Sunday, September 28, 2014

China: Virgin Only Territory?

Sex. Perhaps a topic on which I should tread lightly—not only because it's taboo, but also because I am no expert. I wrote about it once before and it's been weighing on my mind again lately thanks to some interesting blog posts I've read (a recent one on Speaking of China and an oldie but goody on a great China blog I discovered: Laowhynot) as well as due to a rather disturbing discussion I had with a student last weekend—more on that later.

There are lots of different stereotypes about foreigners in China, notably that we are sex hounds with insatiable sex drives. Since I'm married, I rarely have to deal with the problems that come with being perceived as such. Ming has shared some of the locker room talk he has with his male co-workers and (although I'm sure he somewhat sensors it), it sounds fairly innocuous. He faces a few rather benign questions about his sex life with a foreigner. Mostly, he just tells people it's none of their business. I guess it's not, though I understand why people are curious. Though people everywhere are generally the same: they have family, they eat, they have friends, they work, they have sex. It's the attitudes towards these things which sometimes vary greatly.

photo by popawilli via Photobucket

Even in modern China, I feel like attitudes toward sex and dating are a bit backwards. While the situation is certainly changing, double standards abound. Most notably, young women are often expected to save themselves for the man they intend to marry. One of my close Chinese friends exemplifies the situation perfectly.

Firstly, she feels I am one of the only people she can openly talk to about sex. She admitted that even in conversations with her closest Chinese friends, the topic is skirted around. As a 20-something woman, she afraid to even admit she's had sex. She was most afraid to admit this to her mother, but after having dating the same man for five years, the truth finally came to light. The true injustice of things surfaced once her and her boyfriend broke up. Her mother marked her as damaged good's, proclaiming that if she wanted to get married she'd “have to settle for a divorced man.” Evidently, only virgin females get to marry single Chinese males.

Of course, a lot of Chinese people see the unfairness. My oldest student, a 17-year-old high school girl, actually brought the topic up. She is frustrated by the double standard and told me that lately it's been fervently debated online. Many people support women's sexual freedom, while others make wild claims that it is a woman's duty to remain a virgin for her intended husband. Why? According to my student, some netizens are arguing that when a woman sleeps with a man, part of his DNA is left behind. When the woman later become pregnant, the DNA of all her past lovers is passed on to the fetus. Whaaaaaaat? And the rationalization for wanting a virgin wife continues on. . . 

What are attitudes like in your country? Do you think there is a double standard when it comes to sex and gender?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Turning into my parents

Back when she was still a little girl.
First day of 1st Grade, Sept 2010.

It inevitably happens to most of us at one point or another. . . we turn into our parents. We start doing things that we swore we would never, ever do. I don't consider myself much of a nag and I have aspired never to become one, yet I feel myself slowly descending into a hectoring mother who is constantly complaining and never satisfied. The kind of mother that, as a child, you don't look forward to coming home to. I'm still trying to figure out what kind of mom I want to be, but I do know that I don't want to be that mother. But now the Ping has become a tween, I'm having difficulty getting my bearings on who I am as a parent. She is no longer a cute, adoring child, but is morphing into a grown person with her own ideas about the world and her need to establish independence.

This age is confusing for all of us. Somehow stuck between being a kid and a grown-up, it is difficult to find a balance between teaching her how to become more of an adult yet accepting that she is still, in a lot of ways, just a kid. My difficulty is compounded by the fact that we speak two different languages. I can't always express myself properly so instead of explaining why something must be done, I have become of a broken record of simple commands, “Stop,” “No!” and “Don't do that.”

Another issue I keep running up upon is that, even after nearly a decade here, I still don't always understand how things are done in China. Yesterday Ping came home from school, informing her grandma that she needed 340 rmb (about US$60) for school books, to be paid in cash the next day. When Ming's mom relayed the information to me, I didn't think to question it—though the amount did seem a bit high. Chinese students constantly come home shaking down their parents for money to buy stuff their teacher demands. In the US, we would be given a notice and breakdown of anything we need to purchase for school with ample time to scrape the money together.

I like the US way; it eliminates some of the guess work. In China, I'm still a rookie at trying to figure out where half my money is going. You could go so far as to call me naïve. Ming knows better than I. When it comes to Ping or anyone else, he gets a rundown on what money would be used for, being sure that each RMB is accounted for. I assumed, perhaps foolishly, that Ping wouldn't ask for more than what was needed. It turns out that some of the money was going towards (optional) magazine subscriptions the children can purchase. A purchase, Ping knows (I thought she knew?), she must discuss with us before making.

