.  We did that and returned to the hotel, where I just rested, drank lots of water, and knew I had to get back to Zhuhai where I had more support. 
On Friday, we took a taxi to the airport, boarded a plane and headed back to Guangzhou.  Our mantra was “a taxi, a plane, a bus, a taxi.” Getting home would not be easy – but I knew I needed to get where we had more support and where Josh would not have to handle everything by himself.  I was feeling weak, my legs were cramping, and no matter how much I was drinking my mouth was incredibly dry.  The weather was so bad in Guangzhou, the plane could not land, and it flew to the Zhuhai airport.  The Zhuhai airport is actually two hours away from where we live, but I convinced the flight attendant that I was very sick, and we were allowed to get off the plane, instead of sitting on the plane until the weather cleared up and it made the twenty minute flight back to Guangzhou.  I could not get my bag, which had been checked, but I decided to sacrifice the bag and just get home.  I filled out many forms for the bag, we hailed a cab and two long hours later, we were in our apartment. 
My friend, Kris Ho, came over the next morning and brought rehydration salts that you add to water and drink.  She also cooked simple food for me that I could eat.  I rested, and let my friends take care of me for the weekend.  I knew I was no longer feverish, but I was extremely fatigued, and the cramping in my legs was persisting.  I suspected my electrolyte balance was messed up and was concerned my potassium level had dropped too low.
I informed the international education office at UIC what was going on, and made the decision to return to Zhuhai Hospital #5 on Monday morning.  Kris Ho accompanied me to the hospital, where Olivia, a nurse who speaks very good English and helps westerners negotiate the system, met us.  Olivia escorted us to the admitting doctor, who said, I needed to see a psychologist because I just thought I was sick.  Olivia convinced the doctor I needed further treatment, and I was directed to get a chest x-ray.  The admitting doctor looked at the x-ray and concluded I had pneumonia.  He then ordered a CT scan and to have me admitted.  I needed to make a deposit of 2,000 RMB, and then I was taken to a room with three beds, that I would have to myself.  I even had my own bathroom with  “western toilet.” Luxury.
By this time Jessica from the International Education office at UIC, and Yanyan had joined Kris and me at the hospital.  Jessica brought fruit, and Yanyan volunteered to spend the nights with me.  The CT scan showed I did not have pneumonia.  But, as I suspected, my potassium was very, very low and blood tests continued to show my liver was not functioning well.  I spent two days in Zhuhai Hospital #5, having I.V.’s to rehydrate me and restore my potassium levels, and some kind of “anti-virals.” The second day, Jessica, from International Education, returned with Dr. Jane Liu, the UIC health service physician.  Dr. Jane was able to speak to the doctors at the hospital, and was very reassuring that many kinds of viruses could affect my liver, and that my other blood chemistry numbers were better.  After spending two nights in Hospital #5, I was given the choice to stay an additional night or be discharged. I chose to be discharged. 
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, my husband, Bob, has spoken to my brother Mike who travels internationally on a regular basis.  My brother’s company, Accenture, has a contract with an international emergency medical organization – International SOS.  Mike had contacted this organization, and a physician from Hong Kong called me.  Based on our conversation, this physician suggested I see an infectious disease specialist in Hong Kong as soon as I felt well enough to make the trip.  She also suggested that I may have contracted Hepatitis E, a food borne form of Hepatitis for which there is no vaccination, and is prevalent in extremely warm climates.  She said Mainland China did not have the technical sophistication to make a specific diagnosis of this kind, and the specialist in Hong Kong did. 
I decided to spend Thursday resting, and make the trip to Hong Kong on Friday.  Charlie O, a colleague who began at UIC at the same time as I did, heard about my illness and called Wednesday evening.  He offered to escort me to the doctor in Hong Kong.  The trip to Hong Kong went very smoothly, and I felt very good about the doctor, Dr. Lai Jak Yiu, who I saw there.  He spoke excellent English, and was also able to read all the notes from both the hospital in Beijing and Zhuhai.  He was very encouraging and said that I was clearly in recovery from the viral infection that had brought me down almost two weeks earlier.  

He is running a great deal of lab work to pinpoint more precisely what happened. Frighteningly, his first hypothesis is that I contracted Dengue Fever from a mosquito bite.  The other possibility was as the International SOS doctor suggested - Hepatitis E.

