Monday, December 29, 2008

The China Diaries (Mine, Gretchen's)

The following is an abridged transcript of two days' entries in the diary I kept on the first trip I made to the Peoples Republic of China in late summer-early fall of 1980. I accompanied my (now former) husband who made an extended lecture tour at several universities. Besides providing services to our Chinese hosts, we made many wonderful sight-seeing excursions. I encourage my readers to check out the footnotes, which should improve the clarity of the story, and to follow the links.
September 13, 1980
The Cargos’ (1) guest at dinner was a young American English teacher from Wuhan Teacher’s College, Gretchen Dykstra (2). She has been there one year and will probably stay at least one more. After dinner we joined Allan, Elizabeth, and Gretchen for coffee. As it happens, Gretchen is a freelance writer. So she, too, is an acute and experienced China observer. We had a good laugh about some of our shared experiences in China, such as trying to find the polite term for toilet. Bob (3) related his experience at Beijing Normal, where he asked for the bathroom. But his guide couldn’t understand why he would suddenly want to take a bath; Bob changed his tack, and asked for the washroom, whereupon his colleague offered to bring a basin of water and a towel to Bob. At last he indicated that he wanted to use the toilet, and that got him what he wanted.
We also talked about some more serious problems they have observed. It made us realize that our experience here has been somewhere between the Cloud Nine of the pure tourist and the sober, hard, but also humorous relationship the long-term visiting foreigner has with the country, the college, and the people.
September 14, 1980
At last we’ve made a visit to a commune…we had three good translators, Shiao Song, Shiao Zhang (a young man who lives in our residence so there is an ever-available translator) and another English-speaking woman. The Cargos, Don George (4), and Gretchen Dykstra made up the balance. This commune was about 40 miles northeast of Wuhan, and was called Huangti...
After a short stroll along an arrow-straight, pine tree-lined entrance road between two healthy lush green rice fields, we were taken by bus to the village’s reception hall, to sit and sip tea, enjoy Chinese cigarettes (none of us partook, though each had their own ashtray beside their teacup), and ask questions of our local hosts. On our left were Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin (in that order), and on our right were Mao and Hua.