Another issue we are dealing with is safety. Back in the US, parents worry about things like “stranger danger,” keeping our kids safe from pedophiles and predators. In China, we do need to protect our kids from strangers, yes. Children get kidnapped from time to time. But just like in the US, I think incidents of random adults stealing or hurting kids are somewhat rare. A more immediate danger is what kids are putting into their bodies when their parents aren't looking. I'm not talking about sneaking chocolate chip cookies or potato chips, (which I did every chance I could get when I was little), but buying food from unscrupulous vendors outside the school gates. Near Ping's school there are dozens of vendors and small shops catering to kids. They sell cheap snacks, often deep fried, and of rather dubious quality. The odds that many of them are using spoiled or expired food are high. Despite Ming's warnings, Ping can seem to help herself from purchasing these dirty delicacies. The results are often a very upset stomach.

What to do? I'm trying to figure it out. I'm also making a conscious effort to be a better, more understanding mother. What about you, do you find that you are in some ways starting to act like your own parents? Does it bother you?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Taste of Chengde

Chengde's Little Potala Palace

I had the chance to visit a friend of mine in Beijing recently. While I was there we chatted with a few locals, mostly taxi drivers—they are among the best people to practice speaking Chinese with—who were interested in why us foreigners were in China. I have my standard answer, that my husband is Chinese and from nearby Chengde.

inside the Summer Mountain Resort

Over 300 years ago, the Kangxi Emperor chose Chengde as his place for summer residence. Thanks to Chengde's cool summer temperatures (well, at least compared to Beijing) and beautiful scenery, it seemed like a good pick. Construction of The Summer Mountain Resort, which is 2.2 square miles (that's 5.6 square km for my metric friends), took about 90 years. It is filled with palaces, gardens, pagodas and lots of other good stuff. Locals, especially the elderly, congregate there every morning. In the summer, especially on the weekends, it is packed full of tourists, many of them from Beijing.
Chengde's Little Potala Palace
Upon hearing Chengde, they all inevitably exclaim, “The Summer Mountain Resort!” (避暑山庄bìshǔ shānzhuāng in Mandarin, literally meaning “avoiding the summer heat mountain villa” in English). Many Chinese people and probably just about every Beijinger know Chengde thanks to its biggest tourist attraction. The Summer Mountain Resort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Chengde's Eight Outer Temples. I must admit, I feel a tiny burst of pride that I get to live in a place that holds an important place in Chinese history.

downtown Chengde
The Summer Mountain Resort is nice, no doubt, although I don't think its 120 rmb (US $20) entrance fee is justified, especially since Beijing's similarly splendid Summer Palace only costs a fraction of that. Luckily, I can get an annual local pass for unlimited visits for the bargain price of 50 RMB. What I really like about Chengde is the surrounding temples, particularly the mini Potala Palace (also known as Putuo Zongcheng Temple in English and 普陀宗乘之庙pǔtuó zōngchéng zhī miào in Mandarin). It is modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet and is one of the largest temples in China. If temples are your thing, this one is definitely worth visiting.

But the biggest benefit of living in Chengde is the small city atmosphere. I do love Beijing, but living there was often hard. As with any big city, life moves faster. People aren't always as personable. Commuting can be torturous. Pollution often paints blue skies gray. Life in Chengde is simpler and people are usually kind. Some people may find it boring here—there's no Starbucks, few bars, and hardly any other foreigners—but I've come to enjoy living in a small Chinese city surrounded by mostly Chinese things.
Chengde backstreet 

When people back home ask what it's like living here, it's hard to explain. In some ways, life isn't so different as life back home, but I guess the differences are in all the little details. The temples dotting the mountains, the fortune tellers that hang out on the sidewalks, the middle-aged ladies dancing outside in the evening, and the peddlers who come around every morning screaming their wares and services. Pictures can only begin to capture a place, but I thought I'd post some photos of Chengde for those interested in what this small Chinese city is like. Enjoy! 

the city square and mosque

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Teacher's Day

Luna playing the guzheng

Yesterday was Teacher's Day. I don't know whether or not it is an official international holiday, but it joins the list of widely celebrated holidays in China that seem to go unrecognized in the US (others include Women's Day and Children's Day). I remember my first Teacher's Day well, as it is often hard to forget painfully embarrassing experiences. At the time, I was working as a high school English teacher here in Chengde. The day before the holiday, my boss approached me in the teacher's office, right as I was getting ready to leave work. She wanted me to prepare a performance for the next day's teachers' assembly. “What kind of performance?” I asked. “Oh, anything will do—you can sing or dance or play an instrument,” she replied casually. My heart jumped up into my throat. As anyone who knows me can attest, I can't sing or dance or play anything. I'm more of the artsy fartsy variety.