What ever it was, I am past the worst of it.  Today, Saturday, I feel about 80% recovered.  I am still weak, but I feel so much better than I have felt since this all began.  I will spend a very quiet weekend at home, and on Monday I will return to Hong Kong to meet with the specialist again, and go over the complete lab results.  
I am still in awe of how Josh took charge and handled the situation in Beijing.  I told him he could write his college entrance essay exam on how at age 14 he saved his mother’s life when she became seriously ill in Beijing, China. 
During the long days in the hospital I needed to keep my mind occupied so I did not dwell on negative outcomes. I was thinking of the six-word memoirs featured in Newsweek magazine. In terms of our holiday trip to Beijing, “Did not turn out as planned,”  was my six-word memoir. 


Monday, April 18, 2011

A Birthday Surprise

Last week I received a birthday greeting e-mail from my friend Sue who lives in New Hampshire.  In it she said, “I hope for you something unexpectedly beautiful and something unexpectedly exciting!”  I don’t think a trip to the Zhuhai Hospital #5 Emergency room was what she had in mind.
Josh had left early Monday morning for a service-learning trip to Shenzhen. Junior high students from his school, together with junior high students from an international school in Shenzhen, spent three days participating in outdoor activities and volunteering at a community care center for migrant children. Shenzhen, often called the Overnight City, has a huge population of factory workers who migrated there from more distant, and often rural, areas.  (There is a documentary film about the effect of all this on families that has received critical acclaim called Last Train Home.) 
On Tuesday I had a perfectly lovely day.  I met with my class from 8 -10 AM, met with my colleague Kris to plan our class for the next day, then spent the afternoon shopping with my friend Yanyan.  I even found a dress to wear to Yanyan’s wedding in two weeks, which was the major goal of our shopping.  Given the fact I am a giant by Mainland China standards this was quite an accomplishment.  That evening, I contentedly read a little farther in Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, and went to sleep for the night, happy for the opportunity uneventfully celebrate my birthday by sleeping in a little later in the morning.
At six am I woke up with serious discomfort in the lower right side of my back that radiated into the right side of my abdomen. I absolutely could not figure out what it was, and no amount of repositioning seemed to make it any better.  I got up, moved around, stretched on floor, and started to get concerned.  Sometimes it seemed a little less severe and I thought I must have some gas trapped in my twisty, turny intestines.  (I happen to know I have very twisty turny intestines since I have had the pleasure of multiple colonoscopies at past points in my life.)
I sent a text message to my colleague Kris, who lives in the same apartment complex, and asked if she would go with me to the small traditional Chinese medicine clinic located in the clubhouse within complex where we live.  She agreed, and met me at my apartment a short time later.  While walking to the clinic the pain subsided a bit, and once again, I thought it was something that would pass and I would make it to school later that day.  Kris explained what was going on to the doctor there, who listened to my pulse and suggested that my circulation was poor.  He recommended acupuncture, and I agreed to try that to see if it would help.
When laying on my stomach the doctor first did some massage work on my back, and the pain diminished.  He then placed the acupuncture needles at strategic places and told me to try to relax.  After awhile he removed the needles and asked me to roll on to my back.  I did this and the pain came back with a vengeance.  He tried a few more things then suggested if the pain continued I should go to the hospital.  Kris walked me back to my apartment and I encouraged her to go teach her class promising I would call if I needed her.
Then I did what any 21st Century person does when grappling with an unknown ailment.  I googled “pain in lower right side of abdomen.” The first thing that came up was “appendicitis.”  There is an added complication to this possibility because in my family the appendix is often “retrocecal” meaning it is located behind the part of the intestine called the “cecum” and no amount of pushing and prodding on your abdomen elicits the response that normally indicates appendicitis.  In other words, even doctors who speak perfect English and practice in the U.S. – often miss this one.   
I decided it was time to go to the hospital, and I called Jessica, the staff member in International Education who is my “go-to” person whenever I don’t know how to handle something. Jessica spoke to her supervisor, who called me back and said a student would come to my apartment and escort me to the hospital.  Then I sent an e-mail to my husband saying I needed to speak to him on Skype and to call me right away.  By this point, my pain was escalating and I knew I really needed to get to the hospital.  Bob called and I spoke to him for a few minutes and explained what was going on, sent off a few e-mails to explain why I could not be in class, cancelled my rehearsal, and called Josh’s principal in case other arrangements needed to be made for Josh when he returned from his trip later that day.  My door buzzer rang, my escorts Veer and Vankcine (two first year students from UIC) had arrived and they helped me down to the waiting car (with a very kind driver) and off we went to the hospital.  
