Saturday, May 29, 2010

Parting Thoughts

May 29, 2010

My last day started slowly, with an 8:00 am wakeup and a trip out to the cafeteria where I joined Mary, Pat and Tim in trying to spend all of the remaining money on my pre-paid campus food card: a whopping twenty-two yuan (about three U.S dollars). I managed to get the card down to a balance of ten mao with the following purchases: one large savory Chinese crepe which I ate immediately; one bowl of congee with pickled vegetables (which I poked at, but didn’t finish); one 1.5 liter bottle of Nongfu Spring water for my room; one small bottle of Robust water for the ride to the airport tomorrow morning; one yogurt for my 5:00 am breakfast before departure; one peach Danish to accompany my yogurt; one small Snickers bar for when my blood sugar drops sometime mid-flight and food service is still hours away; one pack of spearmint Extra sugarless gum to chew after I eat my Snickers bar. The preparations had begun.

I spent the morning after our congenial hour-long breakfast further researching transport options for the pup (Korean Air is looking promising), then brushing up on vocabulary for my anticipated conversation with the vet. I needed to review words I haven’t used since my girls were babies in China (like “kilograms” and “vaccinations” and “health examination certificate”), as well as learn a few new puppy-specific words (like “rabies” and “worms” and “export permits”). Then I set out on the twenty minute walk to Paula’s apartment, where one of the CTBU Social Work graduate students who has studied at Widener, Xiang Fang, was due to meet us. Xiang Fang (English name, Becky) is likely the person who will be accompanying “our puppy” to Philadelphia in a couple of months. She is also head-over-heels in love with “our puppy” and is his officially designated godmother and protectoress for after our departure.

The three of us hailed a cab and took our puppy and his growing accompaniment of gear to Dr. Peng’s office, where he was standing with a worried looking couple and their Springer Spaniel, administering an IV. His wife, who works as his assistant, lit up when she saw our puppy and us. She was just about to begin feeding another puppy, which had been brought to them a few days ago: this one only one week old. When we saw this little guy three days ago we thought he might be near-death, but he is much stronger now and Dr. Peng thinks his prospects are good. As his wife began to gently feed the little pup a bottle, an elderly man arrived carrying his bicycle up the stairs, the Peng’s three-year old son in tow. The little boy bowed deeply when he saw me and said a very loud and clear, “Hello Auntie!” to everyone’s laughter. After settling the fee for boarding our pup and the fees for his vaccinations and travel permits, the Pengs told us they would be keeping him in their home so that he wouldn’t be exposed to all the diseases that come through the animal hospital. I asked if there is anyone home during the day and they said, yes, Grandpa: the sweet faced elderly man who had been carrying the bike up the stairs and who was now watching a children’s English instructional DVD with his grandson. So our puppy will be doted on after-all by a grandparent with time on his hands. We have indeed found the perfect foster family. My biggest concern now is that the grandpa will so dote on our puppy that he will grow fat in the next ten weeks before travel and exceed the weight limits for in-cabin travel! If this is the case, I am comforted anticipating that this family may bond so much with our puppy that they choose to keep him as their own, sparing him a cargo trip to the U.S. in a few months. As attached as I’ve become to our little guy, I’d be delighted if he were to become a Peng puppy.

The rest of my afternoon I was on my own, and decided to head to a section of town I had been to early in the week with my faculty friends. Ten minutes away by cab is Wan Da Plaza: a large shopping area with lots of restaurants and boutiques as well as the more predictable mall franchises, including a Starbucks. I realized I hadn’t had an afternoon to myself in a good while and wanted to poke around at my own speed, nurse a latte while people-watching, walk at my fast clip, stopping when I wanted to stop. I’ve also been wanting to find some good clothing boutiques, the kind I used to stumble upon in Beijing now and again where I might find breezy blouses in layers of soft cotton or silk with elegant lines and intricate stitching, but still at student prices. My outing at Wan Da met all my expectations: it was bustling on this Saturday afternoon, without feeling over-crowded: Starbucks was air-conditioned and nearly empty; and there were, indeed, boutiques once I ventured away from the mall. I sat outside with my latte and people-watched, captivated by the roller-blade lessons for children, nostalgic for my ice skating lessons last winter with my girls. With the help of two young saleswomen who called me “big sister,” I found a lovely black long and silky sleeveless blouse, a terrific long linen skirt with deep pockets, and a funky and fun wool dress, shopping at my own speed, all for a pittance.

I finally hit a wall in my walking and realized I needed to return to campus to pack. I had become a bit disoriented and contemplated my location, then realized I really had no idea where I might best catch a cab back to campus. I asked two young girls who looked like students and they directed me down the road, across an overpass, then over to the northwest corner where there should be a steady flow of cabs. As I stood on the overpass I realized, again, what a noisy and disorienting place China can be. There was construction going on all around me, and coupled with the sounds of pounding and the whir of machinery was the pulse of rush hour traffic: the beeping of horns, the grinding of brakes, the loud calls of one pedestrian to another. When I arrived at the recommended corner, cabbie after cabbie told me he couldn’t take me, he was getting off of work. I puzzled over this; it was 3:20 pm. I thought about my students, scattered about today doing their final errands, each of them markedly more independent than they were when they arrived in China over three weeks ago, none of them having studied Chinese before arriving here, besides the preliminary lessons I gave them in preparation. I felt humbled thinking of the challenges they have taken on and how intense this experience alone must be for them—making their way home in a cab—but they have been doing it time after time, day after day. I finally found a cabbie to take me “home” and he explained to me the reasons for the 3:30 changing of the guards. I made a note to myself to explain this to the students, wondering how many of them were refused late-afternoon rides home, not knowing it had nothing to do with them and everything to do with city regulations.

It’s 1:30 am now and people are still milling in the halls of the dorm. Tim is capturing students’ final reflections on video to be incorporated into a documentary he’s making of our journey. He joined us on the balcony of the suite I share with Pat, and shared with us that the students’ number one lesson seems to be that we are not all that different from our Chinese counterparts. What a lesson to learn. My bags are almost packed and my window is wide open. The night sky is dark and moonless; there are crickets chirping, but no construction. I’ve set my alarm for 5:00, anticipating waking to the sound of birds, hoping for one lonely call from a renegade peacock.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Winding down, doing more

May 29, 2010

The program is winding down, in theory, although our days are just as packed as ever. We depart Sunday morning and have slowly begun to wrap things up: debriefing our experiences, exchanging parting gifts and sentiments with our hosts, beginning to prep our students to transfer their experiences home. The formal educational aspects of the program have lightened up and the recreational and social aspects have intensified, yet I’m still finding I’m experiencing new things daily. This adventure just keeps on going.