Looking back, I should have protested. I should have refused. I should have made up any excuse to get out of such an impossible situation. But I was a naïve. I was a good sport. And I ended up looking like a complete idiot attempting to sing the ever-so-popular song (which I'm sure no one outside of Asia has ever heard of), Michael Learns to Rock's “Take me to Your Heart.” I did it accapella and I forgot the words about 15 seconds into my performance and ran off stage. Happy Teacher's Day to me.

me with Luna's family, on stage

Fast forwarding nine years later, yesterday was marked by another performance, luckily not by me. This Teacher's Day I had the honor of watching one of my students perform. I've been tutoring Luna since she was a little girl, nearing six-years-old. Although she is now not quite 12, she has grown into a pre-teenage girl that nearly resembles a woman. She is taller than me, for sure. But her dedication and maturity rivals that of many grown-ups. In just two years, she seems to have mastered the guzheng (a traditional Chinese instrument similar to a zither). I was stunned that she got to headline her own concert, but the opportunity was well deserved. Luna played beautifully.

Luna with her 6th grade classmates
Sometimes I feel a bit shy to admit that after all these years in China, I still work as a teacher. It seems to be a job that most foreigners grow out of after a year or two. Somehow you haven't really “made it” in China if you don't move on to other things. But yesterday helped me remember why I'm glad to still be a teacher. It's amazing to see the kids I tutor transform, not just in their ability to speak English, but also to see them mature and develop their personality and abilities. I also feel respected and appreciated by many of my students and their parents. Yesterday Luna's mom and dad expressed very heartfelt gratitude toward me. I like to think I played a small part in advancing Luna's education and I hope she remembers me fondly when she's grown up. I know I had a lot of great teachers growing up and I feel very fortunate for that. To all the teacher's out there, Happy (Be-lated) Teacher's Day!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Mid-Autumn Festival 2014

a variety of moon cakes I purchased at 7/11

Another year in China, another Mid-Autumn Festival. For those who live(d) in China, perhaps it needs no introduction, which is good because I actually know relatively little about this holiday. It usually falls in September and it reminds me a bit of Thanksgiving in the US as it revolves almost entirely around eating food with your family. But while Thanksgiving is marked by pumpkin pie, no Mid-Autumn Festival is complete without moon cakes. 

moon cake set
(photo by emmachen via Photobucket)

Chinese people exchange these tiny little cakes, often in beautifully packaged sets, as shown above. They can also be bought individually at any supermarket or cake shop. Every place seems to market and sell their own unique cakes. The first photo shows a variety of moon cakes I picked up at a 7/11 in Beijing. These cakes break from tradition a bit. The animal-shaped ones, which I got for Ping, are particularly special as they are to be eaten cold and are filled with fun flavors like blueberry and kiwi. Traditional moon cakes are round, the outside made of a golden crust and the inside filled with a paste such as red bean or lotus. The majority of moon cakes I've tried have been sweet, though sometimes the inside contains an egg. Initially, I wasn't particularly impressed by moon cakes, but they have grown on me. I like the five nut flavor, which I was told by one of my students is viewed as old-fashioned and only something old people like; I guess I'm not very hip with my moon cake preferences.

one of Uncle Zhang's sons with William
Unfortunately, Ming had to work today. I did get to celebrate the holiday, however, with my mother-in-law's boyfriend, Uncle Zhang, and his family. We had lunch together at Uncle Zhang's house, where my mother-in-law also lives. The food was pretty simple, but included a variety of home cooked dishes (made by Uncle Zhang and my m-i-l) and included foods such as sausage, quail eggs, stir fried green beans with pork, stir fried mushrooms and bok choy, and cold cucumber with tofu. The adults drank either baijiu or beer. The kids had kumquat (somewhat similar to orange) juice. We all took turns toasting each other as Chinese people do when they enjoy a large meal. At the end of the meal, those who weren't yet stuffed, filled themselves up with rice. I still find this practice strange as I can never find room for rice unless it is eaten with the dishes of food! 

Ping and Uncle Zhang's grandkids being silly

Honestly, Chinese holidays are sometimes hard for me. Though it has gotten easier over time, I struggle with understanding the traditions and in the past I didn't much enjoy the food. It can also stir up feelings of homesickness and make me long for American holidays. I will miss Thanksgiving in the US this year, but I am trying to make the most of the festivities in China. Before long, we will be leaving and will be missing things like moon cakes and baijiu toasts.

What about you? Have you experienced cultural holidays different from your own? What did you like or dislike about them?

some of the dishes we ate

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Make your own cheese

Home made cheese in salad
 I hail from Wisconsin, known in the US as “America's Dairyland.” We are famous for our spotted cows and all the milk, cheese, and butter they produce. Living in China, I find myself missing one food more than anything else—CHEESE! There are so many different varieties and I love them all. Unfortunately, decent cheese is both rare and expensive in Chengde, which made me get inventive. Why not try and make my own? It turns out it's actually easy to make a basic cheese. The following recipe will allow you to make your own, which resembles an India paneer or perhaps, if you are good at using your imagination, a Greek feta. It's probably best used to top a salad or pasta. If you are need of cheese and have a little time on your hands, give it a try!