Veer (left), Michele and Vankcine.
I knew exactly where Hospital #5 was, because I had passed it on the bus multiple times.  I knew the Hospital was only 10-15 minutes from the apartment, but at this point, on a scale of 1 – 10, the pain I was feeling was easily a nine.  I was sweating profusely, griping the door handle and praying not only that I would be okay, but that I would not pass out before we got there.  Veer, Vankcine and the driver (who’s name I never got) were my guardian angels for the next five hours. 
Hospital #5 is very large and institutional.  And, we had arrived close to lunchtime.  But Veer and Vankcine got me registered and into see a doctor in just a few minutes.  The doctor thumped the left side of my back (fine) then thumped the right side of my back, which almost sent me through the roof and resulted in me yelping very loudly.  He ordered an ultra sound to be performed, and Veer ran off to find a wheel chair for me, and Vankcine held my hand and kept reassuring me I would be okay.
Off we went, kind driver, Veer, Vankcine, and me the wheelchair, to another floor to find the “ultrasonics unit.”  When we arrived, we could see through the glass doors there was a chain around the handles.  The staff was having lunch.  But my escorts were not to be stopped and they started shouting through the opening between the doors.  Soon a nurse came out, and they took me inside and a few minutes later I was being examined by the ultra sound technician.  I explained the whole business about my appendix not being located in the usual spot and then the technician spoke to the students.  They translated to me, “he said he understands quite a bit of English, but does not speak it well.  It is not your appendix.”  He asked me roll on to my stomach and for some reason the pain escalated again.  After a few minutes the technician cleaned the ultra sound gel off my skin and spoke to my faithful translators.  “He says you are building up fluid around your kidney, because you have a kidney stone blocking.”  Now I had heard that passing a kidney stone could be as painful as childbirth but I never quite believed it.  About four years ago, I had ongoing discomfort in my back and was diagnosed with having small kidney stones, told to drink more water and reassured that I would pass them.  But that experience was nothing like this. 
At this point we returned to the main area of the emergency room, and Veer ran off to get the medications.  The pain was so bad I was completely nauseated.  In Chinese hospitals you need to pay for your medications (and treatments) before they give them to you.  I was given two injections (one for pain, and one for the “kidney stones”) and then hooked up to an I.V., which I assumed was to hydrate me.  After about an hour the hydration was working and I needed to use the bathroom, so Vankcine held my I.V. bag and escorted me to a typical bathroom found in commercial buildings in China.  This bathroom contained what we not so affectionately refer to as “squats.”  (No toilet, just a porcelain toilet bowl submerged in the floor, with a space on each side for your feet.) I managed to use the bathroom, and get back to bed in the E.R, before the nausea took over and I started vomiting.  A short time later, they switched my I.V. to a glucose solution, and I actually started to feel quite a bit better and even dozed off a little. About four in the afternoon, I was released with a bag of medication, sterile needles, I.V solutions, and instructions to drink more water, keep exercising (to help the kidney stone move along) and return, to either this hospital or the one closer to UIC , the next two days for injections and I.V.’s.  At this point I was so relieved to be out of the pain I was almost giddy.
My two trusty translators and the kind driver (who had checked on us all afternoon), took me back to my apartment, where I called Josh’s principal (told him I was back home and instructed Josh to take an taxi back to the apartment when he arrived at the Port), sent an e-mail to Bob (“I’m okay  - it was a kidney stone”), drank lots of water, and answered the phone a lot in between multiple trips to the bathroom. 
I tried to take if fairly easy the next few days.  Sandra, the administrative assistant in the General Education office, escorted me to the hospital for my follow up I.V’s, on Thursday, and Genie the T.A. in the General Education office, relieved Sandra of her escort duty and sat with me the remaining time on Thursday, and all of Friday.  Each time the two I.V.’s took about four hours to administer.  Needless to say I learned a lot more about Genie’s life, and she learned a lot more about mine.
So yes, I did have some unexpected excitement on my birthday.  I am not someone who believes bad things happen for a reason.  Sometimes bad things just happen. 