Our hosts eventually invited us to look around the settlement a bit. The first stop was the clinic. This four room operation was one of the cleanest we’ve seen in China. There were no patients being attended. On a treatment table were the usual assortment of ointments and potions, and on the walls were some unique (as far as our limited experience goes) anti-rodent and anti-fly information posters. And one room contained the classic Chinese medicine chest, a very tall redwood bank of square drawers. We peeped in a few. Inside were dried roots, fragrant sassafras, and chopped black leaves of a pungent odor which instantly made me sneeze and quit my inquiries.
We then walked through several rows of dwellings. The row houses were neat and clean, and contained the same evidence of busy life as city streets do, with laundry strung up to dry, people squatting outside to do sewing or tool repair, or doing wash in a barrel-like wooden tub. Here and there, as on the Teacher’s College campus, chickens wandered about and a rare porker could be seen snooting a mud pile looking for a cool spot to wallow.
We were invited into two homes, and the mistress of each answered our questions. The two houses were identical in layout. The workers communally planned the houses and organized their construction. But each family had to provide its own building materials. The cost of each house is about ¥ 2,000. The main room in each home was small, but cool, with a front door open through to the kitchen and high ceilings. In each room was a portrait of Mao and Hua, and several 1980 calendars with bright drawings or photographs. There was in this main room a large chest and a table, and enough low stools for all visitors, and no other furniture.
Our pregnant hostess looked to be between 25 and 30. She had been married two years and had just this year been given permission to have a baby. For now, she may have only one. Sometime in the future, it is possible she may be given permission to have a second, depending on the population of the commune. She will bear the baby at the clinic we saw. I dared not make inquiries about what might happen if all did not go well, and she needed a caesarian. I wondered if she will be given any anesthesia. While we talked, a brave chicken or two wandered in to take a look at the foreigners.
We re-boarded our minibus and were driven a couple of kilometers to Huangti, the capital “city” of the commune. The little town was bustling, with the sidewalks in front of the stores filled with peasants selling baskets full of persimmons, chestnuts, cabbages, garlic, chili peppers, and offering all kinds of services, key-making, shoe repair, fabric-cutting, and barbering. Behind the street stands were stores of every specialty. We went into one which, behind only one counter and with only a few square feet of floor space, sold shoes, tablecloths and bed covers, doilies and antimacassars, ball bearings, tea mugs and rice bowls, an armamentarium of chopping and carving knives, jewelry, plastic water canteens, combs, yardgoods, baskets, plastic artificial fruit, a few toys, bamboo and cane chairs, and bed frames of the kind we are sleeping on—a heavy wood frame with a net of closely woven jute for support. Our presence accrued a huge, curious, closely pressing crowd. I decided to contribute to the local economy and bought a feather duster (6), typical of the kind the chauffeurs keep behind the back seat for dusting off their cars all over China. When I unzipped my bag to take out my money, the crowd began to collapse inward from its own weight. They were thrilled and repeated smilingly, “she-she” (7) when I thanked the store clerks in Chinese.
Before lunch we went to the Huangti Guest House for tea, questions, and a hand wash in a basin of warm water with a clean towel immersed in it. The lunch we were served was among the best we have had in China. As always, it consisted of too many courses, with fish, tofu, eggs, pork (with chestnuts!), chicken soup, sweet-syrup bread balls, squid with bamboo shoots, wonderful meat-filled fried turnovers, the best Chinese beer from Tsing-Tao, and so on.
We took the opportunity to go down the main street on foot. These country folk were completely unabashed in their curiosity and a large group of young and old followed us everywhere down the street and into and out of shops. It was actually difficult to take a photograph. Though in some cases people willingly posed for us, some people disappeared when I pointed the camera in their direction. But so many enthralled on-lookers closed in that when I tried to take a picture of the produce-laden baskets, the scene was framed by staring locals.

Sometimes when we are surrounded by such a crowd, or when we visit the sick in a hospital and walk around followed, not lead, by white-coated attendants, I feel like Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, or at least, Lord Mountbatten’s wife, spreading grace, good wishes, and joy everywhere, healing just by our touch. What is hard to know is how the Chinese feel about us really. Over the years foreigners have generally been regarded as the “foreign devils.” No matter what the official line, we are great oddities, especially in a rural community.
On the long bus ride home over the appallingly paved roads I talked with Gretchen. She and the Cargos and the Georges are our only source of information about the less pleasant aspects of life in China. I had complained about the poor treatment of non-essential animals, but said, “at least they don’t beat their children.” The other westerners said that some of their students told them of incidents or even situations of continued abuse in their own families. Gretchen has been exposed to several tragic situations among her students and has become a confidant of one woman. This woman is married (possibly by arrangement of the parents), has a child, and is in love with another student. Yet she has no options, no hope. The Chinese are extremely critical of one another and keep strict eyes on the activities of their comrades and routinely report to their leaders on each other. Nonetheless, there is some activity which is successfully kept secret. I asked Gretchen if she had any idea about whether her students were involved in premarital sexual relations. The Cargos, when asked this question, stated that they believed there was none. But Gretchen says that an early-morning walk along the wooded shores of a small lake behind her dormitory reveals the night’s business by the condoms floating near the shore. On discussing this, I learned that birth control is not available to the unmarried. So there are two possible interpretations. One is that unmarried couples can get the needed condoms from married friends or siblings, and the other is that since privacy is totally lacking in most Chinese homes, the condoms are actually those of married couples. (8)
It’s hard to admit, with all the stars in our eyes, that life in China for the Chinese is not as lovely as life in China for the foreign expert just passing through.
(1) New Zealanders Allan and Elizabeth Cargo spent two years teaching English at Wuhan Teacher’s College. They had an apartment in the same small residence for foreigners as we, and we ate our meals together in a small dining room there with a dedicated kitchen and staff. We stayed in touch with the Cargos for many years following our time in China.
(2) Gretchen Dykstra went on to hold prominent positions in New York City, including the first president of the Times Square Business Improvement District, from 1992 to 1998, Commissioner, Department of Consumer Affairs.(New York City), and, briefly, the politics-torn position of president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.
(3) My husband at the time, Bob Wald, who was teaching a short course in relativistic astrophysics/cosmology at Wuhan Teacher’s College.
(4) Another visiting American teacher.
(5) Politically correct designation at the time.
(6) Essentially a bunch of rooster tail feathers attached to a stick; I actually brought it back to the U.S. . When I opened my suitcase, a plethora of gnats flew out of the duster, and the duster was summarily sent to the dumpster.
(7) Thank you; an expression, not used obsessively in China as it is in America, pronounced something like shyeh-shyeh.
(8) A third possibility I didn’t consider at the time is that one or both of the condom users were married, just not to each other.
And now, and most importantly, read Gretchen Dykstra's retrospective essay on what she was experiencing at this very time.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Word has it...