An update on our puppy. He continues to thrive, primarily under the shared care of Paula and the vet. Paula has had him nightly and they both have been sleeping fairly well. We still do not have a final plan yet for our puppy’s future, but we have some good elements of a plan in place. After a great deal of soul-searching and exploring the options in China, our ideal is to bring him to the U.S. and have him become a member of my family in Rutledge. Paula is smitten with him, but she and her husband aren’t prepared to take on a puppy until she retires, which is a few years out. I would love to raise our puppy and welcome him into our lives. But the logistics of this are still a bit tricky. The paperwork and actual expenses are, as I suspected, not daunting. The vet can handle the government health exam, vaccinations and permit at minimal expense and our puppy can fly with a human ticketed passenger and we will only be charged an extra baggage fee. There are a number of people we know flying from Chongqing to Philadelphia around the time our puppy would be ready to fly. But the one big logistical wrinkle is trying to find a carrier that will allow him to fly in the passenger cabin and not require him to fly as cargo in an oxygenated cabin. My cats flew cargo and they were just fine, but they were a couple years old at the time, not nearly as young as our pup. Thus far I’ve discovered Korea Air will permit him to fly in the passenger cabin if he is less than 11 pounds. He is tiny now, but I’m not sure what he’ll weigh in a couple of months, after he’s received all his required vaccinations for transport. It’s also possible we can get around the vaccination requirements and transport him sooner, if he does not have to fly on a Chinese airline from here to Beijing or wherever else he catches his international flight (it’s the Chinese airlines that require the vaccinations, U.S. customs will permit us to bring him unvaccinated if we sign a form on entry promising to vaccinate him within 30 days). So it’s possible he might travel with someone on train to Beijing or Shanghai (wish it were me, that would be a FUN train ride!).

For now, we have a good foster plan option until we can attempt to transport him. He’ll live under the care of our kind vet, who is determined that “our pup” should only go to a good family. Han Yan is also continuing to seek other foster family options for him as well. Yes, I’ve been busy. But I seriously love figuring out these kinds of puzzles and having to think creatively for a positive outcome. And I’m learning a host of new things about China while navigating this as well.

I had another adventure today, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in China. Midweek, the International Office invited us, the faculty, to attend a singing competition on campus and we accepted (under the condition that we were in the audience). We have been hearing singing coming from buildings all across campus at odd hours of the day and night for the past two weeks, and it’s been really good singing! Amazing harmonies, multiple-parts, and strong and sonorous voices. The competition is between different departments, both academic and administrative, across campus. CTBU is a huge university in population and it’s huge with talent. We have done karaoke with the International Studies staff and have felt like we are in the company of rock stars—it is unbelievable how these folks can sing. I’ve known this about the Chinese population since I first arrived in China: people receive vocal training from a very early age as part of their educational curriculum. I have no idea if the tonal quality of the Chinese language also helps speakers develop their vocal capacity more than those who speak a non-tonal language. Whatever the reason, in China people can really sing.

But before the competition tonight we went on a CTBU sponsored excursion to Ciqikou: a historic “old town” in the midst of more developed Chongqing, featuring narrow winding streets, beautiful old buildings, and tightly packed shops and street vendors. It is a Mecca for foreign visitors who have had little time to shop for gifts and are about to depart the country in two days. I purchased silk pajamas for my daughters (shhhhh….although I suspect that Jazz, who is returning stateside today from Shanghai, also got them pajamas); two really good cooking knives made at Da Zu, the town with the stone carvings (I won’t reveal who these are for); eight small paintings of Chongqing (for my oldest daughter’s orphanage sisters from our adoption group, all of whom are from Chongqing and whom we will see shortly at a reunion in SF); and four silk scarves for myself. We were told to meet back at the bus by 5:15 and the bus departed almost immediately as buses often do in China. It didn’t take long for us to hit Friday rush hour traffic, and as we inched towards the bridge that would bring us back to the Nan’an district I noticed our driver, Mr. Wang, was cursing up a storm. I found this very amusing: Sichuan denizens are characterized as having hot tempers and this guy was living up to the stereotype. I was paying close attention, seeing this as a language learning opportunity, thinking it might be fun to be able to curse in Chongqing dialect. I noted to Rea from the International Office that I thought it was funny that a professional driver would curse at the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic, as if it were some unforgivable personal offense to him. Rea laughed but then said, “No, there is another reason he is especially mad. He is supposed to sing in the competition tonight and his leader has already called him six times wondering where he is!” It was now 6:00 and the concert started at 7:00. I joked with Mr. Wang that he could warm up his vocal cords as he drove and give us a little preview of the evening show, but he joked back that he could only sing to an audience who had low blood pressure and was free of heart disease! We pulled up to our dorm at 6:30 and Mr. Wang rushed us all off the bus, pausing only to let me snap a picture of him, smiling at the wheel.

The singing competition was both amazing and surreal. The theme was patriotic songs and it was divided into three parts: Songs from the War of Resistance: Songs from the Cultural Revolution: Songs celebrating the Party. Actually the songs in all three sections celebrated the Party in a crazy revisionist version of history. This in itself was surreal, as we have had such close contact with a rapidly modernizing and very politically and culturally open Chinese population this entire visit. Just four nights ago at English Corner I was surrounded by students who begged me to talk politics with them. I agreed and let them ask the questions, and wouldn’t you know it, they asked me to tell them how I teach about Tibet and Taiwan, leading to an incredibly frank and thoughtful discussion. But that wasn’t on the program for tonight. What I did see was the Physical Education department do an incredibly athletic choreographed song and dance, complete with Red Army uniforms called “the Song of Guerilla Warfare,” celebrating the Red Army’s attacks of the Japanese in Occupied China. I also saw the Animation Department team up with the School of Architecture to sing a song called “The Homeland and Me” and the Literature Department did an amazing performance of a song called “Only with the CCP can there be a New China.” Finally, Mr. Wang appeared on stage with the Logistics division sporting a white shirt and red bow tie. They sang a War of Resistance era song about creating a strong defense along the Yellow River. No one in the audience came close to having a heart attack.

Tomorrow is my last day in Chongqing, and my parting is less sad than it was last year, only because I know I’m returning to China in July with my daughters. I have a simple agenda for tomorrow: blog about Travis’s lecture to CTBU students on sexual orientation, hike up Nan Shan, pack, take the pup to the vet and bid him so long, get a massage, and go to bed before midnight. I have it all planned out. We’re winding down now, no more adventures, right?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pup: Part II

May 25th, 2010

This morning I found “our puppy’s” mom and the rest of the litter. I started my morning in a bit of a rush. Paula and I were taking five of my students to visit the Chongqing Municipal Child Welfare Institute, and I needed to go to the local department store and pick up some gifts for the children before meeting up with the students in the main square on campus. The “Happy People” Department Store (Ren Ren Le) is just outside the main gate of campus, and I had to pass my favorite street food vendor, the one who sells the egg and tofu sandwich goodness from Shandong Province. I passed this stand at a fast clip, worrying about what appropriate gifts might be available for these children at a large grocery and department store, but when I looked up to greet the Shandong vendor I saw a woman sitting at a table on the veranda there, feeding a dog scraps from her breakfast. The dog was a lactating female and looked like it could be “our puppy’s” mother. I walked up the steps and asked the woman and the vendors there if they knew if the dog had any puppies. “Yes,” she said enthusiastically, and gestured to the covered area of the veranda around the corner, “Go take a look.” I rounded the corner of the veranda, but didn’t see anything that looked like a puppy den, so I asked her to show me. “But the mother will bite me,” she said. “Don’t worry,” I replied, impatiently, “She just went foraging around the corner, you can show me quickly!” The woman led be around the corner and pulled up a plastic tarp, revealing a litter of seven pups that look identical to “our puppy”, except not nearly as robust. Our dude has been feasting on infant formula and our love and affection for five days now, and I swear he has nearly doubled in size!