Acknowledging that, I will also say there was a lot of unexpected beauty in this experience.  I mentioned in an earlier post the famous quote from A Streetcar Named Desire about being dependent on the kindness of strangers.  I cannot say enough about how kind and supportive Veer and Vankcine were throughout this experience.  I got together with them on Friday to settle our finances.  (Which by the way, came to a total of 787 RMB or $120.)  I told them it was a really scary experience to be in so much pain, but they had helped to make the whole thing less frightening.  Then they mentioned, for the first time, that they had been scared too.  We agreed to meet for tea or a meal later in the semester. 
While I felt very alone in the early morning hours on Wednesday, once I made one phone call, an entire support structure fell into place and I experienced heartwarming care and concern from students, staff, colleagues and administrators.  I would classify that as both unexpected and beautiful. 

Josh posted a note on my facebook wall that basically said it all.  "Hi Mom happy birthday! I know it may not be the best birthday you've had but you will remember this one.  Love Josh."

Indeed I will. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hong Kong Milk Tea

This is the first time in many years I have had to contend with loneliness.  In my day-to-day life at home there is not enough “me” to go around and I relish the rare opportunities to be alone.  While I am happy that Josh has found a community of friends at his school, in means that most weekends and holidays he is on the other side of the city with them, and I am on my own.
Except for the very wealthy, Chinese people do not generally entertain in their homes.  May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai in their book, China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture, write, “Generally, Chinese do not casually invite people over to their homes the same way that Americans do.  While it is common in the United States for colleagues to visit each other’s homes for dinner, backyard barbecues, and the like, it is not uncommon for Chinese never to visit their colleagues’ homes at all.  There are many cultural and material reasons for this, including the stricter sense of hierarchy in workplace environments; a feeling of shame or loss of face if one’s apartment is not as nice as that of one’s coworkers; the fact that unless someone is very rich, their apartment might be quite cramped and they may even have extended family members living with them. 
So it was solitude overload, which lead me to take an early shuttle to campus on Wednesday even though I did not teach until 2:00 PM.  At about 9:30 AM, I realized I had left the stack of (still needing to be graded) papers in my apartment.  I started to walk to the bus stop to go back to the apartment and get the papers, when I realized I did not have the key for my evening rehearsal and made a sharp turn and instead walked to the Student Hostel Village office where the key holder resides.  After being told I could not get the key before 5:00 PM, I decided to throw in the towel, get a cup of Hong Kong milk tea, and attempt to adjust my quickly tanking attitude.
Over the past weekend I had spent a great deal of time reading student papers.  One included a reference to the Chris Gardner story portrayed by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.  Contrary to the intentional misspelling in the title, the language in the film that my student found inspirational, was, “It’s an “I” in happiness, there is no “y”, it’s an “I”.  And sitting in the Student village, sipping my Hong Kong milk tea, I reminded myself that I was the one ultimately responsible for determining if my experience in China is positive or negative.  I was able to convince myself I did not really need to trek back to the apartment to get those papers, and instead enjoyed a little café time. 
Which brings me back to the topic of Hong Kong milk tea.  Ever since I was in Ireland in 1997, I have liked my hot tea “white” or with a shot of milk in it.  Hong Kong milk tea has more than a shot of milk, and is usually served with a few packets of sugar so you can sweeten it to your individual taste.  I cannot say why it appeals to me so much at this time, just as I can’t explain why Jell-O suddenly appealed to me in my ninth month of pregnancy.  All I know is right now it is my cup of comfort.
Milk tea is undoubtedly a remnant of the British colonization of Hong Kong.  Other than sleeping in HK one night before taking the ferry to Zhuhai I have only spent one day there.  Two weeks ago, Josh, his friend Anthony and I did a thorough investigation of the skateboard shops in Hong Kong.  I can report that there are a least five shops all located within a few block radius of a chi-chi area called Causeway Bay.  Down small alleys, and up back staircases behind stores with designer names, you find the board shops.  After our thorough exploration and price comparisons, we camped out briefly at Starbucks to make decisions prior to returning for purchases.  Josh got his much desired long board at a shop called X-Games, and Anthony got a signature 8 Five 2 board at the 8 Five 2 shop. 
We had two good meals, appreciated the efficiency of the HK subway system, stocked up on a few groceries impossible to find on the mainland (tortillas, raspberry jam, canned tomatoes and kalamata olives) and returned via ferry to Zhuhai, thoroughly exhausted. 
I would like to go back to Hong Kong and explore its realms beyond the skateboard shops.  I also want to see other cities and historical sites.  But it is clear that the only way that is going to happen is if I take the initiative, make the arrangements, and most likely venture to those locations on my own.  So that is the tough part, trying to get comfortable with the fact that just like in the word “happiness”, there is only the letter “I” smack dab in the middle China.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Why I Travel