1 liter/quart of whole milk (not skim)
60 mL (¼ c) vinegar
salt and pepper

  1. Over medium heat, heat milk in a pot until it's about to boil. Turn off heat.
  2. Pour vinegar into milk and stir. Milk will separate into curds (solid) and whey (liquid).
  3. Pour entire contents of pot through a clean dish towel or cheese cloth. Fasten cloth shut and hang it for 30 minutes, allowing whey to drip out.
  4. Take down cloth and open up to remove curds. Put curds in a pan and then place another pan on top of the cheese. Place a heavy object on top of the second pan. Let sit for 30 minutes. Pressure will remove extra liquid and give you a solid piece of cheese.
  5. Remove cheese and cut into cubes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if desired.
  6. Store in fridge for up to four days.
Curds after hanging for 30 minutes.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Apartment Mishaps

I've lived in my fair share of apartments since moving to China back in 2005. And each apartment, perhaps with the exception of the one we live in now, came with a share of headaches. My first apartment was mine, rent free, thanks to my job teaching at the local high school. The windows were ancient, allowing wind and cold air to whip through during the frigid winter. The garbage shoot in the stairwell was a hangout for neighborhood rats. I left that apartment in the summer, expecting to return to it in the fall after vacation but instead I received an email from my waiban (foreign affairs boss) saying that all my things were being moved into another apartment while I was away as the previous occupant to my flat was returning. I did a mental checklist of all my belongings—anything odd, incriminating, embarrassing? Since I'm a pretty boring person, I quickly realized there had been nothing of the sort left behind. But then a bolt of panic rushed through me as I realized there was 4000 rmb (US$500, at the time) under my desk. I had never managed to open a bank account and that seemed as safe a place as any. Luckily, my boss paid me back the money that had been “lost” in the move.

A year or so later, Ming and I moved to Beijing. I was back in the US when “we” moved. Ming was saddled with the responsibility of finding us a place to live near the school I'd be attending. I figured he'd have no problem, being a 30-year-old man who spoke the local language, a skill I still hadn't managed to acquire. I assumed he'd have the know-how to apartment hunt even in an unfamiliar city. I was mistaken. When I arrived to Beijing, Ming was living in a one room shanty that housed a bed, table, and a very sad looking stool. If I wanted to use the toilet, I'd have to use a public one. You know the kind (if you've been to China), they are without stalls and are little more than holes in a concrete floor. I told him I'd hold my bladder until we found a McDonald's or a new apartment—whichever came first. And we did find a new apartment (and McDonald's) later that day. But it was a shared apartment, with a middle aged lady and her grade school-aged son. While the place was in our budget, it was far out of my comfort level. So we told the agency we needed something else and we settled for an over priced, roach infested palace nearby. Luckily, we upgraded to a cleaner, cheaper place within a few months.

Chengde apartment building
I'm glad the days of dismal apartments are behind me. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever have to rent an apartment again, especially in China. But as it turns out, we are now both owners and renters. In addition to the apartment we are living in (which we own), we are also renting the apartment across the hall from ours. Since it's hard to work from home with a small baby in a 62 square meter (680 square feet) flat, we decided it would be worth the money to rent a place for me to use as my office. While it is worth the money, I'm still trying to decide if it's worth the headache.

Despite being told that the place would come furnished, all we were left with by the former occupants was a bed, air-conditioning unit, and mop. We didn't even get a toilet seat—not sure what is worse, that they took the old one with them or just didn't use one at all. They did leave us a bathroom full of mold and mildew as well as a leaky toilet and sink. Ming and the landlord continue to bicker over who should pay for cleaning and repairs. I decided to take it into my own hands and scrub away at the mold. I'm not sure what steps to take in fixing the leaks. I've pretty much come to terms to the reality that I may be listening to dripping water for the next year.

Of course a new home is always full of surprises. The biggest one of all came yesterday when my friend, Marie, was in our rented space. We neglected to tell her how to get out of the apartment, which can require some finesse as Chinese doors often require an intricate knowledge of which knobs to push or pull while jiggling the key and pressing the door with just the right amount of pressure at a specific angle. Marie had no knowledge of the workings of our door, so she did what any overly confident foreigner would do and assumed she'd be able to figure out how to open and exit the apartment by herself. She was mistaken. With one simple wrong turn, she locked herself in the apartment. That particular lock was most likely rusted from years of sitting unused. After spending over an hour trying to get out of the flat without success, Ming had to jump from the neighboring apartment's balcony into the bedroom window to rescue Marie. After forcing the lock with the handle of a mop, Marie and Ming managed to escape unscathed.

I feel like it's a right of passage into young adulthood (or living in China): overpriced, cramped, and dismal apartments. Please tell me your most nightmarish apartment stories!