Gads. I marched off to the store for happy people and shaking my head with astonishment as I thought about human orphans, puzzling over what appropriate gifts to bring to the orphanage. I had rejected my Chinese hosts suggestion that I bring a bag of candy, but now I was at a loss considering what might be a better substitute for this. I settled on ten large bouncy balls, a bag of Jell-O snacks popular among Chinese parents, and small individual packets of rice crackers for the older children. Remembering the babies in bouncers set in front of the television at my daughter’s orphanage, I also purchased a DVD with English lessons for children and another of children doing dance performances. By the time I had rendezvoused with my students and Paula I had no time to return to the pups and contemplate the situation further.

I shared a taxi cab to the orphanage with two students, one of whom was raised on a farm and has had a great deal of experience hand-raising orphaned animals. Her progeny includes a baby squirrel that eventually went to live in a nature education center, baby kittens and puppies who needed to bottle fed for various reasons, baby goats who lived in her bedroom, and a baby horse whose mother died in childbirth and who used to walk into their house and eat fruit loops from their pantry. Heather has some credentials. I told her about my discovery and asked her the question: “So, is our puppy better off if we bring him back to his mother?” Heather looked at me like I’d just fallen off a pumpkin cart, “Colette, the mother will never accept that pup back. He’s been gone too long and she has too many babies to feed.” I was actually somewhat relieved to hear this answer, knowing how the mother had already left him once and knowing how robust he was compared to his siblings.

Fast forward past the orphanage visit (a story that doesn’t really belong in this narrative, but in another that I hope to write soon). After I had lunch with my students just outside of campus we were walking back past the Shandong sandwich spot and Heather suggested I show her the pups. We all climbed up the stairs as I issued all kinds of warnings to be careful not to get bit, and there was the mother lying, on guard, just outside the opening in the tarp. One of the vendors from the morning was there and she said, “Oh, you’ve come back to see the puppies.” I said, “Yes, but the mother is there so we can’t see them.” “No problem, she won’t bite you!” The woman proceeded to approach the dog, sweet-talking her, and the dog stood up and wagged her tail enthusiastically, moving to the side to allow the woman to pull back the tarp, and then darting in to be with her babies. There were the seven pups, curled up sleeping. Heather was a bit astounded that there were seven pups and that the mother is as small as she is. “Those are a lot of pups to feed,” she said, “And she started out with nine?” I asked the vendor how many pups the dog had birthed and she said she didn’t know, and that the mother had moved them all, one by one, from another area just behind the building (which is where “our puppy” was found). This had been Tim’s theory: that the mother had been moving the pups and that she had either dropped two of them or that somehow she got frightened and distracted from her task and never went back for the last two. In either case, they hadn’t ended up at this new destination. I asked the vendor if she was feeding the mother (there was a bowl there with remnants of food) and she said, “No, but Grandma upstairs is,” and gestured to the upper levels of the apartment building.

So there are kind people feeding this stray mother dog, and seven puppies growing larger (albeit, slowly) on their mother’s milk, destined to be strays if they survive. And we have “our puppy,” who has begun to wag his tail and lick our hands, thriving on our bottled milk. He’ll be a farm dog if we send him to the country, well fed and free to roam, though never to sleep at the foot of anyone’s bed. And we have at least three students in our group who claim their parents want to adopt him, and even I had a conversation with my husband this evening about the possibility of adding a three or four month old puppy to our busy lives, which is how old he would be once he were old enough for his immunizations and transport. We’ve dug up the email address of the contact from the relocation company that helped us get our cats home with us to the U.S.

This train is moving fast, and I can’t quite get my head around it. I ask my better self what the right thing is to do, and she shakes her head, bewildered. I say the orphanage narrative is its own narrative, but I suppose in my head it’s not. I am trying not to anthropomorphize, but it is hard not to. The mother looked so content, as if she had not noticed she was missing two of her pups. Do we live in a world where this is possible? And our pup, once twitchy and whimpering, is thriving without her—quick to snuggle and to offer new kisses, and beginning to shower us with love.

This morning I walked through room after room in an impressive orphanage, witnessing the efforts the staff there has made to give orphaned children a home. Almost daily they receive abandoned infants, left at their gates or brought to them by the police. It is a model orphanage, unusually bountiful in material conditions and in skilled in the training of its staff. The children’s physical and educational needs are being met, yet still, they remain without families.

Back to this pup. I want our pup to have a family, and if his mother were to take him back, he has only a few brief weeks to wrestle with his siblings for his mother’s milk before he’s free to survive on his own. I’ve seen the strays all over this campus, with their scabs and their ribs, darting across busy streets or picking through trash. Our pup might be fed by a farm family, run through fields and sleep in the sun, happy with an outdoor life; our pup might be fed by a suburban family, take long leashed walks and sleep on a little girl’s bed, happy with a pampered suburban life. I’ve sent an email message to Ms. Ma from the relocation company and am going to bed now, my head still foggy, trying to comprehend my role in this pup’s life; trying to comprehend both family and fate.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Our puppy"

May 21, 2010

We now have a puppy. And, yes, we are crazy. Paula and I were very clear with the students in our pre-trip preparation: no dogs. Paula spelled it all out to the students while I nodded silently in agreement: you will see them everywhere and they will break your hearts, but we can’t bring them home with us. I’m aware of my own hypocrisy in attempting to regulate my students’ attachment to homeless animals in China. I have two beloved, adorable, hilariously funny, cute, cuddly, idiosyncratic, baby-bunny-decapitating and squirrel-slaying bad-ass hunter cats back in Rutledge, PA who go by the names of Smokey and Cirrus (and who answer to our calls!), and who began their lives as hungry and abandoned street kitties in Beijing. My husband and daughter found Smokey shivering and hungry behind a cardboard box in our parking garage in Beijing. Within an hour and a half of having brought Smokey into our home, my husband managed to purchase $60 U.S. worth of kitty supplies at a pet store. Within eight hours Smokey had been seen by a Chinese vet and was officially ours. Cirrus arrived in our home after attaching himself to my leg during one cold Beijing winter commute home from Shangdi light-rail station to our apartment building in the jiayuan’r. Houdini cat that he is, he managed to get into the building, the elevator, and up to our apartment in a series of stealth moves that had me finally say, “O.K., little miss, you’ve found yourself a home” (I thought he was a she, and first named “her” Tara).

Though we tell the students they won’t be able to bring pets home with them, this is really only a half-truth. Getting Smokey and Cirrus back to the U.S. with us was a piece of cake, facilitated by a relocation company. All we needed was a record of their immunizations, and these were in Chinese. Apparently American veterinary medicine is so advanced we figure we can take on any disease that hits our shores, no quarantine necessary? The cats traveled in crates on the same flight that Jazz took to D.C. two months before our move, and like many new immigrants, they lodged temporarily in a friend’s apartment in the Big Apple, where they paced at the windows and drooled over Brooklyn pigeon. I admit I haven’t researched this in awhile, but I assume if our students really wanted to bring a pet home with them they could: after a bit of time, paperwork, immunizations, and some transportation expenses. But it’s completely impractical: we are only here for three and half weeks and have a program to participate in. No time for feeding, nurturing and sheltering stray animals.