This morning, I was reading the global edition of the New York Times on-line, and came across a request for stories or essays that answered the question,  “Have you been particularly enlightened, surprised to changed by a travel experience?  Why do you travel?”  I give my students specific assignments all the time, so I decided to give myself this assignment, and challenged myself to even submit it.  The prize is an autographed copy of Paul Theroux’s new book The Tao of Travel. 
I don’t really expect to get the autographed book, but I did submit my essay.  So here it is. 
I travel, and do so with my fourteen-year-old son, because I want him to appreciate the fragility of life, and I do not want him to be afraid of the world.  These two goals may seem contradictory, but really they are not.  At this moment in history, the world seems to be experiencing more than its fair share of cataclysmic disasters and political upheavals, but natural disasters are always a possibility, and violence and unrest are ever present at some spot on the globe.
We are bombarded with violent images from all over the world.  Watching from the comfort of our homes, this coverage not only fuels the fear of “others,” it has the potential to distance us – giving the illusion that these horrific things could happen only to “them.”  
In mid December my son and I were in Rome, Italy when Berlusconi narrowly survived a recount vote and the streets erupted into window smashing, car burning protests.  Reading about the recent bomb explosion outside of the Jerusalem bus station took on a new sense of relevance given that we had been in and out of that precise bus station numerous times this past January.  And, watching the tragedy of the events unfold in Japan, resonated on a different level since we had recently spent an unintended 24 hours in Tokyo having missed our connection in route to China.
Which brings us to our time in the People’s Republic of China, where we find ourselves in the situation of being the “others.”  We are here for five and half month while I am teaching at a school in Guangdong Province.  Each weekday my son takes a public bus, a fifty-minute ride, to the opposite side of the city to attend a small international school.  With rare exception, he is the only Gwei Lo (Cantonese for “ghost person”) on the bus.  Having grown up as a fair-haired boy in a small town in Minnesota, his life experience has always been that of being in the majority.  Teaching at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, I regularly look out at a sea of Caucasian students often having only one African, Asian, or Latino student in the entire class. Being in the position of being the “other” shakes up your perspective.
I am often reminded of that famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire when Blanche DuBois says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  While traveling together, rarely a day goes by when we have not been dependent on the “kindness of strangers,” and I sincerely hope we will both have the courage, sensitivity and empathy, to step into the role of kind stranger once back on familiar shores.
What is learned through traveling is often learned in hindsight, and we are still very much in the thick of the experience.  But I have to believe that travel makes the demarcation between “us” and “them” less rigid. Which brings me back to the fragility of life, or more precisely, the fragility and value of every life.  The tsunami that swept over Japan did not distinguish between rich or poor, young or old, Asian or American.  Similarly, planes that crash, bombs that go off and cancer that strikes, – all do so with some degree of indiscrimination.  I travel, and take my teenage son with me, because it affirms for me that there are good and kind people all over this planet, and not one us holds a guarantee to a long life.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Words That Inspire

A few weeks ago I gave my students a writing assignment out of Christina Baldwin’s book, StoryCatcher.  One of the options in this particular assignment was to “describe a time when language inspired you.”  Students could draw from a speech, a letter, a book or a conversation, and then talk about why they found these words inspirational.

On Wednesday, I spoke at a lunchtime faculty sharing session about my interest in the role of story and storytelling, my classes here and my writing.  Following my presentation, one of my colleagues asked what I thought I would take away from my experience here in China.  I knew the answer immediately.  The stories my students have shared with me. 

The next morning, the assignment to my students about the inspiration found in language, and the question from my colleague, found their connection like two powerful magnets. Right now the language that inspires me is found in the stories shared by my students.  