Heard this morning on Fox Business: rejuvenize. You know, as opposed to rejuvenate?

Friday, December 26, 2008


Here's my cure for the retail economy's woes: manufacturers make, and retailers sell, what people want to buy, and at fair prices. Very simple.
I've complained before about the disappearance of my favorite products. Here are a few of this week's brick walls:
1. Until a couple of years ago, it was not hard to find a decent-quality, inexpensive generic toilet seat that pretty much matched my
"Candlelyght" color American Standard fixtures. So hey, I like a clean, sturdy toilet seat that goes with the rest of the tank, the tub, the sink, that costs $15 or less. What I ended up with matches, all right, (better than the one in the photo) but it cost $50, is made of plastic (How could that possibly last? Plus which, you're supposed to clean it with soap and water only. Is that sufficiently sanitary?) and is by far THE MOST uncomfortable seat, with the smallest opening on the business side, that I have ever encountered, including in the Third World.
2. Since we all had colds, we've run out of tea. My favorite, next to any kind of chai, is Lipton's Ginger Twist Herbal. Do you think there might be room on the grocery store shelf among the 4,000 boxes of Lipton green tea for one box of Ginger Twist? Evidently not. I finally found it, for a price not quite as extortionist as the toilet seat, at this nice place and am awaiting delivery of two boxes. At this rate, I'm betting they'll be my last (unless we find out that green tea causes cancer). ** See here (added 02/05/2009) **
3. Okay, so I just bought, at great price, beautiful new Hunter Douglas mini-blinds. I don't mind a bit paying handsomely for these beautifully made, perfectly installed, totally functional light-control devices. But now I'd like to further improve the civilized appearance of all my rooms (only my baths and kitchen don't have at least one window of their own) by adding cord cleats. It would be nice to have something interesting, classy, and simple to install. Even better, something interesting, classy, and simple to install, that costs somewhat less than, say, $24 apiece. I calculate it will cost me a mere $144 plus shipping for enough of the 3-3/8 inch-size classy widgets to wind all my cords neatly out of the way.
4. My very favorite salad dressing, Naturally Fresh's (FAT FREE) Balsamic Vinaigrette is, most reassuringly, still shown on the maker's Web site. So why haven't I been able to get it at: Ultra Foods. Dominick's. Whole Foods. Treasure Island. ? All of which carry the brand in other flavors. It's the most wonderful stuff, naturally sweet-and-tart from the vinegar, with no extra sugar and just enough salt to raise your blood pressure by only a point or two. But it's the complete absence of fat that makes it virtually impossible to substitute an equally tasty homemade version.
5. My old Rubbermaid dish drain and drain board, despite my best efforts, are beginning to show their age. I need a big dish drain, because what I wash by hand is big stuff, big kettles and big skillets that don't go in the dishwasher. The counter top where this useful arrangement sits in my kitchen is beneath a wall cabinet, as is probably true in a lot, if not most, kitchens. So I orient the drainer/drain board in such a way that the long dimension is parallel to the length of the counter, and the lip of the drain board is on the short end of the drain board that hangs over the end of the counter and sends the drips to the sink. This way I can fit my big old spaghetti cooker and its insert into the dish drain without encountering the cabinet above. It also allows a sensible arrangement of the accouterments (soap dispenser, sponge dish). So that's the way I want it, period. Why, pray tell, has Rubbermaid decided to stop manufacturing large drain boards with lip along the short side?
Is anybody listening??