But we now have a puppy, one with four names: “Taz” (named by the student who first gave him shelter); “Chester”, suggested by the Provost back at Widener, denoting Widener’s location in Chester, PA; “Dou Dou”, meaning “little bean”, given by the Chinese students who helped in the puppy’s rescue; and “our puppy” the most dangerous name of all, and the appellation most frequently used by Paula and me in reference to this little being. Before you go shaking your head or your finger at me too sternly, the details are important here.

Robin, Widener Social Work faculty who has been teaching at CTBU all semester, was walking by a building on campus and heard a pitiful crying. She spotted a very tiny puppy writhing between two buildings, it’s eyes barely open. She managed to elicit the help of some Chinese students to form a chain and reach between the buildings and pluck the puppy out. She then went about trying to figure out what to do with the puppy. A grounds-keeper said he would keep it for her, and he took it to an abandoned basement where he placed it in a box. Robin went and got a baby bottle and some milk for the puppy and gave it to the grounds keeper, then went off to teach. Later in the day, Robin was still haunted by this whole encounter and took a Widener student, Jes, with her back to the building to check on the puppy. The puppy was there, the bottle next to its box, having sat out un-refrigerated all day. Jes took one look at the situation and said: “I’m taking this puppy”.

I didn’t find out about the puppy until 11:00 pm, returning with Paula and Robin from the blind massage place (yes, I know, I’m addicted to Chinese massage). “Jes, has a puppy back in the dorms.” Huh???? I bid Paula and Robin farewell at their respective apartment complexes and headed back to the dorms where I’m staying with the students, fully aware that I was about to have my heart-broken by this animal. Jes’s light was out and she appeared to be sound asleep, and not wanting to wake her and the pup I waited to knock on her door until the next morning, which is when I met “our puppy.”

My head clearer by dawn, I stared at this little guy as panic began to sink in: he is so little, and is cow’s milk really what he’s supposed to be drinking? How are we going to keep this little guy alive? And where was his mother? Had his “rescuers” misguidedly taken him far from his nest? Had he strayed away from the rest of the litter while his mother was out foraging? Nothing about this sat right with me. In the meantime, we had a bus to get on at 6:45 am: a day trip planned for the Dazu Caves where to see the Buddhist and Taoist stone carvings. I contemplated skipping out on the trip, but knew I couldn’t abandon my responsibilities to the students. A few back and forth phone calls later, Paula and I had arranged for one of our building keepers, Ting Ting, to take care of the pup until Paula could come to the dorms and figure out the next plan. I called Paula from the bus, “We have to find the mother, and if we don’t find the mother, we have to find a vet.” Paula determined the vet part was probably the easier piece of this equation. Robin had made it clear there were no other dogs around, and the pup wasn’t under a building but was wedged between two buildings. It did not seem easy to “find” the mother. Tim suggested we take the puppy back to where Robin found it and leave it between the buildings and let nature take its course. Yeah, right—as if Paula, the Dean of Social Work whose work is on child welfare and me, the adoptee, adoptive mother, and researcher of orphans were about to abandon this possibly abandoned puppy. Seriously.

By 2:00 in the afternoon Paula had located a vet just outside the university gates and had arrived at his office, with Fang Fang (Social Work faculty) there to translate. The vet determined this pup was about 10 days old and in good health, and showed Paula how to feed and care for him. Besides keeping him in a warm and quiet place, he would need to be fed formula, about 10-20 ml every 2-3 hours, and we would have to stimulate his rectum and penis to eliminate. Paula could leave him at the vet the rest of the day, but we would need to pick him up by 8:00 pm and take over his nighttime care.

As Paula was learning all this from the vet, three CTBU students arrived with a very sick older dog with shaking similar to palsy. But they also had another patient with them: a pup identical to “our puppy,” found that afternoon (a full 24 hours after “our puppy” was found) near to where “our puppy” was found, but further outside the building and in worse shape: dehydrated, hungry, weakened. Where was the rest of the litter and where was the mother? The students offered to take “our puppy” home with them, saying the puppies should stay together, but Paula declined this offer initially, at the advise of the vet, wanting to make sure “our puppy” didn’t get exposed to any diseases that the sick older dog might be carrying. The students asked Paula to pay the bill for the treatment of the older dog, giving her pause about their ability to take on the financial responsibility of caring for two puppies. In a check-in phone call with Paula later we decided Paula and I would care for the puppy overnight (Jes was now out of the picture, sick with stomach woes) and try to find a suitable home for him.

I went with Paula to retrieve our puppy from the vet and was impressed with the veterinary hospital. It looked like a fairly modern establishment, smaller but similar to what I might find in the States: sick animals isolated in crates, a range of products and medications on the shelves, sterile-looking implements and exam tables; and a smiling vet in a white lab coat. But there were also Chinese characteristics which I found comforting. Most notably there was an altar to Amitabha Buddha (the Pure Land Buddha), alit with incense and offerings, and the continual repetition of the nianfo on a c.d.—a devotional chanting of Amitabha’s name, believed to help the practioneer enter the Pure Land at the time of death. This evidence of veneration and the beatifically calm presence of the vet himself had me confident this was an establishment committed to the compassionate care of all sentient beings. I felt “our puppy” would be safe in his care and was happy to work out an arrangement with him: until we found the pup a suitable home, he would care for our puppy during the day while we were involved in program activities; we would care for the pup during the nights. Our collaboration was set.

Paula fed the puppy close to midnight while I was back at the dorms, checking in on sick students and packing an overnight bag. I took the 3:00 am feeding shift, bottle at my bedside, prepped and ready. Did I mention how little this puppy is? He roots and burrows into everything—my chest, by armpits, my neck, my hair—both his nose and his tail fervently twitching. He suckles at the bottle clumsily, but desperately, and whimpers until he makes contact with flesh or hair, then settles in and falls fast asleep. His bed is a clothes hamper lined with towels. His eyes are open, but not yet clearly seeing. This dude really needs his mother, but she is nowhere to be found.

The next morning, after a mere four and a half hours of sleep, Paula and I had a plan. There would be an opening ceremony at 9:30 am at the Distance Learning Center to launch a day of student home visits with local families. We would bring “our puppy” there, warm and cuddly and sleeping, and see if there is a family willing to adopt him. Paula called Han Yan, head of the International Studies Office, and she approved. So we arrived with our puppy ready to put him on display, but although many of the gathered families took photos of the crazy foreigners with the tiny puppy, not one person with the exception of Han Yan, attempted to touch or hold him and everyone said they were “too busy” to raise a puppy. Even the youngsters there seemed more interested in playing with their video games and practicing English with the students than in goggling our darling puppy. Exiting the building, sharing the elevator with a family who had a ten year old daughter, I noted that the daughter peered over the basket, wrinkled her nose and declared, “Hao kelian…” not “Hao keai”: declaring our puppy to be “pitiful” rather than “adorable.” I realized we were confronting some serious marketing issues.