Some of their stories are light-hearted and humorous and others are profoundly moving.  The very first writing assignment included the option of describing a relationship with a grandparent or elder. Most of these students either have or have had very close relationships with their grandparents, many of them having lived with their grandparents while their parents were getting started in their careers.  A later assignment encouraged them to record a story that had been handed down within their family and with this topic I seemed to have hit the mother lode. Their grandparents’ generation witnessed more changes in China than any other time in this ancient country’s history.  I have heard terrifying stories about the Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine that took the lives of an estimated 30,000 people, and the cruelties and horror that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  Embedded in these stories of brutality, are the stories of backbreaking work, bravery, pride, survival and hope.  What this generation survived and accomplished, so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives, is nothing short of miraculous. 

For many of my students, the so-called “little emperors” of the one-child policy, the process of recording and sharing these stories is very transformative.  They realize their privileged positions in these legacies, and take very seriously the responsibility of being the only link in this generational bridge to the future.

David Isay, a documentary radio producer and founder of StoryCorps, identified the following premises when launching his wildly successful oral history project in 2003.

That our stories – the stories of everyday people – are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with by the media every minute of the day.

That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us.

That we all want to know our lives mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.

That listening is an act of love.

Those four points are reaffirmed for me time and time again, as 47 students and I share in what novelist Ron Carlson described as the “radically fundamental” act of sitting together and listening to stories.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