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Yellowstone's Christmas gift

Yesterday coming home on the bus an African American woman sitting across from me, roughly my age, lighted up and pointed to my Yellowstone Association bag (the pretty dark green one with an image of Old Faithful Inn on it) and said, "OH!! Did you see the TV show on Yellowstone the other night??" (referring to Christmas in Yellowstone, which aired in Chicago Sunday evening). "OH!!" she said, "It's SOOOO beautiful! Oh I loved it!!" Then I asked her, "Do you remember the three ladies watching wolves through scopes? I happen to know all three of them!" and she said, "You DO? How wonderful! The world is so small! And so beautiful!"
This exchange was lovely, absolutely for its own sake, and because it's a good thing when anyone becomes newly enlightened about the glory of Yellowstone, but also especially (as National Park Service statistics-keepers and sociologists are woefully aware) most of the nation's national parks are significantly underutilized by minorities, including African Americans, who may be among the people who could most benefit from visiting them. The makers of Christmas in Yellowstone (probably my all-time favorite television piece about Yellowstone) should know they are reaching out with at least one big success. I do hope some day the lady, and her kids and grandkids, get the chance to see it for themselves.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dilemmas, science, and the right thing to do

Yesterday I was spinning the dial, as is my usual Sesame-Street-attention-span way of watching TV, when the narrative and visuals I happened upon on LINK TV stopped me in my tracks. The title of the program, Dark Science grabbed me immediately, as I am ever on the alert for false science or the disparagement of good science.

This television presentation is clearly a sound, thoughtful re-telling of the full story to its 2003 resolution: I paid close attention to LINK TV’s version of the 1910-1911 Swedish expedition, headed by Eric Mjöberg, to the Kimberleys in Western Australia, initially to collect animal and plant specimens, and to consider, in the simplistic understanding of the time of Darwin’s theories of evolution, whether the Australian Aborigines were The Missing Link, or perhaps even more excitingly, living representatives of the Neanderthal species. The explorers brought back very fine films and still photographs, cultural objects, revealing diaries full of worthwhile observations, and, at Mjöberg’s insistence, the remains of numbers recently-deceased Aborigines taken right out of their graves, in some cases so fresh they had to be disarticulated by knife in order to be looted.

The upshot was that the skeletal remains were deposited in Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography where they sat, unstudied, and in fact, apparently unnoticed, until the Swedish anthropologist Claes Hallgren considered their origins and determined that they should rightly be repatriated to Western Australia. Dark Science is about not only the nightmarish story of the expedition (and its leader’s eventual decline into a haunted dementia and fame-less death) but the quite beautiful process of returning the bones to their homeland for reburial and restoration to eternal rest.