Han Yan accompanied us to the vet to drop the pup off for another day of care. En-route she commented that it would be very hard to find a home for this puppy. People are too busy and it would require a retired person. But she reassured us: in the worse case, the International Studies Office would assume responsibility for the animal, boarding the dog at the vet during the day and rotating his care at night, no worries! This seemed like less than an ideal situation for this poor pup, though admittedly better than being left to die on the street. After the pet drop off, Han Yan grew pensive. She had seen an adorable fluffy white puppy in the vet’s office, also in need of a home. “This puppy (meaning “our puppy”) will be very difficult to find a home for in the city,” she finally spelled out for us, “There is nothing special about this dog. It is cute now, but it won’t grow up to be very cute. People want cute dogs of special breeds, not this ordinary dog. I think we’ll need to find a home for the dog in the country.” I thought about all the dogs I’d seen as pets in Chongqing and Beijing and knew Han Yan was right: they are all purebreds, and most of them are fluffy and manicured and bejeweled. Who else might love “our puppy”?

A few short moments later Han Yan declared she had solved the problem with a few brief phone calls. She called the woman who cleans her house and asked if she knows of a family who might like a dog. The woman is from the nearby countryside, and has a large family that includes retired grandparents, and has offered to take the pup next weekend, upon our departure back to the U.S. We’ll be responsible for him through this week.

It’s twenty-four hours later now, and I’m pensive about our puppy. Talking it over with Jazz, I’m convinced this is the best solution amidst a number of less than ideal possibilities. Our puppy could potentially be reunited with his sibling and raised by these students, but are they really in the best position to provide long-term care? We’d also be exposing him to whatever diseases the un-immunized adult dog may be carrying. Leaving him out with the hopes of his mother’s return was just too risky, and appeared less promising after the discovery of his weaker sibling. Bringing him back to the States might be possible after a few months—when he’s old enough to be immunized, and there is enough time to process the paperwork— but he’d need foster care until then, and this would be costly and pose a burden to our hosts at CTBU. Jazz assures me “country living” for “our puppy” is a huge step up from orphanhood on the urban CTBU campus. I think our puppy’s infant status may work in his favor: as vulnerable as he is, his very dependency may elicit some protective attached care-giving responses from a potential human pack? I have fantasies of elderly retirees in a rural village feeding “their puppy”—wobbling and growing—between rounds of mahjong.

Life’s suffering and cruelty is more visible to me in present-day China than in many places I inhabit in the present-day U.S. Suffering and cruelty exist in both places, but perhaps our adaptations and accommodations to this are so culturally specific that our protections betray us when we loose our cultural footholds. When I returned home last night, I received an email from my sister-in-law, Maria, reporting happy news: they have just added a dog to their family. Attached to the email was the photo of an adorable dog and the barest of details: she is about a year old and still nameless; she was scheduled to be euthanized this weekend at the LA Animal Shelter, and as Maria put it, “She has been a mother and has boobs!” Homeless dogs die, uncared for, all the time in the U.S, as well as China, and this pup would have been killed this weekend had Maria not been drawn to her. As tempting as it might be for me to get upset at the city dwellers of Chongqing who consider our puppy “kelian,” but are too guarded to think of him as “keai”, I’m all too aware of all the black dogs, mutts and pit bulls euthanized regularly in the U.S. because they are less adoptable than the “cuter” canines out there.

“Our puppy” will be heading for the country life, where he will be cared for in the way that local custom dictates. I remain hopeful that there are kind people the world over who will answer the cries of crying pups and their mothers. For today he is ensconced in the care of a sweet-faced vet, swaddled in his plastic basket, sleeping to the chanting of Amitabha in a room filled with the hope of arriving at a Pure Land.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Little Feet

May 20, 2010

Buttressing the northern edge of the CTBU campus is a mountain called Nan Shan (Southern Mountain). I’m not entirely certain how it got it’s name, though I suspect that the frame of reference is a sharp bend of the Yangzi River that sits due north of Southern Mountain. CTBU is located in the Nan’an (“South shore”) district of Chongqing and the Yangzi wraps around this southern shore.

The CTBU campus is huge and hilly, and added to the cultural and linguistic adjustments our students need to make during their stay in Chongqing is the accommodation to a different sort of topography than most Pennsylvania residents are accustomed to. Many of our students have grown up in boroughs in the suburbs of Philadelphia, though a few are also from New Jersey and Maryland. I don’t think we have one student on this trip who has lived in a truly urban landscape where a commute to school or work might involve extensive walking. The Widener campus is quite small, so there isn’t a great deal of walking in their daily lives on campus. And those who commute generally do so with their own vehicles.

Chongqing is located in the country of bicycles, but Chongqing could probably be more aptly called the City of Legs. It is a mountainous city, devoid of bicycles, whose residents take pride in the long and shapely legs of female residents honed by their daily commutes. At CTBU everyone walks, and fairly long distances. The walk from the foreign student dormitory to the building where most of the cultural exchange classes are held is a good twenty minutes, past a cafeteria, student dormitories, and a vacant guard station, past the art building, then a climb to the right, past more dormitories and classroom buildings, basketball courts, ping pong tables, and up another winding hill before arriving at the Bozhi Building. Students must then climb fourteen flights of steps to arrive at their classroom on the seventh floor. I warned our students to pack good sneakers, and I wince protectively when I see the occasional renegade attempting this climb in flip-flops. Even our athletes are building new muscles.

From the Bozhi Building, one must climb another fifteen minutes or so to get the base of Nan Shan Mountain. There are good reasons to make this climb. In addition to the terrific hiking trails that lead to scenic ridges on the top of this mountain, there is also a beautiful coffee house near the trailhead run by the International Business School (I have had my best lattes in China at this coffee house, which also has free wireless). For the tea drinkers, there is a spectacular tea garden at the trailhead itself, complete with bridges, breezeways, pavilions, and a shrine to Confucius.

Two days ago I had my most intensive China walking day ever, and I don’t think I ventured more than a mile from campus. It began with a 7:00 am wakeup (my brain has finally made peace with the early birds, allowing me to sleep past 5:00). By 7:15 I was knocking on my friend Travis’s door, an ABD Widener social work grad student. By 7:40 we arrived at the main square of the campus, joined by John (Social Work faculty) and his wife, Anne, and together we began our ascent to the trailhead. It was a misty grey morning, but humid, and I soon regretted the decision to dress modestly in jeans, wishing I had braved the curious onlookers and worn my basketball shorts, despite my own set of seasonably white legs. There were many others on the mountain this morning: hikers clad as impractically as myself in slacks that surely drew sweat; ladies dressed in romantic floral skirts and heels, stepping lithely from stone to stone like mountain goats; men and women hooting and yelling from every lookout point, answering the calls of strangers across the ravine; and the occasional stray, mangy, but well-fed dog, scampering behind vendors lugging goods in wicker baskets. The trails all consist of stone stairs, narrow and rough, sized for smaller feet than my own, which were shod in hiking books.

The four of us picked our footing carefully and in relative silence, each of us huffing and sweating, lost in our own observations of the misty world that surrounded us. I made note of the litter that lined portions of this trail, remembering that my students were doing a “service project” here this afternoon as spelled out by the our hosts at CTBU who know that professors at American universities like their students to do “service learning.” Good hosts that they are, they were, in effect, performing a service for us by providing us with a service learning opportunity, marked clearly on today’s schedule from 2:00 to 4:00: “clean Nan Shan Mountain.” I hadn’t really thought through the details of this activity until on the trail, and I was a bit horrified to realize how much of the litter may have at once been in contact with human bodily fluids: I frequently spotted wadded tissues and toilet paper thrown in the bushes or simply dropped on the trail, and there were also many remnants of beverage containers and food wrappings. Perhaps I should find some latex gloves for all the participants to wear for this “service project”?