There are some lessons I need to learn over, and over, and over again – and still they don’t stick.  Yesterday was one of those days where even the simplest task seemed to take on new layers of complications.  If asked, I would probably have answered, I was having a bad day.
Close to an hour after Josh left for school I got a call from him.  “Mom, the shuttle took off almost 20 minutes late and it went to Jiuzhou Port before Gongbei, so I am going to be a least a half hour late to school.  Can you e-mail Mr. Farwell (the principal) and tell him I will be late?”  I e-mailed the principal, informing him of the situation and also requesting that he let me know that Josh did, in fact, eventually get to school.  While waiting to hear back from him, I spent some time catching up on the Caring Bridge journal from a friend battling leukemia.  Her most recent entry talked about the very real possibility she will need to have a stem cell transplant.  She was waiting on the results of a blood test and if she is positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3, she could continue with chemo and not need to have a stem cell transplant at this time.  
After hearing that Josh did indeed arrive at his school, and repeating –NPM1, +FLT3 in a combination prayer and mantra, I set off to catch my own shuttle to go to Jusco, a department store in a downtown area of Zhuhai.  When I arrived at the location where the shuttle buses usually wait, there were no buses, and instead I found a pink sign announcing a change in the schedule and the routes. 
There used to be two shuttles  - one that ran on the hour and went to Ziuzhou Port – with a stop right near Jusco, and another that ran basically on the half hour and went to Gongbei.  Now there was only one route, it would travel first to the port then to Gongbei and it ran less frequently.  This explained why Josh’s trip to school that morning did not go as smoothly as in the past and threw a kink into my plan.  There was no 11 o’clock shuttle, and I didn’t feel like waiting until noon for the next one. Having taken the city bus (either #3 or #69) home from Jusco in the past, I figured it would be just as simple to take the city bus there and marched over to the bus stop and hopped on #3 heading south.  I watched the familiar landmarks go by, then started to watch carefully for the stop right in front of Jusco.  I never saw it.  Next thing I knew we were heading into the tunnel on our way to the extreme southwest side of the city – Gongbei.  At this point I felt myself growing furious and frustrated.
As the bus twisted and turned along its way, I went back to focusing on “positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3” and telling myself I really did not need to be anywhere today, and I would find my way back.  Arriving in Gongbei I decided to wander through the massive underground shopping area before catching a bus to travel back to the extreme NE part of Zhuhai where I live.  With the right attitude a trip through the underground can be quite entertaining.  Ninety percent of the merchandise is jiade (fake).  I checked out the knock-off Kipling bags and found a few with labels that said Kiplig.  But really, I did not have the right attitude that particular day, and decided to just find my way above ground and catch a bus back to more familiar territory.  Not surprisingly, finding my way out to the main street where I entered turned out to be a more formidable task than I counted on, and by this time I was getting really hungry, and as my dear friend Sue W. would say, “peckish.”  Eventually I did find my way back, boarded a #69 bus, and convinced myself that this one had to stop right by Jusco, because I had taken it home from Jusco many times.  Again, familiar scenery, landmark after landmark, and then I saw the Dragon Union Station!  And I knew we were back near Tangjia and somehow I missed the Jusco stopped yet again.  I got off at Hai Yi Wan Pan, walked into Park and Shop, bought two pieces of Pesto pizza, sat down on the bench outside, ate my pizza and stewed.  I had now spent almost the whole day riding buses and still had not gotten where I was going.  I had also dripped oil from the pizza down the front of my shirt, so I returned to my apartment, changed my shirt, returned to the shuttle stop and caught the 2:30 shuttle that, in the end, took me to Jusco.  My main task was to pick up a fitted sheet for Josh’s bed.  With the humidity here, and no dryers, you cannot count on anything line-drying in a timely fashion.  While none of the sales people speak English, the woman working in bedding found a piece of paper that identified items in both Chinese and English, and once we established that it was a “fitted sheet” I was looking for, I began using a combinations of mime and picture drawing to communicate I was looking for fitted sheet for a boy (initially she was handing me pink floral patterns) then clarifying it was a “big boy” after she started handing me blue sheets with various cartoon figures.  Finally we settled on a “manly” blue stripe, I returned to the bus stop and caught the #69 bus back to Hai Yi Wan Pan, and felt satisfied I had accomplished what I set out to do.  Back at the apartment, I took the sheet out of the package and discovered it was a “flat sheet.” 
At this point, I gave myself a short lecture on perspective, repeated my “positive for NPM-1, and negative for FLT-3” mantra and sat down to read the New York Times Global edition on-line.  The first thing I saw was “Earthquake and Tsunami hits Japan.”  The article had been posted 15 minutes before I turned on my computer.  It had all happened in the last hour.  Then I turned the television on and watched CCTV – the English language station.  Over the course of the evening I watched the images become more and more devastating.  I called Josh and asked him to be home before 8:30PM, because the road to our part of Zhuhai travels right along the seashore, and initially our province (Guangdong) was included in the Tsunami warning.  The warning was lifted, but I was still relieved when Josh arrived back at the apartment.
I don’t know why it is so hard to keep the big picture in view.  March 11th truly was a horrible day for millions of people in this world.  Tragedies continue to mount through out Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and so many other battle weary nations. Journalists and dissidents are still being detained here in China.  It will be days before we know the extent of the devastation in Japan.  In retrospect, I didn’t have a bad day at all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This past Friday evening I was invited to a potluck dinner at the new apartment of one of my colleagues in the General Education Division.  “Potluck” also seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the faculty of the General Education division that were in attendance:  Nazul, our host, is a sociologist from Bangladesh; Victor, my upstairs neighbor, is a historian from Panama, Mat is a philosopher from the U.S., , Milen is a sociologist from Bulgaria, Ivette is a Buddist scholar, from New York City but returning to a job in Texas at the end of this term, a friendly woman whose name I don’t recall, is a Chinese language scholar, from China, but recently returning from 15 years in Australia and a few others who’s names and disciplines I don’t recall.  My favorite moment was just before we were about to eat and Nazul was explaining what was in the Indian rice and chicken curry he had prepared, and a few latecomers arrived.  Nazul said, “I was just introducing the food.”  After the food had been properly introduced, wine and orange juice was poured, toasts were made and we dug in.  Ivette had celebrated a birthday the week before and brought a lovely strawberry cheesecake so that the celebration could continue. 
Unfortunately, right about that time my cell phone rang, and when I answered it, Josh said, “Mom, I don’t feel good.”  Fortunately, the party was just two building away, and I was able to scoot home quickly.  I am not sure if it was a type of stomach flu, or some kind of food poisoning, but suffice it to say, he had a very rough evening.  By about midnight the worst of it seemed to have past and he slept quite soundly until Saturday morning.  It was a weekend of Sprite and Saltines for Josh, and catching up on grading for me. 
Both Saturday and Sunday, I did walk to Tangjia to pick up a few groceries and just get some fresh air.  I had not been in Tangjia on the weekend, and did not realize the extent of the huge market that spills over into the commercial area.  Both times I brought my camera, but only managed to take a few photos.  Walking back I thought more about my reluctance to take photos.  Here in Zhuhai, the college and university faculty are considered among the financial elite. While our apartments are modest by U.S. standards, we do live in a “gated community.” But just beyond that fence are parts of Tangjia that, to most American eyes, look like a slum.  It is not all that way, but there is significant poverty pressed right up to modest, yet working class, establishments.  
I want to take photographs because I want to remember this experience and I want to share it with others.  I want to photograph the woman on the bicycle selling chickens out of the cage on the back of her bike, and the fish venders, with plastic bins and children’s swimming pools filled with fresh fish. Or the multitude of individuals selling produce along the sidewalks in the main commercial area.  But I don’t.  I try my best to always ask permission before I include a person in a photo, and as of yet I don’t know how to ask that in Cantonese.
There are so many fruits and vegetables there that I don’t even recognize.  Today I bought strawberries, kiwi and oranges.  I need to get one of my students to go to the markets with me and tell me the names of some of the produce.  Once I know the name of something I can always “google it” and figure out what to do with it.
I often write down bits and pieces of language that inspire me.  In a collection of the best of women’s travel writing Andrea Oseas wrote, “Bring an open mind, comfort with ambiguity, and a measure of recklessness, the siren breathes in your ear, and each day will be exhilarating.”  Fortunately for me, I do not have to be too reckless to find a market full of fresh produce  - exhilarating.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Way it Is.