While I found the history compellingly interesting in and of itself, I was most taken with the certitude with which the Swedish academy and political leadership saw the mandate to return the remains as unarguable. In the early 21st century this is no longer so unusual, but even in very recent years this has not always been the case. For many, many years First World academe was highly resistant to the repatriation of cultural objects and, especially, human remains, all in the name of scientific research. Much of this controversy just happened to occur on the cusp of our ability to perform truly useful analysis of even ancient DNA, and it happened in the Americas as well as Europe and elsewhere in the world. This has, for instance, long been a major issue in the United States, reflected in the attempted partial resolution of the 1990 passage of the Native Americans Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

I see it as an extremely difficult ethical dilemma, with strong cases to be made on both sides. After all, the retention of objects in museums generally protects their physical integrity very effectively, and increasingly such objects, including human remains, may be all that are left of a culture. The scientific knowledge to be gained from the study of skeletal remains is tremendous, and of tremendous importance both to the surviving cultures and to the world at large. Yet the rights of people to retain the remains of their progenitors, to practice their beliefs with respect to the dead, and to autonomy of cultural practices are overwhelmingly important as well. Compromises, such as the retention of a minimum amount of physical material for DNA, dating, and paleo-pathological analysis may, or may not, “work” for all concerned.

Dark Science celebrates the conclusion that repatriation is the right thing to do. Yet it was an easy conclusion for Swedish scientists to come to, as there is little if any special scientific value in the examination of early 20th century skeletal remains. I wonder if the outcome might have been different had the skeletons been, say, 40 thousand years old instead…

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

But WHY did he throw his shoes at you Mr. Bush?

How little the little man has learned in his years of engagement with Islamic cultures!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Missive from the beach

Every few years KLK and I treat ourselves to a date with Tropical Nature. As much as we love the mountains, especially the American Mountain West (though we have other beloved mountain ranges, such as the Canadian Rockies and the Swiss Alps), this week we left snowy, frigid Chicago and came to one of our warm, watery favorites, Sanibel Island, Florida. Sanibel has lots for people like us to love: it's only a couple of hours by air from Chicago, before Christmas break hits the fan it's very quiet (and lodging and car rental prices are excellent), and at least 50% of the land mass (which changes daily, as is usual with small barrier islands) is nature preserve. It's famous for its beautiful shell-covered beaches, nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles, exceptionally abundant sea life and the creatures that attracts, such as alligators, myriad sea birds, kingfishers, roseate spoonbills, ospreys, bald eagles, plovers and turnstones, and most largely and notably, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.
I first visited this area, along the west coast of Florida, perhaps 15 years ago, when my mother and I came exploring. We stayed in a cheap fifth-floor hotel room with kitchenette on Fort Myers beach that had a big balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico where we sat each morning drinking our coffee, looking over the gulf. All of a sudden one morning there was a disturbance in the distance: hundreds of wheeling, diving gulls and immense splashing in the otherwise rhythmically undulating water. We grabbed the binoculars and there they were: a large pod of dolphins leaping and splashing and rolling in the gentle waves, happily filling their bellies with some unfortunate school of fish. I remember thinking at the time, "this is why some people so strenuously object to keeping wild animals in aquariums and zoos," really understanding for the first time the wonder and beauty of seeing truly wild dolphins. Until then I had subscribed 100 percent to the point of view that animals in zoos lead (or can lead) very good lives, with a steady food supply and freedom from many diseases and the predators they would surely encounter in the wild. I still believe that is true (excluding the thousands of crummy zoos and dirty marine parks around the world that have no business "caring" for wildlife). But that morning I came to see a crack in that dyke. At this point in my life I still am not opposed to keeping small numbers of wild creatures in zoos and aquariums, in particular because I am strongly in favor of research, public education, and the preservation and breeding of endangered animals, among the more important things do. But seeing those dolphins in their own habitat, doing what dolphins do, so abundantly exercising their "free will" opened my eyes to the ambiguities of capturing and keeping wild animals for whatever benefit.
Early this morning I took my freshly made coffee and walked through the dewy landscape of our rented condo complex Sanibel Island (that overlooks more or less the same corner of the gulf as Fort Myers Beach, but from a different angle) to where the grass meets beach and sure enough, there not too many hundred yards from shore, I saw dolphins cavorting at the surface. Though our oceans may be in danger, for now the wild Sanibel dolphins are holding their own.