At the top of the mountain there was a bustling vegetable market, full of vendors and buyers. I know Sichuan to be a lush and fertile land, but I was still impressed with the color and variety of the vegetables: huge red radishes destined to be pickled or served raw with a tangy marinade; large bundles of bright green vegetables of every leafy variety, destined for sizzling woks; heavy round globes of pale green cabbage sure to be sliced in strips to be added to hot pot or pickled and served as a cool appetizer; mounds of small round potatoes that I fantasized would be grated, shaped into balls, fried and topped with red peppers and Sichuan pepper corns. The culinary views from this hilltop were magnificent.

None of us had eaten breakfast, and after the requisite tourist photo shoot up top, we descended carefully but rapidly to the IBS coffee house where we ordered our cappuccinos and lattes and nibbled on some cookie-like pastries and a pound-cake-like loaf of buttery goodness. Travis and I swapped stories of leading students through China. He was fresh off a trip with LaSalle students (his wife directs LaSalle’s overseas studies program), and he shared with me how his students had all followed his advice to bring iPods. What he routinely tells students is that there is so much sensory stimuli they will be confronted with when they arrive in China and that it might help them to maintain control in the one area they may have control: auditory stimulation. They can’t control what they smell or what they see, they can’t control the weather or the unfamiliar terrain. But they can titrate the sounds that enter their ears, and from Travis’s experience, for some students this can help immensely with the adjustment to a new cultural and linguistic world, which can at times be overwhelming and intimidating. I marveled at the freshness of this insight. I’ve often requested that my students remain “unplugged” at least their first couple of days in China, letting in all the sights and sounds, urging them to record and reflect on their own responses to these stimuli. I also tend to have a few grumpy students the first couple of days of my programs. But what Trevor described to me was a group of students who remained relatively calm and civil in their initial encounters with Chinese airports, buses, hotels and construction zones. He said that he often observed students, by the second or third day, pulling one earphone out and then gradually both, until they were ultimately plugged into their surroundings and not their own exclusive auditory worlds. I recalled the grounding effect my own music had on me during my bus ride to Chengdu and decided then and there to dispense with my dogmatic approach to the assumed benefits of a certain degree of rawness in these initial cultural encounters. Perhaps there are benefits to titration?

After a brief text message exchange with Paula, who had opted out of our morning hike, I realized my walking was not over. Poor Paula was sick with a fever, suffering from what appeared to be the start of an upper-respiratory infection. I told her I would return to her apartment with John and Anne and see what we could do to help her feel better.

The apartment is a good twenty minute walk downhill from the coffee house, and when I arrived Paula was sitting up in bed, a stack of tissues on her lap, looking apologetic and miserable. She had Tylenol and antibiotics on hand, but was concerned about this developing into pneumonia, and wondered if a good expectorant might be in order. I know of a good Chinese cough syrup that would do the trick, and I offered to head to a pharmacy off campus. Twenty minutes of walking later, which included exiting the campus, crossing a busy street utilizing an underpass, and emerging on the other side to witness the planting of trees with a huge crane (see pictures), I rounded a corner past street vendors selling spiced meats barbequed on skewers, and arrived at a small pharmacy. After a bit of back and forth with the pharmacist I located a Chinese cough syrup I was fairly certain was the one I was seeking. The pharmacist also talked me into purchasing two days worth of packages of two other kinds of Chinese medicine she said should be taken with the syrup: something to dissolve in water to help with fever and small pellets to be chewed and swallowed that would draw sweat. I paid her a whopping thirty-yuan for these three medications (less than $5 U.S.), but had doubts as soon as I exited the place. Is this really the medicine Jazz’s mom took when we lived in Beijing that helped so much with her cough? Perhaps I should see if the larger pharmacy has Robitussin just in case Paula would prefer to take something more familiar. Ten minutes and a few blocks later I was in the larger pharmacy, and after much discussion of the benefits of western versus Chinese medicine and some circumlocution to describe what I was looking for (I didn’t know how to say “Robitussin” in Chinese) I had purchased a bottle of Robitussin for 19 yuan and was on my way back to Paula’s place. Somewhere in this I also received a text message saying one of our students had a headache and high fever, so I made a brief detour to the market for bananas and water.

Forty-five minutes of walking later, I had dropped the meds off at Paula’s and returned to the dormitory, where students and faculty were running off to lunch, wanting to fuel up before climbing Nan Shan mountain and picking up litter. But oh no—the latex gloves! And I had visited two pharmacies where I might have purchased these. Might these be optional? But no, I could not stomach the idea of my students picking up germ-infested tissues. I pow-wowed with my faculty friends over a hasty lunch and made my decision: safety first, I’d go back to the pharmacy.

Back in my room I changed from my jeans to a skirt and from my hiking boots to sneakers. Before departing I remembered my earlier conversation with Travis and pulled out my emerald-green iPod nano and plugged in. Oh, the joy! I nearly skipped out the door to “Bamboo Banga,” the pulse of M.I.A.’s Kala carrying me on the first leg of my now-familiar journey. Pharmacist number one had the gloves I sought, but she couldn’t sell them to me because she didn’t know how to price them! That’s O.K., I thought, skipping out the door to the beat of “World Town”, and dashing over to the second pharmacy (no gloves there). I circled around the corner to a small household goods store and picked up twelve pairs of thick latex gloves, the kind the sensitive might wear to wash dishes, thinking the students could wear one glove each. Heading back to campus I smiled broadly listening to Michael Franti’s playful rhymes on Stay Human, avoiding all his distracting radio segments, but delighting in his homage to freaky people. I arrived at the dorm, so happy for my day in motion that I was considering applying for a job as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. The students were assembling outside. I was just in time for another hike up Nan Shan Mountain, this time to collect litter. Much to my dismay, the CTBU students were distributing plastic gloves to protect our students from germ-infested tissues.

The “service project” ensued, but this time a bus drove us all to the trailhead. We began the ascent, each of us with a plastic bag in one hand, a sweaty glove cloaking the other. I noticed most of the students picked up the food wrappers, but ignored the tissues. By the time we reached the top of Nan Shan, the vegetable vendors were gone, replaced by tables of mahjong players.

On the hike down, I stopped at the trailhead, eyeing the tea garden and the inviting pavilions. I invited some students and faculty in and before long we were clustered around tables, some of us sipping jasmine tea with green leaves floating near the surface of our cups, some of us drinking chrysanthemum tea, sweetened with rocks of sugar. I watched my students as their Chinese exchange partners taught them a Chinese version of rock-paper-scissors, so at ease with one another after a week of flirtation and friendship. The underpasses and construction zones felt far away, despite the fact that there was construction going on just outside the tea garden wall. I thought about the mahjong players at the top of the hill, who had made the climb and were now fanning themselves to the click of their tiles. As arduous as life can feel at times in China, there are also some amazing ways to unplug and relax. I set about making my evening plans: foot massage, anyone?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16, 2010

I’m writing this on my MacBook, en-route back to Chongqing. We fittingly ended our stay in Chengdu with our best China meal since our arrival. At the center of this was mapo tofu, the kind I have never been able to find anywhere except in Sichuan. The sauce is a blend of red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, mixed with black bean paste, oils, and garlic, best eaten when served piping hot. The meal also included: sizzling rice with strips of pork, bamboo, mushrooms, green vegetables (in a sweet, non-spicy sauce); eggplant in a sweet sauce with a bit of spicy tang (yuxiang qiezi); chicken with peanuts, garlic, onions, spicy pepper (gong bao ji ding), and a vegetarian version of this with firm tofu; a mild stewed cabbage dish; a mild, but savory, tofu with mushrooms in a white sauce (a hit with the non-spice eaters); fried mantou with sweet condensed milk; watermelon; vegetarian soup in a clear broth with a great deal of greens; white rice; two tall bottles of Snow Mountain beer; one large bottle of Coca Cola: a pot of tea; and plenty of bottles of water. Yum.