As you can well imagine, living in Mainland China while antigovernment demonstrations surge across the Middle East presents some new layers of complications.  Censors have intensified the filters on Internet access that were already considered “the tightest in the world.” As most people who have lived in this area can tell you there are “special tools” to get around some of those barriers.  However, I have come to suspect that using those “special tools” to circumvent the system, together with this increased level of scrutiny that might have been responsible for my Internet repeatedly being shut down.  My top priority is to have regular access to e-mail and Skype, so I have decided to play within the rules.  Given the fact that the Internet company has my passport number on file, this seems like a prudent choice. 

I will continue to post to my blog via my good friend, Kris, who originally helped me to set up my blog and designed the fabulous logo for MAD & TAJ.  I will not be able to read the comments posted there on any regular basis.  I will have very limited access to facebook.  Hong Kong and Macao do not have the same level of restrictions and are relatively close by.  When I am in either of those locations I will find an Internet café and check in on facebook.  In the meantime, if you want to communicate with me, good old e-mail is best. (

This past week I was reading an article on-line about problems with soldiers being too connected (constant text messaging and Skyping) with family at home.  The battalion chaplain described the young soldiers as “the microwave generation,” implying that there is an expectation that needs, be it hunger or communication, will be met quickly. (New York Times, July 25)

While I am old enough to be most of those soldiers’ mother, I find myself equally guilty of microwave mentality.  Circumstances require that I dial it back for the next few months.  Not a bad practice under any circumstances.

 After work today I walked to Tangjia (the commercial area closest to where I live) to pick up a few items at the grocery store, and bring home dumplings for dinner.  After five pm much of the area turns into a huge farmers’ market.  The produce is quite amazing.  Very few adults in the area speak any English, but obviously the children are studying English in school because they all like to say “hello” to me.  As I become more comfortable in the area I will take more photos. 

The weather in the area is currently quite beautiful.  It is in the low to mid 60’s in the morning, and goes up to low to mid 70’s during the day.  I continue to enjoy observing day-to-day life within the apartment complex.  The buildings surround two long artificial lakes with walkways on either side, and bridges placed at strategic points.  In the morning, I see retired folks exercising at the stations that are placed next to every bridge.  This morning I saw an older woman (I am guessing in her 70’s) stretching with her leg placed as high as her shoulder on a ladder-like set of bars. One evening I saw an older gentleman practicing Tai Chi as the sun was setting. 
The apartments around the lakes.

In the early evening I hear individuals, school children I assume, practicing piano, flute and trumpet.   There are numerous dogs, of all sizes and shapes, residing in the complex.  Mornings and evenings, dogs and their owners are out getting their exercise.  There is one woman who sings while she walks her dog. 

And there are much-adored babies.  The one child policy has resulted in many caregivers for every child.  It is sometimes referred to as “4-2-1.” Which stands for four grandparents, two parents and one child.  At UIC we were warned that this configuration leads to certain “little emperor issues” with some students but I have yet to experience this.  I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know my students.  I am once again teaching a class on the role and practice of “Story and Storytelling.”  The first day that the students shared their stories, I realized that no matter how many books I read, or where I travel in the next few months, I will learn more about China from their stories than from any other source.  (And I will do my best to keep you posted.)