My tummy is happy and full from this lunch, and my heart and mind sated with gardens and poetry. This morning we visited Du Fu’s thatched hut. Today Du Fu (712-770 A.D.) has edged out Li Bo (699-762 A.D.) as being my favorite Chinese poet. Both lived during the Tang Dynasty, a period of great cultural flourishing in Chinese history. But Du Fu lived in the later Tang, and he lived much of his life in exile from the capital, separated from his old friends (including Li Bo), and often separated from his family. His poems are rich with themes of separation and loss, but also hopefulness and humanity. He spent five years in Chengdu, during which he is said to have written over 500 poems, often hungry and impoverished in a thatched cottage near a river. His cottage has been reconstructed on the site where it is believed he lived, and the grounds have since been expanded and cultivated into a beautiful commemorative park, filled with twisting pathways, waterfalls, bridges and pagodas, as well as various sculptures and displays celebrating Du Fu and other Tang dynasty poets. The sculptures portray him as greatly emaciated, and he is said to have died of malnutrition on a boat far from home.

One Monday night, before our departure for China, the Widener students and Paula, Pat, Tim, and I had the great privilege of discussing Tang poetry with a Widener professor of literature, Ken Pobo, an accomplished poet in his own right. Ken shared his enthusiasm for Chinese poetry with us, bringing the sentiments and images of this era to life for us. He compelled us each to consider our emotional and intellectual responses to symbols which occur in Tang poetry: wind and rain; moonlight and frost; boats and rivers; food vessels and shelter. We spend an animated two hours with Ken, lost in language and lost to time, discovering how these poets spoke to each of our subjective worlds. We were so prepared for this visit that it was something like a pilgrimage, and many of the students (including myself) purchased translations if Du Fu’s poetry at one of the park gift shops, presenting a challenge to our guide, Kevin, as he tried to steer us, heads bowed to our open books, as we moved back towards the bus.

Here are three of Du Fu’s poems, which have kept me company on this bumpy bus, followed by a poem by Li Bo that we discussed with Ken Pobo during our Widener evening of poetry.

Out on the Boat
To Chengdu, the southern capital,
Has come an old man, turned
Farmer, who still feels bitter
When he sits and stares northwards;
Now finding forgetfulness when
He paddles with his wife in a little boat,
Watching their children bathing
In clear waters; and the butterflies
Courting each other; seeing two
Lotus blossoms on one stalk together;
Taking with them tea
Or else sugar cane juice,
Thinking how for drinking
Ordinary pottery is as good
As the finest jade.

Sheep and cattle have long come down from the hills;
Stock gates in every home
Are closed; a pleasant night
With a breeze and moon; yet
It is born on me that these
Hills and streams are not
Really my home; down in the gullies
Rapids swish over the rocks;
Dew lies on the grass of the plains;
My hair is grey already, why
Does the candle throw off sparks?

Moonlight Night
This night at Fuzhou there will be
Moonlight, and there she will be
Gazing into it, with the children
Already gone to sleep, not even in
Their dreams and innocence thinking
Of their father at Chang’an;
Her black hair must be wet with dew
Of this autumn night, and her white
Jade arms, chilly with the cold; when,
Oh when, shall we be together again
Standing side by side at the window
Looking at the moonlight with dried eyes.

She thinks of him (by Li Bo)
I’m a peach tree
deep in a gorge, flowering
smiling and nodding to no one.

You were the moon
high in the night sky
smiling down on me one hour
and then going on

a razorsharp sword
can’t cut a stream of water
it foams across the blade
goes on

my thoughts don’t stop
they are the stream
they flow
they follow you

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Old China Hand

May 15, 2010

Yesterday, the director of the international exchange office, Han Yan, referred to me as a “old China hand” (Zhōngguótōng). Whenever this phrase is used in reference to me I feel self-conscious, self-doubting—a bit like a fraud. What makes one a “Zhongguo tong”? The fact that I know how to say “old China hand” in Mandarin? When I’m traveling with a group of folks who have limited experience with China I can feel relatively expert. It is true that I can find a bathroom quicker than most people and that I can ask for clarification of ingredients for most dishes that are placed in front of me at a meal. But my “expert” status is always relative to me. Traveling with my husband in China, my knowledge base is often dwarfed when he begins to speak like an old Beijing man and listeners become aware that I, unlike my husband, speak Chinese with an accent. Traveling with students and faculty my expert status is magnified as I help to negotiate the labyrinth of cultural and linguistic confusion that they are confronted with. Somehow my expert status is always relative to my fellow travelers.

My experience of China is rarely solitary, but when it is, when I’m out and about making my way in a Chinese world alone, my feelings of competence can turn on a fen. As familiar as the cityscapes of Beijing and Chongqing are to me, there are plenty of opportunities for me to feel disoriented in these locations, to feel less like a “China-hand” and much more like a stumbling student pressed against my comfort zone. Spatially, I am easily disoriented—something that can be frustrating in an English language environment and highly stressful in a Chinese language environment when all spoken language and signage requires some effort to decipher. When this spatial disorientation is compounded by linguistic and cultural confusion I can quickly shrink.

Last I wrote I was setting off to find by myself a chongzhika to add minutes to my Beijing cell phone number. On my China mobile mission I also hoped to solve my non-China-hand friend and colleague, Tim’s, cell phone woes (he just bought a new phone and it keeps reading “No SIM” when his SIM is inserted). I also carried the hope of purchasing a charger and a Chongqing number for my old pink Nokia cell phone I’ve had with me since I lived in Beijing. As I type this tonight, a full day after this mission, I have three non-working cell phones sitting in my backpack: my “old China hand” status having failed me on all three accounts.

I started out my quest as a true China hand. Alone and long in my stride, I walked buoyantly from my dorm to the main gate of the CTBU campus, stopping just short of the waterfall to purchase a pita-like sandwich from a street vendor. I successfully communicated with him that I wanted my bread stuffed with a fried egg, some tofu gan’r, some pickled cabbage, a nice dose of spicy sauce, but no thank you, none of the meaty broth or hunks of pork. I paid my three yuan, remembered to pull out a piece of tissue from my satchel to have on hand in case it dripped as I walked, and was on my way to the big China Mobile store near the China Industrial Bank. Twenty minutes later, after having navigated a construction zone and having surfaced from a crowded underpass I arrived at the China Mobile store which was still exactly where I had left it last year. All was going swimmingly, until the woman behind the counter began to talk. She was speaking Chongqing dialect, and fast. I had asked her (in Mandarin) upon entering the store, “Do you have a chongzhika for a Beijing number?” Her answer in dialect: “Madeisiiiiiii!” This much I could comprehend….she doesn’t have one. “Do you know where I can get one in Chongqing?” “Is it a 139 number?” (This much I also understood). “Yes, it is, can I recharge this number here?” “Madeisiiiii” Now I was lost. Did she mean I couldn’t recharge my account for a 139 number in Chongqing, or is she simply repeating that she didn’t have any cards at this store? I tried again. This time I got an answer in dialect that I think sounded something like, “I don’t really know, but try the China Mobile in blah, blah, blah, district.” “Where?” One solitary customer shifting impatiently behind me stepped in. “Take the bus number 771. You can catch it across the street.” I have no time for this, I realize. I’ll have to put this errand off until Chengdu. Surely in Chengdu I can put money on my phone.

I dropped the whole question of the chongzhika, pretending I would just take the bus as they had suggested, and moved on to my next question. “Any guesses why this phone says there is no SIM card in it when there is one in it?” I expected the woman behind the counter to say the one other Chongqing expression I know, “Bu xiaodeiiiiiii” (which means “I don’t know”), but this is not her response. Instead, she quickly opens a drawer, grabs another cell phone, pops out Tim’s SIM card, puts it in the phone, then says, “The SIM card works in this phone, so the problem is with your cell phone.” Great, one problem solved, except now I need to take Tim’s phone back to the other China Mobile store where he purchased it and explain to them in Mandarin that it doesn’t work and negotiate an exchange or refund with Chongqing dialect speakers. And I can only do this after I get the original packaging and receipts from Tim. So, the problem is really not solved. I move on to problem number three, “Do you have a charger for this Nokia?” She hunts around under her glass counter and pulls out a charger. We plug it in, and it doesn’t work. “Do you have any others that might work?” “Madeisiiiiii.” “Do you know where I might find one?” “Bu xiaodeiiiiii”. I leave, defeated, three useless phones weighing heavily in my bag, two useful Chongqing expressions telling me exactly where I stand.

On the way back to campus, I’m struck by the sudden realization that I am walking down a very noisy and very dirty street surrounded by hordes of strangers who do not know my name or where I am from. Chongqing dialect rises and falls around me and I remember I still have not located my passport. A horde of middle school students rushes at me from the gates of their campus, presumably on their way to lunch, and I realize none of them are wearing school uniforms. They are wearing jeans and polo shirts, long shorts and tank tops. When did Chinese students stop wearing uniforms? Is this the case in all Chongqing or just this particular school? Everything seems to be changing so quickly, and though the route back to campus is on a single axis I felt profoundly disoriented and a bit anxious. I remember a nightmare that woke me the previous night, a dream about one of my daughters in danger, and I feel the urgent need to Skpe home and connect with my little family. I know I’m not prescient; I wasn’t worried for their safety, just felt like I needed to be grounded in home.

The bus to Chengdu was a five-hour drive, and though my passport was now in my satchel, I had failed to connect with my little family before departure. We had a Chongqing guide on the bus named Kevin who had settled our trip logistics for Chengdu. He also happened to be in possession of a microphone, and for the first hour he indulged the temptation to fill the silent bus space with commentary. Somehow, in the safety of an enclosed bus with another guide at the helm I felt free to surrender to my abstract longing for groundedness. I pulled out my emerald green iPod, a Mother’s Day gift from Jazz and the girls, and indulged this yearning with the singular voice of Greg Brown piped directly into my ears. I chose his album, Further In, first introduced to me by my China-hand friend Joe S-D several years ago in Beijing, then followed this up with the Evening Call (favored by my hubby). By the fourth cut of the second album I realized I was feeling full and relatively grounded and I sank into a deep and solitary nap.

When I woke on the bus I greeted the Sichuan world now filtered through the lens of a bus window. There were plenty of opportunities to see this world in slow motion even though we were on an expressway. Traffic periodically slowed or came to a grinding halt as we encountered Friday afternoon traffic and China’s seemingly eternal construction. As modern as the expressway was, the sights outside the window were reminiscent of bus rides in less comfortable vehicles from a decade ago or longer. The road was filled with trucks: those rickety blue open bed vehicles, piled high with materials and goods of every sort. I saw, among other things: mountains of canvas or plastic bags bulging with lumps; neat square boxes with the labels of electronic companies; shiny new cars produced by Chinese manufacturers; building materials destined for scaffolded and tarped construction sites; and mountains of bundled plastic bottles on their way to be recycled.

When we arrived in Chengdu the driver wove his way expertly, overlapping bike and emergency lanes, to bring us to the designated restaurant for dinner. I was excited: my students were about to experience the famed Sichuan cooking in the provincial capital. I asked our guide about ordering some of my favorite dishes that I wanted to share, but he informed me that he had already set the menu, and he thought the students would enjoy this meal. He was right, some of the students did really enjoy this meal because it was the first meal they dared to actually try to sample everything. Those were our pickiest of picky eaters; the folks that will only eat foods colored white that remotely resemble American cooking. The rest of us glanced at one another, puzzled. It is difficult to get a bad meal in China and this was a truly bad meal, nearly tasteless. Where were the famed mixes of savory and sweet, the bowls of noodles with spicy peanuts, the tofu in its bright red sauce, the mountains of fried potato strips sprinkled with Sichuan peppercorns? Huddling with the faculty afterwards, they called for an intervention. What kind of tour were we on? Could I convince Kevin we wanted to go local? Looking over Kevin’s suggested itinerary, I began to panic further. Nowhere in there was there time to simply hang and relax in a Chengdu teahouse to join the city’s denizens as they play cards and mahjong, fan one another and consume sunflower seeds.

What followed was an intense dance with Kevin, my finding the words to explain our interests, his overcoming initial defensiveness to move to a place of genuine interest in facilitating our experience. He was amazingly adaptive and flexible. Together, we looked at the itinerary for our weekend in Chengdu and made some adjustments. We scrapped a visit to the Temple for the Ministry of War (Wuhou Ci) wedged in after a visit to the panda visit and the silk factory, but before dinner and Sichuan opera. Instead, we inserted a post-lunch stop at the huge and lively People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan), where we could hang out at an enormous outdoor tea house and negotiate with roving vendors clicking their metal instruments and brushes to get our attention, offering to clean the ear wax from our ears or give us neck and shoulder massages.

I’m writing this after a long, but satisfying day in Chengdu, thrilled with our group experience. At various points during the day Kevin and I relied on one another. When the group called for a restroom upon entry to the Panda breeding center, he herded them away from the museum complex and down a long a winding path until we arrived at a small building far away from the other bus loads of visitors and the distractions of the gift shop, but close to the exhibit of adolescent male pandas just about to enjoy a bamboo feeding. I marveled at his foresight and his expertise in herding a large group of distractible shoppers. But there were also times he drew on my local knowledge of Chengdu from my experience years ago as a researcher here, genuinely intrigued by my memories of this city and my desire to share some of my favorite localities with my students. It was a day of being an “old China hand”—a day of playing the role of helping to bridge two (or more!) cultural and linguistic worlds, and a day of finding a new Chinese friend in Kevin.